Stray Stallions
By Azimuth

Part One


Nightstripe's first awareness was of the gentle breath on hir face, the stroking of hir fur.  The chakat half-opened hir eyes, savoring the warmth of hir denmate's body, unwilling to twitch a whisker more at first for fear of losing the moment.  A purr slowly made its way out of hir body as Gracelegs licked hir face and kneaded hir back.  The two pushed closer together, Nightstripe returning the caresses and reaching down to pet hir lover's belly.  Only then did shi notice the tremendous erection Gracelegs had given hir. Nightstripe growled low and rolled on top of hir, burying hir face in Graceleg's bosom.

As shi licked her way slowly down Graceleg's upper body, hir mate smiled down at her.  "Stripe Love, I could stay here all day," Shi shivered as Nightstripe moved back up to tease hir nipples, "but you have a long... mmm, drive ahead, and your new client won't appreciate your being late."  Grace stroked hir silvery hair, while hir handpaws kneaded and massaged Stripe's black-furred, grey-striped body.

Stripe looked up, hir eyes half closed and clouded with sex.  "He'll like it even less if I show up with a raging hardon, you know."  Shi smiled, licked her chops and went back to hir ministrations.  Gracelegs was away at university far too often for Stripe to pass up any opportunity, and even when shi spoke reprovingly, Stripe found hir Australian accent incredibly sexy.

"You never know, he might take it as a compliment," Grace replied, grinning.  Shi leaned back, soaking in hir lover's touch. "Imagine what my parents would say if they knew I was mated to such a layabout." They both stopped and giggled, knowing full well that Stripe was the serious and responsible one of the pair.

"Pfft," Stripe said, "okay, okay, I'll go.  But you'd better be close by when I get home, or you're likely to find me wrapped around the neighbors."  Shi moved up as Grace giggled again, and the two traded several lick-kisses before Stripe slowly leaned back from hir mate, running hir hands through Grace's fur the whole time and admiring hir sleek form.  Shi stopped with Grace's hind paws in each hand, keeping hir legs spread and unwilling to let hir stand.  Grace tried to wriggle loose, then batted Stripe's nose with the brown tuft on the end of hir strong tail.

Stripe reluctantly let hir go, and Grace rolled backwards onto hir head and hands, smoothly flipping out of bed and to hir feet.  Stripe watched hir stretch in a practiced, almost ritualistic way, unlimbering every muscle.  Shi both adored and envied Grace's ease of movement, and every ripple of motion through hir mate's body sent a thrill up hir spines.

The two made their way from the denroom, Stripe stroking Grace's lion's-hide fur and dark hair.  "If I have to be on time, you know what that means," shi said.

"Oh no," Grace rolled hir eyes and groaned dramatically.

"Yep, you get to make breakfast."

The morning passed far too quickly.  Stripe tried to eat fast, but found hirself continually distracted by Grace's teasing moves.  ir eyes followed every movement hir mate made, and it took at least a dozen tries just to reread the notes shi had taken on her scheduled meeting that morning.  Grace had put on an apron with a ridiculous slogan about hot dogs and an accompanying picture, and shi would pull it back and flash Stripe every time shi tried to pay attention to hir food.  Something rammed Stripe's leg, and shi reached down to rub a tiny furry head.

"I see the world's laziest cats have finally woken up," shi said, reaching down with hir other hand so shi could pet Flapjack and Sassy at the same time.  The two circled hir handpaws, mewing loudly, then beelined for Grace as shi put down a food dish for them.  "Traitors," Stripe remarked, and stuck out hir tongue at them.

"Quit giving me ideas," Grace said, waving hir own tongue as shi turned back towards the stove.

"So says the temptress hirself.  So, how are you going to occupy yourself without me all morning?"

"Melinda's coming over to help me pick songs for Saturday, but I hope to ravish her about halfway through," Grace winked.  "Cam will join us later, but we should be back from lunch before you get done.  obody else can make it before the weekend.  I hate that you have to go."

Stripe sighed and chewed on hir fork.  "I know.  our first day back too.  But it's supposed to be urgent. This Dr. Mayhew is a friend of my boss, and I'm being given two extra days off just for delaying my vacation."  Shi grinned lasciviously.  "Two entire days of pinning you down."

"Well, I don't altogether mind that . . .but why you?  Don't they have anyone to cover?"  Grace sat beside hir and stole toast from hir plate.

"I asked him that myself.  All he could tell me was that Mayhew wanted 'someone with people skills and preferably not a human'.  I got the idea that the doctor might have told him more, but he couldn't pass it along."  Stripe paused to take a long sip of tea.

"Mmm, very mysterious," Grace said.  "And it's at a ..." Shi glanced at Stripe's datapad, "drug clinic?  Seems odd that they'd need you."

Stripe considered that, not for the first time.  It hadn't seemed strange at first, but the more shi thought about it, the more shi wondered.  Shi was a financial advisor for an accounting firm, with some background in estate planning.  Presumably shi was going to see a patient, not a staff member, or shi wouldn't have been asked to travel to the clinic.  But anyone in treatment there and unable to leave should have had a legal guardian, or at least someone with power of attorney.

"Well, I'll know why in two hours.  I might not be able to tell you though, love," shi said to Grace, "I understand I might have to sign a confidentiality agreement, and it wouldn't be ethical to tell anyway."

Grace put on hir best pouty face.  "Fine then, take away all my good gossip."  Shi stuck out hir tongue again, then relented as Stripe dove at hir mouth.

"Gimme that!" Stripe demanded, pulling hir into a deep kiss.  Shi pulled away after an oh-so-short minute.  "You better rest that wagging tongue, my love.  You're going to need every inch of it," Stripe teased as shi pulled a smart jacket over hir blouse and reluctantly headed towards the door.

*       *       *

I pulled away, Nightstripe blew a kiss out the window of hir PTV, then adjusted hir mirrors to keep Gracelegs in sight as long as possible.  Shi rounded a corner, waved at several neighbors, and made for the highway.  Soon shi was sailing along with a ninety-minute drive ahead of hir.  Shi started to play a disc of classical music, then changed hir mind and listened to hir messages and the weather report instead.

Away from Grace, hir mood soured a bit.  Hir denmate was finally on spring break, and they were going to spend the first day apart.  At least Grace was understanding.  Shi was barely half Stripe's age, but underneath all the teasing was a very mature chakat.  he couple had their finances planned several years in advance now, hoping to move to a home large enough to raise cubs properly as soon as Grace graduated.  They each needed an office, somewhere large enough for Stripe to meet clients and Grace to be able to do holodrafting and architectural planning from home.  Grace's parents, Wink and Dewcup, had been amazingly helpful, keeping hir in enough petty cash to cover food and incidentals while shi was at school.  Shi was frugal though, which Stripe knew was against hir nature, skipping movies or shopping and banking the small amounts shi made singing occasionally with hir friends from college.  The only huge expenses they had were calls and trips to Melbourne to visit Grace's family, and those had already been calculated into the plan.

Stripe's chest swelled with love as shi thought about how much hir mate had sacrificed the last two years to stay with hir.  They had met while Stripe was taking a long overdue vacation, literally bumping into one another at an outdoor concert, and hadn't left one another's sight for the rest of hir vacation.  Stripe had gone back home, thousands of miles away, rather regretfully, and they called one another frequently, when one would be lying awake thinking about the other.  Stripe had had other companions, but no one to whom shi had made a commitment, and shi cherished those conversations.

Then Grace showed up on hir front lawn one morning, looking fresh as a daisy despite a long flight.  That wonderful creature had secretly transferred to a university in the States with hir parents' help, and managed to come within a two-hour drive of Stripe's home.  he two had spent long minutes kissing, cuddling and petting before Stripe managed the willpower to get them inside.

