The next sol, Tanatta nervously walked towards the lair door of Lyssia’s and Bushor’s. The ease with which Bushor had taken the news that the love of his life’s maiming had been done by her own claws didn’t sit well with her. “How could he just accept that?” she wondered. “He … he’ll never forgive me, never really forgive me in his heart.”
Her thoughts had been growing more and more anxious on the subject, realizing that Bushor could easily poison her, or … if she actually let her guard down and drifted off to sleep, asphyxiate her as she lay helpless. She wanted to just turn around and go home and avoid facing him. She liked him, not to mention the delicious food he created. In fact, as she considered it, his quick turns of humor that earned the “goof-ball” statement from his mate were actually kind of endearing. So many purebloods were rigidly formal; it was nice to be around a couple that laughed.
Somehow, she gathered enough courage and sense of duty to Lyssia to go to the door and knock. Lyssia answered. “Hi there. Come in, dear kit.”
As she walked in, she asked, “Is … is Bushor here?”
“He’s here!” his voice sounded from the kitchen. Her eyes widened at how well he could hear, and it set her nerves on edge again. As the door closed and locked behind her, she looked back at Lyssia to try and sense her disposition. She was being careful, and she, too, seemed a little nervous. When she turned to look forward again, Bushor was standing in front of her, his paws on his hips and his expression serious.
“Hello, Bushor,” Tanatta offered, literally wilting in front of him – her head downcast, ears dropping, and tail resting on the floor. “I’m … I’m … sorry—”
“That’s enough, Tanatta,” he said, almost admonishing her. “Lyssia, please take her bag, if you would. Tanatta and I clearly need to have a discussion.”
“Yes, love,” Lyssia replied, and the bag was gently taken from her grasp, and then Lyssia left the room.
“You and I need to come to an understanding; that much is clear,” Bushor said evenly.
“Whatever you want me to do, Bushor, I will,” she quietly said. “I’ll turn myself over to enforcement, if that’s what you think—”
“For the moment, just stand still and be quiet,” he interjected. Closing her eyes, she did as he asked. She felt him approach her, picked up his scent, and then felt his paw softly slip under her chin. Lifting her muzzle up, she felt him raise her head so that she was looking up, exposing her neck to him. Knowing what was probably coming next, she tensed hard and started to cry. She raised her own head the rest of the way fully, surrendering her life if need be to pay for the pain she had caused in Lyssia’s.
Then, she felt something she didn’t expect, he was carefully drawing closer to her, and his arms where around her slowly and carefully, pulling her into an embrace. His muzzle, with its elegantly draping fur brushed against her left shoulder, and his head started to rub against her exposed and vulnerable neck. His paws, claws sheathed and gentle, were at her back, forcing her body to come into contact with his, making it more than an embrace between friends or acquaintances – more like the kind lovers give to one another.
The acceptance and affection of it were too much for Tanatta, and she tried to pull away, but he held her and wouldn’t let her go. “I forgive you, Tanatta. From the depths of my soul I forgive you, and I beg that you would accept our love and friendship in return for what my mate’s family cost you.” Tanatta was rigid, standing as if being shocked. She lowered her muzzle and left it hovering just above Bushor’s shoulder. Opening her eyes, she saw Lyssia standing behind her mate, smiling happily and crying.
“You … you can’t accept me like that!” Tanatta growled out, fighting to get the words out through the emotions roiling inside of her. “After … what I did to her! You … have to be angry about that!”
“Yes, you hurt her, Tanatta,” Bushor whispered back, “and you marked her for life, but they caused your mother and father to die, kit! The scales aren’t anywhere close to equal. You deserve more, and you deserve better. I accept that, and I accept you. I can’t imagine the pain you were in when you took Lyssia. You had to be dying inside, your soul on fire – in agony.”
Panting and crying and trembling, Tanatta wailed as Bushor’s words forced her to touch the pain of her father’s death. “There, there, kit,” the Perratti comforted, “there, there. We both love you, kit, and we both accept you, and we both just want to be there for you.” Utterly broken, Tanatta’s head fell to Bushor’s shoulder, and her arms wrapped around him, returning the embrace. His paws ceased trying to hold her and now began to caress and rub her back as proof of his caring for her. Suddenly aware that Lyssia was watching them, she tried to pull away, but he held her in place gently. Opening her eyes, she saw her friend stepping over, presumably to separate them, but instead, the petite female’s arms went around both of them, and she nuzzled them in their arms and sides.
