Pushing away from the table, Tanatta nearly wailed, “Oh, Bushor! No more, please! I’m … I’m not going to be able to walk as it is!” Lyssia, seated next to the mixed blood, giggled, knowing her mate’s tendency to nearly force feed their guests.
“I hope you enjoyed it,” the brown Perratti replied, smiling and putting away the third dessert dish he had the mixed blood “sample.”
“Oh … I … I can barely breathe! Lyssia, you never told me … no, I said that wrong, you never warned me that your mate was the top pastry and dessert chef at Rangelands! And that creele and the swimmer fish – I’ve … I’ve never had its equal! There’s no point in you taking me to Rangelands now! I’ve had the food, and if you’ll forgive me for this, Bushor, you two are so nice to me and this lair so beautiful that I couldn’t ask for better atmosphere!”
“That’s so kind of you to say,” Lyssia offered gratefully. “It just seemed like we ought to celebrate the introduction of the Fair Workplace bill. I heard the fact that you were there and indicated that the Allegiance wouldn’t ask for reparations or instant advancement had a big impact on the council members.”
“Yes,” Bushor added, coming back into the room. “It sounds like Tanatta Fireclaw being there made a huge difference!”
“Thanks,” Tanatta replied, embarrassed. “I have to tell you two that … I’m considering … well, changing my name.”
“Really?” Lyssia asked.
“Fireclaw, well, that was something I came up with when I was really angry and … bitter about my life,” she explained, her eyes full of regret looking at the petite archivist with the scars across her muzzle, and Lyssia reached across the table and grasped her paw. “I was thinking about taking my father’s name, and becoming Tanatta Bollestro, again.”
“You could,” Bushor noted thoughtfully, “but it may be short lived. I’ve, well, overheard some conversations and frankly, been asked directly about you. There are apparently some dames in the de Oterbythe leadership who are starting to ask about including you in our family.”
“I’ve been asked, too, by the new de Oterbythe director of the archive,” Lyssia mentioned.
Tanatta’s eyebrows furrowed, and she scowled. “Oh, now I am disappointed to hear that! I thought for sure you would be up for director!”
“Honestly, it’s not what I wanted, at least now right now,” Lyssia explained. “Now, not to be indelicate about your name, but you could claim several houses as your own.”
“Faelnar, Vulpi, and Perratti,” Tanatta acknowledged. “I’ve … had some discussions with a couple of matrons, but … I don’t know. With de Gonari, I … I think I burned all the fields I used to hunt in, even though we’re now talking nicely. Honestly, Lyssia, you’re the one I feel closest to. If the offer came from de Oterbythe, I … I would really consider it.”
“I think that would be wonderful,” Lyssia replied.
“I agree,” Bushor added, stepping behind his mate and putting his paw on her shoulder.
“You two are so great,” Tanatta stated warmly, feeling very touched by their consideration.
“Yes, I know!” Bushor boasted proudly, causing Lyssia to turn on him and cuff him lightly on the shoulder, and he burst out laughing.
“You … goofball!” Lyssia groaned.
“He’s allowed,” Tanatta chuckled.
“Well, I’m going to have to leave you two anyway,” Bushor explained. “We’re having a memorial gathering for Tasalar tonight.”
“I’m sorry,” Tanatta replied, concerned. “I didn’t know we were scheduling our dinner when you had something else planned.”
“Well,” Bushor explained, “it was a little unexpected. Tasalar was a Vulpi who had been our lead server for like, as long as anyone can remember. He … well, took his own life two sols ago.”
“Oh, no!” the mixed blood replied, sadly.
“Yes,” Bushor replied, “he was one of the ones de Caterra controlled, presumably because he was in a position to overhear a lot of things and, maybe even, well, poison someone if they wanted it done.”
“He’d been in therapy for awhile, and we all thought he was doing better,” Lyssia added, regretfully. “He wasn’t. He was … faking it. The video he left, well, was tragic.”
“I know,” Bushor agreed, grabbing his coat and keys. “I watched the video, and it’s like I want to stop him and tell him that he was wrong about himself and that we really did need him. But of course, it’s too late for that now.”
“You couldn’t have known, love,” Lyssia replied, standing and embracing him.
“It’s happening a lot,” Tanatta breathed. “We’ve lost a couple in our company’s leadership that way. She’s right, Bushor. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do.”
“I know. I’ll be back late, okay? You two enjoy yourselves, alright?”