Now they usually spent weekends and vacations together, staying close to home to get in as much private time as possible.  Weekends were always too rushed.  Grace had quite a bit of schoolwork to take care of, and a long drive back.  ut vacations were like dreams for them both.  Stripe desperately wanted to move closer to hir lover's campus, but leaving before hir lease expired would cost hir quite a bit, and apartments in that area became progressively more expensive as one got closer to the university.  And so they waited. Thankfully the lease would be up in only a few months, but they were still undecided on whether shi should move then.  either choice fit both their needs and desires.

Stripe blinked as she turned east into the sun, then pulled down the visor to get the light out of hir eyes.  Hir eyes widened as shi found half a dozen photographs hidden on the visor, pictures of Grace in provocative poses.  "So that's why shi borrowed my camera last week," Stripe said to hirself, trying to look at the road and the photos simultaneously, "thank God I broke my sunglasses."  Shi punched a button on the console, turning off the news in favor of hir classical collection.  he trip went by quickly after that.

A little over an hour later, shi pulled onto a long strip of road that took hir well away from the noise and bustle of traffic.  Shi didn't pass any other cars, and drove slowly, enjoying the well-kept lawns and small patches of trees as shi went by.  Stripe opened hir windows and breathed deep, taking in the scent of fresh-cut grass and pine.  The Alicia Tatherson Memorial Clinic was large and clean, at least on the outside, consisting of a small collection of white buildings apparently converted from a manor house with extra wings added.  Shi noted that one wing had barred windows as shi pulled around to a visitors' parking lot.  Folk walked here and there in groups of about half a dozen, cleaning the lawn, washing cars, or just sitting and picnicking.  As shi stepped out of hir vehicle, Stripe caught the scent of manure.  Shi glanced around and saw a pasture some distance away, with a pair of horses being tended by another group of humans and morphs.

After a brief wait at the front desk, Stripe was shown to a spacious office and left alone.  he place was roomy, but, shi noticed, not showy in any way.  The furniture was presentable but quite old, and had been repainted many times.  It was impeccably clean though, every corner and nook washed and dusted.  After several minutes, an older human came in whose face matched some of the photographs shi had seen on one wall.

"You must be Shir Nightstripe," he said, extending his hand.  "I'm Doctor Chad Mayhew.  Thank you so much for coming on short notice."

Stripe took his hand in hirs.  Shi had never quite gotten used to this ritual, but despite its formality, shi knew it could carry its own kind of emotion at times.  Shi had long been determined to learn the intricacies of a handshake. "A pleasure, Doctor Mayhew. I was glad to come, even more so now that I've seen this lovely place."

They both sat, Stripe on a large cushion, Mayhew at a small table to one side rather than behind his large desk.  "I understand you're supposed to be away from work right now, so I'll attempt to be brief. There are a few complexities here," Mayhew said as he handed hir a datapad.  "Your client's information is there.  Please just touch the scanbar to agree to confidentiality on his case.  He's technically a ward of the state, but it's a little muddled and we have to keep all the paperwork up to date to avoid any questions of responsibility."  Shi gave hir consent after reading the form, and the screen changed, showing a photo of a dark colored Quange along with a personal data file.  Aspen Jared Rider, age 17, height 1.85 meters (withers)/2.92 meters (head), weight 930 kilograms (est.), hair brown (white mane), eyes brown, distinguishing features: see medical history . . .

Stripe refreshed the screen and reread the information.  Those numbers didn't sound right at all.  Shi looked up at Dr. Mayhew as he continued.

"Aspen came to us some time after his parents died.  He's been here for four months since recovering from a truck accident.  His lengthy and complicated hospital stay and his treatment here have severely depleted his estate."  Mayhew picked up a second datapad and looked it over.  "I was only recently made aware of how dire his situation had become.  Although he had been remanded to us for treatment, his legal custody resided with Child Welfare, and they didn't see fit to pass all his files along to us."  His voice betrayed his impatience with bureaucracies.

Stripe had already skipped to the files Mayhew had mentioned.  "I see," shi said, after glancing at them.  "They used the estate to pay his bills, and are still doing so."  Shi checked insurance policies, but those had already been tapped.  "Shouldn't his care be without charge though?  thought most medical costs were subsumed by the government, and he is a minor."

Mayhew sighed. "Normally they would be, but at some point along the chain a decision was made to cover the expenses with the accounts left to him.  His status as a ward of the state meant that those accounts did not actually belong to him.  It might be possible to get the money back, but it's going to be a lengthy process, and in the meantime he's going to lose a large part of his future."

"And you want to find a way to keep what he has left," Stripe finished.  "Halting any future deductions is simple enough, I can probably have my office take care of that by tomorrow.  As for the rest . . .," Shi read a bit more, "there's not much to work with.  There's a family home, a small amount of cash left, some bonds . . . I'll see what I can do, Doctor, but it really doesn't look that good."

"I understand.  If only we'd been informed of this sooner.  This boy needs to have someone looking out for his future.  In ten months he'll be a legal adult and able to leave on his own, but in that time he won't have a great deal left.  His parents' house will be sold to pay taxes if nothing else, and he'll only receive a fraction of what it's worth."  Mayhew turned off his datapad and stood. "He'll be an adult without enough education to get into college, and he's too smart for that."

Stripe nodded as shi looked at Aspen's scholastic records.  The quange was clearly intelligent, with high marks in language comprehension and geometry especially.  Shi glanced back at his picture, seeing a bright eyed young colt, not quite smiling, with a lovely light colored mane.  The date underneath indicated it was almost three years old, and shi wondered at how fast someone's life could turn around.

"As well, I think his home is important to him, personally and physically," Mayhew said.

Stripe looked up. "How do you mean?"

"He was taken rather abruptly from it, after being hit by a truck.  He never saw it again, and I'd like him to have the opportunity to make a clean break from his memories."  Mayhew came over beside Stripe and tapped hir pad to make his medical history come up.  "Technically, you shouldn't be privy to this, but this administration thinks background information is vital to every part of the patient's case."  Shi glanced up at his momentarily formal tone.  "And physically, he requires a great deal of space. Adequate housing will be important to him."

Stripe watched his eyes as he looked at the data screen.  "I noticed something here," shi pointed at the quange's personal information. "Are those numbers correct?"

Mayhew nodded. "Aspen comes from an old horse stock called a Canadian Shirebred.  Not many were ever recombined, as I've read, being simply too inefficient and easily replaceable with modern machinery.  They were enormously powerful, even for their size."  He brought up a sub screen that showed some of his research.  "His listed weight is a conservative estimate.  We don't have a scale big enough for him here, and we can't safely transport him for a better measurement.  He's gained muscle from physical therapy since his arrival, though he doesn't get out and really exert himself a great deal otherwise."

"Why not?" Stripe asked, "there's surely enough room for him here.  Why can't he be transported?"  Shi looked down at the photograph again.

"Aspen is a very angry young man, with many personal difficulties.  He's bigger, and frankly stronger than any of our orderlies except the quange, and they'd have to hurt him to make him do anything he doesn't want to.  We'd have to tranquilize him to move him to another facility, and that would mean losing whatever trust he has in us now."  Mayhew added, "Most Quange shake off drug dependency rather easily, and Aspen is no exception.  But he is extremely adamant in refusing to cooperate in any way.  He won't even go so far as to admit he has an addiction.  With the guidelines we operate under, we can't let him go unsupervised if he isn't actively seeking treatment.  If we did, we would jeopardize our funding."

Stripe looked at the datapad.  Aspen had a diagnosis of heroin dependency, an archaic inhaled or injected drug.  Easy to make from certain painkillers, but rare now that more complex and less detectable chemicals were available on Earth.  Shi scanned a description of the drug and imagined the colt taking it.  The thought made hir ill.

