Yuki skipped the last two periods of school.
She wasn’t in the mood to sit a minute longer in a stuffy classroom. Working with the dogs always calmed her down and cleared her head. Except clearing her head wouldn’t address the real problem. The only explanation for what happened in the equipment room with Ami was simply impossible for her to believe.
Oh, Yuki knew she had gotten carried away. Ami wasn’t without skills of her own and might have bested her in a fair game played according to the rules of the sport. But she couldn’t match Yuki when it came to raw strength, especially if she couldn’t unleash her full powers as a werefox.
So why couldn’t she?
Walking briskly down the sidewalk past Yamato Technical, trying to stir the sluggish blood in her veins, Yuki didn’t hear the dugout gate open behind her.
Taken totally by surprise, Yuki spun around, a growl rising in her throat. Jirô grabbed hold of the chain-link fence and leaned over to catch his breath. He must have sprinted out of his classroom to catch up with her.
Jirô regained his composure, straightened, and slouched against the corner fence post like he’d been that way all along. “That Akita is yours, right?”
It took Yuki a long second to figure out what he was talking about. “More or less. And she’s a wolf mix, not an Akita.”
Jirô grinned. “Thought so.”
Yuki stared at him blankly. Yet another riddle that defied easy answers. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”
“Said the pot to the kettle.”
“I’m going to work.”
“That vet’s place in Tennoji, right?”
“Quit stalking me.”
“Give me a break. I asked around.”
“I’m going to work,” Yuki said again, because she couldn’t think of anything else to say. She marched off, but not fast enough to hear him musing to himself.
“Maybe it’s a yuki-onna at the front gate—”
He meant the snow woman of north country folklore, whose victims froze to death in her icy embrace. But she didn’t belong in that particular proverb.
“I’m the wolf!” Yuki shouted over her shoulder and quickened her pace.
She seethed all the way to Tennoji. What, did Jirô fancy himself a knight in shining armor riding to the rescue? Maybe he’d dumped the Big Man on Campus routine and gone for the standoffish wise-ass role instead. Not a bad career move. She could identify. Maybe it was never too late to move on.
But there was no moving on from what happened in the equipment room.
Ami doesn’t know.
“Why doesn’t she know?” Yuki asked aloud.
It was plain mean of her to try and make Ami turn, a game she and her cousin wolves played growing up in Hokkaido. Playing it with Ami made Yuki no different than any other mouth-breathing bully. Like Jirô. Or like he used to be. She was very confused.
“Idiot,” she grumbled out loud. Sergeant gave her a quizzical expression. “Not you,” she assured him. “I’m talking about me. I wasn’t thinking.”
That was the problem. She wasn’t thinking. Still, she couldn’t help smiling at the thought of a little fox running around in a T-shirt and gym shorts. Yuki’s smile turned into a frown.
The most amazing thing of all—a were who didn’t know she was a were. Yuki couldn’t comprehend not knowing she was a wolf.
According to ancient folklore, the foxes taught themselves how to take on human form. They served Inari, the God of Rice, mingled with emperors and shoguns, even married and bore the children of noblemen. Foxes preferred guile and subterfuge to brute force.
Except Ami wasn’t trying to fool anyone. She was only fooling herself.
Yuki and her pack of dogs arrived at the northeast corner of West Tennoji Temple, kitty-corner from Tennoji Park. They were waiting for the light to change when a child’s exuberant voice called out, “Yuki O-nê-san!”
For the second time that day Yuki’s heart skipped a beat. This time in a good way. The familial honorific could refer to any female acquaintance. But the curious connection Yuki felt with the girl suggested its other meaning—big sister.
Mika bounded up the sidewalk, her mother a step behind. Tennoji Elementary was located one block to the east.
“Hi, Mika-chan!” Yuki backed the dogs away from the crosswalk and crouched down, eye-level with the girl. The dogs crowded around them, eager for attention. Mika patted their heads in turn.
“Can I walk one?”
She looked at Yuki and then up at her mother with entreating eyes. Her mother said tentatively, “If it’s all right with Yuki.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I’ve got the perfect dog for you.” Yuki selected a leash, doubled it over, and handed it to Mika. The other end was clipped to the collar of a fuzzy white peach with a snout at one end and a tail at the other. “This is Momo, a Japanese Spitz.” Yuki said in a loud stage whisper, “She never pulls on the leash because it musses up her hair.”
Mika laughed and took a determined hold. Answering Noriko-san’s lingering concerns, clearly written on her face, Yuki nodded her head at Sergeant. The German Shepherd took a protective half-step in front of Mika and Momo, waiting for Yuki’s go-ahead and the traffic to clear.
The pedestrian shopping streets branching off the main avenue were crowded with outdoor markets, restaurants, and specialty retail shops. Here the human hustle and bustle muffled the sounds of traffic along the main thoroughfares. The faint tinge of exhaust mingled with the smell of fresh fish, the cafes and bars warming up their grills and simmering soba broth for the early evening diners.
The shopkeepers called out neighborly hellos. Everybody knew everybody. Noriko-san must do her shopping here after picking up Mika from school.
Noriko-san, Mika, and Yuki waved back and continued onto the zebra crossing directly across from Horikoshi shrine, where Sergeant again took the lead.
Noriko-san said to Yuki, “I’m impressed at how attentive that German Shepherd is. Did you train him?”
Yuki shook her head. “I wish I did. Lieutenant Kuroda gets all the credit. It’s something I’d like to do, though.”
“Ah.” Noriko-san nodded, as if drawing a connection in her own mind. She waited until they got to the shrine and Mika was preoccupied with the dogs—“The age at which chores are still fun,” she said with obvious amusement—and gave Yuki a concerned look. “You’ve got a black eye.”
Yuki gingerly touched her right temple. “Oh, yeah. That. I took a face dive in gym class.” It wasn’t an out-and-out lie. She was pretty sure she got the black eye colliding with the vaulting horse. Ami packed a lot of punch in that small frame of hers.
“Forgive me for prying, but you seem to have something on your mind.”
“Sergeant thinks so too,” Yuki confessed. She stroked his neck. “Hey, I’m okay, okay?” But still she sighed. “I’m not good at dilemmas.”
“Oh?” Noriko-san said, growing more intrigued.
“Um—how should I put it—let’s say you find out something about somebody, something you thought she knew but it turns out she doesn’t.”
“Is this information important?”
“Yeah. Well, not life and death. Family secrets, you know? The kind of things the relatives never get around to telling each other—”
“Does she know?” Noriko-san said. “This friend of yours, does she know that you know?”
“Well, she’s real smart so she’s probably figured out I know something. But not the details.”
“That is a predicament,” Noriko-san agreed.
They sat on the ledge, Sergeant at their feet, and watched Mika playing with the dogs.
At length Noriko-san said in a conversational manner, “If she knows that you know and wants to know herself, I’m sure she’ll figure out a way to ask you. In her own good time.”
Yuki nodded. “That sounds like something my uncle would say.”
Now Noriko-san looked at Yuki and said brightly, “Then hopefully we’re both right. You know, you could try being sixteen for a while. There’s no need to grow up all at once.”
What started out as a reassuring pat on the back became an arm around her shoulders. Yuki leaned into her, taking momentary refuge in that warm and reassuring place, melting away some of the awfulness of the day.
Beneath the fresh and fragrant smell of her soap and shampoo there lingered a scent ancient and intimate, like Mika only stronger, beckoning to her with an almost magnetic force.
Yuki was too tired of thinking right then to contemplate the source of that scent. She instead let those fond and familiar aromas wrap around her like a comforting quilt.