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Mat Patting Ann

MagicSam Sep 30th, 2018 (edited) 135 Never
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  1. The air is cool, placid. I don't sense it whipping by me at velocities I shouldn't be able to break. Weird, cause I distinctly remember doing that before...
  2.  
  3. Before? Before wh--
  4.  
  5. And then all the pain returns. Seizing like a surprise attack, especially in my head and torso. I can't tell if resting on rubbery foam helps or hinders, but I wish I was still asleep now. Actually, I take that back. Sleep can't help me retrace my steps.
  6.  
  7. Right before I can do that, I apparently alerted someone I was awake, what with the stifled moans and all. The ruffle of a curtain pulling and a brief blast of light through my closed eyes before succumbing to the stale dark again.
  8.  
  9. "Miss Barnard, are you awake?"
  10.  
  11. A moment of hesitation until I lift my head a few inches, cracking my eyes open. I could tell it was the nurse, Mrs. Landvik, due to that scent all trolls seem to come born with, but it doesn't disturb me too much. Besides, it's funny to watch boys adjust how they sit so it isn't obvious they're setting up a campsite in her presence.
  12.  
  13. "Hope I'm not bothering you by being here," I drawl, starting to notice a cotton pad wrapped against my cheek.
  14.  
  15. "Not at all, dear. I'm far more concern about you at the moment," she says, pulling a thermostat out of her dress apron and sticking it in my mouth. I still find it odd why she chooses to wear a maid's uniform. We don't have a dress code for students or staff, so I chalk it up to some sort of cultural selection. And I don't deny that the color goes well with her hair...I think it does. It's hard to tell what with the dimness.
  16.  
  17. "Temperature's normal," she states after letting the device do its work, taking it from my mouth and popping the plastic cover in a trash bin. "You're lucky to only have some light swelling and bruising, that beating looks a lot worse than it really was."
  18.  
  19. She says that, yet I can't find the gumption within to agree with her. Getting smacked on repeat by shopping bags full of gravel probably wouldn't hurt as bad as this does. Which finally impels me to ask, "How did I get here?"
  20.  
  21. "Your friend," Mrs. Landvik replies, after a short pause that makes her tail stop swishing. "She was crying for somebody to help, struggling to carry you to the office. A couple of teachers eventually assisted her and it took all the diligence inside me to assure her you were fine."
  22.  
  23. Wow, that opens up loads of holes in my memory. Right, I was heading to my locker, and then I overheard something about faking to be 'a pure-blooded human' and that caught my attention the same way a perfectly cooked grilled cheese would. She was cornered by a couple of bullies, one of them being Thais Filha de Pamela, one of the most popular/infamous girls in our grade, star of many sports teams and the type to continuously remind you how much more prestigious and accomplished she is than anybody who isn't in her family. It was a familiar act, cornering my friend and forcing her to reveal her mamono form--she knows the magic to conceal that most of the time--and I stepped in before that could happen. Looks like I saved her, although I didn't escape unscathed.
  24.  
  25. "Anyway," the nurse breaks me out of the thought, now sounding upbeat again, "she’s been outside waiting ever since. Pretty worried even though I’ve told her repeatedly I don’t expect lasting damage. Would you like to talk with her?"
  26.  
  27. My ears perked at that. Truth be told, even if I wasn't in the best of places physically, I still got her upset, and it was up to stupid little me to calm her down again. So I told the nurse yes, and after withdrawing and several seconds of hushed talking, she was replaced by a different figure entering through the curtain.
  28.  
  29. If anyone has heard of the phrase 'not a single hair of hers was out of place,' I feel that describes Lynn Ovett on the nose. She's got a lot of natural, homey beauty to her putting makeup on would merely tarnish. She also likes wearing bulky clothes hiding away what a bombshell of a body she's developed into--always one for seeming underwhelming. Today was no different, although even in the enclosed dusk I could tell her eyes were red. Thankfully a lot of stress melted off her when she saw me looking at her.
  30.  
  31. "Ann!" she gasped.
  32.  
  33. Just like that, my typical swagger was returning. I grinned through the agony, trying to sound as charming as possible with a cotton compress, "Sup silky butt?"
  34.  
  35. Lynn brings her hand up to stifle some giggles, and I notice tardily she's carrying a soggy ice pack. "I guess you can't be hurting too badly, huh?"
  36.  
  37. "Of course not! You think a few punches like that are enough to keep this rodent down?" I flex my arms and digits for effect.
  38.  
  39. "Your face still looks awful," she muses. The worry is there, but it seems my efforts are working. She grabs a chair next to the bed and adjusts it so she can sit close to me, and holds out the ice pack. "Here, even if you don't need it, it'll keep the swelling down so people don't get the wrong idea."
  40.  
  41. Now, if you can't tell, I like to impose whatever fragments of will I have in the open, make it seem I'm capable and have situations under control. So while it would be tempting to decline this offer, in truth I really do want that frozen goodness. My hand accepts Lynn's gift and soon the icy burns are doing their work on my bumpy tissue. We chill this way for a couple minutes, and then Lynn speaks up.
  42.  
  43. "I understand why you took action back there, Ann, and I don't want to make it sound like I'm ungrateful. I'm glad you're willing to have my back to that extent." She gives a brief smile, then returns to neutrality on her lips. "But we both know I could have handled that situation fine. Given enough patience, I'd have either found a way out, or I would have shown her the *real* heritage of the Ovett clan."
  44.  
  45. "I know you can, Lynn," I sighed in frustration, "I'm not doubting any of your words. Here's the thing, though," and at this point I sit up straight best as I can, and give her a severe gaze I rarely bring out to anyone, "she called you a rapist, and you are as far from that as any person I'm aware of. I not going to take horseshit claims like that and stay in the passenger's seat. Besides, let's say you did get serious and decide to throw down with Thais. Even if you win, what happens then? She holds a grudge against you, you potentially get suspended..." I trail off for a moment to lay back down on the foam bed. "And that's only the long-term consequences."
  46.  
  47. At this point, I'm sure a good number of you are a bit taken aback by a lot of this, so let's rewind for a moment so I can give my account of what I saw going down, as well as some other usual contextual information.
  48.  
  49. I did not see the whole scenario unfold, but I did overhear enough to know that trouble was brewing. Lynn was being harassed trying to get to the back parking lot where the buses wait. Thais and a lackey or friend surrounded her, Thais grabbed Lynn by the shoulder and told her to "drop the act and start behaving like a real mamono. Or what, you scared your REAL personality will come out, and you won’t stop raping guys?"
  50.  
  51. Even in this day and age, after the migration from the old plane that I hadn't been born to see, or the successful integration of many mamono cultures into a new, technologically advance period, where everyone can shared the cool stuff that makes them unique, there is still a mountain-load of negative stereotypes and racism directed toward us, even by other mamono races. One of the most prominent being how it's only because of laws and legislation passed that we don't grab the first man we see and chain him down so we can mate with him. I readily admit I'm going through adolescence and have a whole closet of sexual fantasies I want to live out, but that's not happening. It likely won't happen for several more years since I'm working on getting into college like any other young person. And I certainly say the same things about Lynn to a much greater extent, because it's actually worse for her.
  52.  
  53. See, what I've hinted at is my best friend is a Jurougumo, a type of arachnid mamono. Basically, that means a centaur but with a spider body, and all jurougumo know sorcery that allows them to conceal their abdomen and legs so that they look like a typical human. It's like putting a pair of pants on atop your pants, expect these pants grant you the ability of bipedalism. This was an extremely crucial survival tactic in the old plane, but nowadays it's been demoted to more of a personal choice. Lynn so happens to be self-conscious about her body (and I empathize), generally using a human appearance for school and other public functions, while letting her birth form hang out when she's at home or chilling with me. The only way one would be able to spot her out of a lineup are the red streaks running down her face, always present in either form. And contrary to the stigma a lot of spider people get, she is a super gentle person that takes the possibility of marriage quite seriously, border-lining on a sacredness most folks would show to religions. The concept of one-night stands is not wired into her.
  54.  
  55. Hearing someone saying otherwise made her blanch, and Thais didn't let up, continuing with "I can’t stand cowards like you, trying to bury their heritage. Hiding in plain sight while the rest of us face the brunt of persecution from the humans. The very definition of a gutless coward."
  56.  
  57. Now you may wonder 'why does this matter?' Well, Thais is an Amazoness. Why are they called that and not Amazons? Your guess is as good as mine, because I'm not the ethnoecologist who gives names to species here. But what it boils down to is they value martial prowess to such an absurd degree that all other skills look meaningless to them. To not fight for complete dominance in all aspects of life proves you an inferior creature, in their eyes.
