Ami’s resolve to ignore Yuki lasted precisely until she got to school the next day.
Sumiyoshi Girls Preparatory Academy posted a staff member at the front gate to greet students coming to school, and to check for dress code violations and other inappropriate behavior.
That morning Hasegawa Sensei was standing guard. “Ami!” She beckoned for her to come over. “Isn’t Yuki Yamakawa in your homeroom class?” Not waiting for Ami to answer, she said, “The two of you seem to be getting along well.”
Getting along well? How could she come to that conclusion after one day? Something the homeroom teacher said? The problem was, every mother’s warning had come true—Ami’s face had frozen that way, in a permanent look of dumb acquiescence.
“That’s good,” Hasegawa Sensei said. “Yuki could use a steadying influence until she settles in. I’d appreciate you lending a helping hand however you can.”
“Yes, Sensei.” Ami answered with an agreeable nod but walked away grinding her teeth. Ami hardly had to lend her a helping hand. Being around Yuki Yamakawa was like being befriended by a gregarious Golden Retriever that had decided Ami was her favorite rag doll.
Ami didn’t understand how Yuki could have come to the conclusion that they must spend every lunch hour together. But here she was again, bounding over to Ami’s desk with her bento box.
“Hey, Foxy,” Yuki said, grabbing a chair. “You’re into that biology stuff, right? So who runs faster, foxes or wolves?”
“What?” said Ami.
“I went running last night and got to wondering. Over open ground, I mean. Like, top speed.”
“I don’t know.”
“Me, neither. But it’d be cool to find out, eh?”
Ami stared at her, desperately trying to make sense of the words coming out of her mouth. Racing foxes and wolves? Foxy—was that a reference to her hair? Wolf—yakuza slang? The gossip said Yuki belong to that Yamakawa family.
Ami seized on the only thing she could confidently comment on. “That’s a zoology question.”
“Zoology. Not biology.”
“Oh, yeah. Like the zoo.” Another snap of her fingers. “That’s right. Hasegawa Sensei said you’re thinking about becoming a veterinarian. Guess what! My boss is a vet. Me, I clean the kennels and walk the dogs. Hey, do you know what would be cool? Training police dogs for a living. That’s what Lieutenant Kuroda does. Though my relatives would say that was—what’s the word?—ironic. Maybe search and rescue dogs. Yeah.”
Yuki nodded resolutely, as if she’d figured out the rest of her life right there on the spot.
Ironic? Ami blinked. What was ironic? Did that mean the rumors about Yuki being related to the Yamakawa yakuza clan were true?
“I could introduce you, if you want.”
Ami had to rewind her thoughts to remember the antecedent to the offer. Yuki’s boss is a doctor of veterinary medicine? Ami quenched her surprise. “Um, thanks,” she said, sure this was one of those offers that’d be forgotten in another day or two, if not the next five minutes.
Despite her small size, Ami could handle any kind of physical intimidation a teenager could dish out. Although swim class provided whole new possibilities for psychological humiliation, it hardly tested her mental or emotional limits. It was just so freaking annoying.
The respite Yuki Yamakawa should have provided—fresh blood to quench the thirst of buzzing gnats like Keiko Namiya and Tama Takahashi—had been ruined by vice-principal Hasegawa’s “request” that Ami be her sister’s keeper.
Yuki Yamakawa was such an unknown quantity that Ami didn’t think the gnats would try anything her second day at school. The victim had to be sized up before being put in her place. She hadn’t counted on what Yuki looked like in a swimsuit.
“Hey, look!” Keiko Namiya cawed. “Separated at birth.”
Yuki Yamakawa looked like Ami. With her hair tucked beneath her swim cap, it was her physique that stood out. She was a few inches taller but still more like Ami than anybody else there.
At a glance, she might be thought large-breasted. That was due more to her well-developed upper body and expansive rib cage. Together with her muscled thighs and gliding stride, people undoubtedly assumed, as they did with Ami, that she was a gymnast.
“Hey.” Yuki grinned at Ami, ignoring the eyes turned in her direction, eyes that now focused on Ami as well. “I was wondering what foxes looked like. Foxes and wolves aren’t the same species, right? Should be in the ballpark, though.”
“No, um, yes. They belong to the Canidae family.” Comprehending Yuki Yamakawa was a never-ending exercise in frustration. It was easier to surf the bow wave of her mental flow.
“Having a locker room is nice. Could come in useful.”
