Ninja put her left paw and then her right out in front of her on the desk strewn with printouts of spreadsheets, then straightened her hind legs. Back arched, furry butt in the air, the pure black feline stretched luxuriously before springing to the floor.
Zuiko’s hand shot out to keep the papers from flying in the opposite direction and into her lap. Sleek, twenty-pound Ninja—majestically unconcerned—gathered herself into a crouch and leaped up from the blue carpeted floor to perch on the polished mahogany ledge. Regally poised, she peered intently. Her golden eyes followed the action as if monitoring the class taking place in the adjacent hall.
Zuiko stood and headed for the door. Then she paused and went to the window to watch as well, delaying her own workout. The dojo hall looked like any school gym except for mirrors on the wall instead of pads or paneling. The students used them to self-correct their stances.
The two-way mirrors also allowed for spectators, either passers-by outside on the street, or inside in the hallway—or in Zuiko’s office.
Now with only her sister Akira and seven students sparring, the hall appeared virtually empty. Even through the wall, Zuiko could occasionally hear the shout of kiai! as a karateka landed or absorbed a particularly powerful blow.
Zuiko took a deep breath as she watched with a critical eye. Akira loved sparring much more than she did, but that didn’t mean Zuiko lacked talent in that department. Even in her office, the subtle scent of jasmine from discreet air fresheners filled the air.
Not critical at the moment with only eight people working out, but when all two hundred students worked out at the same time, the jasmine helped cover the smell of sweat from all those bodies.
Most of the classes were divided into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. But Zuiko and Akira considered it important to pay attention to all their students, regardless of skill level. So they each taught one class per month for everyone. Few karatekas missed the opportunity to attend.
Zuiko stroked Ninja’s silky fur as they watched.
The ledge where Ninja sat ran the length of the office wall under the one-way glass. Zuiko stroked her as they watched the eight blackbelts sparring. She flexed her toes in the plush pale blue carpeting; the offices, and the lobby (the same color but much less plush) had the only carpeting in the entire complex, the rest of it having wooden-, or tile flooring.
Zuiko smirked. She and Akira, in private, called three of the men ‘the giants’. They consisted of incredibly fair ginger twins and, in stark contrast, a swarthy fellow.
Each topped 6’5”, dwarfing her sister. They made her look like a wisp of a thing that a light breeze could blow her off her feet. Towering over her by nearly a foot, and outweighing her by over a hundred pounds, they also outsized the rest of the class—three women and a man.
Anyone observing could be forgiven for mistakenly considering the 5’8” Akira tiny. The same for the other male student—except, lack of height notwithstanding, that he was as muscular and broad as a bear and wore a constant scowl that struck terror into most of his opponents.
One of the other women also worked out, evidenced by the breadth of her muscularity nearly equaling the man’s. The other woman would never stand out on the street: brown hair, brown eyes, athletic yet average height and weight. But no one in the dojo did kata with more power and precision.
The last woman looked tiny only in comparison to the rest of the karatekas present.
Actually average height but slim to the point of daintiness, only Christy looked more delicate than Akira. Deceptively so. People underestimated the porcelain-skinned brunette at their own peril, not recognizing her smart fighting skills until they fell victim to them.
Zuiko observed the workout for several minutes, the furrow in her brow deepening more and more to an intense frown.
Akira sparred with twenty-three-year-old Sam, the eldest of the giants. She relied on her speed, dancing out of the way between landing blows to his torso. He normally took the punishment—a habit she worked hard to break him of.
Most of his own strikes missed, as she either dodged or blocked and minimized his target by keeping her stance relentlessly side-bodied as opposed to facing him straight on.
So far, so normal, yet Sam never achieved his full focus. Twice Akira flicked out her lead foot, catching him behind the ankle and sending him crashing to the ground. Each time he accepted her hand and let her haul him back to his feet.
Even after that, he remained distracted and off balance, his concentration obviously off.
