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Pariah - Firebrand 2 - (m/f, mouse girl)

Mattariel Sep 9th, 2019 (edited) 825 Never
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  1.                                                                 Pariah
  2.                                                             (Firebrand 2)
  3.  
  4.     An electrical crack and an onslaught of noise, dragging me from a nice, dreamless sleep.
  5.     The tail end of a song I can't wrap my head around yet from the sleepy haze introducing the morning segment with that obnoxious and cheery twinkling. How I fucking detest it. It's the fucking radio. Fuck the radio.
  6.  
  7.     “Good morning everyone!” a scratchy voiced guy says, “It has just turned nine in the A.M, and yet it still feels like the sun might as well not exist! I mean, come on! It's MAY, people. It really has no business being this darn cold!”
  8.  
  9.     “I'm still wondering if I forgot to fly home from my holiday in Greenland, Rob,” says the other asshole, with the okay-ish voice, “seriously, any colder and I might actually get some warmth from my mother-in-law.”
  10.  
  11.     “Whoa, Pete! A few more burns like that and we might not need to keep the heaters running! How about this one; Presid-”
  12.  
  13.     The claw-scratched radio feels my wrath as I hammer the off button. Fuck the radio. I should throw it out, but I work better on a routine.
  14.  
  15.     Sitting up, I'm still shrouded in my covers and feel the chill up the gap made on my back where my pyjama top exposes a little of my furred midsection. They weren't kidding; it's freezing and I wonder if I should just lay back down and hibernate. Then I remember today is my day off. No restaurant, no responsibilities and it's a weekday. That means one thing.
  16.  
  17.     A day with Max! Just me and him... fucking A!
  18.  
  19.     I throw off the cover and slide my pyjama clad legs off the bed, fighting through the cold and digging my feet into my claw resistant slippers; just normal fluffy things that Max bought me with a claw-proof layer around the toe to resist tearing. I don't like'em, but I'm not gonna throw out something Max bought me; they were the 'thanks' part of him paying back me covering his rent a few months back. I guess I must have bitched that my feet were cold at some point and he caught up on what he assumed was a hint.
  20.     The goof-ball didn't owe me anything, but he kinda already bought before I could say anything. Crafty son of a bitch also had the cash put right into my account, so I couldn't exactly say no, using one of them shared payment banking apps with the promise of going even splits on future bills when we go out on dates. He's being all 'decent', saying it's the gentlemanly thing to do. I don't deserve a gentleman, I barely deserve him already...
  21.  
  22.     I stand, stretching and yawning high enough that it breaks into a classic rodere squeak. I can feel a familiar stiffness in my limbs from working out yesterday, so I decide to keep the ball rolling; time for those morning stretches and light exercise, a good ten minutes of them.
  23.     It's the same routine for every morning but a crucial one. This isn't a gym day but I've learned the hard way about 'being me', as Max called it, without these steps; it isn't pretty. Every limb getting a few different twists and turns as well as my back and neck. Everything in motion, the blood flowing and suddenly it doesn't seem so bad getting up this early.
  24.  
  25.     I'd normally go straight into preparing myself and taking the fight to the day but I have a reputation. It's something I'm known for and I need to change, to act first and think later, so a newer part of my routine is having a period of calm thought. I look at my knick-knack cabinet; a worn, over-varnished wooden beast of a thing. There's a lot I strive for in my life, and two of the main reasons sit overlooking my bed in separate picture frames.
  26.  
  27.     There, representing everything that's pushed me to this point, in a fancy silver frame I didn't mind dropping a hard sixty bucks on in an antique shop, is my uncle. Uncle Winston, or Winny; my mom's brother. Lieutenant Edwards, Narcotics.
  28.  
  29.     Fuck, I miss him. It's been ten years, and the hole's still there. He's a big mouse rodere, an albino like myself and grandma. I'm sitting on his shoulder, his arm around my legs, from when I was... shit, I must have been five. He's in his uniform but I'm wearing his hat, the shining emblem over my left eye where it's sitting on my head lop-sided and I have the biggest, shit-eating grin on my face, missing one of my baby incisors where I fell over and slammed my face into a table. He's saluting with his other arm.
  30.     The guy was a certified hero. I look over the newspaper clipping in the old frame he used to occupy with a huge headline; 'The Sixty Million Dollar Man'. A pretty major league crime-family asshole caught with one of the biggest drug stashes mid transport, complete with a paper-trail tied to it.
  31.  
  32.     He used to visit all the time, pretty much whenever he wasn't working. Uncle Winny always had time for me. I know he lost his wife a little after I was born and he never remarried, so he'd focus on me a lot.
  33.  
  34.     “Candy,” he said with his brawny arm around my tiny shoulders, “the world's a tough place, and you've gotta be willing to fight, because you can't expect people to protect you. Takes hard work, dedication and a lot of drive, so never let anyone tell you otherwise. And never be afraid to make people know when you enter the room; presence means a lot.”
  35. Maybe I misunderstood some of it, being young and all, but then I'm a section manager for a restaurant and I have another certain awesome guy in my life, so maybe the right stuff soaked in.
  36.  
  37.     Calling me Candy, though? Nobody called me that any more, except Max when he's being an asshole, which wasn't often and frankly I often deserved it when I'm in one of my moods.
  38.     I'd tell people I didn't want to be called a cheerleader name, but that was Uncle Winny's name for me and no-one else's. Folks call me 'Deece, or just Candace, I guess.
  39.  
  40.     I wonder what Uncle Winny would think of me now, the things I've done because of his words of wisdom. I walk over to the bedroom door and open it, looking into my front room.
  41.  
  42.     A few standout pieces of my past line the walls, each makes me feel a little more complete; my certificate of attaining Yondan in Shotokan karate late last year, complete with a photo of me receiving it and my belt alongside my human Sensei and one of the real-deal rat rodere Shihan masters from Japan; we all look so stern, but I remember I was ready to explode on the inside with excitement.
  43.     One of the youngest to get that grade! I've been going at least once a week for fifteen years, sometimes more if I happened to have the day off for the mid-week session; the training got me through some tough times as a way to block out the world and purge my soul of anything lingering inside.
  44.  
  45.     Next to that, my three trophies from high-school basketball. It just wasn't meant to be with the senior year, but I couldn't be prouder for my old team; no-one else in our school in the previous ten years us even got near the finals, let alone four consecutive finals and three championships. People were plain wrong when they said it was mostly me; some of those girls were real monsters on the court, I just helped them along.
  46.  
  47.     Lastly, I had to pin up the newspaper clipping of the Greg and Renee incident on a memo board; if someone had told me breaking his arm and slamming him face first into a metal food preparation surface would have ended with me being promoted, I'd have called them a moron.
  48. Yet here we were; Greg was serving a frustratingly short sentence for the attempted sexual assault and they barely treated the fact the shit-head trying to stab me as anything. I was named front-of-house manager the same night, and two days later, I was in control of the moving and shaking of anything not in the kitchen. It's hard work, it certainly keeps me busy, and Max is always there to help out with anything I need some pointers with.
  49.     We earned a few new regular customers thanks to the incident too. A few people wanted to meet the woman who set an example against sex pests everywhere and they've stayed because Ship-Roof House has damn good food and even better people.
  50.  
  51.     The most important part of that whole deal was Renee was still with us. She's a sweetheart, and fuck Greg for picking on her; it even tops the fact he got the front-house position before me in 'reasons why Greg's on my shit list'.
  52.     Renee was a bit sheltered; the job was suggested by one of the other waiters, a friend of hers, who said it was a great way to break out of your shell.  He wasn't wrong, because even the worst customers can be handled by me or the owner, Mr. Jackson, but to be attacked in a couple of fucking weeks of starting wasn't a great way to introduce someone to the business. She's doing fine now and she really brightens the room up when she's on duty.
  53.     I know she's gonna be there today, and I'm gonna give her a tip worthy of her smile and bravery; I remember the flowers and the card she and her boyfriend bought me as thanks for saving her, as if that was needed; it nearly made me cry, I had to hide in the staff toilets to compose myself.
  54.  
  55.     I'm smiling, thinking of what I've achieved, but then I look at the picture in my hands again as I walk back to his place on my cabinet and the smile fades.
  56.  
  57.     I look at the badge next to where I keep Uncle Winny's picture. It still has some dried blood on it. I can't stop my throat tightening, so I put the picture back and collect myself. It was a reminder why he made me swear to never become a cop when he got put in a wheelchair, and before the day he...
  58.     Alright, Candace, enough. This is meant to be a fucking happy day. Uncle Winny got me here but then there's the other guy that means everything to me and pushes me further forward.
  59.     I pick up the other, less pricey frame; I totally intend to get this guy something just as nice, but I'm looking out for something special and distinct.
  60.  
  61.     My man, Max. Not your conventional handsome guy, but to hell with pretty boys. He's distinct in all the best ways; the ways that matter to me. I smirk at his hair all ruffled up like that where I'd been tousling it on that date. We've been together most of our lives and yet it's only these last four months we've finally figured out what we mean to each other.
  62.     Everything, that's what we mean to each other. We're a pair of idiots, I'm too quick and he's too slow. It's some Goldilocks shit when we're together; just right.
  63.  
  64.     Max. I get a tightness in my chest as I run a clawed finger over his face on the picture. How did I get so lucky? I'm a pain in the ass, I cause trouble wherever I go, I'm the highest fucking maintenance person in existence. Yeah, there are girls out there that demand money, others need constant fawning and whatever. I need watching, correcting; I'm frequently wrong and I act before I think. I just can't help it, I'm hard wired to do stuff instead of taking Max's measured approach.
  65.     It's strange; I spent most of my life driving myself up to where I am, but now Max is doing his best to slow me down and make me a calmer, better person. I guess that's life for you; ups and downs. Today's gonna be a hell of an up.
  66.  
  67.     Candace and Max; a day around the city, lunch at that hidden gem take-out place with the stunningly good falafel, a little clothes shopping for Max because he needs a little sprucing up and a dinner at 'Ship-Roof House', Mr. Jackson's place, so we can totally flaunt our day off and get it for the price of a diner meal thanks to being a manager. All topped off with a movie Max wants to catch and a night of Max himself in my place. ALL of him. A tingle runs up my spine and makes my tail flick around.
  68.  
  69.     So yeah, I'm high maintenance or emotional, whatever. Max likes me that way, or so he says. I've been getting him in shape and standing tall, and he's been forcing me to stop and think things through. Max often just holds and squeezes my hand when something comes up that he worries I'll react badly about. Tricky bastard knows me too well; it's effective. I still think I'm getting better. I hope.
  70.  
  71.     I finally move on to my bathroom; the usual business and shower. A good full body shampoo and condition. It takes a few products and a long, full body scrub down to control my fur. Just part of being a rodere, I guess. It's a pain in the ass, but Max likes the way my body shows up when the pelt's behaving, and he's worth the proverbial ass pain.
  72.     I finish up and take ages drying. I pull my hair around into a bunch; once more I've forgotten to get around to getting it trimmed so I grab a scrunchie and tail it back, I feel it just brush against my upper back.
  73.     Considering the fun I'm planning tonight, I pop a pill, 'the pill', and slurp some water. We haven't discussed family yet, but it's an idea that's worming its way in my head.
  74.  
  75.     I realise I'm in front of the mirror and seize up. I hate this part. I try not to look at myself as I brushing my teeth. Of course I have no choice but to catch a glimpse at the woman in the mirror. There's that rodere bitch. Not even a good looking one. Probably got lucky to get a guy with a fetish for her hard, shapeless body. Albino, white hair and fur, pale red eyes, pink ears and nose.
  76.     I can't stand the sight of her; too angry, causes too much trouble to everyone. Too much baggage. What the fuck is wrong with her?
  77.  
  78.     Goddamn it, Candace, stop! This is exactly the shit Max is trying to stop me thinking about. He doesn't care about my flaws. He said I'm amazing. Me, Candace Powell, amazing.
  79.     I start blushing and bring a hand to my chest thanks to that ache again. He can't be wrong; he says he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but that just means he thinks things through to make sure he doesn't talk bullshit. We're perfect together and I can't lose him. So I have to change. That probably doesn't make sense, I have to change even though we're perfect? The counsellors were right all along; Candace has issues. I spit and have a rinse of mouthwash.
  80.  
  81.     The lingering heat from the shower begins fading; time to dress up. I head back into my bedroom and have a dig through my stash of clean stuff; still a few days worth of clothes before I have to force myself to do a run of washing.
  82.     Appropriately tight Norvegicus brand jeans, designed with the tail in mind, an under-shirt with a oxford button-up over it. I take a bottle of perfume from the cabinet and give myself a spritz; it's probably the only feminine thing about me.
  83.  
  84.     A wolf-whistle sounds, the sharp noise making my ears twitch; a message from Max. I stop my preparations and head over to my fancy contactless charger for my phone. The lightly claw-marked screen and green backed text greets me;
  85.  
  86. 'Morning, Deere. How's my girl this morning?'
  87.  
  88.     I start to type, then another wolf-whistle. I can't help but giggle.
  89.  
  90. 'Deece. Fucking autocorrect.'
  91.  
  92.                     'Gotta turn that shit off, ham hands. Doing fine. Can't wait to see you'
  93.  
  94. 'Amen, pinkie. Meet you at eleven, usual place in park. Smooches.'
  95.  
  96.                                                                             'Zort. <3 u, Max'
  97.  
  98.     The tiny little words on the screen make feel absolutely giddy, like I should sing or something, but nothing springs to mind. I pluck my glasses from an Easter Island wooden head stand, smoothly putting them on my snout, tucking the temple arms against the wider part of my cheeks and letting the fur hooks pinch a little; the world looks just a little clearer from afar.
  99.  
  100.     I finally enter my main living space, leaving the nostalgia, and cave to a present issue; the dull ache in my stomach. I move up to my fridge; the kitchen's barely used except when Max wants to show off, so I just dig out a some overnight oats, adding a little honey for taste, and a little left over milk. I sit in silence on my couch, meditating as I eat; no TV, just a cheap tablet for watching stuff if I feel the urge. I wash down breakfast with the milk and clear up.
  101.     I check my phone for the time; 10:15am.
  102.  
  103.     Finally, it's time to head out. I slip on a pair of claw-proofing socks, some hiking sneakers, gather my phone, keys, a puffer jacket and I'm gone.
  104.     The surroundings aren't much to take in; a lot of deadbeats in this area. It was affordable at the time, but now it's just one more reason why I need to move out of this shit-hole. I have an understanding with most of the folks on my floor, we listen out for each other, but everyone else I keep on guard with; more than a few have been known mug people not far away.
  105.     I'm not that worried, though; I don't carry cash and use my phone to pay for shit I want; a phone that does a real good job at distracting people when I throw it at them, all snug in its protective case, so I can make my move. I keep telling Max to leave his wallet at home when he visits, although he did say he'd cover today; guess I'll be on guard duty, keeping my guy safe and sound. Still, like hell he's covering everything; we're meant to be equals AND I earn more than he does.
  106.  
  107.     The temperature continues to drop as I head to the ground floor, making me zip my jacket up further, the grey faux-fur collar meshing against my own white as I hunch up my shoulders and stick my hands into my pockets. It's a straight path to the exit and I pay no attention to any of the doors; if any open, just carry straight on and don't look anyone in the eye. I don't even want to look at the trash scattered about, the torn and mouldy wallpaper, broken glass, used diapers and the... complex smell making me wince. Just focus on the exit, Candace.
  108.     I can't wait to move out of this apartment block and have more of Max in my life. I'm saving as much of my pay as possible and I'm going to get him to move in with me as soon as possible. The two of us together, as it damn well always should have been. Maybe I can finally stop going too far, or at least mask it better with Max nearer.
  109.  
  110.     Outside isn't a great deal better; several apartment blocks are between me and the warehouse area that skirts the city centre, all covered in gang markings and upstart tags in a petty as fuck war for space. It's not a long walk, but let's just say there's more reasons I keep in top shape other than self improvement; I've had to run and defend myself more than a few times.
  111.     I pass a block or two without incident, not even running into anyone but the occasional passing car, booming bass and the rattle of misfitted, aftermarket exhausts from the shit-heaps that the equally shit assholes use around here to scope out for weak targets. That they move on without stopping when they see me is a good sign. Not all of my reputation is a bad thing.
  112.  
  113.     I finally pass someone; a young, human mother holding a little brown and white furred rodere mouse boy by the hand. The kid's probably about six, yet the mom's probably a similar age to me. I feel guilty when I realise I'm judging her for being a teenage parent. She looks nice, real pretty to boot; tall and slim like a model and I give her a quick smile, an apology for my mean spirited thoughts. The little nod and light upward crease of her painted lips back gives me a little extra warmth to fight the cold.
  114.     Not far behind her is another rodere, a mouse dude a good bit shorter than me; small scar over his snout, hood up, brown fur and hands in his pockets. His eyes don't break from staring dead ahead of him. I look back at the kid for a second, wondering if they're related, but his mother's pulling him around the corner into one of the alleyways. By the time I face forward again the guy just shoves me to the side.
