Later in the evening, Van offered to take Sahni out for a drive to look at all of the light displays around Shanandrae before they called it a night. Although a little drowsy because of the food they had eaten, the Nephti agreed, and soon they were again ensconced in Vanarra’s golden hover. “This is nice, thank you so much.”
“I’m glad you want to hang around after me zapping you,” Van chuckled.
“You know though, I’m still learning about that. I actually feel, right now, completely normal! I don’t seem to hurt anywhere. I don’t feel fuzzy like I did before, and I’m certainly not sick. So, this is how it’s supposed to be? Someone get stunned, and they can’t do anything, really, for a few intervals. However, fifteen or twenty intervals later, they are perfectly okay?”
“No gashes, no stitches, and no funerals.”
“Did you ever run into any of those three again?”
“Never have, but I do keep my eyes open, kit. They aren’t the only ones, of course; after all, I’d expect that the Pantera we downed won’t think of either of us in fond terms. See, that’s another thing I had to learn, staying out of trouble. Every conflict has a cost. Now, like with the Pantera, he truly gave us no choice.”
“Well,” Sahni sighed, “maybe not. If I’d taken care of my vehicle better, perhaps, or knew why it did those things, I could have just zipped out of there and, while we would have not been able to enjoy time together, there wouldn’t have been any Pantera, at all.”
“Buck up, kit. The story is likely not as simple as that. Our office isn’t really all that close to shopping or the like, so he wasn’t just a casual passerby. He may have had an eye on either you or me or one of the others for some time. I’ve warned everyone who works for me, you included, not to let your primal bonuses be seen when you leave the office.”
“Well, here’s another reason why.”
“Yeah,” Van agreed as she turned down a trail of residential lairs. “And you can bet I’ll be mentioning our little encounter with the rest of the staff first thing during our morning meeting. Oh my gosh, look at the line!” She brought the golden hover up short behind a long line of others weaving through the neighborhood. “Okay, so something is obviously worth seeing. I won’t say we’ll wait this long for all of them, but I heard this guy went plain feral on his display. He’s supposed to have fire cannons tied to music!”
“Okay,” Sahni replied, her eyes widening as the sides of her mouth turned up. “I’m in! Besides, it’s more time to talk?”
“Sure, kit. Where were we?”
“You went with Sarlankar to the fitness instructor at Claw Strike fitness. What’s her name, again?”
“Kylie de Kestrick. She’s someone I consider a friend, even now. She’s almost my only souvenir from Sarl and me except for my memories, my training and, well, my projectile weapons. Our secret?”
“Our secret, Van,” Sahni promised.
The mixed blood smiled and relaxed back into the seat. “While Sarl was teaching me and, well, taking me, I started going to Kylie on his advice. They didn’t know each other, it seemed; she just came recommended by the Thurian in the front office. She’s pretty much the full package as trainers go – level 10 fighting arts instructor, certified physical therapist, and has six certifications in physical training that she always keeps current. She’s a really smart kit, honestly, to be doing what she’s doing, but I’m glad she is.”
“Sounds like she’s another purebred you’ve got on well with. I guess I’m not all that unique in your life.” Her statement made the mixed blood look at her in confusion. “That makes me happy, Van. You are friends with Buck, and you met him when he was avowed, right?” Van nodded. “However, Kylie still has her last name, it sounds like. It also sounds like you two are friends and like you truly respect her.”
“Yeah, but you and I are on a whole different level than her. See, my friendship with Kylie is based on … an apology and a healthy appreciation for each others’ … abilities.”
Van’s hesitation was evident to Sahnassa, and normally the evasiveness would have directed the Nephti onto other subjects, but now that they were closer, she whispered, “Would you feel okay telling me about it?”
“Might be slightly off topic, don’t you think?”
“If it’s about your self-defense training, there might be something in it for me to learn.”
Van’s eyes widened a bit. “Yeah, might be at that. What I’m going to tell you about took place three moons after Sarlankar and I parted ways. I admit that I did kind of take to Kylie, a bit, because she treated me respectfully even though I was an Anati and cast out. I even recommended a few of my avowed clients to her, and she truly appreciated it. For all of her certifications and training and everything else, the kit just barely scrapes by. When I started bringing her additional business, she … kind of thought the world of me. See, Kylie has her last name, but she’s struggled, and the fact that I helped her out was something she could appreciate.”
