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Girl Squad Volta

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When you first become a dark cosmic entity, the mortals do all this handwringing about how you got to be that way. But give it time, eat a couple galaxies, and they forget that you were ever one of them. I suppose it's the kind of thought that soothes the tiny mind: That could never be me. I would never...

But the truth is that all great and terrifying beings in the multiverse were once babies. I, for one, was a frumpy little girl who loved drawing comic book characters with great boots, long capes, and big swords.

Naturally, this was before I actually saw a sword in action. When you're a nine-year-old sketching the sweep of that katana, you're not thinking about what that sharp edge is really for. You're not thinking about how much blood comes out of a person with a flash of that steel through flesh. At least, I never thought about it until I was fourteen years old, watching Shademare of the Xin Volta drag her katana across a man's throat.

I screamed.

Or I think I did. At that point, I couldn't really hear anything over the shrill "oh no, oh no, oh no!" of my own internal monologue.

The smoky tendrils that formed Shademare's dress lapped at the dying man like snake tongues, absorbing what little energy was left in his body. His life force vanished into her ink-black aura like starlight into a black hole. The hand on his trident went limp, and the weapon slipped from his grip to clatter down the rocks into the sea.

Quenched, Shademare let out a sound of satisfaction and cast the guy's armored body after his weapon—like an empty soda can. I flinched as he crashed limply off the rocks to break the waves in a froth of foam and blood.

"Well, Wren Li-Lazzaro." Shademare turned her gaze on me, eyes steely cold beneath the hacked line of her bangs. "Looks like it's just you and me."

Panic set my brain jittering in circles like a busted wind-up toy. Twenty feet of seething ocean separated me from Shademare, but I didn't think for a moment that a little water was going to slow her down. I took a step back, my bare foot slipped on the wet volcanic rock, and she let out a chuckle.

"If you want to fly away, I won't mind. That is, if those newbie wings will even carry you."

Oh god, would my wings carry me? They'd get me into the air, sure, but not fast enough to escape a Volta like Shademare.

"Go on." She smirked. "I won't follow. What I really want is behind you."

That should have been my cue to make a break for it. Instead, the words made every muscle in me clench. They reminded me why I was there: to protect what was behind me.

I met Shademare's eyes, planted my feet, and breathed in power. Energy burned a pair of lines against my shoulder blades and rushed to fill my chest. When I exhaled, my aura flared purple around me—for all the good it would do me.

"Are you sure about this?" Shademare sounded as amused as she was surprised. "You know you don’t have the power to fight me.”

She was right, of course. My few hundred volts were no match for her nine thousand—or whatever the heck she was at after magically cannibalizing that guardsman. But not every fight had to come down to raw power. Eight years of karate had taught me that much.

Hernandez Sensei said that most martial arts weapons were just farm tools, adapted to fight well-trained, well-armed samurai tax collectors... I spread my fingers at my sides, visualizing steel, mentally sketching the arcs of twin sickles. The glow of my aura raced to my hands and concentrated there, ready to fill the shapes in my mind.

At my limited power level, a Volta had to choose between flight, shielding, and summoning. Forming weapons would mean fighting Shademare grounded and unarmored. But what difference would that make, really? At its strongest, my aura wouldn't protect me from Shademare's blade any more than a denim jacket would protect me from... well... a regular katana. It didn't matter how I allotted my voltage; if Shademare got a decisive cut in, I was fish food.

"Are you trying to summon?" Shademare laughed as a tendril of her dress wiped the blood from her katana and flicked it into the sea.

Some martial arts historians disputed the claim that kamas had originated as farmers' sickles, but in that moment, I wanted to believe that a peasant could stand down a samurai in full armor. I needed to believe it, or this was never going to work.

"Do you even know how to manifest a weapon?"

I should have said something badass like 'Come and find out,' but that's the kind of thing I tend to think of way after the fact. Instead of wasting breath, I set my stance and glared in challenge. Like the idiot I was.

Wings flicked like switchblades from Shademare's shoulders, and she shot toward me, the tip of her blade slicing a spray through the waves.

I lifted my hands—and summoned steel.