“Oh, my heart,” Tanatta wailed. “I … I can’t believe it! I … I don’t deserve this! I don’t deserve to feel so … loved … no!”
“Yes,” Lyssia asserted firmly from her side, without allowing any possibility of contest. “You do deserve our love. We’re not worthy of yours.”
Now, far from continuing to resist the embrace, Tanatta reached out and grabbed them both, and she felt as if something hard covering her own soul was breaking away, falling apart, exposing the soft and tender girl she once was underneath. All of them were crying, but Tanatta most of all.
She heard Lyssia sobbing out a promise, and it amazed her. “Kit, everything we have is yours, and everything we are is yours, too. We are yours, and you are ours. We want to share everything with you, if you will let us.”
“I … I don’t … deserve it!” Tanatta cried bitterly, but then, Bushor leaned up and gave her a gentle lick on the side of her muzzle, a caring and affectionate gesture that nearly stopped her heart. Lyssia let them go as the mixed blood once again stood rigidly, her eyes snapped wide open in surprise. Bushor backed away from her just the least bit, took her muzzle in his paw, turned it to the other side, and again, gave it a gentle and affectionate lick.
“You deserve to be loved, kit,” Lyssia replied. “And we do love you, truly.”
“But … but … you barely even know me,” Tanatta replied in confusion as she stepped back from the pair.
“The moment you confessed to Lyssia what you did,” Bushor disagreed softly, “we knew you. Anyone who has that much courage and such a sense of right and wrong is someone I want not just as a friend, but as my dearest friend. You’ve also shown such kindness to Lyssia. We know there are things in your past you’re not proud of, and we’re willing to help you through those, but we want to be there for you, most of all, in any way you need us to be, and in any way you want us to be. Even if it’s just desserts,” he said with an even seriousness which made Tanatta chuckle.
Lyssia groaned, “Oh, you absolute hopeless goofball! You’re totally ruining the moment!”
“No, no, kit,” Tanatta disagreed. “This … this is just about the most perfect moment of my entire life! Oh, you two,” the mixed blood said, putting her paws over her muzzle. “I’ve … I’ve never felt like this before! I’ve … you … you’re looking at me, and … acceptance – love even, is all I see in you! I … promise … on my honor, to never do anything to hurt you or cause you dishonor. No matter what it costs me, I will. I know we aren’t thought to have any honor, but—”
“No, kit,” Bushor interrupted, “in all seriousness, you have our respect, and I believe you do have honor. It’s just been very hard for you to demonstrate it when the world around has never treated you with the same respect. You showed amazing honor in confessing to Lyssia what you did, and you showed honor in how you stood and faced me tonight. We promise you the same. What happens and what’s said when we’re in private together will remain so. You have our word.”
“You do, Tanatta, you do,” Lyssia enforced.
“Thank you,” the mixed blood replied quietly, and again, they both hugged her. Tanatta’s embrace was far more open this time, and Lyssia could tell she was allowing herself to feel their presence.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Now, I’ve got another feast in the oven and on the stoves, and I don’t want them to burn. You two just sit and relax. I’ll call you soon.”
“Thank you, Bushor,” Tanatta replied tenderly.
“Thank you love,” Lyssia offered and licked him on the side of the muzzle. A gesture which he returned before he left. “Let’s sit,” she offered Tanatta.
When he was out of sight, Tanatta said quietly, “Lyssia, he’s … wonderful. You are so fortunate to find someone so … understanding.”
“He is, but you are, too,” Lyssia offered. “Now, why don’t you tell me about your sol, okay?”
Tanatta smiled, and then shared with her dear friend until Bushor called them to the table.
