Bonus Story: Reconciliations of Chance (Part 1)

Story by James Todd Lewis
An extension of the story told in Purebred (available as an eBook and audiobook)!
(c) All characters copyright of James Todd Lewis (2015)
Art by Kat Miller


Interrupted

chap

As she strung on the serving apron, part of the costume for the night, Sahnassa sighed.  It had finally happened; two different parts of her life that were never supposed to intersect were about to, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.  Normally, the circles that she and her mother travelled in were so distant from one another that, even though they both lived in the city of Shanandrae, there was little to no chance that they she or her estranged parents would see each other, let alone be attending the same event together.  It had only happened one other time, shortly after she had hired on at Vanarra’s.

Tresk and Saiphar had been ordered to go with her to get some computer equipment and air duct material, but the visit to the air duct store had brought Sahni face-to-face with her mother, the famed Archivist Holana de Orturu, and the exchange was not pleasant.  Her mother had been downright ugly and insulting, condescending in the most off-pawed of ways, and it had hurt Sahnassa very deeply.  She had struck back in the same conversation and very effectively.  Reminding her mother, in the presence of others, that she had been forced to claim the familial protection clauses of the Compact  was effectively calling out Holana as an abusive parent.  That had shamed and angered Holana, and the message she got later was evidence of the same.

Now, more than two seasons later, she started to remember that note’s tone just a little differently.  Sahni was older, self-sufficient, and felt just a little more comfortable with herself despite her various trials and errors over that time.

To Sahnassa, my daughter,

You can’t imagine how you’ve hurt me by what you’ve done and said.  I have never been more humiliated or ashamed as I was when you took the Compact or when you recently rubbed my muzzle in it.  I have also come to realize – by way of our matron – that we, your father and I, have also been at fault.  I know this, Sahnassa, I do.  I have been thinking about what your Vulpi friend said to me.  You may not even know he did this, but he asked me why I would have stopped loving you.  That question has clawed at me over and over again since he asked it.  My reasons, as I catalogue them, are admittedly lacking.  You have been such a failure in my eyes for so long that I refused to see my own shortcomings.

I don’t know what future we can have with one another; the hurt between us is so very deep.  By taking the Compact, you shunned and dishonored me as your mother, but I have come to realize, that by taking the Compact, you walked a path that was difficult, but you have ended your journey honorably in the eyes of our matriarch.  I don’t know if we will ever fully reconcile with you, but you should know that we at least recognize that much.

Hoping for better things, Holana de Orturu

“Hoping for better things,” she recalled, a little stunned she could recall the message with that degree of clarity.  As she started placing the harlock roasted creele and braised tuber roots into their serving dishes, Sahnassa was forced to admit that her mother had at least made a half-hearted mention at some type of reconciliation between them.  It made her wonder if she actually cared about that – wanted any type of reunion or relationship with her mother or her father.

Walking back into the kitchen, an arm appeared around her shoulder and gently guided her off to the side.  “Oh, what, Van?”

“You’re not here, kit,” her boss told her softly.  “Bodily, yes, but … your brain isn’t here.  You just put the tubers in backwards and set the creele into the dessert station.”  At that, Sahni stood up straight in surprise and just stared at Vanarra.  “Not kidding.  I just fixed it.”

“Oh, sorry, Van!” Sahnassa groaned, rolling her eyes at her own distraction.  “I … I apologize.  I’ll try to get my head back into the game.”

“As your boss,” Van offered, her arm unmoved from the Nephti’s shoulder, “I would appreciate your attempts to focus your attention on the task at paw.  However, as your friend,” the mixed blood commented in a softer voice, “I’m worried about you.  Is this about your break-up with Sarlan?”

“No, no, it’s not.  I’m over him, and what’s worse, I think I was over him about a moon ago before we actually gave it up two sols ago.  No, it’s … it’s my mother.  She’ll be here, tonight.  I just saw the guest list as Flint was taking it from the event coordinator.  She was almost at the top of the list.”

“Ugh,” Van groaned, remembering Sahni’s confessions about her mother and how poor a relationship they had.  Another reflection of a memory ricocheted off of that one that made Van wince and slam her eyes shut – the time when she had blown up on the Nephti, right after Sahni’s mother had also ripped into her.  It had almost ended their relationship.