“Thanks, love,” she said, hugging him again.
“Thank … whoa!” Tanatta had to steady herself. “Oh, I so ate too much!”
Bushor walked over and offered, “It was very nice to have you here tonight. Thank you for coming.”
Reaching around, she embraced him gently. “You two are so nice to have me here. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Well, you’ll have to come back soon – more desserts you know?” he teased, winking.
Tanatta’s groan made the two Perratti laugh. Soon, Bushor had left, and Lyssia and Tanatta had settled themselves on the couch. “He’s wonderful, you know?” Tanatta offered.
“I know. He … looked past my … imperfections and loved the real me. I’m so thankful for him.”
Tanatta reached up with her paw and gently stroked the marks on Lyssia’s muzzle. “I am so, so sorry for that.”
“I know, dear friend. I know,” Lyssia replied, taking her paw and gently holding it. “But I’m indebted to you now. You … helped me do the right thing. I … need a friend like that.”
Tanatta looked away. “That was so hard for me – intimidating and hurting you.”
“Hey, I’m okay now. Look, would it help for me to tell you what that was like for me?”
“Oh … I suppose it might,” Tanatta replied, a little nervous. “Although it might make me feel even worse.”
“I don’t want you to go on without knowing why I asked for this, and … what it felt like to me.”
A few intervals later, a much more sanguine would,” to tell you what that was like for me?”
Tanatta was actually joking with Lyssia about what had happened. “Well, when I was doing massages, some clients actually asked for me to do that to the base of their tail – repeatedly!”
Lyssia giggled. “I can remember, growing up, I had this one private tutor whose tail always seemed like it was stuck and wouldn’t move. Now, I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t overdoing it, if you know what I mean!”
“Oh, oh! I’ve seen a few of those!” Tanatta laughed. “But I’ve seen matrons.”
“From our house?”
“Hmm … can’t say. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to who was wearing what crest, only that they were. You said you had a private tutor?”
“Yes. For … certain reasons,” Lyssia replied carefully, “I didn’t go to the house school for awhile. No, Tanatta, don’t look like that! I’ve forgiven you.”
“But I’m just learning how much you forgave me for,” the mixed blood replied gloomily.
“Don’t feel sorry for me! It was actually pretty nice! I had some really wonderful teachers. Many of them were retired with just … incredible skills. The result was that I was very advanced for my age, and I went to academy much earlier than my peers.”
“Mom was so proud of me. She said I’d turned a curse into a blessing. I’m so glad she got to see me graduate from academy before she passed.”
Tanatta looked at her, curious. “Your mom’s not alive? I didn’t realize that.”
“No. She died of Crinzer’s syndrome shortly after my graduation – another reason I don’t talk to my father.”
“I don’t understand. You never patched up things with your father?”
“No!” Lyssia said firmly, “and I don’t intend to. He’s … a monster to me, and I won’t have him in my life!” Seeing Tanatta’s struck expression, Lyssia explained. “Crinzer’s syndrome is completely curable, if caught in the early stages. My father kept my mother so busy with all of his … corporate pack nonsense that she didn’t have time to take care of herself. She died before her time because of his greed! Now, like I said, I hadn’t talked to him much at all since the time of the injury. He … he tried to have me disavowed as a child!”
“What?!” Tanatta asked angrily. “He wanted to throw you out of the family?! It wasn’t your fault!”
“The injury wasn’t my fault, but what I said to him made him so mad he put claw marks through the wall of my bedroom. When I was old enough to confront him, I told him he was the reason I had been singled out. He was to blame because he made a point, a sport out of messing with what he called Anati. When he complained to the matron at the time, she was older, and she had known me since I was born. She basically told him that disagreeing with your parent when they do something completely egregious and disgraceful is not a crime against the family but an act of honor!”
“Oh, wow! I like your matron!” Tanatta exclaimed.
“I did, too, but she passed just after my mom did. By then, thankfully, I was on my own. I haven’t spoken to my father since. What about your dad? What was he like?”
“When I was young … he was great – mom, too. Up until I was about six seasons old, I barely recognized that there was anything different about me. See, mom was a Perratti Vulpi, and dad was a Perratti Faelnar. Both of them had reasonably good jobs, and mom could do most of hers from home. I was … happy,” Tanatta replied, her eyes losing focus as they looked into a past a part of her longed to return to. Lyssia watched as all of the composure and control drained from her features.
