Falling Leaves Ch 11

Sylvia’s long strides left me struggling to stay in her wake. Without waiting, nor turning back to see if I followed, she pushed past crowds of pedestrians as if to escape. Whether to escape from her mother or her situation, I figured I could ask later.

According to my phone, we were still on lunch. We never did eat with Atsuko but, food or not, Sylvia was ready to call it quits and get back to work. Although, thinking a moment on what just happened, I felt a need to reconnect with someone, myself.

I called down the sidewalk, “Sylvia!” After a delay she stopped and turned around with blank eyes. Yeesh. “I’ll see you at the office later. I gotta do something real quick.”

She blinked, nodded her head, and started down the sidewalk once more. I predicted a big dose of talking the next time I saw her. We probably needed it. Spying a bench out in front of an ice cream shop and sitting down, I took a deep breath and sifted through my phone contacts before hitting “Call.”

Noise and chatter from passersby muffled the sound of the ringing. Three or four tones later, the recipient answered.

A feminine voice said, “Hello, Cash residence.”

How professional. “Uh. Hi, Mom. This’s Lennard.”

White noise and background voices almost made me think she hung up, but before I could check she said, “Christ, Lennard, you haven’t called since last year.”

Pin-pricks of sweat formed on my back. “Y-yeah. Sorry. I’ve been a bit busy.”

“With what? I have no idea what you’re doing these days. Tell me everything.”

The itchiness slowly subsided and I took a deep breath. “Well, I have a job now. Like, a real desk job kind of thing.”

“Oh? What company?”

“A little IT company called Falling Leaves. I’m in the, uh, marketing department. It’s in downtown Phoenix, so it’s not too far from my place. I can walk there, actually. In the morning.”

“Well that’s good news. I thought you’d have problems finding a job without a car.”

“Yeah, it was pretty bad running around Phoenix over the summer.” I may or may not have thrown up from dehydration once on the way to an interview. That one fell through quick.

“If you just let us get you a used car or something and paid us back later then it would’ve made your job hunt a bit easier.” I recalled my parents offering me a deal like that a long time ago. Silly me. “But it’s great that you have a job now, Lennard.”

Pride swelled in my chest, along with a growl from my stomach. “Thanks.”

“So, anything going on besides work? Clubbing? You’re young— you can do that kind of thing.”

“Actually, uh,” a second layer of pride expanded on the first. “I met a pretty amazing girl.”

She whistled. “Really? ‘Amazing?’ You’re over that bitch whatstername, then?”

I shrugged, realized she couldn’t see me, and cleared my throat. “As much as I can be right now.” That said, it felt kind of nice to hear Georgia be so belittled.

“Mm, alright.”

“But yeah, this girl’s name is Jun.”

“What, like the month?”

“No, no. It’s a, uh, Japanese name I think. She’s of the, err, fluffier persuasion.”

“Like with fat or like with a tail?”

I laughed. “Like with a tail. She’s not really fit, though.”

“Really? I didn’t think they were your— well, your type.”

“Maybe. Life is weird, I guess.”

“Sounds like it.” We shared a moment’s pause. “So, Lennard. Do you have any plans for the holidays?”

My mental calendar had basically nothing in it after November. “Nope.”

“Want to come to Flagstaff for Thanksgiving, then? The other men will be here, too.”

The bully of an older brother and the subtle tyrant of a father. “I, uh, don’t know. Dad and I were never really—”

“Don’t give me that crap. Quit being a pussy and have dinner with your family for once.” Well okay then. “Come on, we all can cook together. Or something.”

“‘Or something.’” I took a breath. “I’ll think about it.”

“You better. I want to meet this girl of yours, too, so drag her up here with you.”

Thinking about it, Jun and I had only dated for a few months by then, so her meeting my parents might’ve been jumping the gun a little. Then again, I just met her mom, so who knows?

“Uh, not sure how things’ll turn out over the next couple weeks, but I’ll let you know.”

She sighed. “Alright.”

