July 12, 2023

Fox and Wolf (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Gang of One

Yuki Yamakawa jumped.

The world record for a standing high jump (she looked it up) was six feet and change. She could match that without breaking a sweat.

Jirô’s roundhouse right parted the air beneath her feet. This time she’d really ticked him off. As intended. She just thought he’d be better at picking his fights.

Well, if he didn’t know it before, she’d be sure to teach him that lesson now.

Yuki turned her torso through the sky with the grace of a gymnast doing a dismount at the end of her floor exercises. A full three-sixty accompanied by a half-rotation twist. The top of her head brushed his. She wasn’t trying to show off. Okay, maybe a bit. Once the pushing and shoving got past the pushing and shoving stage, calling up a bit of the wolf in her was the best way to keep from bloodying him too much. Or breaking bones.

Uncle Hiroki wouldn’t like that. “Don’t leave any marks,” was his version of fatherly advice, when “Try not to get us sued, okay?” didn’t have the desired effect. Uncle Hiroki was a lawyer whose clients had a bad habit of leaving marks. “Because they’re too stupid to think of better ways to settle a dispute or deliver a message.”

Yuki had run out of better ways to deliver this particular message.

She tucked her legs beneath her, planted her feet high on Jirô’s back, shoved off, flipped backwards, and stuck the landing.

Jirô sprawled on the dusty loam of the Omiya High School baseball infield.

He should have stayed down for the count. Instead he sprang to his feet, whirled around and charged. Yuki felt the rhythm of his feet pounding against the ground, measured his gait and distance—

The kid had a considerable advantage in height yet not the slightest idea how to use it, and not enough heft to bowl her over like a sumo wrestler. He was a prematurely big dog who let big do all the thinking for him. Except she could make an actual big dog her best friend in an afternoon. Precisely because a big dog didn’t know its own pedigree. Once a dog learned its place in her world, that dog didn’t forget.

Jirô Onodera knew his own pedigree only too well. His family had connections. Lots of connections. That meant the rest of them—from the first years right up to the teachers—were supposed to shake off his crap like a dirty dog shaking off a mud bath, making sure none of it landed back on him.

Yuki was going to make sure all of it landed back on him.

Instead of going high, she ducked low, shifted her weight back and swung her right leg at a rising angle. She did take some of her uncle’s advice to heart. Instead of driving the toe of her sneaker into his solar plexus, she connected instead with the smooth arc of her instep.

The air went out of him like a punctured beach ball. He collapsed to the ground on his hands and knees.

No, Jirô wasn’t a big dog. Yuki thought too highly of dogs to stick with that comparison. He was one of those volcanic mud pools in Beppu (the rare class trip that had been worth the bother), all that erupting energy splattering everybody around him.

She walked over and squatted down next him, bôsôzoku biker style, forearms resting on her knees, feet flat on the ground.

“Hey! Jirô! You need to sign up at a dojo and learn how to fight. Because you damn sure don’t know how. But you never fight anybody who fights back, huh? Until now.”

He glared at her out of the corners of his eyes. “That’s Jirô Senpai to you,” he wheezed.

How dare she address an upperclassman without attaching the required honorific? Yeah, he was all about the respect, didn’t they all know.

There was nothing wrong with a name like Jirô, but maybe being labeled Number Two Son from birth was a chip too heavy for his shoulders to bear. For all she knew, Number One Son was an even bigger asshole and his little brother was only living up to the example.

“Look,” she said, “I kinda get where you’re coming from. I don’t care for doormats either. Kids who never stand up for themselves, who never take their lumps, who run away from every fight. I don’t like them, but I really hate the jerks who walk all over them. Think beating up cowards makes you a tough guy? Well, Senpai, how tough are you feeling right now?”

She stood and walked away.

Yuki almost reached the first base line when Jirô dragged himself to his feet and bum-rushed her from behind.

She didn’t turn around. She didn’t have to look—still leading with his right. He really was Mr. One-Punch Man. Because in real life, when some slack-jawed idiot threw the first punch, few knew how to throw the second. One hit and they went down like a sack of rice, curled into a ball, and waited for the storm to blow over.

This far in his life, he’d never had to count past one.

The knuckles of his fist touched her right shoulder blade. She dropped her shoulder and took a small step to the side. He tumbled over her thigh, momentum carrying him forward. She grabbed his forearm and elbow and swung down in a counterclockwise arc.

He cartwheeled head over heels, fell on his butt, and slid into first. Too bad Jirô didn’t play baseball. In that game, he would have been safe.

Chapter 2

Gang of Two

Yuki brushed herself off, changed out of her gym clothes, and got ready for the rest of her afternoon classes.

She honestly didn’t think anything more would come of the incident. She figured Jirô would slink away with his tail between his legs (boring). Or challenge her to a rematch (less boring but still predicable). Or recruit his equally witless friends to ambush her on the way home (tons of fun).

The answer was: none of the above.

She made it all the way to last period before the intercom crackled to life and ordered Yuki Yamakawa to march herself down to the first floor.

