Stray Stallions
By Charles L. Honeycutt

Part Three



 

The weekend was almost entirely gone by the time they finished going through the house. Aspen (Grace was calling him Sundance or Sun, but Stripe couldnít change so easily) had spent most of the time picking out what to keep or give away, and Stripe's vehicle was loaded with clothing and personal effects to be donated. His parents' room had been especially rough on all three of them. Grace had kept the others from dwelling on anything too long with a steady stream of jabber and picture taking, for which Stripe was grateful. Shi had already sent photos and video clips to many of their friends, even though the colt had protested that he didn't like having his picture taken. They had found some photo albums as well. Judging from them, Aspen had been tall, but lean and a little gawky until about the age of 12. Those pictures were so cute that the chakats had "stolen" a few to show off. Sassy and Flapjack had been brought down, and were keeping themselves occupied by being nervous wrecks. Stripe was making them stay inside for now. The area was much wilder than hir neighborhood, and shi worried about letting them roam before they knew where home was. Shi remembered Aspen talking about his own cats, a pair of orange tabbies and had seen them in some of the pictures. He hadn't mentioned them since arriving.

The colt's room had been a terrible mess, having been searched even more thoroughly than the rest of the house. Given how many of his possessions had been taken or damaged, he was understandably a little territorial, and kept the door shut all the time. Both chakats had been in there cleaning before he arrived, and had already seen nearly everything. Aspen had a huge music collection, hundreds of magazines and books in both hard and electronic format, sketchpads and more notepads with every margin filled, a variety of small statues and carvings, and even two hand-painted posters he had copied from book covers. Grace had come across a rather gigantic hand-made harmonica, but hadn't convinced him to play it yet. Aspen claimed he didn't know how, but he was still a poor liar.

The power was running, but they generally kept the lights off most of the time. A house that big took a lot of energy, and with all the picture windows, only Aspen needed many lights, and then only at night. They all slept together in the third, unused bedroom right now. It was much cozier than the master bedroom, and didnít have any memories associated with it. Generally, Aspen would make himself comfortable while Stripe and Grace had some private time, then they would join him and settle in on both sides. Giving him that extra time also let him get arranged properly so he wouldn't have to move around in the night and step on someone's tail. Although he'd slept alone almost all his life, the colt took well to them, and the chakats basked in the feeling of security he gave off when they all lay down.

Sunday morning had found Stripe yawning in the mammoth kitchen as shi checked the news and mentally prepared a to-do list for the week. Shi had already planned out how to do hir job from home, and the next couple of days would involve setting up an office in one room. Aspen could help hir move the furniture and clean up the outside, but shi suspected he would be done with those tasks rather quickly. It would be a while before shi could realistically do any home schooling, and he needed to stay occupied.

A dart of movement outside the window caught hir eye, and Stripe snuck up to look out on the porch. An orange tabby cat was sniffing around a small firewood pile there, and shi immediately grabbed some cat food and a dish and headed out the side door. A lot of convincing was needed to bring it in close, but Stripe had a way with cats. Half an hour later it was fed and in hir arms. Shi came back inside, and found that Aspen was still half asleep while Grace stretched nearby.

"Wake up, Aspen," Stripe called out. Grace looked hir way and gave a big smile. The tabby shi carried wasn't protesting its treatment, but was clearly looking for an escape route.

The colt flicked his ears and groaned. He was all teenager when it came to sleeping. "Gimme a minute," he managed to get out before yawning. Stripe had always found quange yawns to be a little humorous. Their equine ancestors didn't do anything similar, and their mouths weren't really adapted to it. He looked like he was going to pop.

"I will, but I don't think she'll be so patient," Stripe replied, holding up hir wriggly package.

Aspen looked up questioningly, and his eyes grew wide as he saw the cat. "Penny!" he yelled, and reached out. Stripe quickly turned her over to the colt. She was so small by comparison that she could sit on his hand. "Hey, Punkin," he told her, and let her sniff his fingers. Penny recognized him at once, and they spent a few minutes in strokes and purrs. "Did you see her brother, Copper?" Aspen asked, looking to Stripe.

"No Hon, I'm sorry," shi replied. "She doesn't have any other scents on her that I could find, either."

