Stray Stallions
By Charles L. Honeycutt

Part Two


The morning was half gone when Nightstripe raised hir head. Shi had already woken up twice, and had called in to hir office and made another appointment that week with Doctor Mayhew before forcing hirself back to bed for a little while longer. Hir disrupted sleep schedule had left hir feeling logy, and shi lay in bed trying to recall the details of hir phone conversation with Aspen. Fortunately, shi had remembered to set hir videophone to record, and shi could bring up a transcript to look over.

Stripe rolled over and up to a sitting position and raised hir arms high above hir head, then leaned forward, arching back until shi was nearly bent double, while extending her forelegs. Shi stretched each hind leg behind hir in turn, and then reached out far to each side as shi took a deep breath. A wolf whistle from the doorway turned hir head. Gracelegs was standing there with a tray and a lewd smile.

"And you think you can't dance," shi remarked. "Don't stop on my account, Love." Shi sat down and took a muffin from the tray. Stripe could smell blueberries. "I'll just help myself while you work up my appetite," shi declared as shi waved it and brought it towards hir mouth.

Stripe let out a rowl and practically charged hir mate down. Grace turned a little to keep hir from getting at the food. "Uh uh, you have to earn your meal," shi said, trying to hold Stripe at bay. Stripe responded by reaching under the tray with a handpaw and giving hir a tickle. Grace shrieked and almost dropped everything, and Stripe exploited the hole in hir defense to get in close, wrapping hir arms around Grace's waist and putting hir chin over hir mate's shoulder.

"I think you're going to have to earn your freedom," Stripe said, and nipped hir gently between the shoulder and neck. "Feed me, my pet."

Grace mewed and complied, holding up the muffin so hir mate could take a bite. Stripe didn't let go of hir, so Grace fed her right there, turning hir head a bit so shi could lick the taste from Stripe's muzzle between bites. Stripe nibbled at hir neck when shi wasn't fed fast enough, and Grace didn't seem to mind, so breakfast took a long time.

Stripe's belly was nowhere near full when they finished, but shi was far from hungry at that point. They nuzzled and pet one another for a bit, but finally shi sighed. Grace echoed hir sigh a moment later. "I know you have to go, Love. I just wanted you to get a good start on the day." Shi gave Stripe a lick-kiss. "I want to meet your client," shi added.

Stripe looked at hir. "How much did you hear last night?"

"Lots. I didn't listen in or anything, but in a quiet house at night, I couldn't help but hear your end. His voice just resonated over the receiver, even if I couldn't tell what he was saying. Aspen's a really cute name," shi noted, smiling. "I bet he's a really sexy stallion."

"He's just a colt, Grace," Stripe told hir, "almost four years younger than you."

"Humph, that's no colt. He might be young, but you heard that voice. All deep and rumbly when he got going, it just made me shiver." Shi leaned against Stripe and demonstrated.

Stripe was more than a little surprised. Shi had joked with hir mate about quange, but hadn't been seriously thinking about Aspen that way. Of course, when they first met, he had been backed into a corner like a panicked animal. And he sounded so timid most of the time. Shi shook hir head and smiled at Grace. "At any rate, I'm still under that confidentiality agreement, Hon. You're not even supposed to know his name."

"I know, I know," shi mock pouted, "but I call first dibs anyway."

They moved to the kitchen and Stripe loaded up another plate, while Grace chased down the cats and held them against their will, speaking to them in baby talk while they mewed pathetically and tried to escape. Shi made it up to them shortly, shaking a packet of treats and reearning their adoration. Stripe was grateful. Sassy and Flapjack usually pestered hir unendingly whenever shi sat down to eat, and Grace was always willing to distract them and give hir some peace. Shi loved hir pets, but enjoying a meal was hard while they circled hir legs like furry vultures, meowing at hir the whole time and butting hir feet. Shi had rescued them when they were a month or so old, and six years later they still acted like they were kittens and shi was their momma. Of course Stripe hadn't exactly discouraged that behavior. Shi had given them hir own milkwater while trying to find a good substitute with which to nurse them, and the pair had formed a strong attachment to hir. Grace was the only other person who could hold their attention, and Stripe loved that hir mate had bonded so completely with hir "babies".

Their guests had gone out shopping, and the couple was alone. Stripe went through the rest of breakfast, and Grace came over to steal food from hir plate. Their tails entwined and they just enjoyed being close. The only sound was the crunch - crunch of the cats devouring their fish treats.

*             *             *

That day may have been shorter than most, but to Stripe it was mind-bogglingly long. Shi had most of Aspen's files sent to hir office, and consulted with hir coworkers so often that soon they were rolling their eyes every time hir head popped through a door. While waiting for return calls, Stripe began referencing child custody law, hoping to find a way to have the estate reimbursed without a long legal process. Shi didn't hold out much hope there, though. Mayhew had already looked into that, and the law firm representing the clinic had told him that settling might take a year or more, and the legal fees involved would eat up a good portion of the settlement anyway. Simply put, Mayhew had told hir, the state had Aspen's money, and it didn't plan to give it up.

Finding hirself low on ideas, Stripe read through the files Mayhew had transmitted to hir, which included nearly everything to which shi had been given access at the clinic. Shi was having a hard time convincing hirself that shi had left the grounds barely twenty-four hours ago. It seemed like a week had passed somehow. Shi had a late lunch in front of hir, all homemade by Melinda. Shi held up an eggroll and sniffed it dubiously. Shi didn't know anyone else who cooked like that human. While Melinda was skillful, she could develop odd ideas when it came to ingredients. Stripe sighed and took a bite. Hir gamble paid off; there wasn't a hint of anything strange lurking inside. Shi quickly devoured it and sipped some water through a straw as shi scanned the files.

Stripe nearly spilled the glass as shi set it to one side while staring at the screen. Shi had come to the police and hospital reports, and barely moved for the next hour.

Three months before his accident, Aspen Jared Rider had been at home when a police car came to tell him that his parents had been killed entering a drive-in movie lot. They had been on foot, and were hit by a large transport trailer that lost control, veered off the road and ran through the entrance to the lot. The driver had been a quange. He was not held at fault, as a freak power surge had destroyed the trailer's autodrive and locked the steering column. Aspen had gone to identify the bodies. There was no mention of his age or of child welfare being involved, and to Stripe it looked as if he had indeed lied to the police. Judging from the later reports, the lack of a follow-up check had been downplayed, and hir lips curled as shi imagined the officers involved being absolved of responsibility.

There was no real information on those three months, only suppositions based on Aspen's condition and what a search of his home revealed. Police had found two caches of powdered morphine, and all the paraphernalia used to make, inhale and inject heroin. Stripe reread the brief description of the drug. It was disgusting. Simple to make from morphine, it induced a euphoric state in the user. It also damaged the liver, caused permanent chemical changes in the brain, and, when injected, could cause veins to collapse and worse. The amount of morphine found, and the presence of both human and horse syringes, convinced police that Aspen had been selling heroin, although no other local users had been identified. Only his age and, probably, embarrassment over the colt having been left to his own devices for so long, had kept them from pressing charges.

