Story:Two Player Drills

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The Catherine and Hiro High School Stories: Part 3
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Two Player Drills
Written by TriangleDelta

One of the weirdest things about Vancouver in the winter is how big of a difference altitude makes. You could be walking down a hill through big, fluffy flakes of snow, and find yourself in heavy pelting rain by the time you reach the bottom. The snow that does fall barely ever sticks around; it's mostly just enough to make the streets wet and the grass all muddy. Since I graduated high school, I've met lots of people that make fun of us in Vancouver for how weak our winters are. The temperature's always sitting right around zero, which is tame compared to most of the rest of Canada.

They have a point. I happened to be in Winnipeg in January once, and I thought I was going to die whenever I stepped outside. It's just something that you can't prepare yourself for. The people that grow up in places where it gets cold like that have the frost and the chill of the wind etched onto their bones.

That said, I never come off worse in those conversations about how harsh winters are. Most of them will tell me about playing hockey on outdoor rinks in minus thirty weather. That's all well and good, and impressive.

I've yet to meet anybody else that can tell me they've played basketball in water and slush at zero degrees.

I hadn't done it before that year. Like I've already said, I was in grade 10 the year I met Catherine. It was getting to late November, and I was just stepping out of school at the end of the day when the snow started. When the first flakes found some of my exposed feathers, I was surprised. I looked up at the grey sky, trying to keep myself out of the way of the flood of other kids leaving school. A few more errant flakes landed on the grey and white feathers of my face, quickly melting and sending a chill through my skin.

I finally snapped out of it, and started walking, dodging around people as I headed for our basketball court. My normal urgency was gone, though. I was still hoping that a few people would show up to play, but I wasn't expecting it. Last year, the year I started playing at that particular court, people abruptly stopped showing up on the day that it started snowing.

Things had already been getting kind of cold for playing basketball. It's hard to play a game that requires careful work with your hands and fingers when they're numb from cold. The slush and water that gathered on the court made the entire experience even less attractive. I'd kept showing up to play for about a week after that, but nobody ever came. Those sessions just turned into lonely and boring shooting drills for me. Eventually I'd given up, and had to skip the best part of my day until late February.

So I wasn't really surprised when I got to the court and found that nobody was there. I stood around for a few minutes, listening to cars rush by through the gathering slush as cold water seeped into my old shoes. Alright, I'll be honest: I just felt sorry for myself for most of that time. I didn't want the winter to kill our basketball season again. I'd pulled it off the year before when I still had the relative newness of high school to distract me. This past year had been pretty rough, though, and I knew that my reserves of enthusiasm and energy were running low. I wasn't looking forward to three months without basketball.

I was just about to turn around and leave the court when I heard a set of tires slowing down. I wasn't sure whether I was excited or terrified to see that now familiar luxury car pulling up on the other side of the chain link fence bordering the court. The door opened, and Catherine hopped out. She didn't have a hat on, so that big blue crest of feathers was still visible. She was wearing a long yellow jacket that shed the snow easily. I stared at it in envy; my dad's old sweater was already soaked through with the melting snow.

She looked around the court before her eyes focused on me. She stood there for a moment, and then turned around. She got back into the car, and I assumed she was giving up on the game today and going home. I was more than a bit surprised when she climbed back out carrying a basketball. She stepped through the gap in the fence, and her car pulled away.

Catherine walked over to me, her face completely neutral. I tried to keep my eyes level with hers as she approached.

"Just you and I today?" she asked, giving her ball a bit of a toss.

"The others don't like playing in the rain," I replied.

She nodded at that. "So. You want to start on defense?"

"And you want to start forward." I hesitated, then added, "I guess you won't have to worry about passing today."

She didn't respond to my small jab. Instead, she put her ball on the ground, then turned and pulled off that nice coat of hers. She tossed it to the side of the court, right into a pile of dirty slush. I'm pretty sure I actually flinched. I didn't know how expensive the coat was, but I knew that it was probably worth more than all of the clothes I was wearing combined.

"You ready, Hiro?" She was holding the ball, her eyes on me. There was a look on her face... she was reading me? It took me a moment, but I realized that she'd thrown the coat specifically to make me angry; to make me resent her. There was that slightest hint of a grin at the edges of her beak.

"Ready," I replied.