When she started speaking again, it wasn’t hardly the same voice as before, but that of a shattered child. “Then, mom lost her job, and her next job wasn’t one she could do at home, and –” Tanatta stopped, because the emotions were becoming more than she could manage. “I … I have to stop, Lyssia. I thought I could tell, but after mom got sick, it just all fell apart, and … I … I …”
“Oh, Tanatta,” Lyssia cried as she whispered. “Oh, kit! If I could, I would die to give you back what my family took from you!” Tanatta just put her head in her paws and cried, the first crying she had done in seasons. Lyssia slipped beside Tanatta, ignoring the odd sensations in her tail, and simply put her arms around the mixed blood as she cried.
“Oh … mange,” Tanatta sobbed. “I … it hurt so bad, Lyssia! It hurt so bad! I loved him! I came home … he was dead! I … I was alone – that’s why … that’s why!” Tanatta leaned into the Perratti and pulled her close. “I’m so sorry … I’m so sorry,” she bawled. “If I knew … if I knew …”
“I know, kit, I know. We both are,” Lyssia breathed. “But now, in spite of everything, we’re friends, and I trust you, and you trust me, right?” Tanatta could only nod in agreement.
Just then, the front door opened. Lyssia let go of Tanatta at the same moment Bushor entered the room. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Is something wrong?”
“No, dear. We … just had a heart to heart, between friends.”
Still sniffling, Tanatta raised her head and looked at Lyssia. “Yes, between friends.”
“Here, let me fix you two something,” Bushor offered as he walked over, a container of tissues in his paws.
“No, no,” Tanatta replied. “I’m sorry. I really need to get going. I … I have an early work sol tomorrow. Lyssia, Bushor … thank you so much. You’ll never know what this night has meant to me.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you home, Tanatta?” Bushor asked, concerned.
“I’ll be alright,” she replied, standing up. “I … have so many reasons to be alright now.”
“Let me walk you to the door, kit,” Lyssia offered. The look she gave her mate indicated that he was not to follow.
“Tanatta, please know that you’re welcome any time,” Bushor offered, and then gently embraced her. To his surprise, she held onto him tightly, and he responded by gently assuring her. “Call us when you get home, okay?”
“I will,” Tanatta offered as she let go. “Thank you, Bushor.”
In a few passes, Lyssia returned to the kitchen, where a light snack and an aged berry fermentum had been set out. “You think she’ll be okay?” he asked as he gave his mate an affectionate nuzzle.
“She will. She just … needs good friends. She’s never had pureblood friends before. In fact, other than her cadre, I get the sense that she’s very alone.”
“You two seemed to have made friends fairly quickly,” Bushor noted evenly.
“I hear a touch of concern in your voice,” Lyssia replied, a little annoyed.
“Worrying about you is my concern, kit,” he replied. “I’ve never seen you like this before. I know she’s nice enough, but really, what is it about you two?”
Lyssia thought through a number of strategies and finally, with a sigh, lighted on the truth as the best course. “There are some things I need to tell you; can we talk for a moment?”
“Sure,” he replied and followed her to the couch.
“What did you notice tonight – because I know you always do – about Tanatta?”
He relaxed into the soft chair and threaded his tail through the hole in the back. “Well, she’s a mixed blood, but the Perratti in her is pretty strong. I think she’s actually attractive, a good mix of hard and soft. She seems … fairly well educated, but I could tell that when it comes to formal schooling, she hasn’t had much. She’s very guarded, and I would guess, very afraid of something. That did bother me, but what surprised me is how she looked when you were talking to her. She looked … sad. She hid it, but several times, it slipped out, but only when she was looking at you.”
“You’re wondering why.”
Tanatta drew her legs into the seat, and turned her body to face him. “Bushor, I’ve gotten to know her, and I’ve learned some things about her past. There is a connection between the two of us, and … a lot of shared pain. When she was still young, maybe fifteen seasons, my father fired her father, and not long after that, from worry and grief, that father died. Her mother died before that from toxins she was exposed to in her job, toxins the management protected the purebloods from, but didn’t bother to protect mixed bloods.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, his eyebrow furs drawn down.
“Yes. It’s true. I’m sure.”
“You are the archivist, so I’m not going to press you to site your sources,” he noted with a touch of sarcasm.
“Wise move,” Lyssia giggled, but then grew serious. “What my dad did just … clawed gashes into her heart. Until then, she had a pretty good childhood, all things considered, but then it just fell apart. It started with her mom, and ended, soon after, with her dad. I still haven’t gotten all of the details out of her; she’s still so wounded by what that monster did.”