Mayhew circled his desk as if walking a familiar trail of thought.  "And we can't move him elsewhere, because no one in the area has facilities large enough for him. We had to alter our budget just to house him in a converted garage.  As I said, quange usually don't spend a great deal of time in rehabilitation, so there isn't a perceived need for secure housing for them."  He leaned over, bracing his knuckles on the desktop and staring at the blotter.  "This boy has been put in limbo by legalities and his own recalcitrance, Shir Nightstripe.  If I could move him anywhere that he could get help, I would.  He could get much better treatment on Chakona, that we're sure, but of course he can't be legally transported there."

"I see here he's been offered several programs of privileges in exchange for cooperation in counseling," Stripe noted, running down the facility logs.  "He's refused every one?  ut of pure stubbornness?"  Shi couldn't understand the colt's motivations.  For that matter, shi was confused as to why Mayhew was telling hir all of this.

"Every one," Mayhew agreed.  "Aspen shuts down when a therapist tries to speak with him. He'd rather sit in his room for a week than respond to any overture.  We've tried dozens of approaches.  Not only is he unresponsive, he has negative reactions to most of the staff. He becomes extremely agitated around humans, for reasons we haven't determined.  We feel he might attack a human doctor if left with one too long.  He seems to detest quange stallions, and won't speak to mares unless he has to. There's a general dearth of nonhuman psychiatrists in the area anyway.  Simply not enough to go around."  He became quiet.

Stripe looked at him for a long moment.  "You told my employer you wanted a chakat, didn't you, Doctor Mayhew?"  Shi cocked hir head slightly as he nodded.  "What did you think I could do?  'm not medically trained."

"No, no, but I need someone who can get a reasonable response from Aspen on his wishes.  e have noticed on the two occasions a chakat visited here on business, his mood changed slightly.  He seemed intrigued.  I don't know whether it's curiosity, personal attraction or the empathic talents most chakats possess, but I'm hoping that your presence will cause Aspen to open up enough to help us keep what's left of his property."  Mayhew spread his hands almost pleadingly.  "If a trained empathic talent was available to spend time here, I'd request one, but as I said, we only recently discovered the extent of the problem, and now there isn't time.  We need to find out if he wants the house, and if there are any particulars of his estate we don't know.  He doesn't deserve to have his life ruined over this."  Mayhew sat down, patiently waiting for a response.

"So that's why you gave me so much information on him," Stripe said after a pause, "so I'd be better equipped to speak with him?  r was it so I'd be more sympathetic and easier to convince?"  Shi scowled at Mayhew, resentment clear in hir voice.

"I'm prepared to accept that you may consider this a breach of ethics, Shir Nightstripe," he replied, "but legally speaking, this is all completely aboveboard now.  If you agree to speak to him, it may aid you in performing your job.  If you don't, you'll still be paid for your time and travel.  And," he added, "we have a small budget for special consulting duties.  You'd be compensated for your time from that as well."  He showed hir a figure on his datapad.  "I won't say anything negative to your employer if you decline."

Stripe had had enough.  Despite his convincing tone, Mayhew had been working to manipulate hir and the system he worked under.  Shi uttered a short stream of very unprofessional words at him, then stopped as she observed him closely.  Mayhew wasn't attempting to defend himself.  He just stood in front of hir and took hir abuse.  Hir senses told hir he was ashamed, but not repentant.  Shi moved close and took his hands in hir own.  Opening hirself up more to his emotions at this range, Stripe saw a sea of frustration.

"You've worried quite a bit about Aspen, haven't you?" shi asked.  He nodded.

"Doctor Mayhew, I'd like to see my client," shi said, and smiled to hirself as he stopped holding his breath.

*       *       *

stripe and Mayhew were joined by a quange orderly and fox morph nurse as they left the office.  Stripe had been given half an hour to familiarize hirself with the colt's records while the doctor located the staff he thought best able to handle his patient.  Shi had perused his financial status, but avoided the medical history.  No matter what Mayhew said, that information was none of hir business.  They walked a short way from the main building, towards a freshly painted concrete garage that had been refitted as a sort of guesthouse.  Barn style doors had been added, with steel crossbeams, and shi noticed the windows were also steel framed.  All the drapes were shut. The doors had a crossbar and electronic locks as well, and could be triggered to open in a second in an emergency.  The building had an independent water heater of rather large size, and a second tank indicating a fire extinguishing system had been added.  The roof was peaked, and had skylights on both sides.

The group stopped, and Mayhew ran over a few safety procedures with hir.  The nurse, who would keep an autoinjector with a strong tranquilizer out of sight, would accompany Stripe. They rarely had to use it, he explained, but with the patient's strength, caution was demanded.  The orderly would remain outside.  The patient didn't care for other stallions, which Mayhew suspected was at least partly an inherited instinctive trait that went uncorrected during early recombination experiments.  They couldn't have any sharp or metal objects inside, no writing instruments, phones, nothing that the patient might be startled by or consider a threat.  All hands needed to be kept out and open.  The patient became agitated if anyone was nearby he couldn't see clearly, so they needed to stay in front of him at all times.

Stripe found hir resolve weakening as shi listened to the details.  It sounded as if shi was being asked to sneak up on a grizzly bear, rather than go speak to a quange colt.  Shi asked a few questions while making a concentrated effort to lower hir empathic sensitivity.  The others were professionals no doubt, but an undercurrent of tension among them was making hir nervous as well.  The wind shifted, and shi caught a scent from the building. Stripe stopped and turned that way, trying to sort it out.

Quange scents were usually strong but pleasant when fresh.  They sweat like humans, but chakats generally liked being around them, although the reverse did not always hold true.  It helped that most quange were very emotionally stable, and the aura around them appealed to the sensitive chakats.  This odor was different. It wasn't dirty, but it carried a sense of both apathy and anger, tinged in a way that made Stripe's hair want to stand on end.  Shi asked for a minute to collect hir thoughts, and fought to contain hir emotions and receptivity.

"All right, let's go," shi said, and with Doctor Mayhew staying well back, they headed for the building.  The orderly called the main building to have the electronic locks released, then knocked loudly and pulled back one of the doors. He peered inside, then ushered the fox morph inside.  Stripe heard a sudden motion and the clopping of hooves. Hir sharp ears picked up the nurse's voice as she told Aspen he had a visitor here "on business". Stripe noticed hir hearts were beating faster, and mentally swatted hirself for acting like a small child. The heavy breathing inside did nothing to allay hir nervousness, though, and shi had to make a conscious effort to walk forward when the nurse waved hir to the door.

As shi stepped inside, Stripe was immediately struck by a wave of claustrophobia.  hi realized it was the aura emanating from the colt standing in an opposite corner.  No, colt was not the right word.  He might not be an adult, but he seemed to fill the opposite side of the building.  Every quange breed Stripe had met before had been trimmed down in size a bit, to make for a leaner, more efficient body type.  heir strength was an asset, but too much mass was an unnecessary drain on resources, and a larger animal took more time and money to grow to maturity.  Shi thought again of the background Mayhew had given hir to read.  These "Shires", animals now nearly extinct, had come from the British Isles, and been famous beasts of burden for over two hundred years even before being genetically uplifted.  One article had described how pairs of them had been seen to drag weights measuring over fifty tons in competition.  Shi stepped forward a bit, forcing hirself not to gulp.

