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Falling Leaves Ch 10

ThunderBrother Feb 1st, 2016 (edited) 610 Never
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  1. No matter how long or hard Jun argued, Tia did not budge from her Saturday plans to visit the park. By the time Jun and I arrived, two dragons sat at a sunbaked picnic table, hunkered over a coloring book. Tia wore a large black shirt and white shorts while her daughter wore a blue dress and kept her auburn hair in a stringy ponytail. Her scales matched her mother’s. “Little Tia” stuck her tongue out with effort as she scraped an unfortunate orange crayon into the wrinkled pages.
  2.  
  3. When she saw us, Tia shouted, “Hurry up. I’ve been waiting for, like, ten minutes already.”
  4.  
  5. Jun physically recoiled from her booming voice. “Uh. Sorry.”
  6.  
  7. With that, Tia stood up and turned to her daughter and knelt down. “Alright, Tammy, you wanna go on the playground?”
  8.  
  9. “Yeah!”
  10.  
  11. “Alright, go ahead.” With a nudge from her mother’s claw, the child scampered off to the jungle gym. “And don’t beat anyone up!”
  12.  
  13. We adults sat at a picnic table while the tiny dragon ran, fluttered, and tripped around the playground with other kids. The mother never let her eyes off her.
  14.  
  15. “So. What’d you wanna talk about?” she asked.
  16.  
  17. “Um. So.” Jun looked at the table top and squirmed on her bench. Deep breath. “Hoo. I, uh.” Another false start. I almost couldn’t watch.
  18.  
  19. “Jun,” I said, a hand on her trembling shoulder.
  20.  
  21. She jolted in her seat, as if jump-started by my touch. “Alright. Alright, alright, alright.”
  22.  
  23. Tia scratched her head. “You broken or something?”
  24.  
  25. The tanuki shook her head. “No. I just— this is about work. Sylvia.”
  26.  
  27. “What about you?” Tia’s pumping knee made her look about ready to get up and play with her daughter instead of talk.
  28.  
  29. “Sorry. This’s hard. What I’m trying to say is that, uh, I don’t want to be Sylvia anymore.”
  30.  
  31. The first time since they started talking, Tia tore her attention from her daughter and turned to Jun. “Heh?”
  32.  
  33. Jun never looked so pale. “Y-yeah. I wanted to ask you for some, uh, advice. About it.”
  34.  
  35. The dragon covered half the table with her folded arm as she leaned toward Jun, wide-eyed. “You for real?” Jun nodded. “So, what, you gonna quit or something?”
  36.  
  37. Her ears perked up. “N-no— not if I can help it. I want to do this because I’m just sick of— of lying. I’m asking you because I don’t know how to do that. Uh, how to not be Sylvia but keep my job. Is that a thing? Can that be a thing?”
  38.  
  39. “What? So you didn’t get an offer anywhere or nothin’?”
  40.  
  41. “No, nothing like that.”
  42.  
  43. Tia ran her claws through her hair, taking a quick glance at the playground before coming back to us. “I’ll just tell you right now. There’s no easy way to do this.” Jun’s little rotating satellite dish ears honed in on Tia with a swivel. “You gotta go to HR and change— well, pretty much everything. All your employee pictures, W2, sick pay, holiday pay, bank account names, and whatever else. ‘slike you got a fuckin’ sex change and name change at the same time. Everything’s gotta go.”
  44.  
  45. Jun swallowed. “Won’t I— I mean, I was worried I’d get in trouble or something.”
  46.  
  47. “With who?”
  48.  
  49. “The law?”
  50.  
  51. The dragon shrugged. “They won’t get involved if we keep it internal. Doubt there’s much precedent fer this, since you never actually used ‘Sylvia’ to take advantage of us, far as I know. ‘sides, I bet Charlie won’t press charges for fraud or whatever.”
  52.  
  53. “Why not?”
  54.  
  55. “No fraud happened, right?”
  56.  
  57. Jun’s brow furrowed. “I committed and am still committing identity fraud here, Tia.”
  58.  
  59. “It’s not like you stole it from anyone. Look, if you want me to call the cops on you, just ask. I’ll assume it’s all part of some big ‘coon plan you hatched up.” The smirk at her own joke earned Tia a glare from both of us. “But for real, you didn’t do anything bad for five fuckin’ years, so it’s whatever. Far as I care, anyway.”
  60.  