  115.  
  116.     “Hey! What's your fucking problem!?” I growl. He doesn't look at me. I step after him, but I can imagine Max's hand on mine.
  117.     'It's fine, just let it go' he'd say.
  118.     I take a deep breath and turn around to carry on.
  119.  
  120.     Then the sound of the kid screaming, cut short and the sound of the woman gasping, along with the scrapes and grunts of a scuffle. I stop dead and listen, my ears twitch and swivel to get a better fix on the noises.
  121.  
  122.     “You think you can just fuck me and walk away, you fucking whore!?” a male voice says, the rodere guy.
  123.  
  124.     Oh fucking hell, Candace. My fists clench, I can feel the adrenaline start leaking into me, my hackles stand on edge; it's like an attack mode. Why do I get this and nobody else? Then I feel Max's imaginary hand again on mine and I grit my teeth, fighting against the urges.
  125.     I pull my phone and dial nine-one-one. The woman screams in pain and my heart thumps. My vision narrows, the edges draw dark and I stare at the floor, the sidewalk in stark and pin-prick detail as my breathing quickens. Like every time before when I'm near danger, I struggle to think beyond fight of flight, but I can't let down Max, I promised him...
  126.  
  127.     “Nine-one-one operator, what's your emergency?”  a high female voice, rapid but clear.
  128.  
  129.     “There's an assault or a mugging or something near me. Send the cops!” Details, Candace! Fuck this tension, though. So much easier to act.
  130.  
  131.     “Where are you, ma'am?”
  132.  
  133.     “Chevrier street, Camden's Hill. It's happening in the alley just off of it. It's a guy, a rodere man, he's hitting a woman. There's a kid, hurry the fuck up!” Real smooth, Candace... stop, breathe, don't lose it.
  134.  
  135.     “Ma'am, I'm sending someone right now, please remain calm and stay on the line. What's your name?”
  136.  
  137.     “Candace Powell.” I answer as I walk up to the alleyway corner and I peer around it. I can see the rodere man's holding something to the woman's face and he's trembling, enraged or nervous. She's bleeding openly from the nose, a little from the lip and her eyes are closed in fear. The kids crying, tugging on the man's hoodie but he's too small to help and he has a small bleed on his brow as well. Did he fucking hit the kid? What the fuck!?
  138.     I stop myself from squeezing the shit out of the phone. I'm shaking. My head's throbbing. My teeth hurt from the clenching.
  139. The operator was saying something but it merges with the rodere man's words. 'Is the assault still going on' and 'nobody deserves you but me' get blurred in my head.
  140.  
  141.     “Someone help!” the kid cries out. My mind spins and the words are my own. I'm in another street, another time.
  142.     I see him. Red eyes blank. Overturned wheelchair. Blood. People standing away in a circle. A skinny man with a knife hangs over him. Nobody moves an inch. I'm screaming for someone to help. Nobody fucking moves. Just the knife moving up and down.
  143.  
  144.     No. Nobody else. Just me. It has to be me. Never again. I have to act. The trickle of adrenaline bursts into a flood. He's fucking dead.
  145.  
  146.     My phone falls from my grip, the voice calls my name as it fades from hearing.
  147.     I turn the corner, charging. I punch his face as hard as I can. He reels from the blow, spinning, bouncing off the wall. His right arm pulls up in a wild motion. A dull glint, unpolished metal. A revolver points at me. Can't stop myself, I move at him, he pulls on the trigger, a flash.
  148.  
  149.     I'm so fucking sorry, Max. I couldn't help it...
  150.  
  151.                                         *   *   *
  152.  
  153.     I keep getting funny looks. I guess I can't blame them; I've got a weird dance to my step. I'd normally worry about looking like an idiot, but if anyone had a reason to dance I certainly had a damn good one. A rare event; a full day date with my girlfriend, Candace.
  154. This was going to be the first day we both had away from work together for a month; life has an annoying habit of getting in the way, but today was all about me and Candace. Forget dancing, I'd be singing if it wasn't a public street.
  155.  
  156.     I was getting to grips with her telling me to have a presence, to stand tall, and she's been really keeping her cool recently; I barely have to tense my hand when someone acts like an asshole.
  157. Of course I still give her an affectionate squeeze; if there's one thing I've learned about Candace in these last few months, it's that she loves physical contact. It's like a drug to her, and I'm a willing dealer. The playful slaps, pokes and jabs she's always inflicted on me suddenly make a lot of sense.
  158.  
  159.     We've been living in each other's apartments as often as possible after work, complete with the sharing of everything within and of each other. We've been on dates as often as we have free time, and the sense of fulfilment being by each other defies words. The last month has been difficult to find the time, and while working together is still an absolute pleasure, it has still been a full month since our last date.
  160.  
  161.     I know I'm a few minutes early as I walk through Camden's Hill recreational park and she's always a little late, I put my earbuds in and quickly look through my music list on my phone as I travel down the footpath; it's peaceful here, most folks are at work or school. I sit down on a bench and notice a song that brings back memories; I realise it might as well be 'our' song at this point.
  162.     'She's a Rodere Girl' by The Murids. I hit play, sat on our usual meeting bench and relaxed as the soft rock begins playing; gentle guitars and smooth drums. It took me back a good ten years to a school trip we went on together; The Rodere Medical Science Museum. We listened to it on the bus ride.
  163.  
  164.                             “Her hand in mine, an open sky,
  165.                             I'm not a man to question why,
  166.                             it feels divine, she looks so pleased,
  167.                             her round ears flicker as she's teased.”
  168.  
  169.                             “I brush her whiskers down once more
  170.                             the kiss alone just makes my heart soar
  171.                             but before that day, before we met
  172.                             I'd never put a dollar down to bet
  173.                             she'd be a rodere girl.”
  174.  
  175.                             “Sitting here together or lying here awake.
  176.                             a heart to heart and soul to soul,
  177.                             our lives together and vows to take,
  178.                             once far apart and now we're whole.”
  179.  
  180.                             “We'll stick together, as we dance and whirl,
  181.                             she's so special to me; she's a rodere girl.”
  182.  
  183.                             “She'd play with her tail when she was young,
  184.                             she'd squeak all the high notes when we sung,
  185.                             but the cutest thing that she could be
  186.                             was always sitting next to me.”
  187.  
  188.                             “The feel of skin on fur so fine,
  189.                             it was never like us to tow the line,
  190.                             if this ain't right, and as we squeeze,
  191.                             They'll never know the joys like 'Deece?
  192.                                 “...with my rodere girl!”
  193.     A female voice overrides the male singer saying the word 'these'.
  194.  
  195.     “Huh?” I looked beside me as the song went into the second chorus but pulled the earbud it to hear what Candace had just said. I saw the trees beyond the windows rushing by, ignoring the other students on the bus, to look at her as she bounces around to the tune of the music, holding the human designed earbud close to her round, pink skinned ear. Like an idiot, I'd forgotten to bring the rodere earbud clips. So much for trying to impress Candace on this school trip.
  196.  
  197.     “'The joys like 'Deece'! My lyrics are better.” Candace grinned and pointed to herself with a thumb. I rolled my eyes and tried and get back into the music. For a moment, I swear she was staring at me out of the edge of her round lensed glasses, like I was supposed to agree, but when I look at her she just continues bouncing as the song goes into a voiceless part.
  198.     I was really glad she could come on this field trip to the museum; after that thing with 'Dickless Vic', I was worried they'd bar her from attending. I feel my ribs; they still hurt a little and I looked across to Victor and even I can't help but smirk at his crooked nose. Made the pain a bit more worthwhile.
  199.     I was a little worried though; she's been a bit different ever since a few months back where she was out of school for a week and wouldn't see me. Her parents would tell me she was too upset, something about an uncle passing away. I remember she came over my house a week later and acted like nothing had happened, but ever since she came back to school, she went from being mischievous to almost hostile to certain people, starting with Victor, though generally those who were assholes.
  200.  
  201.     The coach pulled in to the museum parking area, scattered dead leaves lifted by the wind gave the area and the pristine, towering, grey brick and near featureless building a really ominous, foreboding look; it was an old hospital, one of the ones where they made the cure to the '1840 Pandemic', yet it was like looking at a madhouse or something from a movie.
  202.     I was just being stupid; it was one of the most cut and dry places we would ever visit. We had a school report on the origins of the rodere coming up so the school decided to give us no excuses in failing.
  203.     We stand and it's strange that I notice I'm taller than her again, so I guess she finally topped out at five feet, eight inches. Kinda makes me glad, really; a lot of people kept teasing her about being a rat, that she's adopted and other hurtful, if childish, stuff. Anything to get her to respond, and she usually did on principle rather than actually being insulted. I wish she wouldn't, but I guess that's just Candace for you; always liked to make sure people knew she was there.
  204.  
  205.     We walked together and Candace had this swagger to her stride, as if she was indestructible. It kept dragging my attention, especially ever since I realised I LIKED her rather than just liked her. She was wearing a skirt and tights combo, a sweater tied around her waist for a triple layer around the hips, giving her a modest lower half, but then a high-cut t-shirt, exposing that white furred belly.
  206.     Probably no shock that I stared, taking in the flat abdomen and the subtle motion above of her modest bust with each step. I snapped myself back to attention, focusing away as I felt a stiffness down below and I could feel my face go red. Those hormones were killers.
  207.  
  208.     Candace was already bored just going through the foyer but I was jotting things down on a notepad. In a way, ever since she saved me from Vic, I've wanted to know everything I could about her. Not that we weren't already close or anything, but I just wanted to impress her in whatever way I could. I certainly wasn't good at making bold moves like she was, so I stuck with what smarts I had. It made it all the more unfortunate that she wasn't interested, but I was determined to learn what I could just in case, as well as do my best on the report so I could help with hers as well. Anything for Candace.
  209.  
  210.     A kindly looking black rat rodere lady was leading the tour and she certainly looked the part with her lab coat, a sensible skirt and square rim glasses. Apparently they still did research here, but it was largely tied to the lesser conditions the rodere sometimes got that were tied to their progenitor species.
  211.     They had a few conditions that mice and rats suffered from, stuff like how rat rodere had to have their incisors buffed down when they visited the dentist all the way to suffering from social anxiety worse than humans, although there weren't any patterns on who suffered from what. It still seemed strange the rodere have only existed for a century and a half.
  212.  
  213.     We were in the main hall, a huge open room filled with tables and displays featuring early diagrams all the way to recent models of rodere bone structure, organs and statistics about them, a number of computers on the outer walls and a statue of a man called Gregor Mendel, a DNA strand in one hand and a rat in the other, stood in the centre. The tour paused to give us a chance to take notes from the public access computers. I figured it would be a nice chance to sit together with Candace and just relax.
  214.  
  215.     “Want to read with me? It'll be great for the report.” I offered her the main seat, but she shrugged.
  216.  
  217.     “How about we see what else is around here? Gotta be something fun to do.” She said.
  218.  
  219.     “I'm surprised you don't care about your origins, 'Deece. It's pretty brutal, all those deaths and all.”
  220.  
  221.     “Nah, you do whatever, Max. I already know who I am.” Candace said, sighing and then yawning. Her eyes lingered in me for a second before she looked around, disinterested.
  222.  
  223.     “Wanna borrow my CD player, at least? Just be careful with it.” I was a little worried, but I trusted her. She smiled at me and took it. Every time she smiled I felt the urge to ask her out, but I just couldn't muster the nerve. I'd probably push her away because we're so different but I still couldn't help but feel a little sad when she walked away, so turned my attention to the screen.
  224.  
  225.     The research was at least a distraction and I buried myself in taking notes. I wrote without taking my eyes away from the screen, tapping the cursor down with my other hand.
  226.  
  227.     The 1840 pandemic was an aggressive strain of Leptospirosis, a liver and kidney failure inducing infection, carried by a number of animals (including rodents) and usually spread by contact, bites, secretions, fluids and the like. This strain was not only aggressive but started being transmitted by air, yet it it also wasn't showing signs of progression in rodents.
  228. With the death toll rising through the millions worldwide, it lead to a huge surge on research into microbiology and even spurred on both the newly born discovery and deeper understanding of genetics. When they discovered the extremely high genetic similarity and working DNA percentage between humans, rats and mice an idea was struck.
  229.  
  230.     It was a gold rush fever of medical specialists worldwide trying to discover a way to put this new and promising resistance to the strain from rodents into humans, performed by taking litters of mice and rats and slowly introducing the nearest human genetic common factors into them, rearing the young to age, and repeating the process. It's oddly vague what the results were, and it was a full year of intensive breeding and genetic introduction, but what was known was that at some point, a litter of true human/rodent chimera were born.
  231.     This path was followed by many species of rats and mice, but they found the chimera struggled with a number of defects and deformities; nonetheless, they were immune to Leptospirosis. The researchers did what they could to make them viable, to extend the project, but when no further progress seemed possible they finally went to the final stage; they introduced chimera genetics back into humans.
  232.  
  233.     It worked, the cure was spread as far as they could via injection, and the vast majority of the next generation born were immune to the Leptospirosis strain, but the ramifications wouldn't be discovered for a generation beyond them. Subtle traces of rodent-like features appeared in a small percentage of children if either parent was given the cure, yet they were perfectly healthy otherwise. Each generation beyond had these traits become more pronounced, and by the 1930's, the first true modern rodere were born.
  234.     They cropped up all over the world and from all walks of life, from the poorest people all the way to royal families and business tycoon heirs, apparently forming fifteen percent of the world population these days (all sub-species of mouse and rat considered), and over the years there seems to be a lingering chance of standard human or rodere couples giving birth to the other species, albeit this is extremely rare.
  235.  
  236.     It certainly broke down some of the stigma of interbreeding, although it was still only since the 1970's that rodere-human couples were considered normal. The odds of a pairing having human or rodere offspring were so wildly random, including non-identical twins of both species in a single pregnancy, that most called it a fifty-fifty shot.
  237.     The adjustment period not withstanding, and with human-rodere compatibility already having been established, things just kind of carried on. Of course there's some racism, or I guess maybe species-ism, but considering they represented the saviours of a time of great tragedy, it's no worse than any other.
  238.  
  239.     “Thief! He took my bag! Help!” A woman's voice cried out, breaking my concentration and pulling my eyes away from the computer screen. An older rodere mouse lady stood pointing at a human man rushing in our direction. I was still getting my bearings from taking notes, but I saw motion out of the corner of my eye. I could have probably guessed without looking, but I stood from the chair and turn just in time to see Candace already hopping in a line in the way of the thief with a wild grin on her face.
  240.  
  241.     Before I could even think of what to do or say, she tackled the man as he tried to dash past and they tumbled. It only lasted seconds, but I winced all the same; he first tries pushing Candace off before punching her and snapping her glasses. Seeing this finally spurred me into action, but I didn't even reach the melee before a security guard pulls the pair apart and sits on the man while a colleague starts radioing someone.
  242.  
  243.     “Shit, 'Deece, you alright?” I helped her up and she's rubbing her face, and I was more worried about her even when I see the mangled remains of my CD player alongside her broken glasses. She followed my eyes and winced when she saw it.
  244.  
  245.     “I'm fine... ah, fuck. Sorry about the player,” she said, then she looked at the thief and bared her large incisors, “suck on Deece's nuts, scumbag! You got off lucky!” Candace proceeds to stick her middle fingers up at him.
  246.     I facepalmed at the words; I'm embarrassed for her.
  247.  
  248.     Things get tied up in quick order, but I vaguely remember the thanks Candace got from the older lady and even a free drink from a vending machine from the security guy as the students crowded together and the teachers did a head count. Of course stopping a thief didn't prevent the teachers from lecturing her for 'endangering yourself and the other students' in front of us. Of course she told them to go fuck themselves and that was her on a month of detention.
  249.     Just another day of Candace being Candace. I was glad she calmed down a little when she went to college, although as I found out later, a little too much drink and....well, some things never fade, they just get a little buried beneath the surface.
  250.  
  251.     My cell vibrates in my pocket, snapping me back to the park and cutting off the next music track. It's a pleasant surprise when I see it's Candace's mom calling. I push to answer.
  252.  
  253.     “Hey, Mrs. Powell, what's up?” I say. It's a perfect opportunity to catch up with her; it's been a good few years since we've talked. She's always been nice, if a bit lacking on the discipline with Candace.
  254.  
  255.     “Max, are you on the way to the hospital?” she says, her voice thick with worry. My blood runs cold and my mind goes blank.
  256.  
  257.     “Hosp-...what...? What happened? Who's in the hospital!?”
  258.  
  259.     “Candace. She's at Bellefort General, I'm driving there now and they told me she's stable, but someone shot her or... or tried to shoot her!” she says, sounding panicked. The fact Candace was stable stopped me freaking out and I took a few seconds to try and compose myself. I didn't want to make Mrs. Powell worry any more than needed if she was driving from the next town over and get into an accident because I was distracting her; I hoped she was using hands-free to call me.
