"Epilogue: Breaking Points"
Author's Notes: This chapter will be a little longer than some of the others, and it gets pretty emotional in a few parts. Well, what did you expect for the aftermath of a kidnapping? My apologies if it drags a little, but where I had writer's block before, this time I had the opposite problem. Too many ideas!
Stellar and his family headed for home in silence. Connie and Hope were in one car, and the three males were in the other, Pace strapped securely in his car seat. Stellar drove mechanically, wondering how he himself would react when the shock wore off and he was able to feel again. This time his daughters had cut it much too close, but at the same time they had saved their brother's life. Before he decided what to do, he wanted to get the entire story from them. Maybe he should wait until Regal got home before he tackled the matter at all...
They landed in their driveway, and the five of them trooped silently into the house. Stellar sat down in an armchair with Pace in his arms, and motioned for his daughters to sit on the couch. Chance, sensing that this was his cue, headed for the kitchen to get himself a plate of cookies. Stellar didn't say a word. He simply sat there and stared off into space until his daughters began to fidget uncomfortably.
"Dad..." Connie began.
Stellar looked at her, and sighed. "What you did today was very brave...and very dangerous. You could have been killed..."
Connie looked incredulous. "I should have stayed at home, then? Let No Heart take Pace when I had a chance to save him?"
"You should have called someone." said Stellar. "Don't get me wrong, Connie...I'm proud of you. But..."
Connie's nerves had been stretched as taut as the hide on a drum, and she finally snapped. She really and truly lost her temper, and her poor father was unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of it. "But what? You can't tell me you wouldn't have done it in our place! I would gladly risk my life if it meant keeping my family safe! Oh no, don't even ask us for the particulars, just point your finger and say 'Bad Connie, bad, bad, bad'!"
"Connie..." Stellar held up a paw placatingly, but it was too late. The dam had broken, and all the frustration and fear that had built up inside Connie that day came out in a tidal wave of anger. As Connie's tirade picked up steam, Hope discreetly walked over and took Pace from her father, leaving the room so that the already-traumatized cub wouldn't become frightened by the noise.
"I'm an adult, Dad, and if I want to risk my life that's my prerogative! See? I'm even using big words now! Oh, and guess what? I can say my ABC's too! I'm not a kid anymore!" she yelled.
Stellar met her gaze steadily, trying to hide the fact that she was actually beginning to scare him a little. In an attempt to keep (or gain) control of the situation, he stood up to give himself the height advantage. "Maybe not, but I'm still your father. I love you, and I want all my children to be safe. And you are still a kid when you use that tone."
"No Heart had a knife!" she yelled, "He was casting some sort of weird spell when we got there! If we'd just stayed at home, or if we'd just stayed in one spot at the castle, I don't even want to think about what might have happened! You think you know everything, but you don't! We saved your son's life today, and we're being lectured for it!"
"Will you just calm down for a minute-" he began.
"I will not calm down!" she snapped.
"I'm not lecturing you, Connie, I'm just trying to get to the bottom of things." Stellar told her, trying to keep his voice level. The thought of No Heart standing over his son with a knife sent an icy chill down his spine. He understood what was bothering Connie, but at the same time she was blowing things out of proportion. "Now, let's just sit down and talk about this, calmly. I understand that you..."
"You understand nothing!" she fairly roared. Pace began to cry upstairs, his own frazzled nerves still easily giving way.
"Lower your voice." Stellar said firmly.
"I don't have to lower my voice!" she shot back, teetering on the brink of hysteria.
"As long as you're living under this roof, you'll lower your voice when I tell you to. You're scaring your brother." he said.
Connie had the sense to see that she was going a little too far now. But it didn't seem to her like anyone was on her side at this point. Hope had been there, but she was upstairs with the baby. It was the 'as long as you're under my roof' speech that finally pushed her over the brink. She took a deep breath, and said in a surprisingly calm voice, "Well, then...maybe it's time I moved out."
Stellar went wide-eyed and pale, and he felt as if his head was floating a few inches above his body. A dull pain hit his heart like a small depth charge. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before he was able to croak out the words, "Move...out?"
Connie turned from him and headed for the front door. "I'm going for a walk."
Stellar would have stopped her, he wanted to stop her, but he was too stunned to move or speak. He didn't react as the door slammed, and he simply stood there, the words echoing in his head. 'Moved out-out-out...maybe it's-maybe it's time-time-time I moved out-out-out...' Pace's crying had subsided by now, and Stellar lowered himself into his chair as the strength went out of him. His paws felt cold and clammy, and he could hear his heartbeat hammering in his ears. How had things gotten out of control so quickly? He didn't know what he had said to set her off like that, but that didn't matter. He had said it, whatever it was, and now...Now he was going to lose her.