The young quange was also suspected in several minor robberies that had occurred in the area. The large syringes found at his home were believed to have come from a small local ranch owned by a veterinarian. Intended for use on animals, they worked as well on someone of Aspen's size.

Stripe put a hand over hir mouth as shi read. The marks on his body indicated that the colt had injected himself in the armpits and the "belly" of his upper body. Aspen was also suspected of having stolen autobrands from another ranch, self-heating devices used to "stamp" an owner's mark on cattle. He had branded himself with a mark similar to that used by the ranch in fourteen places, including both flanks, both forelegs, his right forearm and bicep, and his sheath. Those burns had been relatively recent and still healing when he was brought into the hospital for more severe injuries.

Those injuries were caused by another accident. According to the report, Aspen, while in a heroin-induced euphoria, wandered away from home and in front of a small, very old truck on a nearby road. He had been struck on the left side, and was lifted briefly onto the hood of the truck before flipping back onto the road hard enough to splinter his hooves. The quange's left hand had gone through the windshield, and two of his fingers had been partially severed. He suffered ten fractures among his four legs, broken ribs in both torsos, gashes as much as three feet long along his lower body, and literally hundreds of cuts from glass and metal. Only his superior stamina and enormous size (he weighed half as much as the truck) had allowed him to survive. The driver and passenger had barely been scratched thanks to safety features and luck.

By the time Aspen was brought to the hospital, his condition was such that reconstructive surgery wasn't even a consideration for weeks. After his recovery, he displayed such fear of surgical tools and doctors that repairing the scars on his body couldn't have been done with his consent. While he healed cleanly for the most part, his two left legs had been so badly injured that he was still undergoing therapy for them. His massive build worked against him, and keeping the pressure off those knees was still an ongoing concern.

The colt was uncooperative with police, and showed irritation and anxiety when humans or other quange were present. These problems lengthened Aspenís recovery time, as staff at the hospital and clinic had to be rotated to avoid "encounters". His house had been searched after blood tests were done, and attempts by investigators to question him were met by silence. His neighbors claimed not to have known he was still living at home.

Stripe put down the datapad and realized shi had been crying. Shi couldn't stop picturing Aspen, hiding for almost three months in his home, mutilating his body in some secret ritual of shame. Shi looked at the photographs of the accident scene, of him being shuttled away to a hospital with bone poking through his skin in three places. That accident probably saved his life, shi thought, he'd have just gone on hurting and poisoning himself otherwise. Shi looked again at the first accident. His parents had been badly mangled by the impact. Hir lip twitched as shi thought about the young colt going to the morgue and seeing them. He's been amazingly lucky, all things considered, shi thought. If he had gone out with them that night . . .

Stripe let out a low strangled moan. Shi covered hir mouth and bent over. Hir chest was painfully tight, and shi spent a minute gasping and getting hir breathing under control. Shi sobbed once, loudly, and dialed hir home number. Grace answered, smiling, but hir ears stood straight up and hir eyes became alarmed as shi saw Stripe's expression.

"Stripe? Oh my God, Love, what's wrong?" Shi asked.

"Come pick me up, baby, I can't drive," shi said. Grace started to speak again, but Stripe cut hir off. "I'll tell you when we get home. Drive carefully." Grace nodded, and Stripe hung up. Shi put hir face in hir hands, then numbly began picking up hir things and putting them in hir bag. Shi picked up the datapad and stared at the two accident reports again before shutting it off and stepping out the door. Shi avoided looking anyone in the eye, and only absentmindedly waved at hir coworkers as shi made hir way to the elevator. The doors closed and Stripe's breath hitched as shi fought off another sob. Shi stared at the lights above hir as the room rocketed down towards the parking lot. "He didn't get hit by accident," shi whispered to the ceiling.

*             *             *

Stripe didn't really remember the trip home. A neighbor had driven Grace up, and then shi had taken Stripeís keys and brought hir mate back. Cameo and Melinda were there to open the door and give out hugs, but Grace took Stripe to their room and told their guests that the couple wouldn't be out for a while. Shi lay down behind Stripe and cuddled up against hir, and Stripe shook as shi finally let hirself cry. Grace cradled hir head and stroked hir hair until shi had calmed down. Shi still hadn't asked any questions, but when Stripe stopped crying, Grace told hir, "You know, you really don't do that often enough." Stripe buried hir head in hir mate's arm for a few minutes. Grace's scent and touch relaxed hir, and soon shi felt ready to talk. Stripe had to think for a while; shi had no way to tell hir mate what was wrong without telling hir everything, and shi couldn't keep silent, not after today. Stripe knew that Grace trusted hir in every way, and shi didn't deserve to be kept in the dark.

Shi collected hir thoughts and began describing the past day and night as best shi could. There were so many details, but neither of them was in a hurry to leave. When Stripe talked about the reports shi had read, shi realized that shi was stammering and struggling not to break down in just the same way that the quange had the previous night. Grace's gentle petting reassured hir though. Shi didn't ask any questions the entire time Stripe talked.

Stripe slowed down as shi got close to the end. "He walked out at night and got hit by a truck, Grace," shi said, "and it wasn't because he was high. Child Welfare put him away because of his addiction, but he needed more help than that." Shi took several calming breaths. "He tried to kill himself."

Grace was silent for a while as shi stroked Stripe's hair. "But they're not exactly amateurs there, love. Wouldn't they have thought of that by now?"

"They suspect it, I think," Stripe said, "but he won't talk to anyone about anything, because then he'd have to talk about his family. To most people it probably looks like Aspen is just trying to keep quiet about the drug dealing he's supposed to be involved in. They're all looking the wrong way, and he can't set them straight. Doctor Mayhew has an idea of it, I think, but he wasn't really involved until only a couple of weeks ago, and judging from the memos and transcripts, the authorities have all had their minds made up about him for a while. How do you fight that kind of pressure?" Shi threw up a hand.

"Sounds like you know a lot about him," Grace said, looking down at hir. "How'd you get so involved so fast?"

"He's been alone for a long time, Grace. I think he deserves to have someone looking out for him, even a little."

"So do you," Grace replied.

Stripe turned to look up at hir. "What?" shi asked.

"I said, so do you." Grace scratched hir behind the ear. "You don't know how rarely you let other people, me especially, help you with anything. It's a fight to make you lean on another shoulder or talk to me a lot of the time. This is probably the first time in six months youíve completely let your guard down."

"Oh Grace, I'm so sorry," Stripe said, reaching up to touch hir cheek.

"Iíve let you be most of the time, and that was a mistake on my part," Grace said, then smiled. "Quit being the strong, silent type, Love. You don't have to hold back. I can usually tell what you're thinking anyway." Stripe returned hir smile. "You don't have to be male all the time," Grace told hir.

Stripe started to speak, but Grace put a finger over hir mouth to quiet hir.

