Fox & Wolf

Chapter 16

Moonlight Run

When life got confusing, Yuki’s quickest way to the truth was to let the wolf speak her mind. The wolf didn’t always communicate in words she could understand. But the wolf never lied. When Yuki ran with all her heart, she had no choice but to let go of the world and listen.

She waited until dusk before leaving the house she shared—in human form—with Uncle Hiroki. His clientele weren’t nine-to-five types, so he wouldn’t be there to let her back in. He’d told her in no uncertain terms that she was not to show up naked on the back porch—to say nothing of the front doorstep—however briefly.

This was a good neighborhood. The rumors started to circulate the second they moved in. One look at either of them was all it took. So there was no need to further damage the property values or their reputations. On the plus side, everybody was terrifically polite and the criminal element gave the street a wide berth.

Yuki jogged barefoot down to the river, bowing politely to the salarymen straggling home from the train station. At this hour, she had the river to herself. Cramped quarters compared to the coastal plains of Hokkaido but plenty of room in what wasn’t the middle of nowhere.

Yuki undressed in a concrete cranny tucked between the north levee and the Nankai Koya line bridge pier. From there she had a half mile of open ground to the bend past Osaka City University, under the Hanwa line bridge, and a half mile to the Abiko Avenue bridge.

She checked to make sure no one was coming, made her way back to the jogging path, and leapt forward, an arcing dive through the air. When she landed, her forepaws—not hands—struck the ground. Her hind feet dug into the packed dirt.

The deep dusk lit up in high contrast black and white. Silver bands of moonlight rippled across the languid river. The warm night wind whipped past her ears. Choruses of crickets drowned out the incessant buzz of cicadas.

As her lupine nature seized control of her senses, the atmosphere took on complex textures and layers. The tapestry of scents bound into thick cords along the path. Deeper into the underbrush, the cords frayed, the individual threads revealing the essences of people and animals, of trees and plants and even the earth and water around her.

The ocean wind blew off the harbor, bringing with it the wet cedar scent from the log ponds and lumber mills in Suminoe ward, a mile to the west.

The north bank passed over a storm culvert, narrowing before widening into another sandbar. An orange-tinted form appeared in front of her, the shape of an adult human male.

Yuki vaulted past the surprised jogger, through a thicket of shrubs, and onto the wide sandbar, kicking up rooster tails of sand. The sandbar narrowed at the Hanwa line bridge. She angled back onto the jogging path.

The river bank between Osaka City University and the Abiko Avenue bridge was sodded and mowed, the hedges trimmed and the trees pruned. Feeling the firm purchase beneath her feet, Yuki lay back her ears and extended her stride, her snout parting the air in front of her like the nose of a jet.

A soft breeze ruffled the grass.

The scent slammed into her like a thunderclap. She dug in her paws and skidded to a stop, nearly flipping head over heels in an effort to check her forward momentum. Scrambling physically to maintain her balance, her human mind scrambled to reassert itself and make sense of what had so startled her animal senses.

Once in Hokkaido she’d run pell-mell into a bear downwind from her. She was younger and dumber then. Other than a few close calls with cars, nothing like that had happened to her since, her lupine reflexes so completely overwhelming human logic.

A man, a woman, and a girl of five or six strolled down the path from the sidewalk. The woman was Noriko-san. The girl was Mika. The moment Mika saw Yuki—no, saw the wolf—she ran forward.

She carried with her the tendrils of scent that in human form had struck Yuki as so familiar. The wolf had to quench the primal urge to raise her face to the sky and howl, Here I am!

“Mika!” her parents shouted behind her.

Yuki was no less astounded at the little girl’s pluck. In wolf form, Yuki had to take care around children to avoid causing small panics. She settled down in the grass, pricked up her ears and wagged her tail, presenting as friendly an appearance as possible.

Instead of running back to her parents, Mika threw herself down on her hands and knees and inched forward until she and wolf-Yuki were nose to nose. After a moment’s hesitation, she reached out and patted Yuki on the head.

Yuki had to muster all of her self-control not to transform and throw her arms around her.

My sister.

Her scent lit up the familial connections like a brilliant white light. She looked up. Noriko-san and Mika’s father approached, ready to swoop down and bear her away to safety. Yuki’s eyes met his.

My father.

The surprise showed on his face. Then recognition. His features softened. “It’s okay,” he said quietly.

“It’s okay?”

