This was it: the end of another day at The Working Company.
Retsuko perched behind her workstation, legs gently kicking back and forth as the sun inched lower in the world beyond the window. She took a deep breath, just holding the yawn at bay, ribs almost creaking with the effort. Her lips smacked together softly before she pushed them back into a smile, cheeks pinching, eyes screwing shut with every sore blink. Her hands lay folded in her lap, too tired and raw to even think about drumming the time away. Pops bubbled painfully down her spine as she forced her shoulders to settle, trying to ignore the fiery ache.
The end of another long, hard day at The Working Company.
But it wasn’t over just yet. Yes, the last bleep from the copier had seared into their ears near fifteen minutes ago and the kettle had shrieked its last for the day long before even that. The endless clattering of keyboards had long faded and the roaring hum of hushed voices had washed away, leaving only the faint buzz of the bulbs overhead to bore deep into Retsuko’s head.
And the creak of the desk next to her.
Retsuko forced her smile wider, dull, white heat screwing into her retinae. But they couldn’t go yet. No. She had to sit there, bolt upright like a good little girl, and ignore the gnawing at her ankles and the clamminess under her sweatshirt. Fenneko had to keep her paws to herself, phone far from reach, ears slack only at their tips from being ground into for nine hours. Haida had to snore himself awake every couple of seconds, tie slack around his neck but his shirt stiff, every sheaf he had processed that week dragging his snout further and further to the floor…
Poor guy. He’d really taken it for the team that week.
But no… they couldn’t leave. Not before—
“I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS DAY HAS FINALLY COOOME!”
Retsuko could. She fought to keep the scowl from settling in her face, propping her brows high through sheer will. This was the only thing Kabae had talked about for weeks!
Well, months, now that she thought about it. After all, it had all started back when they were catching up after the week that felt more like a nanosecond that they had all had off around Christmas. Kabae had held court in the break room the first time more than five bodies shuffled in, bellowing that one thing had led to another on her birthday last year, once her husband had surprised her with a whole case of her favourite red wine. And told the whole room about what a good, kind, loving man he was and that she was so lucky in life. And then giggled and blushed her way through a wink-wink explanation of what things had led to other things that day…
Chills surged hard and searing across Retsuko’s back. Acid hacked her cheeks. She could have guessed where it had gone. She didn’t need to hear that her husband had to make a run to the pharmacy, only to find it closed, after running out of supplies.
Haida had taken the chance, as the had hippo sighed way too deeply for anyone’s comfort, to dive out of the room without so much as a sip of coffee. Fenneko had a faint green tinge to her face for the rest of the day.
The straps. Why did she mention the straps?
Why did Bibanuma keep asking for more details?
“I’M GOING TO MISS ALL OF YOU SO MUUUCH!”
Keep smiling. She had to keep smiling. Soon it would all be over and Kabae could begin her hard… um, well…
Retsuko swallowed. The image of her co-worker swam hazily in her head, flat on her back on an enormous, western-style bed, her arms pulled out to either side and strapped to the posts. Her chest heaving, tummy spilling onto the mattress around her, glistening skin peeking out over a lacy nightie. Her red cheeks bunched into a giddy, joyous smile, giggling with anticipation.
Her legs inching wider—
Retsuko swallowed again, burns dampening in her chest. The marrow. How would that even work?
“Tsunoda, you ALWAYS have a kind word for EVERYONE!” Kabae cooed, floating over to the far desks through sheer joy, waving at the doe as she landed. Tsunoda gave a her a polite bow in reply.
“And SONMA! Thank you SO much for all of your great recipes!” She bounced over to the seal’s desk, who paused with her maw around another cake. Sonma blushed, nodding as she whispered something that made Kabae leap her own height in the air.
A gurgle echoed in Retsuko’s middle and she frowned.
“HAIDA!” Kabae appeared next to the slouching hyena. He yelped upright and turned to face her, mouth dumbly gaping, blinking the sleep from his eyes. She squelched his paw in her own, eyes glowing and cheeks rosier than ever. “Seeing you ALWAYS brightens my morning!”
Retsuko couldn’t keep her lips together, heat rising in her cheeks as the hyena mouthed wordlessly at his soppy paw. She was married! How could she be so brazen?