 

 

FOUR MONTHS EARLIER

 

The sword crashed into my kamas, and I let out an involuntary yelp at the impact.

"Don't flinch, Wren. Block," Hernandez Sensei admonished and drew the wooden practice weapon back for another swing. "You know what's coming. Meet it with confidence."

He came at me again, and the crack of wood on metal resounded through the empty halls of Harrisville East High. The rest of the karate team was still in the bathrooms, changing into their uniforms for the tournament. Sensei had rushed me off the bus to change early so he could train my kama form with me. Personally, I had thought my form was in good shape the last time I practiced it. At least good enough to grab a medal at a mid-sized tournament like Harrisville. Hernandez Sensei, apparently, had his doubts.

"Again!" he said as I finished down on one knee with both sickles buried in the chest of an imaginary opponent. He must have read the flicker of reluctance on my face as I rose because he added, "Unless you have a problem with that."

"No, Sensei," I said, though my gaze lingered nervously on the wooden sword. "It's just that I've literally never seen another instructor swinging a sword at people while they do their kata."

"That's why their katas are trash!" Sensei smacked the wooden katana into his palm for emphasis. "Any judge worth his degrees can see whether you know your application. Again, Wren! With purpose this time! One, two," he counted me through the steps of the form, attacking or defending on each count, "three, and crane stance, and five, and flip, and seven, and deflect, hook high, hook low, and finish it!"

"What?" I panted. Having diverted the wooden blade, my right kama was hooked in the crook of Sensei's knee. My left was at his throat.

"Finish the move, Li-Lazzaro! Put me on the ground."

"It's concrete," I said with a glance at the floor beneath our bare feet.

"And that"—Sensei caught my wrist in a twisting grip, bringing the kama away from his throat as his sword whooshed to a stop at my neck—"is the kind of doubt that gets you killed in a real fight."

I seriously doubted I was going to get in a real sword versus kamas fight any time soon. But isn't that just how it is when you're fourteen; you think you know everything.

"Again, from junbi. One... two... Don't just rush through the movements!" Sensei said in frustration. "Think about what you're doing. See it. You're an artist, right?"

"Yes, Sensei."

"So, you know how to visualize. You do it all the time."

"Yes, Sensei."

And yeah, I was great at envisioning a still image—a striking moment—in all its detail. But my brain didn't do the kind of visualization Sensei wanted. I didn't map stories—or even scenes—from beginning to end. That was why I relied on my writer, Laura, to bring my comics to life. Laura gave my random visions a reason to exist, a logic that tied them together, and a story that drove them forward.

On my own, I lacked that drive. That was the problem with my weapons kata—and my life in general, but at fourteen, I didn't really understand that part yet.

While Sensei counted me through the form a tenth time, the rest of the team started emerging from the bathrooms to watch the training. Most were wearing our dojo's blue karate gi, with its slick black, white, and gold accents. Then there was Laura in the wushu uniform she wore exclusively for weapons competitions. She was always mesmerizing in those white silks. Paired with her shining hair, they made her glow. Like living lightning.

Crash!

Sensei's sword connected with my unprepared guard, sending me right into a bank of lockers.

"Ow!" I rubbed my funny bone where it had caught a locker handle. My kama had scraped a jagged line through the blue paint on the neighboring lockers, exposing the rather Seventies coat of beige beneath.

"Dude, Wren, did you just vandalize our host school?" Red-belt Kyle laughed.

"No." Sensei put a hand over my kama and shoved it down. "Shush."

"But—"

"I said put a sock in it, Kyle," Sensei snapped and quietly herded us out of the hall before the other teams started showing up to change.

Hernandez Sensei always insisted on getting to tournaments a good half hour before the other teams, even when that meant us all piling into the bus at 5am. He liked to stake out a good spot to stretch and warm up while he talked to the tournament runners about the rules for each event. Harrisville was less than an hour from our little dojo, so this time, we had only been up since six.

"You okay, Wren?" Laura laughed as I jogged to catch up with her, still holding my bruised elbow.

"Yeah," I muttered. "I'm just glad Sensei laid off the sword. He’s so weird about training sometimes."