Yuki focused her attention on Noriko-san. Though no longer afraid, she was clearly perplexed. “Do you know this dog?”

He nodded. “There’s nothing to worry about. She would never hurt Mika.”

Though the way he said it suggested he wasn’t so sure what she might do to him.

“Oh,” Noriko-san said. And then, “Oh!” She raised her eyes and stared into the darkness around them.

“Can we take her home with us?” Mika pleaded.

Her father crouched down next to her. He said, the explanation tinged with what—regret? relief?—“She’s got a home of her own to go to.”

He took hold of his younger daughter’s hand. Yuki got to her feet as well. She bowed her head, a courtly curtsy. Mika giggled and bowed back.

“Good heavens,” said Noriko-san, a smile in her voice.

Before her impulses and emotions got the better of her and she did something she’d regret, Yuki pirouetted on her hind legs and sprinted off.

She thought about Noriko-san’s “Oh” on her way back to the Nankai Koya bridge pier. What had her father told his new wife? That he had a daughter from a previous relationship, obviously. “Yuki’s good with dogs” was the easy explanation. Noriko-san had seen as much for herself. Her stepmother—stepmother—put one and one together and scanned the riverbank to catch sight of what was right in front of her.

Yuki put on her sweats and called her uncle. She usually knew better than to interrupt him at work but the curiosity was killing her.

“If you locked yourself out,” he said when he answered the phone, “you had better be wearing something.”

Yuki could hear the hustle and bustle in the background, the clinking of glasses, a woozy though not-untalented male voice crooning a karaoke enka ballad. Her uncle’s “office” was the corner booth in a bar in Namba’s red light district.

“I didn’t lock myself out,” she said, rattling the keys attached to the strap of her cell phone. “What do you know about my father moving back to Osaka?”

He took his time answering. “Oh. Yeah. That.”

Yuki sighed. These conspiracies of silence among her relatives were par for the course. Plausible deniability is a wonderful thing, her uncle always said when it came to the shadier yakuza connections in the family tree. That excuse wouldn’t wash when the subject was her father.

“I was going to tell you, ah, later. He’s doing his forensic accounting thing for the Osaka prosecutor’s office. Hold on a sec—” He muffled the phone against his shoulder and said in a taut whisper, “I need to see your other set of books.” Yuki knew exactly the raised brow, the let’s-cut-the-crap look on his face.

He said to her, “Don’t worry. Nothing to do with us.” Another thoughtful pause. “Why?”

“I, uh, I’ve sensed him,” Yuki said, not prepared to say more. “You know, around.

“He won’t bother you,” Uncle Hiroki said.

Is that what I want? Not to be bothered? Yuki shrugged. “When are you going to be home?” she asked instead.

“Don’t wait up.”

She didn’t make a habit of it.

As soon as she got home, Yuki hurried up to her bedroom and searched through her closet. In a box unopened from their last move, she found two framed photographs. One was a portrait of her mother, a copy of the one that occupied a nook in the Buddhist altar in the living room.

And a more informal snapshot of her father and mother.

They were dressed in black biker leathers and leaning against a Harley motorcycle. She pressed fast against his side, her white hair spilling over the sturdy arm around her shoulders. They were both smiling with genuine affection.

A real Romeo and Juliet, the uptown boy who fell for the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The girl who turned out to be a wolf.

The fairy tale ended almost as badly as the play. When it was over, her mother was dead and his family wanted nothing to do with the child. The Matsudaira scion had a rosy future ahead of him. Baby Yuki could do nothing but ruin it.

Yuki didn’t hold it against him. How could she begrudge somebody she barely knew? She appreciated being left to live her own life in her own way, not forced to fit in where she didn’t belong.

That’s why the picture confused her. Yuki knew how to remember her mother even if she didn’t remember her. She visited her grave on Obon and said a prayer at the family altar every morning. There was nothing like that about her father to hold on to. For her entire life, he’d been no less imaginary than the prince in a fairy tale.

Until now.

Looking at the photograph, Yuki noticed something else. Her mother resembled Mika’s mother. Her mother must have mattered enough to her father that he couldn’t so easily let the memory of her go. Maybe Yuki mattered to him too, so many years later. He simply wasn’t prepared to speak to her human side yet.

Yuki wasn’t prepared either. That didn’t mean a confrontation wasn’t going to happen. The real world didn’t care whether or not she was ready for what it threw at her.

She didn’t put the photographs back in the box.

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