Dinner proceeded largely as Lyssia had indicated, with all of them sharing about their early careers over a delicious feast that Bushor had prepared. Again, Tanatta had to force herself away from the plate, offering her compliments to the two of them. After dinner, as the couple were still intensely interested in Tanatta’s story, especially her run-in with the infamous Dame Dania de Dothnar, they returned to the comfort of the living room. After the story was finished, Lyssia, her eyelids starting to droop, announced, “I’m afraid … I’m setting (yawn) like the sun. If you two want to keep talking, go ahead, but otherwise (yawn) I’m going to fall asleep listening to you, and that’s kind of rude.”
“But, you’re really cute when you’re sleeping,” Bushor teased.
“Yeah, and that’s another reason right there, you goofball,” Lyssia chided as she stood. “The last thing I want is you two talking about how cute I look as I’m drooling down your shirt.” She leaned over and licked her mate on the side of the muzzle and then walked over to Tanatta who stood. “Have a good night. We’ll get up in the morning to go to the show and then just spend the rest of the sol together. Sound good?”
“Sounds wonderful,” Tanatta replied as she embraced the smaller female. Tanatta’s head rested easily on top of the Perratti’s, who nuzzled her neck like a sister.
“Goodnight, you two,” Lyssia said as she parted and slowly headed for the bedroom.
When she was out of sight, Tanatta sat and offered quietly, “There walks the most amazing and wonderful kit I’ve ever known.”
“I feel the same way,” Bushor admitted. “She thinks I did the marvelous kindness to her by loving her in spite of her scars, but really, she has no idea. She was kind to me at a time when I really needed it, and if anything, she can empathize with pain – all kinds, even pain of the heart. I met her, you see, right after a breakup with my … well, she was going to be my mate.”
“One sol, she rolled over and looked at me and decided she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a cook,” he sighed.
“You’re not a … cook! You’re a chef! One of the top chef’s in the city if not the continent!”
“That’s very kind of you,” he replied, blushing a little. “I wasn’t so much back then. I was just getting started, and I actually was a cook. I started at de Kestos, and then I moved to Whisper Glance, and after several more, Rangelands took an interest in me. You can imagine, though – I was heartbroken. My whole future was dying in front of my eyes, and I went to the archive to look up a book on relationships – trying to figure out what I did wrong. I’m sitting there, reading the book and crying, honestly, when this kit sits beside me and starts talking to me, asking me if there’s anything she can do. I told her what happened, and she comforted me. I told her I felt like I was scarred for life, and that I didn’t know if I would ever trust anyone like that again, and then – and I hadn’t even really looked at her yet – she tells me that she knows what it is like to be scarred, but you can find a life beyond it, if you’re willing to. I turn and look at her, and the way she’s sitting, I can’t see the scars, but then, sighing and closing her eyes, she turned towards me, and I could see.”
“What did you do?”
“I … I didn’t do anything. I just stared at her, which I suppose happens … even now. She walked away and went back to her work, but afterwards, I started to feel pretty silly about how I was reacting to the break up. I also found myself becoming curious about this … adorable little Perratti – you can’t tell her I called her that, please – who had obviously survived something much worse than what I did. Yet, here she is, an assistant archivist at the Pinnacle Center. I asked my matron to check into her, discretely, and I found that she wasn’t seeing anyone or already mated. I went back to the archive and asked for her. I said I was having problems finding a specific reference, but it gave me a chance to look at her again. I looked at the scars again, and I just thought … she’s so small, so beautiful, so … delicate, but she’s tough. She’s had to be. Before I left the archive that night, after some serious soul searching, I asked her if she would go out with me.” He chuckled, remembering. “She dropped a whole stack of books on the floor when I did that, but she went, and well, here we are. So, in a way, she and I are together because … of what happened.”
Tanatta wouldn’t meet his gaze, but answered, “I know that … you have forgiven me, but in your soul, you have to really want to rip my heart out or at least … do to me what I did to her.”
“I was angry, yes. As usual, she’s given me a lot to think about, and she’s painted some pretty ugly pictures of what her father did. He’s still … I mean, we still hear stories. You’d think that after his own daughter gets clawed because of what he did, he would change. I pity anyone who works for him, and that’s not just the mixed bloods. I very much doubt that Thurian even has a heart, let alone a soul. Which … brings me to something I wanted to ask you about,” he started.
