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“This doesn’t have to be complicated,” Sam snapped. “You clear out the vault, you signal Batu, you get the hell out of here. I go upstairs and find Seo-yun. You don’t need me for the rest of this anyway!”
“You’re right,” Hanabi shot back. “There’s nothing complicated about you committing suicide.” Sam tried to protest, but the white haired girl talked over her. “The whole reason you decided to do this signaling stuff in the first place is that every alarm in here is gonna start blaring the moment either we or Batu do anything. There’s no way you make it out of here, even if you do find her!”
“We’ll figure something out!” Sam insisted stubbornly. “It won’t be the first time we’ve escaped from here. I’m not leaving without her.”
“Never said we were! I’m saying we wait until we’ve taken care of things down here, and then we can rescue her together, and then we get out of here!”
“There’s no time,” the redhead growled. “Batu can only hide out up there for another couple hours, tops. It’s going to take nearly that long to raid the rest of the vault. And eventually someone will notice that we’re in the middle of a jailbreak.”
“Then you and I can-”
“I can’t be babysitting you! Wherever she is, I can get there, but not if I have to keep you safe too while I’m at it!”
“Wherever she is?!” Hanabi repeated incredulously. “You don’t even know where to go?!”
“I know Tanya’s been keeping her in the section of the building that Paragon claimed. I just have to find out where she is in there!”
“E,ex-excuse me,” said a small voice. “I-I know where she might be…”
Most of the kitsune were either watching the exchange silently or working to free those who remained shackled. By now there was a small crowd of spectators around the arguing women, and the speaker stepped forward hesitantly from it. “They brought me in there a few days ago,” Sakura said. “That fox was there, the four tailed one who fought at the village.” She looked back and forth between them. “That’s, that’s who you’re talking about, right?”
“See?” Sam said triumphantly. “She can give me directions!”
“That won’t be enough,” said Kaede, speaking quietly from within the group. She had Rei in her arms, and was using one hand to softly stroke the girl’s hair. “We were brought there too, and the entire area had been sectioned off. The guards that took us had to use personalized keycards twice, and submit to a retinal scan both times.” Sakura and several others nodded in agreement.
“They were complaining about the extra security,” Rei added. “And how much of a pain it was to get into and out of the Petrov lab. That’s why they… they made us suck them before they delivered us. To make up for the hassle.” Her mouth twisted in distaste at the memory.
“Are your illusions good enough to get past that?” Sam asked Hanabi, who winced and shook her head.
“Even if we snag a keycard somewhere, I can’t get make anything exact enough to pass a retinal scan.”
“Then I’ll just break in another way,” Sam said grimly. “If we can kidnap a guard, we can grab their card and make them help.”
“That won’t work either,” said one of the non kitsune slaves, a young woman with hair made of grass. “Tanya Petrov, she… she brings me to the lab sometimes. For her lunch breaks. She likes to have someone between her legs while she eats. Some… sometimes she lets me have the crumbs after if I was good.” She blushed slightly. “The keycards have to be authorized for every usage, and Tanya is the only one who can do that. She’s the only one with permanent access. Says if the guards could go in without her, they’d spy, steal, and sabotage things on the dragon’s behalf.”
“Okay, fine, so it’s fucking Fort Knox!” Sam yelled. “It doesn’t matter! There will be a way in, and I’ll find it!”
“There may be another way,” Ying Yue said softly. “It will be extremely dangerous, though.”
“Perfect,” the redhead said immediately. “That’s what I’m best at.”
“The Petrov laboratory is the most secure area in the entire Paradisium, above and beyond anything else in Karakostas’s domain. It cannot be broken into, not with a haphazard plan constructed within minutes.”
“Get to the part that matters,” Sam demanded.
“It is the most secure area in the entire Paradisium,” Ying Yue repeated. “Even moreso than the security system that keeps it secure.”
The redhead’s eyes gleamed. “The sphinx! You know a way to reach her?”
“Wait,” Hanabi said, and looked between the two women. “There’s a sphinx now?”