“Okay, in all of this,” Sahni commented, “I’m having a hard time understanding where the apology figures in.”
“Getting there,” Van offered, smirking. “See, Sarl happened to let slip that he thought my fighting abilities would actually put Kylie’s life in danger if I happened to get out of control…”
“Hey there, Van!” Kylie offered a smiling Vanarra as she appeared in the sparring room. “I’ve been checking your progress. Your fitness numbers are doing very, very nicely. Improvements in weights and in endurance. What are you up to on the runner? Resistance twelve?”
“I push it from there to about fourteen or so in bursts,” Van offered, just a little proud of herself. “I’m trying to do a whole session at that number.”
“Not bad, not bad,” Kylie agreed, but then Vanarra could see that the Vulpi seemed to have something else on her mind as she studied her movements.
“What’s … going on, Ky? You are kind of sizing me up a little, I think.”
“Good, so you are noticing. Anyone else done that to you, recently?”
Van now understood where the lesson was going, or so she thought. “Oh, yes, now that you mention it. We had a banquet for the watering hole tenders association – pretty interesting group. A few of them were giving me that kind of inspection.”
“It doesn’t vary too much from them sizing you up for the hunt,” Kylie warned. “It’s a flavor of it, in fact. Just the fighting edge to it that makes it a little … wrong.”
Vanarra shifted her stance a bit and instinctively prepared for a surprise lunge from the Vulpi. “Yeah, but you’re not stopping. What are you up to, kit?”
“Something your friend told me about you that first session … has me wondering. He said that you have superior fighting skills, extremely dangerous ones.”
“Uncontrollable ones,” Van whispered back, her expression haunted. “I’m very dangerous when pushed too far – something happens, and I just lose it.”
“Well, we’re coming to that part of the training, you see, and I have to admit that curiosity is gnawing away at me a bit. See, I’m a fighting arts level ten, best there is, really. I have more than a few trophies to prove it, too, and I really can only be beat by someone much bigger than me, and that’s only if I get close. We’re … about the same size, so when your buddy said that you were the best he’s ever seen, it sorta makes me wonder, you know?”
“Ky, please,” Van softly begged. “The thought of you laid out on this floor bleeding is more than I can stand.”
“I’ve seen you at level two type stuff, and you’re good. You’re more fit, now, than when I took you on, so I have to wonder … what would set you off? I have to know,” she pressed, standing between Vanarra and the door. “See, if you are going to learn anything about fighting and controlling it, then I have to see you fight.”
“Could kill you,” Van told her, literally backing up a step.
“I’m a big kit and can take care of myself,” Kylie told her proudly, and then a wicked twinkle entered her eyes. “You like that, too, being taken care of by big fellas, like your Lupar. Those three in the alley, what were they going to do, I wonder? Something you might have enjoyed?”
“They were going to rapemate me, Ky,” Van groused. “Not something I was hoping for.”
“Maybe, maybe not. You’ve had it happen before, I can tell. You know they say that one of the side effects of being rapemated is that you want it to happen all over again. I bet that’s you, isn’t it?”
Van glowered at the Vulpi’s taunt. “No. No, it’s not.”
“Oh, come on – you can admit to me. It’s … in your nature, anyway, isn’t it?”
“What?!” Van growled.
“Part Vulpi in you, cuddle kit; I should know. We go in for … all sorts of things. With the right male, you’d give it up if he wanted to take it.” That sparked Vanarra’s anger, not because it was wrong, but because she realized with Sarl, it had been to some part true. The Vulpi didn’t miss the shift in Van’s mannerisms and was on her in an instant, pushing her backwards at the shoulder. “You’ll submit, you will! It’s in you! You want it!”
“No! Only if I agree! Back off!” the mixed blood warned, back fur now standing up and claws expressing because she had been physically assaulted.
“Come on, mix up – submit! You know you want to!” Another push seemed about to come, but despite Van’s attempt to block, Kylie changed up at the last moment and swept her legs out from under her with a swipe kick. “Dammit! Look at you! Already on your back! You—“
The moment Kylie had placed herself over Vanarra looking down, the Vulpi realized that she was no longer talking to a rational being. There was a bounding back roll, like a reverse somersault, and a tight crouch exploded in a jump that was almost too fast to be believed, let alone dodged. Kylie’s fighting instinct took over, blending with her training, and the jump missed its mark … mostly. Pain warned the Vulpi that her upper arm had been claw-swiped, and it wasn’t debilitating, yet, but could become so.