  58.  
  59. Those are the kinds of beliefs I don't agree with. She has a right to them, obviously, regarding of my feelings. However, getting in the face of somebody simply to gloat some sort of baseless superiority is an even lower moral crime in my eyes. Plus she did it to someone I've known for years. Like hell I'd let her get away with it.
  60.  
  61. For the record, I knew I probably wouldn't be able to do much, and I didn't. Even lunging as quickly as my body does is useless when the other person sees me coming, and she rocket me back against the opposite wall just as fast. A concrete wall. The kind where the only give is that thin layer of white paint that crumbles off easily. And letting up was never on her mind: I felt the punches rain down, new scopes of pain replacing those which landed seconds ago, a cackling laugh in the distance I assume belonged to her cohort. It was quite miserable, and I can't remember with certainty, but it sure felt like she spat on me before I lost myself.
  62.  
  63. So that's my backstory tangent finished. Returning to the present, Lynn ponders my words for a bit. She nods, and then pierces me right back with an equally forceful gaze. "There's something you're not saying, Ann...something you're leaving out."
  64.  
  65. I shift my gaze without trying to make it look suspicious, and randomly feel flushed even with the ice pack to my face. "I mean, using logic, if you were to go all-out and prove yourself, what would happen in the aftermath?" My sentence creeps out on tiptoes as the syllables progress, until it reaches the bumper stop with a sound thud. I don't want to look at her, but I dare myself to, since it's coming either way.
  66.  
  67. Perched upon Lynn's lips is a familiar sight: the smuggest of knowing grins, a look that shatters the confidences of millions of men on a daily basis, and me when situations like this occur. "Uh huh, so that's your game, is it, Barnard? Trying to win me over with some defender points?"
  68.  
  69. Okay, remember what I said before? The part about jurougumo swapping out the leg frames they want to move in? Yes, it's a basic reflex for them to shift between, but that doesn't mean it comes without a price. Contrary to what some fiction might inform you, body morphing does not graph the clothes into an individual’s skin, so when a mamono switches back from their true appearance, what she wears isn’t as lucky; I’ll say I have eyewitness accounts of this and stop there.
  70.  
  71. "I was doing you a favor!" I--ugh--squeak out, "That's one of your best pairs of jeans! It'd be a shame for them to get ruined." Gah, she's making this sound like something it isn't, and she knows it, because she knows my true greatest weakness...
  72.  
  73. It feels like her next line purrs out of those incredibly confident red irises. "Hmm, so what you're admitting is you like staring at girls in tight jeans?"
  74.  
  75. Damn you, Ovett! You're making me sound awful. Now look, I'm not gay or anything of the sort, but I know a great backside when I see one, and if there's a single fan-club dedicated to the existence of my friend's tush, I'm the lifelong president. No boy gets to come close to touching it without my consent, blessing, and written approval combined! I will protect it with my life, especially from prying pervy eyes who aren't worthy of its magnificence!
  76.  
  77. But rather than be embarrassed, I soak in the defeat. It definitely takes my mind off all the other issues I'm facing. "If it's you, then yes." I glance timidly across.
  78.  
  79. Lynn giggles at my expression--proof of her victory--and leans over to rub the outer edge of one of my ears with her fingertips. "Then the next time I walk by, I better add some extra wiggling for you, huh?"
  80.  
  81. "If it suits your fancy, Miss Rumpet."
  82.  
  83. I'm not afraid to confess. She's already got the flirting thing down pat. Even as a girl, she's got me tangled on her strings.
  84.  
  85. =======================================================================================================================================
  86.  
  87. Me and Lynn would continue to hang out in the nurse's office for a few more minutes, talking about schoolwork and other odds and ends once it was clear I was fine. My father arrived from work to pick me up and drive the two of us home. In fact, that may have been a harder sell, dealing with my parents than I had with Lynn. He hid it well, but Dad let me know in no uncertain terms he was distraught by my actions. My mom, as usual for these kind of things, was more reasonable and calmed him down. She told me she understood my heart was in the right place but not quite the right frame of mind, and even if statements like the ones Thais made were uncalled and repulsing, "You don't respond by jumping into the ravine with her and playing her games. You ought to know better than this."
  88.  
  89. I spent the rest of the night venting in my personal way: by jamming to music on my sound system from Arctic Monkeys, The National, Phoenix, MGMT--the prime cuts. With locked door, not even my younger sisters could get in, despite how they generally like to wander around and squat most nights. Sorry guys, but I need my time and space for once.
  90.  
  91. Going to school the next day left me with trepidation, but it turned out pretty normal. A lot of my classmates who had heard about what happened asked if I was okay, and once I let them know everything was still hunky dory they tuned me out like always. Everything proceeded back into the regular groove from there: we had a couple more days of school, then the weekend came (I spent Saturday cleaning the house with Mom and my sisters, then we went out to eat in the evening, and Lynn visited on Sunday where we marathoned some TV shows on Hulu). It felt like that violent incident would fade into the back of my mind: unpleasant, but nothing too severe or traumatizing.
  92.  
  93. Monday let me know that wouldn't be the case.
  94.  
  95. "It still irks me the showrunners think people can't figure out Fabian is plotting something under everyone's nose, so they have to give us long shots that stick on his basement where all the spooky science equipment is," I complain as I take a seat at one of many empty benches. Our school is one that allows the students to eat outside on lunch break, which me and Lynn always take advantage of when it isn't rainy or freezing. We were still discussing some of the major developments we'd encountered from yesterday's viewing.
  96.  
  97. "They could be tricking us, for all we know," Lynn says, claiming the side opposite me and setting her tray of Beef Manhattan in front of her. "They have shown plenty of scenes of him talking to the mayor, and we know he's trustworthy."
  98.  
  99. "I mean, technically he appears nice, but you know how political types enjoy sticking their fingers in all the slices of the pie? They have to manage all their territories to keep things from screwing up in their favor. For all we know, the guy we've seen so far might not be the authentic Mayor Jandl." Contrasting my fellow diner, I get most of my meals made at home, and tenderly unwrap a ham and cheese with Dijon on chickpea bread.
  100.  
  101. "Perhaps." She sighs while starting to cut her portion of meat. "But then, you are the one that follows shows a lot closer than I do. I find it incredible how you pick up on the smallest of hints as if they were obvious."
  102.  
  103. A beam of pride washes over me, right before I prepare to chomp my first bite of hammy-cheese goodness. "Eh, it's a minor talent, but I honestly did find some good stuff even with those problems."
  104.  
  105. "Oh really? Care to share with the audience, mousy?"
  106.  
  107. That was not Lynn. That sounds nothing like Lynn.
  108.  
  109. I want to turn around and confirm this dread that has spontaneously materialized, but there's a firm hand on my shoulder. It has a noticeable tan complexion. Its weight shifts as somebody sits next to me, and fuck me. It's Thais.
  110.  
  111. "Not that I watch that much television," the newcomer continues, "but listening to you ramble gives me something to focus my time on."
  112.  
  113. I feel like this is a situation ripe for panicking, but I'm really more queasy and confused than anything. Risking to check my surroundings, I see Lynn also has an imitation of whatever face I'm probably making, and that one lackey from before is here as well, a dark elf with a braided ponytail.
  114.  
  115. Alright, let's not go overboard. We're in open space and there are plenty of monitors who can see us. She's not going to try anything showy.
  116.  
  117. Putting my sandwich down with regret, I begin organizing this rapid improvised plan by doing the most coherent act: gathering information. "Why are you here, Thais? I presumed after the last time we saw each other, you were suspended or something related."
  118.  
  119. She chuckles snidely and replies, "You know, I was initially thinking the same thing. Look at that, we must have some kindred wavelength we don't know about! Isn't that amazing, Sandra?" The dark elf snorts at this. Okay then. "But it turns out that having parents on the board of trustees for the school corporation is a pretty fortuitous grace. And once I explained to them that I was acting in self-defense against your combative behavior--because let's face it, you *were* the one that attacked me first--they sent a firm recommendation to the superintendent calling for my exoneration. And so, they reduced my original punishment to a far fairer probationary period of..." she draws out the moment, acting like she doesn't know, stroking her chin, "oh right, one week. That starts today, by the way."
  120.  
  121. I can't believe this garbage! I've been trying to remain neutral ever since she showed up, and it turns out she has leverage inside the school as well?! What else, does it turn out her dad is actually the governor too?
  122.  