"Uh uh, my turn for a few minutes," shi told Stripe. "Let me finish before you take my advice, at least." Hir expression was gentle, but shi was completely serious. "You want to take care of this colt, just like you take care of the babies, just like you take care of me. But you try to be mother and father at the same time, just like Butterfly had to do for you. You yanks think you're invincible, you know." Shi grinned for a moment.

"But you're not here alone. We're mated, Nightstripe, and we have a bond. I feel what you feel, and I need to be your partner in this, in everything. You can be vulnerable sometimes. I promise not to mind." Shi wrapped hir tail around Stripe's.

Stripe looked into hir eyes but said nothing. Opening hirself to Grace, Stripe could see how much hir own worries about money and a family had affected hir mate, while shi had thought shi was protecting Grace and letting hir have fun at school. Grace was worried also, but Stripe had made hirself difficult to approach while trying to be strong. Only hir breakdown had given Grace the opening to tell hir everything shi wanted to get out. Stripe realized shi was crying again, and rolled over into hir mate's arms.

"Shh, I know," Grace told hir, cradling Stripe and kissing hir head. "Didn't you realize you bonded with Aspen? I've never met him, and I can feel him through you. That's why I asked to meet him." Shi grinned. "And not because of your description of his assets."

Stripe laughed softly. "I'll see what I can do."

"I already know what you're going to do," Grace replied. "You're going to get him sessions with a therapist and explain to him why he absolutely has to talk to them. Then we're going to fill out the paperwork to become foster parents and get him out of there until he's old enough to leave on his own. I'm willing to bet this Mayhew person will help you out there. But before you do that," shi added as shi lay Stripe's head down on a pillow, "you're going to stay right there and not move a muscle until I make love to every inch of your body."

Stripe just stared at hir for several moments, then shi smiled and half-closed hir eyes as Grace's words sank in. "You're brilliant," shi remarked. "How did I manage to get such a smart, sexy mate?"

Grace replied with hir tongue, but didnít speak a word.

*             *             *

Nightstripe would have said that the rest of the week was like a slow-motion blur. Shi made a conscious effort to be with Gracelegs, and they spent every free moment together. The appointment with Doctor Mayhew was conducted over the phone, and although shi didn't have any good news for him in the financial department, Stripe arranged to come up again Monday morning to have another meeting with Aspen. Shi needed to tell Mayhew some things that shi had guessed, or learned from Aspen, but wanted the coltís permission before revealing anything from their secret phone conversation. He agreed to send a message to Aspen about the appointment, and Stripe felt relieved when shi hung up the phone.

Their guests hadn't minded being left alone the previous evening, though they chided the chakats about it. Grace pampered Stripe every chance shi got, and the older chakat basked in the attention, even if shi did have to remind hirself to stay put. They talked for hours, often just chatting but sometimes in serious discussion. Grace was making hir point gently but firmly; hir mate was to confide in hir, absolutely. Stripe did hir best to comply. Once or twice hir loner habit reared its ugly head, but the pair just cuddled while Grace drew hir mate back out again with infinite patience.

The quartet blew all of Friday morning window-shopping, and after lunch they headed home and took a nap in a huge pile. Stripe and Grace spent the early afternoon talking about Aspen. They had to excuse themselves yet again. Their friends were dear to them, but their plans were too newly formed to discuss just yet. Grace's idea of becoming foster parents should have been a shock; shi hadn't spoken to Aspen or even seen an image of him. And yet the suggestion gave Stripe's feelings an amazing clarity. Shi had indeed formed a bond with the colt. Even now, shi thought shi could feel his presence, and his pain. Grace felt it through hir, and shared hir determination to help Aspen.

They inevitably came to a more practical point: space. Stripe judged that Aspen couldn't even stand up straight in their home, and the quange's weight would surely destroy the floors, no matter that they had been durably constructed for a chakat's two hundred kilogram mass. Grace caught hir looking over the front steps and doorframe. Shi sidled up to Stripe and followed hir gaze.

"What are you thinking about?" Grace asked.

"Just wondering how we can possibly afford a quange, even with the payments we'd receive on his behalf. This pretty well trashes the plan," Stripe said, referring to their carefully designed future: graduation, cubs, house and office space.

"How is that a problem? If Aspen and his Ďkeepersí agree, all we have to worry about are property taxes." Grace wrapped an arm around hir waist and pulled hir closer.

Stripe turned and stared at hir mate. "Hmm?" shi said brightly. "What do you mean?"

Grace looked confused for a second, then smiled and reached up to stroke hir cheek. "You're so lucky you're cute," shi remarked. Stripe opened hir mouth, but Grace interrupted hir. "I looked over those files too, Love. Didn't you see the police photos from when they searched Aspen's home?" Stripe shook hir head. "Stripe, his parents had it built to house a quartet of Shire quange. The living room is as big as our house. We could lose cubs in that place." Grace reached up and playfully tapped hir mate on the nose. "If he agrees, and I suspect he will, everythingís going to be right for a while."

Stripe couldnít have stopped smiling if shi tried. "I think he will too, Hon, Iím just nervous about asking."

"Pfft," Grace replied, and then giggled. "Just show him some of those pictures we took of you."

*             *             *

Monday morning was sweet and dewy. Nightstripe was wide-awake, but lay still, enjoying the slight chill in the air and Graceleg's warmth against hir back. Hir mate was purring in hir sleep, with hir nose pressed into Stripe's silvery hair, and Stripe had no intention of disturbing hir. Shi closed hir eyes, savoring the breath on hir neck as shi recalled the weekend.

Two more of Grace's friends had come into town Saturday morning. Thamey Whistler had arrived at last, a quick, lightly built fox morph with strong arms and incredible abs. Sauntering up the front steps at seven a.m., he'd ignored the doorbell and performed a fast, rhythmic and very annoying knock until someone answered. Thamey's only outlets seemed to be drumming and sex, and he'd been deprived of those all week. He practically radiated nervous energy; even when calm, he tapped his fingers constantly unless someone kept his hands busy. At school, that was usually Grace or Cameo's job. The fox had been wandering around all week visiting relatives and friends before arriving at Stripe and Grace's home in his red truck, its bed loaded with bolted-down trunks. Melinda's and Cameoís instruments and luggage had been in his care for four days, and they had resolved to punish him for making them wait. Thamey was ambushed as Stripe let him inside. Cameo sat on his back for a good five minutes while they threatened dire evil, and Thamey only repented when Grace suggested they force him to drive Melinda's cycle in public.

Stripe hadn't partaken in the torture, being distracted by Thamey's passenger. They had never quite met, but had been told a lot about one another. Bay Carlisle was a taut, long limbed wolf morph with a hint of red in his grey fur when the sun hit him from behind. He came from a supposedly "less advanced" recom design, with pronounced fangs, digitigrade feet and thick, luxurious hair. Bay had large, intelligent eyes, and wore reading glasses that made them seem even bigger and brighter. He moved with a bit of the shyness of one of his ancestors walking through unfamiliar territory, looking around at everything. Stripe had immediately gone to see him, and they had hugged in a traditional Chakat greeting. Shi admired his lean, wild body and alert, hungry but ultimately gentle eyes. Even dressed neatly with his fur tamed, shi thought the tall wolf morph had an almost feral profile. Shi had wanted to bed him at once.