Aspen was on his feet and backed into a corner, with his hands at his sides and loosely fisted.  Stripe was of average height for a chakat, and hir head was a good six inches below the shoulders of his lower body.  Not only did he loom, but also he had the same thick proportions as his genetic ancestors.  e was significantly more muscular than the orderly outside, but his build was rough and brawny, rather than the toned, trained musculature of the other quange.  He had an angular, broad head with long thin ears, forearms as thick as hir legs, and wide sweeping shoulders on both torsos.  His hair was a dark chocolate brown, but he had a long, untrimmed white mane, a light stripe running down his nose, and long silky hair growing from his wrists and all four calves.  I think those are called fetlocks, Stripe thought.  It was as if he was wearing white flowing boots.  That hair, though, was also uncut and dirty from trailing along the ground.

Stripe realized shi was holding hir breath, and let it go gently, attempting to remain completely centered.  Shi again noticed how much tension shi was absorbing from the others, and knew it had to stop. "Can we speak alone?" Shi asked the nurse, who paused for several seconds before nodding and stepping just outside the door. Stripe turned back towards Aspen and smiled as gently as possible. With a little distance between hir and the others, shi could open hirself up a little more.

The colt noticeably relaxed when the nurse stepped away, and his breathing eased slightly.  e was full of tension though, and Stripe had to remind hirself that his background hadn't indicated that he was usually violent.  Shi held hir palms up to show hir hands were empty.  "Hello, Aspen. I am Chakat Nightstripe, child of Snapdragon and Butterfly."  Shi caught a flare of anxiety and shame from the quange that didn't match what shi had said.  e averted his eyes and twitched his ears.  Shi tried again.  "I was asked to come down and speak to you about your plans for the future."  Nothing shi could think to say seemed quite right.  "I understand you're going to be an adult soon, and that you might like some help getting things straightened out.  I work for an accounting firm."  Shi tried to keep hir gaze steady while not staring at him, but his agitated steps, loud snorts, and the unconscious clenching of his fists made hir eyes want to widen in alarm.  Shi reminded hirself again that he was really still a child, and that his reaction to hir was probably mild compared to that given Doctor Mayhew.

Aspen didn't say anything, but his eyes kept darting to hir hands and face.  Stripe tried to wait patiently, giving him a chance to collect himself.  And myself a chance as well, shi thought.  hi used those moments to get a closer look at him.  He had six small earrings, four on the left and two on the right.  Few chakats appreciated body piercings, and Stripe was no exception.  Looking at them gave hir a feeling like claws scraped across a chalkboard, although long contact with humans had mitigated her opinion.  Shi looked at his hands, each one almost as large as hir head.  e did have fine white hair around the wrists, but it was trimmed short, unlike that on his legs.  Three fingers on his left hand were scarred and slightly bent.  Hir gaze moved lower, and Stripe suppressed a small gasp.  The left side of Aspen's lower torso was covered in long, crooked scars along with a peppering of small, V-shaped ones.  They extended from just under his lower shoulder to his flank, and low enough on the legs to disappear into the hair on his fetlocks.  He had a custom fitted reinforced brace on each of his left knees. And . . .

"What?" Aspen demanded suddenly, and Stripe jumped slightly.  Shi had tried to overlook his medical history, and so been surprised by his appearance.  It's too early in the game to be striking out, shi thought, took a breath and began to speak again.  But shi was a little rattled by what else shi had seen on Aspen.  he quange had a dozen or more U-shaped burn scars on his body, each about three inches across.

"I'm sorry, Aspen," shi began again, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.  lease forgive me." Shi was embarrassed at how shi was acting, and that feeling was magnified by the shame the colt was radiating, masked under his anger at being studied.  Stripe gestured to the datapad that hung from hir pouch belt.  "I'd like to show you a few things, if I may.  It's nothing to do with the clinic, only with you."  Shi realized he was staring at hir much as shi had been, and he met hir gaze a moment later and quickly looked at the floor.  he colt muttered something shi couldn't make out.

Stripe tilted hir ears towards him slightly.  "I couldn't quite hear you, Aspen.  Could you repeat that, please?"  He stayed silent, and shi continued.  "The doctors wanted to make sure you're provided for, so I came down to look at your financial situation."  He continued to look at the floor, but his ears were turned hir way, and Stripe could feel that he was paying attention.  "Can we talk about it?"

Aspen mumbled again, and Stripe took a step forward, trying to hear him.  His head jerked up and shi made a deliberate effort not to back away. He spoke again, a little more loudly.  "You said this wasn't about the clinic."

"It isn't," Stripe replied.  "It's just you and me talking."

"Then why did you mention doctors?  hy did they want you here?"  He was still speaking quietly, but his voice became momentarily menacing.

"They're concerned about you, Aspen. Doctor Mayhew especially."  He snorted at the name, but kept listening.  "You see, there's not a lot of time left to get things in order. May I?"  Shi pointed at the pad again.  Aspen hesitated, and then nodded once.  Stripe held it out, but he waved at his bedding, indicating shi should put it there.  hi walked slowly over and set it down, noting some other items as shi did so.  There was a small computer with a keyboard far too small for the colt; instead, it had a long wand for fine work and a voice command box.  There was a bookpad beside it, with a large foldout screen for reading, a shelf behind the bedding with a number of old books and magazines on it, and a huge notebook full of paper with felt pens beside it.  The notebook had a fabric cover hand-decorated with artwork, and the word "Sundance" drawn down the spine.  Shi backed away again, and Aspen snatched up the pad without taking his eyes off hir.

He looked it over, played with the screens for a moment, and then picked up his wand to tap the relatively tiny buttons.  "Damn fingers," he muttered, almost too low to hear.

Aspen read the information for several minutes, his eyes darting back up to hir every now and then.  "I don't understand all this," he finally told hir, and ran off several words and phrases.

Stripe smiled and sat down.  "We can fix that, Aspen.  Just tell me any part that you want help with."

"Can I make a copy?" he asked, nodding at his bookpad.  He was speaking in a nearly normal tone now, although his voice sounded a little dry and rough.

"Of course.  his is all your business, dear."  Shi held out hir hand towards the bookpad, picking it up and handing it over after he nodded. Aspen connected the two machines and downloaded the information, then set hir pad down for hir to retrieve.  When shi picked it up, he immediately fired off three different questions, taking notes as shi did hir best to offer concise explanations.  It became clear to Stripe that the colt understood everything shi was saying, and equally clear that his frustration with his typing wand was growing rapidly.

"Why don't you let your bookpad record?" shi asked him when he seemed on the verge of breaking the slender wand.

Aspen looked at hir and narrowed his eyes slightly.  "Only if you turn yours off." he replied, adding, "I don't like being taped."

Stripe complied and they began again.  Aspen seemed to grow more comfortable, though he often became embarrassed when their eyes met.  Stripe was becoming better able to open up hir senses near him, and shi appreciated the tiny thrill that shi picked up from the colt when he really grasped a concept.  hi was almost ready to ask him about the house when the nurse peeked in on them.  Aspen's mood shut off instantly as he looked over hir shoulder.  Stripe had heard the fox morph come and didn't need to turn around to see what was wrong.  Aspen's face darkened and he turned his head to watch the wall.

The nurse hadn't come in quickly enough to see the change in the colt.  "Time for lunch, Aspen," she said, and pulled the doors wide.  She stepped completely outside, and gestured for Stripe to follow.  Only when they were well away from the doors would Aspen come out and pick up an extremely large plastic tray loaded down to suit his frame, and he quickly backed inside again.  As the doors were being pushed shut again, he looked Stripe in the eyes again, then lowered his head and ears.  Shi put hir hand over hir mouth, biting back a sudden urge to cry.

"What about exercise?" Shi asked the nurse.  "He can't possibly get much in there."