“RETSY!” Kabae waved at her from across their bank of desks, smile beaming. “You’re always such a DEAR TO ME! I’ll miss you SO MUCH!”
“Um…” Her face froze solid and her eyes widened, breath catching. “Thank you. I’ll miss you too!” Retsuko cobbled together a smile, her stare still casting the moon in shadow.
“Well, we’re certainly going to miss your presence around the office, Kabae.”
She had never been happier to hear the pig’s voice. Then or all those months ago, blustering into the break room to bring them back to work.
Retsuko blinked, eyes like sandpaper under their lids. Director Ton stood in the centre of the office as Kabae floated over, trotter gently clasping the hippo’s hand while her other dabbed a hankie under her shimmering eyes.
She landed with a flump that scooched Retsuko’s desk across the floor. Her face was a mess between the smeared mascara and the streaks cleaved through her foundation, where it had not already been wiped onto innumerable tissues that had lain strewn across her desk the whole week. Sweat pooled on her brow and soaked into dark patches under her arms, every breath a laboured wheeze. She slouched, shirt buttons sinking into shallow valleys as they strained to keep her ponderous middle decent.
And yet she glowed, eyes sparkling with pure and utter joy, warmth and affection and pride radiating across the whole room from her smile alone.
Retsuko’s stomach curdled, colder and far worse than anything else she’d felt that morning. Kabae wasn’t a bad person. She was always zipping around the office trying to lift everyone’s spirits and show off the happiness that at least she felt. Could she really be faulted for that? No. Of course not. Retsuko should have known better.
But… maybe she didn’t need to let everyone know the intimate details of her little miracle. Or the details of how it came to be, specifically...
“Could we maybe get to the missing part any sooner?” came a dry whisper to her left. Retsuko glanced. Fenneko sat, faint smile still locked in place but her eyes dulled.
And her paws were empty, limp on the desk in front of her, phone nowhere in sight… maybe she did care…?
“Fenneko…” Haida muttered, sinking further in his seat, ear flickering in the fox’s direction. He glanced back, hazel streaked with red and threatening to spill out of their sockets altogether. “Let her have this.”
“I thought you’d be on my side.” The smile stretched into an evil grin, eyebrow rising. “She was looking at you the whole time in the break room last year.”
Haida shivered, turning back around in his seat. Then he retched under his breath.
Fenneko kept staring at him, glinting with smug sparks.
“I’M GOING TO DO MY BEST TO KEEP YOU ALL UP TO DATE WHILE I’M AWAY!” She tore her hand away from Ton’s, waving it into a white blur in front of the pig’s face. Tsubone tittered, shaking her head. But her smile was warm and knowing. Probably thinking of the time she found out she was going to be an auntie.
Ton simply stood tall, sunken eyes bigger, brighter, and shinier than ever, as though he were the proud reason behind her leave. Which he was, in a way, admittedly. A smile beamed from somewhere in the jumble of jowls. “Yes, I’m sure we’d appreciate finding out how you and the little one are getting along. Provided it doesn’t distract anyone at work, anyway!” He chuckled.
“He sure seems weirdly chipper about this…” Retsuko hummed.
“She’s a woman about to go back to her ‘proper place’, outside of his office.” Retsuko could feel Fenneko’s glare firing across the room at Ton. “Surprised he didn’t mandate that she give up her shoes before he signed off her le—”
Kabae blew her nose with enough force to shatter windows and to ring around Retsuko’s ears for hours to come. “Sorry!” she said thickly, dabbing her eyes again as tears bloomed fresh. “I know I’m being loud and all that, but… I JUST CAN’T HELP IT!” Her smile grew and grew until it practically split her face apart, and she brought her hand to rest gently against her belly. She rubbed it tenderly, chin sinking into her chest. “In a couple months, I’m going to be a MOMMY AGAIN!”
Retsuko silently cooed, unable to stop the smile blooming across her face. Deep, hearty warmth nestled snugly in her tummy as she watched the hippo softly pat her own, lips pursing, words unable to match the glimmer in her eyes.
Wetter warmth bloomed behind her eyes. Sure, she hadn’t appreciated it when they were told to stay behind, but this… this was just so lovely. There really was nothing quite so wonderful as a parent’s love for their children…
Well, their young children. Retsuko blinked. A fading panda taunted her thoughts, wrinkles deepening into a scowl around judging eyes. Their adult chil—
No. No. Stop it. She could slap herself. Should slap herself.
