Tenmabashi was five stops north of Tennoji in the heart of Osaka’s financial district.
Yuki found the restaurant a block south of the station, sandwiched between two soaring glass and steel office buildings. With its overhanging tile roof and weathered shutters, the restaurant looked like a little piece of period Japan plucked out of the Osaka Castle museum.
Modern Japan was like that everywhere, the looming future constantly interrupted by the ancient past.
The noren curtains hanging in front of the sliding wooden doors identified it as “The Eaves Grill.” Yuki checked Ami’s note again. Old architecture definitely did not mean old prices. This was the kind of place in the kind of neighborhood where a cup of tea could cost her the rest of her allowance.
She took a deep breath—some things were more important than money—and slid open the door. A chime rang out. “Irasshai!” called out the sushi chef. A few double-takes followed.
Like its facade, the restaurant had a lived-in look about it, the wear and tear giving the minimalist style a patina of elegance. The scent of tobacco smoke and beer and soy sauce lingered from the night before. Business got done here. Billions of yen changed hands without any fussiness or fancy flourishes.
A waitress approached her and said with a cheerful bow, “You must be Ami-chan’s friend.”
Yuki nodded. The waitress led Yuki up a winding flight of stairs to the second floor. Ami was sitting at a table by the lattice windows. She stood up as they approached. The waitress left the menus on the table. “I’ll be back to take your orders.”
A bus boy placed glasses of ice water and warmed hand towelettes (in cute bamboo trays, not slapped down on the table in shrink-wrapped plastic) in front of them.
Yuki took a sip of water. “Nice place.” She sneaked a look at the menu. The prices weren’t stratospheric but the air was pretty thin up there. It took her a long second to draw her next breath.
Ami grinned. “Don’t worry. It’s on my mom’s account. We eat here sometimes when she’s not too busy at work.”
Yuki nodded and returned to the menu. “Oh, good. I can read it. English is bad enough. I was afraid of having to fake French too.”
“I’ve been in restaurants like that,” Ami said, shaking her head. “Here’s way better. Mostly traditional comfort food made really well. Their rice bowls are the best.”
“Hmm, the pork cutlet does sound good.”
Ami went with the beef and onion. The waitress took their orders. That subject taken off the table, they lapsed back into a strained silence.
Until Ami leaned forward with quizzical look on her face. “So what’s with you and that boy from Yamato Technical?”
Yuki sagged like an old stalk of celery and groaned in comic distress, a reaction too delightful for Ami to let go.
“You guys have a past?”
“He had a past encounter with my, uh, fist.”
“He’s the guy you beat up at Omiya High?”
Yuki sighed. “He’s the one. Jirô Onodera. The former Mr. Jerk. Now—who knows. I don’t get guys.”
“Guys don’t get guys. The difference is, they don’t care. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’s holding a grudge. I mean, about getting beat up and all.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll give him that.”
Raising that subject inadvertently let the other elephant into the room. A long moment later Ami asked timorously, “How’s your eye?”
“Oh, this? It’s nothing. See?” Yuki turned her head. “Almost gone. We heal fast. Besides, I had it coming.”
Ami shook her head.
“Yeah, I did,” Yuki insisted. “It’s easy for me to fall back on being strong and fast. I could stand being more the ballerina like you, less the pro wrestler.”
“You mean—” Ami cocked her head to the side and said, mostly to herself, “Oh, you weren’t making fun.” Her voice trailed off.
“Naw. That move you did with the soccer ball? I’ve tried. I can’t do it. Two left feet. So what makes animals stronger than people anyway?”
Ami’s eyes lit up. “The length of the muscle fibers and the shortening velocities. Think of how far a rubber band can stretch and how fast it snaps back. Add to that bone and muscle density. That’d be like how many rubber bands are twisted together and the frame they’re attached to.”
“Hmm, makes sense.”
That set Ami off on a tangent about something called “Kleiber’s Law” and how the bigger an animal was the more metabolically efficient it was.
“So that’s why our hearts beat slower than regular people?”
Ami reacted with a startled, “You, too?” But the waitress and the bus boy had arrived with the food.
Yuki savored the aroma wafting up from the breaded pork, sweet soy sauce, scrambled egg, and steaming rice before digging in with her chopsticks. “This is the best katsudon I’ve ever had!” she declared.
“Told you,” Ami said.
“Yeah, but how am I ever going to go back to cheapo rice bowls?”
“Appetite,” Ami said simply.