“That’s a good sign." Laura tucked her spear into her armpit at an angle so it wouldn't clip the doorway as we passed through. "It means he thinks you have a shot at winning weapons."

"That's a lie and you know it. He just wants to make sure some rando doesn't beat me out for bronze."

Laura rolled her eyes. "You know, this is why you never get first place at anything, right? You can't talk down on yourself like that. You have to walk into a tournament knowing that gold belongs to you."

"I do do that," I said with a smile.

"What?"

"I always walk into tournaments knowing the gold medal belongs to you."

"Oh my god, Fairy Wren, shut up!" Laura slugged me in the arm way harder than necessary, but she wasn't mad. She only ever called me Fairy Wren when she meant to be nice. It was a nickname from way back when we were little.

The two of us had gotten to know each other sprawled on Laura’s vast bedroom floor while we doodled. Or rather, I doodled. Laura mostly marveled at my creations, made suggestions, and spun exciting stories around the drawings. As kindergarten wore on and she got better at putting words to paper, she had started writing notes to go with each sketch.

"How do you spell your name?" she had asked as her pencil hovered over one of my superhero drawings.

"Why do you need to know?"

"I'm trying to name this character you draw all the time." Laura nodded to the gray-cloaked heroine. "I thought I'd call her Silver Wren or something since she kinda looks like you."

"How can she look like me? She always has her hood up."

"Just tell me how you spell it. Is it R-E-N?"

"W-R-E-N," I said. "There's a silent W."

"Why would your parents put a silent W at the beginning of your name?" Laura wrinkled her nose. "That's mean."

"They didn't make up the spelling," I said. "A wren is a kind of bird."

"What, like a hawk? Or an eagle?" Of course, Laura could only imagine naming a kid after a cool bird. But she hadn't gotten to know my mom yet.

"It's not a cool bird," I said. "It's a tiny brown ball of fluff." Overall, not an inaccurate name for someone like me.

"Really?" Laura had laughed and pulled her mom's iPad over to hunt-and-peck W-R-E-N into the search bar. "Aww!" Her eyes lit up as the image results loaded. "They're cute!"

"They're boring."

"Not these ones." Laura turned the iPad to show me an Australasian splendid fairy wren. "These ones are all blue and purple, and they have cool stripes!"

"That's only the males. The females are brown except for their tails."

"Well, that's still super adorable. Look at that!" Laura nudged her shoulder into mine and pointed to a fluffed-up female wren perched on a flower stem. "You can't tell me that's not adorable."

"Okay, but you can't call that character Wren," I frowned, looking past the iPad to the drawing.

"Why not?"

"Because she's..." Powerful. Invincible. Fearless. "Because she's just not."

"Okay, well, what about Silvercape?" Laura asked.

"Silverhood?" I suggested.

"That!" Laura pointed her pencil at me with that smile that made me feel like I was the only person in the world. "I like that!"

Of all the characters that burst out of my head onto paper, Silverhood was the one I never seemed to be able to stop sketching, no matter how old I got or how much my art style changed. She was always there at the tip of my pencil, double swords on her back, hood drawn, face in shadow.

As Silverhood recurred, Laura’s handwritten captions followed at the heels of her combat boots, gradually growing into stories. Somewhere in second grade, we had graduated from single captioned images to multi-panel comic pages. In fourth grade, Laura’s storytelling got more elaborate. We started creating short comics about Silverhood's adventures in other worlds, fighting dragons, fighting ninjas, fighting a shape-changing slime we called The Squourge. In sixth grade, Laura used her generous allowance to buy me a fancy drawing tablet for my birthday. And now, three years later, Silverhood was well into her third volume defending the galaxy from the octopus god, Zandigor, and his hivemind of mechanical wasps.

Of course, we'd been stuck on the final battle for a few weeks now. Or Laura had. Until she sent me the dialogue and other text for the last section, I was out of drawing I could do. I had thought we would get a chance to talk details on the bus to Harrisville. But Laura had spent so much of the ride speculating about high school sports tryouts with Natalia and argue-flirting with Black-belt Kyle that it had been hard for me to get a word in edgewise.