  260.  
  261.     “Alright, let's... uh... shit... let's k-keep calm; she's where she needs to... uh... she's in the right place and I'm... I'm sure s-she's fine,” I'm stuttering and lying through my teeth, my heart pounding, “I'll meet you there.”
  262.  
  263.     I end the call and stand. I'm struggling to form anything more than panicked and angry thoughts. All I can think of is who the fuck would try and hurt Candace and my blood turns from cold to hot in the blink of an eye. I can't tell if it's her influence on me but I have violent ideas about whoever did this as I start walking in the direction of the hospital.
  264.  
  265.     It's not that far but I find myself increasing in pace and eventually into a run. The streets are calm enough that I don't have to worry about fighting through crowds. All the joyous faces seem mocking though; not a care in the world for anyone else it would seem.
  266.     It's strange, like the opposite of the eye of a storm, a world of peace when all I can feel are extremes of emotion; a gladness of her being alive and stable, the anger of her attacker, the worry of what 'stable' even means; is she going to be able to live a normal life? Is she emotionally alright or traumatised? I almost pull my phone back out to call Mrs. Powell back if she knew more, but think better of it; I can't distract her.
  267.  
  268.     My lungs are burning by the time I reached the hospital gates and my physical exhaustion finally overcomes my worry-strengthened stamina. I cough, straining for breath as I stagger the rest of the way. Bellefort hospital was a tower of glass atop a white stone plinth of a core building and I ignore the grave-like appearance and stillness as I slowly catch my breath on my approach. The front doors part for me and I head inside, the warm air buffeting down from a vent overhead and I walk up to the reception desk, pressing my hands on the desk to help catch my breath.
  269.  
  270.     A grandmotherly looking woman greets me with a smile, the greying hair in an untidy bunch of curls settling as she gives me a quick look over, politely ignoring the sweat pouring down my face.
  271.  
  272.     “Good morning sir, can I help you?” she says, sounding genuine. I feel myself relax a little.
  273.  
  274.     “Has Candace... uh... I m-mean...”  I stammer, still slowing my breathing as the receptionist calmly waits, “Sorry, let me try that again. Hi, I've heard Ms. Candace Powell has been admitted here. Can I find out how she is, or where she is? Or anything?” I look about the reception area as I mop my brow; visitors and patients mill about and I look over at a few small groups having a late breakfast in a cafeteria in one corner. A large man in a suit looks at me for a moment before looking back to the cashier, paying for his order.
  275. I turn back to the receptionist as she types on the computer.
  276.  
  277.     “I'm afraid she's still being treated and cannot receive visitors right now,” she said, then gave me a once over, “you're welcome to wait here and I'll do what I can to... oh, are you related to the patient?”
  278.  
  279.     “I-I guess not, but... uh... she's my girlfriend.” As soon as I say the words, I realise that was probably going to block me from seeing her. I would either have to wait for Mrs. Powell to turn up or hope they asked Candace, if she was awake and lucid, to give me access because I really wasn't familiar with the visiting practices here.
  280.  
  281.     “Well, if you leave your name with me,” she says, giving a kind smile, “I'll be sure to inquire as soon as possible and call you to the front, sir.”
  282.  
  283.     “Thank you so much, ma'am. It's Max Bailey,” I say, relaxing a little; she seems genuine, “please, if you hear anything about Candace, I'd deeply appreciate it.” I step back from the desk and ponder my next move, looking at the cafeteria and wondering whether to just get some water.
  284.  
  285.     “Hey, Max!” A gruff, if friendly, voice but an unfamiliar one, making me freeze in place. A large hand with a number of gaudy rings on it wraps around my shoulder. I slowly turn, only to be greeted by a wrinkle eyed, clean shaven and short haired man in a pretty expensive looking suit, holding a tray with two coffees and a juice box; the man I spied in the cafeteria. It's juxtaposed by the fact he's huge; a couple of inches taller than my six foot two inch height and built like a heavyweight boxer. If I didn't recognise his voice, I certainly didn't know him by his face.
  286.  
  287.     “Long time no see, how've ya been? C'mon, Janet's dying to see ya; she's here as well, and I'm sure Candace'll be done by the time you two finish catching up.” He's certainly jovial, but I can't help but panic at why this stranger starts pulling me away from the receptionist. He glances around and ensures nobody's nearby before continuing.
  288.  
  289.     “Sorry, I recognised ya from over at the cafe and just wanted to talk to ya as soon as I heard you was involved with Candace, but I didn't wanna make it look suspicious to the receptionist. I dunno what ya know, but your girl saved my daughter and my grandson from a real scumbag; a real fuckin' piece of work. Oh, where're my manners?” He pats my shoulder before offering his massive hand to shake. I'm too stunned to refuse and instantly regret it as his vice-like grip causes enough pain to make me wince. He doesn't break his massive smile though.
  290.  
  291.     “Frank Haines, real good to meet ya,” he says as he releases my hand and once again grips my shoulder, leading me down a corridor, “I ain't joshin' ya, Max, that Candace of yours probably saved my Janet's life and stopped that fucker from kidnappin' Charlie. That guy, uh... what's his fuckin' name?
  292.     “Oh, right, Craig; that furry fuckin' rodere fuck... uh, no offence to ya girl or anythin', li'l Charlie's a rodere too! Anyway, my Janet was involved with'em, might even be Charlie's dad, but he kept askin' for money even though she was tryin' to make a go of things alone, fuckin' bleedin' her dry. Got so bad that she was forced to ask for money from me, an' she did the smart thing and kicked his ass to the curb when she found out that fucker was buyin' and takin' smack on my fuckin' dollar!
  293.     “He's been stalkin' her since he got outta jail, an' she kept tellin' the cops he wouldn't leave her alone! Nobody was gonna move a fuckin' finger, then he makes a move, pulls a fuckin' gun on her? Fuckin' whacks her with it!?”
  294.  
  295.     I'm glad he stopped, trying to calm himself, because I was getting breathless just listening to him. He starts pacing for a few seconds, his face red, then starts back along the maze of corridors again. I had to follow; I had to know what happened.
  296.  
  297.     “The way my daughter tells it,” he continues having calmed a little, “your girl just fuckin' smeared the bastard in the blink of an eye, but that asshole managed to pull off a shot. Grazed Candace's head.”
  298.  
  299.     I stop and feel an anger well up in me; Candace had promised me she wouldn't take risks like with Greg any more if she could avoid it and I struggled to think of why the hell she would confront a man with a gun. I sucked in a few heavy breaths and Frank stopped, turning and looking me over.
  300.  
  301.     “I take it you weren't there when it happened?” he says, I shake my head in response, “right, of course you wasn't. A man would'a stepped in.” The unsubtle accusation triggered the anger in me enough to talk.
  302.  
  303.     “You better fucking believe I would have!” I say through clenched teeth, “we were planning to meet at Camden's Hill park. I can't believe she'd attack someone with a gun.”
  304.  
  305.     “She saved my daughter and my grandson, Max. Girl like that's one in a million,” Frank walks over and pats me on the back, giving me a firm stare, “she's a fuckin' hero.”
  306.  
  307.     They were words I didn't want to hear, because I knew deep down he was right. You hear about this stuff on TV or read it in the papers; the right person in the right place. My heart and my mind were fighting and it made me feel sick; my head wanted to scream at Frank for trivialising a woman taking on a man with a fucking gun and at Candace for making the attempt, as if her life wasn't worth shit compared to that of a stranger.
  308.     Despite this, my heart swelled with pride. My girlfriend had now saved three people in a handful of months; Janet, her son and even our co-worker Renee. Candace was an amazing woman; I knew it almost all of my life and now others were experiencing just how special she was, but where did it stop? With her injured or traumatised if something went horribly wrong? Dead!?
  309.  
  310.     I'm vaguely aware of Frank carrying onward through the corridor, gently pulling me with him as I continued to try and process where my own head was. We were soon in an isolated waiting room connecting to the x-ray department, going by the signs. A little brown and white mouse boy was doodling on piece of paper on the middle table, a number of crayons scattered about that he switched between without looking, and a young woman who I assume was his mother sat nearby typing on her phone with a dressing over her nose with her nostrils plugged with gauze. They both look at Frank with wide smiles, and a little confusion at me.
  311.  
  312.     “Max, these beautiful people are my daughter and grandson,” Frank says, pointing to both before he pats me on the chest, “Janet, Charlie, this is Max, he's Candace's boyfriend.”
  313.  
  314.     Janet was a tall woman, likely just a little shorter than I was and really pretty despite her facial injuries. The bruising around her nose showing through the dressing told me it was a pretty harrowing injury but she seemed in good spirits. The boy looked at me with an exuberant smile before savagely attacking the page with another crayon. Frank continued in, handing a coffee to Janet and placing the juice box beside Charlie.
  315.  
  316.     “Uh... it's good to meet you both,” I said and nodded to Janet as she sipped the coffee, “Mr. Haines told me what happened... I'm... uh... glad everything turned out alright.” I was way out of my element here; these were the kinds of people Candace could mingle with, being loud and pushing a front but bonding in the brashness. It just drove home how much I missed not having her here; she was my balance in the world and every moment away just proved more and more how much we made each other better people.
  317.  
  318.     “I owe your girlfriend my life... the things Craig was saying to me,” Janet said, looking upset at the recollection, “I knew he was a troublemaker, but this? I used to think he loved me. Listen, Max, was it? I barely saw what she did, but all I remember was closing my eyes when Craig pushed that gun against my head, then her attacking him, a bang, and him gasping in pain.” Her voice was stuffy from the padding and I put two and two together, realising she was probably waiting for an x-ray for her nose. I always missed the forest for the trees when I was by myself.
  319.  
  320.     “When I opened my eyes again, Candace was standing over Craig,” Janet continued, “he was all twisted and busted up and lying on the floor. It was incredible! She helped me up but passed out, I thought she'd been shot, but I guess it only glanced her. When I saw her phone nearby, she'd called the cops, I picked it up and the operator was still on the other side, asking me about what happened and about the gunshot.
  321.     “It wasn't long after some armed cops showed up. Please, when you see her, tell her; thank you, from the bottom of all of our hearts.” She produced Candace's phone and I took it. I felt my throat get tight when I saw the selfie picture of us together as the wallpaper; no doubt how Frank recognised me from the cafeteria.
  322. The fact Candace had called the police was a good sign she was taking what I'd said to heart, but I still couldn't get over the fact she had rushed at a man with a gun.
  323.  
  324.     “I'll tell ya what, Max.” Frank walks back to me, fishing inside his suit jacket and producing a fan of business cards from a fancy gold case, holding it towards me. I take one, looking at the fancy card, the silver trim on the edge and his details within; Haines & Pritchard Real Estate, an actual and email address and some contact numbers.
  325.  
  326.     “You ever think about movin' homes or... heh, tyin' the knot?” he says with a warm smile, and I nearly choked at the suddenness of it, “and you happen need a family home, you call me, and I'll bend over backwards to get you the right place, I swear it. Anythin' for you and Candace, a'right? I'll waive the commission and make sure you're well looked after, ya got me?”
  327.  
  328.     A crackle from a loudspeaker stops any reply I can muster.
  329.  
  330.     “Could Mr. Max Bailey please come to reception. That's Mr. Max Bailey to reception. Thank you.”
  331.  
  332.     “I'd best get going. Thank you, Mr. Haines. You all look after yourselves.” I went to leave, only for Charlie to stand and run up to me with his drawing.
  333.  
  334.     “Mister! I drew this for the lady!” he says. I look at the huge smile on the boy's muzzle, then at the picture. It was a simple and vibrant drawing of Candace, or I guessed it was supposed to be her, dressed like a superhero; a multi coloured suit and an oversized red cape. It just reminded me how I was already on the fence about her actions.
  335.  
  336.     “Thanks, Charlie,” I say and give the kid a smile while still conflicted “I'll be sure to give it to her for you.”
  337.  
  338.     Waving to the three generations of Haines', I try and retrace my steps. I pocket the card, securing it with my phone where I'm likely to remember; I knew Candace was looking for a bigger place and I suppose I couldn't help but appreciate the turn of fortune that she saved the right person for that issue. If there was ever an argument for karma, this was it. That is, if Candace was alright.
  339.  
  340.     I find my way back, and see the familiar sight of Mrs. Powell. She's a frail looking rodere woman in her late forties, smooth brown fur but some flecks of grey around her muzzle and her feathered, shoulder length hair. She was dressed in a thick button up cardigan, sweat pants and a pair of Uggs as footwear; she was probably dragged from a simple day of chores when the call came in about Candace. Mrs. Powell's brown eyes catch mine for a moment as she talks with a human doctor, and I head over to them.
  341.  
  342.     “...most of the signs of Pariah Syndrome, but that's only based on how she described the feeling before the incident; it doesn't require any action, but it's just something to consider. She's otherwise fine and you can take her home. We've booked her in to have the stitches removed in a week. Just make sure she takes it easy for at least a day or two, nothing too strenuous, and keeps the injury site clean. Have a good day, Mrs. Powell.” the doctor finishes saying and heads away. Mrs. Powell walks to me and we have a quick, familiar hug.
  343.  
  344.     “It's good to see you, Max. I just wish it could be for a happier reason.” she says. It's always been a little funny how small she is compared to me; Mrs. Powell's probably about four foot seven so she barely reaches my sternum. Her husband isn't much taller either, and I note his absence although it's not uncommon.
  345.  
  346.     “Likewise, Mrs. Powell! I'm guessing Mr. Powell's elsewhere on business?” I say as we separate.
  347.  
  348.     “I'm afraid so, he's in New York; Derek's aware of what's happened but I've told him not to worry. And Max, please, call me Beatrice. You're an adult now.” she smiles as she begins leading us down another corridor.
  349.  
  350.     “Ah, sorry... uh, Beatrice. Old habits die hard. So, what did that doctor say about Candace?”
  351.  
  352.     “The bullet skimmed Candace's head and she's needed stitches,” Beatrice says, drying her eyes with her sleeve, “but it didn't seem to have hit the skull. She also passed out from the shock but didn't sustain any injuries from the fall. She's lost some blood but she should recover in a day or two.”
  353.  
  354.     “That's a weight off....oh, but what's Pariah syndrome?” I say. Beatrice slows for a moment and looks worried.
  355.  
  356.     “It's... a rodere condition. Nothing serious, really.” She says, brushing the topic off, but I make a mental note to look into it later. I thought I knew most of everything about Candace and while I was somewhat familiar with the term, it wasn't something I'd ever looked in to.
  357.  
  358.     We turn a corner and stop, and I feel light headed.
  359.     There she is; Candace, clutching her puffer coat wrapped in a clear plastic bag, false fur collar covered in blood, wearing slightly stained jeans and a maroon shirt. Her fur on the right side of her head and face is stained pink and her hair's been shaved short on that side, medical tape and a fresh dressing covering the injury, and while she's wearing her glasses, one of the temples has been snapped off. Another rodere woman in a nurse's uniform is escorting her, despite the fact Candace is clearly rebuking her attempts; she always hated being pitied.
  360.     Worst of all is she looks uneasy on her feet, her eyes sunken and tired. Her shoulders drooping and she's looking in our direction but she doesn't actually see us for a moment.
  361.  
  362.     It's a horrifying period as I realise I'm having that conflict again; logic against my emotions. I want to scream at her idiocy, praise her bravery, demand to know what she was thinking or lift her off the ground and smother her with the contact she loves so much.
  363.  
  364.     Our eyes meet, her rose-red eyes grow wet as we do, but Beatrice acts first and rushes to her daughter and getting enveloped in a hug from her far larger daughter. It feels a knife has been plunged in my stomach as I look at her, the love of my life, looking despondent and frail as I realise she's reading my expression, the conflict in me and realises I'm upset with her.
  365.     I look at the picture in my hand, Candace the hero; an unstoppable woman with endless power and energy. A true, caring and selfless friend to anyone who knows her. A saviour of two young women and a little boy.
  366.     Then I look at her; Candace the wounded, the mortal woman who was a scant inch from death, who throws herself in harms way for people she barely knows and I don't know if it's self loathing or something worse.
  367.  
  368.     I freeze. It's the most horrible thing I could do, but I dread to think what would come out of my mouth if I started talking. She looks destroyed by my lack of motion and she's probably well aware of how I feel. In turn I feel betrayed by myself that this is how I react. My biggest strength for her is crippling me as my mind surges to find a place to move from, like I'm spinning wheels in heavy snow; I'm just digging myself deeper.
  369.  
  370.     Even the tender hug between Beatrice and Candace doesn't outlast my conflict. Candace slowly walks up to me and her ears fold down from shame. She drops her bagged coat and an attempt to take a deep breath is cut short by a withheld sob. She's disappointed in herself before I can even broach the subject of what she's been through.