Eirene watched the camera in the second floor mess hall. There were almost no servants in there at this late hour, but the time of day was only part of the reason. Few people wanted to be around the vulpan while they were eating.
The chickens and goats had been alive such a short time ago, but their carcasses were little more than bone by now. Foxes crowded around each, shoving and growling at each other as they fought for the last scraps. It was a gruesome sight, but familiar. What interested Eirene about this camera was an even more familiar sight, but it never failed to excite her. Some of the vulpan had a different sort of meal in mind, and they were enjoying them as aggressively as the gnawed carcasses on the floor. Slaves screamed as they were crushed beneath the foxes’ bulk, sandwiched between them, slapped around by their whiplike tails, chewed on with fangs that still dripped with animal blood, and choked with the same sort of massive cocks that were eagerly ruining their lower holes.
These women represented the near bottom of the Paradisium’s hierarchy, just above meat. They were slaves who were judged as unworthy to be sold – whether through physical defect, poor attitude, or some other failing – but not so unworthy as to be sentenced to death. To be one of the vulpans’ playthings was both a final trial and a last hope. Do well enough, show the Paradisium that you were willing to value good service above your own health and safety, and they might reconsider your value. Anything less than a consistently stellar performance, however, usually led to becoming meat, assuming the vulpan didn’t tear you apart first. They weren’t SUPPOSED to inflict any severe damage on the toys they’d been given, but they were never much for self control. It was not uncommon to find a slave’s corpse left behind after a meal, her carcass as picked clean as any livestock’s.
The sphinx’s fingers remained achingly far from her slit, but the lack of physical contact couldn’t stop her wet sex from throbbing with fresh need as she stared at those helpless, sobbing, bucking, squirming women on display. So thoroughly savaged and abused, so desperate to make their attackers finish before their hunger outweighed their lust. Gods, she didn’t know which she wanted more: to be them, or to fuck them.
It was more than just the galley sluts getting her worked up right now. Eirene was also entranced by the sight of one of the serving girls cornered in an east wing hallway by three of her supposed friends. She was such an innocent looking thing too, probably on only her first or second day of the job. Was this sweet girl one of the many servants conscripted from the surrounding villages, the ones where Karakostas was worshipped as a deity? Had she thought she was coming here to be a priestess perhaps, to kneel at the altar in loving worship to her draconic god?
She was certainly about to do plenty of kneeling in supplication. Her beauty was only magnified by the tears streaming down her face as she shook her head and silently begged for mercy. She wasn’t going to find any of that here. The serving staff barely ranked higher than the slaves, and had as little opportunity to leave and find a better life. The three grinning men around her spent their days being insulted, knocked around, and assigned menial tasks, all while seeing the guards and their superiors enjoying a steady stream of supernatural beauties. There was no chance they’d pass up this opportunity.
Sure enough, the girl was forced to her knees, and when the first stiff cock slapped against her face, she jolted as though gunshot. Eirene watched eagerly as he smacked her cheeks with his shaft a few more times while speaking to her, and moved the camera slightly to get a better angle for reading his lips. It was nothing she hadn’t heard before: demands that she suck his cock if she wanted to leave this hallway alive, the threat of slow, brutal death if he felt any teeth, the assurance that if she could just be a good slut and do what she was told, she would wind up safe and sound on her cot in no time. It was all so familiar that Eirene could have probably closed her eyes and predicted every word of it, but that didn’t stop it from being sexy as hell.
Soon that good girl had a mouthful of hard dick to work on, and three teachers devoted to making her a top notch cocksucker. They used her hair to pull her this way and that, no single prick remaining in her mouth for more than a minute straight. Some hard smacks on her plump bottom and some groping of her tits was enough to make her an active participant, lapping and sucking and gasping for breath with that wonderful clumsiness of her first time.