“I know,” Bushor replied, looking away. “The thought that someone else, just like Tanatta, is who attacked you – this proves your point, love! It could have easily been a situation like hers. He goes around firing mixed bloods at a whim, and one of them or their kids or friends goes after you. He gets to play mighty pack leader, and you reap the consequences.”
“Bushor,” Lyssia said softly and touched his sleeve. He looked at her, questioningly. “Bushor, it was Tanatta who did this to me.” She turned her head so that the scars were the most visible to him.
“You … you’re serious!? How do you know for sure?”
“She admitted it some time ago, and … after looking at her awhile, I remember it,” she answered softly. He looked away from her, and she could see his jaw start to clench, and she found it easy to discern where his thoughts were going. “She confessed to me, Bushor, and offered to turn herself over to the authorities, surrender everything she’s clawed out for herself. I forgave her, Bushor. I want you to, as well.”
“How can I, Lyssia!?” he asked angrily, standing and walking across the room. “Every time I see her, I’ll imagine her claws ripping into you! I’ll remember every operation and all the pain you suffered! I won’t be able to speak to her without wanting to rip her apart!”
“Really?! Okay fine!” Lyssia challenged him. “You can see and feel all of that if you want to, but I also want you to see the fifteen season old kit coming home to find her father dead on the floor, her only means of support, dead! How about her mother dying, poisoned by chemicals that purebloods like us protected themselves from, but they didn’t bother protecting the disposable Anati! You can see the scars on my muzzle just fine, but will you also see the enormous bleeding gashes that are still open in Tanatta’s heart?! Will you sit there, as the Head Dessert Chef for the esteemed Rangelands restaurant and ignore all of the nights she probably went hungry? Will you sit in your nice, comfortable lair with its rare fermentum aging in the basement to peak perfection and ignore what my family did to her life? Don’t you dare look at her, Bushor, and think of her as some kind of Anati monster without also realizing that you’re married the daughter of a pureblood one!”
Not fully convinced, he at least returned and sat down again. Softer, she added, “Do you know what she said about you, tonight? She said that if someone was threatening you and she found out, she would go after them, kill them if needed to protect you! She would risk prison or death for you! Why? Because of what you mean to me!”
“But what does she have to gain out of this? Why tell you after all of these seasons?”
“She didn’t know who I was until the negotiations at the archive started not long ago, and didn’t you hear me? She’s hurting! She’s been hurting for so long, and tonight, when I talked to her, we … I thought we just started …”
“You gave her hope, didn’t you? Accepted her, like you did me? You trusted her, and you do trust her, don’t you?” he asked, but his anger had clearly faltered.
“I trust her with my life, Bushor, and with my soul. You should ask what I have to gain. That’s only fair.”
“Okay, tell me,” he said to her, curious.
“Tanatta Fireclaw is the lead negotiator with the Allegiance of the Anati, and right now, she is making historic gains for her kind alongside the likes of the Grand Matriarch Amyra de Gonari and Matron Vanarra de Gonari. She is living history, Bushor! She is living history and wants to be my friend! Because of her, I’ve already discovered secrets that have changed the history of Thuria in ways I’ve never dreamed of! More than that, though, love. Don’t you see? Both of our pasts – hers and mine – were wrecked by what my father did. Together, we finally have the opportunity to put things right. My family destroyed hers without mercy and without pity. Please, Bushor, tell me that you can have mercy on her, that you can have pity. Please tell me that you love me at least that much.”
“You mean this, don’t you? You’re committed to her.” Lyssia nodded, and Bushor considered.
“Love, the angry bitter teen who did this to me grew into someone who now can’t stop apologizing for it and grieving over it. The Tanatta you met tonight would cut off her right paw if doing so would reverse what was done, but even if she could, it wouldn’t be right. What about her father? What about her mother? What revenge will bring them back?”
“Okay,” he relented. “I’m … sorry. It’s just after all of these seasons, I dreamed of finding the one who did this to you and making them pay. Who knew … who knew it would be someone like Tanatta?”
“She hurts all the time,” she said, leaning into him. “I think that together, you and I, could change that. She’s very giving and willing to help, and I can’t tell you how much she’s already meant to me as a friend. I’ve always wanted a friend like this, and I’ve never had one before. Am I being a little blind? Sure, but … I’m trusting, and it’s a decision. I want you there with me, okay? I want you to trust her, and I want you to love her like I do. When you look at me and see the marks, just know that my father did that. Don’t curse Tanatta for what, in the end, my father caused.”