Aspen's face fell a bit, and he returned to petting Penny as she circled in place to nuzzle his fingers. He looked thoughtful as he found the perfect spot behind her shoulder to scratch. The cat twisted into a U-shape and put on an expression of feline ecstasy as the colt gently rubbed her. Still lying down, he set her on his side and she moved up to the crook where his torsos met. She lay down and kneaded Aspen's skin there, and he evoked tiny meows by running a finger down her spine.

"Lucky kitty," Grace commented, and put on a jealous look. Aspen nickered.

"She looks well-fed. Maybe Copper is at someone else's house nearby," he told them. He held out his hand to Stripe, drew her in for a hug, and whispered a 'thank you' in hir ear. It was the first time Aspen had initiated a hug, and Stripe's chest swelled. Grace hugged him as well, just for good measure, and they left the two alone for a bit.

Later in the morning, they all wandered around the house, making a list of chores. There was quite a bit of yard work to do. They found several fallen trees and two stumps to get rid of, or else set aside for firewood. Aspen volunteered to pull those out, even though Stripe objected to his straining his injured legs. "Oh please," the colt responded in a sarcastic way and rolled his eyes. "We used to have some chains and shovels out in the garage, lemme show you."

When they entered the building, his attention shifted and he wandered over to the transport that took up half the bay. It was roughly the size of a recreational vehicle, but somewhat taller, and massively reinforced. "I bet I could get this running," he said over his shoulder. "It'll take a while and be kind of junky, but it's better than riding in that toaster you people call a car." He grinned at the faces they made, then went and found the tools he'd mentioned. Stripe started to offer to help, but shut up when Aspen put what must have been a hundred kilos of steel chains and hooks over one shoulder and picked up an oversized pick, shovel, and axe as well. He trotted back to the first stump without any noticeable effort. Stripe looked at Grace, who just shrugged.

They watched the colt dig for a few minutes before moving on to their own projects. Stripe privately thought that he had deliberately picked up more chain than he needed just to impress them. It was pleasing to think that the colt wanted their attention. Shi came back out with lots of ice water a short while later, just in time to watch Aspen attach the chains to the main roots of the stump, loop the free ends over his forearms, and lean forward. When the roots gave, he put on an expression of triumph, tossed his head and snorted at the stump. Shi had to clap.

The morning went fast, and they were all a little worn out by lunch. Aspen especially, despite his strength, wasn't used to that kind of exertion. He took an impromptu shower with a hose, then they spent some time looking at knickknacks found around the house and playing with Penny. Grace put aside time to do nothing but groom and massage Stripe, who had been moving furniture and firewood all morning, then turned hir sights on Aspen.

"Okay, Sundance, your turn!" Shi declared. "Have a seat and stick out those hooves." Shi produced a brush, comb and scissors. Aspen's ears laid back and he inhaled sharply. "Hurry up, Wild Thing," shi told him, smiling.

Aspen's eyes darted between them. He started to back up, but forced himself to sit. Grace approached him and set everything down where he could see it, then lay on hir belly in front of the colt. He started to stand up again, then closed his eyes and held still. Stripe could see that he was making an effort to control his breathing. Grace, who knew about his problems but hadn't experienced them before, spoke quietly to Aspen for a minute before taking a front hoof and pulling it towards hir. Shi brushed the long hair for a while, getting all the tangles out. Stripe fetched shampoo, washcloths and warm water and set them beside hir mate. Grace picked up the scissors and snipped away the ragged, dirty edges, taking hir time and talking to Aspen throughout the process. Shi finished by washing the silky hair thoroughly. The change was remarkable.

Aspen dared to look down as Grace told him to switch legs, and his expression became one of relief. Shi looked him in the eyes. "You've got good reason to be afraid of things touching you, don't you, Sundance?" Shi asked knowingly. Shi ran hir eyes over his scarred side and reached out to touch one of the horseshoe burn marks on his foreleg. He stiffened, and then nodded slightly. "It's okay, Love," shi said in a soothing tone, "you can tell us later."