This was a happy occasion. This was not about her.
Retsuko leaned left, shielding her mouth with a paw. Jamming it hard into her cheek. “At least she seems happy about it.”
Fenneko blinked, silent, eyes shifting to the hippo and holding for several long breaths. They cooled, smirk softening. “Yes. She is.” A smile—a genuine, warm, happy smile—ghosted across her lips. “And I’ll give her a pass. It’s probably been a while since her other children outgrew calling her ‘Mommy’, specifically.”
A chuckle bubbled out Retusko’s nose before she knew it.
“Are you SURE you’re going to be okay without me around to HELP?!” Kabae flapped her ears, raising a hand to her mouth.
Ton smiled. That cheery, summery, children’s presenter smile. On an ordinary day, alarms would have blared in every mind in the office, but today… “Don’t you worry about that. You’ll only be gone a few months and we’ve put measures in place to look after your workload while you’re gone.” He folded his arms, grinning. Vein only faintly pulsing in his forehead. “We’ll be fine.”
“But…” Kabae mumbled, as if realising that she had just implied the boss couldn’t do his job properly. “But if you DO need help—”
“Nonsense!” He drawled, patting her hand. “We have everything covered. This time is all about you making sure you’re rested and ready to…” His brows raised for a moment, as though the Personnel Resources Manual had just landed on his foot. Tension clawed Retsuko’s shoulders, studiously ignoring the light disappearing into twin black holes where her friend sat. “Uh… do your most important job as a woman and bring a new child into your family.”
Well… he could have worded that worse.
A low growl finally pulled her eyes to the left. Fenneko glared at the pig with enough force to melt steel and her brows burrowing low enough to crush what was left to dust.
“I think he might hear you, Fenneko,” Haida whispered.
Instantly her eyes widened and her face softened, back into its dispassionate stare. Nice save, Haida. A squeak dragged Retsuko’s eyes down and they snagged on the grooves left by the foxes claws.
“Now, you go and enjoy your well-earned break,” Ton said, gesturing to the door, smile still bearing down on the hippo.
Kabae smiled back, her eyes still alight and twinkling. “THANK YOU SO MUCH, MR TON!” She pumped his trotter up and down with enough force to restart the planet. “BYE EVERYBODY!”
A chorus of warm goodbyes and cheers rang out through the office, and the hippo’s smile only glowed brighter and more sweetly as the volume grew. She hovered towards her desk and plucked the cardboard box with her personal effects—it was incredible she needed just the one—before wafting on towards the door. Ookami started clapping.
“See you in a few months, dearie!” cooed Tsubone, tongue dancing.
“Send us lots of pictures!” squealed Tsunoda as more joined the applause.
Retsuko found her paws slapping together as she looked on at the radiant hippo, squeezing her way out the door with a final wave. Why had she even held back? This was such a happy occasion! A lovely… yes, a kind, sweet woman got to have some time away from a horrible job and welcome a new life into the world, and she seemed so excited for it! Sure, she probably wasn’t going to have the easiest time for the next few months—health class did a lot to inform her of that —but Kabae didn’t seem to be worried about any of that, so why should they? Heck, Tsubone was happy about this; it could only be a happy occasion!
Director Ton placed his trotter on the door, pushing it flush with the wall with emphasis. He held it there as the seconds ticked by and the clapping faded away, cheers dying silently on lips and smiles drooping to nothing around them. The white lights of the office glared ever more coldly as he continued to just stand there, motionless.
Ton heaved in a deep breath, rising up and looming larger than ever over the office behind him, before spinning around. What smile had once been was now buried beneath a scowl and a myriad jowls, brows set low above beady eyes that glowed a dangerous yellow, piercing even under the fluorescents.
Tsubone had been happy. The warm snuggles burst into ashes in her stomach. Why did she even think that was a good thing?!
Ton looked around the room, eyes roving over the many pairs staring widely but shyly back. He snorted. “Now that that’s over with, the rest of you can get back to work!”
Ton stomped past her bank of desks, blazing a streak of sour, sweaty disappointment across the floor where joy had reigned mere moments before, desks aquiver with every massive footfall. Retsuko reached out a paw to steady her screen.