"He comes out twice a day for physical therapy, and there's a fold-out treadmill built into his wall inside," she replied.  "We can't let him near free weights, anything that could give him a workout would make a weapon that could kill a biped.  Mostly he gets to jog and stretch.  We try to keep his legs as strong as possible, so they won't buckle when he gets tired.  Of course, that'll work against us if he decides to cause any real trouble.  I'd like to let him get out more, but we're not allowed to give him unearned privileges."

"I read that his recom stock was originally bred for strength, they used to be world famous for it."

"Yes, when he first arrived we assumed he worked out all the time, that he must have played sports or something.  Turned out he never did."

"Damn good thing too," the quange orderly added, "that kid could bench press me if he had.  I had to tangle with him once, and even with only two good legs he wrestled like a bear.  My neck was sore for days."  Stripe glanced at his nametag, which said I. Tussel, and tried not to laugh.

"How did you get him under control?" shi asked.  Mayhew had already said they didn't have much in the way of accommodation for quange at the clinic.

"He just calmed down, well mostly," the nurse replied.  "He was still healing when he was admitted, which caused all sorts of problems. We couldn't give him painkillers, but his knees were constantly swollen. He had to be tranquilized several times." She had a pained expression. "We couldn't keep him strapped down for long, both because it would be counterproductive and due to his large frame. He'd have organ damage if we kept him restrained all the time. He was actually detoxified by that point, but he was still nervous and combative. After he realized that he wasn't going anywhere, he stopped fighting, but he became emotionally withdrawn as well."

Stripe sighed to hirself and rubbed hir forehead as they headed back for the offices.  This had already been a longer day than shi had planned for, and a very draining one as well.  Shi needed to get back to Gracelegs.  Shi turned around for a moment to survey the grounds.  It was such a pleasant place to the eyes, but now shi could detect more of the undercurrents of pain around nearly everyone shi saw.  Shi glanced back at the horse pasture at the far end of the grounds.  It was directly opposite the white garage where Aspen stayed.  That made hir frown for some reason.

After eating lunch at the cafeteria, Stripe and Doctor Mayhew returned to his office and spent an hour discussing hir meeting with Aspen.  Shi mentioned every detail that came to mind, and he seemed convinced that the colt was less agitated by hir than the regular staff, although he conceded that Aspen might have been drawn out by the novelty of a visitor.  Mayhew was especially pleased to hear that he reacted well to simply being handed the datapad and allowed to make of it what he would.  Neither of them had many ideas about his finances, but Stripe put in a call to hir office and sent all the relevant data over, hoping for more success from the larger pool of information at their disposal.

They agreed that shi couldn't get much more from Aspen at the moment.  Stripe told the doctor that the colt could send hir a message through the staff if he needed to discuss anything else, and left a smartcard with him.  After the colt's reaction just before shi left, shi thought they both needed a rest before anyone brought up the subject of his property.  The nurse (her nametag read P. Gamby) promised to say goodbye for Stripe, pointing out that another meeting would only make him nervous again.  Soon after, shi was on the road again, trying to relax.  Shi had no doubt that Mayhew would call at some point during hir vacation with questions, but the card would route him through the office first and let hir prepare answers at hir leisure.

Shi didn't call Grace on the way home, hoping to catch hir mate by surprise.  Shi did place a call to a florist near their community, and ordered a small bouquet to be sent to their front door.  If shi had it planned right, the flowers would only precede hir by a few minutes.  It was a splurge, especially since several neighbors would be happy to give hir some from their own yards, but shi had made roughly triple pay counting the voucher Mayhew had given her.  Grace was a sucker for roses anyway, and Stripe was counting on being able to get the camera back out and film hir dancing with one between hir teeth.

*       *       *

TV cut a lazy path down the streets leading to Nightstripe's home.  Shi made a point of driving slowly in residential areas, although hir vehicle's monitors made it unlikely that shi would hit anyone or anything.  It gave hir time to wave at the neighbors, dictate a few messages to send to hir office, and plan what shi was going to do with Gracelegs when she got all four hands on hir beautiful denmate.  Shi passed a florist shop van going the opposite way and grinned.  Perfect, shi thought, and tapped the accelerator a bit.

Stripe trundled along, and soon was edging close to hir house while watching the front door.  here was an electric motorcycle parked outside, a bulky thing with storage containers built into it and sprayed a shade of peach that was nothing short of hideous.  We have to buy Melinda a new coat of paint for her birthday, or else a new brain, Stripe thought, and made a face at the cycle.  Melinda Peachtree, an otherwise very intelligent human from Grace's school, refused to believe that her vehicle made other drivers nauseous, even though both chakats had quoted completely fictional voter polls to her on the subject.  She would be in town at least until the end of the week, though, which was plenty of time to try and throw a tarp over the thing.  Stripe pulled to the curb as quietly as possible and exited hir vehicle, hir eyes showing a predator's gleam as shi snuck up to hir porch in an attempt to ambush Grace.

At the door, shi rang twice and waited, rather than letting hirself inside.  After a maddeningly long wait, shi heard footsteps, and Melinda opened the door, holding a bouquet of roses and smiling like the crescent moon.  She was a well-curved, dark woman, dressed in painted jeans and a lace up blouse.

"Stripe!"  She said brightly, "Come in quick!  Someone sent me flowers, come help me figure out who my admirer is."

Stripe stared at her dumbly for a long second, then jumped forward, hugging Melinda and giving her a lick-kiss.  "Pfft on you, Peach, your punishment will come later," Stripe said.  "Now get out of the way before I turn you into a Melinda sandwich."  Melinda handed hir the roses while stifling a laugh, and Stripe headed inside with her in tow.

Shi nearly stumbled over the cats as they ran by, and reapprised them of their status as traitors. A second later, shi found hir lover in the living room, waiting in the nude with hir hands clasped behind hir back.  Stripe came to a sudden stop, overcome at the sight of hir, then stepped forward to embrace Grace.  As shi entered the room, there was a sudden movement, and a strong Siamese chakat grabbed Stripe from the side, pinned down hir arms, and began licking hir cheek voraciously.  Shi made an insincere escape attempt, but only managed to give out a helpless squeak.

"That's it, Cam, hold hir still.  We have ways of dealing with sneaks," Grace informed them as shi stepped forward and took the roses from Grace.  Shi breathed deeply from the bouquet, then took one in hir mouth.  Handing the flowers to Melinda, shi moved hir arms sinuously towards Stripe while swaying hir lower shoulders and hips invitingly.  When shi turned away and displayed hirself, Stripe gave out a low growl and the Siamese, Cameo, released hir quickly.  Shi pounced on Grace, stroking hir fiercely and licking hir ears, then backed away only for a moment, giving hir mate a step's lead-time before chasing hir into the denroom.

Stripe knocked the door shut with hir tail and they both jumped on the bed cushions.  Shi cuddled up to Grace and their tails entwined as the two worked at removing Stripe's jacket and blouse.  When shi was undressed, they caressed one another's back and breasts, and Stripe leaned in to kiss hir denmate deeply.

"I missed you," she breathed into Grace's mouth, then took the rose with hir tongue.

Grace took hir lover's head into hir hands and looked into hir eyes.  "Show me," shi said.

Shi turned hir hindquarters to Stripe, who bent hir head low and took in hir mate's scent.  hi licked at Grace, who leaned onto hir forelegs for balance, hir handpaws clutching at the cushions.  Stripe reached up and stroked the base of hir tail, making Grace's back arch higher and higher, then shi rose up and caressed hir tawny flanks.  Stripe's eyes and breathing were heavy with desire, and shi straddled hir lover, touching every part of hir while settling hir forelegs.  Grace leaned back so Stripe could kiss hir face, and they cooed soft words to each other.