  123. ...eh, that's an exaggeration on my part. If anything, it'd probably be a member of his cabinet.
  124.  
  125. "Anyway, I just wanted to drop by and spread the good news to you, so you aren't left in the dark. I need to get back to my mental preparations for the cross country tryouts. Oh, and before I forget! I also wanted to make sure the two of you signed this formal apology," she continues by pulling a paper out and laying it on the bench, along with a fountain pen, "acknowledging the two of you have forgiven me for this misunderstanding. That way, we can all walk out of this without any more people getting needlessly harmed."
  126.  
  127. I glance across from me, and see Lynn is visibly pissed. Glad to see we're in agreement here. My answer to this is clear, "Are you actually being serious here? After what you said and did to both of us, you think you can somehow make this our fault? I'm not signing this, no matter how hard you try to bribe me."
  128.  
  129. Thais' face is a blank slate for a second, and she then sounds...a little remorseful? "Guess I didn't clarify that enough. See, the document isn't from the school board. It's to ensure the both of you remain off my family's private list. And," her eyes change to orbs of malice and thinly concealed rage, "you absolutely don't want to know what that entails, vermin."
  130.  
  131. "No." At that point, Lynn stands up from her seat, lunch forgotten. The force of the statement seems to shake the Amazoness. "I'm with her, and we aren't letting you tug us around with underhanded attempts at diplomacy. You either try more sincerely or not at all."
  132.  
  133. The great thing about jurougumo is though they can be demure when caught off-guard, once they've been put in a position of danger, it's a lot harder to startle them with similar tactics a second time. They are very happy to tussle the mace around with you if you yank them too violently.
  134.  
  135. Thais appears to have realized this and stand up at long last. She actually looks more relaxed now, and with another chuckle we find out why. "Man, I wish you'd shown me this fire a week ago, Miss Impersonator. To tell ya the truth, I think this whole treaty-signing crap's stupid as shit. I'd much rather meet up with you somewhere after school, alone, so we can have a more informal, confidential exchange of apologizes. What do you think, sound good?"
  136.  
  137. I immediately don't like the turn this conversation is taking. On one hand, this is between Lynn and this bully once again, how it started. And Lynn told me--and I know--that given enough time, one-on-one, she has a distinct edge in the scenario. I have faith she can handle any physical confrontation. But that means she's falling into the same trap my mom warned me about: jumping into the ravine and playing her game. And there's still every chance they seriously injure each other. What to do? I can't let this escalate...
  138.  
  139. "Hey!" I shout up at Thais, seizing her attention away.
  140.  
  141. "Huh?"
  142.  
  143. "You said before you had...cross country tryouts later?"
  144.  
  145. "Yeah, what's that matter to you, shit stain?" she crosses her arms, getting annoyed.
  146.  
  147. Well, no climbing down when I'm this close to the peak. "What if I made the cross country team? Would that convince you to leave us alone?"
  148.  
  149. Okay, I admit this plan too has it's flaws. And without the thought process I took to get there, it sounds like it came out of the blue. Even Lynn and that Sandra girl look totally stranded. But there has to be some way of avoiding a future where one of us get trapped in a grueling fight, right? And knowing how much Amazonesses value a healthy competition...
  150.  
  151. Miraculously, she bursts into restrained giggles, doing a good job of keeping her lips shut. After the attack subsides, Thais gives me another look over and says, "Really? You make the team? With those tiny-ass legs of yours? I mean, you're welcome to try, but I doubt you're gonna hear the results you want, hun."
  152.  
  153. "Then what about any varsity team? From now until the end of the year! If I get on a roster, you have to drop this issue you have with me and my friend!" My voice has risen to the point other tables can hear this conversation, but I'm tuning them out. They don't have any bearing on this life or death moment.
  154.  
  155. Lynn looks worried once more, and seems about to speak up, but Thais cuts her off, "You talking about this current, calendar year, I assume?"
  156.  
  157. Oh lord, I didn't watch what I'm saying, now she's trying to loop up holes for herself. "O-of course, in the current segment of the year! And we'll use my varsity jacket as proof." Well, even though I flubbed it, I think that turned out alright as an offer.
  158.  
  159. The Amazoness thinks about it for a minute, occasionally asking Sandra with her eyes what's her opinion. The dark elf merely shrugs. When she finally makes her choice, she flashes me a toothy smile somehow far more terrifying than anything she's done to date. "You know something, Gadget, that gall of yours really wore on me when we first met, but now I've decided it's one of the things I like best about you. You wanna make it official? Fine, I accept." And she holds out her hand to make our bet legitimate.
  160.  
  161. Well. This went better than I thought it would. Goes to show what the power of words can do when you apply them correctly, although now I have a whole new ballpark of troubles to figure out. But that can wait until later in the day. Just tighten the bow here, Ann, and we can get back to lunch. As long as I'm careful with choking hazards, I can chew everything before the bell rings.
  162.  
  163. So I meet her hand with my own hand. Funny, for a succubus-type, it doesn't feel unusual...until she grips down and pulls me closer. The lines in her eyes become more defined, her smile sharper, and I swear I see a faint purple aura flickering.
  164.  
  165. "And know that when you inevitably fail, it was nothing more than your fake sense of pride telling you that mice can rise above their station, when every superior mamono knows that's little more than a pretense for your callous discourtesy of the natural order. I will be overjoyed to put you back in your spot on the chain of command and discipline you for daring to think you are in any way better than me!"
  166.  
  167. This is bad, she's going to break my hand at this rate! "I didn't say I was better than--"
  168.  
  169. "You implied it," she roars, her hair starting to levitate all around, "and that's even worse!"
  170.  
  171. Okay, that unnerves me at last. I pull back faster than I thought I could and the momentum makes me nearly tumble onto my back. I'm only saved by that dark elf still standing there, looking down at me as she chews on some snack.
  172.  
  173. The scene of danger is just as quickly over, and Thais looks like a normal teenager (with pointy ears and body tattoos) again. "Ah, apologizes for the theatrics. Still keeping track of that probation after all. Good luck with the search, pipsqueak. You're gonna need it."
  174.  
  175. She waves us a farewell and walks off, to where I hope never to find out. Sandra remains where she is until she swallows and then announces, "Thanks for the tip, rat~" before jaunting away to catch up with her associate. The hell does she mean by tip?
  176.  
  177. When I turn back around, my sandwich is gone, just the plastic wrap and some crumbs.
  178.  
  179. "No! That bitch stole my food!" I cry, putting my hands in my face, robbed of the Barnard family's wonderful, secret chickpea bread recipe. This day doesn't feel fair anymore.
  180.  
  181. Lynn saves me from falling into despair when I realize she's moved to sit next to me, the tray of cooled food in front of us. "You can have my mashed potatoes and gravy as consolation."
  182.  
  183. I take the unused spoon delicately and tell her as I begin to fill my stomach, "Thanks."
  184.  
  185. "Don't mention it. I'm not sure how big a consolation it truly is, considering you just did the same thing as last week but in a different format, but hey, still trying to be thoughtful." The indignation is palpable in her features, cutting and inserting another slice of the Manhattan in her mouth.
  186.  
  187. Whelp, back in the cage again. I contemplate the gravy, and imagine myself being as runny as it.
  188.  
  189. =======================================================================================================================================
  190.  
  191. The rest of the day I spent in the back of my skull, hypothesizing what sport I could qualify for, and then immediately shooting it down. Cross country honestly didn't make sense, seeing as your step was only as big as your legs are long, and being on the tiny size doesn't help matters. Tennis probably wouldn't work due to the shape of my feet, which are more like hairy poles than a human's foot, and all the necessary ankle work isn't something I could manage. Volleyball...my aim is horrendous, and I have no jump height. I feel like the aim thing would also discredit me trying out for softball, and that's not even an option.
  192.  
  193. So that's fall sports. What about winter sports? Basketball isn't something I feel comfortable with, the ball always feels wrong when I touch it with my hand, plus being so short doesn't do me any favors in a sport all about having tall defenders. Track doesn't work for the same reasons as cross country, and as for swimming...look, I've gone to the pool before, water isn't a big deal to me. But needing speed is a requirement of competitive swimming. The more friction you generate, the worse off you are.
  194.  
  195. To paint an easier picture, large mice such as myself have a nice coat of soft fur that grows on our arms, up to the tips of our elbows. It's great for when you want to take a nap at your desk because it means resting my head on my arms feels tolerable. Of course, like any creature, the kind of hair you end up with is based on genetics, and as for me I sport a pair of long, curly blonde hand levers. The locks on these babies would make Rapunzel weep. People have told me they look gross before, but they don't know better. I'm proud of my hairy arms.
