Fox & Wolf

Chapter 11

White Wolf

Ami usually walked to school. She could take the Hanwa line from Abikocho station, a block north of her house, to Sugimotocho, a block south of the school. But that meant going twice as far to save a few minutes on foot. She didn’t bother except in bad weather. She enjoyed the exercise first thing in the morning.

Ami crossed beneath the Hanwa line south of Abikocho station, turned left, and followed the narrow lane paralleling the elevated tracks. She’d almost reached the red brick sidewalks of the Sumiyoshi ward high street when an excited adolescent cry rang out behind her.

“There she is!”

There she is? Ami cast a puzzled glance over her shoulder—and nearly bolted. Her muscles coiled to spring away. But resistance was futile. There was no place to run, no place to hide. Her uniform gave away her destination. Their black slacks and white shirts told her this motley pack of boys attended Yamato Technical.

Loud and laughing, jostling and japing, the teenage boys swarmed up to her.

“Tokudaiji, right?” The group’s leader didn’t wait for an answer. He threw a long arm around her shoulders. “Keiko-chan’s right. Too bad you’re so short. Six inches taller and you’d be a babe.

Ami brushed off the arm and kept walking.

“Whoa!” The leader’s wingman scooted up beside her. “She’s a feisty one.”

Her route to school had never been an issue before. Now Yuki Yamakawa had gotten Keiko good and riled up. A girl like Keiko could wrap every boy at Yamato around her little finger. Ami didn’t care to imagine the sordid tales she’d planted in their empty heads.

“They got growth hormones that’ll stretch you out and everything,” offered what must be the group’s nerd.

“Naw, that’d turn her into a midget Amazon.” The leader’s arm snaked around her shoulders again. “You got some nice muscles there.”

Ami prepared to shrug him off again. She could shoo him away with a firm enough reprimand (why this worked so well was a persistent mystery). But doing so made her feel like a humorless schoolmarm. When pushing came to shoving, she was confident of her advantage there too. Thankfully, aside from a few times in elementary school (when her red hair made social interactions with little boys so much worse), she’d never had to resort to physical force.

And not this time either. The problem abruptly resolved itself.

“Hey, Kaz!” At the end of the lane stood a lanky guy wearing Yamato Technical black and white. “Look behind you!” He grinned ear to ear.

Her Romeo looked and with a “What the hell!” scampered away all on his own.

“Holy shit!” chorused the rest of the pack. This wasn’t the chest-thumping bravado of posturing teenage boys but true fear verging on real panic.

The white wolf trotted up next to Ami, so close she could feel the heat of its torso against her thigh. Almost three feet tall at the shoulders, it must weigh close to a hundred pounds. In the wild, a canine this size had a bite strength exceeding half a ton. They had reason to be afraid.

A splash of black swept back from between its brows, a single brush mark on a clean sheet of rice paper. Like Yuki, Ami couldn’t help noticing.

For reasons that bypassed her conscious mind, she wasn’t alarmed in the slightest. Curiosity swallowed up her surprise, leaving on her face the same impassive expression she always wore in reaction to the remarkable.

The wolf cast a condescending glare at the ring of startled teenagers and bared its fangs. Its growl reverberated off the cars in the adjacent parking lot and the concrete trestles like a peal of rolling thunder.

If nothing else, those Yamato Technical boys could sure run fast.

The next sound Ami heard was the wolf laughing. Not that she’d ever heard a wolf laugh before. But she knew this was what a laughing wolf sounded like.

The wolf looked up at her as if to say, We haven’t got all day. Though there was no disguising its predatory nature as it sauntered along as casually as a house cat out for a morning stroll.

Ami and the wolf crossed the main street and continued down the immaculate residential side streets. Decorative cinderblock walls enclosed matchbox-sized front yards, interrupted by the occasional storefront or clinic. Then came the long stretch of the Yamato Technical High School baseball field, strung with netting overhead to keep foul balls from pummeling the neighborhood.

Past the first base dugout, the chain-link fence took a right-angle jog for several yards before straightening out again. Someone was standing in the nook next to the gate. Ami smelled him before she saw him. So did the wolf. She heard a subsonic growl that almost as quickly died away.

The lanky kid from before leaned against the fence. He turned his head, briefly made eye contact. “Morning,” was all he said.

“Morning,” Ami echoed politely and kept walking.

Ami heard him chuckle as he unlatched the gate and disappeared inside the playing field. She looked down at the wolf. The wolf looked up at her. They both shrugged.

One more block and a right turn at the corner. There was the main school entrance. The stream of boys heading south from Abikocho station was taken over by girls heading north from Sugimotocho.