Stripe entered hir gently, but soon they were coupling ferociously, as shi nipped at Grace's neck and growled into hir ears.  Hir young mate was a creature of fiery energy, and Stripe made love to hir as if they fought for their lives.  When they came, they lay together for long minutes before Stripe realized hir claws were extended, digging into Grace as shi purred deliriously.  Shi took the rose from hir mouth and slowly ran it along Grace's body as they rested.

They mated several times and lay asleep together, awakening as the sun set to the smells of dinner. Stripe kept Grace in bed, teasing and wrestling with hir as shi tried to escape to the kitchen while telling hir that shi had already eaten plenty.  hey spent a few minutes grooming one another, but their growling stomachs wouldn't let them stay away long.  They left the heavy, sweet smell of the denroom behind and found Cameo furiously digging through cabinets as Melinda flitted about the kitchen, having taken on the daunting task of preparing a chakat dinner.  Empty grocery bags were scattered all about, one of them seeming to possess a life of its own until Flapjack's small calico nose peeked out of it.  The windows had all been opened, and the late spring air gave the house a light, breezy scent.  They could hear children shrieking two houses away, blasting one another with a hose, and that made Stripe hug Grace closely.

They had talked about raising cubs many times, and had decided to wait one more year when they could hopefully move somewhere with more space.  he tiny place they had now could barely accommodate their guests, and that only because Melinda and Cameo would be sleeping beside one another in the living room.  They felt they owed their cubs room to roam and jump, and there were the cats to think about.  In a small space, a pair of rowdy, strong chakat cubs would be dangerous to their pets, and neither of them wished to give away the cats if they could help it.  t all made perfect sense, but to Stripe it always seemed like they were making excuses.  Grace also wanted a family, but shi was still very young and had so many more things to occupy hir time.  Stripe was two decades older, and had spent far too many nights thinking about children.  Shi knew shi had many childbearing years ahead of hir, but that did not ease the weight it could put on hir hearts.

Nightstripe had had several companions over the years, but time, school, and careers had always managed to separate them, or so shi usually thought.  Sometimes shi believed shi let them go, just so shi could stay independent.  Hir mother, Snapdragon, had died when shi was young, and although hir sire raised hir with care and took other mates later, Stripe always remembered how lonely Butterfly seemed when shi talked about hir lifemate.  Hir sire, despite hir name, was an iron-willed chakat. Shi should have been a family matriarch, but instead wasn't even a grandparent yet.  Stripe had developed a loner streak early in life, mild for a human perhaps, but noticeable for hir kind.  Shi had mostly outgrown it, but sometimes wondered if shi let hir companions go so shi wouldn't watch them die later.

Now shi had Gracelegs, whom Stripe regarded as something like a miracle, and still shi was dawdling and finding excuses.  They had put off declaring themselves lifemates and bringing cubs into the world, and Grace seemed content with the decision, but it was dawning on Stripe that shi, too, had been content to wait when shi was that age.  As shi held Grace and listened to the spring breeze, Stripe resolved to give hir mate, to give both of them, everything that they deserved.

*       *       *

ok an extraordinary effort to chew their meal rather than swallow it whole.  Melinda was not a fast cook, but she was a talented one, and everyone was lost in her or hir plate for a while.  For several minutes, the closest thing to conversation was the chakats' tails wrapping around hir ankles in appreciation.  ventually the rush subsided, and everyone began to relax.  Melinda added a peppery mix to her meal, and the chakats sneezed almost in unison, provoking a spate of laughter.  Cameo put hir tail-tuft over hir nose and huffed dramatically. "Zees scent ees truly outrageous," shi declared in an atrocious imitation of a French accent.

"You don't mind when it's on my breath, kitty," Melinda retorted as she put on another dash.

"Then you should start passing out kisses at dinner," Cameo informed her.  Melinda promptly told hir what shi could kiss instead, and poured some on the chakat's plate.  Cameo let out a noise like a squawk and snatched up hir plate.

Stripe, seeing upturned dishes in the immediate future, jumped in.  "So what's the plan for the weekend? I didn't see your instruments when we came out."

Grace nudged hir in the ribs. "You mean you looked away from me, love? I'm insulted." Shi had an expression of indignation, which Stripe wiped away with a kiss. They separated and Stripe mock-scowled across the table. Melinda and Cameo were watching them, smiling and sighing with their chins in their hands while they put on doe like expressions.

"Kids, pfft," shi muttered.  "What's the plan, when is everyone coming down, and most importantly, where is that cute wolf you all keep promising to bring me?"  Shi snapped hir fingers imperiously. "I demand answers!"

Melinda, who had started eating again, pointed her fork at Cameo.  The chakat rolled hir eyes and began, "Okay, the gear is coming in Thamey's car. I left my sax and bag with him because the bus was ready and I wasn't. Melinda left hir guitar with him cause her Uglymobile was already stuffed full . . ."

"Bah," Melinda informed hir between bites.

"Thamey will be here Saturday morning, we'll go over the songs and be ready by the afternoon, no problem," Cameo continued.  "We have another list of band names to argue over, but," shi emphasized, "it's my turn to pick."  Stripe grinned.  Grace's companions liked to play together, but they weren't serious about it and people came and went, so they gave themselves a new name at least once a month.  Sometimes they switched between sets just to see the expressions their audience would make.

"And the wolf?" Stripe asked, winking.

"Bay is a maybe.  He says he'll come, but ever since we got him out of the library, he's been chasing tail nonstop.  We could send him some pictures of you . . ." Cameo trailed off, running hir eyes over Stripe.

"Hey now, I'm not your tailbait," Stripe told hir, but now the idea had been planted in hir head.  Shi had seen the wolf morph in Grace's photos, a shy sort, always on the edge of the group. But he had bright, inquisitive eyes, and Bay was such a cute name for him.  Shi chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then realized everyone was looking at hir and blinked hirself back to reality.

Shi put down hir fork and dabbed at hir mouth with a napkin. "Let's do it!" shi said suddenly, and Melinda let out a whoop.  Everyone jumped up, and the chakats groomed hir fur while Melinda got the camera.  In minutes they were all attempting to give hir direction at once, and elbowing each other as Stripe performed hir first striptease.  Both Grace and Cameo took dance lessons at school, and tried to teach Stripe what they could, but shi was a slow learner in that regard.  Shi imagined hirself dancing in front of the wolf morph, him seated before hir and naked, and found it to be completely erotic.  As shi started to lose hirself in hir performance, Grace told hir to talk to the camera, and Stripe began speaking to them as if to Bay himself, in a sensuous, throaty voice at first, but moving up towards a vacuous, high pitched tone.  Shi soon had everyone fighting for air between giggle fits, but somehow Melinda kept taking pictures.  When Stripe finally broke down, Melinda fell on top of hir, laughing and hugging hir neck.  /P>

They disentangled themselves, and all four went to download the pictures.  They argued over which to send, and Grace ended up making copies of most for Melinda and Cameo.  Shi didn't let them have what shi considered the best ones, telling them those were for hir "private stock". Grace composed a message to Bay and attached hir selections, but shi made Stripe actually hit the "Send" command.  Shi took a deep breath and clicked the button.  Sending sexy photos to strangers definitely had not been on hir day planner this morning.  They cooled down a bit and finished dinner, then lay back comfortably in the living room to chat.  Stripe and Grace cuddled, while Cameo massaged Melinda's shoulders and braided her hair.  elinda didn't actually sleep with hir a great deal, but Cameo was completely fascinated with smooth human skin and found any excuse to stroke it, and shi had a very light touch.  Melinda was putty in hir hands.

Stripe and Grace had long since begun feeling amorous again, and they rather hurriedly set up a sleeping space in the living room for the others before excusing themselves.  "You still haven't told me about your day," Grace said as they sat together in their denroom.