  196.  
  197. Sadly, joining the swimming team would mean shaving those off, and that's something I strongly object to! Would you tell Tom Selleck or Groucho Marx to shave off their mustaches? Of course you wouldn't, the look is part of the charm, and I refuse to part with one of my strongest charm points!
  198.  
  199. That only leaves me with one option left, and it's quite the doozy: wrestling.
  200.  
  201. When I was younger, there was a boy Lynn and I hung out with. He's since moved out of state, but the memories spent with him are some of the best of my childhood. He was easily the first crush I ever had, and I keep up with him to this day thanks to my cellphone. Now, the lot of you are wondering what any of this has to do with wrestling, and fortunately the answer is because of this man.
  202.  
  203. A day came to pass when me and Lynn caught...hmm, I probably need to give him a name for this. Let's call him 'Roger' to protect his identify. So we met Roger at the park one day, enjoying a summer day in the break between 4th and 5th grade, and we have a lot of fun. While relaxing at one point, he pulls out his phone and starts watching something. Being curious, I ask him what it is. Roger says it's a wrestling match. By then, Lynn and I share a look with each other. 'Isn't wrestling that fake sport where people get hit with chairs and fall through burning tables all the time?' Lynn asked him. He told us that wasn't what wrestling is really about, or even the point. He then skipped ahead in his video and asked us to watch with him.
  204.  
  205. And so that was the first wrestling match I ever watched: Steamboat vs. The Macho Man at WrestleMania 3. I found myself enjoying it, despite not knowing the story of Randy Savage trying to crush Ricky Steamboat's throat with the ring bell, or why this giant hairy guy was following the Dragon around. The moves dazzled me, every armdrag and clothesline telling a small part of a larger story, and when the challenger overcame his beating to win the Championship, I pumped my fist with excitement. Lynn was less impressed, but thought it seemed all right, not as bad as she expected.
  206.  
  207. When I got home that night, I asked my dad if I could get on the computer. When he let me, I started tearing through Wikipedia, learning as much as I could from these words about these important sounding characters. Some time later I asked if he'd take me to a live show. He was okay with that, although he had to convince Mom who apparently still thought blading was a thing: "They spray their blood all over each other, and gets AIDS! How does that leave a positive impression?!" is still the most memorable quote my Mom has ever spoken.
  208.  
  209. We went to the event, the two of us, and had a grand two-hours spent on $30 high-rise seats. Even with the bad view, I was hooked. I started watching the weekly shows, following dedicated forums and saving up money to buy action figures at Target. My dad let me have a Network account, so I could watch older shows and discover my favorite performers from the past. Steamboat and Savage were a given, but also Sting, Shawn Michaels, Big Van Vader and his cool helmet he wore when he entered, Mick Foley, Batista, Booker T, John Morrison, the Hardy Brothers, Becky Lynch, and I could list people all day but I have limited time. I'd practice the moves I knew were safe on my bed, and record myself parodying the promos I thought were the best. I still keep up with the scene to this day, even though it's clearly gotten worse ever since.
  210.  
  211. Would I like to become a wrestler someday, or enter the business? Hell yes, that'd be a dream come true! Do I see that happening? Given that I'm considered a minority and also the sobering tales of racism and misogyny that have planted roots in wrestling for decades now...meh.
  212.  
  213. But that's not what matters! I have a meal ticket to pursue, and I can't let it escape lest Thais has her way with me and Lynn. The problem is I know there's a major difference between *professional* wrestling and actual wrestling, like how they do at the Olympics. There's a bit of crossover between the two, but not that much. I also don't think I can rely on my hours of elbow dropping my pillow or executing Twists of Fate to get me through one of those matches. I need some real experience first.
  214.  
  215. After school ended, I searched the Internet on my phone to see if there are any local wrestling classes I could take. It seemed like a long shot I would find something this precise, but I lucked out: a school some twenty miles east of my house has been open for a couple of years. It's called Instinct Wrestling Freestyle, and it has classes that anyone can join at anytime! So some sort of buffet school, where people of different lengths of experience all learn together. Sounds a little archaic, but I can surely rough it out.
  216.  
  217. Now for the biggest obstacle: getting my parents to go along with this. My Dad certainly doesn't have any complains feeding my current fandom, but I don't know how understanding he'd be if I asked about practicing a legit contact sport. And Mom...she grew up in the old plane, so she's had a hard life for most of it. I think becoming a housewife turned into an escapist fantasy for her that she gets to live out everyday. It's not like this is a life or death matter--I mean, it kind of is, on a less hostile scale--but she probably doesn't want her daughters doing something she perceives as dangerous.
  218.  
  219. Anyway, once dinner runs its course, I decide to go ahead and play my hand. "Hey Dad, can I ask you something?"
  220.  
  221. "Sure pumpkin, ask away," he tells me as he stacks the dishes together.
  222.  
  223. This is it. I breathe in and out, making sure I have maximum confidence. "I want you to sign me up for after school classes!"
  224.  
  225. Already making his way for the kitchen, this causes him to pause. "Really? You never seemed the type for extracurriculars, Ann. What changed your mind?"
  226.  
  227. Following him, I press on, "Something came up, and I feel like being better prepared for the future will make me a stronger adult going forward."
  228.  
  229. He sets the stack in the sink and starts running hot water. "Well, I don't want to discourage you from trying new things. That's a part of the whole learning experience of youth. But tell me something, Ann." He then turns around and motions me to come closer. When I do, he speaks in a low tone. "Does this have something to do with that fight last Wednesday?"
  230.  
  231. I frown and lower my eyes. Guess that was still too obvious a question. "Yes, it does."
  232.  
  233. He nods, and then reaches over and tosses me a drying rag. "Why don't you help me clean up? We can talk about these classes you want to take."
  234.  
  235. So that means he's open to it. Score! There's still a chance.
  236.  
  237. I tell him about the updated events of today, leaving out the bits that involve possible fighting. I'm nervous saying anything, but he remains silent, consistently nodding when I pause to let me continue. When I finish all the plates and silverware are washed and dried, and we move our discussion to the living room. We take our usual places, me sitting on the end of the couch, he in his recliner. There's a good eight feet between us, but it feels like it could easier become more.
  238.  
  239. Dad muses on the information, putting his hands together and tapping his feet. At times like these, I think he could model for those old gargoyle figures a lot of classic European cathedrals have.
  240.  
  241. "I think it's good to have goals, Ann," he says after what seems a century, "Pushing the limits of what you know you can do opens up new paths you might not have found otherwise, and even if you don't make it, there's a lesson to be found in failure. I don't mind if you want to join a sports club. I'm only concerned it isn't going to happen how you want it. You've never shown interest in sports before, and that means all the children who've practiced them since they were wee bitty are gonna have a major advantage."
  242.  
  243. "Yeah, you aren't telling me anything new, Dad. But I have a plan to make sure it works." I pull my phone out and bring up the page for Instinct, and then turn it over to him. "Read this."
  244.  
  245. He does so, squinting his eyes through his glasses the entire time. I watch as his thumb moves to scroll, knowing that thumb could give me the ax if it so chooses. Once he reads all of the important bits, he stands up and walk over to hand me my phone back, with a twinkle in his eyes. That means he's onboard! One hurdle cleared!
  246.  
  247. And then come the six words I've truly been dreading, the ones I know must be said, but wish could be avoided: "Let me go get your mother."
  248.  
  249. Noooooo, why does it have to be like this?! I'm going to have another loud, shouty argument, aren't I?
  250.  
  251. Don't misunderstand, because I feel like I've built up this lore about my mom being a cruel, wicked restrainer when that's nowhere close to reality. I get along great with my mom. I love clothes shopping with her, and talking about music together is another fun pastime I depend on for normalcy. It's just that we seem to disagree on every other topic besides those two.
  252.  
  253. "What?" I hear from behind me. It's already begun. As soon as thought bubbles out, my mom is right in front of me, throwing herself into hysterics. "Why would you let yourself be bullied into taking dangerous classes? Do you have any idea about the risks you'd be threatening? What about your health? How are you going to get into college if you have to worry about medical bills. You should take more time thinking about this, young Anna Lee!"
  254.  
  255. Yeah, smothering to the point of exhaustion. At least you get an idea of where my name comes from. "I know what the risks are Mom, and I still want to go through with this."
  256.  
  257. "Listen, I have a very strong suspicion you actually don't. What if this is a scam? They could be laundering our money from right under our noses!"
  258.  