“Hey, now I can see what you’re thinking,” Sahnassa told her.  “You’re my friend, and all is forgiven – both of us have forgiven the other, and you are close to my soul.”

“It’s why you can read me so damned well,” Van complained, looking at her.  “Probably why I can do the same.  I could try to call someone else.”

“No, I’ll get my head on straight like a big kit, muscle through it.”

“What a brave one you are,” Van offered, patting her back and only now removing her paw.  “Help us get set up, and then when the event starts up and guests start arriving, I’ll put you in the back on prep, and hopefully, you’ll only need to run things out occasionally.  Fortune might favor you.  You might miss her completely.”

“Or not, but I appreciate not being posted right next to the stage, for sure,” Sahnassa replied, bowing a little to her and ducking her head.

“Alright, as charming as it is to see you deferring to me,” Van chuckled, “we’ve got an event to run.  Get back in there, kit, and let me know if you change your mind, okay?”

“I’m not going to.  I owe you that,” Sahnassa promised, her mind obviously set.  “And I’m not going to allow her presence to interfere.”

That statement raised Van’s eyebrow fur.  “Fair enough.  Now, I have to take care of something else, so back to it, okay?”

“Yes, Van,” Sahnassa replied and was away.

Just then, Tresk and Saiphar came in carrying one of the artist’s new statues.  “Dammit, Sapphy, can’t your art be just a little lighter?” Tresk complained as he strained to get the statue through the loading dock door.  Van darted to help them, and soon, they had the item through the kitchen and into the banquet hall.  With Van’s help, they placed the art at the center of the main serving table and oriented it according to Saiphar’s direction.  “Okay, now that it’s standing up there,” Tresk confessed, “it’s … worth the strained muscles, more or less.”

“That’s high artistic praise coming from you,” Van chuckled as she straightened the table.  “Hey, cubs, just a quick note for you.  Both of you were at the airflow store when Sahni’s mom showed up that time, right?”

“Yes,” Saiphar whispered back, shaking his head.  “Horrible.”

“What I wouldn’t give to call that hopeless bitch useless back to her face,” Tresk growled.  “What a crappy parent, and I should know.”

Van couldn’t help but spare a smile for both of them.  As much as she’d come to love and depend on the winsome little technophile, her artist and fix-it Vulpi both seemed to think of her as family, now, and didn’t want to see her hurt.  “Well, cubs, that lovely Thurian will be one of the guests of honor, tonight.”

“Aw, damn!” Tresk spat, quietly.  “That’s mangy turf burrower crap for sure.”

“She shouldn’t have to face her, Van.  It … it was awful.”

“I know, Saiphar, and I’ll do what I can to keep her apart from the main goings-on, but I want your promise, and it will be difficult for both of you.”  She fixed them both with a stare for a moment, demanding that they both nod in agreement.  “If you see the two of them talking, unless her mother pulls out a knife or a something else tries to physically hurt our little Nephti, stay out of it.  This isn’t about you or me, and if there is going to be a blow-up, I’d appreciate it if it was … contained.”

“As you say, Van,” Saiphar answered, nodding sadly.

“Sucks to the two moons, but okay,” Tresk agreed.  “She’ll be a mess for the next ten sols, though.”

“Aw, you do care,” Vanarra told him, smirking at him.

“She’ll fall over everything I’m working on and just screw it up, that’s all!” the Vulpi warned, clearly not wanting his reputation of testiness to be called into question.

“Fair enough, but I think we have to just let them be.  Pass the word to the others, quietly, please.  Don’t let Sahni know.”

“I’ll do it, Van,” Saiphar offered, nodding and stepping away.

Tresk walked up and stood beside Van as they watched the artist leave.  “You know, it’s a really great event, and it will probably be wonderfully memorable for everyone attending.”

“Might even get a little spin-off business from it,” Van noted, agreeing to his unsaid skepticism by matching his flat and even tone.

“Rape-mating pity it’s still going to break that kit’s heart,” he sighed, looking at Sahni as she brought more trays to the serving line.

As he walked away, Van breathed in a whisper too quiet to hear, “Aw, you really do care, Tresk.  Thanks.”