That had taken some doing. Grace had already warned hir that Bay was raised almost exclusively among wolves, foxes and humans, and although he understood the concept of chakat partnerings, he wasn't personally familiar with them. For that matter, to hir knowledge he had never been in a real relationship. Shi had done group work with Bay in class, and liked him so much that shi had introduced him into hir circle of companions. He was very studious, and getting him to just come and have fun was always a chore. He had in fact never approached any females on campus until they pushed him into it, but with Cameo's coaching he was swiftly turning into an incorrigible flirt. Still, he had traditional ideas about friends, sex and monogamy ingrained from an early age, and they hadn't quite convinced him to break down that wall yet. Grace hoped that hir more experienced mate, to whom Bay had no prior attachment, would be able to draw him out while keeping him comfortable.

Grace and most of the guests spent the day rehearsing. The neighborhood had a lawn party about once a month, and it was to be that evening. They planned to perform a bit just for fun, along with two human musicians from down the street. Cameo informed them the band was going to be named Street Legal since it was hir turn to pick, and was loudly booed by Grace. A little later, Cameo retaliated by printing a few fliers for "Gracelegs and the Street Legal Posse" and posting them up and down the street. Grace vowed revenge.

While they rehearsed, Stripe kept busy preparing a mind-boggling amount of food, and parked Bay in the kitchen to help out. Shi put on an apron that read, "Kiss the Cook", and gave him one that read "Chefs do it with Spice". He took it gracefully. Stripe used the time to ask him lots of questions and get him to relax, and found that he could be quite funny when he let his guard down. Shi smiled at Grace as shi watched them through the window. Hir mate had said that shi would like Bay, and shi was quite right. Stripe looked back at him and was suddenly reminded of Aspen.

Shi thought the two were a lot alike, and that meant Grace would love Aspen as well, if they could manage to get the colt to cooperate enough to help himself. Surely he and Bay would get along nicely. Then Stripe had remembered that Aspen was spending the day locked in a garage. Shi gave Bay a few directions and excused hirself, and was crying in hir denroom when Grace found and comforted hir.

The party served to cheer hir up, giving hir no time to think and lots of folk to chat with, and that evening had been very pleasant. Grace didn't get back at Cameo that night, but the Siamese spent a lot of time looking over hir shoulder, to the endless amusement of those around hir.

Stripe had used a bottle of wine as bait on Saturday night, immediately following the party, and shi and Bay had talked while he lounged against hir side. The wolf fell asleep with his head between hir paws, and Stripe stuck out hir tongue at him while the others snickered. Nobody had told hir that Bay wasn't much of a drinker. The next morning was an amazingly crowded affair, and people were tripping over one anothersí tails for an hour. After everyone's limbs had been disentangled and stretched, the group conspired to make Bay wait until last to get in the bathroom. When they heard the shower running, everyone except Stripe piled into Thamey's truck and disappeared.

Stripe poked hir head in the door while Bay still had the shower curtain pulled and asked if he liked the pictures shi sent. Shi later reflected that shi had never heard a wolf make a noise like a mouse before. After he stammered an affirmative, shi gave him back his privacy and went to put the dirty towels in the wash while he undertook the lengthy process of blow-drying his fur. Bay didn't need to bathe so often, since he cooled himself by panting rather than sweating, but Thamey had taken him on some very dusty roads to visit relatives that week.

A fairly loud "Hey!" sounded from the bathroom, and Stripe covered hir mouth to stifle a laugh. Before shi had closed the door, shi had run off with almost all the towels and Bay's clothes, which shi threw in the wash as well. Shi stayed quiet when he called out, and he had been forced to go find his suitcase wearing only a very small towel. Stripe poked hir head out and pointed out that, being a chakat, shi could have given Bay a tongue bath to save time. He had blushed furiously, and fought with his suitcase latch with one hand while keeping the towel on with the other.

Stripe almost felt pity for the wolf; he didn't know that every time he acted shy, it made hir feel more aggressively attracted to him. Shi had practically stalked him as he grabbed a fresh pair of pants and escaped back to the bathroom. When Bay emerged again, shi herded him into the living room to chat. The idea of stealing the last towel had been tempting, but Stripe hadnít wanted to make him feel humiliated and so restrained hirself.

Bay had obviously known what was going on now. His friends had even hidden all of his shirts. Stripe settled beside on him on the couch they kept for their bipedal guests and stroked his hand and forearm. Shi had explained very openly hir attraction to him, both physically and personally, and that it was very normal with hir people to make love freely to their friends and loved ones. Shi knew that Bay had some knowledge of chakat relationships, but knowing that in an objective way and experiencing it were two totally different things. As well, Stripe had to be sure before they proceeded in any way that he understood that jealousy had no place among them. From his body language and slightly more atavistic body shape, shi was a little worried that he came from a genetic stock that was instinctively territorial. That was a good reason for Stripe to approach him before Grace. A misunderstanding could damage their friendship, but the balance was easier to maintain with Stripeís lack of a prior relationship with the wolf.

To hir surprise, Bay had told hir he had been preparing himself for physical encounters with Grace and Cameo for weeks. He had even gone to see a chakat who was a student advisor, just a year or so older than himself, and had a long talk with hir about what he could expect. Bay was distinctly heterosexual, and needed the time and the talk to get used to the idea of being with them and of sharing companions. Shi gathered from what the wolf said that he was very flattered to be included in their circle, since he knew that chakats were very discriminating. Shi smiled and licked Bay's muzzle. He really was completely adorable, and Stripe had told him so as shi pinned his hips with a foreleg.

When the others came back, they found Stripe and Bay wrapped up in each other's paws and resting under a blanket. Shi had looked up just long enough to tell Grace that they needed to teach Bay to play an instrument, because "he definitely has the hands for it." Grace gave each of them a lick-kiss and informed Bay that he wasn't going anywhere for at least a couple of days. He gave hir a half-salute and went back to kissing Stripe's breasts as shi cuddled him.

Melinda and Cameo had driven off with Thamey to visit other friends and relatives that afternoon. Cameo rode in a special safety seat built against the back of the cab, and Stripe had mentally compared hir to a happy dog sticking its head out a car window as they drove off. When they had gotten out of sight, shi turned hir head and grumbled. Melinda had left the Uglymobile for Bay to use. Shi headed back inside and helped hir mate pounce upon their furry guest. The two made him their plaything until the wee hours. As strong as his breed was, the poor wolf was simply outclassed by Chakat muscle. He spent a lot of time being tickled and tormented after referring to himself as a "cat toy". The three of them had fallen asleep together.