Stellar's vision blurred as tears filled his eyes, and he leaned his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his paws. This was how Regal found him not two minutes later, shaking silently and every now and then giving a sharp, hoarse sob.
"Stel? Honey, what's the matter?" she asked, walking over to him and putting an arm around his shaking shoulders.
"The kids..." he began, wanting to explain to her what had happened but finding it difficult to speak. Regal blanched.
"Are the kids okay?" When he nodded, she sighed in relief. "Then what is it?"
"Connie wants to...to m-move out!" he sobbed, losing it completely. "We-we had a-a fight, and, and, and..."
"Okay, okay, calm down..." Regal said soothingly, rubbing his back as she got him a tissue with her free paw. "Maybe she just said it in anger, but didn't really mean it..."
He drew a hitching breath, and tried to compose himself. He accepted the tissue, dried his eyes, and blew his nose. "She seemed pretty d-darned serious..."
"She usually does." she told him, wiping his cheeks with her thumbs. "I'll make a pot of chamomile tea, and you can tell me what happened. We'll talk to Connie, and we should be able to work this out."
"Yeah...yeah...okay." he nodded, sniffling. By the time she brought him his tea, he had calmed down significantly and was a little more rational.
"Tell me what happened..." Regal prompted him gently. And so he did. He told her about the kidnapping and how their daughters had been temporarily transformed into humans. He told her what the twins had told him on the way out, how they had taunted the sorcerer and stalled him until they had changed back. He told her how close it had been with Connie, how she had barely had time to Call a mirror to deflect the lightning bolt that would most likely have killed her. Regal listened intently throughout the entire explanation, speaking only when he fell silent. "Oh my stars...And Pace is okay? He's safe? I'll be right back."
Stellar nodded as she got up, and watched as she hurried upstairs to verify for herself that Pace was fine. He heard his wife talking to Hope, and a moment later Regal appeared again with Pace in her arms. Upon seeing his son, and realizing what had almost happened, he bit his lip and looked away. It had been Connie and Hope who had saved this baby from No Heart's cruelty, and instead of thanking them he had scolded them. Seeing that he was near tears again, Regal sat down beside him and didn't touch him. She knew from experience that if he was this upset, hugging him would only cause him to lose whatever composure he was holding on to.
"Okay...I know everything up until the fight you said you had with Connie..."
Stellar sighed and nodded, then went on to tell her what had taken place. That didn't take long at all, and when he finished he was staring at his folded hands. "It's my own fault she decided to leave...it's just...I'm so proud of them because of what they did, but at the same time it just...terrified me. If it hadn't worked, it wouldn't have just been a matter of losing Pace...we would've lost them too, and I couldn't stand it if that happened. I mean, she's right...if they hadn't acted as quickly as they did...And even though I didn't think I was scolding her, that's what I was doing...I pushed her away, I made her want to leave her own home, and it's my own fault..." he choked, his chin quivering a little as he tried desperately to keep himself under control. A moment later he shook his head, lowering his face to his paw. Regal put her arm around him now, rocking him slightly as she kept a careful grip on Pace.
"It wasn't your fault. And it's by no means a definite that she's leaving." she said quietly, "What they did was ultimately the right choice, I think, but it was also rash and dangerous. None of that matters now...they're safe, that's what's important. And when you think about what they had to deal with today, it was building for some time. Getting told about it was just the straw that broke the camel's back. She won't leave, not if I know her."
"I should have..."
"No." she said firmly. "What's done is done. You weren't wrong, you were just trying to be a good father. She shouldn't have talked to you like that, but she was upset. I'll try calling her on her cell phone, and we'll work this out."
"For now..." he mumbled, "But she'll eventually want to move out for real, if this isn't that time already..."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." she said. He nodded, and she got up to use the phone when she was sure he'd be all right. In truth, she was a lot more shaken than she was letting on. She might have had a few things to say to Stellar if he hadn't been so upset; she had always had a soft spot for people who were crying, especially if those people were close to her. And it really wasn't his fault. Connie had simply reached her breaking point.
Connie was some distance from her home before she stopped to get her bearings. She'd had no particular destination in mind, but she knew she had to get out of that house before she said something really cutting. 'Why do I keep getting like this?' she thought ruefully. It seemed that the longer she lived under her parents' roof as an adult, the more fights they seemed to have. It seemed like they weren't even the ones having the fights; it was more like the fights were having them. If this was what she had to look forward to in her adult life, living at home with her parents, wouldn't it be better to move out? At the same time, she knew she wasn't ready to be out on her own. But what else could she do? If she went 'crawling back', that would make her look weak, if only in her own eyes.