She tossed the ball to me, and I threw it back. As soon as it touched her fingers, she was off, moving with that incredible speed I'd gotten used to with her. I was surprised for a moment, and that was all that she needed. I turned to follow, but she was already halfway to the net. I had barely taken a step before the ball was in the air. It slipped into the net, then bounced off the pavement, sending water splattering everywhere.

Catherine turned to face me, and raised an eyebrow. "Ball's yours." She walked back to center court, bumping her shoulder into mine as she passed me. The ball was still on the ground by the net, held in place by the gathering slush.

It took me a moment to gather myself. Then, I walked stiffly over to pick up the ball, knowing that she wouldn't do it for me. She was testing me. Pushing my buttons. I just wasn't sure why.

I went back to center court and squared off with her, this time on the offense. This one would be less intense, I knew that much. I didn't do well on the attack, and she definitely wasn't the best block. I passed the ball to her, and she sent it back.

Before I even grabbed the ball out of the air, she was coming towards me. I was surprised, but I managed to grab it and move to the left. I had to dribble much harder to get the ball to bounce properly in the slush, and it slowed me down even more as I slipped clumsily by her.

I felt her turning towards me, and I took a step further away, still heading for the net. I rushed forward, trying to ignore that she'd cheated on the face-off. You always waited for the other person to actually get the ball before you started. She knew that. She had deliberately chosen not to wait. Why had she--

I blinked, and focused on the net again, preparing to shoot. Even as I started preparing, Catherine slipped around in front of me, and her hand came out. She slapped the ball out of my hands with no trouble. My hands stung from the force of her block.

She didn't even look at me. She just turned away, picked up the ball, and headed back towards center court. I watched her go, staring. I think it was around then that I understood.

Gavin and I were the only members of our group that could actually come close to keeping up with her. She knew that she was better than both of us, but we were close.

The only thing that gave Gavin and I any power over her was that all of the others followed us. So long as the others were around, I could shut her out of a game. Having the others around forced her to play nice, or not to play at all.

I felt some of my feathers bristling as I followed that reasoning through to its logical conclusion. The others weren't around. It was just the two of us. She wasn't playing nice.

I stepped up in front of her, and met her gaze. Her face looked no different, but this time I narrowed my eyes at her, and settled myself down into a ready position.

She tossed the ball to me. I passed it back.

We moved.

My feet slid through puddles and slush, and I turned my body with hers, keeping myself between her and the net. The ball danced between her hands, sending up splatters of cool wetness whenever it disrupted a puddle. She turned to try and step around me, and I sidestepped directly into her way. Her elbow bumped into my chest painfully, but I held my ground, forcing her to move further out to the side.

She dodged back the way she'd come, but I was moving faster now. I was watching her feet more than her hands at this point. Normally, Catherine relied on her speed and a few simple bits of footwork to get around defenders. It was one of the things I'd learned from watching her play. Right now, though, balancing in the slush and water was slowing her down, so her greatest asset was reduced.

I saw her right foot suddenly come forward. I'd seen it a dozen times before while playing with her; I knew exactly where to move. I turned my body, letting her start to slip by me. At the last moment, I slipped a hand out.

The tips of my fingers just touched against the ball. I pressed them in harder, and scooped it away from her.

She immediately stopped on her heel, and turned to glare at me. For just a second, I felt my heavy breath catching in my chest as I saw just how furious she was. I quickly turned away, trying to head over to center court in much the same way she had the past few times. Cold. Dismissive.

I didn't like the taste it left in my throat. I knew that it was the only way I was going to keep up with her at all, though.

She joined me in the center. We were both soaked to the feathers at this point. We'd barely been playing for a couple minutes, but I knew this was going to be a long one.

I passed the ball to her, and she passed it back.

I don't know how long we were out there. At times, it felt like minutes; at others, it felt like hours. The two of us didn't take breaks beyond the few seconds it took us to walk to center court between rounds. The rest of the time we were moving, our bodies constantly either pushing by or blocking each other. The sounds of the cars driving by quickly faded away, and all I could hear were my own breaths, our wet footsteps, and the ball bouncing and splashing through slush.