Changing clothes in the classroom was one tradition Sumiyoshi Prep had chosen to abandon, though Ami wasn’t sure how that could come in useful.
Shimizu Sensei, the swimming instructor, arrived poolside. “You look like you can swim,” she said to Yuki.
“I’m good at staying afloat,” Yuki answered cheerfully. “I do a mean doggie paddle,” she added with a wink at Ami. Another one of her incomprehensible jokes.
“Oh, I’m sure you can do better than that,” Ami said weakly.
Shimizu Sensei blew her whistle. Everybody lined up in their drab, navy blue, one-piece swimsuits. And the chlorine-soaked, sun-burning, hair-fraying water torture of high school swim class began.
Yuki could do better than a doggie paddle. She swam with sure, strong strokes, and treated the whole thing as a glorious lark. Ami had the feeling that if she threw a stick, Yuki would go cannonballing after it.
Finally Keiko snapped, and Ami guiltily thought the same thing, “What are you having such a good time for?”
“Hey, we’re not sitting behind desks in a stuffy classroom. What’s not to like?”
Ami could only begin to count the ways.
Starting with the obvious. Back in the locker room, she was getting dressed when she heard Yuki softly say, “Son of a bitch.”
Not an exclamation of despair or distress. There was even mirth in the remark. Ami peeked around the end of the lockers. Yuki was standing in front of her very empty locker, her back to Ami. One of Keiko’s confederates had snuck into the lockers during swim class and stolen Yuki’s clothes.
Keiko must feel truly threatened to pull such a juvenile stunt so soon.
Yuki’s head swiveled toward the door to the locker room. Ami felt the draft of wind produced in the wake of a fleeting departure. When she looked back, the smile on Yuki’s lips turned into a wolfish grin.
Ami finally noticed that Yuki was standing there stark naked. Abashed, she ducked back behind her own locker. A second later came that now familiar sensation of Yuki Yamakawa on the move, surprisingly fast and curiously close to the ground.
Ami hastily tucked in her blouse and raced after her. Darting out of the locker room, her slippers skidded on the varnished and waxed hardwood floor. The exit doors on the other side of the basketball court were slowly closing. Whoever stole Yuki’s clothes would be heading towards the trash incinerator behind the gym.
It wouldn’t be lit. Better that it was and the poor fabric put out of its misery instead of ending up a sullied, sodden mess. In either case, Yuki would have to wear a pair of borrowed sweats for the rest of the day. Everybody would know what happened, who did what to whom, and that it could happen to them too.
Keiko’s message delivered.
Ami pushed through the doors. The sleeve of a sailor suit disappeared around the corner of the auditorium toward the windowless nook that also held the dumpsters. Ami reached the corner. And stopped dead in her tracks.
Her body reacted to the sounds before her ears did: a growl that resonated in her bones and shook her eardrums like the roll of a bass drum. It was followed by a strangled scream, a squeaky soprano singing an off-key duet alongside the basso profondo growl.
Ami held her breath and inched toward the corner.
Ma-chan came scrambling back the way she’d gone, her eyes wide, face pale. She ran smack dab into Ami. She had Yuki’s uniform clasped against her chest like a shield. She hesitated a second, thrust the wad of clothing into Ami’s arms and darted past her.
Ami observed Ma-chan’s frantic retreat in stunned disbelief. Turning back, she couldn’t suppress an involuntary yelp of her own. Yuki Yamakawa poked her head around the corner of the building, wearing nothing but a satisfied smile.
“Oh, good. You got my uniform from Ma-chan.”
“I didn’t—” There was no point in debating who did the getting. Ami handed Yuki the bundle of clothes.
Yuki ducked back around the corner. “You know,” she said as she dressed, “it took me forever to get that growl right. But it worked great! No biting or hitting!”
Yuki growled at Ma-chan? Ami wanted to laugh. There was no way getting growled at would have struck fear into somebody like Ma-chan. Besides, no human being could make a sound like that.
“Hey, thanks for watching my back.” Yuki emerged from the shelter of the nook, adjusting her skirt.
I wasn’t! Ami wanted to shout at her. Because watching Yuki’s back was only guaranteed to make Ami’s life worse. The school gnats never let a little setback here and there get in the way of accomplishing their goal of making everybody bow and scrape like peasants in the presence of the medieval samurai.
Ami and Yuki hurried back to their homeroom, Ami wearing a sense of impending doom about her shoulders like a wet blanket.