Once more my stomach growled. “Anyway, I’m on lunch right now, so I should grab some food and get back.”

“Okay, sounds good.”

“Yeah.”

“Call back when you know if you can come. I want to know how many places to set at the table.”

“I will.”

“Love you.”

The words froze at my lips for a moment. “Love you, too.”

Hanging up, I slumped in the bench and rolled my shoulders. The last time I spoke with either of my parents, I asked for help finding an apartment in Phoenix. My arms and legs felt lighter. Background thoughts about life, disappointed parents, and a shitty sibling cleared slightly. As it turns out, I had no idea the kind of pressure such thoughts put on me.

My phone beeped, prompting me to pop open whatever text message hit it.

It was from Jun: “Come to my place later.”

* * *

Sylvia didn’t speak with anyone for the rest of the day. Through a few bathroom texts, however, we agreed that I would leave work after she did. Usually I left first, but she of all people couldn’t disguise her eagerness to leave. After all, the tempo of her clicking heels was much faster than normal.

The curtains cast dull bronze shadows across the furniture as I stepped inside. “Hello? Why’re the lights off?” I set my bag down near the door and headed for the couch, expecting her to lay hidden under a blanket or something. No such luck. “Jun, you here?”

A series of mumbles sounded from the bedroom. If I didn’t know better I might have expected a nice little surprise. Opening the sliding door, I Jun’s figure lay flat atop her bed, still clothed in oversized Sylvia clothing, unbuttoned but not removed.

I kicked off my shoes and climbed onto the bed. “Hey, you alright?”

Her fluffy pillow looked like it would absorb her entire head. “Mph Mm Mmph.”

“Helpful. Come on, let’s get you out of those clothes.” With a tug on the back of her suit jacket she mustered the effort get up on her knees and let me slide her arms out of the sleeves. The white dress shirt underneath looked like it might have belonged to me instead of her.

I still didn’t understand how her illusions worked. Did she need real clothes in the first place, and then changed her size to match them? Then how did she have a smaller set when we met her mother earlier? Was that an illusion, too?

Looking her over, she wasn’t in much of a state to answer all my questions about it. Another time, maybe. By the time I yanked off her oversized dress pants, she lay back atop the covers, wearing only a pair of underwear and the “mask” around her eyes. I said nothing as I tossed the clothes into her hamper.

“Sorry,” she said.

I sighed with relief at the sound of her voice. “About what?”

She turned over. “Assuming too much.”

Uh oh. Heading for the bed, I lay down next to her and leaned over her. Through her disheveled hair I could hardly see her eyes. I picked at her locks and set them away from her face.

When I saw her shifty and uncertain eyes, I asked the question. “Okay, I’ll bite. Assuming too much about what?”

“About us.”

My stomach dropped. “Hey, what happened? Where’d this come from?”

“Ugh. When— when we talked to my mom, you said you weren’t my, uh, boyfriend.”

Oh, good, I could explain that one. “Jun, no, it’s—”

“I mean, with all the hanging out and dating and o-other stuff we’ve been doing, I didn’t think I had to ask if you wanted to be that kind of person in my life or something. So, sorry. Sorry that I thought something good was going on with this.” With a start she sat upright, hands in her lap. “I-if you won’t take this whole thing seriously, I’ll probably just go with my mom’s offer and leave.” Her hands covered her face. “Ugh, sorry, I just feel so stupid.”

I grasped her wrists and pulled them from her face. “Hey, Jun, that’s not what I meant.” Her eyes watered and refused to look at me. “Seriously, I just— I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t want to be doing this with you.”

“Then what is it?”

“A label.”

She furrowed her brow. “Explain.”

Thank you. “It’s just a word, Jun. I should’ve just said it right off the bat; I think ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ are just cutesy words and labels people use to say they care about each other. Georgia and I did it way back when, and you know how that turned out.”

Jun glanced around the room. “Then what would you even call us? What do you want me to call you when people ask if we’re together?”