Komiya raised his own, except his paw shot straight out from his desk, frantically waving after the pig. “Um, Sir!” he squeaked, leaping to his feet. “If I may…?”
Ton stopped, head slowly swivelling back to face the meerkat bobbing up to meet him. “What is it, Komiya?”
“Not to doubt your judgement, Sir!” Komiya almost drilled through the floor as he bowed. “Which I am certain is one hundred percent correct!” He swept bolt upright again, keen smile gleaming in the light shining from the pig’s backside. “But would you mind elaborating on what your plan is for Kabae’s workload?”
Ton grunted, bottom lip thrust out, brow raised in question. An arm split from the fold to prop himself against his desk.
“I mean, ordinarily, as your Chief Clerk, I would simply reallocate the work myself as I saw fit.” He brought a paw to rest on his chest, presumably to stop the ego bursting out of it. “In accordance with your overall direction, Sir!” he crooned, again bowing so forcefully it nearly became a headbutt. “But as this is a more long-term rebalancing of workload, I thought it might require rather more authority than my own.”
“Hmm…” Ton nodded, tapping a finger on his desk. “Yes. This does call for my name on the order.” The pig sauntered back across the office, steps lighter but shaking far more chills down Retsuko’s spine, unable to look away from his haunting grin.
“You’re right, sir!” Komiya fell into line behind the pig, back perfectly straight but eyes wild, twitching every other step. “We’re so fortunate to have your expert leadership!”
“Heh…” Ton puffed out his chest, trotters purposefully resting on hips as he nodded. “I know.”
On the desk before him, right next to Retsuko, stood the Leaning Tower of Kabae. Once fashioned into a great wall between their desks, it now loomed in a single, gigantic pile, wobbling dangerously if anyone so much as breathed, the desk bowing and shaking the whole time. It was monstrous. It was taller than her. Taller than Haida. It had nearly wiped the three of them out in the time it took Ton to walk over!
With a huff, Ton wrapped his trotters around the base and hefted the whole stack off the table.
Retsuko stared. How…? All he did was play golf!
“Okay, let’s see what we’ve got here…” he muttered, somehow walking off with barely a break in stride. Eyes followed him from all angles as he made his way to the far desks. Ookami sat stiff in his seat, only his head moving, slowly angling upwards as the stack hoved closer and closer, eyes wide and staring.
“Ookami.” Two thick folders slapped onto the desk, eyes momentarily flicking to them before darting back to the pig’s, his tail slowly billowing behind him. “You wanted to make the next rank, right?” The maned wolf’s face vibrated. It might have been a nod. “You can look after the Takahashi accounts.” Ton angled the stack around his barrel, making room for him to loom right against Ookami’s muzzle. “These are ten percent of our revenue. Do not screw these up.”
Retsuko’s ear flicked, just barely holding her brow in place. Kabae looked after that much money? Sure… she was a senior member of the team… and she’d effectively been Retsuko’s senpai when she joined out of university, but...
Ookami straightened, nodding visibly this time. “Y-yes sir.”
Ton instantly stood up again, smile bright and cheery. “Good!”
Retsuko felt her shoulders slowly loosen, the air cooler and suddenly less like soup in her throat. This… might not be so bad, after all. Sure, there was a tonne of work for everyone to pick up on, but… okay, she didn’t know Mr Ton, not really, but she at least knew him better now. Underneath all the scowls and the yells and the terrible, terrible temper, there was a reasonable person who wanted the work to be done. That night, yes, and all of it. But done.
The weight eased a little off her chest, taking her frown away with it. Maybe this would be fair?
Ton shuffled across to the next desk, where Sonma—
The pretty little seal lounged in her special seat, sparkly eyes staring right back into Mr Ton’s, creamy cake disappearing noisily between her lips as the pig shuffled through the papers.
Her stomach groused, rummaging through the meagre onigiri she’d bolted down earlier. No… it was more than enough rice for one meal. But where did that seal put it all? That must have been the fourth financier she had munched through this afternoon!
“Sonma.” Just the one file clattered onto the desk, loud enough for the seal to jerk the cake from her mouth. “It’s time for you to do more than in-house work. You’re taking over the Hoshino Holdings accounts.”
Sonma swallowed. Too loudly. But she smiled sweetly and nodded with a soft hum. “Thank you, Mr Ton,” she cooed. “I won’t let you down!”