She’d need to talk to Sam, Zuiko decided before retreating to one of the empty rooms to run through her own kata.
When Zuiko returned, freshly showered with the smell of the rose shampoo still wafting about, Ninja hadn’t moved.
Grinning, Zuiko stroked the jet-black cat.
“They’re almost done, Ninja-san.”
Ninja yawned and stretched, sprawling out in supreme disinterest. Yet even as she rested her chin on her paws, she turned her head so she could watch the karateka working out.
Zuiko snickered. “You don’t fool me.”
The moment the sensei dismissed the class and the students bowed out, Ninja would stroll out onto the hardwood floor for the adulation required of all her minions.
And to Ninja, everyone in her domain—meaning, of course, every person in the entire dojo—counted as her minion and willing subject.
Ninja received plentiful adoration.
“Yame!” Akira barked out in her deep voice.
The students stopped in response to the command.
She bowed to her partner, then yelled, “Line up!” as the six other blackbelts finished sparring and did the same.
They lined up facing her.
In unison students and instructors kneeled, left knee then right, then sat back, hands on knees, left then right as before. Left hand out in front on the floor, then right, thumb and first finger just touching to make a diamond. They bowed, forehead to the floor between the hands.
The sensei moved first, reversing the order. Sitting, with right then left hand to each knee. Then standing, right foot then left.
The blackbelt first in line said “Yame” and he and the rest of the class followed suit.
“Nice job today,” Akira told them. “Class dismissed.”
They all replied, “Thank you, Sensei.”
Students and teacher bowed at the waist, ending the class. The students filed out. As they reached the head of the line where the ranking student had stood, each bowed to the front of the room. They’d also bow at the door.
Zuiko had already opened the door, allowing Ninja to streak past her out of the office and, pacing, impatiently waiting for the double door to the students to open.
Open it did, almost as Ninja got there. Akira scooped up the cat and the others clustered around. Some—like Sam, this time—gave a quick pat and hello before bolting for the showers. Sam loved Ninja and normally stayed the longest. This time, the others lingered longer.
Zuiko’s face scrunched up in concern, and she willed away the frown of confusion.
Over Ninja, Akira caught Zuiko’s eye and gave a barely perceptible shake of her head so slight no one else would notice.
With just a glance, Zuiko communicated, message received. She hadn’t expected otherwise. Yes, Akira had noticed that something was bothering Sam and wanted to talk to him herself.
Good enough for Zuiko. If Akira needed her, she’d let her know.
Ninja bestowed head rubs and licks, and an occasional swat—with claws carefully retracted. She probably figured the karatekas bowed to her at the door when they left the hall.
Zuiko believed in the formality far more than Akira did; her sister humored her, sometimes with more grace than others. Zuiko insisted on a formal beginning and end to every class. Those students who disliked it or didn’t understand or didn’t agree, didn’t remain at the dojo for long.
Those who disliked cats left—not necessarily of their own volition—even more quickly.
The other two giants liked cats—Ninja, at least—almost as much as Sam did. Akira handed her to one of them, exchanged a fleeting glance of acknowledgment with Zuiko, and then went to lie in wait for Sam so she could catch him before he could slip out.
Uncharacteristically, Ninja squirmed to get down, so the man obligingly set her on the blue and white patterned tile floor. Immediately nonchalant again, Ninja sauntered off out of the gym and up the corridor.
The series of double doors on the right led to three sports halls, the first two normal-sized and the last one as big as the other two combined. All unoccupied at the moment.
Ninja ignored them; with the halls empty, the doors all remained closed anyway.
Four doors on the left led to the locker rooms, the first two to the men’s, the last two to the women’s. The locker rooms, adjoining showers, and a huge empty space they’d converted to a gymnastics area made up an ‘island’ in the center of the building. Separating it from the workout rooms along the perimeter, wide hallways surrounded it on three sides, with the lobby on the fourth.