  61. When Jun sat silent for a time, I stepped in. “So, what would she have to do besides deal with HR?”
  62.  
  63. Again the dragon shrugged. “Dunno. There’s no precedent, at least not at Falling Leaves. You can do it however you want. Hell, just talk to Charlie I bet he’ll help you out.”
  64.  
  65. Jun paled once more. “I’ll have to tell the team everything.”
  66.  
  67. Though Tia didn’t notice, I felt the weight Jun put on the word “everything.” I knew it meant telling the team about our relationship, too. It meant laying the past five years bare and letting them dissect every little conversation, action, and motion. If any one of them were like me, they might not know what to believe after finding out.
  68.  
  69. “Maybe lead up to it after a while?” I suggested.
  70.  
  71. Her tail swished behind her with interest. “How would that work?”
  72.  
  73. Good question. “I don’t know. Maybe start acting more like yourself at work? Then after a week or two—”
  74.  
  75. “No.” Fine, don’t let me finish. “I don’t want to wait that long.”
  76.  
  77. Tia interjected, “You could just walk in like this on Monday. You got a suit your size, right?”
  78.  
  79. She cocked her head. “I do, but if I just walk in as myself randomly they’d think Sylvia got replaced or something. Then I’d have to— ugh— go through a bunch more explaining.” The poor girl slumped forward and put her chin on the table. “Now that I think about it, if things go like normal on Monday I’d probably have to explain to people as I see them. Just hours of it. That’s too awkward.”
  80.  
  81. “Hmm.” With a jump, Tia stood from her seat. “Got it. We all could just wait a week or two— shut up— and tell people that Sylvia got an awesome offer at another company or something. Then when she ‘leaves’ or whatever, you can come in as a new employee.”
  82.  
  83. Both of us mulled it over. I said, “I don’t know if the team would appreciate her leaving like that.”
  84.  
  85. “Eh, they’d get over it.”
  86.  
  87. “But, you could say you got laid off instead, Jun.”
  88.  
  89. She shook her head. “No, neither. I don’t want to just lie again. Besides, I want to tell them the truth. Get to know them better like that. Uh, well, if they still want to.”
  90.  
  91. Looking a little put-off, Tia sat back down facing the playground. Our end of the table reared up with her weight on the other side.
  92.  
  93. Jun spoke up again. “Hm. How about this: I come in on Monday as Sylvia. I talk to Charlie about this during the morning meeting. If we can sort out the process for this, I could call for a marketing meeting and tell everyone after everything’s set up. Uh, maybe after a couple days. Or a week.”
  94.  
  95. The dragon scratched her head. “Alright, whatever. Just don’t draw this out too long. Make it quick and painless. Like ripping off a band-aid.”
  96.  
  97. A visible chill drove up Jun’s back before she covered her face with her hands. “This’s gonna suck.”
  98.  
  99. “Probably.”
  100.  
  101. Her hands fell to her lap. “I mean— I’m gonna tell them I’ve been lying for five years. Can— should I even do this? Maybe I really should just leave.”
  102.  
  103. Tia’s eyes followed as her daughter attempted to glide off of the top of the jungle gym, only to swoop down into the sand with a laugh. “Just decide soon.”
  104.  
  105. “Hm? Why?”
  106.  
  107. “Quarterly reviews are coming up, and this clusterfuck’ll mess with that somethin’ fierce if you don’t do it quick.”
  108.  
  109. I grimaced. “Looking out for number one, huh?”
  110.  
  111. The dragon rested her chin on her hand, watching her daughter play. “I mean, it's all whatever for me right now.” She stood from the table with a whine of old wood. “It's you two who have to decide how this goes.”
  112.  
  113. I coughed in surprise. “Me, too?”
  114.  
  115. “You guys're a thing now, right?”
  116.  
  117. It was Jun’s turn to be taken aback. “Well, uh, we're still in the— ahem— beginning stages of—”
  118.  
  119. Tia clicked her forked tongue at us. “I still think it's a super-bad idea. It'll just get harder if she stops being Sylvia, too. I don't know if you can keep being a supervisor, but if she somehow does, do you really wanna be so open about things?” Her points started to click in my head. “Just think real hard about this, guys.” With that, she jogged toward the playground. Only then did I realize Tamara picked up a little boy and flew him to the top of a tree.
  120.  
  121. * * *
  122.  