  371.     What I have I done to her? Protect her from herself? Ruined her? I love her for who she is, but were my attempts to make her better hurting that?
  372.  
  373.     “Max, I'm...” Candace starts to say but I don't let her finish. I just can't do it; she needs me and I close the distance faster than thought I could move. I wrap my arms around her and feel her familiar whiskers against my cheek, and hold her as firmly as I dare to, unafraid of looking soft, or caring when I feel a tear trickle down my face, or even the fact people are watching.
  374.  
  375.     “It's alright. I'm not angry.” I whisper to her as her arms wrap around my back and she holds me just as tight. I see the warm smile Beatrice has on her muzzle as she picks up Candace's coat and lets us have this time. I have to indulge in some selfishness; I swallow down any pain and bitterness in the feel of Candace's perfect body, the firm form and soft details, the rhythm of her breathing as she continues to sniffle and hold back from crying.
  376.     I refuse to let her go but I plant my lips on hers, barely resisting the urge to take it further. Just holding her again would have been enough, but the touch of her tongue on mine just blankets my heart in a warmth I can never get enough of.
  377.  
  378.     We hold as long as we dare before stopping and staring. This could last forever, but even I'm feeling the blush rise on my face as everyone looks awkwardly at our public affections. I look at the right side of her head, the still stained fur leaving a pink trail down to her neck from the shaved part of her hair, leaving a bald spot for the medical tape to hold the dressing over the actual wound. Once more I feel a savage anger that someone's hurt my Candace, but I swallow and it takes a lot of focus to push the thoughts away. I need her smiling, so I figure we need an icebreaker.
  379.  
  380.     “What, are you cutting your own hair, now?” I say and grin, “I think you missed. Maybe I should buy you some safety scissors.” Candace smiles and even manages a light giggle. She playfully shoves me back and the sense of how normal things suddenly feel again is a huge relief.
  381.  
  382.     “Think I should get the other side done? Even it out? Maybe I can ask the same asshole to give you a shave, wise guy,” she says but then sighs, the smile fading, “seriously though, Max, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I-It's kind of a blur.” I guess I really am getting through to her if she's gone back to being serious so quickly. I'm honestly not sure how I feel about it, but I'm sure it will come to me in time.
  383.     I hope so, anyway, because right now I feel like my attempts to change her are crushing her spirit, one of many things that makes Candace special.
  384.  
  385.     “Forget about it, 'Deece. The important thing is that you're okay. Let's just get you home and we'll just take a mulligan on today. Oh, here.” I take out Candace's phone and hand it to her. I look over her shoulder and blush as Beatrice clears her throat and walks to us.
  386.  
  387.     “Come on, lovebirds, I haven't got anything better to do today than make sure my little girl is looked after.”
  388.  
  389.     “Um... can we go to Max's place?” Candace says and looks over her shoulder at her mom, “I'd feel more comfortable there... and besides! Mom, you've never been, right? You could learn the way there.” Candace says.
  390.  
  391.     “I have no problem with that. It's about the same distance.” I offer, shrugging.
  392.  
  393.     “So long as you don't mind giving me directions, Max. I forgot to bring the GPS in the panic.” Beatrice says and begins leading us from the hospital.
  394.     It's not far to the exit, and while Candace seems sure footed, she leans into me all the same; I can't tell if she's dizzy or she's just craving contact again but I'm more than happy to oblige.
  395.  
  396.     We leave the hospital and Beatrice leads us to her car; a shiny, amber, three door Honda Civic. With a push of a key fob, a mechanical click of the locks and an opening of the door, Beatrice helps us both into the back seats; as much as I'm sure either of us would prefer sitting at the front, I want to make sure I'm with her every moment I can be to make up for my earlier hesitation.
  397.     It's a little cramped and I could never get used to tail-groove seating in cars; the hard cavity down the middle of each seat to allow rodere tails room to nestle along it made it ride a little hard on the backside, but it was a necessary evil.
  398.  
  399.     We're soon away, merging through the growing traffic on the city streets, and I realise there's a number of things that need covering. Business before pleasure, or what could be salvaged from this day.
  400.  
  401.     “Just follow the signs towards Halifax and take the second turn past the church, it's easy to find,” I say to Beatrice and pull out my phone, “I'm gonna call Mr. Jackson, let him know what's happened. Guess I'll need to cancel the reservation too.” I can't help but let my disappointment seep into my voice. Candace's ears fold down and even her whiskers drooping a little and I bite my lip; now I've made her feel guilty too.
  402.     I go through my contacts and tap to call work. He should be in the building by now, he's usually there for the main preparation period.
  403.  
  404.     “Good afternoon, Ship-Roof House restaurant, would you like to make a reservation?” Renee answered. I recognised the chipper tone; she's the fellow waitress Candace rescued from Greg and his forceful, drunken advances.
  405.  
  406.     “Hi, Renee, it's Max. Is Mr. Jackson there yet? I need to speak with him.” I say.
  407.  
  408.     “Oh, hi Max! Enjoying your day off? Uh, sure, let me go get him for you.” The clatter of the receiver on the bar. I look at Candace, who's sitting in silence and I switch hands with the phone, reaching to her and taking her hand in mine. She looks at me with those pale red eyes, smiling weakly. I offer one in return, letting our fingers interlock. I'm really getting worried now; she's not been this down on herself since getting passed up for that promotion.
  409.  
  410.     The receiver clicks against the wooden bar again and I hear the distinctive, smooth tone of Mr. Jackson clearing his throat.
  411.  
  412.     “Good afternoon, Max. Did you need to change the reservation? I believe it's still in the book for six thirty tonight but there are some alternative openings.” he says.
  413.  
  414.     “Not quite, Mr. Jackson. Let me explain...” I say and go over the days events in as much detail as I feel is needed. My boss remains silent the entire time and takes his time responding, clearly mulling the situation over.
  415.  
  416.     “Oh goodness... right, hm... so you're quite sure Candace is alright? What is the world coming to?” he says, still even toned but there's a rare wavering to his voice, “well, I shall cover the front-house tomorrow for her, and I want you to keep an eye on her as well, Max! But I need you to cover for William on Saturday in exchange. Hopefully I'll see you both the day after next, but do call if Candace is still unwell. I know she's rather unflappable, but this is quite a different circumstance.”
  417.  
  418.     “Of course, Mr. Jackson. Thank you. We will have to cancel the reservation as well, sir.”
  419.  
  420.     “Hmph, I suppose so,” he says, and I can hear him tutting to himself, “quite disappointing; it would have been an interesting change of pace seeing the two of you in a more relaxed fashion. Well... actually, could you stop by the restaurant now? I trust you aren't walking Candace home in her condition?”
  421.  
  422.     “Oh, no we're being driven by her mom. I guess we could swing by, but why?”
  423.  
  424.     “No, no! I shan't trouble you any further, and I shall explain when you arrive. I will see you presently, I'm sure.” Mr. Jackson made a low chuckle. It was almost ominous, but that might just be because he didn't laugh often. Still, he was as genuine a man as I'd ever met, considering he was a man of means and always treated everyone well.
  425.  
  426.     “Alright, we should be there in... where are we? About ten minutes, I think? See you then, Mr. Jackson.” I ended the call.
  427.  
  428.     “What did he want?” Candace asks. I shrug.
  429.  
  430.     “Other than I'm now working Saturday and we're both off tomorrow as well? No idea, he just wants us to swing by the restaurant.”
  431.  
  432.     “Um... that's the one off of Lepp Lane, right? I know the way.” Beatrice says, and slows a little as she takes in the surroundings, then makes a turn towards the town centre proper. I again find myself lost in Candace's muted expression. The contact is helping, but I figure I'd best lay on making her feel better a bit thicker.
  433.  
  434.     “The Haines' send their thanks. You have a fan, as well! Little Charlie told me to give this to you.” I hand over the slightly crumpled drawing Charlie made. Candace studies it and for a split second, her eyes spark with energy.
  435.  
  436.     “Damn, little kid ain't bad. Hope he keeps drawing. I'm gonna put this on my fridge when I get home. Might help make my stupidity worth it.” Candace looks a little lost in the picture but once more she sinks back into the seat.
  437.  
  438.     “I mean, I don't know what happened, 'Deece,” I say, “but I'm not gonna say I'm not proud; by the sounds of it, that rodere guy was out for Janet's blood and was probably gonna kidnap Charlie. I'm sorry about how I hesitated back in the hospital, but... shit, how do I put this... I mean, didn't you see he had a gun?”
  439.  
  440.     “I thought it might have been a knife, but.... when I saw he'd hit that kid, and he cried for help, I just...” Candace looked at her hands. They were trembling. I reached out and held one again.
  441.  
  442.     “I remember thinking I had to stop it, because I doubted the cops would have got there in time...” Candace squeezed my hand firmly and looked at her knees yet her eyes grew distant, “I punched him and he spun around, pointing the gun at me...”
  443.  
  444.                                         *   *   *
  445.  
  446.     Flash. Gunshot. Pain sears through my head like liquid metal, fire and fear, but anger consumes it; instinct takes over. Head hurts, hearing cuts out, ringing, but I only need to see the target and I'm still standing.
  447.     Grab his extended right with mine, drive left elbow against it, full body weight. It cracks, inverts; slight relax of my grip, slide hand along and towards his hand, swipe weapon free while grip weakened.
  448.     Gun is gone. Change striking and gripping arms. Snatch his hood and ear with left hand, pull head back. Expose throat. Fist poised.... moment of hesitation.
  449.  
  450.     Can't do it, might kill, he's no longer a threat. He swings with left, I deflect with right, drive palm into muzzle, then leg into groin. He weakens. Retract leg.
  451.     Keep grip, use other hand on other ear. Drag his face down as I lift my knee. A wet pop, snout crumples, blood spray. He flies to the floor, writhing, groaning low. Jump on his knee regardless, crunch of bone. He ain't walking.
  452.  
  453.     World comes back into focus. The kid, the woman! I spin about.
  454.  
  455.     “You okay!?” I pant, thinking I'm short of breath, but I think I'm alright.
  456.  
  457.     “I think so... ?” the woman's holding her kid and her nose is oozing blood. I walk over and reach a hand down to her.
  458.  
  459.     “C'mon, let's get you two somewhere safe.” I help her to her feet and smile at the teary eyed boy, then back to her but her expression changes, worry visible. Her face goes pale? No, the walls do too...?
  460.  
  461.     “Oh my god, you're bleeding!” she gasps. I don't feel too bad, I dab the side of my head, it feels warm yet numb on touch. Then less numb, a hot pain swells.
  462.  
  463.     “Just a scratch, I thi-” I look at my hand. That's a lot of blood. My legs wobble.
  464.  
  465.     “Oh shit...” I mumble.
  466.  
  467.     No colour. I can see the sky and feel the floor. White.
  468.  
  469.     Then black.
  470.  
  471.                                         *    *    *
  472.  
  473.     “...when I came to,” Candace says, seeming to be back in the car with us, “I was being looked after by a policewoman while the ambulance was on the way. I remember seeing that young mom being questioned and that asshole being watched by a third cop. I'm sorry, Max, Mom... I had to do something. I couldn't just stand there!”
  474.  
  475.     “Is this anything to do with that Pariah syndrome.” I say. There's a deafening silence. Candace's expression flares into that old, familiar anger but only for a moment.
  476.  
  477.     “The fuck, Mom, you told him!?” Candace gasps. She was upset, but it wasn't the fire I was used to. Almost a panic.
  478.  
  479.     “I didn't!” Beatrice cries out, “the doctor mentioned it when Max found me in reception! I'd never...” Candace was always far too strong in pretty much all ways for her mom to have any real way of controlling her but she had improved since college; she didn't explode like she did during that January night anywhere as often. Despite that, and how subdued her outrage seemed, I stepped in just in case.
  480.  
  481.     “Right, everyone cool it,” I interrupt, “someone just tell me what the hell it is and what it has to do with what happened today.” I look at Candace, and she once more seems to shrink back, looking ashamed again. I'm hoping for a breakthrough, because I hope it lets me make sense of everything, but it's a known issue so I'm not optimistic. I suppose it's wishful thinking that Candace's worst aspects can be summarised by a single term or condition. I feel bad for thinking she needed 'fixing' in such a way.
  482.     Candace's ears flatten in remorse, and she sighs.
  483.  
  484.     “Alright... alright... first, Mom? I'm sorry for snapping, My head's all over the place at the moment,” Candace says and reaches forward, putting a hand on Beatrice's shoulder before continuing.
  485.  
  486.     “But yeah, Pariah syndrome. It's a rodere thing I have, I guess; loads of us have it, like...one in ten? Basically means we react worse to being alone, really fucks up our fight or flight reaction. Most rodere just panic and freak out when shit hits the fan, so they surround themselves with people to stop it fucking them up. Of course I'm a hostile fucking bitch and I have anger issues... ” Once again she sounded less like herself.
  487.  
  488.     “Please don't talk about yourself like that, Candace.” Beatrice says. Candace huffs and folds her arms, stopping me from keeping her hand in mine.
  489.     It was hardly a revelation but it made sense considering how Candace behaved with me or in a team; supportive and eager to see people thrive. It's why she was a really good leader.
  490.  
  491.     “Then it doesn't matter. I mean, how often does shit like this happen? Normally, I mean. I'm more surprised you didn't tell me sooner.” I say.
  492.  
  493.     “I got enough shit about it as a kid!” Candace snaps, defensively, “I didn't want you watching me twenty-four-fucking-seven. At this point I might as well just have a fucking lobotomy. I get it, I'm a headcase because I run AT shit instead of away. I'm sorry, alright!? I can't fucking help it!”
  494.  
  495.     “'Deece, you've tackled thieves on school trips,” I say and put a hand on her shoulder, “you've walked into a gang of six guys, grabbed the leader and punched him so hard you fucked up his nose despite not knowing the others wouldn't kick your ass.
  496.     “Worst of all, the thing that would make you so absolutely certifiable that I'm surprised you aren't tailed by men in white coats? You decided to get into a relationship with the quiet idiot from school who let people walk all over him. You're my brand of crazy, and fuck anyone who says otherwise”
  497.  
  498.     “I wish you wouldn't encourage her like that, Max,” Beatrice says and Candace rolls her eyes, “but I always saw you two supporting each other and hoped you would get together, because I knew it would be good for both of you. I just didn't want to interfere. I knew it would come together when you were both ready.”
  499.  
  500.     “It took a while, but we came together just fine.” I say and smile, thinking of that January night again; the drink, the punch, the morning after. I didn't get to think of the fun part before Candace interrupted; she laughed a little, and I realised what I had just said. Her goofy, snorting giggle was music to my ears, telling me she was still trying to come back to me. Apparently my firebrand girlfriend just needed the right kindling.
  501.  
  502.     ”Yeah, we 'came' together, alright.” Candace looked at me with a small grin. THERE was the woman I adored; the quick, crude humour and a spark in her gorgeous red eyes. She relaxed her arms and I once more held her hand; her smile deepening but she still looked tired.
  503.  
  504.     “Okay, kids, please,” Beatrice says, “I know I said you make a good couple, but I really don't need the innuendo right now.”
  505.  
  506.     We turned in to the road where our restaurant, Ship-Roof House, sits in a prominent, central position. It's a pretty quiet section of the city adjacent to a public garden. I doubt the land was cheap, but it was such a well balanced place to eat in terms of price and quality and being in one of the quieter spots of the city centre helped maintain the right atmosphere.
  507.     The fact it didn't have a Michelin star was probably a good thing; while Mr. Jackson certainly had people with enough talent in the kitchen for a full fine dining experience, he favoured big seller dishes and rotated the menu often. He was ever the shrewd businessman, despite spending more than he could probably get away with on staff, and had a real knack for following food trends. I seem to recall Mr. Jackson saying he was 'canny on everything but people; they pay for themselves'.
  508.  
  509.     No sooner that we pulled up in the short stay parking that Mr. Jackson himself stepped out through the front door closely followed by Renee, a cute human girl with short blond hair, clad in the all black restaurant uniform of a button up shirt, trousers and dress shoes. Mr Jackson's a rat rodere, a little taller than me, extremely well groomed and wearing a full suit and bow tie, his dark brown fur unmarked by the fact he's over fifty years old. They're both carrying a stack of flat-top cloche covered plates wrapped in foil. I climb out of the car, struggling a little with the cramped conditions, and met them half way.
  510.  
  511.     “What's all this, Mr. Jackson?” I say and take the plates off of Renee. She ran over to the car and began talking to Candace; they were fast friends by this point after the Greg incident.
  512.  
  513.     “Well if you can't eat in the restaurant, I decided perhaps to let you indulge in a little 'take-out',” Mr Jackson says, looking rather proud of himself, “I had the chefs part-prepare some basic components so you could finish up at home. If Candace has lost some blood, it is crucial she eat hearty and bolster her constitution! I've always been instructed to 'snack' when giving blood, and I doubt this is any different.” He said the word as if it was alien to him.
