With golden eyes, Layra watched her daughter leave the room. The door slowly closed, every creak a painful reminder that she was once again going to be left alone in that cold, grey room. Once it was shut closed, along with the little girl she loved more dearly than anything in the world, Layra let out a deep, shuddering breath and looked down the table they'd been sharing but a few moments ago.
Tiny puddles were sprinkled across the plastic slab, and she wasn't sure if the majority had been made by her tears or Miia's. The lamia's red coils curled around her as she thought back on everything that had happened, everything that had been said between mother and daughter.
Miia had been… quieter than before. There was no yelling that time, but if anything that had made things worse.
Her own daughter told her that not only had she completely cast aside the entire reason she'd joined the homestay program, but also that for most of her life she'd felt empty. Dictated by expectations and emotions she could barely reign in. Miia, her little girl, had hated herself and her mother had never known.
And it had only been when Miia had left her tribe, her home, that she found what she'd been looking for.
Layra didn't know what hurt her more: that she'd directly caused Miia pain, or that she'd played no part in Miia's happiness all this time.
There was a knock on the door. Slowly, Layra looked up but said nothing. There were a few moments of pause before the door opened, revealing one of the catalysts for Miia's change.
"Layra," the bespectacled, bearded man greeted stiffly as he stepped inside. Juyo Janai, or 'Romance Master' as Miia had so often called him in her letters home. He'd always been described as friendly, silly, and blunt by her daughter with a great deal of affection and warmth. None of that showed on his stoic face, tensed shoulders, or thin lips.
The zombie girl who had detained Layra stood in the doorway, one hand on her holstered sidearm as she glared at the lamia with gold and green eyes.
Ignoring her, Layra looked back at the man she'd been planning to claim as her own only a short time ago.
"Mister Janai," she greeted back, tacking on a small smile. She knew it was obvious she'd been crying, but she had no desire to give anything to him. "You seem well."
"Better than I was," Juyo replied as he sat down, placing a thin binder down on the table. He wiped the tears off the table before doing so. "Can't say the same for you, though."
"Was there a reason for your visit?" Layra asked a bit quickly, before smirking and letting a single hand play a little with her considerable bust. "Or did you want to get one last look in before I was gone?"
Ah, the zombie was growling now. So she was his woman, then? If so, what poor taste. Unless he too wished to join the undead, he would wither away while she was forced to watch. And she would never be able to bear him children, besides.
"I'm already in a relationship," Juyo retorted blandly. He had looked down, but only briefly. "And her company is infinitely preferable to yours."
Considering how the zombie had reacted to that statement, she was definitely his.
"So no, I'm not here to ogle my friend's mom and the one who poisoned a lot of people I care about," Juyo continued before she could interject. He slid the binder forward. "I'm here to help your people out and prevent anything like this from happening again."
"How noble of you," Layra drawled, looking the binder over but not taking it. "Please tell me how you, someone who has never visited my tribe nor have any involvement in our culture, have figured out how to fix everything for us."
Juyo rolled his eyes. "I'm trying to be professional with you, Layra," he shot back heatedly. "I despise you for what you did, even moreso since you never even bothered to ask your own daughter if it was something she wanted beforehand. You poisoned me and my friends, had every intention of kidnapping me and Kimihito, and you were entirely prepared to rape us." He leaned forward, his brown eyes hardening like stones.
"There are three reasons why I'm even speaking with you right now," Juyo told her. "First, you are Miia's mother and she still loves you, despite everything. Second, you may very well be the catalyst for big improvements in human-liminal relations. Third, I am in a very good mood because of something that resulted from your actions." Nothing in his tone suggested he was happy in the slightest, but she sensed no lies in his words. "So it could be argued that I owe you."
Layra looked him over for a few moments before leaning back and letting out a sigh of disappointment.
"I did look into you, a little bit," she informed him, looking away. "You're a dimensional traveler, right?"
"... Yeah, I am," Juyo answered, brows knitted. "But what does that have to do with this?"
Layra shrugged. "I'm just wondering why you care so much, considering this isn't your home," she pointed out. "It's just a bit-"
"Look, if you're trying to get under my skin, you already did that the day we met," Juyo cut her off curtly. "We're both adults here, aren't we? So let me just explain what's in that binder and how it'll help your tribe, then I'll be on my way. Good?"
The lamia narrowed her eyes a touch, an glint of aggravation appearing within. "When you say 'adults'," Layra began, her fingers curling slightly. "You mean 'equals', don't you?"
"I don't see the need for the clarification, but yeah."
"I find that hard to believe," she stated. "Considering what your-"
"What Enkidu did to your people, and your sisters?" Juyo cut her off. He let out a groan, shaking his head, and to Layra's eyes he looked pained. "... Every one of them was a bastard," he growled vehemently, his fingers curling into fists. "And I swear to do everything with what power I have to make sure none of that filth will rise up ever again."
Layra watched him. The zombie's eyes were filled with concern, but she did not move. After a pregnant pause, the lamia sighed and leaned back into her seat.
"Those are just words," she said lowly, feeling something unpleasant rise in her chest like bile. "Words I've heard before from the Cultural Exchange, and Chthonia, and others. Words won't bring back my sisters."
"No, they won't," Juyo conceded. "But they can make it damn difficult for someone to get as much power as Enkidu did. The Cultural Exchange is a flawed institution, but it's still a step in the right direction. So will this." He tapped the binder.