Once she did end up in the principal’s office, Uncle Hiroki being there wasn’t a big surprise. But she certainly didn’t expect to end up sitting next to Jirô’s mom. What was the deal with this kid? A few bumps and scrapes and he runs bawling straight to mama. Though to give him a little credit, he didn’t look all that happy about her presence either.

Yuki leaned toward Uncle Hiroki and said under her breath, “I didn’t even hurt him. Much.”

He answered in a courtroom whisper, not looking at her, knowing she could hear him no matter how softly he spoke. “Sure, you didn’t hurt him. You only assassinated his pride. In public.”

“He chose the venue.”

“Every fight is negotiable. Look around. Where did all this crap come from? Not out of the tuition.”

Yuki stopped stewing long enough to take in her surroundings. They were sitting on one of two black patent leather couches that gleamed beneath the almost-chandelier hanging from the ceiling. She guessed the tea set sitting on the glass-inlay coffee table cost as much as Uncle Hiroki’s Mercedes.

Not that she had an appraiser’s eye for such things. She remembered the first (and last) time she visited her grandfather’s summer villa in Kamakura. She knew what rich stuff smelled like. That visit was also when she learned that money bought a whole lot more than a high-priced interior decorator.

Principal Teruya bustled into the room. He was a stout, balding man perpetually in a hurry. Yuki never could figure out what it was he did besides get on her case over every piddling misdemeanor. More worrisome, this was the first time she’d seen him in a good mood. The man was beaming, actually rubbing his hands together with glee.

“A happy prosecutor is never a good sign,” Uncle Hiroki sighed as they got to their feet. “How deep in the hole are you with this guy?”

Yuki shrugged. “So I don’t kowtow to the powers that be.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to try.”

Until this moment, Jirô’s mom hadn’t acknowledged their existence. As if on cue, she jabbed her finger at Yuki and shrieked, “This is what happens when gangsters are allowed into our schools! It’s against the rules to dye your hair!”

“I don’t—”

Now Uncle Hiroki bristled. “Gangsters? I’ll walk down the hall and get you a hundred eyewitnesses who will tell you it was a fair fight and one of the fighters was a girl. Isn’t that right, Jirô-chan?”

The diminutive must have stung but Jirô didn’t stop studying his shoes the whole time.

“You leave my boy alone.”

“Your boy should try acting like a man. Maybe you should try treating him like one.”

Principal Teruya feigned shock. “There are no fights in this school, fair or not!”

“Yeah, right,” said Yuki. “Kids right and left tripping over their own two feet, getting beat up by ghosts.”

“You admit it? Ha!” He clapped his hands and pointed toward the door. “Miss Yamakawa, you are expelled!”

“What?” Yuki gaped at him. She’d expected him to at least pretend to hear both sides.

Uncle Hiroki had already started walking. “Let’s go,” he said, not looking back.

Yuki had no choice but to follow. This principal knew what to do in order to get what he wanted. He wanted her gone. So she left.

Yuki sat in the passenger’s seat of the Mercedes, crossed her arms, and pouted. “You’re supposed to have my back. Isn’t that what defense lawyers do? Defend?”

“I’m not one for pyrrhic victories.”

She didn’t know the adjective but got what it meant. Uncle Hiroki explained, “However well-mannered they appear, you know from personal experience that old money plays professional wrestling when it comes to me and mine. They write the script in advance. The Yamakawa name you carry is enough. Trust guilt by association to take care of the rest.”

That was one fact of life she couldn’t argue with him about. “So what about my dad’s name?”

Yuki had never dived too deep into the nitty-gritty details, except that she’d been born before her parents got married and her father’s family refused to allow her birth record to be registered under the renowned Matsudaira name. So a Yamakawa she was.

Uncle Hiroki smirked. “Good luck with that strategy. At any rate, the whole point of this arrangement is to keep his side of the family out of stuff like this. Hold up our end and we don’t have to worry about putting a roof over your head. Unless you want to move back to your grandma’s place in Hokkaido.”

She never dismissed the possibility outright. She liked the relatives on her mother’s side. But she was a city wolf, not eager to move back to the sticks.

Uncle Hiroki drove her home so she could drop off her backpack and change out of her uniform. And then to her part-time job in Tennoji.

Kosugi Sensei, who ran the Osaka Dog Doctor veterinarian clinic, was surprised to see her. Yuki put on a nonchalant face. “I got out of school early. Thought I’d put in an extra hour.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Kosugi Sensei said. “Go ahead and get the dogs out on the run.”

Yuki jogged back to the kennels, her mood lifting. It was nice being around creatures who always appreciated her presence, who understood her better than she did herself.

She leashed up Sergeant first. A retired Search and Rescue (SAR) German Shepherd, Sergeant was her right-hand man in the kennels. He did a good job keeping the yippy youngsters in line. Today he gazed up at her with doleful eyes.

“Oh, things aren’t that bad,” she reassured him. “Uncle Hiroki will figure something out. He always does.”

Though today she couldn’t be certain. Sergeant knew it too.

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