“Okay love. I … actually, I can’t believe she confessed that to you. That had to be scary for her. She could have just kept quiet and not said anything.”
“I know. It was an enormous act of faith.”
At that moment, the LineCom rang. Lyssia stood up, but Bushor had the unit right beside him and picked it up. “Hello?”
“Bushor. I’m home. I’m calling like you asked me to.”
“I’m glad. I was worried about you. Are you going to be okay? “
“I think so. Can you put Lyssia on?”
“I’m on, kit,” Lyssia replied, smiling at her mate for putting the unit on speaker. “Tanatta, I want you to know how special and wonderful tonight was for me, and I also want you to know that Bushor and I have had a talk. I shared with him our secret. I felt of anyone, he should know … about both of our pasts.”
“Oh, Bushor … I’m … I’m so … sorry,” Tanatta breathed, obviously afraid.
“Didn’t Lyssia forgive you?” Bushor asked kindly.
“Yes, she did, that sweet kit. I don’t deserve it, but she did.”
“Then, I do to. Now, what you did was wrong, and you know that, and it hurt her very badly, but … she’s told me what her father did to you. What happened was … understandable. You … deserved better, and so did your family.”
“Thank you, Bushor,” Tanatta replied, crying.
“I want you to come back over, very soon, Tanatta. Let’s set a date right now. I’ve still got six more desserts you haven’t tried,” he taunted her gently.
“Bushor, you are too kind to me. You have every right to want to put your claws across my throat, rip me apart—”
“From what I’m given to understand, Tanatta, Lyssia’s father raked his claws right into your heart. Could you come tomorrow night?”
“Yes. Two sols from now is my rest sol. I … I could stay a little later.”
“Plan on staying the night, kit,” Lyssia offered. “I’ll take off from the archive, and Bushor has that sol off as well. Perhaps we could go to the mountains together.”
“Well, you can go hiking in the dirty, dusty woods if you want to,” Bushor noted, “but the Continental Culinary Convention is in town for the next few sols, and I have group passes! We can spend intervals looking at new kitchen gadgets, trying new flavors of fermentum, and sampling food until we just can’t breathe anymore!”
“Oh stop, you goofball!” Lyssia demanded, even as Tanatta chuckled.
“Well, it does sound fun. Are you sure … I’d be, well, welcomed there?”
“Oh sure, Tanatta,” Bushor replied. “A lot of the business folks know me, and I’m sure they’ll behave. Thankfully, Rangelands has some serious clout that can be quite useful from time to time. Look, I want you to come with us. It’s really a good time, and to be honest, those guys need to start seeing mixed bloods walking those halls, and they need to start selling to them. Do you have any friends in the restaurant business?”
“A few. They … really struggle.”
“Well, you’ll be their representative,” Bushor offered, “and our guest.”
“It truly is a fun time, and I agree. You should be there,” Lyssia offered. “Please, Tanatta, join us.”
“I don’t deserve you two,” Tanatta whispered back. “I will. Thank you.”
“You deserve to have friends who care about you, kit,” Lyssia argued. “Have a good night.”
“Thank you. Thank you both. Good night.”
Bushor clicked off the device and shook his head. “You can hear it in her voice, everything you said – the regret.”
“Thank you for listening to me and trusting me.”
“My pleasure, love,” he told her, hugging her around the shoulder. She snuggled up to him, and looking up at him, gently licked the side of his muzzle. Almost without her noticing she was doing it, she started loosening his shirt and started rubbing his chest. “Hey, now… it’s late. Are you sure you want to get me all riled up?”
“I’m … I’m just feeling very close to you right now, and very … grateful you’re so understanding. I … I was worried how you react. You … impressed me.”
Turning towards her, he started gently rubbing her muzzle, slowly sliding his touch across the scars. “You impress me. How you could forgive someone who did this to you. You are a rare treasure indeed, kit. So rare.” Bushor leaned forward and drew Lyssia into a kiss, a kiss which quickly turned more passionate.
Lyssia broke off the kiss and whispered in his ear, “Your pretty prey needs to be taken, oh mighty hunter. Will you? Please?” She licked gently at the inside of his ear, sending a chill down his spine. It was just the break she needed to slip from his grasp and dart for the bedroom. Reacting much quicker than she expected, he leapt up after her.