  259. "But they won't! If it is a scam, I'll just quit. I can quit during the middle of the first class. It has to finish for the payment to be due!"
  260.  
  261. I give her credit, she's trying hard to keep her bearings, given how bad her tail is swishing back and forth. She grabs her face and looks down at me, eyes wide open. "Okay, I can work with that. Honey, listen to me, I know you want to have fun." She reaches down and takes my hand in hers. "There's nothing in the world I would prefer more than you discovering what kind of mouse you are. But you need to be aware of the difficulties you'll face one day, and I don't think a mouse-friendly world is going to exist yet by the time your schooling's done."
  262.  
  263. Something she always talks about is civil rights for mamono, even though she hates that phrase. She always prefers to us 'our people' or find a work around from having to say it.
  264.  
  265. Sighing, I pull my hand back and adjust my posture on the couch, trying to look as dignified as I can manage. "Mom, it's okay. I know you're looking out for my well-being. But this isn't something that will hold me back for years and years. It's one off-the-beaten road class. And they have classes for people like us, so you don't have to worry about me getting picked on." It looks like it's working, but I probably still need that one last push. "Did you know there's spectator seating in the building? You can watch and make sure I'll be alright for the entire period."
  266.  
  267. She blinks at this, and then turns to Dad. "You didn't say anything about that, Chuck."
  268.  
  269. His eyes boggle before he retorts, "You didn't give me a chance to finish! I would have told you that, but then you run out here and..." he doesn't complete the thought, knowing doing so will just cost us time.
  270.  
  271. My mom looks at me again, every word she says bringing a bigger smile to my face. "Okay, we will go to a wrestling class later in the week, to see that it isn't something it claims not to be, and we can go looking for the right equipment to use tomorrow after school. But let me make it clear that if I see anything that indicates you can't get through this, I'm pulling you out of the building myself, no matter how much you scratch and bite me. Am I understood, Anna Lee?"
  272.  
  273. =======================================================================================================================================
  274.  
  275. And so after that final bit of prodding and persuasion, we checked our calendar for the best possible slot. We found an all-mamono class at four PM on Thursdays, and even though it meant a speedy drive she called the number and arranged the date. I was on my way to my first amateur wrestling class. I called Lynn on my phone to tell her the good news, and asked if she wanted to join me, which she accepted. The shopping trip for proper attire followed the next day.
  276.  
  277. Given that the class would be one of the earliest and we’d have a lengthy drive ahead of us, I made sure to be absolutely ready for when the bell rang. I like to pretend I left after-images as I “briskly walked” from my desk, and found Lynn had already beaten me outside. Even in two-legged form, a spider knows her way around.
  278.  
  279. Mom was already waiting for us, having tried to make space for three people in a four-door cramped with junk items taking up the back-half (she would say “important travel cargo for emergencies!”). I decided to sit in the back, so my mom and Lynn could catch up and socialize while I read through my notes on the basic rules, occasionally getting pulled into a tangent when one of them asked something of me. I unzipped my backpack multiple times to make doubly, triply, quadruply sure my singlet was still inside.
  280.  
  281. Cityscapes part for the rural, long groves of forest mixed with tall grass plains. Key turns from highway to highway until at long last we pull into a dirt parking lot, modestly populated by cars, islanding a sheet metal building in the center, a few tinted windows etched from the walls but otherwise a blank slate aside from the giant banner hung up, reading ‘INSTINCT WRESTLING.’ I exit the car and stare at it, expressionless. This is where I find my strength, how I prove I can stand with that wrecker Thais, find an outlet for my inner beast and let the aggression stream out peacefully.
  282.  
  283. Mom walks over to me and gives me a side hug. “Time to see what the fuss is about, shall we?” I smile back at her. Mini comforts such as these do wonders to steady my nerves.
  284.  
  285. The three of us enter the double-sided glass doors, and I get my first eyeful of what I should expect the next several weeks, with luck. I’m not quite sure what I expected to find, but it still feels like some hidden expectations of mine weren’t met. It feels like one huge open space, with a section barriered off to the left dedicated to offices and public restrooms. The middle features a giant foam mat, the kind you expect a wrestling school to have, with large body mirrors glued to the opposite wall and various kinds of rubber exercise tools strewn across the mat. Some steel seating has been erected in the remaining space for spectators to stay while the class is in session, and already many different representative mamono are milling about, making small talk to one another. I also notice a vending machine of drinks kept in the corner beside them. Must need a way to entertain people who aren’t interested in wrestling, no matter how weak.
  286.  
  287. My mom’s instincts help her track down the coach rather quickly, the lone man gathered in the crowd. He doesn’t strike me as the teaching type initially, but I’ll be happy if he proves me wrong. He’s got the awkward combination of a white t-shirt covered with a denim jacket matched with black gym shorts and grey Adidas covered in navy blue trim. He’s also wearing sunglasses, even though we’re indoors and the overhead lights don’t shine all that bright. Whatever the case, he shifts his attention to my mom when she approaches. He listens intently and doesn’t show any specific emotion on his face, even when my mom turns around to point me out to him.
  288.  
  289. Standing beside me, Lynn pulls me out of my trance. “So it’s pretty spacious. Looks like a lot of athletic club buildings I’ve seen in pictures. What do you think so far?”
  290.  
  291. I take a moment to breathe in before answering, adjusting the weight of my backpack, “It’s still the first few minutes, I’m still absorbing it all.”
  292.  
  293. She nods at this, brushing her hair out of her face and mentioning my mom and the coach are heading our way. When they get here, my mom is already going through the introductory measures she likes bringing out for social events. “Alright, Ann? This is Todd Moreno, the instructor and principal owner of Instinct Wrestling. Mr. Moreno, this is my oldest daughter, Anna Lee. I hope to leave her in your care.” Crap mom, way to make it sound like you just married me off to him! Also, don’t use my whole name, you know how I feel about that!
  294.  
  295. For his part, the coach either doesn’t notice my discomfort or ignores it and holds out a hand as way of greeting. “So you’re the new recruit? Nice to see you joining us. You can just call me Todd, by the way. None of that ‘mister’ formality stuff.
  296.  
  297. “Ann then, please.” I respond in kind.
  298.  
  299. After we finish shaking hands, he turns his attention to Lynn. “And you are?”
  300.  
  301. “Her friend. I’m here for moral support.”
  302.  
  303. He notes that, and immediately focuses back on me. “Well, Ann, we still have a few minutes before class starts. You can go use the showers behind you to change into your uniform.” He holds up a whistle hanging around his neck, one of those narrow tubed ones, not the familiar shape. “I’ll blow this when there’s one minute remaining, so you don’t get lost in there forever.”
  304.  
  305. I thank him for the advice, and make my way on over while Mom and Lynn find themselves a spot in the stands. The way this building is built is supreb for echoes to travel, so even with all the background murmuring I can still hear there are some stragglers in the showers. In point, as I reach to pull open the door to the women’s side, it pushes open from the strength of a giant, clawed paw attached to a tall, stoic figure clad in a grey singlet. It takes a second for me to realize she’s an Anubis, although I suppose if the paws and hairy feet didn’t tip me off, the tipped ears on her head certainly would. It’s strange to see one minus all the gold-plated ornamentation and heraldry they’re known for, however that doesn’t take away one bit from her potent grace.
  306.  
  307. And now I remember I’m staring, which causes me to realize she’s staring at me. Those thin slits...oh no, is she judging me? Does she think I’m weird? Oh lord, that would be the worst if she decided to cast a hex on me or something!
  308.  
  309. I make my way through the door frame with a hushed “Pardon me,” and can still feel her gaze on me as the sound of running water and voices wallop my senses. It’s a spacious area, and there’s still some other girls in here, so I guess we weren’t running that late. I make notes of my new classmates: an umi-osho and...one of those water spirit types--I think they’re called Apsara?--are washing each other on stools. Or rather, the Apsara is controlling a stream of floating water to clean off her companion, given she has flippers for arms. Over by the shower heads I see a lizardman and kitsune dressing. Actually the lizardman is already in her outfit, the kitsune has her leotard halfway on but is getting help with her bra. She notices me and sends a grin and nod before going back to their conversation. The lizardman just stays neutral.
  310.  
  311. Right, gotta stop with all the staring. They don’t have anything I’m not already familiar with.
  312.  
  313. I pick an unoccupied section and dress down to my undies, only briefly struggling with my singlet when it comes to poking my tail through its custom hole. But the end result looks good: yellow with black outlines to go with my hair and fur color, even if it’s different shades of yellow. Comfy, form fitting, although the fact it really shows off how flat my chest is hurts my pride somewhat. But that’s irrelevant for what beckons. At least I get a good reception when I make my leave: the kitsune gives a playful whoop, the lizardman remains impassive, and the other two (drying off by now) do take some stock of me.