  123. We didn’t speak much during lunch. I felt a sort of silent agreement between us to think things over before saying anything else. Tia was right; we were in a bit too deep for Jun’s decision not to affect me. As we walked back to her place, I wondered what Jun meant to me and my life. She came into my life uninvited and somehow managed to worm her way deeper into it. To be fair, thanks to her I got out of my apartment more, had the chance to share my interests, and got laid regularly.
  124.  
  125. My old life ended as soon as she stepped into it.
  126.  
  127. Sometime later, we stood outside the door to Jun’s apartment. A package sat tucked against the wall next to it.
  128.  
  129. “What’s that?”
  130.  
  131. Jun shook her head. “It’s nothing. Just ordered some stuff.” She unlocked her door and knelt down to pick up the box. Though I moved to help, she managed to slide it inside just fine on her own while I followed.
  132.  
  133. She grabbed some scissors and split open the top of the box. On one side of the box sat a stack of bubble-wrapped vinyl records, while a similarly dimensioned box sat next to them.
  134.  
  135. “Whoa, that’s a lot,” I said.
  136.  
  137. “Yeah. I almost forgot I ordered these.”
  138.  
  139. Yanking the second box from inside, I noticed it was a thin record player: a slick black device with a digital readout and its own speakers. “You went from ‘zero’ to ‘hipster’ pretty quick.”
  140.  
  141. She stuck her tongue out at me.
  142.  
  143. As she un-bubble-wrapped the stack of record sleeves, a glimmer of a smile appeared on her lips. Without a word she took the record player from me and headed for the couches. I followed with a stack of vinyl. It took a minute to set up, but the hardest part was deciding on something to listen to. “The Best of The Beatles” seemed like a safe bet. When I slumped onto the couch, Jun followed. I expected her to sit on my lap or something, but instead she put a hand on my shoulder and guided me to lay my head on her stomach while she reclined.
  144.  
  145. The guitars and lyrics drew sweet lines through the air as Jun gently messed with my hair.
  146.  
  147. “You okay?”
  148.  
  149. Her busy fingers stopped for a second before lacing through my hair like water. “Dunno.” She sighed.
  150.  
  151. I wondered if, after she stopped being Sylvia, we would be able to keep doing things like that— just listening to old music and enjoying the company as if it were all we needed in the world. Would Angela and Scott come over for dinner every now and then, knowing they were lied to for so long? Would she still command the same respect and admiration as she did before? If she stopped wearing those heels— my dearly loved warning signs of her approach— I bet I'd get in plenty more trouble than I used to.
  152.  
  153. But speaking of trouble (read: me), how would she handle me at work? Without her acting, the facade of being someone else, she might end up a nervous wreck sitting two cubicles away from me. If she let me off easy or fudged protocol, what would everyone else think? Favoritism in the workplace? Everything seemed stacked against her no matter how I looked at it. If anything, she would have to work harder than ever just to keep things the same.
  154.  
  155. “Lennard?” she said.
  156.  
  157. “What's up?”
  158.  
  159. Her hands caressed my cheek. “I don't think we're a super-bad idea. Do you?”
  160.  
  161. “Hm.” I grasped her hand and kissed her palm. “I hope not.”
  162.  
  163. * * *
  164.  
  165. As per usual, I took the bus home. I had tons of chores to do and bills to pay and I wasn't about to skip doing my laundry again. The familiar dusty smell of my apartment was a welcome change from the office smells. If Jun were there, with her range of perfumes and shampoo smells, it’d be a perfect bouquet.
  166.  
  167. After sweeping some dust and hair off my floor and out the door, I got my dirty clothes together and threw them in a pile. Next came cleaning the bathroom. First the mirror, then the counter and sink, then the cabinets, then the toilet, and finally the floor. I figured I could do the shower another time. With the smell of bleach mucking up the air, I opened the window.
  168.  
  169. Before I could gather all of my clothes into a hamper, my phone went off. It took three or four vibrations to get it out of my pocket. “Hello?”
  170.  
  171. “Hey, Len.”
  172.  
  173. “Jun? Hey, what’s going on?” I plopped onto my couch. “Everything okay?”
  174.  
  175. “Yeah, it’s just—” a short growl sounded from her side. “No, things aren’t okay. I— I don’t know what to do.”
  176.  
  177. “Whoa, okay. Let’s just—”
  178.  