That thought broke Stripe's reverie. Shi looked around, and felt Grace wake up behind her. Bay was missing. Stripe caught the scents of bacon and eggs and unconsciously licked hir chops. Then the denroom door swung open silently, and hir furry new friend stepped inside bearing a large tray with a simple breakfast balanced on it. He was wearing hir "Kiss the Cook" apron, a wolfish grin, and nothing else. Oh, he's going to fit in perfectly, Stripe thought.

*             *             *

While driving to the Alicia Tatherson Memorial Clinic for the second time in six days, Nightstripe passed much of the time planning what shi was going to say. At least shi didn't have to feel guilty about leaving Grace again. Hir mate was completely occupied with Bay, and Stripe thought even the energetic young chakat was going to be napping away the noontime hours.

Chad Mayhew seemed delighted to see hir, but he was delayed a bit by accumulated weekend work. Stripe spent about half an hour studying framed pictures and certificates on the walls. Having composed hir thoughts before arriving, the normally patient chakat was getting anxious as shi waited, and found hirself repeatedly adjusting hir short pinstriped jacket while trying to keep hir tail calm. When Doctor Mayhew reappeared, he apologized profusely and led hir to his desk before seating himself.

"I'll try to be succinct, Doctor." Stripe said. "There's no simple way to protect his estate at this point. The funds simply don't exist. His parents' life insurance payments have already been nearly depleted, and he ate up their account while paying bills and who knows what else." Shi showed him the data from hir office and gave him a moment to frown over it. "I have an idea, though it is unorthodox. But you, Aspen and I need to discuss some things before I get down to it."

Mayhew was silent for a few moments. He furrowed his brow as if contemplating a dilemma, and said, "Nightstripe, before we go any farther, there's something you should be made aware of. The police found out about Aspen's line tapping a while back and installed a device to monitor it."

Stripe froze. "I don't know what to say. I wanted to talk to you about that, but I wanted to get his permission first . . ."

He waved his hand. "I know, I know. They let us review the transcript. They had to, actually, since he is a patient. They had apparently been hoping that he would lead them to his morphine 'connection' or other cronies. There was no mention of any of this in your files because it's an ongoing investigation."

"So they're just hoping to lock him up for real," Stripe said in a near-growl.

"I honestly don't believe so, Nightstripe," Mayhew replied. "I think they just want whoever else is responsible. Aspen could not have access to controlled drugs without help. He's just too conspicuous. At any rate, I only mention this because the only call he made using that tap was to you. No, don't worry," he said as hir expression became even darker, " no one suspects you of any criminal dealings. But as I said, we were given a transcript of the conversation. We had demanded that concession from the investigators, citing a need for it to provide all possible help for our patient." Mayhew stood as he spoke. "Aspen said more that night than he has in his entire stay here. I'd rather like to find out why."

Stripe stroked hir chin. "It seems that your idea was a good one, Doctor. I think he'll say even more if we can have some uninterrupted time. But I'm no psychiatrist, and that colt needs more support than he's getting. I read his entire file after we talked," shi said as shi stood and paced a few steps, "and I think he's in real danger."

Mayhew frowned. "How do you mean?" he asked.

"His parents died," Stripe replied as shi counted on hir fingers, "he spent several months on his own, without any family support, began using dangerous drugs, burnt himself and never sought medical attention, then walked into traffic. It's pretty clear to me that he attempted suicide."

Mayhew thought for a moment. "Yes, we had considered that. That's a primary reason we made so many overtures to him, but we ran into the problem that he was put into our care for an addiction. As I've said, a large part of our funding is contingent on our following a certain program. The staff in charge of his care followed that program, treating him primarily as an addict, and I doubt it was the right method. Once I reviewed his case and saw what was going on, I did assign new counselors to him, but that put us right back at the beginning as far as earning his trust was concerned." He sighed. "I really hadn't expected him to read his own files. Heís a cunning boy."

"I'm sorry that he got access through me," Stripe said, "but he knew most of what was written there already, and I'm sure it wasn't good for him to just try and deny it."

Mayhew held up his hand. "You're right of course, Nightstripe. Actually, it seems to have galvanized him, and I'm grateful. The truth about his own behavior may have woken him up."

Stripe looked at him evenly. "Is it true that he attacked staff here? He denied it to me."

"I really don't believe he did to the degree implied in the files. He wrestled with orderlies two or three times, but didnít seriously attempt to cause damage," Mayhew replied, "I am going to have words with some of my staff about those reports. Aspen can be extremely intimidating, and it's possible that they only thought he was going to harm them. It will be difficult to counter the effects of those reports, though," he noted, "since they have already been reviewed by the case workers responsible for him."

"So now the 'word' has gotten out that he's a problem child." Stripe reminded hirself to stay calm. Something about this place put hir on edge. Perhaps it was the ambient emotion, or a reaction to Aspen's feelings.

Mayhew nodded. "And it makes it all the more difficult to find a way to aid Aspen. Thanks to those reports, his social issues and his age, there wasn't even a serious attempt made to find quange to act as foster parents for him."

That made Stripe frown. It was disturbing to hear how easily a person could be written off if no one spoke up for them. "I may have an answer there, actually," shi said.

Mayhew looked puzzled. "Do tell," he said.

Stripe sat down across from him. "My denmate and I are a responsible, stable couple. I believe that if we could convince Aspen to seek counseling, we could act as foster parents. We can move into his family home on a temporary basis, and pay the taxes and bills so the property won't be sold. Heíd be able to stay there at least until he's an adult," shi continued as Mayhew raised an eyebrow and leaned forward, "he'll have enough room, and a chakat will be nearby that he seems to trust and who can ensure that he receives enough help. I'm sure you can fill in the details easily enough." "And does your mate know about this idea?" Mayhew asked as he picked up a datapad and began taking notes.

"I've discussed fostering a quange teenager with hir," Stripe replied. This was a lie through omission, but it was clear Mayhew already knew the answer. Shi felt guilty about breaking the agreement shi had signed, but there was no doubt in hir mind that shi had been protecting hir relationship by so doing. Even so, Stripe was nagged by the feeling that shi was letting hirself travel down a dangerous path.

"Fair enough," he replied with a straight face. "I'll need a little time to think about this idea. In the meantime, would you like to go ahead and talk to Aspen? This fostering plan might get his hopes too high, but we can't proceed at all without him. If you choose to bring it up, just make sure to never couch it in certain terms. He has to know that even if he agrees to everything, it still might not go through." Mayhew leaned back in his chair, put his elbows on the rests and steepled his fingers. "Will wonders never cease," he mused, looking at Stripe. "You know what you're getting into? This is a major commitment. If you see it through, it will take up at least the entire next year."

"I've thought about it enough, Doctor Mayhew," Stripe said. "Itís criminal for a child to be alone so long. He's formed a connection to me. At the moment, no one is better qualified to draw him out." Shi stood and picked up hir things. "If I may, I'll wait until after he eats. It may be easier to speak with him then. We'll need to have a long, uninterrupted period to talk so he can get as comfortable as possible with me." Mayhew nodded and made a quick call to confirm the colt's schedule and arrange to delay his physical therapy.