  314.  
  315. Outside, the rest of my classmates are assembled on the mat, in sundry forms of verbalizing. A tall red-haired girl is the loudest among them, boasting about some sort of fashion show I’m not familiar with. Her audience includes a bright-eyed orc--for those who are unaccustomed, ‘orc’ is the term we use for swine mamono--wearing a two-piece gym seat, her massive globes still bouncing along to her excitement even despite the material, and a squirrel sitting cross-legged, quiet but dreamy-faced. I’d say she appears stoned, but squirrels just really enjoy gossip--they’ve turned spreading it into an art form, for crying out loud!
  316.  
  317. The remaining pair consists of the Anubis from earlier and a cat mamono with dark brown hair and similar paws/feet to her partner in a blue singlet. If I must guess, I’d wager she’s a sphinx. Species from identical terrain tend to group together when in foreign territories, even if born in such a location. And oh no, both of them are looking at me. I was already intimidated by the wolf’s gaze, but having a cat joined to her? No please, this is starting to feel too much like Thais 2.0!
  318.  
  319. That’s when the coach, or I mean Todd, breaks through with his whistle’s shriek. Damn it, I wanted to be prepared for that! Now my ears hurt...curse me being so sensitive to high-frequencies.
  320.  
  321. Anyway, I make my way to the floor while the rest of the student exit the restroom. I hear a cry from the stand, my mom telling me how great I look in my outfit, and I immediately want to curl up and die. The sphinx snickers at my embarrassment while the squirrel gives me an amused though slightly unreadable look. The last to walk out are the umi-osho and apsara, holding hands (or rather hand and flipper) and sitting down next to the orc and redhead I haven’t been able to identify. Everybody’s either sitting or standing, and I’m not sure which I should do, so I compromise by squatting down on my knees.
  322.  
  323. Todd takes this as the signal to begin class. Walking forward with a clipboard added to his figure, he silently takes roll call (or I think he does, he must be familiar with all the girls here) before he begins speaking, “Alright girls, welcome back. Good to see you back. Now I know we made plans last week, but as you know well in life, plans change sometimes.” He then motions to me. “As you can tell, we have a new student who will be joining us in the gym.” I think that’s my cue to introduce myself, but he boulders on, “Her name’s Ann and I expect each of you to treat her with the same respect you’ve come to show your fellow students and yourselves. We’ll get into those reps near the end of class, but consider this another typical training day, okay?”
  324.  
  325. Some mutterings of ‘yes, Todd’ are stated, and I just roll with it. Now, at long last my training to prove I can be an athlete despite my limitations begins! I wonder what kind of moves we’ll be starting with? Maybe some form of grapple, or how to properly chain holds together? Ooh, maybe even--!
  326.  
  327. “Very good. Alright then, partner up, ten minutes for stretches, same as usual.” A quick chirp from Todd’s whistle signals the end of the meeting.
  328.  
  329. Everybody starts to move out, but I’m just frozen in places. What...what happened? Isn’t there supposed to be something more than that? That felt really sudden, I can’t be the only one who thought that was a sudden cut-off, right?
  330.  
  331. Something bumps behind me, and I realize with a startle it’s the Anubis, towering over me and giving me daggers. “Thanks for slowing us down, rookie,” she states before walking to a corner with the Sphinx to, apparently stretch.
  332.  
  333. Why does everybody suddenly want to pick on me?! I haven’t done anything, I just got here!
  334.  
  335. Finding my legs at last, I walk up to the coach and get his attention. “Excuse me, uh, Todd?” I stammer, just remember not to go with my gut and refer to him as ‘sir,’ “I-I don’t want to sound rude or anything, but, um, w-why are we doing stretches?”
  336.  
  337. He gives me a look as if I’d just asked him why we don’t eat raw bread dough. “Why wouldn’t we? Haven’t you done athletics before? Standard procedures to warm up with stretches, reduce tearing or tweaking something by accident. Now stop standing around, we don’t have time to waste.”
  338.  
  339. Okay, all this abruptness is taking me out of my element. Sure, I remember doing stretches in elementary gym, but I haven’t done that since middle school. How am I supposed to transition back into that process without even a little smidgeon of help? Plus, all the girls already have someone to do this with, so I’m left in the cold!
  340.  
  341. Wait, no. I remember counting nine people when I was coming in, so that should mean...
  342.  
  343. “Well, well~” a way too sweet voice declares from my side. I look and discover it’s the squirrel giving me an expression I’m not sure I should be pleased with. “New face enters the arena, does she? Little miss blonde from across the pond? Seeking out adventure in the high-stakes world of graps?” Everything she says has a practiced, measured rhythm to it, like she’s the woman tasked with acclimating new workers to a job. She carries on, now looking a bit more open and friendly, “Can’t say I don’t encourage that kind of moxie, always nice to meet a fresh disciple wandering into the ranks.”
  344.  
  345. Well, might as well go for this. She doesn’t seem to mean trouble, at least. “Hey there. You, uh, want to be my stretch partner?”
  346. She mock gasps and takes a step back. “Do I? Do I?” Okay yeah, this is totally a staged act, but I’m cool with it. It reminds me a lot of how me and Lynn act when we’re by ourselves. “You assume just because we have comparable statures that means it’s possible for us to stretch together? Maybe I’m far beyond your league. Did you ever stop to consider that?” she finishes by crossing her arms. Seeing a lot of the crossed arms lately, I want to point out.
  347.  
  348. Fortunately, I’m one for playing games. I match her pose and counter, “Perhaps, but isn’t it also true there are no other options for partners?”
  349.  
  350. A brief standoff ensues between us, a silent clash of logic versus logic. Sure, it’s silly, and a couple of the girls are looking at us, probably wondering why we haven’t gotten to stretching yet. But in a space where two mamono argue for the rights of victory, there can be no time limit, no quarter yielded!
  351.  
  352. In the end, she grants me my accurate title as victor. “Yeah, that’s valid.” She laughs, dropping the act, “And if I can level with ya for a sec, doing three-girl stretches doesn’t work all that well, and guess who ended up being the awkward wheel most of those times.” I’m about to answer the obvious, but she clasps me in a sudden side hug. “So sure! Let’s aggravate those muscle tendons, shall we~?” She starts moving, then seems reminded of something. “Gah, damn me! Jumping the start before the gun’s fired! We gotta be proper buddies first! Name’s Julia.”
  353.  
  354. She salutes me, so I respond with a ‘V’ gesture and wink. “Nice to meet’cha Julia, I’m Ann.”
  355.  
  356. “Sweet name. Then let’s get to it, Ann.”
  357.  
  358. So we do, me following Julia the squirrel to an empty section of the mat. I graciously allow her to take the lead, since it has been ages since I last practiced stretching, much less cooperative stretches. It actually isn’t that bad: she compliments my skin tone, and aside from some adjusting of her tail for a few exercises, all goes smooth. We also learn some intel about the other:
  359.  
  360. “So how long have you been coming to these classes?”
  361.  
  362. “Eh, about a month now. The turnover for students doesn’t seem very big, but it’s usually twelve girls most days, so this class is a bit tinier by comparison.”
  363.  
  364. This statement confuses me. “You’re taking multiple classes? But I thought we only needed to be in one class per week.”
  365.  
  366. Realizing her error, she clarifies, “Oh, sorry! No, I am in this class as a student, but I managed to convince Coach Todd to let me help in other capacities during the week, build up my resume somewhat and let me survey the crowd that hang out around these sorts of training grounds~”
  367.  
  368. A comment like that worries me, seeing as a lot of the ‘surveying’ she implies could be about more...lascivious methods. “Capacities like…?”
  369.  
  370. “Mostly just sweeping dust, disinfecting equipment and the mats after classes, but sometimes I get to restock the soda machines when the heat wave is in effect.”
  371.  
  372. I muse on that. It doesn’t rule out that she’s man-hunting, but Julia seems pretty sincere about this role as a quasi-intern. I imagine a lot of the flowery way she speaks is part and parcel when dealing with squirrel mamono.
  373.  
  374. With that topic discussed, she turns the conversation--and exercise, reaching for our toes--to me. “And what about you, Ann? What made you choose to become a mat rat?”
  375.  
  376. She even tweaks her eyebrows on the pun. I choose not to roll my eyes, but state the truth. “I’m settling a bet.”
  377. “A bet? That’s it? Nothing else drawing you here?”