Almost all the classes took place in the main halls on the southern side of the building. Then came the three offices on the western wall: Zuiko’s, Akira’s, and their business manager’s. On the north, three much smaller training rooms hosted special classes or private lessons. Next, a fully-equipped gym for the students’ benefit. Then two conference rooms.
The eastern wall, the front of the building, opened into the lobby. A bar to the left served juices, yogurt, and other healthy offerings. Seating abounded in the form of matching chairs, sofas, and circular benches. People could put their gym bags on the raised central shelf surrounded by the padded upholstery, its light sky-blue color the same hue but a few shades lighter than the dark sky-blue carpet.
Doors to the south and north hallways separated the lobby from the dojo proper. Ninja, although barely two, knew never to cross that threshold. Not that every student didn’t keep an eye on her anyway.
Besides, naturally, Ninja didn’t want to.
Ninja’s domain lay behind the public façade, away from the common rabble, the uninitiated.
Zuiko peered around the doorjamb and saw Ninja pad into the men’s locker room. They often left the doors open when it was just the few of them for such a tiny class. Akira lurked right outside it, still lying in wait for Sam.
Minutes later, Ninja ambled back out, a crumpled piece of paper in her mouth.
She dropped it, then pounced on it. Ferocious growling followed as she batted it around and chased after it.
“Ninja!” Sam called sternly from the locker room door. He’d changed the loose white gi pants for well-worn jeans. His curly brown hair still dripped from the shower, rivulets running down his bare chest.
Ninja grabbed the paper in her mouth and then froze, regarding Sam warily, challengingly.
Sam heaved a sigh then took a step.
Ninja took off, skidding around the corner as her paws briefly lost purchase on the smooth tile floor.
Shaking his head, Sam trudged after the fleeing feline. Ninja stopped at the far corner, poised and waiting, daring Sam to keep up the game.
Sam trudged after her. When he came within a few feet, she bolted again.
The chuckle died in Zuiko’s throat.
Sam loved playing with Ninja. He should have laughed and dashed after her. Instead, exhaustion plagued his movements even more than during class. A cloud of anxiety—dejection, even—hung over him. Zuiko’s own concern grew.
Ninja disappeared up the next hallway, Sam in slow-motion pursuit.
Minutes later, the flash of black dashed out of the women’s locker room. Sam plodded after her, apparently totally oblivious that he’d startled Akira just a bit. Apparently he hadn’t even paid attention to his route.
“Ninja!” Sam growled wearily.
Ninja raced the length of the hall and hid behind Zuiko’s legs. The cat still clamped the paper between her teeth and made a low growling noise.
Zuiko swiftly swept the kitty up in a hug. She ruffled her fur, distracting her enough to pluck the all-important paper from her jaws as Sam rushed forward. Even balled up, the texture and heavy weight of the paper revealed it as expensive stationary.
With a wry grin, she handed it to him. She didn’t peer at the paper, but nor did she avert her eyes. The barest glimpse she caught of it showed a blur of very distinctive silver and midnight-blue ink.
He accepted the paper and stood rooted in place, staring at it. After several long moments, he smoothed it out against a wall and gave it to Zuiko.
Puzzled, she shot him an odd look, then dipped her head to read the letter.
A prestigious law firm, one that employed over three thousand attorneys and three times that many staff worldwide kept an office in the city. Hundreds of people worked at that branch alone.
Zuiko had met several of the partners thanks to Akira. Her sister’s security firm often handled jobs for them, normally protecting nervous clients.
“They’re offering you a job.” Zuiko’s confusion grew as she returned the letter. “It’s an incredible offer. Why do you look miserable?”
She knew the young man lived paycheck to paycheck despite working two jobs not including the teaching and occasional guarding of bodies that she and Akira paid him for.
Zuiko had never understood why more sponsors—local and national; international, even—weren’t beating down his door. Handsome and charismatic, he’d won numerous international competitions, including the World Championships and the Pan Am Games.