They stepped out the door and Mayhew led Stripe towards the cafeteria so shi could get an early lunch and relax until Aspen's mealtime was over. Shi spent the time going over what shi was going to say, but once again, nothing sounded right. After a few tries, Stripe realized why. Aspen had been resisting attempts to talk to him for months. The colt probably analyzed everything that anyone said to him, and could spot a verbal "strategy" easily. He only responded when he didn't feel that he was being analyzed in turn. It wasnít in Stripeís nature to attempt to manipulate conversations anyway, and that realization was actually something of a relief.

Stripe picked at hir food. Shi needed Grace. This entire idea seemed by turns brilliant and ludicrous, but with hir mate nearby, it felt merely perfect. After a few minutes, shi blinked hirself out of a daydream about Grace and Bay, stretched hir arms, and looked around. Mr. Tussel, the quange orderly that Stripe had met the week before, was sitting only two tables away. Shi picked up hir tray and went to join him. Sitting alone could only make hir lonely.

*             *             *

Ira Tussel knocked loudly on the reinforced metal door before pulling it open, and Nightstripe winced. Shi thought the echo from that knock must be quite loud in the small building. The heavy sound of hooves scraping on concrete came from inside, and shi knew even before entering that Aspen would be backed into the far corner. A momentary nervousness came over hir as shi stepped across the threshold, but when shi saw the colt, it was replaced with a surprising warmth in hir chest.

Aspen's eyes were narrowed suspiciously until he recognized hir, then they widened and he grinned for only a second before ducking his head shyly. Stripe returned the smile and stepped inside. Shi got hir second good look at him in that moment and was a bit amazed. He was still huge, but didn't seem to loom anymore. Rather, his size just seemed to fit him. That thought made Stripe want to smile. He was generally clean except for where his mane, tail and fetlocks were in dire need of trimming, and shi realized that he was in many ways a beautiful creature.

Stripe stepped forward without coming threateningly close. "Hi, Aspen," shi said, "it's good to see you again."

"Hi, Stripe," he responded, "thanks for coming by. So, umm . . ." he had made an effort to speak up, but trailed off falteringly, as if embarrassed by his own voice.

"So," shi echoed, "mind if I have a seat?" He shook his head and shi lowered hirself onto the large rug that had been laid out nearest to the door. Aspen remained standing, but that was normal for many quange. Stripe had met some that even slept standing, with their upper torsos resting against a specially cut pillow. "I think we have some serious things to discuss, Hon," shi said, and saw his ears twitch nervously. "If it gets too bad, just ask me to stop, okay?" He nodded once.

"Now then," Stripe began, "I can't do too much about your house as things stand. It'll take money to keep it from being sold off this year, money that isn't there anymore." He turned his head away as shi said that. "But we might be able to change the way things stand. Just remember, Aspen, none of this has been decided. We won't pursue it without your consent."

Shi described Grace's proposal for fostering Aspen, as well as Mayhew's support of it, and the plan to move him back to his old house. Aspen's jaw actually dropped as shi talked, and he grinned enormously as it all sank in, before his shyness reasserted itself. But when shi told him that the whole thing hinged around his cooperation, specifically his going to counseling, his eyes narrowed and he began to withdraw again. Stripe mentally slapped hirself. Presenting things in a good news/bad news format had only made him suspicious.

"No," he finally replied, "no, thank you. I don't prance around for anybody." He crossed his arms and lowered his nose towards his chest.

Stripe stood up and took a step towards him. "This isn't prancing, Aspen, or performing for a reward. This is about getting you out of here, pure and simple. You don't want to be here, and despite what you may think, no one wants to force you to stay. You're looking at ten more months of this, and you can't just outwait them and hope they'll get tired of keeping you!" Shi was speaking loudly now, almost yelling. Shi took another step, and Aspen involuntarily backed up against the wall. "This isn't what you want to look at every day," shi said as shi waved hir arm to indicate the building, "and it doesn't have to be this way." Stripe's voice became calmer. "Has anyone else come here that didn't have to?" He hunched his shoulders at that, and shi felt a sting of pain from him that shamed hir. "Don't be so quick to turn us away, Aspen. You can quit punishing yourself, Hon. You didn't kill them."

Aspen snorted and wouldn't look at hir. Stripe tried to move to him, but he clenched his fists and laid back his ears while staring at the wall. Shi came up short with hir hands held halfway towards him. "I don't. want. to talk. about that." He stated, barely moving his lips.

"You're going to have to talk to someone about it if you want to leave," Stripe said. "Right now, most people think you're just being stubborn or trying to hide something, and they're right. The only way to get some freedom is to set them straight." Shi didn't move forward any more. Cornering Aspen didnít seem wise. His nostrils were flared and the whites of his eyes were beginning to show, both very bad signs on a quange.

"Aspen, I don't think you need to talk about the heroin just yet, but it will come up again. But if you talk about your parents, then they'll know why you've been acting this way. If they understand, it can only help you."

Aspen was quiet for what seemed like a very long time. "I did it," he said, almost in a whisper.

Stripe's ears perked up. "Did what?" shi asked.

The colt raised his eyes. "I'm the reason they're dead."

Stripe felt a wrenching guilt in him, something so bottled up that the depth of it had escaped hir empathy before, and it affected hir physically. Shi put a hand over hir belly, trying to cover the sympathetic ache.

Aspen turned his eyes back towards the wall. "I was supposed to go to the drive-in with them. But I didn't want to go. I was being a little shit and made it into an argument." He took a deep breath, and his whole frame shivered as he let it out. "So they were late getting there. And they got run over. Because I wouldn't go to a goddamn movie!" he roared in hir direction, then hunched his shoulders and turned away as far as the corner would let him. His upper torso was shaking. "I wanted to invite my friends over and light up," he whispered into the wall, his face nearly pressed against it.

Stripe couldn't move. Shi just stared at the colt for several seconds after he finished talking. He reminded hir of Butterfly, sitting alone and thinking about Snapdragon years after shi died. But shi could clearly feel that the guilt intermingling with his loss was driving Aspen insane. He'd covered it over for months with a drugged euphoria, then been detoxified and forced to deal with the real world again. Everyone he had encountered since then had some idea of his troubles, but they had tried to deal only with the most obvious problem, which was also the least important. Stripe covered hir face to keep Aspen from seeing hir expression. For a long and irrational moment shi had wanted to burn the Alicia Tatherson Memorial Clinic to the ground.

Shi looked up and moved forward, and this time Aspen didn't react to hir. His injured left legs were shaking badly, threatening to buckle, and Stripe hurried to sit him down on one side and rest them. Shi stroked his arm and shoulder for several minutes before he even noticed. The colt's eyes were very far away. Just like Butterfly's, shi thought. He wasn't even crying, and shi found that disquieting.