  378.  
  379. Julia looks disappointed with the explanation, and upon some reasoning I can’t really fault her. “I guess that came out wrong. It’s more like...it started as me wanting to prove somebody wrong, and now I want to prove to myself I’m capable of being more than a fragile mouse. It’s sort of always been that way for me. Reach higher than your station, you know?” And that does summarize it, I’ve always felt like this chip is burrowing into my shoulder, and it leaves out the personal parts concerning Lynn.
  380.  
  381. For her part, Julia puts on a thoughtful and understand face. “I understand that mentality. Us small mamono? Everyone overlooks us, counts us out compared to the dragons and lamia of the world, but hey, ‘big things come in small packages’ and whatnot, and going by personal expectations I consider myself becoming a pretty big deal for the next several years.”
  382.  
  383. “That’s pretty cool. Truth be told, I’m happy this is working between us two. There aren’t many squirrels where I live, so meeting one of you who gets me is refreshing.” Quite the understatement, in fact! It’s amazing how smoothly this talk has been going so far.
  384.  
  385. That’s when I realizes she boring me with a blank gaze. “You fuckin’ serious.”
  386.  
  387. “Er, sorry? Do you not feel the same way? I-I wasn’t trying to act like--”
  388.  
  389. “Out of all the partners I could have had, and I get the most clueless of newbies who doesn’t even know my type.” A sigh of disgruntlement follows, and now I’m starting to sweat. Crap, did I just assume her species? A lot of mamono don’t like being mistaken for others, and can be quite vocal about it.
  390.  
  391. “Um, c-chipmunk?”
  392.  
  393. The stunned, irritated look on her face could cure stupidity were that possible. “...You’ve honestly never heard of the Ratatoskrs before?” She shakes her head, “Unbelievable. I always suspected you mice folk had your heads too deep in the fondue, but to think one of you would actually be this oafish...” Another sigh, and her head starts hanging low, face covered by bangs.
  394.  
  395. Fuck! I have to fix this! I don’t know how many people here are potential friends! “No wait, please! I really didn’t mean it like that! I know a lot about the R...Rattleskiers, like you guys are diplomatic, and that one ambassador who stopped the Sidon conflict from escalating so badly, and...” Now she’s shaking with rage. Great work Ann, you really are brilliant at bringing strangers into your following.
  396.  
  397. Until I take a closer listen, and it becomes apparent Julia is holding back laughter. Her head lifts, little streaks of tears flowing down cherry red cheeks. “Man,” she stammers once she can compose herself, “you’re real pure-hearted, ain’cha Ann?”
  398. “You...aren’t...”
  399.  
  400. “Nah, it’s cool. I don’t mind if you call me a squirrel or anything. Especially with how enthusiastic some people get about squirrels.” We switch into a standing position relying on balance. When she sees me contemplating ruining our position, she supplements with “Forgive me for teasing ya so hard?”
  401.  
  402. The one good thing about this is I now wield the power. On one hand, I do genuinely think Julia has a possibility of being my close wrestling friend, but not if that means getting deceived like this.
  403.  
  404. Luckily, she has comprehension of this, and thus bargains, “Tell you what. After class is over, I’ll let you hug my tail for as long as you want. That sound like a good amends?”
  405.  
  406. I look back at Julia’s tail bursting out of her singlet. True, it’s much puffier than a fox tail, and probably twice as fluffy, and the fact she’s offering this at all must mean she really wants me to trust her, but there’s still one issue keeping me from accepting. “Wouldn’t it get grody from all the rolling on the ground we’ll do?”
  407.  
  408. “Not necessarily.” she replies, “We don’t do the same drills every single class. And even if something like that did happen, the showers assure I can restore it to it’s natural fluff~! I’ll even let you watch just to be sure~!”
  409.  
  410. I have no idea how I keep managing these superbly sapphic conversations with girls. Maybe it’s our hormones preparing us to go searching for a future husband? In any case, her sing-song suggestion has subdued my mounting anger, and I end the topic with a simple “I’ll think about it, Julia.” This prompts her to smile.
  411.  
  412. The last few minutes of stretching aren't much to mention. I showed Julia where my mom and Lynn were sitting after she asked me, and she proceeded to wave lavishly at both of them. Mom was game, Lynn a little apprehensive but she waved back too. When I questioned where her family was, she told me she carpooled with her friends Florence and Hayley (the redhead and orc, respectively) thanks to the former owning an Intermediate driving license. She also has a subscription to the Observer newsletter, which made me promptly jelly of the squirrel.
  413.  
  414. By that point stretches were over, and Todd whistled us back to the center of the mat. Even being out of shape, it makes me feel more alert doing it the one time. I can speculate what I'll feel like doing it on a regular basis again. Also, knowing someone out here is willing to help me goes a long way to boosting my confidence.
  415.  
  416. "Since we have a new student," our instructor began, "I'll quickly go over the field rules and expectations again." He held up an open hand. "There are two explicit rules I demand you to follow at all times when class is in session. The first," the hands switches to index finger up only, "is that you take into consideration how you want to be treated as a warrior of the circled canvas. If you treat your opponent with disrespect, they are free to treat *you* with disrespect in turn. Like a battlefield, regulations are thrown out the window, and like a battlefield only the soldiers know what happens between them. Any action you take, based on severity, will assuredly be met with an equal result. Always keep this in mind." That metaphor makes sense, aside from the referee and audience, but let's not stir the pot. He then lifts a second finger. "Second is that you shall not talk over me when I am teaching you, or disobey any orders that come from my mouth. When I speak, you will listen. When I ask someone a question, only that person will answer. When I give you a task, you will follow through and accomplish it. I expect not a word of complaint to arise from any orifices here, much less groaning or scoffing. There's a saying the legend Kurt Angle once had, and I find it to be very true in life, not just wrestling. He said that when you're training, and your body is sore, and your vision is cloudy, and all the pores on your skin have drained you of sweat, and the tissue in your muscles feels like puddy and can't hold you up anymore, and your stomach is seconds away from emptying its contents on the hard stone floor you're lying on, and your mind is screaming out 'Stop! Please! Let me rest, this is too much! I can't bear it anymore! I want to quit!'" By now Todd has worked himself into a shouting frenzy, jabbing his finger at the ground with each punctuated statement. "When that moment comes, that's not when you quit! That's when the REAL workout begins. It doesn't start with the first push up, it starts with the one-thousandth first push up! You don't break after jogging fifty kilometers, you gear up for another fifty kilometers uphill! And you're sure as hell not letting the weather affect your schedule! Too hot, too cold, too rainy, too windy, a swarm of tornadoes are touching down? You don't let that dictate when the training stops! Tell Mother Nature to screw herself, 'cause you're too busy achieving the perfect image of YOU!"
  417.  
  418. Even though he still has the sunglasses on, I swear I can see water vapor forming on the inside of the lens. Todd's head looks like it's going to boil out of existence with how pressured and crimson it appears. Yet I don't dare look away. He's too enthralling. The other girls have probably heard variations of this speech before, and I bet they still find it inspirational. I wonder what the people in the stands think?
  419.  
  420. After such a profound moment, our coach takes a moment to clear his throat and ever so slightly quell the passionate tone. "And let me make something clear, alright? As far as freestyle wrestling goes, when I say 'perfect image' I don't mean like a runaway model or a bodybuilder. The looks such occupations create is just that: for looks. Almost nothing about those physiques builds up strength in your core muscle groups, the ones needed to propel you forward and pin your opponent down on the mat! And I guarantee what I have in store for you all is going to make you among the pinnacle of mat grapplers. I don't just mean in body mass, I mean a well-rounded individual! A competitor who can think with her mind, in real-time, to analyze the situation and choose the right course. Someone who doesn't give up even in the direst of moments, even when the outcome looks inevitable. Because when your opponent starts believing they've won, that's the exact moment they admit defeat in their hearts. I'm going to teach you how to recognize those opportunities. Trust me, I've crafted wrestlers longer than you probably expect, and once I'm finished with ya, you'll be among the sharpest in my collection."
  421.  
  422. Nothing of pure silence, not even from the stand sitters. Not out of arduousness, or feeling confused, but from how awesome this man's words are. I fully believe he could stop a riot if needed. And I do the only thing I feel appropriate in that moment.
  423.  
  424. I applaud enthusiastically.
  425.  
  426. That breaks the tension double-handedly. Most of the girls around me laugh with me, and even Todd for as serious as he was now sports a big friendly grin. "Thank you," he downplays, "that's all I could ever ask for. I mean listen, I'm not out here to orate like a hard-ass and look like I can't chill. This is to give every one of you a floor to land on, and figure out where we begin improving with your skill set. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide how much you want that improvement."