“Well, I don’t really know.” We sat silent on the bedsheets for a minute, all the while I tried to come up with something to lighten the mood. Then, lightning struck. “How about calling me your bottom bitch?”

“Pff.” Her hands shot to cover her mouth.

I brushed her hair aside with a hand and whispered, “Concubine.”

“Khha haha.”

My lips brushed her cheek and pecked her lips. “Fuckboy.”

She pulled her pillow over her face and laughed into it.

“I don’t have a name what we are.”

The pillow lowered and she hugged it to her chest. “You corrected her a bit too quick, though. Like, ‘Hey, no, that’s completely wrong. I’m not her boyfriend!’”

I hung my head. “Alright, yeah, that was shitty. But Jun?”

She sniffed again. “Mhm?”

“Don’t say that you’ll leave.”

She blinked at me, eyes shifty.

No going back now. “Please don’t take your mom’s deal.” Though flattered and blushing a bit, she didn’t look particularly convinced. Perhaps she needed one more push. “I called my mom today.”

“Hm? Oh, uh, yeah?”

“She wants us to visit for Thanksgiving.”

The red in her face darkened. “What?”

Leaning toward her, I put a hand on her cheek, fingers lacing between locks of hair. “I told her about this amazing girl I met.” I kissed her forehead. “And she said.” Another kiss on her cheek. “That she wants to meet you.” A final kiss on her parted lips.

Jun hugged the pillow closer to her bare chest. “S-so, you want to introduce me to your parents?”

“Yeah. There’s still plenty for us to do together.”

“Heheh. Y-yeah.”

“Up to, and including, each other.” That got me a pillow to the face before I could kiss her again.

She sat on the bed and dropped the pillow after a couple more hits. “Lennard?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a big, big, factor in this, and I really do appreciate you saying all this. But this is still up to me.”

A return to the serious talk. My back straightened. “I know.”

“I do feel better, though. Heh. Thanks for saying all that, even though I completely got mad over nothing.”

“No you didn’t— I get it.”

Jun crawled up to me and wrapped her arms around my neck, her cheek nuzzling against my head. “If I feel the need to quit, then I will.”

My arms found their way around her waist. “Yeah.”

While I took in the woodsy scent of her perfume, I adjusted so she could sit straddling my lap. “So do you wanna fuck before or after dinner?”

She patted my head and sighed. “You were doing so well.”

“Well, you’ve been topless for this whole talk.”

She leaned back, her ears flat and eyes dodgy. “Right.”

My fingers traced down her spine to the base of her tail. I maintained eye contact with her as she shivered and sighed at the sensation. A twitch of her tail jerked it away from me, but I grasped it on a second try and rubbed it with my thumb. Stroking the fur in the proper direction, disheveling it and straightening it again, and she melted onto my chest with a quiver.

The heat of her breath dampened the fabric covering my chest. “Mm. Y-you’ve gotten good at that.”

“Wouldn’t be a good raccoon-fucker if I wasn’t.”

Jun buried a burst of laughter into my chest before reaching for my buttons. “Shut up.”

She smelled my chest as if I put on ambrosia cologne. I worked on unbuckling my belt by the time she tore my shirt all the way off and threw it aside. Her breasts pressed against my front as I reclined, and she gingerly pressed her lips to mine.

The heat between us steamed from our skin. My hands groped at every part of her: Her plump rear, her pillowy breasts, and her squishy belly. She embodied softness against my skin. Jun’s fingers, acting more innocent than mine, ran through my hair as if afraid I would leave if she left me alone.

By then I was so comfortable with her that I guided myself into her without her help. Steaming gasps drenched my lips and cheeks. Jun visibly calmed with the sensation and settled on top of me, her knees tucked up to my ribs.

A sigh, and she rested her head under my chin. “Let’s relax, Len.”

My dick throbbed inside her despite the lack of movement, making her tremble. “What, no ball-slapping interracial tonight?”