And apparently, I still couldn't get a word in edgewise. Because the moment I opened my mouth to ask about Silverhood, Natalia burst into the conversation with her trademark excess of morning energy.

"How about this tournament space!" she said, looking around with her big brown doe eyes. "I forgot how big it is!"

Despite our dramatic name, White Lightning Martial Arts was just a cozy little strip-mall dojo sandwiched between the local thrift store and a coffee shop that played too much jazz. So, whenever we made the drive to a tournament at a bigger venue, the change was jarring.

"I remembered this place being big," Laura said. "I just forgot how not disgusting their mats are."

The interlocking blue and red squares formed regulation 20-by-20 kata and sparring rings all across the Harrisville gym floor. Instructors from the hosting dojo were still setting up chairs at the edges of each ring for the judges, and the collapsible wooden bleachers had been pulled from the walls to accommodate spectators.

"Looks like they're setting up for a lot of people," Natalia said.

"Let's hope so," Laura said.

"Why?" I winced.

The more people were watching, the worse I tended to do in competition. Plus, if it took forever to get through all the divisions, we'd be here into the late afternoon, and there would barely be any weekend left to work on Silverhood.

"More people means more competition," Laura said as though this was totally obvious. "If the other teams bring enough female black-belts, we might even get real brackets in sparring."

"Oh yeah..." I said with a vaguely queasy feeling in my stomach. "Great."

Laura, Natalia, and I weren't actually black-belts yet. We were still color-belts, gearing up for the dreaded black-belt test in the summer. With our parents' permission, Hernandez Sensei had started signing us up to compete in the adult black belt division. He said it was the best way to toughen us up in preparation for the test. Personally, I would have been fine with fighting kids my own size for another year or two. But Laura and Natalia were both full steam ahead. So here I was, training as hard as I could because it would suck to be left behind when all I really wanted to do with my summer with Laura was work on Silverhood like we always had.

"Hey, Laura," I tried again as we made our way to the ring, where the rest of the team had started stretching. "I wanted to talk about the dialogue for the pages I sent you."

"I told you, I'll get to them," she said as she stowed her spear safely on the bleachers with her duffel bag.

"But like, when? You've had them for two weeks."

"Seriously, Wren?" Laura said, and her exasperation wounded. "You want to talk about this right now?"

"Well... yeah." There had been a time when Laura would have stopped everything to talk comics with me. Where had that gone? When had I let it slip away? "We didn't get to it on the bus, so I thought—"

"You don't think this tournament is a little more important than Silverhood?"

No. I didn't. "I... I don't know if it's a question of which—"

"You know you need five local medals to qualify for the Tri-State?" Laura said.

"You have five local medals," I pointed out.

"But you don't."

"So?"

"So, I want to be the best I can be. I thought you wanted the same."

"I just... I thought it would be nice to have this volume finished before middle school is over and..." and you never have time for me again, said a terrible little voice that didn't belong in my head. Sometimes, I wonder if I was born with that dark little voice in me. Or if it had grown out of an empty space where people used to be. My adoptive dad... and before him, the parents I couldn't remember... who also hadn't wanted me.

"Sure, it would be great to finish another volume," Laura said, "but I'm going to focus on what's in front of me right now. I'm going to focus on winning. And you should too."

"Laura! Wren!" Sensei clapped his hands. "Chat while you stretch!"

"Coming!" Laura said, and we rushed to join the rest of White Lightning on the mats.

"You're too tense," Laura observed as her palms pinned my knees to the floor and her chest pressed into my back. "Your butterfly is usually way better than this."

"I know," I said from beneath the dark curtain of my hair. With my nose less than an inch from my toes, I could feel my own too-shallow breath on the soles of my feet.

"Want to do some stretch kicks instead?"

"No." I shrugged Laura’s weight off my shoulders, and she shifted back. "I need to braid my hair."