An interval later, they were all running back and forth taking care of the bustling group – almost exclusively Nephti dressed in their best evening attire.  It was a fascinating celebration, one reason why Van had snapped it up when it came her way.  It had the informal air of a social hour, the formal dress of a night at the theater, and two orlures and two darsans in a stringed quartet playing softly.  “If the participants weren’t so stiff,” Van thought, “I’d expect some actual dancing to break out.  Uh oh, sweet una dip is running low.”  Starting to head towards the kitchen, she was pleased to see Sahnassa already heading out with a replacement plus several other smaller items in a tray.  “Okay, kit, now your head’s back in the hunt,” Van told her quietly.  “Just get those things out, and you can duck back in.  Thanks for keeping an eye out.”

“No problem, Van.  Looks like she’s a no-show, anyway,” Sahni shrugged before continuing her trek to one of the serving stations.

“Everyone, might I have your attention?” a loud, stentorian elder voice called out over the public address system in the room, stilling most conversations.  The musicians kept playing, albeit at a much more subdued level.  “Ever since I have been the director of the de Orturu archive – which has been an almost geologic era unto itself, we have had one archivist, in particular, who has truly distinguished herself with training, service, and accomplishment.”  Sahnassa tried her best to keep her mind focused on her work, but something in the depths of her stomach warned her what was about to happen.  “Now, our peers in this most noble of professions from around the globe have voted and awarded the Chouler Prize in the Archival Arts to this honored colleague, recognizing the many exquisite restorations of not only paintings, statuary, and artifacts, but to written tomes, as well – some dating back ten centuries or more.  She is not only standing guard over our history and cultural core, she’s also sharing that with the many school children and academy students who come through our archive’s learning program.  May I present to you, in honor, now Senior Principal Archivist at the de Orturu archive, Holana de Orturu!”

The polite applause and shuffling for position granted Sahni just enough opportunity to slip behind several dozen interested archivists and their dates to get a distant view of her mother, blush furs riding just a little high in embarrassment, walking in to happily and gracefully accept the beautiful plaque being presented by the black and gray elder Nephti at the podium on the low stage.  As the polite applause continued, Sahnassa ducked down as her mother’s eyes swept the room scanning for friends or, even worse, family.

After several images had been taken of the presentation of the award, the elder Nephti asked, “Holana, if you wouldn’t mind, could we please ask you to say a few words to everyone here about the journey you’ve been on over these past few seasons?”

A little shyly, Holana took the offered microphone and nodded politely as the applause continued on for a moment longer.  As it finished, she began, “Thank you, thank you all so much.  It’s quite correct, dear Allastar, for you to mention the journey, as we do often in our discussions.  The past few seasons have seen some amazing opportunities, challenges, and set-backs for both our archive and for me, directly.  My dear daughter, Triana, says that I tend to glaze over my own past because I’m too caught up in researching someone else’s.”  That brought out a mild tittering of laughter, which made Holana smile as she continued.  “I’m completely guilty as accused on that point, I’ll admit, but I am so grateful to the board, to the matriarchy, and to the archivist community at large for noticing what I tend to miss, sometimes.  You see, a few seasons ago, I and my mate took a very difficult hit, one that sat us down hard and made us question almost everything about who we were – our careers, our choices, and … how we dealt with others.”

Looking away from the festivities, Sahnassa had been trying not to bristle at the speech, especially when Triana was mentioned, but the quiet pause Holana inserted caused Sahni to look back, her face drawing into a scowl.  “There were many long nights of staring at the ceiling, questioning our lives, but in time, and with the help of our friends and those in the matriarchy, we started climbing out of the dark place we’d fallen into.  Part of that journey, I’ll admit, was simply throwing myself into my work.  I think it was that way for both of us, Gonastir and I.  During that time period, a lot of very amazing opportunities and challenges came into being, and I was privileged and honored to work with other amazing archivists, literally, from across the continent and around the world on work essential to the de Orturu’s legacy and rich, rich history.  While I can’t help but regret the private misjudgments that caused us such pain, I look back on the last few seasons and realize that if it hadn’t been for that difficult journey, I wouldn’t be here, speaking to you, now.  As my youngest, Hylea, prepares to follow in my paw-steps, I can’t tell you how proud I am that she is beginning a journey that I have found so rewarding, so enriching, and … so healing to my own soul, at times.”