Stripe sat beside them and massaged Aspen's shoulders as Grace worked on the other foreleg. When he was very relaxed, shi gave Grace's shoulders a turn while the colt played with his cat. The day was vanishing quickly, but Grace seemed in no hurry to go back to school. Stripe left the two of them alone and went to pack for hir mate, preparing a meal for hir to take along, and check both their messages. Shi wanted to drive Grace back to school hirself, which would allow hir to stay until late, but didn't want to leave Aspen alone that long. Instead, Stripe arranged for a taxi to take hir mate in time for a late shuttle back. It was an unnecessary expenditure, but shi knew Grace would appreciate the extra hours shi would be able to spend with them.

When shi came back into the living room, Stripe stopped, covered hir mouth, and then snuck away to fetch the camera. It was just too cute. Grace had finished the fetlocks, which were still so long that they shrouded Aspenís hooves, and moved on to his soft white mane. Shi had already trimmed it, and was brushing it out while lounged with most of hir lower torso and forelegs across his back. The tabby, Penny, was glaring at the giant intruder who had stolen her rightful place. Grace was jabbering again, telling the colt about all hir friends and running down a list of quange shi knew. He was taking great pleasure in the grooming as shi ran the brush all the way down his upper back. Stripe took several photos, and even Aspen didn't seem to mind. Of course he apparently hadn't yet noticed that Grace was also tying blue ribbons into his mane.

Grace moved to his white tail for the last, and put a ribbon in it also. The long hair on his wrists had been trimmed down, and it seemed as if he was wearing white cuffs. The whole process had taken quite a bit of time, but was definitely worth it. They got Aspen up and took several more pictures, each posing with him as well. The colt still had that rough, primal look from his angular head and neck and huge limbs, but now he looked clean, trim, and, Stripe thought, very attractive. They showed him the pictures, and he snorted when he saw the ribbons, but a shy smile peeked out when the chakats told him how much they liked it.

After they cleaned up and had a snack, Aspen went outside to do some laps for exercise. He was obviously enjoying the sense of freedom around his neck and legs after the trimming, and it showed as he shook his head and put his nose up into the wind. The chakats filmed him for a minute, and Grace realized that watching him was having an effect on hir. The wild strength that rippled through his muscles as he ran made hir pulse quicken. Shi had never been aroused by a quange before, but then shi had never met one that looked quite like Aspen. Reaching out and taking Grace's hand, shi realized that he was having much the same effect on hir mate.

"Let's go inside for a minute," Stripe told hir, and squeezed hir hand.

"Or an hour," Grace replied as Stripe turned hir towards the door.

*             *             *

Two nights later Nightstripe jumped up, instantly awakened by Aspen's movement. Shi could see him plainly, although the room was surely very dark to him. The colt jerked and almost rolled over, then stumbled to his feet with a loud neigh. There was a wild, panicked look in his eyes as he tried to pierce the darkness. Stripe could actually hear his primary heart beating. The veins in his neck were pulsing as if he had been running. "Where are you?!?" he snarled blindly, swinging his head from side to side.

"Ssshhh, Aspen, I'm here Hon," shi said, and took hold of his hand while rubbing his forearm. He took several blind steps, almost tripping over the blankets he used, then raised a clenched fist as if to strike in hir direction. Stripe didn't let go. The idea of being struck by the Quange was absolutely frightening, but shi did hir best to project calm and reassurance to him.

After several seconds, Aspen woke up fully. He dropped his hand and slid back down to the cushions. "Oh shit. Oh God. Oh God," he said, and started shaking. Stripe put a blanket over him, and he laid his hands on his temples and pressed hard. The colt slowly brought himself under control. Shi kept stroking his arm until he was calm enough to lay his head back down, but he was still wide-awake.

"Was it a nightmare?" Stripe asked. Aspen was covered in perspiration. It brought out the machine oil smell he had nearly washed off after working on the transport all day.

"Yeah . . .yeah," the colt said. He was staring at the wall.

"About your family?"

He was quiet for a while. "No. This one didn't have my parents." He paused. "This time you and Grace got run over." He pulled a pillow against his head and shook again. "I had to go pick up all the parts, and put them in the truck so the driver wouldn't . . .wouldn't be late. He let me sit up front as a reward. I could hear you bouncing around in the back, and I wanted to look through the little window and see if you were alive. I opened it and looked in . . . and I saw fireflies in the dark. And I woke up." He was fighting to keep from sobbing.

