If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a maw
"Remember, we're here to have fun. It doesn't matter if we win or lose. Now, get in here." Ms. Corral put her hand in the center of the circle of Lichester Middle students. She smiled, looking around at the group. Reya, a black-furred catgirl who was somewhat short for her age, and Rose, a foxgirl who had had her growth spurt early, were whispering to each other. Kait, an angel who was attending extracurriculars here at the urge of their homeschooling parents, looked relieved at the release of pressure. "All right, everyone, Lionesses on three. One... two..."
"Lionesses!" the circle of teammates roared, and they scurried off to take their places in the field.
Across the lawn, the Nexus City Primary girls were having a similar huddle. Ms. Andersson inclined her head, chuckling. "Don't feel like this is a big deal, 'cause that's gonna get to you, girls. It's just a game, just for fun, and as long as you do your best I'm gonna be proud of each and every one of you." She glanced at her students. Droe, a demi-dragon of unknown origin with a fair few inches on the others, was barely paying attention. Zoya, a human girl with an amicable smile, was patting a few others on the back encouragingly. Rin, a demi-hare, had her hands in her pockets and was whispering something to Ms. Andersson's own daughter, Nicole. Who was chewing on her lip.
The group dispersed, and Karen stopped to catch her daughter's shoulder. "Nikki, love, remember that we're not gonna be using all of what I've been teaching you out there on the field today. Right?"
"Yeah, I know," Nicole responded, fidgeting with the ties on her athletic shorts. "I'm just nervous is all. We haven't played here before, and I don't know this team at all, so..."
"I know you're gonna do great." Karen tousled Nicole's hair as the girl nodded. "That's my girl. Go get 'em."
Rin stood waiting for Nicole, the two of them jogging off toward the field together. Rin was perhaps not the best influence on Karen's little girl, but she was a good friend all the same, despite some of her lazier habits... Karen clicked her tongue, shaking her head.
Zoya, team captain, was giving a little speech to follow up Ms. Andersson's. "Okay everyone! We're gonna do our best and kick their butts! And Coach Andersson's gonna give us a party after!"
"Yeaahhh!" the rest of the Nexus City Knights cheered. Well... except for Droe. Droe was busy squatting down, picking a dandelion from the field, and blowing it away in the direction of Sil, who sat on the sidelines and smiled.
On the other side of the field, Reya was whispering advice to the rest of her team. "Okay, the redhead looks like she's only here because they needed a tenth. The girl with the heart shaped sports goggles looks scared too. Easy outs. We just have to look out for the brown girl and that rabbit."
Rose nodded silently, watching closely as Reya spoke. Kait, on the other hand, looked like they were going to get sick. "I'm only here because you needed a tenth. What if I'm an easy out?"
"Stick with me, dummy, you'll be fine," Reya said with casual confidence. She clapped them on the back. "I got a foolproof plan for how to take out anyone who goes after you."
The referee held up her stopwatch, resetting it. "Alright, players! Are you ready? The 12th Annual State Dodgeball Super Ball Finals are going to begin! The winners of this game will be the state champions!"
The players dispersed to their spots on the playing field. Reya mugged for her family. Her father's thick Italian accent came through the light applause from the assembled parents. "Yes, my kitten! Go stick them to it!"
"You can do it Reya!" Chloe yelled.
Kait swallowed hard, watching Rose's relaxed pose.
Across the field, Droe smiled for Sil.
Rin whispered encouragement to Nicole. "Just think about the ice cream we're gonna get when we're done."
Nicole set her stance.
Zoya clapped her hands. "Let's go, Knights! Let's kick their butts!"
The referee's whistle blew...
Volunteers on each side of the field poured bags of dodgeballs into the center of the field, the colorful rubber balls bouncing along and spilling out toward the middle line. A total of 15 balls were on the field now... a lot to keep track of.
So, of course, there were early casualties. Two of the Lionesses and three of the Knights were slow to defend themselves after rushing forward to grab the loose balls, and the hollow spang! of the balls rebounding against competitors' bodies sounded early eliminations.
Rose stayed back while Reya charged for the centerline, snatching up an abandoned ball and making as if to throw it. This is what they had practiced. Reya would be the distraction, and Rose the artillery. The demi-fox's swift legs carried her halfway across their team's side of the field before the other team knew what was going on, and she picked up one of the balls that had just recently been used to incapacitate her teammates.
"Let's go, let's go!" Rin called, racing to pick up a ball herself. Her long ears flapped in the breeze as she aimed a shot at Kait, snickering. The angel turned to look, yelping and covering their head with their arms. Rin changed directions at the last second, launching the ball with no small amount of force at a distracted Lioness who took the hit hard in the shoulder.