"There isn't much I can say," Stripe replied, nuzzling hir.  "I did have to sign a confidentiality agreement after all.  It was pretty stressful though.  The way they talked, I thought my client was going to be a giant piranha or something.  I made good progress, but it took a lot of tact and patience."  Shi sighed.  "Thankfully the office can handle most of it from here.  I hope."

"Did he comment on that gigantic erection of yours?" Grace teased, caressing hir mate's breasts.

"Thankfully I got it under control," Stripe said, smiling, "But now that you mention it, you'd probably appreciate his dimensions."  Shi made a gesture with hir hands as if measuring a fish.

Grace thought a moment, then hir eyes brightened.  "Ooohh, a quange! I'm jealous, Love, can I meet him?"

"You're going to make me feel unwanted," Stripe said into hir ear before taking it briefly between hir teeth.  "No meetings, sorry dear.  You'll have to be satisfied with my mammoth cock."  Shi half-straddled Grace and rubbed against hir fur.

Grace leaned hir body into Stripe's as shi intensified hir petting.  "What terrible luck . . .," shi trailed off into a purr. Stripe took hir lover by the wrists and gently rolled hir onto hir back.

*       *       *

tle electronic buzz awoke Nightstripe in the night, followed by the sound of light footsteps and Melinda's voice from the living room.  Shi looked around, then smiled at Gracelegs in the dark and nuzzled hir neck.  They were spooned together in the denroom, and Grace was still breathing evenly and not moving.  tripe marveled that shi could have possibly worn Grace out so much that the sound of the videophone hadn't awoken hir, then shi jumped and let out a little noise as Grace reached back and tickled hir belly.  Hir lover's eyes were shut tight, but shi had a mischievous grin now, and Stripe gave in to the urge to pay hir back for the trick.  A second later, Grace was biting back a shriek as Stripe tickled both hir bellies at once, then shi rolled over so they faced one another.  They lay that way for only a second before Melinda opened the door to their denroom.

"Stripe, Hon," she said quietly, "the phone's for you."  She barely got out the last two words, breaking into a huge yawn, which Stripe promptly imitated.

Stripe rose regretfully, leaving the cocoon of warmth shi and Grace had made, and walked towards the door.  Shi passed the clock, a nondigital model with no lights to bother chakat eyes.  It said 3:32 a.m.  Melinda stepped into the bathroom as shi moved to the phone, and Stripe noticed that Cameo was awake amid their valley of cushions, but unwilling to move lest shi ruin the perfect nest shi and Melinda had made.

The videophone was lit, but there was no one on the screen.  Instead it showed what appeared to be part of a chair, desk, and window shade.  Stripe imagined hir caller falling asleep waiting on hir and sliding under the desk.  Shi picked up the receiver and held it to hir ear for several seconds, then said "Hello?" wondering where the other party was.

Shi didn't see anyone, but heard a voice on the line say, "Nightstripe."  It was almost a question, coming from a deep but quiet voice.

"This is shi.  How may I help you?" Shi replied.

The caller said something too low for hir to understand, then coughed and spoke a little louder. "It's me," the voice said, then clarified, "Aspen."

Stripe stared at the screen dumbly for a moment, then hir eyes widened in comprehension.  hi was looking at the back wall of Doctor Mayhew's office. "Aspen?" shi said, "Where . . . you can't call me here! How did you get my number?" shi demanded, while trying to keep hir voice down and not disturb the house.

The line was silent.  Stripe called out the colt's name and waited.  Shi was about to try again when shi heard him say, "I'm sorry.  It . . . I had to."

Shi thought his voice had a trembling quality to it, and tried to speak gently.  "Aspen, why don't you come around to the screen to talk?"

"I can't," came the reply.  "I kind of tapped the line."

Stripe was puzzled.  "How do you mean?"

"My stable and the main buildings still have hard phone lines in the walls," the voice explained.  "I found them a while back, and managed to pull them out, splice them and use them to dial out through the main lines.  This place has wiring so out of date we could sell it in antique shops.  I can only tap into the office line, though, so I can't do it when anyone might use the phone.  It was hard finding all the right parts around here, and I had a rough time with no real tools."  He sounded momentarily proud.

Stripe ran a hand through hir hair.  Shi was having a rough time picturing the ham - fisted colt disassembling and rebuilding anything so delicate.  "So you're still in your room?" Shi asked.

"Yeah, I wouldn't get very far trying to sneak around this place," the colt replied.

"Okay Hon, but why did you call me, and why now?  octor Mayhew or one of your counselors can always make an appointment for us to talk.  And that doesn't tell me how you got my home number."  Stripe felt as if shi was forgetting something.

"Your number was on the logs on the datapad they let you borrow.  When you let me hook up to it, I copied most everything. The files were unlocked.  I . . .," he stopped talking for several seconds.  "Well, I didn't have any other numbers to call," he finished.  here was something wrong with his voice.  Stripe was momentarily frozen as hir mind raced over his words.

Hir first realization was that Aspen had downloaded the datapad Mayhew had given to hir.  t contained all the records shi had gone through, plus those shi had tried to overlook.  Medical history, evaluations filled out by psychiatrists, doctors and staff, recommendations, memos, police reports, . . . and a log of Child Welfare's attempts to establish a legal guardian for him, a log which stated that his relatives in eastern Canada had not responded to calls made on his behalf.  tripe knew without even having seen the entire file that the colt had read what must have been an incredibly humiliating series of reports and opinions on him.

The second was that Aspen was not exaggerating.  He was an only child, with deceased parents, relatives who weren't even in the picture, and, according to the visitors log that had been on the datapad, no friends who had come during his stay at the hospital and clinic.  As far as shi could tell, he literally had no one to call.  Stripe could tell now from his voice that the colt had been crying.  "Oh my god, Aspen, honey, are you all right?" Shi asked.  "We can talk if you want to."

"No, I just . . .," he said, "I'm okay."  He was stammering a bit.  "Yeah, please?"

"Sure, Aspen," shi replied, "I guess you read what I think you did?"  Stripe heard a noise and looked over hir shoulder.  Everyone was up and looking at hir.  Grace, only a step behind hir, laid a hand on Stripe's shoulder and looked quizzically at the blank screen and then at hir mate.

Stripe put a hand over the receiver and whispered, "It's all right, baby, I have to take this call. Go get some sleep."

Grace started to say something in reply, but looked at the screen again and instead lick-kissed Stripe on the cheek and nodded.  Stripe watched hir move back to the denroom door and look over hir shoulder before going inside.

"I did," Aspen was saying, his voice trembling badly now.  "They think I'm crazy, that I'm a thief. They said I stole from my folks and sold drugs.  They said no one would take me out of here."  The last was almost a whisper.

Stripe paused, cursing hirself for not knowing what to do.  The colt was a little alarming to deal with in person, but not being able to see him made it somehow worse.  "Okay, Hon, I didn't read most of that, so you'll have to help me.  ust pick something that bothers you and we'll talk about it."

It was hard getting information out of Aspen.  He tried to read verbatim from the files, but faltered badly every few sentences.  e comprehended all of it, but stammered whenever he came to a passage about his family or mental health.  With Stripe's gentle prodding, the young quange quoted the parts that described him as recalcitrant, reclusive and antisocial.  He broke down when the evaluations mentioned "violent tendencies" and implied that he had attacked clinic staff.  Trying not to sob, Aspen told hir that he had never hit a single person.  Shi had no way of knowing if that was true, but he replied in the negative when shi asked if the files listed any occasion when he actually attacked someone.