  514.  
  515.     “Well damn, sir, thank you very much! How much do I owe?” I still had cash in my wallet for the day out and I always paid my debts.
  516.  
  517.     “Nonsense, Max. Just make sure you bring the plates back with you and we'll work out expenses when Candace is all better, hm? It won't do to fret the details when there are more important things that should be on your mind, young man.” He smiled, his well hewn incisors glinting in the sunlight; considering he smokes, I suspect he has them whitened.
  518.     We moved the wrapped plates to the car and I caught the aroma of the contents; I could smell mixed roasted vegetables, likely planned to be blended into soup nearer service time, and fresh bread straight from the oven. It's pretty exciting thinking about what else we had in store and made me feel better about the wasted day.
  519.  
  520.     Candace and Renee were in the middle of an awkward, through the car window hug as my girlfriend explained what she'd been through. Mr. Jackson, however, applied a little of his upper crust charm with Beatrice, even using his full name of Alistair Lachlan Jackson; apparently his parents were Scottish, although he lacked the accent. Other than his use of fancier words, it was difficult to place where his dialect was from.
  521.     I didn't really catch much of what was being said, basic introduction stuff what what I overheard, but I was also too busy trying to organise getting everything in the car without any spillage. Before long I had a stack of plates in my lap as the conversations finished up.
  522.  
  523.     “...well, it has been a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Powell,” Mr. Jackson says and gives Beatrice a gentle handshake, then peers his muzzle through the window towards me, then Candace, “you take care of yourself, my dear! If Max is any true gentleman, he will see to your every need in this trying time. I do truly hope to see you both on Thursday, though. A good day to you all.”
  524.  
  525.     “Thanks, Mr. Jackson, really,” Candace says with a warm smile, “it means a lot you'd do this for me. I'll be there on Thursday, rain or shine.”
  526.  
  527.     “Think nothing of it! If I can't look after my employees and bring them together as one would a family, I would consider it a black mark on my name.”
  528.     Renee waves through the glass at Candace, who give one in return. We're back on the road as Mr. Jackson and Renee head back into the restaurant. Once more, Candace deflates and grows sullen.
  529.  
  530.     If my presence, contact and even talking with her friend haven't revitalised her by this point, I realised I'd need to spark Candace's fire and get her mad. When she's been sad in the past I would trade barbs with her and get her active. I just need the right way to get the ball rolling.
  531.     I'd always feel like an asshole doing this but Candace, the love of my life, always responded better to her issues angry and focused rather than sad and self doubting as she seemed now. It's something I've used some five times since we became a couple; a bad day at work here, losing her temper at someone there. I'd flare her up, we'd trade banter and she'd poke and push me a little, I'd then get her to talk about her day and by the end of it, Candace would be herself again.
  532.  
  533.     “He seems nice. You never really talk about your boss, Candace.” Beatrice says as we merge back into the increasingly busy city roads.
  534.  
  535.     “Firm but fair, if you ask me,” I say, “I probably only got the job because of 'Deece vouching for me. Now that I think about it, didn't he approach you with the job? How'd that go again?” I say to Candace. I couldn't remember the story, but I know she didn't go to Ship-Roof House for employment and I could probably poke some fun as well.
  536.  
  537.     “It's not that interesting, Mom; I got pulled there by a 'friend' while in college as a plus one,” Candace says while air-quoting, “she was invited by a rich bitch she knew who was having a birthday. She had a fake I.D, got wasted, caused a scene and got into a fight with the waiter when the bill came.
  538.     “Mr. Jackson got involved and I tried to smooth things over to save everyone getting banned or arrested. Mr. Jackson liked the way I handled it. See? Dull.” She was dismissing it, but the details came back to me; she HAD told me before and as usual, she was dodging taking any credit.
  539.  
  540.     “She's being modest, Beatrice,” I chime in, “pretty sure she also stopped said rich bitch from leaving without paying, and scared the shit out of the other guy who wanted to take the fight outside. At least that's what she told me. All without breaking any noses for once!” I get a little scowl from Candace and I give her a teasing smile in response, making her a bit angrier.
  541.  
  542.     “I'm really not in the mood for your shit, Max,” Candace says, “I'm pissed off at myself already and I was nearly fucking shot!”
  543.  
  544.     “And you took it like a champ, 'Deece. We're all very proud that you've found a use for that hard head of yours.” I say, poking her in the side. I receive a completely justified punch in the thigh. I'm start enjoying myself; the banter is all part of the Candace experience. It keeps my mind sharp and my pain tolerance in check. More important is getting her riled up so she focuses.
  545.  
  546.     “Fuck you, Max! You're supposed to be on my fucking side!” Candace growls and gives me one of her furious stink-eyed glares. We're getting there.
  547.  
  548.     “I've been giving a free pass for now, but can we curb the swearing a little?” Beatrice says, meekly.
  549.  
  550.     “Mom, I'm fucking twenty three, I have my own place and I pay my own bills. I'm allowed to fucking swear!” Candace snaps. I need to get her focusing on me again; her mom didn't deserve the heat.
  551.  
  552.     “C'mon, Candy, she's your mom, gotta show some respect.” I say, invoking her much maligned old nickname and flicking her ear. Candace slaps my hand and gives me a hard stare, baring her teeth.
  553.  
  554.     “Go fuck yourself, Max!” She first snarls but then looks meek, biting her lip. This isn't normal...
  555.     Some doubts were developing. If I was wrong then I was probably gonna have to buy her some seriously expensive flowers, a quality bottle of dark rum and give lot of massages. I just had to trust what I knew about her. I know what I'm doing.
  556.  
  557.     “Max, please don't provoke her, I'm trying to concentrate on driving!” Beatrice pleads and I lose the will to carry on.
  558.  
  559.     The rest of the drive was silent. Beatrice driving based on the directions I had mentioned before, Candace staring out of her window, and I distracted myself with what was beneath the cloche covered plates in my lap. Before long, my apartment building came into view; certainly a better neighbourhood than Candace's place. I couldn't wait for her to move out, and today's misadventure was no exception. I was hoping for a nice, calm day with Candace and now I was having to act like a dick, albeit for a reason.
  560.  
  561.     Beatrice pulled into the small resident parking area, and with begrudging assistance from Candace with the plates, we all made our way to the building. A fairly plain place; red brick construction, windows all over, minimal graffiti. I sighed with relief as soon as I see the elevator's been fixed; living on the fifth floor's fine but not so much when carrying food, or a drunken girl as was once the case.
  562.  
  563.     I reach into my pocket, producing the right key by touch, and at last we enter my apartment. The same worn, tired sofa, the wooden table with marks both from the previous owner and my feet resting on it, walls covered with shelves all carrying a collection of movies and TV series box sets, as well as some assorted odds and ends; a Newton's cradle, one of the basketballs from Candace's triumphs in high-school, and the newest addition was a picture of me and Candace on our first official date.
  564.  
  565.     It made my heart sing when I saw it; she'd messed up my hair and I'm not really big on having my picture taken, but even I had to appreciate what that day meant to us and wanted it made permanent. At long last, after knowing her for maybe eighteen years, after a night of too much drink and broken hearts but a morning of bridges built and lips met, we were as one.
  566.     Yeah, the first time we had sex was special, as giving of one another physically should be, but going out in public with our hearts on display meant more to me; I'd been attracted to her for so long, but we could have just remained friends and enjoyed each other in a basic sense like that. I would have been happy if things went back to how they always had been.
  567.  
  568.     This picture, though? This was the date we spent every moment together; we woke up together, we spent the day hand in hand and we slept together. It meant everything. I still had to help her. I was going to try and act like nothing was wrong and hope it wasn't too late.
  569.  
  570.     “So, anyone hungry? I'm genuinely curious what we've got for dinner here.” I say as Candace puts down the plates she's carrying and Beatrice puts the bagged and bloody coat on my table.
  571.  
  572.     “No, I'm completely out of it right now so I'm gonna go take a nap. If anyone needs to piss, hurry up.” Candace muttered. Beatrice looked about and I quickly pointed to my bedroom, and she walked on through. As soon as the bathroom door clicked shut, Candace spins about and grabs me by the collar.
  573.  
  574.     “What the fuck is wrong with you!? Why are you picking on me!?” she growls.
  575.  
  576.     “I'm sorry! I thought... I mean I was trying to help...” I put a hand on one of hers and Candace looks at it. Her expression shifts, losing the anger and she slumps her shoulders. Usually she would just carry straight on being furious, but there's nothing in her; no fire or strength.
  577.     She releases me, but I put my arms around her body. She doesn't return the gesture or even look me in the eye.
  578.  
  579.     “I needed... I just... I don't even know. Nothing makes sense but it feels like it's my fault again.” Candace covers her face with a hand. I hear my bathroom door open and Beatrice returns. She looks at us both, especially Candace, before sitting down on my couch and looking down at her feet.
  580.     At this point I worry if I say anything it'll only make things worse, that I've betrayed her when she needed support.
  581.  
  582.     Candace heads for my bedroom. Following, I shut the door and close the shutters as Candace takes off her clothing, leaving her in her black under-shirt and sporty underwear. It's an almost solemn moment as she climbs into my bed, quickly setting a timer on her phone that I couldn't see the duration of. She settles in and turns away from me before I can try to comfort her.
  583.     'I know what I'm doing'? What WAS I doing? I liked to compare Candace to firework display, the effort and pay-off was always an apt comparison, but at the moment it was pouring with rain and I've been spraying her with a fucking hose.
  584.  
  585.     It was a kinda comforting when, within moments of settling in and despite the fact I was still there, Candace's breathing eased and she started snoring lightly; she wasn't kidding when she said she was tired. I hoped it would be a chance to reset so I could make things right.
  586.  
  587.     I quietly make use of the bathroom and head back out. Beatrice looks at me, hopeful, but I'm wearing my own doubts openly and we both sigh at the same time. I look over the plates to distract myself, sorting them and arranging them so I can at least consider what I could make later, the start of my new plan to cheer Candace up.
  588.     Candace wasn't big on cooking for herself and I found it a fun hobby, so I had a number of odds and ends around I could add to bring it all together. It was most of the components for Spanish chicken but I figured, with the cold weather, chicken and chorizo stew would be heartier.
  589.  
  590.     I just get the preparation done for now. Chopping the chicken into smaller pieces, dicing up everything else since the recipe largely just needed the ingredients thrown in at different times. With everything organised, I put it all in the fridge and wash my hands.
  591.  
  592.     “Mrs... uh, Beatrice,” I say, catching my mistake, “did you want a coffee or anything? How do you take it?” I say, and she flinches; I realise she's probably been sitting in deep thought for some time.
  593.  
  594.     “Oh. Yes please. White, no sugar, thank you.” She responds. I switch on my coffee maker and go through the motions. I give Beatrice's some cream but I take my coffee as I do my current mood, and right now I want the safest drink possible; weak and timid with milk and sugar. I deserve nothing better. I head over once hers is done, and join her once mine finishes going through the program.
  595.  
  596.     Beatrice is on the opposite side of my preferred spot, and I wish I could feel some joy as I sit in the familiar space, but the guilt is too strong. We both sip our drinks in silence for a while; the hot, sweet and weak coffee really does nothing for my enjoyment besides scratch a base itch of simple comfort rather than the deeper flavours I prefer.
  597.  
  598.     I finally have time to just lose myself in my thoughts; naturally they all converge on Candace and how I know how deeply I've fucked up. Starting from when I hesitated in comforting her in the hospital, poking fun at her in the car and the fact I've tried to treat this whole scenario as another of Candace's bad moods.
  599.     I'm a fucking idiot; this is nothing like those days. It's complacency of the worst kind, believing that because I managed to rile her up and assuming things would sort themselves out, but today? Candace nearly got herself shot but she was already regretful of her actions. I just poured salt on her wounds.
  600.  
  601.     “I'm sorry,” I finally say, “I messed up trying to help Candace. I know you don't like seeing her get angry, but I've learned it helps her focus on the things she actually is upset about, because like this? I mean... shit, how do I explain it?” Alone, without Candace, my mind is slow to process what I want to say. I have to resort to old habits; forming the sentences in my mind before speaking again, getting a little headway so I don't keep stumbling. I nod to myself and take a deep breath as Beatrice stares at me with her deep brown eyes, and continue.
  602.  
  603.     “Candace blames herself for a lot of stuff even if it isn't actually her fault, because she knows she's a handful and doesn't always acknowledge what she's done. I kinda love her for it really because that's always been her way, but we've both agreed it isn't the healthiest way of doing things. When we first confessed our feelings for each other, it began with her trying to storm out of my apartment and I used her anger to focus on me because I knew she wouldn't back down when provoked.
  604.     “It worked, because I could use her attention to point out the things she was really upset about and then redirect it to making her realise what was actually wrong. It's been a go-to solution for me since; whenever she gets upset, I usually toy with her, make her angry so I can get her out of the rut and let her vent at me and I'm happy to just roll with it.”
  605.  
  606.     “It's our fault as well, Max,” Beatrice says, taking a small sip of her coffee,”we've always been afraid to discipline her since... well, since my brother Winston died. Candace looked up to him the most, and she took it so hard. The fights she got into both in and out of school meant the parent-teacher evenings were like a rap sheet. Even when we tried to talk to her, she would pretend to listen and just carry on acting like she just didn't care. I know she seemed to calm down when she went to college, but... now this?”
  607.  
  608.     “I was kinda hoping that Pariah syndrome was something we could use to help Candace overcome this,” I sigh, slouch and swirl my coffee, “but nothing's ever that simple, is it? I'm guessing she's been checked for what happened to her uncle and this syndrome?”
  609.  
  610.     “Yes, Candace saw a therapist, for both the Pariah and for post traumatic stress over Winston. She went for a couple of months and she seemed to move on from the worst of it, but they couldn't find much wrong with her despite how she started acting afterwards. They told us it might just be hormonal, since she was still growing up.”
  611.  
  612.     “PTSD? Shit...” I say and scratch my chin, trying to work out where it all fits together, “I never realised, but I guess like the Pariah she didn't want me to think she was struggling. I haven't really heard too much about Winston. What happened and what was he like? Uh, if it's alright. You don't have to answer; I don't wanna make things even more down than I already have.”
  613.  
  614.     “It's alright,” Beatrice says, looking for a coaster so I offer a napkin, “he was a proud and powerful man. Our parents knew early on he wanted to make a mark on life. When we were young our house was burgled and it drove him to want to be a police officer as soon as he was finished with school, taking security jobs at building sites before joining the force. Winston certainly made his mark; flew all the way up to lieutenant in the narcotics division in a handful of years.”
  615.  
  616.     “I can see where Candace gets her inspiration from,” I muse, scratching my head, “once she's set on a path, she doesn't deviate either.” Beatrice smiled briefly as she continued.
  617.  
  618.     “It really is something, isn't it? I'm so proud of her; all the things she's achieved. With Winston though, I always felt sorry for Allison, his wife, having to put up with his long hours and being in harms way. He lead one of the biggest drug busts in history against a now dead crime family, the Kuznetzov's. They didn't take it lying down though.” Beatrice toyed with her hands; claws tapping together and she bit her lip.
  619.     “They ran Winston's car off of the highway when they were coming to visit us. Winston managed to... uh... stop them, but not before they shot Allison when she was protect-...u-um...” Beatrice stammers and snatches her coffee, taking a long draw from the mug. I wasn't sure what just happened, but I waited for her to continue.
  620.  
  621.     “A-anyway, Winston started dedicating more of his time either just working or visiting us so he could fawn over Candace; he was so bitter and angry most all of the time, but he would be himself again around her. A few years later, though, the crime family struck again, putting Winston in a wheelchair when they crashed into his car with a stolen truck. He retired fully, and the Kuznetzov's were largely broken down or in prison.
  622.     “He was a only seemed to enjoy life when he was with Candace after that. We thought the threat was over, but one of last family members was released from prison. I'll never forget that monsters name... Peitr Kuznetzov. I don't even think it was pre-meditated, just rotten luck... he just... h-he...”
  623.  
  624.     There were several seconds of silence, I was so focused on her words and staring at my coffee that I didn't even notice Beatrice was crying. I put a hand on her shoulder while she composed herself.
  625.  
  626.     “Right in front of Candace... he just walked up to him and pulled a knife... murdered him in public! I remember hearing the eye witness reports from Winston's in court; nobody even moved to help, they just stood there while Candace screamed for someone to do something. She just shut down for days afterwards; she barely ate or spoke or even left her room. She didn't even cry, she just... stared at his old badge.
  627.     “Then, when it was time for her Sunday martial arts lesson, she just gathered her things and asked to be taken as if nothing happened. I remember she would often joke around and play with the other kids before each session, but from that day forward? Just this focus, as if nothing else mattered. When we noticed she was acting out in school, we threatened to stop taking her as punishment but I remember her saying something I'll never forget...”
  628.  