Eirene stared longingly at those fat shafts sliding back and forth across her lips, already messy with drool and precum. What she’d give to be choking on those lovely things, feeling their sweaty, hairy balls slap against her chin on every thrust. She briefly fantasized about a scenario where she was down there too as a fluffer, getting the men stiff again so they could keep putting their new serving girl to good use. She imagined the girl begging her to stop encouraging the men, all of her holes already sore and cumsoaked after hours of repeated use, but Eirene would keep sending hard, thick, spitshined cocks her way over and over…
The sphinx had hoped to witness the girl’s first throatfuck, but she must have possessed some hidden skill with that tongue, because eventually all three men came from blowjobs alone, decorating her face and hair with their sticky seed. The poor weeping thing thought that was the end of it, until they pushed her down on her back and two of them spread her legs apart for the third to enjoy. She really began screaming then, as a man twice her age covered her body with his own in a mating press. Eirene hoped the girl was ovulating.
Through another camera she watched Karakostas’ daughter. She wasn’t doing anything untoward right now, but the sight of her always brought delicious memories. Most of them were with Karakostas himself, but lately more and more had been with that Petrov bitch. Eirene hated that stuck-up cunt. How dare she order men around like she was one of them? It was one thing to have your way with another woman – being dominated was what they were born for – but men were to be obeyed, if not outright worshipped. She was glad that there was no sign of that hateful woman anywhere she could see. She had to be in her lab, one of the few places Eirene’s sight didn’t extend to.
Astaria, though… Eirene imagined getting a good strong grip on both of those slender horns, and then yanking the woman to her, suffocating her with her soaked twat while she struggled. And those beautiful wings had to be so sensitive! She could happily play with them for hours, scratching and burning and biting that delicate flesh while the dragon whimpered and screamed and promised all sorts of things she would do to please Eirene if she’d only stop.
At the same time that she watched all three of those cameras, her thoughts were entranced by the qilin getting pounded by the yowie. The two of them had been going at it for hours now, and neither seemed in any hurry to stop. She was also basking in the sight of four of the management staff, each passing the time with a slave in their private quarters. One lucky man had two, the first kneeling between his legs with her head being bounced like a cheap fleshlight on his prick, while the second danced slowly and enticingly for him.
And at the same time Eirene was watching servants clean one of the third floor bathrooms. And watching the cooks finish the preparations they’d need for breakfast in the morning. And watching the empty elevator that sat on the fourth floor. And watching a servant deliver a fresh tray to the dragon’s playroom. And internally screaming and sobbing while struggling against her mental chains. And watching dozens of the staff sleep. And watching every unoccupied room and hallway. And watching the road to the main building. And watching the courtyard. And watching the goblin guards down in the vault. There were more than seven hundred of her cameras in the Paradisium, and they all received her attention.
Her fingers strained in a useless attempt to reach her hungry pussy, as they always did. That was what she loved about her home: there was always something going on somewhere. Always something to stimulate her. When the Paradisium Games were happening, almost every last camera offered its own enticing scene. The scope of it would be so grand, she could almost believe she’d be able to cum.
Sometimes she’d wonder if she’d ever managed the feat in her old life, the one she couldn’t remember. But thoughts like that were rare. Most of the time, it was difficult to remember that there had even been an old life. Whatever it had been like, it couldn’t have been anything as satisfying as this one. At times, flashes of old memories would come to her, scattered and without context. She loathed those moments, and the way her eyes would fill with tears, the useless and unwanted liquid getting in the way of the beautiful sights in front of her. But they never lasted long.
It was almost as difficult to remember the period after she’d first woken up, back when she hadn’t yet learned to love those wonderful cameras she’d been blessed with and the sexy cornucopia of delights they provided. She had hated them back then, though she had no idea why that would have been the case. For years she’d resented the bondage that kept her head fixed in place, and the sewn thread that prevented her eyes from closing, and the drugs that ensured she never slept. Thank Lord Karakostas those days were long over.
The last vestiges of her sanity gibbered and wailed. The rest of her enjoyed the show.
“Eirene is kept at the heart of their security system,” Ying Yue said. “There is no other kind of creature in the world that could keep track of everything at the same time. She does not need to sleep or eat, only watch.”
“Why not just hire a team of people like anyone else?” Hanabi asked.