She chuckled. “We do enough of that. Take it slow tonight.” Her hips swayed, taking me with her in steady rhythm. As she wrapped her arms around my neck, I felt along her sweat-beaded spine. Each shift sent a jolt of sensation through us while sighs replaced every breath.

We stayed connected for what felt like a long time. My heart pumped blood into my groin and created a subtle cadence of pleasure that cycled between us. I half-expected to fall asleep like that.

On my shoulder I felt her tongue prelude to her lips, then her teeth. With every nibble a chill ran across my skin. I tapped her shoulder, making her stop and give me dazed and quizzical look. I sat up, making her gasp at my shifting inside her. Once upright, she adjusted and hugged my face between her breasts. She brought me to heaven all over again.

Jun let out a giggle and smushed me harder into her bosom. Though I didn’t notice, our hips cycled forward and back until we once more found that comfortable pace. Saliva and sweat shined across her skin as I almost lost myself in her body.

Almost.

Slowing to a stop, I said, “Jun?”

“Ah.” A bit of drool slid from the corner of her mouth. She wiped it away with her arm. “Y-yeah?”

“Let’s get the condom from my wallet.”

A moment of realization passed and she planted her forehead against my shoulder. “Sorry.”

I ruffled her hair. “It’s fine.” At least my pants sat a few inches from us. “If it’s any consolation, I got the thinnest brand they had.”

She took the plastic square from my wallet and shook her head. “We should’ve put it on before.”

It did kind of ruin the mood.

“I-I mean, after going without it for that long, I might not want to go back.”

Wide-eyed, I slipped the condom over my reinvigorated erection without looking away from her once. “Let’s get you some birth control ASAP.”

As soon as it was ready, she leapt onto my lap and guided me into her again. She was hotter inside the second time around. Letting out long sighs and shivers of pleasure, we melted together again.

Grasping her hips, I did work from below while she kept herself steady by gripping my shoulders. The springiness of the bed aided us as we worked to fall into step. Our groins were soaked with lubrication and precum, each thrust ending with a slap and a shudder. Jun’s mouth hung open, a bead of saliva dripping down her cheek as she looked me in the eye. Her lips closed and she swallowed hard.

The glow in her cheeks from the sex turned a deeper red than before. “L-Lennard, I— I think I, uh, have something t-to tell you.”

I slowed down. “You okay?”

“Y-yeah, it’s just—”

“Gonna come soon?”

“No— I mean, yes— b-but besides that. I mean, about you. Us. I think I—” She looked down to my chest. “Well— I think that I, uh—”

I had a feeling I knew what she wanted to say. Instead of letting her stutter to the end, I tilted her head up by the chin and kissed her. She hesitated before reciprocating.

“Let’s save the heavy stuff for later.” I said.

Opening her mouth to say something, she stopped herself. With a nod, she grabbed my hand and entwined her fingers with mine. “You better not let go.”

“I won’t.”

Her hips cycled forward and back while I thrust in tandem. Every inch I pulled out felt like her vagina tugged me back inside. Most other sessions were harder and rougher, but none made me feel so connected to her. I grunted and repeated her name free of care while she moaned and cried out mine.

She hugged me close, pulling me into her with her legs crossed at my back. A convulsion surged through her, the line between us blurring as her walls twisted and tightened around me in tandem with her moans. I used the Lord’s name in vain and hugged her close with a grunt, released thick streams into her.

A sudden pain burst from my shoulder in the throes of our love-making. Shudders permeated her as she came down from her high and slumped against my sweat-dripping front. We lay down on the bed, giving me a chance to gather myself. A glance at my shoulder told me all I needed.

I grabbed a handful of her thick hair and turned her to face me. “You bit me.”

She drooled on my chest, eyes unfocused as the smell of sex teased my nose. “Mmn, worth it.” Bitch, what?

Another convulsion and I slipped out of her. Her eyes fluttered shut and her arms went limp.

“Hey, hey, don’t go to sleep.” I released her hair, only for her head to fall onto my collarbone, dead to the world with a sloppy smile on her lips.