His pain began to fade from hir perception, and Stripe gradually realized that it was being shrouded again under the numb fog the colt used to protect himself. Shi set hir hand on the side of his nose and turned his head towards hir. "Aspen, don't you dare pull away again," shi said as shi held his gaze and projected all the love and support shi could find towards him. Such things didn't work as well on nonempathic beings, but while touching him, it might be strong enough. "You miss them terribly, and that means they loved you a great deal. They wouldn't want you to do this to yourself. Even if you argued, you know how they really felt." Shi stroked his nose. Even with his legs folded up under him, Aspen was taller than Stripe, but shi didn't feel small next to him. "They'd want you to go home now."

Aspen closed his eyes and relaxed a bit, and Stripe was relieved that he wasn't withdrawing any further. He was taking great comfort and pleasure from hir touch on his face, and transmitted that back to hir. Stripe continued to pet him, expecting to hear a purr at any moment as if he was a chakat. When his eyes welled up with tears, shi stopped for a moment. He opened them and told hir, "Yeah, they would. Stripe, I want to go. I'm really sick of being this way."

"We can't make any promises yet, Aspen. There's still a lot of people and paper to deal with. But fostering is supposed to be relatively easy. All we need is your help and we have a good chance, okay?" He nodded, and Stripe went back to petting his nose. "Hmm," shi said, looking him over, "I think we're going to need a bigger car."

*             *             *

Aspen poked his head into the front seat and pulled off his earphones to hear Nightstripe clearly. "Do you want a drink?" shi repeated, and pointed at the cooler beside hir. He nodded and went rummaging, which made it hard for hir to drive. Shi sighed to hirself. Grocery shopping was going to be a nightmare. Aspen was downing two liters of soda at a time. Thankfully the kitchen and pantry at his house would be up to the task. They were so enormous shi had been forced to step up on a crate when using the sink. Stripe watched the colt lean back again with a large bottle in hand and take a huge swallow. His safety straps weren't as good as shi would have liked, and the trip was making hir a bit nervous. The back seats had been removed and replaced with a contraption to accommodate him, but the vehicle still wasn't intended for such a huge passenger. It was official now; Aspen weighed slightly over nine hundred and sixty kilos, and was expected to add another fifty- to a hundred before he finished growing. That put him at the weight of adult five chakats by himself, and hir vehicle was only intended to hold four and a little cargo. The undercarriage was almost touching the road, and warning indicators blinked continually as shi drove. Stripe had found an old transport intended for quange in the garage at his, correction, their house. It would be a godsend if they could get it fixed up properly.

As shi watched in the mirror, Aspen replaced his earphones and zoned out again. Stripe couldn't really blame the colt. The trip was uncomfortable for him. He couldn't even sit up straight in the vehicle, and an already bumpy ride was worse on him since he didn't have the cushioning a seat would provide. His music, though, was grating on hir a bit. It was turned up so loud that shi could hear it clearly despite the earphones, and it wasn't very nice. Some of the lyrics were more than a little offensive. Stripe had considered telling him to turn it down, but the trip was making them both a little grouchy and shi didn't want to come across as bossy on their first day together. That comes later, shi thought, and grinned evilly.

It had been two and a half weeks since Stripe had gone to the clinic to make hir proposal, and shi had been tremendously busy in that time. Endless rounds of phone calls, appointments, signatures and more had occupied most of the vacation time shi and Grace had planned, and hir mate had gone back to school a week ago. That had left Stripe to arrange all the details of moving forty-five minutes away from their old home, cleaning up Aspen's home (which was nothing short of huge), telling about a hundred people where they were going, and in between all that, making the long drive to the clinic several times for various reasons. Mayhew had been amazingly helpful, so much so that shi could almost not distrust him.

Aspen had been mostly cooperative, talking to counselors but reportedly showing his tail on a regular basis. He had to have sessions in an enclosed space and with no one else present. The colt had a profound dislike of anyone being in a position to move out of his field of vision, and became jumpy when he couldn't watch everyone nearby. His hair was untrimmed for that very reason. While he could force himself to let someone move to his side, anyone holding scissors, trimmers or anything similar made him so nervous he seemed ready to jump up and bolt. The only idea his therapist had put forth regarding that was that his hospital time had made him anxious about items that looked like medical equipment.

Stripe had gotten him on the phone with Grace several times in the last weeks, and those conversations seemed to have gone well. Aspen was nervous, but Grace showed hir effusive side, asking him about everything under the sun and making so many jokes Stripe was groaning to hirself. Privately, shi had asked hir mate to tone down until the colt was used to them both. His childhood friend couldn't have prepared him for everything he was going to experience in the near future, and Stripe knew how chakat culture shock could affect even other taur species.

They were only a few minutes from Aspen's home now, and he still wasn't paying much attention. The scenery was beautiful, with spring just coming into full force, and Stripe rolled down all the windows to take in the scents. Grace had arranged to get out of classes early, and Stripe knew shi would be there already, looking after any last minute details. The place had been a mess. It had been thoroughly searched by police after the colt's accident, and then left neglected for six months. Anything they could do to make it look like it did when Aspen left would make him more comfortable, or so they hoped.

Shi slowed down as the property came into sight. Stripe, who had been here half a dozen times and stayed overnight more than once, was still amazed at the idea of calling this home, even for a little while. Aspen's home was a sprawling, one story ranch house with several outbuildings, pastures, a picnic area and numerous flowerbeds that had now gone wild from lack of care. The house itself had real stonework fireplaces, tremendous rooms (with ceilings more than four meters high), picture windows on all sides, and a low, L-shaped porch serviced by ramps instead of steps. Almost all the material used was synthetic wood, fashioned so strongly that even quange hooves wouldn't chip or dent it. There was also a cavernous garage full of tools and odd items. The right side of the garage was occupied by a huge, blocky vehicle that shi hadnít been able to start. Stripe had been a little intimidated. There were few places in the house that felt cozy enough to use as a proper den. In the main living room shi always expected to hear an echo, and the garage was like an ancient tomb at night.

Aspen had taken off his earplugs again and was beside hir, looking at his old home. Stripe pulled to a stop and wrapped hir arm under his chin and around to stroke his nose reassuringly. His emotions were an unidentifiable jumble. "Let's walk the rest of the way, Hon," shi said and unfastened hirself. The colt followed suit, but glanced around suspiciously before getting out to join hir. The PTV creaked gratefully as he exited, and Aspen gave it a surly glare before reaching in to pull out his disc player, notebook and the cooler. Stripe had noticed that he spent a lot of time writing, but had yet to find out what he was putting to paper. He had an affection for working by hand rather than typing, but that might simply be due to his size. Shi had never seen a keyboard or workstation sized for larger quange outside of a business environment, and they were probably expensive.

Grace came out to meet them as they closed to within fifty feet of the porch, bounding over the railing with her usual agility. "Hi Love, hi Aspen!" shi called. "Have a nice trip?" Aspen came to a sudden stop, and Stripe put a hand on his. Shi noted with pleasure that he was reacting more in awe of hir mate than out of nervousness, and the same expression that he had greeted Stripe with in the past was now on his face. It seemed their foster colt had a genuine adoration for chakats.