The ball bounced high away from her, and Kait looked up to see it falling toward them. "Oh no... Oh no..." Their arms went out, but their first attempt to catch the ball was a miss, sending it bobbling upward in their arms. After another bounce, and then another, they finally managed to catch it, wrapping their arms around it before diving onto it.
The ref pointed at Rin and the Lioness. "Winters, Tigris, both of you out." Rin stuck out her tongue at Kait, one fist raised in an unserious threat, as she flounced toward the sideline. The Lioness grumbled something about picking on short girls as she did the same.
Kait waited to be indicated as well, but it didn't come. I caught one! Kait thought, ecstatic. They turned, scanning the opposition for a target.
There! Droe, the demi-dragon on the Knights, was still paying the game no mind and focusing on her friend in the audience. If I'm going to get anyone out, it's going to be an "easy out", right? Here goes nothing!
The ball flew with plenty of speed - but its target cocked her head and tilted her body a bit, and it bounced harmlessly out of bounds. She turned to look at the source of the throw, staring them down with an unsettling smile for a moment before one of her eliminated teammates threw the ball back inbounds to her.
"Uh... Reya? Reya!" Kait yelped, diving and rolling along the grass as Droe's wickedly fast shot thundered past. The demi-dragon quickly went to grab another ball, launching this one at an unnerving speed as well. "If you want to do that plan still can we do it now? No pressure or anything!"
The catgirl was having her own issues, however. The other supposed "easy out", Nicole, had caught a ball one of the other Lionesses had aimed at her and hit another, putting the Lionesses down quite a bit - especially once Nicole tagged Rin back into the game.
"I thought you were so cocky a minute ago," Nicole teased, faking Reya out with another half-throw. "What, can't take the heat?"
"Better get outta the kitchen then," Rin called, faking a throw in one direction before trying to catch Reya out in the other. Reya was able to change directions in time, barely, but the ball came dangerously close to hitting her.
"I'm still better at this than you," Reya teased back. "Guess you two better go back to baby school~"
Nicole finally let her ball fly once Reya stopped falling for her fakeouts... only for the catgirl to actually catch it. "Ugh! Frick!"
"Ha ha, nice try, loser," Reya said, sticking her tongue out. "See ya later, allig-"
Her insult was cut off by a rubber ball that hit her in the face with enough force to knock her on her back.
"Ow," Reya managed a moment later, stunned. She looked up to see opposing team captain Zoya pretending to blow smoke off her hands.
Nonchalantly, Zoya added "Got your back, Nicole. Maybe you should focus on the game?"
Reya sat up, putting a hand to her nose. "My nose is bleeding... Rose, you gotta avenge me..."
"Me?" Rose asked, nerves suddenly building. They'd done most of their practicing together! How was she supposed to do any avenging?! Plus she was supposed to be helping Kait... who was still frantically dodging rubber bullets fired by Droe's arm.
"I believe in you," Reya said in a nasally voice, exaggeratedly limping to her team's side of the field. In truth, she wasn't too concerned about the nosebleed - she was especially prone to them. "Take them down!"
Rose set her jaw. She was going to do it. She was going to protect Kait and then avenge Reya!
Another spang! sounded as Kait stumbled and Droe seized on the moment of weakness to eliminate them.
Okay... maybe just avenge both Reya and Kait.
Rin tagged Nicole back in as a Lioness was eliminated from having her throw caught. Rose was in serious trouble. The Knights had all their good players back on the field already!
She chewed her lip, looking to the remaining Lionesses. Anju, a tall and glamorous demi-dragon who was not interested in sports, but had taken up a sport for her mother's sake. Sophia, a shy and reserved player who was very good at dodging and very little else. And Coco, who looked like she should be in the elementary school but was actually about to start high school.
She and Coco could work this out... probably. Most of the balls were on their side of the field, which was good, even if it did come from the fact that most of their team was eliminated.
Coco could seemingly tell what was going on in her head, because she smiled and tilted her head at Rose. "We'll teach them to underestimate us."
The demi-fox mustered up a smile in return. In unison, the two girls began barraging the other team with a hail of balls. Nicole dove to try to catch one of them, snatched it off the ground, and hurled it at Anju, who was standing distracted near the centerline.
A hit! The demi-dragon looked down at Nicole with a quirked eyebrow and a laugh. "Nice throw. I'll have to get payback later." She trotted off the field, tossing her hair behind her and leaving Nicole's heart shivering for reasons she didn't fully understand.
"Heh, good work." Rin helped her up from the ground, provoking a full-blown blush from the younger Andersson. This part she understood, even if Rin's presence sometimes left her groping for words.
"Um, yeah, thanks, thank you," Nicole managed, tucking a hair behind her ear. The tall, athletic hare always had this effect on her...