Sahnassa closed her eyes and lowered her head, a tear falling from her eyes as she started to step away.  “You know, as archivists, we are charged with preserving the past to save the future, restoring antiquity with an eye to eternity, so the sayings go.  What I never realized is how these restorations we do affect us!  We have to be quiet.  We have to be patient.  We have to be focused – focused on the work, the piece, its history, and its future.  What you see in this award, my friends, more than collective accomplishments it represents, is the peace and joy this work has brought me – the healing it has brought me.  That is something I hope all of you find as archivists or in whatever profession you pursue.  Again, the honor goes to my family, but my thanks goes to you.”

Holona’s well-delivered speech received exactly the stripe and tenor of applause Sahnassa knew it would, and it covered her as she stepped down the hallway and leaned against the wall, crying.  In so many ways, Sahni’s relationship with Van – their deep friendship – had soothed over many of the wounds left by her parents.  Hylea’s occasional calls or visits also gave her some small interaction with those she had grown up around.  It had been difficult to hear of her father being honored not more than a moon ago for his “charity” in helping the less fortunate with their legal difficulties.  Now, by a twist of chance, she had been placed in exactly the right spot to hear that her mother had recovered from any and all losses she had suffered when Sahni took the Compact in academy to protect herself from her parents’ and dame’s interference.  “That’s it.  They’re totally over it, now.  No harm done,” she whispered to herself, bitterly.  “No marks on their record for the daughter they abandoned, the daughter they disdain.”

As the applause and congratulations had died away, the music rose in volume and the discussions resumed, as well, enough to cover Sahni’s sobbing down the darkened hallway.  She heard her mother as various individuals spoke with her, her laughter, her thanks.  All Sahnassa wanted to do was somehow crawl into a hole and cry herself to sleep.  “Oh, yes!” Holana chuckled.  “She’s taking two more seasons of prep…”  Sahni realized she must have meant Hylea.  After a few passes, she heard her reply to someone, “Oh, it’s this way?”  At their acknowledgment, Sahni’s eyes flicked up and saw that she was just across from the facilities.

Just as she was about turn to go back towards the kitchen, a voice called out to her, “Sahnassa?”

Startled, she whipped around, looking over her left shoulder to see a female Nephti silhouetted against the crowd in the list ballroom.  For a moment, she wanted to just run and hide, but the voice of her mother called quietly again, “Sahnassa, is that … you?”

discovered

Humiliated and ashamed, daughter turned to face mother as the older Nephti approached.  “Hello … Mother.  Con … congratulations on your award,” she offered softly, rubbing her own cheek fur with the back of her paw to dry her tears.

Stepping closer, the dark blue eyes of her mother studied Sahnassa with the attention to detail that only an archivist truly could.  Her expression, her server’s bib-apron, the set of her tail and ears, her blush fur – all were read in a matter of moments.  Unsure and humiliated, Sahni just stood there, feeling a little sick to her stomach as she waited for her mother’s harsh tone.

When it didn’t come, Sahni looked up to see her mother looking back at her, stunned and a little worried.  A slight wince crossed her features, and she stated, “I … have to take a moment in the facilities, just now, but … can you please be here when I get back?  Promise me?”

“Okay,” her daughter replied in the quietest voice imaginable, and her mother couldn’t have read her lips, she would never have heard it.

“Back in just a moment, now,” she told Sahnassa, and she continued her way down the hall.  As Sahnassa watched her go, she didn’t sense a presence come up behind her until Holana had entered the door down the hall.  The warm paw slipped over her shoulder, and a presence alongside her was one she leaned into, instinctively.

“We have everything covered, kit,” Vanarra whispered into her ear.  “If you want to talk to her, talk to her – don’t worry about the event.  We can spare you all the way to clean-up, if needed.”

“I’m so sorry, Van,” Sahni breathed.  “You can take it out of my pay.  It’d only be fair.”

“No,” Van countered.  “Others, over the seasons, have had their moments.  Take yours.  I’ll be around.  Just catch my eye if you need me.”  Sahni nodded, and Van slipped quickly away.  She couldn’t help but smile a little when the door down the hall opened; Vanarra’s sense of timing was usually pretty good, and this time was no different.  The hesitant approach of her mother, however, again drew down Sahnassa’s head, tail, and ears and pricked her eyes with tears.

“I … I … thought you were a technologist, kit,” Holana said, but not unkindly.  “Has something happened?”