There was no time to check herself beyond what instinct allowed, because Van’s assault continued in almost complete fluidity – the miss hardly noticed or cared about as a new attack was pressed – a cold-blooded attempt to disembowel her opponent with a sweeping up-strike that missed the Vulpi by no more than fur-strands, and that was even with Kylie’s most active and rapid effort to dodge. Quickly, Kylie was learning the difference between competition fighting and fighting for your life. The intensity of Vanarra’s follow up attacks were no less potentially lethal and forced the Vulpi to block and strike back.
Now, and only now, did the Vulpi’s training start helping her get hold of the situation that was almost spinning out of her grasp. Hard strikes at Vanarra’s weak points – joints and sides, held at least the promise of dulling her opponent’s attack. Kylie followed up crisply and quickly, feeling the flow of blood down her arm. “Damn, it’s a bad hit,” she growled to herself, now somewhat regretting having taunted the mixed blood into this duel. More hard strikes created a swiping counter strike from Vanarra that tore open Kylie’s blouse and left graze marks across the top of her chest.
“Great freaking … she is downright dangerous!” the Vulpi had time to think as she battered the mixed blood with one of her best and most well-practiced combinations. That dropped Vanarra to the floor, and Kylie was on her back hard and quick, pinning her arms and the back of her neck as strongly as she knew how.
“Calm down, Van, please! I didn’t mean it! I’m sorry! I’m not going to hurt you; not going to violate you. Relax, we’re friends right? Come on, snap out of it, Vanarra. You’re not an animal, you’re a freaking caterer for the love of Shasta’s pouch!” Kylie was struggling to get the words out even as Van bucked and growled, almost able to tear the Vulpi off of her save for the fitness instructor’s well-honed agility for staying out of reach. Trying not to actually sound as panicky as she was starting to get, she added, “Think about it, Van! Vanarra Anasto; you are a smart kit! Think your way out of this state and calm down! The orphanage! The children, right?”
The fierceness of Vanarra’s struggle faltered, and Kylie realized that she might have just discovered a way to diffuse the Anati’s rage. “Children, Vanarra. Children like you; you protect them, love them. I want to help you do that; I want to help you control this so you can keep from putting yourself in such danger again! Remember those three who attacked you? Remember their injuries? Remember the regret!?”
Vanarra’s limbs quivered, and she sank to the floor. “No,” came the whispered utterance. “Please, no! Not again!”
“It’s okay, Van. If you can calm down, everything is going to be just fine. I’m fine, you’re fine, and everyone else will be, too.”
Kylie tried to keep her struggling in the same downward trend as what Van was demonstrating for her, and thankfully, the technique was working. “Damned, kit! You are amazing – frightening as all get out, but damned, what you can do! You back speaking full sentences, again?”
“Yeah, I … smell blood.”
“You did get me a little. Is it … okay if I let you loose so I can check it? You going to be able to control yourself?” Van nodded, her eyes closed.
Kylie bounded off of her and rolled away. With some distance between her and Vanarra, still laying on the floor, she hazarded a look at her arm. “Damn,” she groused, tensing at the pain as she touched it. “Okay, I need stitches.”
It took her a moment to realize that Vanarra had gotten up and gone to the side of the room where the medkit hung. Bringing it over, she carefully approached the Vulpi and opened it, sitting beside her on the bench and then offering to bandage it for her. “So … sorry, Ky. I did warn you.”
“Yeah, and I pushed you,” the Vulpi admitted, noticing how Van’s paws were shaking. “As for what I said, I didn’t mean a word of it, but … even with this, I’m really glad I saw it. You just taught me a bunch of things.”
“Like I really am lethally dangerous?”
“Well, duh, but also you had some moves that I am totally going to copy for the next tournament. I mean … vicious, Van! Wow! In that state, you are not exactly looking for any prisoners! Primal fierce, you are!”
“I warned you,” was all Van could say beyond, “I’m so sorry.”