  427.  
  428. He then gives us our first session of the night: to order to refresh the basics of everyone else and gauge me (which won't be too tough), all ten of us will partake in a brief sparing bout one-on-one with one of our fellow classmates. The only exemption is that we can't spar with our stretching buddy from earlier. Julia gives me a sad smile hearing this news. It's okay, I'm sure you know how to handle these other girls. After all, I can't rely on just one person's generosity.
  429.  
  430. There's no way I could accept that.
  431.  
  432. We're also to observe the two competing when we aren't sparing, I suppose to make sure we don't wander off and disobey his law. But that's fine, I feel doing that allows me to start strategizing some ideas even if I've never met any of these people or seen their fighting potential.
  433.  
  434. While deciding this, Todd states the first of the five spars will be Julia facing the kitsune, whose name is Georgia. The squirrel holds out a fist, saying, "Wish me luck~" I bump with her, not expecting things to mount too dangerously.
  435.  
  436. At this point, I note two things. One is that the Anubis has resumed staring at me. Or maybe she's been staring this entire time and I'm only now growing aware of it. Needless to say, I really hope I don't go up against her, even in a 'friendly' match.
  437.  
  438. The other is that despite her self-deprecation, Julia has experience with wrestling. Although it's clear Georgia has the advantage over her, she still manages to slip out of the kitsune's grasp and score some reversals. It proves not enough though, when Georgia shifts her weight on the squirrel and brings them both to the ground, earning the pinfall.
  439.  
  440. I should point out that unlike pro wrestling, where the person needs to have the shoulders down for three seconds, it only takes one at this level to lose, so not getting pinned is way more dire.
  441.  
  442. Julia takes her loss with grace, shaking hands with her opponents, and then they both walk back to the edge of the circle, Julia standing next to me. "Whelp, victory eludes me yet again," she ponders with melancholy.
  443.  
  444. "It still looked really impressive."
  445.  
  446. "Yeah, yeah," she cracks back, stretching out her arms, "at least there's that shower to look forward to."
  447.  
  448. The next match squares Hayley the orc off against the umi-osho, named Homie. Each of their respective friends shouts support prior to the bout, with Julia calling out well wishes for each of them. They do the customary handshake--well, Hayley does; Homie places her flippers on her competitors's shoulders and bows, which must be her version of shaking hands--and then have a far more even affair. One might think not having fingers would be a problem for a mamono that resembles a turtle, but Homie's limbs prove a lot more resilient than anticipated. She puts the orc in a hold that sort of looks like an inverted torture rack, using her legs to lift up Hayley's leg while applying pressure on the upper back with her natural weight. The orc pivots on her free leg's side though to break the hold and cause them to go into the *par terre*, now with Homie at the disadvantage. They keep jousting like this for another minute before Todd ends it with the whistle.
  449.  
  450. Man, what maneuverability these girls have. I know being small that should mean I have a leg up on them, but with a lack of conditioning, I probably wouldn't last very long. So the smart way to go would be for a quick, shock victory on my part in order to really impress everyone and not have them call me 'rookie' inside their heads. I already know that Anubis wouldn't hesitate saying it to my face.
  451.  
  452. Once he gets the mat dry again, Todd goes back to his clipboard. "Alright, I'm liking what I see so far. Not too many wasted movements. Third set now..." He stares at his papers, then looks up to me. "Ann, let's see what you can do, how 'bout it?"
  453.  
  454. Very well! Stuck in the middle then. I nod and gripe my hands together. Hopefully I have a chance to prove myself right now, imagining what it would be like to go up against Miss Apsara, or even sphinx girl or the wildcard. It sounds like better odds than the lizardman or, lord forbid...
  455.  
  456. "And let's give you...hmm. Nura, you come up next."
  457.  
  458. With those words, Nura--the Anubis--strides on wolf feet opposite me in the ring, her cat companion laughing heartily when her name is called.
  459.  
  460. Well I should have seen this coming. Getting a learning curve thrown at me? It isn't as if that's what I've been facing this entire time.
  461.  
  462. =======================================================================================================================================
  463.  
  464. Coach Todd got us to shake hands, as is customary before every fight. It didn't feel like the smoothest handshake in the world. Locking eyes with this woman, I wonder why exactly she needed this sense of showing me how supposedly better she was. But I already know the answer to that. It's the same reason I'm here, after all.
  465.  
  466. "Now to see what you're really made of," Nura spoke in a pretty neutral tone of voice, considering she'd been glaring at me so far.
  467.  
  468. "That's makes two of us," I told her, pulling back and walking to my side of the circle, trying to look unfazed.
  469.  
  470. A yell took me out of it briefly. "Go on Ann, show her who's boss!" I look over to the stands to see Lynn standing on her portion of bleacher, waving a fist in the air. I smiled, and gave her a thumbs up.
  471.  
  472. That's when the match started.
  473.  
  474. Already Nura makes a lunge for me, and I almost don't get my arms up quickly enough to intercept her. I can feel her paws trying to push me down on the mat for a sudden victory. She must have the same idea I do. But that's when I put my plan into motion. Cautiously, keeping the chain hold going, I lower my right arm so I can get I shot at inserting my other arm in her flip side. She starts pulling me in to the left and I let go of her hand. Perfect! Then, just like this, I suddenly dump all my body weight onto my butt. Hitting the ground like this hurts, but I fight through the pain and start pulling the Anubis toward me. Before she or anyone else knows it, I have flipped the supposed alpha female of the class onto her back with an admirable interpretation of an armdrag. The way that knocked the wind out of her, she should surely--
  475.  
  476. "Takedown! Five points!" announces our instructor in his makeshift role as referee.
  477.  
  478. Wait, what? But didn't I...?
  479.  
  480. I can't finish the thought. A force bulldozes me from the right, and after some struggle squirming on my part Nura has successfully pinned me with an inside cradle. Todd calls for the end and pulls us apart. "Alright, good job from the new girl," he calls, then more quietly says to me, "Trying to pull a Dragon, huh? I can respect the classics, but it needs more work."
  481.  
  482. I can only look at him, still feeling dazed and a bit lost. I guess I lost after all. Wow...what he said about assuming victory is right.
  483.  
  484. I then realize Nura is standing over me, offering me her paws. "Gotta say rookie, I wasn't expecting you to pull something like that out. You almost got me." It only takes a few seconds to understand the tone is mellow, the praise is genuine. I let her pull me up, and we share the look of two rivals who have come to an unwritten agreement.
  485.  
  486. The last two spars follow quickly afterward, then we get to do some exercises with those rubber ropes people tie around their legs. Before I know it, the hour is up. My muscles feel like magma, but in a good way. Like I'm ready to try doing this again.
  487.  
  488. Once I wash up and put my street clothes back on, I head to my Mom and Lynn waiting for me. Mom gives me a massive hug I don't see coming. "You were so good out there! I can't believe you never told me how much talent you had before!" Guess that means she won't be pulling me from classes anytime soon.
  489.  
  490. I grin and blush from the complements, then turn to Lynn, who has a kind of quizzical expression on her face. "What's wrong?" I ask her.
  491.  
  492. "Nothing. I think I'm just beginning to realize how much you care about all this. And I can see why it draws people so heavily."
  493.  
  494. I pull her into a hug of my own. "Thanks for having my back, Lynn. Sorry I keep putting you through these deals."
  495.  
  496. "Hey, don't be," she tells me, throwing on a full-scale hug of her own, "I wouldn't want to be friends with you if you didn't do these kinds of thing every now and again."
  497.  
  498. We share that embrace for a little bit, up until I heard thumps behind me. "Are we having a hug party over here? Count me in~!" A very Julia-shaped form makes her way into our pace, making me blush and confusing Lynn immediately. She pulls away from the hug right there.
  499.  
  500. "Hello there," she states to the squirrel, "you're the person that Ann was practicing with earlier."
  501.  
  502. "Yep," she proclaims, puffing her cheeks out and standing like a soldier again. "And I want to send you a message: 'I'm happy I got to meet your friend Ann. She seems like the kind of mouse who likes to turn people's heads.'"
  503.  
  504. The spider looks at me, and blows out some air with a sense of having a winning poker hand. "She certainly is."
  505.  
  506. I chuckled and scratch the back of my head, euphoria washing over me. Man, with friends like these, I feel like sticking it to Thais will be a cinch. Maybe with a little work to help them get to know each other, of course.
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