Ton stared for a second longer, the seal’s smile growing as the air grew thick and cloying all around, before the pig’s sharp footsteps shattered it once more. Retsuko let out a breath and found it far deeper than expected. Her brows furrowed, eyes gliding to her desk. Just how long had she been holding it?
The steps grew louder. She looked up again and he was there, on the other side of her desk, eyes boring through the hyena, who stared back with eyes wider and paler than the moon.
His shirt rumpled and the fur curling in all the wrong directions on his muzzle.
The stack still taller than her, Ton’s trotter reaching barely halfway down.
Her paws balled up, breaths deep and sharp, ears tilting forward. No… he wouldn’t put all that on Haida… He couldn’t! He’d just finished an all-weeker clearing up the fallout from the Metro-City-Municibank merger! He’d told them all about how he’d barely slept in days! She’d even had to straighten his tie for him when he stumbled in that morning; he was so tired that he’d taken four tries to just get the knot in place without a bathtub of coffee.
He hadn’t even been awake enough to say thank you for five whole minutes after that!
A scowl set in harder than concrete, her stare darkening. She wouldn’t let—
“Good work last week.”
Haida blinked, mouth briefly hanging open before he forced a smile into place. “Um… thank you, sir.”
Ton grunted. “You can take the Kobayashi account,” he said, pulling a single file from the deck.
Haida nodded, pivoting the papers up and down with his elbows on his knees. Or maybe that was just how still he could keep his paws, now. “I won’t let you down, sir.”
Ton had already moved off with a huff, rounding the desk to stare down at Fenneko. She stared right back, face completely impassive, fingers meshed together in her lap.
A brow raised and set his whole face moving for second. “Fenneko.” Again, he dove into the middle of the pack. “You’re about the best brain we have here.” He pursed his lips. “Surprising, really.”
Fenneko’s tail lashed. But her face held, cool and blank.
“Still, we have to make do.” He reached into the pile and thrust two bulging files onto her desk. The fox blinked, not even glancing at them. “You can try sorting out whatever’s gone on with Inoue’s this year.”
Their stares held as the seconds stretched into the infinite, the fur prickling under Retsuko’s shirt and the tension hitching her shoulders.
Fenneko nodded. The room cooled from its invisible blaze.
Retsuko closed her eyes, slumping a little as the breath whooshed out her nose. A little smile dared to break out across her muzzle. This wasn’t so bad, really. Sure, it looked like they would be short-staffed for the next little while, but—
She jerked upright again, eyes popping open but blurred by the sudden darkness. Squinting, blinking, she tried to clear the fuzz, but her world remained stubbornly brown and beige.
Soft taps echoed from above and she followed them with her eyes, neck snagging her collar and pinching before she finally spotted it. Far, far above, Ton’s trotter patted the top of the stack, face cracking into a vicious, pointed grin.
“I think you can handle the rest of it, Calendar.”
“Um…” It was all she could get out with what little breath remained in her burning lungs. This was monstrous. Forget just being taller than her, this thing must be double her weight. Triple, even! Thousands of sheets of paper, reports, receipts, spreadsheets, logs, policies, and who could even begin to know what else might have been squirrelled away in there, a monument to one frazzled woman and her tenuous understanding of a filing system.
Her paws balled again, harder than ever, claws digging into her palms. But that was good. The papers wobbled and loomed overhead, shadows darkening her face, blotting out any semblance of living her own life as she knew it. Pain was good.
Guitars licked at her ears, shadows of their true selves but raw and real in her heart. The world faded around her as the beats and the crashes raced, matched only by those in her chest, fires rising to consume the skyscraper of paper—
She blinked, perking in her seat.
Not here. Not with him right next to her.
But this was just. Not. Fucking. Fair!
He breathed long and hard out of his snouth, breath oozing across her ears. He was leaning over her. Week-old mayonnaise and stale sweat filled the air and she willed herself to just keep looking forwards, bile burning in her throat.
She’d worked her butt off for the past two weeks! She had finally tamed the Katayama Agricultural files. They’d sat gathering dust on the shelves behind her since before she’d joined the company, until Tsubone saw her have a whole five minutes away from her desk and took it upon herself to fill it right back up. It had taken a day just to organise it all by quarter! From the minute she slipped into her uniform to the instant she stepped into the chilly night, she had barely moved from her desk, slaving away over what must have once been a whole rainforest of paperwork and numbers and so many errors to try and wrangle the foggiest idea of sense from any of it.