  629.     “'You can't stop me! You can lock me in my room and I'll break out. You can stop paying for my lessons but I'll steal money if I have to, but I'll never fucking stop'!”
  630.  
  631.     That was certainly Candace for you. I thought back to that wild smile on her face when she confronted that bag snatcher at the rodere medical museum; it was damn clear she wanted an excuse to fuck with anyone she saw as a 'bad guy'.
  632.     Bullies were the easy target, but then she responded badly to anyone who she felt had wronged her, maybe even comparing people she didn't like as threats the same way. I wasn't even spared that treatment when I turned her down for sex while she was drunk back on that January night, even if she regretted it the morning after.
  633.     Candace mostly grew out of it, or it certainly became less common, but tied together with Pariah syndrome, something that made her fight or flight response more severe, just meant she was a ticking time bomb if she saw someone she felt deserving if she was alone.
  634.  
  635.     “I'm surprised Candace didn't go down the same route, frankly,” I say, “I mean what better way to at least try to do right in the world than the official channels. She'd make a hell of a cop if she could resist the urge to break every perp's arm.” I chuckle, but even my laugh falls flat after a second.
  636.  
  637.     “Winston made her swear not to,” Beatrice says, “he didn't want her following in his footsteps after all the anguish he went through losing Allison and he didn't want to lose Candace as well...” Once more, she looks worried and looks away, as if hiding. I looked at her for a while, then pulled my phone; I could feel a cold sensation run through me and I started connecting the dots. I began an online search and looked for the names I'd heard, Winston Edwards, Allison Edwards and the crime family name.
  638.     Winston brought up articles about a drug bust worth some sixty million dollars. I checked the attached articles about the Kuznetzov family, a group that had been operating in a few local states for decades, and then Pietr's name emerged.
  639.  
  640.     The public assassination of one Winston Edwards, stabbed seventy times before Pietr was shot non-lethally by law enforcement. He even confessed to the act as revenge for being disgraced. Then a link Allison Edwards. Killed in a roadside shoot out.
  641.     Winston and Allison; both albino mouse rodere, like Candace. I knew her grandma was one as well, so it kind of didn't really stand out, but everything else?  Tall, driven, powerful; Winston and her were too alike. The apple didn't fall far from the tree.
  642.     Allison looked a lot like Candace; same shaped round ears, same nose, both needed glasses. Candace resembled Beatrice too, but Derek really didn't have any resemblance. Neither had problems with their eyes, although again, albinos tended to have issues; Candace was a little short sighted.
  643.     Then the archived story goes into detail; a baby present at the shoot out, survived thanks to Allison using her body to shield her.
  644.  
  645.     I didn't register the sound of a door opening, I spoke my conclusion aloud.
  646.  
  647.     “Candace is Winston's kid, isn't she...?”
  648.  
  649.     Beatrice gasps and we both look at the doorway to my bedroom. Candace stood, jeans and under-shirt but looking dishevelled, staring at me, then at Beatrice. Her whiskers twitch, her ears flicker, her tail wriggles and her breathing quickens. There's a clarity in her eyes, everything clicking like it had for me.
  650.  
  651.     “Y-you've lied....all....all this time!?” Candace stumbles on her words. There's a little anger in her voice, but it's still diminished.
  652.  
  653.     “Candace...” Beatrice manages before Candace shivers with her teeth bared and muscles tensing; the prelude to one of her rages.
  654.  
  655.     But then she doesn't, and like her other reactions today it doesn't even seem like Candace. Her body goes slack and she falls against the door-frame, putting a hand to her mouth and her gaze looks distant, lost and afraid. I take in a breath to say something I choke on the words just as Candace bolts to the front door, throwing it open and runs outside.
  656.     It hits me like a punch to the gut; how I've acted in her time of need out of my own ignorance of how she truly felt about nearly being shot, and now her own mom just outed herself as a liar. Candace must feel well and truly alone; all I can think of is what she might do to herself with two of the closest people to her betraying her like this.
  657.  
  658.     “Candace!” I finally call out and run in pursuit. She's sprinting down the corridor, the slap of her bare feet on the linoleum echoing and she's at the stairwell door by the time I've even started my pursuit, throwing it open so hard it deafens me as it hits the wall. Candace leaps down the first flight, grabbing the handrail and pulling herself down around the next floor as I pass through into the stairwell proper.
  659.     As she reaches the next flight she stumbles and falls. Of course, the blood-loss. She's already fainted once today and should be relaxing but she's just gone from relaxed to full panic in moments.
  660.  
  661.     The sound of her impacting the floor makes me feel sick, and seeing her isn't much better; she looks out of her mind in shock, just so frail and shattered.
  662.  
  663.     “Candace! Are you alright? Talk to me!” I plead. I fall to my knees and pull her into my arms, putting her head on my shoulder and pressing my back into the corner of the landing to lock us both in place.
  664.  
  665.     “Let me go...” Candace whimpers, tears streaming from her eyes and her breathing erratic. She puts her hands against me, trying to push herself free, but there's no strength to them, none of her focus or power; she's just broken. My heart feels like it's been ripped out; I was just as much a part of Candace's despair as her finding out the truth just moments ago, I should have been her rock. I'm a fucking idiot.
  666.  
  667.     “Candace, it's okay! Breathe. Just listen to my voice; calm, slow breaths.” I call to her and she keeps trying to escape, but I hold her tightly.
  668.     Think, Max! You can't lose her.
  669.     I reach deep inside myself for something to try and pull her attention to me.
  670.  
  671.     “Candace, you're not alone! I'm here and I'll always be here. Please... I'm sorry, I was wrong! I fucked up!”
  672.  
  673.     She draws still at last, but she's tense. It almost feels like I'm holding a wild animal stuck in a cage and I'd rather she hit me, scream or do anything the break out of this terrifying, almost fake seeming Candace in my arms.
  674.  
  675.     “I'm sorry...” she mumbles.
  676.  
  677.     “What for?” I say, I almost don't believe her words.
  678.  
  679.     “It's always my fault... I can't stop fucking up.” Candace shivers against me.
  680.  
  681.     “I acted like an asshole to you,” I say, softly, and gently run my fingers through her hair, “let alone the secret from your own mom... your aunt or whatever, I mean... it's not your fault, Candace. I'm the one who's sorry. I was a prick, I wasn't even thinking; I just acted like it was any other time you've been upset at something and that you just needed to vent, but....fuck, I don't even know what I was doing.”
  682.  
  683.     “....I don't know who I am any more.” Candace says and her voice cracks. A single sob echoes through the stairwell and she buries her head into my shoulder. It's not long before I feel the wetness seep through. I sigh, rubbing her back.
  684.  
  685.     “I hurt you, Candace. I swear I won't forget that for the rest of my life and I promise I'll do better. You deserve better, because I know who you are; an amazing woman. Even more than that! You....” I choked a little as I tried to talk, my eyes growing wet, “you're m-...” I stopped and took in some long breaths as my hands roamed Candace's firm back.
  686.     Just having her against my body defied words; the sound and feel of her slowly strengthening breaths, the flowery scent of her perfume, the heat from her body. I could feel her heartbeat slowing from her exertion and her strength growing, tightening arms around my body. She's so strong... I found the words.
  687.     “You're my hero.”
  688.  
  689.     Candace flinches, her arms pinching against me a little harder for a while before she pulled away. Her cheeks were soaked, the whiskers on the side of her face were flattened for a few seconds then sprung back out and she bowed her head before shaking it.
  690.  
  691.     “No, I'm not. I can't help getting angry and I keep fucking things up with everyone else,” Candace's says, her voice hoarse, “I have to force myself to stop and it can't be right. I can't be right.” Candace gripped my shoulders and I could feel her shivering. I had to try and focus her, but I couldn't use the 'tried and true' method. I keep my hands on her back and I try and make sense of my thoughts; every second feels like I'm losing her again.
  692.  
  693.     “I-it's alright to get angry, Candace,” I start and hope my mind keeps up with my mouth, “you're not fucking up because you get frustrated, and I haven't been helping you as I should have. You've been trying so damn hard to improve and I've failed to help and support you, instead using shit that worked once like a fucking crutch and not doing the things you really need.
  694.     “I just hope you'll forgive me. I've been a shit friend... an awful boyfriend and I hope I can still help you.”
  695.  
  696.     “I just... I don't know what to do.” Candace whimpers.
  697.  
  698.     “We take it slow, Candace. One step at a time, just like you said back then. I don't care how long it takes, but... maybe we could both go and talk to someone. You deserve proper help, not my bullshit. Someone who actually knows what the fuck he's talking about.”
  699.     There was silence again but it shifted; the dead air changing into a tranquil aura. Candace's arms gently wrapped around me and I could feel her; not just physically, but her spirit, a soft flame stirring in her. She needed kindling once more, but not for anger, she just needed me with her, my support and just simple love.
  700.  
  701.     “...I guess.” Candace says and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, “I thought I was done being fucking nuts, but... all I could think of when that woman was being attacked, or when Renee was being assaulted... I remember standing there, calling for help for uncle....my fucking dad! Even worse, I STOOD THERE and didn't do anything...”
  702.  
  703.     “'Deece, you were thirteen years old!”
  704.  
  705.     “I still should have done something!” Candace growls at herself, “What's the fucking point of learning to fight if you can't use it to help those you love!? What's the point of being strong if you just stand there and let shit happen!? Never again... I don't care what the psychiatrist fucking says or does to me, if I let shit happen when I've tried to live up to my unc-..my fucking dad's example, then I'm worthless!”
  706.  
  707.     “Even if it gets you killed!? Is that what you want, Candace!?” I cry out, my voice making her flinch, “You've done enough! You don't have to be there for everyone, you CAN'T be there for everyone! Fuck it! Y'know what, Candace?”
  708.  
  709.     I let my own fire fuel my limbs. I stand and drag her up with me and pin her against the wall, my face barely an inch from hers.
  710.  
  711.     “If you wanna do that to yourself, I'm coming too! If I have to fucking TIE myself to you, if I have to stay by your side every second of every fucking day, if you feel the urge to play hero, then fuck it, I'll join in; we can both be idiots together! If that's what it takes, Candy!” I don't know why that slipped out. Anger, I guess; another petty remark I was used to throwing in when I was on the verbal offensive and I immediately regretted it.
  712.  
  713.     Candace freezes and seems to mull over my words. We're silent for a what feels like a minute and she stares at me with wet eyes, as if she's studying me. She tilts her head and her hands gently run against my cheeks, her fingers running through my hair and then down onto my shoulders. She takes in a full breath but holds it for a while before speaking.
  714.  
  715.     “Funny, that was... I guess dad's name for me. I didn't want people cheapening it by using it when he died, but if it's you, Max?” Candace smiles at last.
  716.     “You can call me Candy if you want.”
  717.  
  718.     It's strange, a simple thing like a name, but to hear her say those words felt like I'd been given a key to a forbidden treasure; a part of Candace's soul. I just look into her rose coloured eyes and we slowly smile at each other warmly until hers turns into a mischievous grin.
  719.  
  720.     “But not in public,” Candace snickers; her eyes turning bright and vibrant, “otherwise I'm kicking you in the dick. Also, if you call me sweet-cheeks, candy-ass or some other shit like that I'm throwing you out of a fucking window.” It's the best thing, to hear her crack-wise again. It feeds my spirit and gets the blood pumping.
  721.  
  722.     “I promise... Candy.” I chuckle, practising the word as a natural thing instead of a jab, “but only if you promise to let me get you some help. I get it, you wanna help people, but I meant what I said; I can't lose you, and at least swear you'll try and push through this, like I know you can. You're so strong, I know you'll do it.”
  723.  
  724.     “I... okay, Max. I swear I'll see someone if you come with me. Every step together, right?”
  725.  
  726.     “Exactly, together.”
  727.  
  728.     I sigh with relief and we share a kiss, simple but heartfelt, but the second we pull apart, and feel each others breath on one another a spark ignites in me and, judging by Candace's reaction, the same in her.
  729.     Once more our lips meet deeper, her tongue pushing against mine. Her hands stroking my hair again before she leans her weight against me, pressing herself against my body. My heart hammers in my chest, the relief and joy giving way to stronger emotions and my hand instinctively run underneath her shirt, feeling the fur on her back, then I slide a hand into her jeans and grab a handful of the softer layer of her amazing ass. Candace lifts a knee and hooks her calf around my leg and one of her hands starts reaching into my underwear...
  730.  
  731.     The sound of the stairwell door opening makes our limbs pull free of each other in the blink of an eye. One of the other tenants, a middle aged man, walks through and gives us a confused look as we stare at him, panting in unison.
  732.  
  733.     “What the hell are you doing?” he asks, and we remain bolt rigid.
  734.  
  735.     “Uh, n-nothing, sir....um, 'Deece, we should get back.” I say and Candace nods, clearing her throat and blushing like mad. We both retreat up the stairs to my apartment.
  736.  
  737.     It's odd. I don't remember shutting my door, but I open it with my keys again. It's silent inside, and I frown. I look at the freshly washed mugs placed to dry by the sink, then over at the napkin Beatrice used as a coaster; there's writing on it beside the slight coffee ring. I snatch it up and Candace joins me as we read it.
  738.  
  739.     'My special girl,
  740.         I'm sorry I hurt you, and I didn't want to chance hurting you any more by staying. Winston made us swear to never tell you as he was scared you might get hurt by the same monsters that took Allison's life and his own if you got too close or looked into them yourself. He was always proud of you. Me and Derek are as well but I understand if you won't forgive us for hiding the truth from you, but know we will always see you as our daughter. We will always love you.'
  741.  
  742.     “No... Mom...” Candace gasps and she covers her mouth, staring at the words with fresh tears in her eyes. I look out the window; her car is still parked but I can't see her.
  743.  
  744.     “She's still here....” I say.
  745.  
  746.     “I can't let her leave, not without... I-I need to explain myself! Apologise!” Candace cries and starts running back towards the door again.
  747.  
  748.     “'Deece, take it slow! I can't have you passing out. We could just call-” I say but Candace cuts me off.
  749.  
  750.     “Fuck that! If she leaves thinking I hate her, I'll never forgive myself! Please, I have to-”
  751.  
  752.     “Alright... goddamn it,” I groan and start running, “take the elevator! I'll stop her!”
  753.  
  754.     Cooler thoughts and decisions escape me as my guilt overrides them. Right now I'll do anything for Candace if it made her feel better, so chasing and stopping her mom became the only goal in my mind and ran to the stairwell again. I jumped down the first couple of flights and even bump past the interrupting tenant as I reached the bottom floor, ignoring his angry response. I round out the exit just in time to see Beatrice start driving away.
  755.  
  756.     I look across to the empty roads in the dimming daylight and sprint towards the fence and trees between me and the road I know she'll take to get home. It's funny; if I own a part of Candace's soul, it's already about to make me take a really fucking stupid action. I hop the fence, running through the foliage; I even realise I'll be jumping in front of a car giving no indication I'm coming.
  757.  
  758.     I do it anyway, like a fucking moron, and run into the road some short distance from the Honda. I see Beatrice's tear-soaked face panic as I hold out my hands and close my eyes as the slight squeal of tyres and the groan of brakes hit my ears. It's not as dramatic sounding as I thought it would; it's almost disappointing.
  759.     When the sounds stop, just the lingering tone of the engine ticking over, I open my eyes; the hood of the car is inches from my legs. Perhaps it was a good time to coin the phrase 'Max being Max'. Candace is the best and worst influence on me.
  760.  
  761.     “Sorry, Beatrice... “ I manage a low chuckle as I recover my breath, “Candace needs to say something.”
  762.  
  763.     Beatrice's face is a picture; shock mixed with what was likely concern for my sanity. I spot Candace emerging from the building, jogging over at a steady pace and Beatrice turns off the engine and climbs out of the car.
  764.  
  765.     “Mom!” Candace shouts, reaching us and lifting her adopted mother in those powerful arms. It would be funny if my heart wasn't aching from the emotions on display.
  766.  
  767.     “Candace,” Beatrice sobs and returns the hug, “I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to hurt you!”
  768.  
  769.     “I forgive you. I get it! I've lived by Uncle Winny's... I mean, by dad's words for so long, how can I blame you for doing the same? Besides, I'm sorry too... I've acted like a bitch for so long, and I've fought you all the damn time when you just wanted to make sure I was safe. Thank you, Mom. And yeah, you're still my mom and always will be.”
  770.     Candace's smile is so soft and gentle. She's so pretty like that, like someone entirely different but in the best way I can imagine. I hope I can make her a whole person with it; her fire and passion an equal partner of her warmth and the kindness she shows others instead of being almost being seperate.
  771.  
  772.     I jump out of my skin when the sound of a car horn shocks all three of us. The tenant I'd seen twice already in his car, and I realise Beatrice must have swerved as she stopped, blocking the narrow two lane road.
  773.  
  774.     “What the fuck are you three doing? Get out of the way!” he shouts.
  775.  
