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Growing Up

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Futaba is going out tonight.

She wishes she wasn’t.

When she’d become a freelance programmer, she’d thought she wouldn’t have to deal with the same annoying formalities ordinary desk workers had to. She could work from her top-of-the-line gaming chair in her pyjamas, snacking on jagariko and ramen, and no one would judge her for it. Almost every issue a client had could be discussed over email, and her reputation meant that most clients were happy to commission her even without meeting face-to-face. It had the same perks as being an anonymous hacker did, with the added benefit of being paid for her work.

Her current client, however, is more troublesome. All they wanted was for her to develop a professional UI for their new app, which barely took Futaba any time at all. Even so, they kept emailing her daily for status updates, and an hour after she reported having finished the upgrades, the client invited her out for a celebratory dinner.

Luckily it won’t just be Futaba and some business suit sitting in a restaurant - some others from the company will be there to celebrate the launch of the app, and since it is a small business she doesn’t expect there will be too many of them. But it still means she has to go outside and deal with strangers, and she has to look professional doing it, too.

She’s never been a ‘professional’! She hasn’t had a ‘real’ job in her life!

Futaba brushes most of her bright hair back, pulling it into a ponytail high on her head. Man, she really wishes she’d turned down the offer. It’s not like she has to take every sidequest an NPC offers.

Then she remembers Ren’s reaction to the email, when she’d complained to him about it. He’d chided her, saying it would be a good opportunity to make more connections.

“Besides,” Ren had said, “the email says you can bring a Plus One. You don’t have to go this alone.”

Her lips tug into a smile unconsciously. It’s just like Ren to stop her from giving up and hiding away on her own. Though she’s gotten a lot better at social interactions than she had been when they first met, it still makes her far more comfortable to have her Key Item by her side in these sorts of situations.

With her hair tied firmly, she twists it into a bun, securing it with a bunch of hair pins. It takes a lot of effort to keep her hair from falling out and becoming a mess of flyaways and bumps, but she’s lived with long hair for a long enough time to be able to wrangle it somehow. Once it feels secure, she lowers her hands from her bun, judging it in the mirror.

For a split second, as she scrutinises her barely made-up face and simple outfit, she thinks she sees a flash of something else in the mirror. Not something behind her, like in a horror movie, but something in her.

She rakes her eyes over her face again, trying to find it.

She could have sworn that, for just a second, she saw her mother in her reflection.

It’s been almost twelve years since her mother’s death, and almost a decade since Futaba’s final vision of her mother faded. Her first thought - a worry that sinks under her skin and surfaces only in her darkest moments, when her thoughts are left to run rampant too long - is that the voices from back then have returned, that she’s somehow faltered, that she maybe even has a Palace again.

But this isn’t a voice. This isn’t a cognitive hallucination of her distorted fears. This is reality.

It’s surreal.

“Futaba?”

Ripped from her thoughts, Futaba’s attention switches to the man standing in the door to their shared bedroom. Ren has already finished getting ready; his mess of curls has only slightly been tamed, and he’s paired his usual blazer with a button-up shirt for the occasion. He looks as handsome as ever. Futaba definitely got lucky when he was the one to steal her heart.

When Futaba doesn’t respond, Ren steps over until he’s behind her, holding her gently by the waist. He rests his chin on top of the bun on her head, looking into the mirror in front of them. Futaba follows his gaze.

“You look beautiful,” he says, ever the charmer. “Is something wrong?”

Futaba frowns in thought. “I look like my mum.”

Ren’s eyes scan over her reflection. “You don’t look like a sphinx to me.”

Futaba elbows him gently, though the memory makes her laugh all the same. “Not that one. My actual mum.”

She’s shown Ren photos of her mother before - not that there are many left, of course, but she’d been able to save a few when she left her family home after her mum’s death. Besides, he’d also seen the true version of her in her Palace.

“Your outfits are kind of similar, I guess,” Ren says.

Futaba finally notices that she’s wearing the same style of sleeveless black turtleneck that her mum always wore to work - and also in her memories, and in her Palace. Huh. “Oh my god. I am my mum.”

Ren laughs at that. “They do say that people tend to see their parents in themselves as they grow older though, right?”

“Yeah. I guess I just never noticed ‘til now.”

“Didn’t you once say you wanted to be like your mum as an adult?”

For someone with a usually perfect memory, the conversation Ren’s talking about feels a little hazy. Still, it’s there. “Yeah. I’ve always looked up to her. Her stats were crazy good.”

“Well, for the record, I think you’re doing great,” Ren says. “Your stats have shot up since then. Look at you - you’re even going to fancy dinner parties now.”
Futaba groans. “Don’t remind me.”

“You’re gonna be great.” Ren gently uses his hold on her waist to turn her around so they’re facing each other. Even now, in their mid-twenties, Ren is still over a head taller than Futaba, so she has to look up to meet his eyes. Not that she minds - he always meets her in the middle. “You’re gonna show them all what a cool and smart person you are, and they’re gonna hire you for more stuff in the future, and we can binge all the anime you like when we get home.”

The offer is definitely tempting - she’s got a few shows on her queue, and it’s been a little while since she and Ren last spent a whole weekend marathoning anime together. “Is that a promise?”

“I honour my promises.”

Futaba remembers a time long ago when he’d said those same words - when they’d only just gotten together, and Futaba thought her heart would crash every time they were alone together. He’d promised a reward for completing her promise list, and she’d asked for the right not to leave him.

Almost a decade later, and she’s still by his side. Her lips form a grin just thinking about it.

“I’ll work hard then,” she says. “I’ll show ‘em all who’s boss.”

Rather than a verbal response, Ren leans down and presses a soft kiss to Futaba’s lips. He pulls away before she can lean in, probably so he doesn’t mess up her makeup, and she pouts at the short contact.

“Let’s get this mission started, Oracle,” he says with a familiarly charismatic smirk. “We’ll be late if we don’t leave soon.”

Futaba feels her own grin return. It’s at times like this that she really does miss the Metaverse. “Okay. Let’s go, Joker.”

As they leave, Futaba thinks that just maybe, just this once, going out won’t be so bad after all.