But she’d done it. And now…
She took a deep breath, tongue retching from the taste of the pig’s sickly antiperspirant and of how badly it was failing.
This was not happening. This was—
“Think of this as your chance to make up for leaving us hanging last year.”
—Completely out of her control.
The lashings of fury and rage died in a heartbeat, leaving silence to ring in her ears and blot out the world.
She kept staring up at the mountain before her.
She blanched. Okay… maybe she’d overstated it a little. Maybe it hadn’t been as bad as she had done before. She hadn’t had to skip yoga because Komiya spotted a rounding error in Tsunoda’s work from that day and asked her to go over it. All of it. That night. She hadn’t peeled herself from her laptop in the small hours of a date she barely recognised and stumbled back to her apartment on instinct alone. She hadn’t been found curled up under her desk in yesterday’s clothes, face a tousled mess, gently snoring into her paperwork...
Still, Fenneko had been kind enough to send her the picture of him hugging his laptop, suckling his thumb with a giddy smile. One almost flickered across her own lips, despite herself. At least one good thing came from all that.
Maybe she had pulled an all-nighter once… more than once, come to think of it. But not lately.
She scowled. Her fur bristled as though trying to bat away the clammy, sticky air wafting from the pig. He still loomed over her.
She… she had done that, too. What he had said. When they had needed her most, when they had an ocean of paperwork to process in a single day and Haida was on his sickbed, all she had done was waft around the office in her own little fantasy world. Consumed by all the little nooks and crannies and the festerings and the niggles of her soft, silly little heart, dwelling on the sweet nothings of her moment, her mind feasting on what the butterflies in her tummy said was her one.
She sniffed, eyes warm.
Sure, she had snapped out of it, and she had joined the rest of them to plough on through the morass as the moon rose, the stars bloomed and faded, and the fresh rays of the new dawn swam through the office around them, but it had taken Ton to burst her bubble. To pull her out of her own worst excesses and focus on what they actually paid her to do. He could have done so much worse to her that day.
Plus… no one else should have had to pick up her slack. She chewed her lip, blinking rapidly. That hadn’t been fair on Fenneko, or Ookami, or Tsunoda, or anybody!
Okay… maybe it would have been fair on Komiya.
But… she did … technically owe them this.
The fluorescent lights singed her eyes as she turned to face her boss, but she kept them open, firm and true on his own. She nodded. This… would have to work; it wasn’t like she was going to have a choice in the matter. “Of course, sir.” She forced a smile out, hoping that it reached her eyes and at least looked the part of the happy, earnest employee. “I can handle this.”
“Hmm?” Ton glared at Haida over the stack.
Pushing her paws into her seat, Retsuko strained to look around the paper mountain. The hyena had pressed himself back against his chair, ears stretching to splay themselves even further back, his eyes wide and his fingers strumming thin air. His jaw hung open, a faint glimmer of a smile pulling the corners back, but all that emerged was a quiet jibber.
Aww… Overworked out of his mind, and he still couldn’t help trying to fix everything. She smiled, warmth again settling fondly in her chest. Sorry, Haida.
“Honest!” she chirped, waving an arm and instantly regretting it as the weight faded on her left. In a flash of white, her arm grabbed back hold of the seat and wrestled herself back upright. She let out a quick breath. “Really! I’ll have everything under control.”
The hyena let his mouth close, his eyes slipping away from the boss’ on onto her own. They softened, no longer wide with pinprick pupils, but still silently questioning. She smiled. Warmly; it was nice of him to… imply that he was offering. Really. She was almost glad she didn’t have to see the warmth die in his smile.
But the burden was on her shoulders.
She glanced up at Ton, his beady eyes now staring right through the floor beneath her.
If she could actually play this right—if she could channel her inner-Washimi… assuming she had one—she might actually earn some respect for this! Taking on so much work and keeping the office afloat? Sure… she had done bits and pieces like that, but never on this scale. Her name would never have been on so many sheets of paper before.
Maybe this might actually turn out for the best?
Her smile beamed up at Ton. At least, she forced it to. “You can count on me, sir.”