“Because he’s a paranoid bastard,” Sam answered. “Any regular employee would open the potential for bribery or blackmail. They’d be less effective, to boot. Even if every damn camera had its own watcher assigned to it, most people would get bored, or inattentive. Not her.”
“There are cameras monitoring every possible route to her,” the qilin said. “And she can raise the alarm near instantly. For anyone unable to trick the cameras, it is effectively impossible to sneak up on her.”
“Wait, I wanna make sure we’re all on the same page here,” interjected Hanabi. “So we get to this sphinx and then what? Are you talking about killing her?”
“No,” replied Ying Yue, “that will not be necessary. The room where she is enshrined also houses all of the electronic equipment maintaining the Paradisium’s surveillance and security systems. I am certain that it will also contain that of Tanya Petrov’s. Should we be successful in disabling or destroying it, that should eliminate most or all of the barriers to entry.”
“Alright, new plan then.” Sam pointed at each of them. “Hanabi, you cloak up and get to that room. Ying Yue, you stay here and help the others disable the rest of the cameras in the vault. I’ll go skulk around Tanya’s lab until the place opens up.”
“I believe it is best if I accompany Hanabi,” the orange haired qilin said. “She cannot locate the cameras by herself.”
“Don’t need to,” Hanabi reminded her. “I can just stay invisible the entire time. Besides, you’ve gotta stay down here and help everyone else.”
The qilin looked uncomfortable. “I… I do not believe that it will be safe for you to go alone. Is there no one else here with the extrasensory perception required to assist?”
“I can help,” said Pet quietly. The ragged woman was seated on the floor with her hands around her knees, and still visibly trembling. Sometimes she would shudder or let out little gasps of breath. “Have seen them. Can show.” Her mouth twisted into a scowl. “If Pet can find right words.”
“You sure?” Sam asked her, and then held up her hands when the woman responded with a silent withering glare. “Alright, alright. The foxskins should be down here somewhere, no idea where. Once you guys find them, you can start emptying out the rest of the vault while we’re out taking care of our business upstairs. Meet back here in two hours, tunnel out, and we can be home before sunrise.”
Suddenly a hand seized Hanabi by the hair, and she felt sharp metal against her neck. “I got a different plan,” said the woman behind her, her voice rough and cold. “We abandon whatever cunt is still up there and get the hell out of here right now. Fuck this ‘no man left behind’ shit. I’m not risking my freedom for someone else.”
Hanabi could see nothing of the woman but a glimpse of green skin. She tried to get a better look, and froze as the knife nicked her skin. It wasn’t a real knife, just a jagged lump of metal, but it was sharp enough to do the job. “Not a fucking move out of you,” said the woman. “I’ll make this easy: we got three choices now. A, we all do the smart thing and leave. Number B, you sappy dumb fucks insist on staying, so my new little fox friend here uses her magic shit to give me an express pass out, and you all can do whatever the fuck you want after. And number C, you try to stop me from leaving with her, one single goddamn flicker of foxfire from any of you, and I slit her throat and we’re all stuck here.”
“I know you,” Ying Yue said. “You were in the game. They called you Storm Hag.”
“That’s right,” said the woman. “And I’ve spent the last three goddamn years in this hell all because I didn’t seize an opportunity while I had it. I’m not getting fucked over like that again.”
“I can’t let you do this,” the qilin said. “I’m sorry.”
“So come with me,” Storm Hag suggested. “You and me aren’t like these stupid foxes. Haven’t even been here a week, and they think they already know what a lifetime of slavery looks like. We know what it’s like to be trapped in this hellhole for years, knowing the only way out is to get stuck six feet under. And I remember you too: you’re the one whose wife got nabbed, right? I remember that clown-ass fucker Emmeck crowing about it. You want to rot here like them, or go find her?”
“There is nothing more important than Zhi Ruo’s safety,” Ying Yue said softly. “But not like this.”
“Then get fucked along with everyone else then,” Storm Hag spat. Her grip on Hanabi’s hair tightened. “Looks like it’s just you and me, girl. Play nice and you can go do whatever you want once we’re out. Give me any trouble and I’ll use you as a stress ball first.”