  179. “I can’t ‘just’ do anything right now! I do not. Know what I should be doing about any of this. I mean, think about it! I could lose all the friends I ever made at work. All of them! Did you know I went to Scott’s wedding? My name wasn’t on the list, it was Sylvia’s. And now I have to tell him she never really existed in the first place? If I walk into work like this it’d be like telling everyone Sylvia died or something! ‘Oh, sorry, that woman you grew to know over the course of five years is fucking dead. Here’s the socially retarded tanuki in her place, enjoy!’”
  180.  
  181. Hoo, man. So, she had to vent.
  182.  
  183. I got comfortable on my couch and rested my head next to my phone so that I could hear without my arm getting tired. “You’re not socially retarded, Jun, you get along fine.”
  184.  
  185. “That’s not the point, though! I mean, it’s not the only point. There’s— there’d be all the paperwork, too, if I just switch my name and race on all the company forms or whatever. And I’ll have to change my name on all my tax forms and— would it really be worth all the trouble? Am I worth all the trouble?”
  186.  
  187. “Of course you are. Come on, you’re worrying too much about this.”
  188.  
  189. “I’m worrying just enough. Or not enough! And that’s the problem! Won’t everyone just see me as ‘that liar who got high up in the company’ or whatever? What if doing this just fucks up everyone’s lives or something? Or worse, would they not even notice? I— I don’t think I want to know which.”
  190.  
  191. “Jun! Jun, just breathe for a minute.”
  192.  
  193. She did so, though I heard several muffled yells, probably through a pillow.
  194.  
  195. “You want me to come back? I don’t have anything else important going on today.”
  196.  
  197. “No, Len, it’s fine— just— I think I might do something I really don’t want to do.”
  198.  
  199. Well that was ominous. “What do you mean?”
  200.  
  201. “I-I don’t know if I’ll do it yet, just— you know what? You’ll find out later whether I do or not. Sorry, I’ll just— sorry.”
  202.  
  203. After some fumbling on her end, the call ended.
  204.  
  205. * * *
  206.  
  207. I heard nothing from Jun through Sunday. If she had any sort of plan for that week, I assumed she would follow through with it on her own. Thanks to that, I half expected Jun to walk past the front desk. But, lo and behold, the click-clack of Sylvia's heels came ringing through the office on that cool Monday morning.
  208.  
  209. “Mr. Cash?” Sylvia called.
  210.  
  211. Seven tabs in my browser? You're crazy, I see no tabs. “What's up?”
  212.  
  213. She set her purse at her desk as she passed it and headed for mine. “I would like to invite you to lunch today when the time comes.”
  214.  
  215. Odd. “Oh yeah? Where to?”
  216.  
  217. “Just someplace downtown.” She leaned in with a hushed voice. “I would like to discuss something about Jun with you. In private, if possible.”
  218.  
  219. I inadvertently shared a glance with Scott, who scooted out of his cubicle just for that moment. “Sure, sounds good.”
  220.  
  221. “Mm. Thank you.” With that, she skillfully turned on her spiked heels and left our department’s territory. I didn’t watch to see where she went.
  222.  
  223. “You havin’ some problems with your girl?” Scott asked, scooting halfway through my cubicle opening.
  224.  
  225. I reopened my browser tabs. “Sure hope not. She didn’t say anything.”
  226.  
  227. “You musta done something. I mean, she’s got a phone, right?”
  228.  
  229. “She does, she just— I don’t know. She can be weird sometimes.”
  230.  
  231. “Which one?”
  232.  
  233. “Both.” But he did ask the right questions: why wouldn’t she just text me or something? Sylvia used a different phone than Jun, so maybe something came up before she came to work.
  234.  
  235. I decided to wait until lunch hour when we met out front. She tapped her foot and checked her watch every few seconds while she waited. Unless I was mistaken, her hair was a little less perfect than usual. Maybe the questions could wait. Luckily I did not have to wait very long, since the restaurant happened to be pretty close by.
  236.  
  237. Together we stepped through a pair of ornate copper-laden doors of a hotel. Five-star, no doubt. I could almost smell the pretention wafting off of the brown and yellow vine patterns in the carpet. Though underdressed, the wide open first floor, with its large open-air central courtyard and multitude of chandeliers, sort of made me want to make a statement with my unbuttoned collar and wrinkled pants.
  238.  
  239. A young man dressed head-to-toe in white stood behind the front desk. “Hi, how are you doing today?”
  240.  
  241. Sylvia stepped forward. “Hello. I have a reservation in the VIP room.”
  242.  
  243. He typed something on his computer and stepped out from behind the mahogany desk. “Alright, please follow me.”
  244.  