* * *

Though she eventually let me go, she curled up among the twisted sheets in her sleep instead. The desert sunset sent a lukewarm breeze through her bedroom window. Still thick with her scent, I cleaned my sex-drenched groin in the bathroom.

Wearing a clean t-shirt and a pair of boxers I kept in her closet, I stepped out of her bedroom with cool clarity. I spent meaningful time with the woman in my life, making the complicated business of Sylvia, work, and our families became inconsequential. Ah, the beauty of sex.

I sat on the couch and reached for the remote. Before I turned on the TV, I saw myself reflected off of the screen. Dropping the remote, I let myself recline. The cool cushions smelled like Jun. My reverse in the TV screen reminded that I asked Jun to save the heavy things for later, and my gut lurched with anxiety and excitement at the thought.

Turning toward the bedroom, I saw her stretch in her sleep. She looked so comfortable. Content. And apparently with a drooling problem I didn’t know about.

Still in my pants pocket in the bedroom, my phone went off. Jun turned over at the noise as I rushed from the couch to my pants.

She mumbled something and rubbed her eye.

I muted the ringtone. “It’s nothing, just my phone. I’ll close the door for you.”

“Mhm.”

Once outside the bedroom I glanced at the screen to see a number I didn’t recognize. “Hello?”

“Ah, there you are. I was worried you wouldn’t answer.”

My breath caught in my throat. “Kuh. Atsuko?”

She sighed. “I truly hoped you would be some sort of abusive drunk. Then I could have sent my men on a daring rescue.”

“Oh, please.” I sat on the couch furthest from the bedroom door. “First thing’s first: how’d you get my number?”

“Oh, dear. You’re woefully naïve, leaving your phone unlocked and handing it to a stranger.”

“Huh.” Touché. Did she see my picture of Jun, then? Awkward. “Alright, fine. Second: what did you mean? About wanting me to be drunk or whatever?”

“I merely wanted to find out how you and Jun get along. And so, naturally, we put little bugs your phones at the restaurant today.” Another sigh. “Alas, when it comes to Jun, it seems you have a far gentler touch than I expected.”

My mouth hung open. “You have to be fucking kidding me.” Anger and embarrassment churned in my skull as I went over all the thing Jun and I did. If she was telling the truth, she heard it all. “Just— what?”

“Just a precaution, dear.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to spy on us.”

“We shut them down after things got ‘heavy,’ if that is any consolation.”

“It really isn’t.” I felt like I had to change my shirt again. “Like, at all. What kind of— ugh, Christ. That’s some stupid spy movie bullshit. What kind of parent even thinks about doing that?”

“The kind who worries about her daughter.”

“Then call her. I get that you haven’t talked for years or whatever, but the least you could do is talk to her. I won’t ask what you do for a living, but for fuck’s sake, keep it away from your daughter.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. As if you know a thing about parenting.”

“I know plenty.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“I was almost a parent when I was twenty two.” The words slipped out before I could stop them.

A pause. “Excuse m—”

“Yeah. I thought I’d be a great parent, too, when I was young and stupid. But now, thinking about how both Jun’s parents and my parents managed to fuck up so bad that neither of us wanted to talk to them until today, I feel like I dodged a lifetime of bullets.” My spine tingled with sweat. I really did need to change my shirt. “Then again, our parents’ bullshit was the only reason either of us are here that, so there’s that. Kudos, your kid survived to adulthood. But quit acting like you can do whatever you want just because she’s your daughter.”

Atsuko cleared her throat. “Are you finished?”

I shook my head to get rid of the residual frustration. “Sure. Glad I vented all that, actually. So, why did you call me, anyway?”

“Honestly, I wanted to invite you and Jun to a real dinner sometime.”

My gut sank. “For a second I thought you’d send a hit squad after me for talking shit like that.”

“Oh, there’s no need for them.”

Okay, not going to touch on who she meant. “I’d, uh, have to ask her when she wakes up. If she’s up for it, then so am I. As long as you don’t bother us with stuff like bugs or whatever.”