Hanabi grabbed the woman’s arm and tried to pull the shiv away from her throat, but she might as well have tried to bend steel. Storm Hag was far stronger than she was. “Please, I can’t leave my family,” she begged. “Please, I’ll do anything you want afterward, but I can’t leave my family down here.”
Storm Hag let out a long suffering sigh. “I’ve gotten soft down here. Fine, if it’ll get your ass moving, you can bring your family too. Which ones are they?”
Hanabi looked at the crowd of foxes. All of them had stopped what they were doing to focus on the hostage situation, and the girl could read the tension and the worry in all of them. She knew each and every one of these people… but not as well as she should. She had been the only one scared all these years, hadn’t she? She’d been so terrified of rejection that she’d gone and done it to herself before anyone else could have the chance.
For days now, her thoughts had kept drifting back to the night of the bonfire. She hadn’t been able to understand how even one fox, let alone all of them, could choose her safety over their own. But now it seemed so obvious. “They’re all my family,” she said fiercely. “All of them. And I’m not leaving without everyone.”
Her assailant groaned. “Fuck you then, wasting my time with corny bullshit. I’ll get out of here myself.” And Hanabi felt the blade bite into her throat. It was icy cold, but the blood that spilled out felt hot enough to burn her skin as it ran down her neck and over her front.
The ice swept across her throat… and stopped halfway.
Hanabi didn’t realize what was happening until she saw the woman’s arm shaking. “Fuck. You,” Storm Hag hissed as she fought against some invisible force.
“I… told you…” Ying Yue said, her arm outstretched and fist clenched. Her face was pale, and blood dribbled from one nostril. “Can’t… let you… do this…”
“You’re gonna melt your goddamn brains in a second,” snarled Storm Hag. “You wanna kill yourself that bad, go do it somewhere else. Stop it!”
Ying Yue wavered, and then sank to her knees. More blood was leaking from her eyes and ears. “Don’t… need long…” she mumbled. “Just… needed… your attention…” A light went out in her eyes, and she collapsed in a heap.
And at the same time, two invisible kitsune slammed into Storm Hag.
Hanabi was knocked away by the impact, and hit the floor hard enough to make her ears ring. She looked up woozily to see her fathers fighting with the green skinned woman. Nobu’s tails lashed and writhed like snakes, grabbing at Storm Hag’s limbs and interfering with every movement. And Kamio… he wielded a sword in both hands, a blade of foxfire that had no sharpness or solidity to it, but enough heat to scorch the woman’s shoulder when she didn’t evade his strike quickly enough.
By the time the white haired girl’s head cleared a few seconds later, it was already over. Storm Hag was flat on her back with Nobu sitting on her stomach, two tails wrapped around each limb. Kamio stood over them both, the tip of his foxfire blade hovering near the hollow of her throat. “This is the part where you apologize to my daughter,” he said calmly, though his eyes burned with anger. “And pray that she’s feeling more merciful than I am.”
“If you’re gonna kill me, then do it already,” Storm Hag snapped. “It’ll be better than what they’ll do to all of us when this escape plan fails.”
“Stop,” Hanabi rasped as she fought to get on her feet. “Don’t kill her.”
“Spare me the fucking altruism crap!” Storm Hag yelled, and began to struggle against Nobu’s tails. “I’m gonna rip your fucking head off, you bitch!”
“No, you’re not,” the girl said. “If you were, you would’ve killed me when you had the chance.”
“You’re only alive because of that orange cunt,” Storm Hag spat. “She won’t save you a second time.”
Hanabi glanced at Ying Yue and was relieved to see that the woman was only unconscious, not dead. “I’m really, really grateful for what she did,” the fox said. “But she didn’t need to do it, did she?” She touched her throat, where the wound was already closing up. “You barely even broke the skin. You weren’t trying to kill me, not with a cut that shallow. You just wanted it to look that way.”
Storm Hag made an angry retort, but Hanabi wasn’t listening. She bent to pick up the lump of metal that she’d been using as a knife. “How long have you had this?” she wondered out loud, and looked at the green skinned woman. “How long have you been trying to kill yourself?”