“No, I had to know. I think I have some ideas to help you learn how to control that crazy rage – harness it. Your brain is still in there, but you’re not actually fully using it,” Kylie told her. “Ouch, damn! I hate that sanitizer – hurts like crap! We have to find a way to get you angry and focused, but still in control. You … also went for kill moves; it was very instinctual – I get it. However, if we train on disabling moves, like I used on you, that could work. Now, are you hurt?”
“Yeah, a bit. Not bad, though,” Vanarra admitted as she finished off the bandage. “What … are you going to tell the emergency staff about this?”
“Hello, goodbye, and not much else. Van, it’s not the first time they’ve seen me. There’s this giant side of grazer named Flint who actually gave me a concussion. That one was a little more difficult to just pass off as a training injury.”
“He never told me that!” Van breathed. “He actually works for me!”
“Well, I don’t expect you’ll tell him about our little adventure, tonight – at least not eagerly. The point is that I take hits all the time, especially in tournaments. I’m used to fighting hurt. Look, it’s going to be okay.”
“I still feel like crap,” Van moaned, standing up. “A little sick, too.”
“Your adrenaline is tapering down,” Kylie noted, bounding up. “Whereas mine is still all up in my brain!”
Kylie’s silly expression made Vanarra chuckle. “Can I walk you out to your hover?”
“Sure, you’re good protection. However, leave me at the hover, Van. I don’t want our little emergency room nurses and doctors over at Shanandrae Commons making any deductions, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I … I never go there. Bad stuff,” Van whispered as they walked past the front desk.
“Bad stuff, okay, but a pretty good kit, Van. Like I said, you taught me a few things, and when I use them and beat the crap out of one of the other competitors, I’ll bring the trophy to your office.”
“Okay, Ky. Thank you,” she told her. “Thank you for not turning me in. We … both know what can happen to someone like me who gets yanked in for assaulting a purebred. I think enforcement has me on a watch list, also. I’d be in bad shape fast, just being honest here.”
“I hear you, and frankly, I need your money way more than I want your tail in jail,” the Vulpi quipped. “Besides, it would be a really crappy way to treat someone who is helping me win the tourney next moon. Okay, this is me, sad though it is. I can drive with no problem, I think.”
“Call me if you can’t, please,” Van told her. “If it comes to it, I can drop you off, at least.”
“Fair deal, but it’s better if I have my hover there. Night, Van. Don’t worry, okay?”
“Okay. Good night.”
The next morning, Vanarra made a fairly convincing, if totally fraudulent, call to the de Kestrick family line and got the address of Kylie’s lair – something Flint harshly chided her for since she used one of their client’s records as her identity. However, after waking up in her own bed and not surrounded by enforcement waiting to carry her away, Vanarra felt she owed something to the fitness instructor. She’d kept her word. Also, the feelings of anger she had towards the Vulpi for what she said had to be addressed. If they were going to keep working together, Van couldn’t risk a moment when Kylie was unprepared, a moment that could cost both of them everything.
Van stepped up to the door on the second level lair and quietly knocked. “Oh, damn!” the voice from inside nearly growled. “What the mange, is it?” The Vulpi opened door looking extremely sour and not fully awake, that is, until she realized who her visitor was. “Uh, Van?! How did you find out where I live?”
“I’m a caterer, and I’m pretty good at finding out things like that. I have this for you,” Van explained, lifting the cover off of a grazer-steak casserole. The action of her removing the lid seemed to be hard-wired to the Vulpi’s jaw which dropped open, and her tongue slipped out.
“Okay,” Kylie blithered, “that’s … that’s pretty good, actually as … why am I getting this?”
“Peace offering and because I need to talk to you for a bit, okay?” Van asked, gently. “I owe you for keeping your word.”
“Well, this will certainly make it worth my while!” the Vulpi chuckled, closing her mouth before she drooled and for the express purpose of leaning over and smelling the savory dish more closely. “Oh, mange yeah! Get inside here!” Kylie threw back the door and then backed out of the way. “And just ignore … everything, the mess and yeah, everything. ER gave me a hard time last night, and they actually did call enforcement.”
“Really?” Van’s worry was evident as she closed the door behind her. “Why? I thought you said they were used to you coming in with injuries from the gym.”