“You took that rather well, by the way.”

My eyes rolled. “I’m dating a woman who can change into anyone in the world at the drop of a hat. I’m just surprised you didn’t just use magic to do it.”

“Our kind has no such spell.” She chuckled. “But, true enough, she was always quite good at disguises. You should have seen her around Halloween.”

For the first time in the conversation, I felt an inkling of camaraderie form between me and Atsuko. Both of us knew Jun well, and in that I found a strange comfort in Atsuko’s long-distance presence. It was also good to know that Jun at least experienced holidays as a kid.

“Such a shame she does not intend to use such a talent for much longer.” A long sigh, and she said, “Well, I won’t keep you. You may call me at this number with your answer. I look forward to our next meeting, Mr. Cash.”

The sound of my name, uttered in the merry cadence and professional tone as my supervisor, left me frozen. A scarcely audible “Yeah” sputtered from my lips before she hung up.

Jun slept through dinnertime. She slept through the sounds of me prying my phone apart and removing the bug, too. When I crawled into bed around nine, she only awoke to a kiss and a whispered goodnight. Even then, she didn’t open her eyes. She only smiled and pulled me close.

* * *

Haze blinded me on the way to work. Jun once again left before me, making it curious why I didn’t see her in the office when I arrived.

I set my bag down in my cubicle without speaking to anyone. Tia paced down the hall outside her office while the rest of us started work at eight. The click-clack of Sylvia’s heels echoed through the office after an hour of discussing how many leaves our next ad needed.

She and Tia started talking. They went into the dragon’s office for a good long while before exiting. It took Sylvia a few seconds and a deep breath to pull herself from a slouch to her usual regal poise. Nobody else seemed to notice.

The clack of heels was replaced by the approach of Tia’s heavy footfalls. Soon she towered over Scott’s cubicle, making the rest of us shrink toward the opposite corner. Sylvia stood behind her.

“Come to the meeting room,” Tia said. “We gotta talk.”

Everyone scrambled out of the cubicle and either glided or speed-walked down the hall. I stayed behind, sharing a glance with both women.

“This it?” I asked.

Sylvia blinked, pressed her lips together, and nodded. Her face, an illusion, looked far paler than normal.

Tia’s scaled arm, thick as a tree trunk next to the thin Sylvia, rested across the back of the human woman’s shoulders. “You’ll be fine, champ.” Sylvia didn’t budge until Tia removed her arm and headed for the meeting room.

Angela looked like she broke a family heirloom and got caught. I half-expected her to blurt out, “I didn’t do it!” at any moment. Meanwhile, Scott and Chelsea seemed only to wonder what the meeting would be about. Tia closed the door, every trace of office bustle disappearing with a click of the latch.

“Alright,” Tia bellowed, “just so you guys know, there’ll be a slight change around here.” Both Sylvia and I fidgeted. “Some people in the room know about this change already, but I won’t name names. So, yeah. Sylvia, you’re up.”

Weights of doubt and worry dragged my insides down as Sylvia took center stage. It was all I could do not to just grab her and take her out of the room.

She rolled her neck a little, and her voice cracked. “E-everyone?” Her hand shot to her mouth and her eyes clamped shut for a moment. “Ahem. Everyone, I stand here today to tell y-you that I am not who many of you think I am.”

Scott adjusted in his chair. “You in trouble or something?”

Angela twiddled her thumbs, eyes darting between everyone in the room.

The woman in question reflexively looked away. “From here, I will let events unfold as they will. Regardless of the outcome, this is something I feel I must do. A-and—” she stifled another crack of her voice. “You will be the last people to ever see Sylvia Mercer.”

Our coworkers whispered among themselves as Sylvia reached for the top of her head. Before anybody could say anything, she took a deep breath and filled her corner of the room with a plume of fog. Chelsea, Scott, and Angela stared wide-eyed at the display, waiting for the smoke to clear. Seconds passed, and the tanuki I had come to know stood at the head of the table, clad in the same gray striped business suit as Sylvia, sized for her.

