Fox & Wolf

Chapter 20

Curiosity

Not hearing an answer, Yuki glanced over her shoulder. Ami was sitting on the edge of the bed. Her feet barely brushed the floor. Her shoulders shook. She drew a ragged breath and pressed her hands against her mouth to stifle a sob.

“Ami?”

Yuki hastily tucked in her blouse and darted over to the bed. For all the time and effort she’d once spent beating up punks and bullies, she was equally good at making girls cry. It was a disheartening realization.

Yuki sat down next to Ami and placed a tentative hand on her back. “Damn. I’m sorry. Rather than curiosity killing the cat, I figured it’d be better to answer the cat’s questions.”

“No.” Ami shook her head. She took a deep, steadying breath. “That was exactly what I needed.” She flashed Yuki a crooked smile. “I’d resigned myself to my life never truly making sense. Now it does. Or at least I know where to start. I’m not mad. I’m not sad. I’ve never felt so relieved.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you. Some people may think so, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s like saying there’s something wrong with Tama-chan for being tall.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know how to process it.” She wiped her eyes. “I’d better go wash up. How about some tea?”

“Sure!”

Ami rose to her feet, then sat back down again and gave Yuki a firm hug. Yuki felt the tension melt out of her own body as well. She’d imagined a lot of outcomes but not a hug. This doing the right thing business was trickier in execution and more rewarding in outcome than she’d imagined.

Ami brewed a pot of tea and set a box of senbei crackers on the kitchen table between them. They munched for a few minutes in silence before Ami picked up the conversation from before.

“If there are werewolves and werefoxes, what about raccoon dogs?”

She meant tanuki. In Japanese fairy tales, shapeshifting tanuki were often bumbling partners to the slyer foxes.

“Considering that you and I exist, they probably do too. Though I’ve never met one.”

“When you change, does it hurt?” was the next thing Ami wanted to know.

“It actually feels good, like stretching after a hard workout. I think it’s that runner’s-high stuff.”

“Endorphins.”

“Yeah. Though if you don’t do it for a while, you’ll end up pretty stiff afterwards.”

“What happens if you fall asleep when you’re a wolf?”

“You always wake up human. So you’ve got to be careful where you take naps. A shock or blow that catches you by surprise will do it too, flip you back to human. I got clipped by a car once as a wolf. Had to borrow a yukata off a neighbor’s clothesline to limp home.”

“So being human is your default state.”

“Yours, too.” Her smile notwithstanding, there was a touch of admonishment in Yuki’s voice.

“I knew there was something different about me. I thought maybe I had a rare disease. But I never got sick and never went to a doctor. I remember when I was little my father telling me about how in ancient times some foxes turned human and never turned back again. He meant literally. That’s why I took up Aikido when I got bored with gymnastics. Whatever it was, I had to get a handle on the physical implications.”

Ami rested her elbows on the table and cupped her chin in her hands. “It’s no mystery why my mom and dad split up. Being a free bird like my dad sounds so romantic. But it sucks in real life. If my mom’s family said to do X, Y and Z and maybe they wouldn’t disinherit her—and me—then that was my mom’s best course of action, her best chance for a stable life. It’s worked so far. I haven’t suffered or anything.”

“Me, neither. Well, except what I caused by myself.”

A moment later, they both looked up and around as the front gate clanked shut.

“Your mom?” Yuki said.

Ami nodded, her head turning toward the entranceway on the other side of the wall. A long minute later, the front door opened. Ami opened her mouth to say the customary “O-kaeri!

Instead of her mother’s “Tadaima!” came the heavy plodding of feet, followed by a cushioned thump.

Ami and Yuki jumped up and hurried out of the kitchen. A slender woman in a light gray pant suit sprawled on the couch in the living room, her left arm thrown across her eyes as if in the midst of a melodramatic swoon.

“My numbers are right!” she proclaimed. She took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “Tadaima,” she started to say, saw Yuki standing behind her daughter. “Who—” she started to say.

“Mom?”

Her mother brushed the question aside with a tired wave of her hand. Forcing a small smile to her lips, she asked, “Who’s your friend?”

“Oh, this is Yuki. Remember? From school.”

That was Yuki’s cue to step forward, bow, and formally introduce herself. Ami’s mother sat up and nodded in return. She said with an intrigued smile, “Ah, yes. Your hair really is white.” And added with a touch of chagrin, “I apologize for that little meltdown. It’s been one of those weeks.”

“Yeah, like working with dogs. No matter how fun it is, you have to be willing to shovel a lot of sh—” Yuki flushed, a rare reaction for her, but she did need to learn how to be more civil. “Sorry about that, Tokudaiji-san.”

Ami’s mom laughed. “No, that’s a good way of putting it. By the way, I go by Sekigami. Yes, it’s complicated.”

“I totally understand,” said Yuki. “Well, um, I’d better get going. I got work tomorrow.”

Ami explained to her mother, “Yuki has a part-time job at a veterinary clinic.”

Sekigami-san said with unmasked maternal pride, “Ami’s going to be a veterinarian.”

“Yeah, she’ll make a great one.” Yuki playfully nudged her in the ribs. “Way more brains than me.”

“C’mon, Yuki.” Thoroughly embarrassed, Ami marched her to the door.

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