Zoya was keeping her team on a tight leash, barking out observations as quickly as she could. "Let's go! Coming in high from the left! Step back, Shreya! Nicole, counterattack!"
Nicole's counterattack took out Sophia, who yelped in pain. "Ow! What the heck, Nicole?! That was my ear!"
"Sorry," Nicole said with a shrug, grinning and rushing for another ball. The flow had reversed, and now it was the Knights' turn to shower the Lionesses in a hail of rubber balls.
Rose's nimble hands caught Zoya out, sending the captain to her team's sidelines. The effect on morale was obvious right away, as the Knights' struggle suddenly lessened.
Reya jumped to land a high five on the taller demi-fox, grinning ear to cat ear. "Let's go! Let's do this!"
Coco chuckled, lightly skipping over to a ball and pegging Rin right in the chest with it, knocking the wind out of the demi-hare. She lay on the ground, wheezing for breath.
"Hey! Watch out!" Nicole yelled, rushing to grab the ball that had taken Rin out and hurl it at Rose in retaliation.
And were there no interference, Rose might have caught it. But instead, Reya rammed right into her stomach without looking while trying to catch it, and the two of them toppled over... the ball bouncing harmlessly away.
"Heh... oops," Reya said sheepishly, scratching her cheek.
"Dumby," Rose said affectionately. The two of them walked together to the sidelines.
And just like that, the Lionesses' comeback was cut off. All that was left was to take out Coco, and with the four best Knights against her, she didn't last long at all.
"And that's game!" the referee called. "This year's champions are the Nexus City Knights!"
"Booo," Reya said half-heartedly from the sidelines.
With a mumbling of "Good game" and a line of high fives, the Knights and Lionesses marched off the field, sweaty and tired and hungry.
"Good news," Ms. Corral said with a clap of her hands. "Coach Andersson has offered to have us share in their victory pizza party!"
"It's like we all win," Reya said happily.
Rin leaned in. "Except you didn't, because we won."
Reya's mood immediately 180'd. "Buzz off, rabbit, you and your dumb sneakers!"
"That was pretty fun, huh?" Zoya said, waving to the other Lionesses. "Good job."
Rose patted Kait's arm. "Sorry I didn't tag you back in."
"I would have been upset if you did," Kait assured her. "That dragon was scary..."
Droe, now reunited with Sil, smiled broadly at Kait. "That was a fun chase!"
"You're not any less scary now!" Kait insisted, jerking reflexively away from the taller demi-dragon.
Another tall demi-dragon was busy capitalizing on her earlier contact with Nicole. "I still have to get you back for then, you know."
"D-do you?" Nicole stammered, warmth rushing to her cheeks. Anju's presence was no less intimidating (and weirdly exciting) from up close. "I mean, it was all for, um, for the game, and-"
"I'm teasing," Anju said, laughing. "I can't come to the party, but my mom said I can give you her cell phone number so that your mom can call my mom and we can hang out." She handed Nicole a folded up piece of paper. "See you later?"
"Um- y-yeah..." Nicole half-whispered. "Heh..."
"Let's go, everyone, to your cars! We're going to Saucy Pizza!" Karen called. "Give me your orders now before we leave, I'll call them in!"
"Onion!" Rin yelled out.
"I like onion," Kait mumbled to no one in particular.
Reya threw her arms in the air. "Heck onions! Pepperoni only and forever!"
"Me too," Rose added, looking a bit shy now that everyone was gathered in one place.
Kait nodded. "Pepperoni is really nice as well."
"Make up your mind," Reya said, arms crossed.
"We need a pineapple pie for me," Zoya said.
"Oooh, I do like pineapple too."
Reya glared at Kait. "Don't pick that one."
"Don't listen to her," Zoya said reassuringly. "I'll happily split a pineapple pie with you."
"Droe, what do you want, honey?" Ms. Andersson asked over the arguing children.
"I'll eat a meat lover's pizza. Extra meat," Droe said with a smile.
"Hm... Do you want to share the pepperoni pizza?"
Droe shook her head. "No. I'll eat a meat lover's pizza. I don't want to share with anyone."
Ms. Corral shrugged, giving Ms. Andersson a helpless look. "Okay, Droe! I'll make sure you get a meat lover's pizza with extra meat!"
"Mom, you know how I like it right?" Nicole asked, putting a hand on her mother's arm.
Karen nodded, smiling at her daughter. "Sausage, pepperoni, and bell peppers. Of course. I could never forget!"
Nicole nodded back, still clutching the piece of paper in her hand and lingering near Rin.
Rose and Reya piled into the Calligaris family minivan, already sharing stories of their (non-) victory with Chloe. "Did you see that? Rose just, boooom, caught it just like that!"
The others found their parents, boarding the cars to go trade in their bitter rivalry for a shared love of pizza.