The three uninformed stared aghast.

Her lips quivered. “M-my name is not Sylvia Mercer. My real name is Jun Cosca, a tanuki masquerading as a human.” I wondered if that was an Italian surname.

Words came to Scott’s mouth, but no voice came to his lips.

She covered the silence with her words. “I know that I’ve been l-lying to you all for longer than is forgivable. I can’t express how so sorry I am for not coming clean for so long. Sylvia’s identity w-was created just so I could get a job in this city. N-nobody would hire me, and I was alone at the time, unable to rely even on my family. I became desperate.” Her eyes glanced around the room as if searching for a reaction.

She got one.

“Aren’t you Lennard’s girlfriend?” Angela asked, a wing pointing weakly at Jun.

Her hands clasped in front of her stomach. “Well— some of you might recognize me from a, uh, picture Lennard has.” A deep breath, and she glimpsed at me from behind the fear in her eyes. “He found out not long after he started working here. After he discovered who I was, I began living as myself again. Soon I found that the guilt of being Sylvia— the one, big, thoroughly planned lie of a life I was leading— was becoming more than I could stand.”

I heard a sniff from the other end of the table and turned to see both Chelsea and Angela on the verge of tears. Scott covered his eyes with one hand and drew it down his face. Disbelief layered over a simmering anger in his eyes.

Jun continued. “I-I think that, even if I’m never forgiven for this, it was the right decision to tell you all.”

A thick fog of silence fell over the meeting room, save for the sound of Tia scratching her head with a claw. My heart beat slow and hard, waiting for someone to say something. I couldn’t think of anything. There had to have been something to help back her up, but I wondered what impression that might have given. It might’ve backfired.

A hard slap burst from the table next to Scott, and I turned to see his angry eyes lock with mine. “So. You knew for how long?”

For a moment my mouth couldn’t form words. “Since August. I think.”

“And you been fuckin’ her for that long, too? Gonna sleep your way up that corporate ladder?”

“No, Scott. But even if we have been ‘together’ or whatever, we’ve kept things professional at work just fine. And come on, I don’t want to make more work for myself.”

He shook his head. “I just don’t know anymore, man.”

Jun took a step towards us, her hand reaching for us close to her chest as if it would be bitten off if she reached further. “Scott, please. None of this is Lennard’s fault. I know it’s a lot to ask, but—”

Scott glared at her. “Sylvia introduced me to my wife.”

She stepped back and her ears sagged.

“Sylvia came to my wedding.”

She shrank further.

He stood and waved a hand as if wanted to hit something. “I— dammit, I invited Sylvia, not some fuckin’— ugh!” Scott pointed a finger at her. “You and my wife have known each other for just as long! And you didn’t even—” His arm pulled back and rubbed furious sweat from his head.

Jun’s lips trembled. “I couldn’t risk— I’m sor—”

He headed for the door. “Tia, I’m taking the day off. Take a sick day off or something, I don’t care.”

The dragon’s foot stamped in front of him before he could reach the handle, shifting everything in the room. “You know you can’t just go straight to me with a day-off request. Gotta tell your supe first.”

His eyebrow raised at Tia, undaunted. “She heard me.”

They stared at each other for a moment before she stepped away from the door and let him through. Scott toppled a chair as he passed, sending a raucous noise through the office before the meeting room door clicked shut and sealed the room once more.

Jun hung her head, arms wrapped around her stomach. “I-I’ll excuse myself, then.”

Before I could stop her from leaving, a wing came between her and the door. Angela, eyes ready to burst with tears, stood before her.

“What’d you say your real name was?” the harpy asked.

She looked at me, and I gave her a reassuring nod before she turned back to Angela. “J-Jun.”

The harpy drew in a long, hard, wet sniff. “I’m really gonna miss Sylvia.” Jun’s damp eyes darted to the floor. “But you coulda at least told me. I mean, I’m a harpy. So I kinda get it, y’know?”

