Yuki sat on the hard oak bench outside the principal’s office. For once, she hadn’t done anything bad to be there. Not at this school. Not yet.
Uncle Hiroki dropped her off that morning. The necessary arrangements had been made. With all the paperwork in order, now she was waiting for her homeroom teacher, like a prisoner waiting for the guard to escort her to lock-up.
Every school she’d ever attended followed the same routine. She knew what to expect. She’d even bought a new uniform instead of showing up in her old one. That wouldn’t keep her and her hair from standing out. But every little bit helped.
The old-fashioned sailor suits worn at Sumiyoshi Girls Preparatory Academy were a cut above the drab skirt and blazer outfits at Omiya High. The change of surroundings was a definite improvement already.
“Yamakawa-san?” The flustered man tried not to stare. “Um, I’m Senda Sensei, your homeroom teacher.”
Yuki jumped up and bowed. “I am Yuki Yamakawa. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Dôzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
She grimaced to herself. Too unnatural, too ingratiating. But he nodded in return and made a vague gesture toward the stairwell, “Ah, this way.”
As he turned around, Yuki heard a small sigh. She’d heard that sigh plenty of times before—the moment when her new homeroom teacher wondered what bad karma landed him with the oddball transfer student the first day after summer vacation.
Yuki wanted to pat him on the back and assure him that she could take care of herself. Instead she scuffed along in her school slippers two steps behind Senda Sensei, keeping any social commentary to herself.
This time, she’d promised Uncle Hiroki, if humility was expected, she was going to do her level best to live up to those expectations.
She’d certainly come to the right place. Sumiyoshi Girls Preparatory Academy was big on expectations and long on tradition. The school rules went beyond the dress code, the bans on dyed hair, makeup, and jewelry, and governed what a girl could do outside school as well. Even a part-time job required a waiver.
That was why Osaka’s movers and shakers sent their daughters there. That was why Uncle Hiroki decided to send his niece there. Though Yuki wasn’t quite sure how he’d pulled it off. They didn’t exactly move in those rarefied circles.
Senda Sensei arrived at the classroom door. He paused, girding his loins, no doubt. Compared to the funereal hallway, the students chattering and bustling about inside struck her ears in a dull roar. The cat was away and the mice were playing.
Senda Sensei slid open the door.
A moment later, Yuki could hear a pin drop. The quickness of the change was a good measure of the strictness of the school. This one was instantaneous.
“Stand!” barked the class president, the overly-serious girl in the middle of the front row who obviously took her job very seriously at this very serious high school. The class of twenty-nine came obediently to its feet as the homeroom teacher entered the room. “B—”
Bow, the class president was about to say. Nobody did that either. They blinked. They exchanged confused glances. And stared beyond Senda Sensei at Yuki’s hair.
For the first time in her life, Yuki was no less startled than the rest. Her nerves started tingling the second she stepped into the room. Her ears pricked up. At first she thought it was that familiar feeling that came from being around her own kind. But this was different, unique in flavor and intensity. Her muscles tensed. She rose up on the balls of her feet, scanning the dumfounded faces from beneath her brows.
There. Smack dab in the middle of the room. Three desks from the front. A pixie of a girl gaped back at her, her big brown eyes reflecting the shock of white in front of her.
I don’t believe it.
Yuki had never run into another were at school before. She’d never been this close to a kitsune—a werefox—before. She smothered the intrigued smile that rose to her lips. Oh, her uncle had no worries. No way was she getting herself expelled from this school.
Senda Sensei fumbled through his stack of papers and noisily cleared his throat. “Ahem, we have a new student starting today, Yuki Yamakawa.”
He nodded at her. That was her cue to take one step forward, bow, and once again intone, “I am Yuki Yamakawa. Dôzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
Under normal circumstances, the class would have dutifully echoed the formulaic introduction. Purely out of habit, a few blurted out the properly polite response before dissolving into confused murmurs.
From the back of the room, a loud, blunt voice broke the tension: “Is your hair really that color?”
Yuki looked up. A bold challenge made for a far more welcoming reception than a massed retreat. She pointed at her black widow’s peak amidst the flow of white. “Except for this,” she said, drawing out the rest of the answer for extra effect, “all of it.”
More stunned silence followed. Considering her goal of fitting in and not causing waves, starting off on a more modest footing might have been the wiser course. Yuki demurely lowered her gaze.
Senda Sensei cleared his throat again and indicated the one empty desk next to the windows on his right.
Yuki emptied her backpack into the desk, sat down, and went on with her business as if everybody wasn’t looking at her. No time like the present to get better at that pretending business.
The girl at the desk immediately to her right stole a cautious glance. Yuki caught the girl’s eye, forcing a nervous nod of acknowledgement. Yuki leaned forward and said under her breath, “Hey, who’s the redhead?”
The girl looked back at her blankly. Yuki bobbed her head at the desk two rows over where the pixie girl sat.
“You mean Ami-san?” came the confused clarification, for the girl’s hair was very much not red.
Yuki frowned to herself. That was a careless mistake, confusing what she could see with what she saw. What was the little fox dyeing her hair for anyway? Of course, foxes preferred to hide in plain sight. Yuki couldn’t imagine wanting to disguise anything so obvious about herself.