“No, no, it’s alright,” her daughter replied, brushing a few stray specs from her apron.  “I work at a small business, do technology for them, but … being a small business, everyone pitches in when its needed.  This contract is with a catering firm.  So, sometimes I help with that.”  She glanced into her mother’s eyes and saw what she thought was disappointment in them.  “It’s not that different from others starting out in their career – I mean, I saw what you did to the interns in the archive.”

That brought a rueful smile out on Holana’s face.  “You have to learn how to preserve the facilities before you start preserving its documents.  Yes, I … I did make them clean the libraries … and scrub the bathrooms.  Fair point, but this isn’t what you wanted to do, though.”

“I know, but I found that I enjoy it.  I get to talk to Thurians, help them, and … many are grateful for what we do.  I see others at their happiest – joinings and office celebrations and more.  It balances me, I guess.”  After a bit of silence where neither seemed to know what to say, Sahnassa ventured, “It’s nice to know everyone else is doing well.  Hylea tells me a little bit, from time to time.”

Holana closed her eyes and shook her head.  “That can’t be how you really feel.  While I was down the hall, I replayed my little speech in my head.  That … had to hurt.  It wasn’t my intent,” Holana told her, sadly.  “I didn’t know you were here.”

“It is true, though, and I know that I’m why.  I’m your setback,” Sahnassa said, the hurt evident in her voice.

“I nearly lost my job because of that,” Holana argued, softly.  “Your father nearly lost his.  We were second or third class in our offices for seasons afterwards.  Only now, Sahnassa, do I think we have recovered some of what you stripped away from us when you announced to the matriarchy – to everyone – that we were abusive parents!”  Looking into the hurt eyes of her child brought a realization to her lips Holana had never considered.  “You … didn’t really want us to go through that, did you?  You didn’t know that would happen?”

Sahni closed her eyes and sighed.  “I was afraid, with reason, that Dame Rothnerra would try to sabotage me in academy.  When I saw the classes she had told the matron about, were trying to force me into, I felt like I didn’t have any choice!  Rothnerra was trying to destroy any chance of success I would have had.  I was angry, and yes, I was selfish.  I wasn’t thinking about everything the way I should have – there was a lot I didn’t know.  So no, I didn’t want to hurt your careers.  I just wanted the freedom to pursue mine.”

Holana leaned against the wall, placing her paw on it.  “Of all of us, the Dame suffered the least.  I think the matrons covered for her, but in the end, she was pried away from us.  She was assigned to temporary duty overseas, and another dame was assigned to us.  Thankfully, what we were doing to try to make amends for our failings was … sufficient for her, and she’s helped us.  I trusted Rothnerra.  We both did.  We were wrong to do so.  We would never do that, again.”

At that moment, they both heard Holana’s name coming from crowd milling beyond, and Sahnassa told her, “You’d better get back in there.  They’ll notice if the guest of honor is away too long.”

Holana stepped closer to her daughter, deliberately, and told her, “None of the others could be here, and none of them saw me receive this.  I’m … glad you were here, and I don’t want this to be the last thing we ever say to one another.  I – Hylea…”

“The peacemaker in our family,” Sahni agreed.  “I am proud of you, Mom.  Hylea knows how to get a message to me.  I can meet you, maybe, for lunch or something on this side of Shanandrae?  It’s close enough to work that I can leave and get back and still be okay, schedule wise.”

“Okay.  The hurt is deep for both of us, but I don’t want hurt to be all there ever is.”

“Neither do I, Mother,” Sahnassa replied, but not unkindly.  The tension, the pain, and the regret were still poignant between them, but for the first time in seasons, there was just a touch of the love that once been there.

“I will reach out to you, I promise, on my honor,” Holana offered, and then, gently and hesitantly, she reached for and hugged her daughter lightly.  Sahnassa hugged her back with the same level of caution, as unsure as her mother that the action wouldn’t result in some kind of injury or hurt.  When it ended, their eyes caught one another, and they both, for just a moment, sensed the other’s pain.  “I’m sorry, my daughter.”

“I’m sorry, too.  Go now, enjoy your evening.  Like I said, I am proud of you, and … the food is actually really good if you haven’t tried it,” Sahni told her, smiling a little at the end.

“I’ll take your advice, then,” Holana replied, straightening up and steeling herself to return to the gathering.  “See you soon.”  With that, she slowly turned and walked away.  However, when Holana reached the edge of the crowd, she looked back, smiled, and nodded at her daughter.