Jun’s lower lip quivered. “Angela.”

She craned her neck to look at Jun from different angles. “So this’s you, huh?” A small smile. “Always thought Sylvia was a bit scary and, like, mysterious and stuff. I think it’ll be a lot easier to talk to you now, though. So, uh.” She extended the claw of her right wing toward the tanuki. “Nice to meet you, Jun.”

A moment of realization washed over Jun’s face. Her eyes clamped shut and she grasped Angela’s wing. Then, with a tug, Angela pulled the tanuki toward her into a tight winged embrace, which Jun returned with a sob muffled against her friend’s chest.

While Tia rolled her eyes, I turned to see Chelsea still sitting in her seat. “Do you have anything to add to this?” I asked.

The frumpy-haired young woman stared at the other girls hugging. “Well! Um. Sylvia was cool and all, and it was fun to mess around sometimes. But, I just work here.”

My eyebrows raised. “Really.”

“Yeah, we weren’t best friends or anything, so this is all just a bit—” she waved her hand around in the air, “— over my head right now.” Turning to me, she added, “Congrats on the girlfriend, though.”

Best not split hairs on terminology. “Ha, thanks.”

Tia stepped forward and broke up the hug. “Alright, come on. No crying at work, kids. Human or not, she never faked being good at her job. So get outta here and back to work. Got it?”

While Angela wiped her eyes and headed for the door with a skip, Jun took a deep breath and fixed her hair. She was so busy that she didn’t hear me walk up next to her until my hand touched her head. With an initial jolt of surprise, she sighed at the feeling of my fingers tousling her hair.

“Good job,” I whispered.

She nudged my arm away with hers. “Actually. Ahem, Tia?”

The dragon stopped before ducking under the doorframe. “Ah?”

“I’m glad that Angela and Chelsea took this so well, but,” deep breath, “it looks like I’ll be causing some conflict in the office with Scott.”

I wondered where she planned to go with this. “He’ll get over it, Jun. He’s just surprised.”

“Or, he might not. And my relationship with you might cause other problems.”

Tia shrugged. “I don’t think there’s a ban on dating coworkers, so, like I said. It’s whatever.”

She pulled her shoulders back and stood confident before Tia. “Either way, as we discussed earlier, you may consider this my two-week notice.”

Jun’s words slithered into my head and for a moment my balance wavered. “Jun, wait, no. You don’t have to quit.”

Hearing us, Angela glided back. “Wait, what?”

Jun laced her fingers together in front of her business suit buttons. “I only did this because I couldn’t keep lying to you all. This had very little to do with work; I consider all of you my friends. But, no matter how this meeting turned out, I planned to quit.”

Angela looked about ready to burst into a torrent of tears.

Jun saw this and put her hands on the harpy’s shoulders. “No no no. It’ll be okay, Angela. We can still be friends outside of work. I-I really want to be a better friend, but everything here is just too much of a mess because of me.”

Part of me realized that she had a point. After all, she still hadn’t told the other 95% of the company about being a tanuki. Documents still needed to be changed, HR still needed to swap around information, and she probably needed to change her bank account and apartment lease. I couldn’t imagine what else. Regardless, the rest of me wanted to deny it.

“Y—” my words caught in my throat, “You’ll stay in the city, though?”

She let go of the gently sobbing Angela and crossed her arms. “That’s the plan. Not sure how my job hunt will go. And, to be honest, I don’t want to rely on my mom for that.”

The resident dragon’s horned shadow hunched over the three of us. Her presence steadily grew above us until she expelled it all in a harsh steam from her nostrils that mussed everyone’s hair.

Tia’s shoulders slumped. Scratching the horns on her head and averting Jun’s gaze, she muttered, “I guess we can do the paperwork for that today.”

As Tia walked away, Angela hopped toward Jun and hugged her once more. Our corner of the office filled with Jun’s gentle reassurances to her new friend.

 

((To be continued in the Epilogue))

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