  245. The guy led us through the garden in the central courtyard to what seemed to be the entrance to a restaurant. Windows lined the back wall of the open courtyard, showing off the expansive eating area, with rows of crystal glasses, white table cloths, and gold-decorated plates. The smell of grass and berries fill the air before I found the bowl of potpourri sitting on a table against the wall. We had to walk single-file between the tightly knit groupings of tables on our way to another door near the back.
  246.  
  247. Strangely, not a soul sat throughout the dressed tables of the restaurant, and no wait staff stood at the front. Two men, one blond and the other black-haired, stood at the door to the VIP room in black hard-pressed suits. Both stood a head taller than me, and half against as broad-shouldered as myself. The matching sunglasses made them look like government agents or something.
  248.  
  249. Our guide whispered something to them before leaving us for the front desk once more, pushing past us in a hurry.
  250.  
  251. The man with black hair extended a hand toward us. “Please relinquish any digital devices. They will be returned to you when you leave.” Sylvia and I shared a glance before giving our phones to them. He quickly handed them off to his partner, who placed them in a tray on a nearby table. “And Miss?”
  252.  
  253. She straightened her back. “Yes?”
  254.  
  255. “You may remove your disguise.”
  256.  
  257. “Wait, what?” I mumbled. The moment I looked to see Sylvia’s reaction, however, she already took the invisible leaf from her head. In a plume of smoke, Jun stood next to me. Unlike previous occasions, she wore a business suit sized specific to her size instead of Sylvia’s, tail hole in the pants included. Her hair looked freshly washed and permed instead of their natural waves.
  258.  
  259. The man smiled. “It’s been a long time, Miss.”
  260.  
  261. Jun breathed in and out, eyes half-closed with anxiety. “Yeah. It— uh— it has. Nicolai.”
  262.  
  263. I stood by as the two of them started conversing in what I assumed was Italian. Very, very fluent Italian. All the “icci”s and “allegro”s and musical sentence structures and what have you. Jun’s eyes remained shifty and active as they spoke, as if keeping watch for something that will jump out at her at any moment. He spoke with gusto and animated hand gestures, as if recounting an old story. Flickers of a smile appeared on Jun’s cheeks.
  264.  
  265. “So hey,” I interrupted, causing dark man Nicolai to glare at me through his mirror sunglasses. “Mind filling me in on, uh, whatever’s going on, Jun?”
  266.  
  267. He turned to her. “Who’s the kid, anyway?” Excuse you, but I’m older than her.
  268.  
  269. “He’s with me, Nic.”
  270.  
  271. He looked me up and down, peering above his sunglasses with piercing brown eyes that made me fix my posture. The man felt like a drill sergeant about to unleash verbal hell on me for not wearing my tie that day.
  272.  
  273. Jun sighed. “Can we go in now?”
  274.  
  275. Nicolai eased off me and nodded to the blond guy. “I hope it’s a friendly meeting, Miss.”
  276.  
  277. “Me, too.”
  278.  
  279. As confused as ever, I followed Jun into the VIP room as Nicolai shut the door behind us.
  280.  
  281. A figure stood on the other side of an oval table from us. The familiarity of this person washed over me in an instant of recognition: triangle animal ears, fluffy tail, shadowy skin around her eyes, and dark hair. Unlike Jun, however, this woman wore what looked like a blue Japanese robe. She was in the middle of cleaning the lenses of her glasses with a cloth as we walked in.
  282.  
  283. With dignified poise only found in someone on in her years, the woman donned her slim glasses and stepped towards us.
  284.  
  285. Jun stuttered out, “H-hello, uh, Mom.”
  286.  
  287. I put a palm to my forehead. Really, I would have been shocked if it weren’t so obvious when I first saw her. But damn did they look alike. The only differences I saw involved the straightness of the older woman’s hair and the cold stare she gave to the daughter.
  288.  
  289. “Jun,” she said, her expression unfaltering.
  290.  
  291. The younger woman fidgeted where she stood, as if ready to run away at any time. Before she could, she found herself in her mother’s embrace. Her very tight embrace.
  292.  
  293. That regal composure melted as the pair slumped to their knees. “Oh, my baby girl’s come ba-ack!” Though her arms tightened around Jun’s neck, she didn’t seem to mind. She returned the gesture with unsure arms around her mother’s middle. The older woman’s tears might have ruined the suit if they didn’t break it up soon.