  776.     I move to try and explain things, only Candace gently puts Beatrice down and spins about, approaching the tenant instead as Beatrice climbs back into her car. I dread what Candace plans as she lowers herself to the drivers side window.
  777.  
  778.     “Sorry, sir. Just some emotions running high,” Candace says calmly with a shrug, “We'll get out of your way.”
  779.  
  780.     I stand to one side as Beatrice pulls over onto the narrow sidewalk.
  781.  
  782.     “Fucking idiots.” the man grumbles and drives off with a little tire squeal.
  783.  
  784.     “Sheesh... overreact much?” Candace says with a grin and walks over to me. I can't help but laugh at her hypocrisy, then look at Beatrice and head over to her car after notice she's still inside.
  785.  
  786.     “I was gonna see about cooking some dinner, can I interest you in staying a while longer?” I say as Candace walks beside me and wraps an arm around my waist, her hand squeezing my hip.
  787.  
  788.     “I should really get home, I need to clear my head and get ready for Derek getting back from his trip... hm, but there's still a lot to talk about. You're both off of work tomorrow, right? How about me and Derek visit? Perhaps we can all visit your restaurant and make it a couples date!” Beatrice smiles, mopping her still soaked cheeks.
  789.  
  790.     “That sounds great, Mom. Let's do it!” Candace reaches through the window to Beatrice with her other arm, pulling me closer so she can keep both of us in contact. I help her, ducking in and we have a three way embrace. The car's not exactly easy to reach through and my back starts hurting after a while. My slow retreat breaks up the tender moment and I feel guilty.
  791.  
  792.     “Let's call it six in the evening?” Candace says, “I've gotta get Max properly dressed like I was gonna today, 'cause he still dresses like a goddamn teenager. He's an embarrassment!” My girlfriend punctuates the point by slapping me playfully on the ass.
  793.     I retaliate by sweeping her off her feet and into a bridal carry, making Candace squeak in a slight panic. Her face turns pink through the white fur and her ears go red from blushing. Beatrice laughs softly.
  794.  
  795.     “Tomorrow it is then!” she says, “I'll call in the morning to make sure everything's still alright, although I doubt you two will have any trouble. Just take care, Candace, and you too Max! Don't let her run you too ragged.” Beatrice waves and slowly pulls away, Candace returning the gesture while I keep my grip on her. She wriggles in my arms but I'm not letting her go; I'm carrying my lover all the way up the stairs if I have to as a further apology for all the fucking up I've done today.
  796.  
  797.     Thankfully it doesn't come to that; we ride the elevator up and reach my room, Candace resting her head against my chest all the way with the most relaxed, peaceful look on her face, as if every shred of sadness has been pulled from her. She holds herself up with her arms so I can open my door again, and I can't help but remember that January night again as I place Candace down on my favourite spot on the sofa. No alcohol this time but much more drama.
  798.  
  799.     “I'm gonna miss doing that. Carrying you in here... y'know, when we find a place together.” I shrug and move to the fridge, collecting the ingredients for the stew.
  800.  
  801.     “It's still gonna be a while, Max, don't worry.” Candace sighs and just reclines back in the chair.
  802.  
  803.     “Eh, maybe not as long as you think. It slipped my mind, but the dad of the girl you saved today?” I say and pull the business card from my pocket, handing it to her, “he owns a real estate firm. Promised he'd get us a place with no commission and probably a good rate.” She looks it over.
  804.  
  805.     “Huh... I'll have to give him a call when I get a chance. Not now or tomorrow though, fuck that. Pleasure before business. Oh, I'd best book the table for the double date, huh?”
  806.  
  807.     I settled into cooking the stew and only partially paid attention to Candace's conversation; enough to overhear the confirmation for the booking and Candace responding to Mr. Jackson asking if she was alright still. If I kinda felt guilty about imposing ourselves on the restaurant on our own day off, I really felt guilty doing it on Candace's sick day. At least it would let me settle accounts with Mr. Jackson for the food today and I feel a little awkward hoping Derek will cover the bill tomorrow.
  808.     Candace finishes her call and continues looking at her phone as I cook. I take a quick peak while she's distracted and I was pleasantly surprised... no, more at ease, I guess, to see she was staring at the website of a psychiatrist.
  809.     I put a hand on Candace's shoulder, and I smile as she put her hand over mine.
  810.  
  811.     “Don't get too excited; their opening hours say they're closed right now. I'll call them in the morning.” Candace says and gives my fingers a light squeeze.
  812.  
  813.     “I don't doubt it. Not for a second, Candy.” I reply, leaning over her. She tilts her head back and we clumsily manage an upside-down kiss. A little saliva drips out from the imperfect seal.
  814.  
  815.     “Ew...sorry Max. I fink dat buwwet maybe got a liddle bwain after all!” Candace puts on a plain, dead expression, letting her tongue flop about, yet can't help but crack a grin and a giggle.
  816.  
  817.     “Well, guess I'll have to set my self up for a life of helping you poop,” I say, trying to sound as serious as possible, “I'll add adult diapers to the regular shopping trip, get more napkins for the excessive drooling. Want me to mash up your food and spoon feed you? Now that I think about it, let's see if you need to go potty now...” I walk in front of her, reaching down as if to lift her by her waist, but instead of gripping, I start tickling her instead.
  818.     The reaction is immediate; she writhes in her seat and I straddle her, pinning her on the chair to keep her in place as she thrashes about.
  819.  
  820.     “No! St-stop! C-cut...it....” Candace laughs, squeaks and breathes in panicked gasps and tries to push me off, but she's at my mercy. Or she was; she manages to wrap a hand around two of my fingers and wrenches them back just enough to cause pain. The opening is enough for her to push me back onto my feet and away, making me bump the table. Candace practically dances behind me, dragging my arm with her, then she shoves and trips me face first onto the sofa, climbing on top of my back.
  821.  
  822.     “My turn!” Candace laughs in an exaggerated, sinister tone. She releases my arm and immediately sets upon her vile actions; she kisses the back of my neck and she reaches around onto my chest, forcing her hands between me and the sofa. She sighs softly and I feel her warm breath move from the the back of my hair around to my cheek, followed by her whiskers stroking along and finally her head resting beside mine.
  823.     Another spell of silence and loving contact, and once more I have to be the one to break it up as I hear the chicken sizzling in the pan.
  824.  
  825.     “Candace?” I whisper, “As much as I love this; I've gotta get on with dinner.”
  826.  
  827.     “Well good luck, champ, 'cause I ain't moving! And anyway, I'm not that hungry...” Candace says, but it's punctuated by a low purr from her stomach, “Okay, fine... but this is still more fulfilling.”
  828.  
  829.     “I'm not one to brag, but this'll be better, trust me.” I say and feel Candace slowly climb off. I stand and walk by her, locking gazes all the while. I'm not watching where I'm going and stumble around the corner of the sofa and Candace snickers at my less than elegant approach to the stovetop.
  830.  
  831.     Candace relaxes back on the sofa again, taking her damaged glasses off and putting them on the table as I slowly add the ingredients in sequence. It even gives me an excuse to crack open a bottle of white wine I've been saving for just such an occasion; I keep one just for cooking, but I don't like keeping an opened bottle around for long, so I take out a couple of normal glasses and pour us out a large drink each and place the glass next to Candace. I return, pour a good few glugs into the stew, then return to Candace with the bread from the restaurant.
  832.     She studies the glass and gives it a sip.
  833.  
  834.     “Ew, how do people drink this stuff? It tastes like fruity vinegar.” Candace sips it again regardless, although she gives me a funny look as I sniff my glass and sip it, savouring the sharpness and fruity tones on both senses.
  835.  
  836.     “Ah, it'll grow on you. Especially if we're gonna be living together, Candy.” I say. It still feels strange that just a few hours ago it made her so angry to say that; if she hadn't been so broken up a while ago, I'd almost say to not worry about her getting help as she seemed so at ease now.
  837.     I'll certainly have to think of a new 'term of engagement' that didn't let her make good on her joking threat to throw me out a window; it's almost wrong seeing her this calm and while I want her to get better, I'm not letting them snuff out that fire in her. Maybe I'm just being selfish and I'll have to live my life with a calm, passive Candace.
  838.  
  839.     The thought is pure fiction. There's no way that'll happen. I'm sure Candace just needs to take the edge off, not simply stop being angry. I'm worrying myself for nothing, I'm sure.
  840.     I dismiss the depressing idea of a meek Candace and finish cooking. The smell awakens my own appetite; a smokiness from chorizo wrapped in the aroma of rosemary and garlicky chicken; I make a note to be wary of kissing her after eating. I swear the idea of romantic dinners forget that detail.
  841.  
  842.     Dishing the stew up, and ensuring Candace gets a more than generous portion as I recalled Mr. Jackson's advice, I carry both bowls on one arm and my glass of wine in the other. Candace puts her drink down and smiles to me as she takes the bowl in my hand.
  843.  
  844.     “Other one.” I say with a smirk. She looks at it with a dumbfounded face.
  845.  
  846.     “Max, that's a bit much... what, you change your fetish from fitness to thickness?”
  847.  
  848.     I put my bowl down and hand the other one to her, then I sit down as close to her as possible so our hips almost touch.
  849.  
  850.     “Firstly, if I have a fetish, it's for hot as fuck rodere girls, especially bespectacled albino mouse ladies with adorable pink noses who can kick my ass.” I say as she gives me a huge smile; she puts her hand on my thigh and gives it a firm squeeze. I return the favour by pulling her in for a deep kiss, knowing the strong flavours will interfere once we start eating the stew, so I get my fill of her before...well, getting my fill of food.
  851.  
  852.     “Secondly, you've gotta eat hearty; Mr. Jackson's orders. Get your strength up.” I continue.
  853.     Candace is slow to start eating, but one taste and she starts gaining speed. I'm already enjoying the meaty, spicy, creamy, robust and warming fare and the occasional dunk of the bread. We eat in silence for the duration and Candace rests her head on my shoulder, as she always does, but then she rest the bowl on her lap and hooks her arm around mine before continuing. The sense of comfort is perfect.
  854.  
  855.     I finish my bowl, placing it on the table. It makes me glad when she forces the last few spoonfuls down; I have her trust once more and I swear to myself I'll never betray it again.
  856.     She sighs with relief, puts the bowl down and slouches back, stifling a burp. I lean against the armrest of the sofa and beckon Candace to me. She smiles and sidles over, reclining along the length of my body and I put my head on top of hers. I feel her tail coil around my leg as my hands gently rest on her belly, stroking in lazy circles and even the hard muscles of her form slacken against me, as if we're one body.
  857.     I turn the TV on, mostly as background noise; there's nothing good on, but that's okay. We stare at the screen for a few hours just drinking each other in.
  858.  
  859.     “What a day, huh?” Candace says suddenly, calm and quiet. She reaches up and runs a hand over my cheek as if she's just making sure I'm still there.
  860.  
  861.     “I know we kinda covered it already, but I'll say it again,” I whisper, brushing my chin against one of her fuzzy ears and making it flicker, “I'm sorry about how I treated you earlier. I really mean it.”
  862.  
  863.     “Forget it, Max, I forgive you.” Candace says and pulls my hands into both of hers, “If there's something I've had to learn today, it's not dwelling on shit and letting it eat at you or be all you push yourself on.
  864.     “But I still wanna follow my dad's example; I still wanna help people who need it, but I wanna do it on my terms. I need to be smart about things and not taking stupid risks, with you beside me. I don't care if I never get into another fight or a hundred, it won't matter; so long as you're there for me, I know it'll be alright.”
  865.  
  866.     “How many people can say they've saved three people's lives?” I say, shrugging, “You've done enough... but I guess life's just not that predictable, is it? And yeah, I know if my hero is beside me, I'm sure we can keep each other safe. Not sure if we gotta get matching costumes or whatever, though. Maybe get a mouse shaped spotlight for city hall?” I chuckle and Candace gives me a playful elbow in my side.
  867.  
  868.     “Har-de-har, Max,” Candace says and tilts her head so we can just about look into each others' eyes, “I'm not kidding, though. I still think about how I stood there and didn't help my dad... it was all I could think about all the time afterwards, like I had a debt to pay back and I had to do better.
  869.     “I don't know if I'll stop wanting to help people, or whatever the therapist is gonna change in me, but I refuse to be someone who stands in the circle and watches. Just like how I've been telling you; gotta assert yourself.”
  870.  
  871.     “Safely,” I add, “We're not gonna rush any more guys with a firearm.”
  872.  
  873.     “Yeah, yeah, I know. Like I told you, I didn't know the guy had a gun! I thought it was just a knife or something.” Candace gives me a funny look as I chuckle.
  874.  
  875.     “'Just a knife'?” I laugh and Candace gives me a pout, “get a load on the balls on you! How many grades of black belt do you need before you upgrade to 'just a gun', or 'just twenty guys'?” I get another light elbow in the rib.
  876.  
  877.     “Don't you worry about that, tough guy,” Candace snickers, “I'll tell you when you reach the 'I only wet myself a little' grade when you get into an argument with a little old lady.”
  878.  
  879.     We both laugh softly and just feel each other in silence for a while, Candace gulping down the rest of her wine as we do and I shut the TV off. All the joy I felt at the start of the day when all I could think of was spending time with Candace comes back, and I realise I'm back in the comfort of my own home so nobody can judge me. I sing gently;
  880.  
  881.                         “She'd play with her tail when she was young,
  882.                         she'd squeak all the high notes when we sung,
  883.                         but the cutest thing that she could be
  884.                         was always sitting next to me.”
  885.  
  886.     Candace looks up at me and clears her throat. We nod at each other and continue as one;
  887.  
  888.                         “The feel of skin on fur so fine,
  889.                         it was never like us to tow the line,
  890.                         if this ain't right, and as we squeeze,
  891.                         they'll never know the joys like these.
  892.                         'cause she's my rodere girl.”
  893.  
  894.     “My version's still better.” Candace chimes in, but I carry on and she quickly catches up.
  895.  
  896.                         “Sitting here together or lying here awake.
  897.                         a heart to heart and soul to soul,
  898.                         our lives together and vows to take,
  899.                         once far apart and now we're whole.”
  900.  
  901.                         “We'll stick together, as we dance and whirl,
  902.                         she's so special to me; she's a rodere girl.”
  903.  
  904.                         “We cross the threshold, two as one,
  905.                         this bond of ours can't be undone,
  906.                         we love each other, plain to see,
  907.                         against the world, just you and me.”
  908.  
  909.                         “Our lives ahead and hand in hand,
  910.                         it's just so simple to understand,
  911.                         our hearts are filled to full with joy,
  912.                         because after all I'm just a boy,
  913.                         with his rodere girl.”
  914.  
  915.                         “Sitting here together or lying here awake.
  916.                         a heart to heart and soul to soul,
  917.                         our lives together and vows to take,
  918.                         once far apart and now we're whole.”
  919.  
  920.                         “We'll stick together, as we dance and whirl,
  921.                         she's so special to me; she's a rodere girl,
  922.  
  923.                         “She's everything to me; she's my rodere girl.”
  924.  
  925.     The calm silence, the darkening sky, the feel of Candace against me. This is life at its best. I take the last drain of wine from my glass, sighing through my nose and the flavour enveloping my mouth. Candace sighs in return, and looks up at me again.
  926.  
  927.     “Wanna fuck?”
  928.  
  929.     I gag and spit the wine over the side of the sofa as Candace snorts and goes into her full goofy, guffawing laugh. I cough and try and get rid of the tickling in my throat as Candace calms down, wiping the tears from her eyes and we settle back down again.
  930.  
  931.     “So?” Candace asks, eagerness on her voice.
  932.  
  933.     “Well... I'm not gonna say no, am I?” I say, still a little hoarse from the coughing.
  934.  
  935.     We both stand and I kiss her fully on the lips; mostly I can taste alcohol and we wordlessly decide that'll be fine. We both walk straight into the bedroom while taking our clothes off. It's almost a competition, except Candace has less layers and I'm glad the blinds are already closed from her nap.
  936.  
  937.     I unbuckle my belt and start undoing the button only to panic for a moment when Candace wraps her arms around my waist and lifts me off the floor, growling with effort. She throws me on the bed as best she can and doesn't let me recover, yanking my pants off and leaping on me, straddling my hips.
  938.  
  939.     Looking at her toned, muscled body never stops getting exciting. The swell of her breasts over the subtle flex of her pectorals, the light clench of her abs, the bulge of her arms as she pins her hands on my shoulders and the simply the curvature of her body with every muscle group standing out on her white fur; it's too much and my dick gets hard in quick order, pressing against her, and that's before even touching her with my hands.
  940.  
  941.     Candace brings herself in close, kissing my neck and licking her way to my mouth, where I return the favour, kissing her deeply and feel her gently nibble on my lip. Her hand curls around my shoulder and supports herself on the mattress with the other, but I get more aggressive.