For the first time, Storm Hag had no ready response. She looked at Hanabi’s fathers, and then at the knife, and then at Hanabi herself. “I’ll kill you,” she promised, but there was no fury behind it. It sounded more like a plea than anything else. “I will. First chance I get. I’ll kill everyone here, unless you kill me first.”
“No,” Hanabi said. “We’re getting out of here. All of us, even you.” She looked around. “Does anyone have something we could tie her up with for now?”
Several chains were detached from the ceiling. Storm Hag cursed and screamed, but offered no other resistance as she was bound. “She’s one of the ones who regularly get sent to serve the vulpan,” confided the woman with grass hair. “Most don’t last more than a few weeks; she’s been doing it for more than a year. I think that’s the only reason they haven’t made her meat yet.”
Some of the tension dissipated once the woman had been restrained. “We made a rather good team,” Kamio observed to his husband. “I always had a feeling those tail tricks of yours would be handy in a fight.”
“Not as handy as that sword,” Nobu replied. “I’ve never seen you do that before.”
“I haven’t,” Kamio said. The flame had already vanished. “Not since the War. It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s made the difference between life and death before.”
“And when were you going to tell me you still had foxfire left?” Hanabi asked.
“I was hoping for never,” Kamio said dryly. “I always like to have some in reserve for an emergency. I burned through almost all of it just now.”
“And I’m just too terrible to bother with it,’ said Nobu. “I can’t believe I even managed to cloak myself for a few seconds.”
“You didn’t,” said Kamio bluntly. “No offense, dear, but you were less invisible and more of a big attention drawing smear. I was hiding us both.”
Nobu shrugged. “See?”
Ying Yue groaned, and Hanabi quickly knelt by her side. The qilin’s eyes were unfocused as they opened. “Is it over?” she murmured. “Is it done?”
“Yes, it’s over,” Hanabi said, and quickly explained what had happened since the woman has passed out. “I had no idea you could even do things like that,” she finished.
“That’s because we can’t,” Ying Yue told her. Her expression was still a bit glassy, and her face was smeared with blood, but she seemed otherwise alright. “Qilins were only ever meant to touch minds lightly. To seize control of someone’s body like that… it is not dissimilar to making a meal out of broken glass: it is physically possible, but will not accomplish more than self destruction.” She wiped some of the blood off her upper lip. “All that just to hold someone’s arm for a few moments. Had I tried anything greater, or held on any longer, I suspect we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The orange haired woman cocked her head, her eyes focusing on the girl. “From your description of events, I thought that only a few seconds had passed, but am I mistaken? Something has changed about you. I can feel it in your aura.”
“I… guess?” Hanabi said. She couldn’t call what she was feeling right now good, but it was definitely better. “I used to think that even if this all succeeded, I wouldn’t have a home to go back to. I couldn’t imagine the others ever looking at me with anything but hate and fear.”
“Now… I want to get the hell out of here even more than I did before,” Hanabi told her, and offered her a hand to help her stand. “You sure you’re still up for this, after doing all that to yourself?”
Ying Yue accepted her hand and rose. “My personal preferences and condition are irrelevant,” she said. “I will do this.” Her voice softened. “But… I thank you for the concern.”
“Then let’s get going, I guess,” Hanabi said. “No time to waste and all that.” She tried to keep the wistfulness out of her voice, and to avoid looking at her parents standing right nearby. What she really wanted to do was spend the next few hours hugging everyone she’d ever cared about and making sure they were okay, but she knew that was obviously impossible. She’d have time for proper reunions once they were far away from the Paradisium. Still, it made her heart ache to finally see her friends and family again, only to have to leave them almost immediately.
The qilin hesitated. “I…” She glanced at the people around them. “I believe that a few minutes of rest could be beneficial for me, after all. Yes, I would like to engage in a moment of quiet meditation on my own.” She sank back down to her knees, folded her hands in her lap, and closed her eyes. “Please separate yourself from me until I have finished preparing,” she announced.