A few of her classmates saw Ami and started to raise their hands in salutation, only to be caught short by the sight of her companion. The wolf looked even bigger next to the diminutive Ami. It yawned and turned its big amber eyes up at her again.

Ami answered with a little wave. “I’m okay. Thanks.”

The wolf nodded and loped off, but not before smacking her on the behind with her tail.

“Hey!”

She heard that laugh again. “Oh, good grief,” she said to herself. She headed down the lane to the school gate shaking her head in disbelief.

Yuki worked with dogs. She must have orchestrated this impressive little performance. While Ami appreciated the thought behind the gesture, she was equally sure it wouldn’t stop Keiko from taking out her frustrations on Ami. Winning was the only thing that Keiko Namiya cared about. Winning what remained a mystery, aside from her compelling need to make everybody around her bow and scrape.

If the top of the social order was such a precarious place, why bother standing there in the first place? But Keiko felt she must, which trapped Ami between that rock and the hard place of Yuki Yamakawa’s steadfast refusal to take Keiko seriously—the worse offense possible. It’s so freaking annoying.

Except it was Tama that made the next move. Though Ami didn’t think she would have if Keiko hadn’t pushed her.

Gym class started with the usual five minutes of calisthenics. The students stretched and warmed up in order to—stand around and talk about divvying up the teams and events for Sports Day in October. Forming cliques on purpose! Planning stuff!

As long as there were activities to schedule and schedules to negotiate and programs to print, the planners were as happy as a bunch of clams. No one attended Sumiyoshi Girls Preparatory Academy for the athletic programs, except maybe volleyball.

Finally Hoshino Sensei decided it was time to do something physical in physical education class and sent two girls to the equipment room to get the soccer balls and traffic cones.

Yuki nudged Ami. “Hey, we could be a team.” She raised her eyebrows and grinned.

“Don’t even think it,” Ami hissed.

The traffic cones didn’t mean playing soccer. They meant doing soccer drills. Hoshino Sensei explained that the goal of the girl with the ball was to dribble up to the traffic cone while the defender tried to stop her. She glanced around and barked, “Ami!”

Hoshino Sensei must have been as bored as the rest of them. Having picked the shortest girl in the class, her eyes settled on the tallest. “Tama!”

Tama didn’t see that pairing coming either. Her surprised look was soon replaced by one that broadcast her intent to bowl Ami over as soon as Ami tried to tackle her. She was practically licking her lips.

“Oh, this should be interesting,” Yuki cooed. She elbowed Ami in the side. “Tama-chan’s got her game face on.”

Normally Ami would have made a token effort and taken a dive and gotten it over with. But screw that. She was hot and tired. The multi-purpose field was the worst combination of damp and dusty. Faking it was too much work. She wanted to be the untamed fox Yuki kept going on about.

Confronted with all the worry and bother, her brain beat a fast retreat to that more primitive state. This once she did nothing to censor the impulse.

She still had to stay alert. Tama was the most athletic girl in gym class. From what Ami had observed in previous classes, she wouldn’t be half bad at volleyball if she stuck to it, if her priorities in life reached beyond hanging out with Keiko and being a mean girl.

Tama dribbled the ball forward. Ami pitched her weight forward, knees slightly bent, balancing on the balls of her feet. Not even Yuki shouting, “Go, go, Ami!” like an airhead cheerleader distracted her from the totality of the movement in front of her, the Newtonian motions of the ball responding to force, friction, elasticity, and gravity—

At the last moment, she abandoned the urge to analyze and let her instincts take over. Tama drew back her foot. Ami jumped. Pounced, really. She tapped the ball between Tama’s legs and sprang away in the same fluid motion.

Tama took two more steps before realizing she’d left the ball behind. Ami skipped around her and booted the ball against the cone.

Goooaaalll!” Yuki whooped, throwing up her arms like Ami had scored in the World Cup.

Hoshino Sensei had them switch roles. Now Tama clenched her jaw and rushed forward like an American football player. At the last second, Ami knocked the ball to the side and leapt after it, a cat playing with a ball of yarn.

As far as Tama was concerned, Ami simply vanished from in front of her. For a moment, confusion moderated her rage. She didn’t understand what had happened.

“See, I knew you had the moves,” Yuki said, giving Ami a playful elbow. “You really are a fox.”

Exactly what Ami was thinking, more evidence of how much Yuki knew about her, of how much Yuki could mess with her in ways she couldn’t predict. But then maybe Yuki had a point.

Ami took a deep breath and folded her arms and closed her eyes. And tried to anticipate what Tama and Keiko would do to her next.

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