  942.     I begin stroking her slit with one hand and cup one of her breasts with the other. I'm not surprised she's already growing wet from her eagerness as she gasps and starts uttering a sweet, lustful tune of gasps as I feel her drip on my hand and manhood.
  943.  
  944.     We're so familiar now; this isn't like that first time with the tender, gentle and sweet love-making. Candace's confidence has grown to match her fire so she knows exactly what she wants now and it's always a demanding, rapturous fight of pleasure and strength.
  945.     I've disappointed her in the past as her wild actions have made me peak far before her, and I've already hurt her today so I want her primed and ready before my own needs are met. Just as she loves contact, I continue massaging her labia while my other hand roams her whole body with firm strokes, the extra attention making her call out in high, excited moans.
  946.  
  947.     I look at my bedside cabinet, my mind going to the condoms within before I get too lost in my lust, but Candace drags my face back to hers, licking her lips and a shaking of her head with a hungry smile; her longer hair tumbles about, surrounding her face and making her look wild. She clutches my roaming hand with hers and pushes herself up with my support. She's not finished either, as she grabs my other arm and pulls it from her engorging slit. She even runs a tongue over her juices in my hand before interlocking our fingers together, raising herself up before dropping herself inch by inch on my cock, riding cowgirl style.
  948.  
  949.     We've been bareback before, and I know she's good at remembering to take the pill, but I make sure to try and remember to warn her when I'm at my peak, but it won't be easy; the savage look in her eye tells me she's not gonna relent as she slides herself slowly back and forward on me, pulling my dick around as she grinds. I feel every inch of her folds; as she does this and I groan, and it only gets more intense as she begins bucking.
  950.  
  951.     “Oh! Fuck!! Aahh...” Candace cries out, burying herself in the sensation and her hair flowing from the movement. I can't even muster words, just breathing heavy and loud. Her weight pushing me down into the mattress in a steady, firm rhythm and the extra squeezing of her hands in mine make the rest of the day are overpowered in the now. The warmth around my cock, the slick and soft feeling of her oh-so familiar passage on each pass are at odds with the almost violent hammering Candace's body is subjecting me to; it's a fucking amazing contrast. Her strength is intoxicating, awe inspiring.
  952.  
  953.     I can already feel the pressure in my groin rising, and I'm just trying to get my thoughts together before I cum inside her, but then she stops and presses her full weight on my arms. It takes me a moment to realise she's swaying and unsteady.
  954.  
  955.     “C-Candice... you okay?” I manage to gasp.
  956.  
  957.     “Shit... light headed. Hold on...” she groans, her arms shaking as she tries to hold herself up.
  958.  
  959.     My worry drags me back from my plateau; she's clearly still suffering from the blood-loss. I catch my breath as she slowly recovers her senses.
  960.  
  961.     “Lemme take over... I promise you can have the next... three.” I say between heavy breaths.
  962.  
  963.     “Nnngh... deal.” she says, sounding disappointed and I pull her against me, slowly rolling over and trying to keep inside her. It's a lot harder than my still lust-addled brain can muster, and I slip out. Coming down from my arousal with my worry, I start forming a plan B and shock myself with how fast it spins together, some 'reading' I'd done last night on my phone for some inspiration.
  964.     I keep her facing down, and position myself on my knees behind her, teasing my dick against her eager, fully spread and engorged petals as I pull her hips up, running a hand along her tail and feeling the thin hairs on the wiry length.
  965.  
  966.     “Gotta look after my girl and her needs, right?” I say, stroking her back then give her ass a light slap and a squeeze, “you sure you're okay?”
  967.  
  968.     Candace nods and gives me an excited smile before facing down on the bed. I line myself up and begin thrusting, happy to feel her push against me as well; proof the light headedness was just a quick flutter and she's now in a position that lets me do the work. I feel the deep shudder of every push as our bodies collide, the subtle jiggle of the softer parts of her ass and her tail wriggles around, brushing against my body and the wet, slick sound of my penetration, every other push earning an loud gasp.
  969.     My excitement takes little time ramping up and I can't believe I'm plateauing again already, so I pull out and try and sober myself from the lust. I wrap my arms around her hips, meeting my hands by her engorged folds, and ease them wider, digging slowly deeper as I slowly part them and slowly plunge my digits inside while gently coaxing her button with my thumbs. Candace's squeak fills the room as she drags her claws against the bedding; thank fuck for clawproof sheets.
  970.  
  971.     The wet, slick sounds of her dripping snatch keep getting drowned out as each pass of my thumbs brushing against her engorged button makes Candace cry out in utter pleasure. She pushes her upper body from the bed and cranes her head skyward, back flexing. Her head thrashes about as she loses her mind against the pleasure and I can feel Candace's body tensing up, the feedback keeps my arousal firm and driven; I feel her clenching and she screams out, my hands get coated with her juices as she orgasms before her arms give, dropping her against the bed again.
  972.     She can't even speak, it's just babbling sweet, sweet nonsense.
  973.  
  974.     I'm not finished though, and I bet Candace has another climax in her thanks to that overpowering stamina of hers. I decide it's time to switch positions and I want to see her face. I flip her over and see her pink tinged cheeks and reddened ears, her eyes lidding and tongue lolling free and panting like a dog. I keep my already soaked fingers slowly running over her inner folds even as she finishes riding her orgasm and her rose-red eyes focus on mine, still lidding as I keep up the slow massage.
  975.  
  976.     “M-Max... fucking... wh-” she murmurs and I tap her clitoris with the lightest touch, causing her to shudder and yelp, mostly in pleasure but it seems she's a little sensitive.
  977.  
  978.     “Not yet...” I whisper, moving myself over her and slowly pushing myself into her once more. She grins before biting her lip and gives me a nod, and hooks her legs around me.
  979.  
  980.     “Alright... fuck me HARD.” Candace roars.
  981.     I'm not gentle; I know her well enough and push my dick back inside in as hard and fast as I dare, Candace's legs giving me just enough room to get a strong thrusting pace. I gasp as her arms not only wrap around my upper back, but I feel a strong searing pain from her raking claws; it's a good pain. I'm once more meeting hip to hip and I should probably be more careful, but the passion's too hot and I've been drinking in Candace's own pleasure. I doubt she'd let me go if I wanted; at this point, I'm feeling ready for the unlikely consequences. Fuck, I welcome them; it'll be a show to the world how much we love every inch of each other.
  982.  
  983.     Candace's clenches against my cock and once more I feel her honey gush out, this time running down my groin and testes; the warmth shoves me over the edge. She makes a long, hard squeal as I push her down into the bed with every scrap of my strength. I shout out, exploding within her as I cum in several surges, and finally weakness takes over.
  984.     I collapse beside her as we both gasp for breath in a sticky, blissful mess.
  985.  
  986.     “Fu....fucking....ah! Jesus fuck!” Candace lays with her arms and legs splayed out as I remain belly down and looking across at her. Her facial fur and hair is splayed all over the place, wet with her drooling, yet she's never been sexier in my eyes. I watch her stare at the ceiling, wide eyed and overstimulated, and I feel a lot less guilty about today.
  987.  
  988.     I can't say I was really thinking when I went that hard with a woman who's just had stitches in her head and suffered fainting spells from blood loss. Her slowly growing smile as her mind gets back in gear tells me it was a worthwhile gamble. Candace finally looks over at me.
  989.  
  990.     “Fucking hell, Max... that was... different.” She gasps the words.
  991.  
  992.     “What part?” I pant, “sorry, my head's not really... good for a play-by-play.” I manage a laugh.
  993.  
  994.     “The reach around thing with the fingers! I think that shyness is just a front,” she says with a toothy grin, “either that or I need to start looking at what you've been searching for online. I love that fucking perverted brain of yours!” She reaches for my hand and squeezes my fingers before I clasp her hand more firmly.
  995.     I make a mental note to make sure I clear my phone's private tabs. Or maybe I'll show her exactly what I've been checking on to keep this unstoppable woman sated. I can't think what would be more fun; the surprise or the inspiration it might cause.
  996.     “More than anything else, though... I love all of you, Max.”
  997.  
  998.     “Happy to please. I love you too, just gimme a sec...” I say, slowly getting the strength back in me.
  999.  
  1000.     “I've gotta step up my game, though... hmm.” Candace's expression shifts a little, a subtle and devious smile forming and I watch as she lowers her other hand, dipping it into her completely soaked vagina. I go wide eyed as she pulls a sticky strand up to her mouth and licks, making a slightly confused face as she does; as sated as I am, I can't help but feel a shiver go up my spine.
  1001.  
  1002.     “Okay, not gonna lie. That's pretty fucking hot. If you wanna start using that quick mouth of yours in another way...?” I say, leaving the implication unfinished and start slowing my breathing.
  1003. Candace gives me a wink.
  1004.  
  1005.     “Might need to get used to the taste, but I'll think about it,” she says but then winces, looking at my shoulder, “oh... less fun fluids on you. Sorry, Max.”
  1006.     I wonder what she's talking about before I notice a red spot on my bed and a streak on my shoulder. I release her hand and roll on my side. I run my hand as far as I can reach on my back, seeing the blood on my fingers from her earlier raking.
  1007.  
  1008.     “Damn. I was that good, huh?” I say with a wink and Candace grabs my bloodied hand with hers, squeezing my fingers. It's all I need to know. I recover enough to climb off of the bed while keeping her hand in mine, and help her stand.
  1009.     We'll take every step together, I know this right now, in all things and I know that I couldn't ask for more in life.
  1010.     Everything together, and on this night, that includes a shower.
  1011.  
  1012.                                                             Two months later...
  1013.  
  1014.     “Hi Mom. Hi Dad,” Candace says, “it feels weird saying that; even when I'm talking to Aunt Beatrice or Uncle Derek I still keep falling over the words and mixing them up. Guess it's gonna be a while to adjust still, huh? I'm getting professional help again. It's just as annoying as I remember it, but Max says I've been really doing well, and that's all that matters.”
  1015.     We stood in the brilliant sunshine of a grand old cemetery, in front of two headstones; Winston and Allison Edwards, side by side, with a small bunch of flowers placed on each we had picked up on the way here. Candace fiddles with her hands and I see them trembling. I was respecting her wishes by standing a short distance away; she wanted to do this by herself but it didn't stop my heart from aching by watching her stand alone as she bared her soul.
  1016.  
  1017.     “My therapist said it would help if I...” she says, hesitating and mulling the words over, “'aired some grievances' with you, if that's alright? I'll probably be all over the place, but I think I know how to say it. Fu-... uh... goodness knows I've gone over it in my head enough times since I agreed I'd talk to you about it. So... here goes.
  1018.     “Dad? I love you, and I always will... but what you did to Beatrice and Derek wasn't fair. You made them take on a burden they couldn't hope to hold forever, and every day it festered in them. It was... fuck it, I'm gonna be honest with myself here. It was a dick move!”
  1019.     I wince and look around, glad that there's only a couple of people at a fair distance. That was the first sign of her breaking; she said she would be respectful, but I can't blame her for failing to keep from being more natural. Even if I'm nearby, I have no doubt she's blocking out the world and isolating herself, making her feel more anxious.  
  1020.  
  1021.     “You told me to be strong, assertive. I followed that, believed it to my core, and it's done me a lot of good. But if you really expected me to be strong, when would I have been strong enough for the truth? I know you were only trying to protect me, but you knew I was trying my hardest in everything I did, yet you hid the truth as if I wouldn't also understand. I'll never know why, and it... um... I'm sorry...I...”
  1022.     Candace covers her face and I step towards her. She first gestured for me to stop, but as soon as her wet eyes catch mine, she drops her arms and she walks to me, pulling me back to where she was standing. I put my arm around her shoulders and she presses herself against me. My girlfriend immediately calms as soon as she's in contact with me and her breathing slows, becoming smooth and steady before she faces the graves once more.
  1023.  
  1024.     “I know what it's like not being in control. You had Pariah syndrome too; Aunt Beatrice told me. You were scared of being alone and you couldn't bear the thought of losing me. You needed someone close or you'd just get frightened or angry at everything, and sometimes we don't really see those around us as friends except those special few.
  1025.     “I'm just lucky I've got Max. I don't know if you remember him; he came to most of my birthday parties but never really stood out and I remember he was a little scared of you. Hell, we all were. Guess that's something we have in common; scaring those we love because we're unpredictable and intense.”
  1026.     I kiss her on the cheek, looking at the scar on her temple. It's healed nicely, only a little bare line and it's almost fully covered by her recently trimmed, bobbed haircut. Candace looks at me and studies my face, seeming to come to a conclusion before once more facing her parents at rest.
  1027.  
  1028.     “And Mom? I never knew you, but... I know if Dad was hurt that much by you passing away, you must have been something special. Aunt Beatrice says you were a really patient, loving person, just like Max is to me; he puts up with so much shit with me over these past months, I hope I can return the favour and make it worthwhile to him.” I squeeze her shoulder; she owes me nothing but I don't want to interrupt her.
  1029.     “Tsk... there I go, judging myself unfairly again. Dr. Ashton says it's one of my biggest burdens to throw off. It really messes with my ability to grow as a person but I think I'm getting past the worst of it.”
  1030. Her hand covers mine and I decide to move behind her, holding her against me and our hands locking together in a single bunch.
  1031.  
  1032.     “I'm rambling, sorry. I just hope you can be a little more at peace now that I know the truth. I'm keeping in contact with Beatrice and Derek more, keeping them closer. But I guess I said what needed to. I made the mistake of holding you up as a perfect example, but we're all flawed. It's just learning how to accept the flaws as much as the good.
  1033.     “I'll leave it there. Thanks for listening, Mom. Dad. Look after each other, and don't worry about me. I'm in a real good place.”
  1034.  
  1035.     I feel Candace pull from me slightly and I release her, but she keeps a hold of one of my hands as we walk out of the cemetery together.
  1036.  
  1037.     “So much for being strong,” Candace sighs, “but thanks for letting me try.”
  1038.  
  1039.     “I'm proud of you regardless,” I say, “You're really taking on Dr. Ashton's advice on the chin, even the difficult stuff.”
  1040.  
  1041.     “It's not difficult, it's just... sobering, I guess?” Candace says and shrugs, “It shows how much of a fuck up I was as a kid, ignoring half of what was told to me like I was the toughest bitch on the block.”
  1042.  
  1043.     “Firstly, you ARE the toughest girl I know; always were and always will be, “ I chuckle, “secondly; we all made dumb mistakes as kids. We all thought differently then, feeling invincible or weak and you were still coming to terms with losing a loved one. Nobody reacts the same way. You pulled through though, and nobody cares if you needed help.”
  1044.  
  1045.     We walk our way home; our new place in the suburbs. Nothing grand or huge, but it's a nice little house all for the two of us. Derek fronted us some cash in light of what happened two months ago to get Candace out of that neighbourhood, and Frank Haines was a man of his word in getting us the place for far less than we could have afforded on such a short period.
  1046.     It's a nice house; recently refurbished, two floors and two bedrooms, nice little gardens, front and back and plenty of space. I doubt the second bedroom will be used for a while yet, but we had our first talk about kids.
  1047.     Okay, said talk was pretty much how we would have been fine with letting things take their course if Candace fell pregnant when we didn't take every precaution that day two months ago, but thankfully Candace is good at her routine. We're being a bit more careful for the moment, but it was great to know she's been thinking about it too.
  1048.  
  1049.     We enter and I set about finishing my unpacking in the master bedroom. I rack some of my older clothes next to my new chef whites; turns out Candace's been talking about my culinary offerings to Mr. Jackson and has been since we got together. The shrewd bastard even put me to task with his offer of 'take out', turning an act of kindness into an opportunity; he didn't ask for payment for the food but he insisted I explain the cooking process of what I made and seemed sufficiently interested in what I was really capable of.
  1050.     I don't mind though; it pays a little better and it's giving me something new to learn. The other chefs have been pretty accepting of a novice in their ranks with no real experience, and the front of house is still being run under the iron grip of Queen Candace the Terrible to great effect; she's even more confident in her leadership and continues to grow every day.
  1051.  
  1052.     I hear Candace enter the bedroom and stop. I'm already predicting her actions; I'd put money on a slap on my ass. I'm actually surprised when I get a gentle pull on my arm and I turn to her, receiving a tender kiss before she picks up some towels and heads back towards the landing.
  1053.     Of course she whips one of the towels against my ass and winks when I look over my shoulder. She's less angry, she's more in control, but I'm more relieved than anything that she's still Candace. Most evenings are spent poking fun at one another but it's always in good humour. I'm getting better at keeping pace.
  1054.  
  1055.     I finish setting up my side of the clothes rack and pass down the hall to head downstairs, only to look through the bathroom doorway. Candace is looking at herself in the mirror, up close. I've seen her do this before and it would often pull her mood down. All her doubts given a visible form.
  1056.     Instead, as one; with mine at her, and Candace's at her reflection.
  1057.     We both smile.
  1058.  
  1059.                                                             The End
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