"What fireflies, Hon?" Stripe asked gently.

Aspen reached out and flicked on a lamp, then raised his head suddenly and scanned the room before turning back towards hir. Stripe shifted position so shi could lay his head across hir forelegs, and stroked his nose and neck.

"I thought they were fireflies at first," he said, in a low but calm voice, "until they touched me . . ."

Stripe's ears laid back flat and hir fur pricked up. Shi looked across Aspen's body. "And they burned." shi finished. Shi fought to contain hirself and not transmit hir anger to him

"Yeah. They burned me," Aspen said and shivered in memory. "We were just goofing off, having a good time. We always came here cause I had so much space and cash. Some of the guys were talking about getting tattoos, and they even had needles for it. I told them they were full of shit and didn't have the nerve to hold still for that, and I went to bed and passed out." Aspen raised his head and looked around again. "I woke up and it was dark. Thought I heard something. All I could see were some things that were floating and glowing. Then someone laughed and one of them touched me down there." He motioned towards the deep scar on his sheath. "They started burning me all over, hollering and whooping at me. I jumped up and tried to hit them, but I was still fucked up and not seeing straight. I didn't even figure out what had happened until the next day. I ran out in the woods and hid until my head cleared up. But for some reason I didn't go get help. It was so goddamn stupid of me."

Aspen sat up, but his shoulders were hunched. "I'd been having dreams about my parents the whole time, but after that, I was having them every time I fell asleep. After five or six nights, it just got to be too much. I shot up so it wouldn't hurt so bad, and just jumped out in front of the first thing on the road that looked big enough to do the job, and old enough to have lousy sensors so it wouldn't be able to stop." He let out a rueful little snort that made Stripe's heart twist. "If I had been straight I probably would've succeeded. Good thing I was on a roll for stupid ideas."

Stripe stood up and moved close to run hir hand through his mane. "It's past time to start doing things differently, Aspen. You need to talk to your therapist about this when you see him tomorrow, about everything. You don't have to let demons chase you, Hon. You're too strong to run from them." Shi pulled Aspen in closer to hir. "So those were the autobrands the police thought you stole." He nodded. "You need to tell the families of everyone that was there," shi said, "they're probably still taking heroin, and they need you to help them."

"I'm not sure I can do that," the colt said. "When I think about them, all I want to do is kick them down. And use my hooves on them." He spoke in a matter-of-fact way, and shi could see a distance in his eyes that indicated he was imagining that very thing. "They treated me like an animal. They don't deserve my help."

Stripe was chilled. With such close contact, shi had no doubt at all that Aspen was sincere. There was a coldness in him, so deep shi hadn't noticed it before. It was a tiny thing, but it was terrible. Shi hugged the colt tightly. "You're better than that." Shi couldn't think of anything else to say.

*             *             *

Nightstripe accompanied Aspen to his next session, and spoke with the therapist afterward. The colt had told him all about the dreams and being attacked, and they both agreed that it had left him with bitterness and suspicion. He had been transferring those feelings to almost everyone he had met since then. His therapist thought it was a good sign that Aspen had finally spoken about it, but it forced him to completely reevaluate his approach. He approved of Stripe's suggestion that shi introduce the colt to more people in social settings, so shi called Grace and made plans to bring friends over for the weekend.

They spent the next few days on a refresher course to help Aspen catch up on his schoolwork. It was clear that he was bright enough to earn a diploma already, but Stripe wanted him in college classes in another year, and he needed the study discipline. He had the beginnings of another nightmare, but shi had been expecting that and woke him up gently. He stayed outside to work, write and eat almost all the time, feeling much more secure in the sunlight than in the enormous ranch house.

Whenever Stripe watched him sitting under a tree, studying or eating his way through a patch of clover or marigold, shi was overcome by how much shi wanted a cub. Aspen radiated warmth and security around hir and Grace, and that made the need all the more urgent. Stripe would be in heat soon after hir mate came home for the weekend, and all three of them needed to talk. It was ultimately Aspen's home and shi wanted his input, although both chakats were sure of his answer.