Hanabi bit her lip. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Like, I appreciate what you’re trying to do for me, but…”
“I do not know what I would give to see my clan again, even for a very short time, ” Ying Yue said without opening her eyes. “It is not a question I have ever been inclined to consider, because it is a situation impossible to achieve. But if such an opportunity were to exist, I believe that it would be a grave tragedy to let it be squandered.”
The white haired girl began to argue some more, then changed her mind and bowed her head. “Thank you,” she earnestly. “I won’t be long, I promise.”
“Are you sure you’re going to be alright by yourselves?” Hanabi asked her parents.
Kamio gave his husband a wry smile. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think anything has ever made me feel more old and decrepit than our daughter asking us if we’ll be okay on our own.”
Nobu didn’t respond to Kamio’s statement, but he rubbed the blond man’s back comfortingly with one hand. “We’ll be okay,” he told Hanabi. “Your aunt is already rounding up everyone with more than a few drops of foxfire left, and with any luck we’ll locate our skins soon. By the time you get back, we should have everything in here taken care of.”
“And you’re, you’re not mad that I’m doing this, right?” Hanabi asked. “Putting everything on hold to go save Seo-yun? I know she’s not one of us, but she was willing to sacrifice everything to help us, and I can’t just leave her here. And she actually is from Hanei, so…”
Nobu put his hand up to stop her. “You don’t need to defend what you’re doing,” he said. “Or find reasons to justify saving your friend. We understand, and you’ve got our full support. I’m proud of you, Flower.”
“Besides,” Kamio added, “we caught enough gossip from the soldiers on our way here to know that fox has been a thorn in Levi Petrov’s side for years now, and that means she might just be my new favorite person. If you weren’t going to try and save her, I’d go do it myself.”
“Should I be getting jealous?” asked Nobu dryly.
“Oh, absolutely,” his husband said, eyes sparkling. “Very jealous. You’d better spoil me good after we get out of here, or who knows what might happen?”
“Hanabi!” shouted a familiar voice, and the girl looked to see Tomo striding towards her, the brown haired fox cutting her way through the crowd. Hanabi smiled at the sight of her best friend, but her joy faded when she saw the furious look on the girl’s face.
“Wh-what is it?” she asked, dreading the answer, and some of her positivity faded. Maybe Tomo hated her for what had happened. Hanabi couldn’t blame the girl for hating her forever for what she’d let happen.
Tomo stomped right up to her, her entire body quivering with barely checked frustration. “I, I’m really angry with you right now, and I feel like I’m supposed to slap you, but I don’t want to actually hurt you, so just…” She scowled. “Pretend I slapped you, okay? And really hard too!”
Hanabi stared at her in puzzlement. “I… okay.” She touched her cheek and said sheepishly, “Ow, that… really hurt…?”
“Yes, it would’ve!” Tomo said forcefully. “And I’d do it to you again if you kept being so, so… so stupid! I overheard you tell your parents earlier that all of this is your fault!”
Hanabi winced. It was true; Tomo hated her now. Outside of her immediate family, Tomo was the fox whose approval she cared about the most, but she was also one of the ones who’d had it the worst. She’d gone out of her way to avoid seeing what Levi had been doing to her best friend, but she was well aware of how horrific it had been. “I know,” she began, “and you have every reason to hate me. You always used to tell me how dangerous my pranks were, and I always used to laugh it off, and I should’ve listened, Tomo, I see that now, I…” She trailed off as Tomo raised her hand. “Am I being slapped again?”
“Yes!,” the brunette announced. “And even harder! None of that was your fault!”
“But I was the one who-”
“I’m not finished talking yet,” Tomo growled, and pointed a finger at her. “So be quiet and listen. I will tell you when I’m done, and when I do, you are going to say ‘thank you, Tomo, I love you too’. Do you understand?”
“O-okay…” Hanabi stuttered, nonplussed. She almost felt like she really had been slapped.