Hadn't she and Hope done the right thing by hurrying to stop No Heart? She certainly thought so! Pace was safe because of them. She needed to talk to someone, and badly. But who? She saw that she was standing in front of Soulful Heart's house, and considered knocking. She had confided in him a few times before, and she sort of saw him as an uncle...On the other hand, she had to catch him on a good day, or there was simply no talking to him at all. Was this a good day?
"Who gives a darn?" she muttered, walking up to the door and hesitating before knocking. A moment later, Soulful Heart whipped open the door and glared out at her. "Um..." she cleared her throat. This wasn't good. He was definitely in one of his 'snarky' moods. It was too late to back out now, and all she could do was move forward with it.
"What?" he snapped.
Connie felt her throat begin to constrict as she stammered, "I...I wanted...I need to talk to-"
Before he could stop himself, Soulful Heart interrupted her. "I don't have time to waste talking to children!"
The word 'children' sliced through her like a knife, and even as a look of horror dawned on his face she felt a sob building in her chest. She put a paw over her mouth to stifle it, but it wouldn't be stifled. Before she could stop herself she had begun to cry.
"Oh Connie, I..." Soulful floundered helplessly for something to say, but this time she was the one to cut him off.
"Shut up! Okay? Just shut up! Is-isn't it enough that ev-everyone else thinks I'm a kid, but you-you have to rub it in! Who needs you anyway!" And with that, she turned and fled.
"Connie, wait!" he called, jumping off the porch and running after her, "Please! I'm sorry!"
Connie stopped, but only because she couldn't see where she was going. "Just...just leave me al-alone..."
"I just...had a really rough day..." he offered weakly. Big mistake. She rounded on him, and seemed torn between crying and laughing hysterically.
"My day could beat your day to pieces!"
"You...you said you wanted...to talk..." he forced the words out, though the last thing he wanted now was to be involved in a shouting match with her, one he was bound to lose because he felt guilty about upsetting her.
"Well, I ch-changed my mind!" she informed him, turning to stalk off again.
"I'll listen." he told her.
"Pace was kidnapped." she said abruptly.
"What!" he paled.
"Hope and I rescued...him. Then Dad gets all high and mighty about how we should have called for help, and...So then I said I'd move out, and...and..." she faltered, beginning to break down again. The fox hesitated before reaching out and patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. She shrugged him off. He bit his lip, feeling tears beginning to gather in his eyes and hating himself for it. He didn't trust himself to speak, so he just turned and slowly began to walk away.
Connie heard him going, and turned. Both fights had started with someone losing their temper, and she had started the first one. She might as well be the one to smooth over the second one. "Sorry I lost it. Listen, I better go home...See you later?"
Soulful didn't answer her or turn around, but he raised one paw in a non-committal gesture. He had to go inside soon, or he was really going to embarrass himself.
Connie sighed as he closed his door, and she was beginning to head for home when her cell phone rang. She dug it out of her purse, cleared her throat, and answered. "Hello?"
"Connie?" said Regal, "Are you all right?"
"I...don't know." Connie said truthfully.
"Connie...please, come on home. You sound upset, and your father's in tears. I really think the two of you should talk."
Connie sighed, closing her eyes. "I'm already on my way home...you can tell him I'm not moving out, I just...lost it, I guess."
"Good..." Regal sighed, "That's good..."
A few more words were exchanged, and Connie put her phone away again. Sparing one last look at Soulful's house, she thought she saw the drapes move a little. She sighed, muttering to herself as she headed for home. "Seems like I'm always apologizing to someone..." She made a mental note to talk to Soulful Heart the next day, whether he was friendly to her or not.
No Heart awoke several hours after his near-fatal electrocution, wrinkling his nose at the scent of burnt cloth. He slowly opened his eyes, sitting up painfully as he tried to remember where he was and what he was doing. He saw the cauldron, now gone still and cool, and he saw the altar. He was beginning to remember what had happened, and he slowly got to his feet. A simple glance told him that the ligers were gone, and that his plan had failed. Again. The potion was useless, incomplete. After staring at the cauldron for a long time, No Heart suddenly lashed out and tipped it over with his foot. Viscous orange liquid spread across the stone floor, but No Heart didn't mind. After all, he didn't have to clean it up.
Author's Note: Sorry to end it there, but this was really supposed to be the aftermath from the liger family's point of view. No Heart's thoughts might or might not be touched on in a future story.