They spent much of the evenings playing word puzzles and various games. Stripe had read in the colt's files that he had an aptitude for them, but that was an understatement. Aspen was so good that shi couldn't even follow his line of thinking before he was done most of the time. The puzzles served to calm and focus his thoughts as well. Stripe loved watching his eyes when he looked at a problem. His other senses shut down and he entered an almost meditative state. It only lasted a few seconds, but shi found it fascinating.

The colt was equally good at games where he competed against a computer, but he failed time and again when the two of them played two- and three- dimensional chess. Stripe was probably an average player for a chakat, but shi could play a very complex game by the standards of most species. Shi tried to show Aspen everything shi knew about chess (which in hir opinion wasn't much), but he frequently made bad moves and sabotaged himself.

On the third game of the evening, the colt grumbled, "I just don't like a game where the rules change every time you move." Stripe had been previously giving him advice on each turn, but for this game he had wanted to play solo.

"It's not the rules, Hon, it's just the dynamics changing. If you can think enough moves ahead, you won't be stymied very often. Surprised, maybe, but not stymied." Shi took his knight, a little reluctantly. Aspen loved the way they moved, but he ran them recklessly.

He took a pawn in turn, then looked at the board and grumbled as he realized how open he had left himself. "Hmmp, if I didn't know better I'd say you were trying to give me life advice." He tossed the piece aside and put his chin on his palm. "Is Grace an easier opponent than you?"

"Well, shi might not be as good at this," Stripe said with a wink, "But shi's never easy." They both grinned, and the colt ducked his head in that endearing way. "I did play a lot in college, so it's not really a fair challenge. You just need practice. We might not have any time for you two to play this weekend, though."

"I know, I know," Aspen replied without taking his eyes off the board, "going to be a lot of folks here. And I know I have to tell hir about this week, but I'm not looking forward to going through that a third time." He paused. "I don't know about having people over. I mean, they're your friends and they must be great, but . . . I just never stayed in a full house, even for a weekend. I like privacy."

Stripe gave him a gentle smile. "You gave up privacy when you moved in with chakats, Hon." Shi made hir move, not the best one possible, but shi could already see all the way to the end of the game. "But seriously, I can tell you enjoy being around people. Why else would we spend most nights cuddled up together? You're suspicious sometimes because of what you've gone through, but that's not your nature."

The colt winced and nodded. "Ouch. You're usually right, but that doesn't make me feel more comfortable."

"I am right," shi replied. "My mother, Snapdragon, passed away when I was young, and my sire spent a lot of time alone after that. I saw how it affected hir."

Aspen reached across the table and took hir hand. "I'm so sorry, Stripe." He looked as if he wanted to say something else.

"It's all right, Hon, I've had a lot of time to work through this. Butterfly didn't really want to be by hirself, but shi didn't take another mate for several years, and shi got in the habit of brooding. I picked that up from hir." Stripe looked out the window at the moonlit yard. "It took each of us a long time to realize that wasn't the way we actually wanted to be, but we allowed ourselves to fall into patterns of staying alone. I saw how hurt Butterfly was, and didn't let myself get too attached to anybody for years to avoid having that happen to me." Shi reached out and took Aspen's other hand. "I wasnít meant to be that way, and I know you aren't either." Stripe favored him with another smile. "So make friends this weekend or else. They're going to love you, Hon, and our companions don't take no for an answer. And I should warn you, they'll have seen your picture by now, and Grace will have told them all about you. There's a decent chance someone's going to want to find out how good a kisser you are before the weekend is out."

Aspen's eyes grew huge. "Ummm . . .," he sputtered. The colt looked down and let go of one hand to hurriedly make another move on the board. "Is there any good way around that?"

"None at all," Stripe informed him, trying not to smile too broadly. Shi liked the bashful Aspen as much as the wild, potent Aspen shi sometimes saw, but the bashful one might retreat from too much interest. It took a delicate, balanced hand to keep him drawn out. "Besides, you won't mind so much either once you meet them." Shi tilted hir head to one side and looked at him thoughtfully. "You haven't kissed anyone before." It wasn't a question. Shi had known that even before shi thought about it.