This was always the hardest part of my warm-up—at least in terms of upper body strength. I loved my long hair, but every time I had to get it into a high ponytail, I envied Natalia's pixie cut. Seriously. If you've never tried to pull off the Ariane Grande ponytail with waist-length waves of hair, you don't know pain. By the time I had gathered my hair into a ponytail, my arms were burning like I'd just cranked through fifty push-ups. As I took the thick ponytail over my shoulder to braid it, I watched the other teams filing into the Harrisville gym.

Our nearest neighbors, Bellefield Fusion Martial Arts, were here in their white uniforms with the purple ensō circle on the back. Having set down their gear bags, the usual crowd from Glendale Rising Star Karate were unzipping their star-spangled sports jackets to reveal their signature blood-red team uniforms. Other teams must have driven an even longer way to get here, judging by the circles under their eyes and the fact that I didn't recognize their uniforms. It looked like our dojo wasn't the only one desperate to cram medals in preparation for the Tri-State.

Within half an hour, Laura and I were waiting alongside the weapons ring with Red-belt Kyle and a dozen other competitors. The tournament runners had chosen to mix men's and women's weapons, which meant that medaling was going to be harder than usual. I probably didn't stand a chance. And, to my horror, the head judge called my name first.

"Li-Lazzaro, up! Cohen, on deck!"

"Oh god," I breathed.

"Don't be nervous," Laura whispered. "Just focus, and you'll be fine."

Focus, I thought as I stepped onto the mat under two hundred pairs of eyes. Visualize.

"Representing Hartwood White Lightning Martial Arts, Miss Wren Li-Lazzaro!"

At the center of the ring, I bowed to the masters and envisioned a samurai in front of the judges' table, sword raised for the attack.

The image stayed clear as I bellowed, "Kaminari Godan no Kama!" from deep in my chest and came to ready position. But when I raised my kamas to mid-guard to begin, the samurai disappeared.

All I could see was Silverhood among her empty word bubbles, meaningless perfection, waiting for life that wouldn't come. Not if Laura didn't want to write it. All my focus vanished into those empty word balloons. All I could hear was the echo of Laura saying: I want to be the best that I can be... which apparently meant leaving me behind. Pain washed my brain and made it blank as I began my form.

Blankness meant no anxiety but also no purpose. My body flew through the kata without thought, without impact, and finished almost before I realized I had started. I straightened up, empty, returned to junbi, and bowed my way off the mats.

"Nice job," Laura whispered as I passed her amid polite applause, but I could tell she didn't mean it.

"Also representing Hartwood White Lightning Martial Arts, Miss Laura Cohen!"

Now the tournament really began.

Our dojo wasn't registered as a wushu school; Chinese martial arts weren't Hernandez Sensei's area of expertise. He had specifically brought an old friend in to train Laura for weeks the previous summer. The resulting spear form was a pure flex. And it worked every time. The gym went silent the moment Laura flowed into motion. Spectators, competitors, and judges looked on with their mouths open as, before them, a girl turned to an electric current.

Kyle and I had learned the same spear form alongside Laura, but Sensei never asked us to compete with it; he didn't trust us with that level of difficulty under scrutiny. I liked to think that I pulled off my forms with grace and technical precision. Then there were guys like Kyle, who lacked grace but generated ridiculous amounts of power with each strike. Laura lived in that magical middle ground where grace met strength, weightless as she floated between movements—and a battering ram at the moment of impact. The way she hit each thrust always made onlookers gasp as if physically impaled.

At the form's conclusion, Laura’s spear hit the mats in a final crack! that made a few people start. As she drew herself up to bow, she was the only animated thing in the room. The rest of the world was still as stone, wrapped in her spell for a moment before the crowd erupted into applause. There were only a few black-belts I knew who could bring a whole gymnasium of people—including their opponents—to their feet. Laura had been able to do it since she was about ten.

When the scores were in, I got third in weapons. And only because Red-belt Kyle fumbled the last pass over his shoulder with his nunchakus, and the gangly boy from Rising Star Karate accidentally clipped the judges' table with his bo staff. Laura’s explosive spear form took first place by a landslide. Second went to a flashy katana form by a boy from Bellefield Fusion Martial Arts.

"You should have had him!" Sensei was on me the second the judges dismissed us from the weapons ring. "That silver was yours to lose, and you let that Bellefield clown take it with a baton-twirling routine."