“Yeah, everyone I deal with usually was on vacation or gone for another job. These jokers wanted to call my matron and everyone else because they thought I was causing trouble. There was a bit of bad timing in my decision to push you last night. It appears there was a big fight on the south side of town, and the ER wasn’t exactly empty. They thought I was in the scrap! Oh, set it down here,” Kylie told her as she quickly cleared off her little kitchen table. The Vulpi’s eyes widened when Vanarra, by slight of paw almost, seemed to cause a full, formal place setting to appear whilst her back was turned. “Damned, Van! Conjurer and caterer?!”
“I try. Now, don’t stand on ceremony. Eat up, please.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Kylie was on the food quickly and ravenously.
“Wow,” Van chuckled. “I know my cooking is good, but really, Kylie!”
“Yeah, I kind of got out of there late and didn’t do much more than collapse on the couch when I got back,” the Vulpi replied, her mouth not quite empty of food.
“I’m sorry about that; you thought it was going to be easy going, and it wasn’t,” Vanarra observed, her eyes looking at the trophies lined upon on the mantle and on the floor.
The silence hung between them as Van waited for Kylie to finish her meal, but the Vulpi was able to pull herself away from the food and just observe the mixed blood. “There’s a lot to you, Van. I would be willing to bet that you haven’t had much easy going, if any. I … was needlessly cruel last night in how I taunted you, what I said to you. There were other ways I could have done it, and if I’m honest, I was kind of taking some of what I observed between you and Sarl to get under your fur.”
“Well, you did that,” Van stated evenly. “With him, what’s worse, is you probably weren’t altogether wrong. He was beautiful, strong, mysterious – if I’ve ever wanted anyone to just to whatever they wanted with me, it was him. Why? He told me straight away what he wanted and what he offered in return – in a way, he treated me like an equal. You’ve done that for me, and I don’t think I’ve ever properly thanked you for it. So, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. From my heart, Van, I apologize for what I said to you, and you have to know that even though you had those feelings towards Sarl, I don’t necessarily blame you for them. He was … kinda keen, and that’s being very understated.”
“Apology accepted if you accept mine, for hurting you,” Vanarra returned, and Kylie nodded. “One … other thing,” Van hedged. “I have a confession to make, and this is to keep you safe – not from me, but maybe from someone else, maybe way more than one.”
“Oh, what’s this?”
“I think…” Van hesitated, and then sat down across the table from the Vulpi. “I think that you shouldn’t talk about Sarl, ever again – not to me or your friends or anyone else … ever.”
“Hey, I know it can be hard getting over someone, but—“
“Killer,” Van interrupted her, and then clarified. “Hired contract killer. Mercenary, maybe, but regardless, I think Sarl might have killed more than a pawful of Thurians, and I think he was paid to do it. I think that he might have had an untimely end because of his … profession.”
Kylie had stopped chewing and was just looking at her. After a moment, she swallowed and then asked, “He told you?”
“No, but I’ve been piecing things together in my head. I’ve had time to mull over conversations and sort of compare notes with a few others here and there, without dropping names. Recently, one of the private detective agencies had us cater something, and I got to talking with one of the leads in that office – old cub, Faelnar, that had been down the trail a few times. I played through the backgrounds of several anonymous Thurians to see what he could deduce. I hadn’t gotten through two sentences about Sarl, and he’d put a paw on my arm. He used to be in enforcement, and in the special investigations unit, he had been ordered to go after contract killers. Sarl … was a perfect fit for the type.”
“Did he follow up on it? Ask for his name?”
“No. I told him I had paid attention very closely to several spy novels, and I was happy that I’d found something he was interested in. We talked for awhile about his background in special investigations. All the while he’s talking, every word he’s saying, it just filled in the picture. Part of that picture was that these cubs have their own little pack, sometimes a pack of friends, and sometimes a pack of enemies who hunt them or … the individuals they’re close to. Sarl was good about this and limited where we were seen. I didn’t know why he always ordered out for food or whatever – thought he was just too anxious to train me or have sex with me. In the end, I think he was protecting me. So, I keep quiet about him, now. I’d suggest you do the same, Kylie.”
“You can bet I will,” the Vulpi promised, concerned. “Thank you for telling me. I can be a bit of a blabber-mouth about stuff that isn’t that important. The problem is that sometimes I mess up and tell something I think isn’t so important, and it is. What if someone wants to know how you and I met?”