"Well, no," he admitted, looking everywhere but at Stripe. "It's . . .I . . ."

"Go on, Hon," shi said, and took hold of his other hand again when it looked like he was planning to bolt. Shi could realistically only trap two fingers, but hir grip was enough to discourage him from getting up.

"I'm just shy," he said at last. "I, you know, I haven't talked to a whole lot of people. I don't know what to say most of the time, where to put my hands. There are hardly any quange around here, and even back home, we were the only Shirebred."

"What does that have to do with it?" Stripe asked.

"Well, even when I was little, I got stared at a lot. I still do." His voice sounded somehow small for a moment. "I read somewhere that there's only a few hundred of us. I don't look like anyone I know. I can tell when someone is staring at or whispering about me. It makes me nervous. And it just got worse as I got older. Now I'm big and clumsy and ham-handed, and I'm amazed I haven't broken everything I own. I usually get so nervous around people I like that I turn into an idiot." He pursed his lips. "I know those are stupid reasons."

"All right," Stripe began, "first of all, you're just shy and introverted, and most people don't mind that as much as you think they do. They're not bad traits, they're just the way you are. Second, I know you don't care if a filly you like is a Shire or not, and trust me, it's not a bad thing for them that you are. They look at you because you're unique, and very, very handsome. Don't make that face at me, either. You know it perfectly well, you just don't believe it. And you aren't the slightest bit clumsy. Hush," shi told the colt as he opened his mouth, "I've seen you walk, you're cautious because you think you're going to run over someone, but you move as gracefully as any quange I've seen. We've watched you write, repair appliances and engines, and play with the cats. Your hands are large and strong, and they're also dexterous and gentle. Just ask Penny." Shi nodded towards the tabby, who was stretched out beside Aspen on the blanket they were sharing.

"Yeah, but . . .," Aspen began.

"I already said hush," Stripe informed him. "Grace has already told every filly shi knows or their parents about you, including the ones shi knows from overseas. I'd be surprised if there are fewer than a hundred people with a copy of your picture by now." His eyes went wide again. "Do you think shi would do that if shi thought they wouldn't like you? It's a cliché, but all you need is confidence." Shi let go of a hand and tapped Aspen's nose lightly. "Now c'mon, we'll get you some." Stripe walked around the table and dragged the colt to his feet and towards the living room.

Aspen looked dubious as shi directed him to light a small fire in the fireplace and pointed at a rug in front of it. "Sit, Hon," shi said.

"Um, okaaay." He did so, with an expression that was both confused and worried. Then it dawned on him as the chakat stepped in front of him, and the colt began getting to his feet. "Whoa, whoa!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing?"

"Just relax, Aspen," Stripe said, and laid a hand on his arm to guide him back onto the rug. "You're going to practice kissing, that's all. We're not going to do anything that will make you uncomfortable later."

"I think this qualifies as uncomfortable already, Stripe!" the colt said, but let hir sit him down on his belly. He was too keyed up to let himself lie down properly.

Stripe moved between his front legs until shi was almost against his human torso and sat on hir hindquarters, putting them at a roughly equal level. The size of Aspen's head made it difficult to face him if shi got too close. Shi felt a moment of pity for him, and hoped he never fell in love with anyone who wasn't a quange. He was in every way too big for anyone else, and shi could easily imagine the heartbreak the sensitive colt might have to endure.

His hands were braced on the floor, and Stripe picked them up and settled them around hir waist. Touching his arms, shi was aware that the colt could probably pick hir up with one hand, but shi didn't feel weak or small around him. Shi rubbed his nose and ran hir hands down his cheeks. "Do you trust me?" shi asked.

Aspen had an awed expression. "Yeah, yes, I do." His eyes moved over hir face and neck and down to hir breasts. Stripe smiled and unbuttoned hir blouse. He inhaled sharply when shi removed it, and that sent an unexpected thrill through hir spines. "You're really beautiful, Nightstripe," he told hir.