  294.  
  295. Jun turned her head toward me. “S-sorry for not saying anything, Lennard.”
  296.  
  297. I scratched my head, found some dandruff in my nails, and brushed it off. “It would’ve been nice if you gave me a heads-up.”
  298.  
  299. “I-I know, it’s just—” she adjusted her mother to better speak to me. “I didn’t think you’d come if I did.” After a pause, I reached out and grabbed one of Jun’s ears between my thumb and index finder. Then I pulled. “Ah! Ow! Stopitstopitstopitstopit!”
  300.  
  301. “So calling your mom was what you really didn’t want to do the other day? Whatever happened to ‘full disclosure,’ here?”
  302.  
  303. “I know, I’m sorry! I’ll make it up to you!”
  304.  
  305. With that, I let go. Jun and her mother released each other, too. “Who is this boy?”
  306.  
  307. Jun rubbed her ear and stood up next to me. “Sorry, sorry. So! Uh. Introductions.” She clapped her hands together and looked from me to her mother and back again, as if unsure where to start. “L-Lennard, this is my mom. Atsuko.”
  308.  
  309. The woman in question’s eyes brightened. “Oh! Is he your boyfriend, Jun?”
  310.  
  311. I cringed. “I really don’t like that word, honestly.”
  312.  
  313. Jun’s eyes widened. “Uh. Well—”
  314.  
  315. “I mean, we’re together, but—”
  316.  
  317. “Things’re weird.”
  318.  
  319. “Yeah.”
  320.  
  321. We stared at her mother for a moment before Jun grabbed my lapel, yanked me down to her level, and whispered in my ear, “We’re talking about that later.”
  322.  
  323. “Agreed.”
  324.  
  325. Atsuko blinked. “Well. It’s nice to meet you, Lennard.” We shook hands, after which she turned to her daughter once again. “Now, Jun, I want to hear everything. What have you been up to lately?”
  326.  
  327. The younger tanuki grimaced. “That’s, uh, kind of what I wanted to talk to you about.”
  328.  
  329. * * *
  330.  
  331. All told, it didn’t take Jun long to explain her circumstances. She started with her job hunt from years and years ago, to her becoming Sylvia, to meeting me and accidentally outing herself. Atsuko listened intently to her daughter’s every word.
  332.  
  333. “So,” Jun said, “what I’m trying to say about all this is that, uh,” she paused, “I may or may not need a little help.”
  334.  
  335. Atsuko put a hand on Jun’s shoulder. “Of course, dear. Anything you need. Just let me know.”
  336.  
  337. Jun wriggled with discomfort. “I— what I’m really looking for are, uh, options. One of my coworkers already told me what I could do, but— I don’t know.” She bent over the table, supported by her elbows. “I’m scared how my friends at work will react. I don’t want to hurt them, you know? So, uh, I thought maybe you could help somehow?”
  338.  
  339. The older woman tapped her nails on the table top. “Well, dear, I’m honestly surprised you saw the need to come to me at all.”
  340.  
  341. “What?”
  342.  
  343. She threw her arms up in exasperation. “I mean, you managed to integrate yourself into a company without rousing suspicion for years on end! Very few could do something like that.”
  344.  
  345. Jun bit her lip to hide her smile. “No, that’s dumb— I just have a good poker face.”
  346.  
  347. “Just take the complement,” I blurted.
  348.  
  349. Looking back and forth between her mother and myself, she hunkered down in her seat and muttered, “Thanks.”
  350.  
  351. Atsuko clapped her hands, “Now then. You want options? I’ll give you one. You may, if you like, come back home. You can do some great work for the family, just like you were supposed to. How does that sound?”
  352.  
  353. The tanuki next to me straightened her back, eyes glaring daggers at her mother. “What? No!” I admit I felt no small sense of relief at Jun’s response.
  354.  
  355. “Please, dear, think about this. If you come back you wouldn’t have to go through all that nasty business, telling your friends who you really are and whatnot. And you told me how your job search went at first; all businesses in Arizona are like that— it isn’t a good state for us.”
  356.  
  357. “What’s there to think about? Falling Leaves is different.”
  358.  
  359. “Oh, bah. Everyone says that about wherever they are, as soon as they get used to it.”
  360.  
  361. “No, I called you asking for help with something. I’m not going to stick around if you’re just going to use me to commi—uh, to help your business.” Smooth.
  362.  