“Do you know Flint Bonar? He told me he comes here.”
“Heck yeah,” Kylie chuckled. “He hates to spar with me, but the truth is he’s pretty good. Why do you ask?”
“I’m going to ask if he knows a trainer at Claw Strike I could use, ask for some names. I’ll have him introduce me to you. When that happens, we’ll call that our first meeting if anyone asks and just … leave Sarl out of it. ”
She noticed Van’s sad expression. “You loved him, and you wanted him to be with you, didn’t you? Like long term?”
“He thought he was using me; he even called me a whore. Still, he took care of me and gave me skills that will keep me safe. He saved me from being left to rot and die in jail. I did love him, and now that I think he’s died, part of me wonders if I was one of the last thoughts he had. I think the very first time we met, something about me startled him. I mentioned that I would do anything to protect those who worked for me and those at the orphanage. It’s the only time he ever look shaken and surprised and … envious. If he could have changed who he was, hidden his identity, I think … I think I would have been his mate. I only had one other male who took care of me like that, and I lost him, too.”
“Not your fault, Van. Can’t be.”
“Little flings are safer. They are interesting when they start up, blaze into glory, and then poof, they’re gone. Watch the credits go by and start flipping through listings looking for the next entertaining male. Probably, given who I am and what I am, that’s about what’s in store for me.”
“Hey, I’m a purebred and an avowed over here and ain’t got squat happening in the male arena! Zip, zero, nothing! No one … no one good wants someone like me, Van. I mean, how many males want a lair mate who can beat them to death and use their own tail to do it? You, and I mean this in a professional way, are very attractive. I’ve already had two or three ask for your info when you’ve left training sessions. If you went and worked out on the machines for a little bit, say … around 20:00, you probably would have the option of spending a night with someone.”
Van smirked and bit her lip. “Oh, so that’s how it is. Fair enough. At some of the events we’ve catered, I’ve met a few very nice looking Vulpi who just might be looking for someone young, athletic, and … challenging. I might just be tempted to give your card, if I could get a pawful of them, perhaps.”
As much as the food had set the Vulpi’s mouth watering, the offer of getting her card out to so many Thurians was just about as appetizing. “You have a deal, Van, and … my thanks! Advertising, well either for my professional services or for a potential new hunt, is difficult for me. So many of my evenings are spent at the gym. You know, I know … Sarl might not have been the right one for you, but I’m glad he brought you to me even if we never speak of him again. Also, I promise you, Van – I will help you. I know I can. Believe it or not, you’re not the first to come to me with this type of problem. You’re the first whose fighting was any good when they lost it, but still, not the first.”
Kylie stood up with Van, and the two of them clasped paws, but then, a little shyly, embraced. In a few passes, Vanarra and Kylie parted, Kylie with a second casserole Van had tucked away and Van with a full set of Kylie’s business cards.
As they pulled into the garage of Vanarra’s lair, Sahni stifled a yawn, smiling as she hid it from Van. The mixed blood who didn’t even seem to be looking in her direction grunted, “I’m not gonna, kit. I’m not going to do it.”
“You could, you know, actually yawn, and I wouldn’t think bad of you.”
“Really?” Van asked, sarcastically. “Yeah, I’ll just take you up on that should I fall off and do it again; see how you feel after that! Like you really want to know the state of my back teeth.”
“I’m learning a lot about you, and it’s all good,” Sahni offered. “Thanks for telling me about Kylie. She sounds neat!”
“She is,” Van chuckled, smiling. “A total mess at times, but a great kit! She’s pretty awesome, actually. If you ever want to get yourself into shape, kit, she’d be the one I would point you at.”
“Well, honestly, working for you has put me in the best shape I think I’ve ever been in,” the Nephti told her, seriously. “I couldn’t believe how winded I was at some of the events when I first started; now, they’re not so difficult.”
“Oh, ho!” Van announced as if a divine epiphany had lighted upon her soul. “That means I can book bigger and more demanding events! Thanks, kit! Wait till Flint hears!”
“Oh, no,” Sahni sighed, entering Vanarra’s lair. “I’m dead. He’ll totally blame me for it.” The door closed to the sound of Vanarra’s hearty laughter.