“What?” she asked, looking up at him.
“I know that you clawed Lyssia, but she’s forgiven you, and I have, too. I might not love her so much or even like her at all if she hadn’t been through that ordeal. It changed her into someone who I will love for the rest of my sols. She’s also shown you enormous trust, and likewise, you’ve had to trust her, since she now knows you were the one who hurt her. She’s … inviting you into our lives, Tanatta, and … I’m not completely comfortable with that.” Tanatta’s shoulders sagged, and she looked away. “It’s a little bit like when she and I have disagreements. Generally, there’s some piece of important information one of us has missed or hasn’t understood. I want to trust you, Tanatta, but … I need to know something. How many more Lyssia’s are there out there? How many more things like that did you do?”
“There are no more Lyssia’s out there, none that I clawed, but … my past isn’t clean,” she admitted. “There were things I did because I was angry, and I did some things when I was younger I’m not proud of.”
“Tanatta, can you tell me about them? Are there things out there you haven’t told anyone? Lyssia doesn’t need to know them, but I want to know I can trust you, and I want to know what kind of problems we might have if these things come to light.”
Tanatta shook her head. “I’ve … some things I … I just can’t.”
“If you can’t tell me, how can I ever trust you?”
“You’ll think I’m a monster, and you’ll kick me out of your lair.”
“Maybe, but it’s not going to be that much better if you won’t tell me the truth about your past. Lyssia may care for you, and perhaps one sol I will, too, but not unless I can trust you, and not until I know the truth,” Bushor asserted. “Regardless of what it is, I will not turn you in or tell anyone – not even Lyssia. This is where you have to trust me, Tanatta, and if you don’t, I can’t either.”
“I … I …” she hesitated, and then thought of Lyssia and all she had promised. “I set a factory on fire, burned it to the ground. I was about fifteen or so, I think.”
“Why did you do that?” he asked evenly.
“My mother worked there, and they … they … damn … they didn’t take care of her! They made her work with all these chemicals, and … she just – the chemicals killed her. I … I never saw her again! They just ‘disposed’ of her,” Tanatta breathed raggedly. “I snuck back into the factory that night trying to find her, find her body, wondering if they were just holding her prisoner. I listened to the security guards talking about her, joking even, and they said they’d dumped her in the trash! I … I couldn’t stop myself. I knew all the places where fire wasn’t supposed to be allowed, and I ran through that place setting fires everywhere I could. Worse, I knew where the fire panels were, and I cut their power with an axe. I went after the LineCom system, too. I … closed the valves on the drenchers. Altogether, I was in there six intervals, and at the seventh interval, I watched as the fires I set went totally out of control. It was … a funeral pyre – in honor of my mother.”
“Do you remember the name of the facility?”
“The Wells Glade Processing Center,” she admitted. “Bushor … I…”
He held up his paw and then offered it to her. “Come with me.”
“To my study. Let’s take a look at the report.”
“Why?” she asked, worried, but she still went with him.
“I think we both need to know exactly what happened.”
A few moments later, Bushor was sitting at his computer with Tanatta uneasily standing beside him. “Searching the enforcement nets on the Wells Glade Processing Center,” he said as he keyed the information into the computer.
“How do you have access to that?”
“Oh, because of Lyssia, we have access to quite a lot. Hmm… maybe it’s not that bright to search on that right away. Let’s hit it from an angle; that way if anyone is looking for searches or scanning activity, they won’t think we went right in on that topic. Let’s search industrial accidents instead.” He keyed the search terms, and in moments, the computer brought up multiple records. “Wow, look at that! Look at the numbers of injured, and … it’s broken out by family. The North Stand Chemical Complex fire. De Orturu – six dead. De Dothnar – ten dead. De Mistral – three dead. Total dead, forty two. That’s strange. The numbers don’t add up.”
Tanatta pulled over a stool and sat next to him. “It’s not that strange when you consider that mixed bloods generally get the jobs no one else wants. I’m guessing that 23 or so mixed bloods died in that fire.”
“But … it doesn’t even list their names,” he told her as he clicked into the details.
“We’re non-Thurians – wild animals, Bushor. This happened well before the Meeting Den, even before de Gonari and de Dothnar had their present matriarchs.”