I don't remember most of it coherently. After those first couple rounds, everything just melds together into quick flashes in my head. The movements of Catherine's feet, and trying to move myself to counter them. Slush spraying up into my face from the bouncing of the ball, and shaking my head to get it out of my eyes. My feathers sticking to my skin with the wetness, and my dad's sweater plastered down on top of them. First and foremost, though, the mounting rage on Catherine's face every time I managed to successfully block her.

Not that it was a common thing. No, I definitely came off worse that day. That said, I blocked a decent number of her attempts, and she found herself getting fewer and fewer baskets as our game went on. It was just as it always happened: I just had to watch her, and eventually I figured out how she would move. She was fast, and she knew some good tricks for deeking around defenders; she didn't know many, though. So although I definitely lost our game, I finished feeling pretty good about myself.

When the end came, it was abrupt. She had just gotten a basket, and I had picked up the ball to head back to center court. When I turned, though, she hadn't moved. She was standing just where she'd been before, holding her hands out for the ball. She must have noticed my confusion, because she said, "My ride's here."

I blinked, and looked over. Yes, her car had pulled up, and the wolf had gotten out and was waiting with the door open. The sky was starting to get dark, and the chill in the air was getting stronger.

Awkwardly, I held the ball out for her. She snatched it, then turned and walked over to her discarded coat. It was as she was gathering it up that I called over.

"Do you have a problem with me?"

I saw her stiffen. She straightened, brushing some brown slush off of the coat. "No."

"Well then why do you always act so..." I searched for a word. "Predatory around me?"

She sighed at that, and rolled her eyes in a way that I was clearly meant to see. "I act this way around everybody."

"No you don't." The look on her face shifted a bit. Clearly she didn't like when people disagreed with her. I pressed on. "Whenever you're playing with us, you just ignore everybody else. Anytime I manage to get the ball from you, though, you give me this weird look."

"I'm not sure what you're talking about." She turned to leave. I didn't want to just let it go at that, so I said something that was probably very stupid.

"I think you're just afraid that I might be better than you."

She stopped in her tracks, and I immediately saw that big crest of feathers of hers go up on top of her head. There was a long, awful moment of silence. She turned very slowly on her heel, and glared down at me.

"You aren't better than me."

"Yet," I countered, keeping my gaze even on her. "I'm catching up, though. Quickly."

"Did you even keep track of how many points you lost by today?"

"Have you even figured out how I keep managing to block you?"

That drew her up short. I could see the wheels grinding in her head, looking for some sort of a comeback. I held my ground, knowing that I couldn't show her any weakness.

It was as the silence was dragging on that I finally started to notice how cold I was. All of the physical activity had kept me warm until then, but now we weren't moving. I was soaked to the skin, and my dad's old wet sweater wasn't offering any warmth. The air was cooling off, too, which was adding an edge to the wetness.

I must have shivered a bit, because a grin appeared on Catherine's beak, and she muttered, "Well. We'd both best get going. Long walk home?"

"Half an hour."

She nodded. "Right. Well, you might want to take the bus if you've got the change."

Her voice made it clear that she knew I didn't have the change. Without another word, she turned away and headed to her car. Before she got in, though, she called over her shoulder, "Same time tomorrow?" She didn't wait for a response. She ducked into her car. The wolf shut the door.

A minute later, she was gone, and I was left standing in the middle of the court. I shivered again, reaching up to rub at my arm. The wool of my sweater was all soggy. It was still raining and dropping slushy snow.

I started walking, but stopped when I reached the edge of the court. I hesitated, not sure why I had decided to wait there. Then, I turned back to look at the court.

One half of it was entirely covered in slush. I couldn't even make out the lines on the pavement through the thick layer of half-melted snow. The other half, though... well. There was a lot of slush on it, too. That said, it was broken up everywhere in thin arcs and small indentations. The black pavement and most of the lines showed through these gaps. It made an odd pattern of black dots and dashes on white.

Tentatively, I stepped back onto the court, and placed both of my feet in two of the small arcs that were parallel to each other. Experimentally, I slid one foot and then the other as though I was moving to block somebody. My feet slid perfectly along the arcs.

I stood there for a bit after that, just looking at all of the lines, and the dimples from the bouncing of the ball. I even tried to follow one or two of our exchanges through the marks. Finally, though, the chill got to me, and I turned to head home.

Featured Characters

Hiroyuki Matsuura
Catherine DeMille

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