"Now if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black," shi said, and ran hir hand through his mane and the perfect lock of hair that fell between his eyes. Aspen's hair was like velvet to the touch all over, but his mane and fetlocks were so fine and soft Stripe could hardly believe they were real. He returned hir smile then, and began gingerly massaging the small of hir back and working his fingers across hir lower torso. His shyness evaporated as he saw how much the chakat enjoyed his ministrations. Though he lacked practice, his hands were incredibly powerful. Stripe forgot what shi was doing and just showed him where to stroke hir backs for a while. Shi nuzzled him and purred, and Aspen buried his nose in hir neck and inhaled deeply.

He reached up and stroked the side of hir head, and Stripe rubbed hir cheek against his palm. Shi lightly licked the inside of his wrist, and was rewarded with a shiver from the colt. No, Grace was right, Stripe thought, he is a stallion, not a colt. Having found that sensitive spot, shi pleasured it for several minutes, and soon had Aspen so ready shi could elicit a shiver just by breathing on his wrist. Shi moved in to nuzzle him again, and gasped from the sudden sensation when hir erect nipples brushed against the stallion's chest. It woke her from the aroused haze into which shi had drifted.

Stripe took Aspen's nose in hir hands and looked him in the eye. Ever since watching him run and play and catching his scent as he worked, shi had wanted him, but had forced hirself to hold off. Shi was twenty-five years his elder, which wouldn't have mattered if shi wasn't also his foster parent. "We can't do this. I really hadn't intended to go this far. I'm sorry." shi told him.

"And here I thought I was just getting some pity petting," Aspen said, stroking hir silver hair and dark fur. "Don't apologize, Stripe, that was incredible, and I understand. His smile turned mischievous. "But if you want to make it up to me . . . you still haven't gotten around to the kissing lesson." Stripe was struck again by how strong and deep his voice was when he felt confident. It seemed as though shi could feel each word pulse through hir chest. The mares were going to swoon if he spoke to them that way.

Stripe stroked his head and gave him several lick-kisses, then moved in close to show him by example. Things were somewhat clumsy due to his size; it simply wasn't easy for Stripe to kiss him properly, but neither one of them was in the least bit deterred by that. Shi discovered that Aspen's lips and mouth (and tongue!) were as strong as the rest of him. They parted after several minutes, both radiating tremendous heat, the stallion grinning bashfully but not avoiding hir gaze. Stripe started to give him a compliment, but was cut off when Aspen scooped hir easily into his arms and held hir against him.

"You and Grace saved my life, you know," he said, and kissed hir shoulder. "And you keep giving, every day. I wasn't expecting such a weird family, but I couldn't have asked for a better one." Stripe couldn't speak. Shi just leaned up to Aspen and continued his lesson.

*             *             *

Nightstripe reluctantly turned away from the window, trying to pay more attention to hir client. Shi was being continually distracted from hir phone conversation by the sight of Aspen going through his paces outside. He was gaining weight, but it was all muscle, and he looked somehow both trimmer and brawnier than when they first met. He'd finally gotten rid of his earrings, and shi loved to stroke his velvety ears while brushing out his mane. Stripe needed Grace badly. Shi was high in hir female phase now, and constantly found hirself staring at Aspen. They had bought three different used weight sets, and the stallion had combined them all with some oversized bars he found in the garage. It was truly impressive to watch him do squats with his front legs while supporting that tremendous weight on his shoulders. The veins on his arms and neck stood out, his entire body was tensed like a gladiator, shi could practically smell him from here . . .

Stripe turned away from the window again, somehow managing to blurt out the correct answer to the question from the other end of the line. Shi rolled hir eyes, thankful that the video link wasn't on. This was maddening. Grace had called an hour ago to say that Thamey's truck was broken down and they'd be late. It could be several hours yet, and even after they arrived shi couldn't just pounce on hir denmate. They had a lot to talk about, introductions to make, and dinner and accommodations to work out. Aspen had worked up his nerve to meet everyone, and upon discovering that he would have to wait even longer, had a fit of jitters so bad that Stripe had made him go run laps and work out to get him calmed down.