"Sorry, Sensei."

"Tell me what went wrong." Sensei's tone made it clear that he already knew. He just wanted to pull the right answer out of me.

"Uh... the Bellefield guy had sharper movements than me. He was faster." I mean, did you see his forearms? My squishy fourteen-year-old body wasn't going to compete with that kind of speed and power.

"His form was nonsense! There's no application to that kind of circus act flourishing and twirling. It doesn't matter how fast a muscley idiot swings a sword if he's got no notion of what he's doing with it. You know your application, Wren. You know it. Where was it?"

"I don't know," I lied. What was I supposed to say? Silverhood ran away with my focus? She sucked it into her empty word bubbles?

"Alright, alright." Sensei read the distress on my face, though he seemed to misunderstand the reason. "Everybody does a bad form once in a while. Shake it off. Let's put those kamas away, put it behind you, and get to practicing your Enpi.”

I did worse in women's form than I had in weapons, placing fifth. Laura took first again, obviously. A Rising Star instructor named Vang took second with some of the strongest stances I'd ever seen, Natalia took third, and a Harrisville Tang-Soo-Do girl edged me out for fourth. This time, Sensei didn't even bother getting mad at me. My form had been so depressing that he had nothing to say to me except "Shake it off, Wren," before taking Natalia aside to review her performance.

I should have been grateful that I wasn't getting an earful. Instead, I just felt like a disappointment as I slunk to my duffel bag to put on my gear for the next event.

"Hey," Laura hauled her bag up on the bleachers beside mine and took out her foot gear.

After weapons, she had changed into her karate uniform with our dojo's lightning bolt logo across the left breast. Laura didn't glow in the blue navy-blue gi the way she did in her wushu silks, but the way the sleeves snapped each time she threw a punch was a thing of beauty. After years of trying, I had never quite achieved that snap where breath, speed, and power all met in a perfect thunderclap.

"So, what happened back there?" she asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Your form," she said, tugging her ponytail out the top hole of her sparring helmet and swishing it through to spill down her back. "I've seen you practice Enpi a million times, and it's solid. I thought you'd have Natalia easy."

"Yeah, well, last time you saw me practice, I was focused."

"So, focus now," she said as though it were that simple. She never had understood the way my mind wandered. The way it got stuck in these chasms outside reality and couldn't get unstuck.

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Why won't you work on Silverhood with me?" I blurted out—and immediately felt like an idiot.

"Oh my god, I didn't say I wouldn't. Just that I haven't gotten to it yet. Can you just chill about it for one—"

"Are you kidding me?" Hernandez Sensei stalked over to us, seething.

"What is it, Sensei?" Laura asked.

"You see this garbage?" he gestured furiously to the whiteboard where the Harrisville tournament volunteers were rearranging names in a set of brackets.

"Women's sparring is bracketed!" Laura said in delight. "Awesome!"

"It's not awesome, Laura! Look, and they have you two fighting each other! In the first round!"

"Oh..." I said, "Goodie." At least, my part in the sparring would be over quickly.

"Cowards!" Sensei growled under his breath. "They saw the way our boys wiped the floor with their guys, and now they want to rearrange the women's brackets based on new criteria. Weight class, my ass!"

"Sensei!" Laura hissed with a nod to the younger color belts unpacking their gear a few bleachers up. "The kids will hear."

For all his grumbling, Hernandez Sensei wasn't actually the kind of coach to raise a stink at someone else's tournament. He valued his connections in the community too much. So, once he had stalked around and vented for a few minutes, Laura and I ended up paired at the side of the sparring ring, after all, waiting for our turn to fight.

"It's alright, Wren." Sensei's vast cinderblock-breaking hands smacked reassuringly on my shoulders before he stepped back to the sideline. "Just do your best."

"I will, Sensei."

"Well, you better!" he laughed. "Because you know Laura will make you pay for it if you don't."

"I know," I said miserably.

Something scary happened to Laura when she got into the ring. It had started when she had gotten her brown belt and Sensei let her move up to sparring the black belts. A terrifying focus would snap on in those sharp black eyes, turning her into a different creature. And if you stood across from her, you weren't her friend anymore. You weren't her teammate. You were just an obstacle between her and her gold medal.