The smile was returned, and then she was gone.  A moment later, someone shuffled up behind her.  “Dammit, I thought I was going to see a real kit fight there!” Tresk nearly growled.  “Blood and all!  What a freaking disappointment.”

“You saw?  You were watching us!?” the Nephti replied, not knowing whether to be grateful or angry.

“Hey, I remember the whole crap circus that happened at the airflow store, you know?  I got some claw marks for her, word wise, if she got all huffy again.  Seemed a well enough behaved bitch, this time, and you didn’t maul each other at the end, so… it didn’t like, totally suck the base of a tail, talking to her?”

She looked at Tresk and couldn’t help but smile a little.  In his own horrible, crass way, he was concerned.  He had been watching out for her, and he also seemed to hold a bit of a grudge for the things Holana had said to him seasons ago.  Tresk’s language always got fowler the angrier her got, and she could tell by his expression that he was forcing down some of that, even now.  “It didn’t totally suck, not like last time, and she didn’t say anything ugly about where I was working or who I was working with.  I don’t know, Tresk. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance for me to make things a little better with her.”

“I don’t see how, the damned arrogant bitch,” he grumped.  “Listening to that speech she gave made me want to puke.  Saiphar wanted to make sure you were okay, and … I don’t wanna see you get raked, either.  He kind of nudged me out to check on you.”

“Saiphar?   I wonder why he didn’t want to come talk to me?” Sahnassa asked, worried about her friendship with the artist.

“Uh, Sahni,” Tresk hesitated a little, “you should know that Saphy sometimes … well, he has a problem with really emotional – he doesn’t do stuff like this very well.  I got my family problems, for sure, but … his were as bad or worse.  Don’t know what they were, but I can see it.  I think he’s afraid that if he came over and you were really upset, he’d lose it.  Not like me, though.  I’m used to things being crappy and having to fix stuff.”

Sahni looked at him, smirking a bit.  “This time, there’s nothing really that horrible, I suppose.  Tresk, thank you.  Thank him, too.  I’ll be alright.  I may even try to talk to her, again, sometime.  I don’t know if it will ever be totally right between us, but … she was a lot kinder this time.  Maybe being with her one on one doesn’t embarrass her as much, doesn’t prick up her back fur.”

“Too afraid of the social circle’s turned-up noses to be decent when they’re around,” Tresk chuffed.  “It’s crap – all crap.  You’re welcome, by the way.  I’ll tell Saphy, too.  He’ll … really appreciate it.”

“I get the feeling, Tresk, that there’s something you’re not telling me.  There’s something I should know?”

“There some things in life that we just can’t have, Nephti de Orturu,” he told her, calling her by a fairly disrespectful name, but his eyes and face were full of nothing but kindness and empathy.  “You know that.  I know that.  Doesn’t mean that it’s not there, clawing at our backs, sometimes.  Seeing you hurt really gets to him.  For his sake and yours, it’s better if he doesn’t.  It ain’t nothing to really worry about, just a big broken place in him that you need to know about, okay?  He’s still your friend.”

“As are you,” Sahni told him, and gently reached around and quickly hugged the Vulpi.

“Aw, damn!” he cursed, but just below the volume audible to the crowd, “Now I’m going smell like freaking Nephti for the rest of the night.  Just great!”  He shook off his paws like he had been dipped in rotten rulla eggs, which made her laugh.

“Sorry, Tresk.  Okay, I’m going to go in the back and see what needs prepping, and then I’ll be sure to help getting the statue out.”

“Could use an extra paw,” Tresk agreed as she walked away.  “Saphy does fairly decent stuff, but it weighs what my hover does.”  She laughed and waved thanks to him.  Leaning against the wall, he just shook his head.  “There are things in life we just can’t have,” he mused, thinking about her.  Saiphar stepped up beside him, and he said, “She’s fine.  It wasn’t bad.”

“What did you tell her … at the end?” the artist asked, clearly worried.

“I told her that it was best if you didn’t see her when she’s upset.  It gets to you.  Just be happy I didn’t tell her exactly how it gets to you,” he told his fellow outcast.

“Thank you, Tresk … I think,” Saiphar replied before he walked away, embarrassed.


Continued here!

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