“Good.” Tomo huffed out a breath and tried to compose herself. “You had nothing to do with… with that man looking for Hanei, and I’m not letting you leave here until you accept that. I’m not! I overhead more than enough to know that they knew about us for a long time, and not because of the pranks you used to pull. They had people monitoring the supplies going in and out of the forest and, and a bunch of other stuff too. And even if those pranks were the only reason they knew about us, that still doesn’t make you responsible for their actions.
“Those soldiers were disgusting and vile and… and they don’t get to pawn a single speck of the blame onto you, okay?! Not one single speck! That’s all on them, Hanabi, not you! So don’t you dare try and let them off!” Tears were running down her face now. “I… I have been through a really bad time and I’ve really missed my best friend and what I really, really want right now is to see her smile like she used to and mean it, instead of feeling guilty and beating herself up because of what a bunch of awful jerks did! So, so… so stop it!”
For a long moment neither of them spoke, the silence broken only by Tomo’s ragged breaths. “You, you can talk now,” she said finally.
Hanabi smiled, her own cheeks wet with tears as well. “Thank you, Tomo, I love you too.” She embraced her friend. “I’m sorry, that must have been really hard for you to do. I’m proud of you.”
“It was,” Tomo said, hugging her back tightly. “But can I tell you a secret?”
“It was kinda fun too,” the brunette confessed. “I’ve never gotten to yell at anyone before. Did it work?”
Hanabi laughed a little and sniffed. “Yeah, it worked. I can’t promise I’ll stop blaming myself for stuff, but I’ll try, okay?”
“Good.” Tomo reluctantly separated from her. “As you long as you try as hard as you can. It’s okay if we don’t succeed at everything all the time; that’s why we’ve got friends and family around to help. We’re all in this together.”
“Yeah,” Hanabi agreed. “We are.” She looked at her parents. “I… before I go, I want to apologize to all three of you, about what happened in the clinic. How I told you all to leave and stuff after, y’know, after I got back from the forest.”
“You don’t have anything to apologize for,” Kamio told her. “None of us expected you to just bounce right back.”
“I still need to get this off of my chest. It wasn’t that I didn’t want you there, I just…” Hanabi fidgeted a little. “I felt like I’d let you down by getting captured so easily. By not putting up more of a fight afterward. Like I was a disappointment.”
“Oh Flower, we never thought anything like that,” said Nobu sympathetically, and his daughter nodded.
“I know, and that was part of the reason I felt like I had to push you away. Because part of me knew that you’d tell me that I was wrong and that you still loved me and… and I might have had to believe you.” Hanabi sniffed again. “And at the time, that was the last thing I wanted. I, I didn’t feel like I deserved to be loved by you, so I couldn’t give you the chance. And then everything happened and I thought I might never get to talk to you again and…” She scrubbed her face with her sleeve. “I’m just really happy you’re all okay,” she finished, and managed to mostly keep her voice from cracking. “I’m really, really happy…”
“Are you certain you don’t need to stay any longer?” Ying Yue asked her companion as the two walked from the slave pens.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Hanabi said, resisting the urge to look back. “And Sam already left a couple minutes ago. I don’t want to keep her waiting any longer than she has to. But thank you again, Ying Yue. I had no idea how much I needed that.” She stretched, feeling a palpable lack of tension compared to just a little earlier. Everything was still scary and dangerous, but she felt like she was finally standing on firm ground after weeks of drowning.
“I have done nothing worthy of gratitude,” said the qilin stiffly. “But you are correct: our time is limited. We should make haste.” Her stride increased, and she began to pull away from the white haired girl.
“Hey!” Hanabi protested. “Wait up!” She had to practically fall into a jog to match the taller woman’s pace. “You know something? You’re a really awesome person, Ying Yue. I thought you didn’t like me at first, but now I’m thinking maybe you’re just shy. What do you think?”
“I think we should not waste time on talking,” Ying Yue said coolly. “Or risk drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves.”
“So you do dislike me?” Hanabi asked innocently.
Ying Yue’s expression didn’t change, and she continued staring straight forward as she advanced down the hall, but there were hints of color in her cheeks. “…I did not say that.”
Hanabi grinned. “I like you too, Ying Yue.”