"And don't forget," Sensei added unhelpfully, "Harrisville allows winning by slaughter."

"At eight points?" Laura asked a little too eagerly.

"Yeah. If you're up by eight points before time, the match ends there."

"Sweet."

"Vang and Chavez on the mat!" the ref called. "Cohen and Li-Lazzaro on deck!"

Laura glanced sideways at me as we stood to be ready when our turn came. I already had my mouthguard between my teeth, but Laura paused before putting hers in.

"I'm not trying to be mean," she whispered, "about the whole Silverhood thing. It's just... don't you think we're getting a little old to spend all our free time making comics?"

And thank god the mouthguard spared me from answering. I didn't know what I would have said—just that I wanted to scream.

In the ring, Natalia was squaring off against a twenty-something third-degree black belt. Natalia was as quick on her feet as any female competitor out there. But she was skinny, lacking Laura’s raw power and my ability to take a punch. I knew from a hundred practice rounds with Natalia that if you could just catch her, it only took one solid hit to knock her off her game. That was why my body flinched sympathetically as Vang caught Natalia in the head with a spin hook kick.

"Break!" the ref said as Natalia staggered in a dizzy little circle back to her starting position. "Point, Vang!"

At least losing to Laura would mean I didn't have to fight that, I thought as I watched the adult third-degree reset to her fighting stance. What Sensei and Laura and no one seemed to understand was that I didn't want to get older, or bigger, or tougher if it meant everything good about the world changing around me. I wanted karate, and Silverhood, and everything to stay the way it had been when Laura and I were little kids.

"I mean, we're going to be in high school next year," Laura continued under her breath. "I don't want to be a weird nerd when I get there, Wren. I want to be somebody. If all you want is to keep doing the same old stuff, I... I just don't want anything holding me back. You understand, right?"

Holding her back?

"Right, Wren?"

I could only shake my head, my throat squeezed too tight to make a sound.

"Well..." Laura frowned, "then I don't know how much we have in common anymore."

Slipping her mouthguard between her teeth, she turned to watch Natalia's fight with the kind of focus Hernandez Sensei always wanted from me. With hunger. Meanwhile, I clenched my mouthguard between my teeth and tried not to cry.

"Break!" the ref called following a messy clash of fists on protective gear. "Point, Chavez!"

"Yes!" Sensei punched the air. "One more, Natalia! Give her one more!"

Swallowing around the lump in my throat, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to fight anyone like this—let alone Laura. I was shaky. Angry. Putting a glove to my lips, I pulled my mouthguard out just enough to murmur, "I'm not holding you back."

I realized the words were a mistake the moment Laura’s eyes met mine. With Natalia's match nearly over, Laura was halfway gone. Her eyes flashed death at me. My understanding friend was giving way to the thing of pure aggression that had won Laura a whole wall of sparring trophies.

"Yeah?" she tugged her mouthguard out to return, "Prove it in the ring."

"Fine," I said with very fake confidence. The timekeeper's whistle gave me away when it pierced the air, and I flinched.

"Time!" the ref bellowed. "Winner: Vang!"

"Nice job, Natalia!" Sensei clapped reassuringly as Natalia bowed unsteadily, shook Vang's hand, and backed off the mats. "Good effort!"

Natalia had done better than I would have, I noted, looking at the scoreboard. Seven to five. Outclassed by four ranks, she had only lost by two points.

"Cohen and Li-Lazzaro up!" the ref called, and my fists clenched, creaking, around the grip bar inside my gloves. "Wilson and Chamberlain on deck!"

Stepping into the center of the ring, Laura and I clapped our hands to our sides, bowed to the ref and then to each other. When Laura’s head came up, my friend was completely gone. There was only the fighting machine who ate black belts for breakfast.

"Ready!"

As I shifted my left foot back into my fighting stance, Laura shifted her left foot forward, eager to begin. She raised her gloves, and I was certain that if not for the mouthguard, she would have licked her lips.

"Fight!"