He mumbled the response, agony in every word. “They need me right away, but I promised to represent the dojo at the U.S. Championship, and look after the kids for you. Plus, this is Akira’s job. I can’t undercut her.”
Akira, now standing behind him, snorted. Zuiko’s eyes narrowed in slight rebuke.
“Sam, that came over a week ago,” she said gently. “If you were worried, why didn’t you say something?”
He shrugged. “There wasn’t anything to say. I’d never stab a friend in the back. Least of all you two.”
“You idiot,” Akira punched him hard on his shoulder. “Who do you think recommended you for the job?”
He blinked. “What?”
“They wanted me to provide a permanent full-time person. I told them I run a security business, not an employment agency. If they wanted someone, I said you were among the best and they needed to talk to you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he sounded amazed.
Akira looked sheepish. “Figured it was none of my business. I didn’t want you to feel any pressure to take the job because of me.”
He burst out laughing, then grabbed her in a hug that left her feet dangling twelve inches off the floor.
“Next time just ask,” she told him severely after he set her back down.
Then a shadow of anxiety crossed his face. “But the tournament…”
Akira punched him again. “We’ll take care of that. Assuming you accept the job offer, that is. You don’t mind not defending your title?”
“Mind? Mind? You have no idea.” He stepped back to avoid her fist. “Mom and Dad were both laid off a few months back. They’re on the verge of losing the house. This,” he waved the letter in front of him, “this solves everything.” His voice broke. “Akira, I can’t thank you enough.”
“Don’t thank her.” Pointedly, Zuiko passed Ninja over to him. “Not only her, that is,” she amended.
He cuddled the feline under his chin, then put her down. “Thank you, Ninja.” Dropping to the floor, he crunched up the letter again and flicked it away. She launched after it, retrieved it, then turned back and gave him the look.
He took off after her.
Right into the women’s locker room.
“Just give it twenty seconds, and they’ll be out the other side,” Akira told the other two women. “Then close the doors.”
The pair exchanged amused looks and headed for the showers. After a beat, the three men did the same.
That left the siblings standing in the corridor.
“So which of us is going to the nationals?” Akira asked. “I went last time.”
“You competed and won last time,” Zuiko reminded her mildly.
Five years ago, her sister’s business was really just taking off. And at twenty-five, Akira had been reaching her prime and had taken full advantage to boost her company.
She’d left competition almost entirely yet remained as involved as ever with the dojo she co-owned. Sometimes she attended tournaments as a coach or a judge. Their karatekas’ achievements kept the dojo on the map as one of the very best. Poster-sized photos of a number of students hung on the corridor walls.
Akira gave a wicked grin. “I know. It’s not nearly as much fun judging. That’s incredibly tedious.”
Zuiko laughed but rolled her eyes. “Can you go?”
Akira’s expression turned serious as she considered. “Yes, everything’s good for the time being. Nothing Mark can’t handle,” she referenced her corporate second-in-command.
Zuiko nodded once briskly in gratitude. She couldn’t simply pick up and leave with two children at home. Akira understood that fact and remained mindful of it. Excursions required extra planning and coordination with her husband—and sometimes with Aunt Akira as well.
“So it’s settled?” Zuiko asked.
Ninja tore around the bend with Sam hot on her heels. He nearly slid under Zuiko and Akira’s feet and knocked them both flat. They jumped back as he nabbed the playful feline and rolled up to his feet, putting Ninja on his shoulder.
He waved the paper in front of her and she swatted halfheartedly at it, already losing interest. Ninja yawned and bopped his ear, licking it twice for good measure. Then she snuggled in against his neck—his massive shoulder providing plenty of room for Ninja and making the big kitty look petite.
“Really, I can’t thank you both enough,” Sam said, abashed. “I haven’t told— well, the dojo means a lot to me. I should have just asked instead of worrying all week. Leave it to Ninja to knock sense into me when even the two of you can’t.”
“She looks out for all her subjects,” Zuiko said, stating the obvious.