Layra glanced down at the binder, then slowly pulled it toward her. "... What is it?"
"Short story: it's instructions on how to make a dating site," Juyo began, some tension leaving his shoulders. "But one that's actually tailored more for the specific needs of your tribe. We plan on actually launching a social networking site that connects your tribe with others, as well as other liminal species that face similar issues. That might take a little longer, though."
"A… dating site… ?" Layra mused, opening the binder and looking up at Juyo. "Our tribe doesn't 'date', though. We simply pick our husbands and that's that."
"Well, a dating site sounds better than an instant marriage site," Juyo snorted, before frowning. "But now that I think about it, some people would totally be okay with that. Anyway, that's not the point; the point is that this allows an avenue for your tribe to screen potential husband candidates and decide for yourselves who you want. Applicants will have to fully submit to a physical and provide their credentials. Criminal backgrounds will be turned down, of course."
He cleared his throat.
"You get to pick and choose from what I guarantee will be a wide pool of men quite willing to be the tribe 'husband' for as long as either party is comfortable," he promised. "The C.E. and Chthonia would handle traveling fees, of course."
"Uh huh…" Layra grunted, idly flipping through the pages. "And you really think it'll be a "wide pool" as you put it? Humans don't always have the best reaction to us, you know."
"Yeah, because you kidnap and drug them," Juyo shot back. "And we're putting an end to that practice, full stop. Trust me, Layra, the opportunity to be an orgy with a bunch of gorgeous women will draw men in droves. Besides, any who sign up will know full well what they're in for. If they had issues with your snake-halves, they wouldn't even put their foot in the door."
Layra went silent, now actually reading. Juyo leaned into his seat and watched her, simply waiting.
"... Will the men know where our tribe is located?" she eventually asked. "We took such pains to make sure humans couldn't find us while still relying on them for breeding. Fat lot of good that did us."
"They won't if you don't want them to, and we'd make sure they know that in the application process," Juyo answered. "Frankly, the screening process for this is going to be rather exhaustive, out of necessity. It's new, and we need to do trial runs to figure out the issues."
Layra crinkled her nose and her eyes narrowed. "And my tribe is one such 'trial run'?" she asked lowly.
"Yup," Juyo replied. "This latest incident has made it clear there's a big issue here, one that spits in the face of all the hard work that it took to create the Cultural Exchange Bill. Evidently, the idea's been in the wings for a while but had yet to be implemented. That changes now."
She closed the binder and gave him a level stare.
"Why are you telling me this?" Layra wondered. "This information should be given to my tribe's council. I'm going to be kicked out of this country and likely never be allowed to set tail on human lands ever again," she stated matter-of-factly, her voice cracking a little. "My word means nothing to your people."
Juyo didn't respond immediately, meeting her stare with his own until he let out a long breath.
"Maybe I just wanted to show you what good ended up coming about thanks to your colossal fuck-up," Juyo said tiredly, standing up. "Or maybe I felt some dumb obligation just because you're Miia's mom." He shrugged.
"An… obligation?" Layra echoed, giving him a baffled look. "Why on earth would you feel that way?"
"No, that couldn't be it," Juyo murmured, shaking his head until his eyes widened with clarity. "Ah, yeah, that must be it." He slowly made eye contact with her, and something in them… Layra recoiled.
"I suppose I wanted to see if I could face the woman who poisoned my daughter without doing something unpleasant," said the man.
The room grew cold. Layra wanted to shiver, but found herself utterly transfixed. Nothing had visibly changed with the man, and his words were simple, emotionless. But something had come out, and-
The zombie grabbed his shoulder and shook him gently.
"Ay," she said softly. "C'mon. Ya got other shit to do today, right?"
Juyo blinked, resting a hand on his forehead as he nodded.
"Right, right," he said, rubbing his face. "Papi's waiting for me. Her mom should be getting here soon." He shook his head and then looked back down at Layra. "This'll probably be the last time we see each other. Unless by some miracle Miia decides to let you at the wedding."
"Oy," the zombie chided. "Walk away."
Juyo gulped, thinning his lips.
"Yeah," he said. "Goodbye, Layra. Don't you fucking ever go near my daughter again."
At that, he left. The zombie watched him go, hands balling into fists.
"Y'know," she started, gritting her teeth. "He looked better today than I'd seen him ages when I saw 'im this mornin'." She turned and glared at Layra, green and golden eyes fierce. "But then he sees yer fuckin' face."
Layra had mostly recovered, and glared right back. "He didn't have to see me, and you damn well know that," she retorted. She raised the binder and then slapped it back on the table. "What was the point of this gesture, if only to make himself suffer more?"
"I don't gotta explain shit to you," the zombie spat. "I got far less patience than he does, and trust me, bitch, this'd be goin' far differently if I thought you were worth the bullets."
"Spare me," Layra grumbled, folding her arms and looked away. "I know you can't hurt me now and I'll be out of here shortly. Besides, nothing you can do would hurt half as much as Miia's words."
"If only," the zombie growled, turning away. "I didn't fight Enkidu just so people like you could fuck it all up."
She departed, the door slamming behind her.
Layra was alone once more. Even though they were gone, her entire body was tensed and ready for another confrontation. Her tail tightened around her chair, bending beneath her iron grip.
"Ah," she spoke to the empty room. "Now I know what that was."
As it turned out, she did recognize what had been smoldering under the man's surface. What had finally given her pause.
The white hot rage of a parent.