Grace had on hir own variation of that expression. Without letting go of Aspen's hand, Stripe reached out to take that of hir mate. Grace nuzzled hir and looked up to Aspen. Through their contact, Stripe for a moment saw them through each other's eyes, and gained a new appreciation for each.

He saw that Gracelegs was a tawny, leonine beauty with an atypically lean build and movements to match hir name. Shi was a sleek, amazing creature, and the colt thought that any artist would give his eyes for the chance to paint hir. Hir arms and slender upper body carried a nubile quality so pure that for a moment, he couldn't understand why there wasn't a pool of perfect water and a sunrise behind hir.

To hir mate, Aspen was equally amazing. His coat was the color of dark chocolate, with long thick hair flowing from his limbs and a wild white mane that reminded hir of romantic stories. His build and careful motions created an aura that shi thought of as fierce gentleness. For a full moment, shi wished that shi had been born a biped, so that shi could join with him and ride through the forest upon his back.

The moment passed for Stripe. Grace and Aspen had introduced themselves, and shi had already told the colt not to bother with hir full name. Shi looked him over unabashedly. "I know lots of people who just have to meet you. C'mon in, we'll get you both comfy and you can take a gander and get used to everything again. And after you're settled in," shi said with a wink, "I'm going to give you a haircut. We can get you new shoes, too, I scouted out a place nearby that can put them on for you. Do you sing? You have a great voice for it." Grace hadnít nearly exhausted hir store of questions during their phone conversations, and shi wanted to catch up on their new "child". Shi ran a hand along his foreleg. "Wow, you feel just like velvet."

Stripe couldn't tell if Aspen was startled, scared or excited. Shi tried to cut in, but Grace kept finding new things to mention as shi dragged the both of them indoors. The place smelled like potpourri and tea, laced with the flowers blossoming outside. "C'mon, slowpokes," Grace continued, "I have to be back in class Monday morning, you know. I'd like to at least get everyone through the front door before then." Shi stopped as shi saw the change in Aspen's expression as they came inside. His ears twitched as if in expectation of sounds that weren't there. His eyes were wide open with some unspoken desire as he crossed the room and picked up a woven, multicolored blanket. The colt put his nose to it briefly. He looked around as if he had gotten lost.

"It doesnít smell right," he declared, and walked through several rooms with the blanket in his hands. He circled around to where they had entered and opened the door. "I'm going to stay outside a little longer," he said and stepped out onto the porch.

Stripe and Grace spoke quietly for a few moments, and then went to prepare a snack. They gave Aspen about fifteen minutes before going onto the porch. The colt was seated on the blanket about twenty feet from the house, sniffing the wind and chewing on handfuls of clover from a patch beside him. Stripe was surprised to see that he wasn't glancing warily over his shoulder. Shi held up hir hand and he glanced their way.

"May we join you?" Shi asked, and they came down with a basket and jug when he nodded. They laid out a vegetarian meal (the chakats had already decided to avoid eating much meat in front of him until they knew his feelings) and sat down close by.

Aspen turned his head into the breeze. "This does smell right, at least." He looked back at Stripe, as if guessing what shi was thinking. "It feels good out here, not like . . .anything is hiding." He looked over to the house.

Stripe resisted asking him what he meant, but Grace was more direct. "Why did you feel like something was hiding?" shi said, catching his eye again. Stripe saw another moment pass between them, but it carried a different tone.

Aspen didn't look away. "I just used to have a lot of bad dreams, that's all." Stripe hadn't read or heard any mention of that in his files, but shi could well believe the colt hadn't slept well after his loss.

"Well then, we'll just have to cuddle up a lot to get rid of them," Grace said cheerily.

The colt made a face. "I'm not a little kid, I can handle sleeping alone. I don't need a nightlight either." If not for his deep voice, he would have sounded downright petulant.

"It's not about that, Aspen." Stripe interjected as shi sipped from hir mug. "We wouldn't ask anyone to stay by themselves. Having a companion or two can make everyone more comfortable and connected."

"Besides which," Grace said, "whoever said anything about sleeping?"

Aspen spat his drink out in surprise, ran a napkin over his mouth and let out a string of Ďumsí and Ďaahsí. Stripe coughed at Grace, and hir mate quickly changed the subject.

"Anyway, what's that big notebook you left inside?" shi asked. "The cover looks hand-painted. Did you do that?"

Aspen looked relieved, but even so, Stripe could practically feel the heat from his blushing cheeks. "Um, yeah, I did. It took a really long time, and my hands are so big I couldn't do a good job."

Grace made a Ďpfftí sound at him. "Au contraire, mon cheval," shi told him. Stripe made a mental note to strangle Cameo. Hir habit of pretending shi spoke French was catching. "It's really lovely. Don't put yourself down. Is there more art inside?"

Aspen nodded. "A little. Just stuff I see, some notes, poems, whatever."

"Are you going to show us any of it?" Grace asked, leaning forward and smiling.

"Mmm, not if I can help it," he replied. Seeing Grace's face turn sad, he added, "I guess I'm too self-conscious about it."

"That won't last long around here, Hon," Stripe put in. "You'll have to get used to Grace in a hurry. Shi's a handful." Aspen grinned as Grace stuck out hir tongue. "Actually, make that a double handful," Stripe corrected, glancing at hir mate's bosom. The conversation was growing more infantile by the moment, but Grace was enjoying it, and hir mood was affecting Stripe. Shi looked back at Aspen, who had followed hir gaze to Graceís breasts. His expression was inscrutable.

"I've been meaning to ask you though," Stripe said, "why do you have 'Sundance' painted on the notebook spine?"

"Oh, that. It was my grandsire's nickname. I never found out why, though. I just liked it." Aspen shrugged.

"I like it too," Grace said, "it's a proper Chakat name. We might have to start calling you that. Well, that or 'Hot Chocolate'." Aspen blushed again, though only a chakat would be able to tell. Grace added, "See? You're heating up already."

"Shut up, Hon," Stripe said into hir cup, but shi was grinning so broadly shi couldn't take a sip. Shi looked up and saw that Aspen's lips were pursed together. Shi was momentarily worried, but he burst into a powerful, whinnying laugh that made all the nearby birds take flight. A second later, both chakats joined him.

They settled down, and Aspen looked like he had something on his mind. Stripe motioned at him to speak. The colt hesitated a moment, then said, "Well, as long as we're handing out nicknames . . . Can I call you 'Pinstripe'?"

For a moment Stripe was confused, and then shi followed his gaze to hir jacket, which was in that very style, like almost every business jacket shi owned. Shi heard a snicker from Grace and frowned at hir. Aspen was keeping a straight face. Grace leaned over to the colt and told him in a stage whisper, "I'm going to put that on our Christmas cards."

Stripe shrugged the jacket off hir shoulders. "Kids," shi grumbled.


Continued in Part Three


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 Charles L. Honeycutt.

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