Stripe listened as Aspen read the police reports to hir, and the recommendations of two specialists and a judge that he be placed in rehabilitation after healing from his accident.  The reports he read indicated that he was suspected in selling drugs, because multiple sets of paraphernalia were found in his home.  As well, he had been named as a suspect, but never charged with robbing several homes in the area near his home.  He started to read to hir why they suspected him of theft, then trailed off, and Stripe didn't get another word out of him for several minutes.

Shi left that alone, but found it difficult to ask him more questions.  Everything seemed to lead to a painful subject.  Finally Stripe asked him where he went to school.

"I was home schooled," Aspen explained.  "We moved down here about two years ago, and there were hardly any quange where I lived.  Most buildings and stuff weren't built for us, so Mom and Dad thought it would be easier to just keep me nearby.  They had good jobs, but a lot of our stuff had to be custom made, so they had to keep busy.  here was supposed to be a mare nearby that could tutor me, but she got sick and had to move away not long after we got there, so they had to teach me instead.  They . . . got killed a while back."  It took a while for him to continue.  "The police came, and I lied about my age so they wouldn't take me anywhere.  I guess they never checked.  I just lived at home for a few months, paid things with the bank accounts.  Then I screwed up, and woke up in the hospital.  They caught me that time," he finished.

Aspen wasn't a good liar, and Stripe wondered what he was omitting.  "Why haven't you talked to anyone there?" Shi asked.  "They'd want to hear your side of things."

"These people?" He gave out a disparaging snort.  "They just want me to go on and on about how I'm supposed to have a problem.  If I tell them I'm an addict every day, they let me talk to other ones and go on little trips.  aybe they'd even let me help take care of the horses," he added in a sarcastic tone.

"Well, why not help them out a little if it helps you also?"  Stripe found his attitude a little irritating, but reminded hirself that it wasn't directed at hir.  Shi also found hirself pleased that he had started talking.  The young quange wasn't the same withdrawn person that he had been the previous morning.  "You know, Doctor Mayhew asked me to come over for your benefit.  They really do care about your welfare."

"I'm 'recalcitrant', remember?"  He sounded amused as he referred to the files.  "Listen Nightstripe, thank you for coming over yesterday, but that was another trick of theirs.  I read that memo too. Doctor Mayhew thought an outsider, someone who didn't have any connection to them, would get me to cooperate.  He didn't have any relatives or teachers to call, so he looked for an empath and a good excuse to get one here.  They've tried dozens of tricks like this, and I can see how pissed they get every time I see through them."

That confirmed hir suspicions.  Aspen enjoyed balking and irritating authority figures, making himself feel smarter than them.  "Well, it worked, didn't it?" shi asked.

"Uhh . . .," the colt stammered and went quiet.  Stripe tried not to smile as shi imagined his expression.  "Well, dammit," he finally said.  here was a moment's silence, and then shi heard him nicker.  "Okay, you got me.  Happy now?"  he asked.

"Almost," shi replied, letting hirself grin.  "Can you tell me why they wanted a chakat to come?"  Shi was careful not to mention what Mayhew had said about Aspen's dealings with humans and quange, although shi expected he had already read reports on that subject.

"Yeah, I used to know one, when I was about eight. I guess shi was a little younger, but shi was really intelligent.  Hir parents called hir Hawkeye, after a character in an old book, because shi didn't miss anything.  Shi was great.  I started reading because shi kept giving me books and I had to keep up to know what shi was talking about."  Stripe could hear the smile in his tone.  "I used to give hir rides around the neighborhood.  I was already getting big then.  Shi wouldn't shut up no matter how much I bounced hir around."

"What happened to hir?" Stripe asked.

"Hir family left on a cruiser for a long Star Corps mission.  I guess they moved somewhere else after they got back.  I was too young to even know how to look for hir."  He had gotten quiet again.

Stripe sat, quiet and thoughtful, for a few moments.  "So they noticed you didn't mind chakats, unlike a lot of quange."  Being descended from recombined horse stock, most quange had an instinctive dislike for the catlike appearance of hir species.  That was a social obstacle Stripe had needed to overcome several times.

"Well, a lot of quange are pretty stupid," he replied simply.

"Aspen!" Shi said, a little shocked.  Shi had heard humans say such things before, though it was plainly not true.  Hearing Aspen say it gave hir an odd chill.

"Well, most I know only want to talk about four things: Trucks, sports, food and fillies.  an't have a decent conversation with them."

"So you don't like any of those things?" Shi asked.

"Of course not, I mean, I do," Aspen stammered, "but they don't seem to understand anything else.  I don't care about trucks, but I can do some repair work.  The people I grew up with could care less about good books or music or anything.  And they badgered the hell out of me to join teams because I was so big, and made fun of me when I didn't want to.  Even some of the adults did.  I just didn't want to spend my time doing that," he finished.

"I'm sorry they did that, Aspen," Stripe said gently.  "But now you're older and you can find people with interests like yours.  Don't let your differences keep you apart from your own kind."  Shi was thinking now about how much time shi had spent alone after Snapdragon passed away, drawing, studying or just going for long walks.  t had taken hir family a long time to bring hir back to them. But shi had an extended family, aunts and cousins and nieces to help hir.  Aspen had gone five weeks in a hospital and four months at the clinic with no visitors aside from social workers and medical staff, and by all accounts he rebuffed all of them.  By human or quange standards he might have been reclusive or antisocial.  By chakat standards . . . Stripe shook hir head.  Shi couldn't even imagine spending that much time alone.

But now he was talking to hir.  Stripe was getting a better sense of him now, as shi listened to Aspen's voice.  His mood changed from confiding to reminiscent to angry, and back again, in the course of only a few sentences.  During their interview even hir empathy had left hir somewhat confused.  In person, Aspen covered his emotions like a forest valley shrouded in fog.  Listening to him for so long had actually given hir a clearer picture.

Stripe started, and realized shi had been drifting off.  "Aspen, are you there?" shi asked, and heard a massive yawn in response.

"Uh huh," he replied, "sorry, just sleepy."  Shi heard him let out a muffled gasp followed by a curse. "Oh damn, Nightstripe, I'm sorry.  kept you up all night."

Shi looked around and blinked.  The sky outside was growing quite bright now.  "That's all right," shi said.  "I'll catch a nap and be fine."  Shi yawned and stretched.  "And call me Stripe, will you?"

There was a brief silence.  "Okay, Stripe," he replied, "time for bed, I guess."  He paused.  "Thank you."

"My pleasure, Hon, go and get lots of sleep, okay?  s soon as I know something, I'll send word."  Anticipating his next question, shi added, "And I won't mention the phone line unless you give me permission."

Another pause. "Thanks again," he said, a smile showing in his tone.  "Goodnight, Stripe."

"Goodnight, Aspen."  Shi waited until the screen showed that he had cut the connection, then stretched again and turned around.  Grace was lying on the floor behind hir asleep, hir head on a pillow.  Stripe had been so involved that shi hadn't heard hir mate come back out.  Shi leaned over and kissed Grace's forehead, then gently nudged hir awake and guided hir back to their denroom.

Stripe knew hir mate was only pretending to be half asleep to look cuter and get a free cuddle.  But this was a part of their play, too.  Shi enjoyed babying Grace, and hir mate was definitely a glutton for attention in hir female phase.  Tired as shi was, Stripe took the time to whisper in hir ear and stroke hir gently, and brushed hir hair before they lay down.

Stripe reached over and set the alarm on hir clock.  Shi would have to sleep in a bit, but not too late.  Shi needed to make sure hir office was doing everything possible for the young quange's estate, and shi planned to have another talk with Doctor Mayhew, and with Aspen, as soon as possible.


Continued in Part Two


Chakats, Chakona and the Chakat Universe are the creations of Bernard Doove and are used with permission.

The Quange are copyright Roy D. Pounds II and are used with permission.

All else is copyright © 2004 to Azimuth.

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