There was no arguing with her on that point. When it came to eating the proverbial horse, Yuki wasn’t very picky about the breed.
The Eaves Grill didn’t serve anything so gauche as dessert. Expertly brewed green tea was ideal for settling a full stomach.
They sipped for several minutes in quiet contemplation. Ami put down her teacup and said in a hushed voice, “Can I ask you a personal question? That man waiting for you the first day of school? With the Mercedes?”
“Ah, Uncle Hiroki. He’s my—what’s the word for it?—legal guardian.”
Ami frowned. “You don’t live with your mother?”
“She died a long time ago.”
“Oh,” Ami said in blank surprise. “I’m sorry.”
Yuki shrugged. “I was too young to remember.” Uneasy about her own sense of detachment, she launched into an explanation, attempting to reassure herself as much as Ami. “My mother and father met at Kyoto University. Then I came along, ruining his bright future.”
“He said that?” Ami exclaimed in hushed surprise.
“No, no, no. That’s what his family said. They’re old-school blue bloods. That stuff still matters to them, even in the twenty-first century. So they sent a negotiator to pay off my mom. She sent him packing. Then her family—one step up from the yakuza, yeah, we’re related to those Yamakawas—decided they were plenty offended and sent back a message of their own. Tit for tat and all that. As my uncle puts it, everybody involved found a good reason to do the dumbest thing possible.”
“A plague on both your houses,” Ami murmured.
“What’s that? Oh, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. In this version, Mercutio was my mom. All my dad’s family saw—or rather, the fixers they hired to make the problem go away—was the wolf. If my mom was anything like me, I can imagine what happened. Somebody got scared and started shooting. According to my uncle, my dad tried to stop it. But once guns are in play, getting in the middle never works out well. Anyway, when the dust settled, his family shipped him off to America. I get it, you know? And I can’t complain. They took care of everything—I’m a trust fund baby along with half the girls at our school—as long as we leave them out of it.”
Yuki turned her gaze out the window, trying to connect an honest emotion to the nonchalance she feigned so well. I’d give all the money back—she told herself. But for what in exchange? That was water long under the bridge.
Yuki turned back to find Ami staring at her with wide eyes. “What?”
“Wow. It’s like we’re mirror images of each other. Thankfully nobody got killed in my case. Though I’m sure it wasn’t far from their thoughts. They made arrangements. They paid my father to go away and he went. Less the Capulets and Montagues than Tora-san.”
The comparison made Yuki grin. Tora-san was the hapless hero of a long-running movie series about a good-hearted traveling salesman who wandered the length and breadth of Japan without ever finding his one true love and settling down.
“My father is a land-bound Flying Dutchman. He stops by to see me on my birthday, maybe on New Year’s.”
Yuki wasn’t familiar with the Flying Dutchman. Ami looked out the window. She said before looking back, “When you say I’m a fox, you mean a real fox. Not a metaphor.”
Yuki shook her head. “A kitsune. Like in the fairy tales.”
The look on Ami’s face was of neither belief nor disbelief. Yuki could tell the idea simply didn’t compute. She said gently, “Nobody told you that you were a fox?”
“I always knew I was different. My father said so. But all parents tell their children they’re unique, don’t they? I thought I really was unique. Until I met you. Now I don’t know what to think. What about your Uncle Hiroki? Is he—?”
Yuki shook her head “But he’s plenty strong and has dang good reflexes. He’s got some of the wolf in him. Something to do with recessive and dominant genes. Like my hair. All my relatives say I got this from my dad.” She tugged at her widow’s peak, then squinted at Ami’s hairline. “Hmm. You’ve got some red showing.”
Ami clapped her hand over her bangs. Her resolve to change notwithstanding, old habits were hard to break. She took a breath and let the moment of panic pass.
“Yeah, it’s time I stopped dyeing my hair,” she said with more confidence than she felt.
“That’s right—your name means red.”
“Beautiful madder. My parents must have been thinking in literal terms.” Ami sighed. “So I’ll go from dyeing my hair to make it look like I’m not dyeing my hair to not dyeing my hair, which will look like I’m dyeing my hair.”
Yuki laughed. “Yeah, but it’s a lot less of a headache being who you really are. You know, I don’t think explanations are going to accomplish much. I could show you who you really are. What I am.”
“Show me?” Ami puzzled.
“Seeing is believing.”
Yuki didn’t think going into specifics was going to help right then. “Maybe if I could come over some time—”
Ami took another deep breath. “How about now?”