  363. “There’s this to think about, Jun,” she took a breath, “if you follow through with what you want to do at this little IT company, do you really think they will accept you? After you lied to them for years and years? Be realistic, dear. People make mistakes, and they have to pay for their mistakes.”
  364.  
  365. Jun’s lips quivered. “W-well, I, uh. Guess it wouldn’t be t-too bad to—”
  366.  
  367. I put a hand on her shoulder and leaned in to whisper, “You okay?”
  368.  
  369. The shaking stopped as soon as I touched her. With a shake of her head and a deep breath through her nose, she straightened up and said, “Actually, Mom.”
  370.  
  371. “Hm?”
  372.  
  373. “Stop making this all about you.”
  374.  
  375. “Excuse me? I’m only thinking about your—”
  376.  
  377. “What, my safety? Or— something? Ever since I was a kid, you wanted me to work for you. But that’s not how this works anymore. I’m more than old enough to make my own decisions.”
  378.  
  379. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that, Jun.”
  380.  
  381. “Mom, I honestly thought it’d been long enough that you’d give up on recruiting me, like some kind of temp agency applicant. You’re not my boss.” Jun blinked hard, releasing tears from her eyes, and grasped my hand under the table. “You’re my mom.”
  382.  
  383. For a time, the middle-aged tanuki looked at us. Sometimes she looked at me, other times checking on Jun to see if she wanted to say anything else. Putting her back fully against the back of her chair, Atsuko laced her fingers together on the table.
  384.  
  385. “If you find yourself too scared to face your friends here, then I may be able to arrange you another job somewhere else. Someplace you may work as yourself from the start.”
  386.  
  387. Jun stared for a moment before wiping her eyes with her sleeves. “You mean it, Mom?”
  388.  
  389. She sighed. “Yes. Don’t look at me like that. I don’t want to be the bad guy today. No tricks. No family matters. We will leave you well alone.”
  390.  
  391. She sniffed and leaned toward her mother for a hug. “Thanks.”
  392.  
  393. “Now, Jun, I only ever wanted you to take part in the business because I believe you would flourish with us. And there are people at the estate who know and love you and wish for you to come home.”
  394.  
  395. “I know, Mom. But I can find people like that anywhere. It’s not your choice where I find them.”
  396.  
  397. The two of them took their time wiping their tears and reapplying their magic makeup. This was followed by a tearful goodbye that ruined it all over again.
  398.  
  399. “I hope you make your decision soon, Jun,” Atsuko said, clasping her daughter’s hands in her own.
  400.  
  401. “Yeah. Me, too.” With that, she walked through the door, nodded to Nicolai, and sped through the restaurant without me. I felt my stomach drop, the meaning of their talk sinking in. All they discussed were different ways Jun could leave her life in Phoenix behind. Since when was that ever on the table? Maybe she wanted it as a backup plan?
  402.  
  403. Setting those feelings aside for later, Jun’s hurriedness left me to speak with her mother in guarded privacy. “So.”
  404.  
  405. She chuckled. “So?”
  406.  
  407. “What is your family business, anyway?”
  408.  
  409. Her hand covered her mouth as she laughed. “You’re better off not knowing, dear.”
  410.  
  411. Nicolai leaned into the doorway to the VIP room and winked. What a creeper. “I’ll take your word for it.”
  412.  
  413. “So,” she said with a smile. Was there an echo? “Tell me honestly, Lennard.”
  414.  
  415. “Hm?”
  416.  
  417. “Do you love my daughter?”
  418.  
  419. I raised an eyebrow at her question.
  420.  
  421. Her hands hid themselves in her large sleeves. “There is nothing wrong if you don’t. I am only curious.”
  422.  
  423. My eyes stared at a point in space, my thoughts swirling around looking for an answer. “We’ve only been ‘together’ for a few months. Plenty of stuff’s happened— and it’s been fun— but I’ll be honest. I don’t know.”
  424.  
  425. Atsuko’s ears twitched and she tilted her head. “Well, there’s no helping that. I hope we have the chance to meet again. Perhaps the three of us can eat a legitimate meal together?” She extended her hand to me, and I shook it. Her fingers felt thin and fragile against my palm. “At the very least, I am grateful that Jun has found someone she can trust. Please take care of her.”
  426.  
  427. I stuck my hands in my pockets and glanced between her and the men standing outside. Nicolai gave me a look like I just stepped on his toes. “No pressure, right?”
  428.  
  429. “Of course.”
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