Shaking his head and popping back out into the search results, he scanned down the list. There’s yours. Wells Glade Processing Center. De Orturu – one injured. De Caterra – three dead. De Kestrick – seven dead. Total dead – ten.”
Turning around to look at her, Bushor saw that Tanatta’s paws were covering her muzzle. She was clearly horrified by what she was seeing. “I … I thought everyone was out of the facility! Only the security guards were left! One of them was a Nephti!”
“It says here that the facility was a total loss, and that de Caterra paid for the clean-up. De Caterra and De Kestrick,” Bushor mused. “De Caterra and Vulpi. I wonder…” He opened up another session and keyed in through a series of password gates.
“What are you doing?” she asked, afraid.
“I have access to the cover records. They’ve been keyed and indexed. Wells Glade,” he stated as he searched. Scanning the index of entries, he selected one. “Wells Glade facility destruction,” he read. “Destruction of the Wells Glade Processing Facility means that all new recruits must be diverted to the primary facility on Ricia. Because of the fire, activities there were nearly discovered, and security would have been compromised if we did not control the clean-up. For this reason, in-processing will only be conducted at stand-alone facilities well within our control and over shorter periods.”
“Recruits? In-processing?” Tanatta asked, still trembling with her paws over her muzzle. “What are they talking about?!”
“Don’t you see, Tanatta? Those ten who died were part of a de Caterra processing facility – processing Vulpi and turning them into slaves! You … you took out one of their processing centers, forced them to change their tactics! The Nephti probably got burned fighting the fire or getting out of the facility, but the others were –”
“In their secret processing center?” Tanatta asked, finally allowing her paws to drop. “But … but that still means I killed seven innocent Vulpi, Bushor!”
“No, kit, that means that de Caterra killed seven innocent Vulpi. They kidnapped those Vulpi and took them to a place that wasn’t safe. If you, being only fifteen, were able to bring that facility to the ground by yourself, then the facility wasn’t safe.”
“It wasn’t. My mother died there because of the chemicals. She talked about other mixed bloods leaving with burns … awful burns. It … it gave her nightmares.”
“I’m going to search through a couple of more to make it look like we didn’t stop here, but … I think we both have our answer, Tanatta, and whether I can trust you or not.”
The mixed blood, dejected, bowed her head and almost whimpered, “I’m sorry, Bushor.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for. I trust you, now. Just tell me, what else is there?”
“I … stole so I would have enough to eat and sometimes that meant stealing from lairs or hovers. I … I didn’t do that much more than two seasons. After that, I got the job at the massage parlor, and although my life was … not happy, at least I didn’t have to steal or threaten anyone.”
“I can try to remember details if you like, but there was nothing ever again as serious as the fire or when I clawed your mate. I’ll tell you another secret, Bushor. My name, Tanatta Fireclaw. The fire part was for when I burned down the facility, and the claw … well, you know.”
“I see. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to honor your father’s memory by retaking his name.”
“I chose that name for myself because it made me feel powerful. Now, all I feel is regret.” Tanatta stood and walked slowly towards the door of the office.
Noticing this, Bushor stood and walked over to her and put his paw gently on her shoulder, stopping her. “That, more than anything, shows how far you’ve come, doesn’t it?”
“Perhaps,” she said, not moving.
“I think it does,” he added, placing his other paw on her opposite shoulder, standing behind her. “It also shows me how much you love Lyssia, that you would tell me these things. You’ve never told anyone, have you?”
“Never. Bushor?” she asked.
“I’m not a monster, am I? I don’t want to be.”
“I think you were a hurt little kit, and you became an angry and hurt adult – an adult who recognizes now what she did, and feels the impact. That means you are not a monster, Tanatta. Now, let’s get you to your room, to your own bed, so you can rest.”
“My … room? My bed?” she asked, turning around and looking at him, confused.
“Yes. While you are with us, and for as long as you want – your room and your bed. You’re going to need your sleep, now. We’re going to have a very interesting time at the convention. I hope you’ll be pleased.”
“I know I will, but I am more pleased … to have your trust,” she offered, reaching for and holding him in an embrace.