Shi finished her conversation and hung up, relieved at being finished for the weekend. Hir eyes drifted outside yet again, and hir imagination compared the stallion's modified squats to another motion entirely. This time shi swatted hirself on the arm in irritation. It was common for more experienced chakats to teach the younger ones how to make love, even the youths of other species on occasion. But Aspen was hir ward, and shi felt going even as far as shi had was a little irresponsible. Given his age, there was a good chance such activity would result in his being taken to the clinic, an orphanage or another family. Grace was his foster parent as well, but their ages were similar enough that it would be safe for them to do more than kiss. That was another problem though. Stripe didn't think that Aspen could have intercourse with anyone smaller than an above-average quange. He and Grace could pleasure each other in other ways, but Stripe wanted to avoid the chance that the experience would frustrate him.

The sound of an electric motor broke hir reverie, and Stripe swiveled hir ears. That was surely Melinda's cycle, which meant that she had driven ahead of the others. Outside, Aspen's slender ears had picked up the quiet whine of the engine as well, and he dropped the weights and trotted around the back of the house. Stripe didn't know if he was planning to hose himself off or hide. Shi went out the front door, and seconds later, hir friend came into view on the peach monstrosity. Melinda stopped well away from the house and took off her helmet. She admired the view for a few seconds before riding the rest of the way in. She dropped her helmet and untied her hair as she ran up to the porch and into Stripe's open arms.

"Hey, you," Stripe said told hir, and they shared a hug and a kiss. "Yike, don't get me worked up, I'm waiting on Grace." shi told Melinda, who was stroking hir sides.

"Awww," Melinda pouted, "well, you'll just have to keep me too busy to pet you then." She looked around as they stepped up onto the porch. "This place is really beautiful. It's like something out of a painting."

"It is, isn't it? Still a bit of a mess though, we've had too many responsibilities and too few hands around here." Stripe wiped away an imaginary cobweb from a window as they walked around the long porch. "I'm hoping to draft a few unlucky slobs to help out this weekend. Know anyone?"

Melinda nudged hir. "Sorry, no help there. I do know a few raving beauties that plan to be here for a couple of days, though. Speaking of which, where's Sundance? Grace has been talking about him nonstop."

Stripe smiled and looked around. "Well, he was outside, but I'm not sure now. He might be a little nervous, so just bear with him."

"Grace told us," Melinda replied, "We'll play it all smooth and casual." She put her hands on her hips, stuck out her lips and batted her eyes in an overexaggerated way. "I'll save the seductions Ďtil this evening," she declared in a sultry tone.

"Cut that out!" Stripe told hir with a grin. "What did I say about getting me worked up? And remember, he is shy, so save the racy stuff. That's him coming now." Shi pointed at the corner of the house as Aspenís unmistakable steps approached. He trotted around the side of the building, giving it a wide berth as he looked around for the two of them. He was drying off his arms with a towel, and his body carried that extra definition that comes after a good workout. They had a good long look at the stallion in profile before he turned their way, and Stripe felt distracted again.

Melinda was whispering to hir, "You're worried about him being shy? I think I'm going to die!" She sounded like a schoolgirl. Stripe stifled a giggle. Shi was observing Aspen's emotions, which had become a little foggy again. Shi really had no idea how he was going to react to a human, although they had discussed Melinda's arrival.

Aspen stopped and tilted his head at them, and Stripe was sure he had heard her friend's last comment. He came alongside the railing, regarding Melinda with a very blank expression. Even with the added height of the porch, they weren't at eye level with the stallion. He twitched an ear, then said, "Hello! Well, since my family is full of chakats, I suppose we'd better do this properly. I'm Aspen Jared Rider, but you can call me Sundance if you like." He leaned across the railing towards Melinda.

She broke into a smile. "Melinda Peachtree, Peach is okay, but don't listen to anyone that says my name is 'Pinchme'. She stepped forward and they shared a hug. The human looked so tiny in his arms. Stripe, relieved, rubbed Melinda's shoulder and winked at Aspen. He returned it, then his eyes grew wide as Melinda's hands found his mane.

"Wow," she remarked, "you're so soft. Grace told me, but I wasn't expecting this. I bet you make a great pillow."

"Uh, thanks," Aspen replied, "I like your scent, like rosemary." She was still hugging his neck with one hand while feeling his head with the other. The stallion looked over her shoulder at Stripe, and held up one hand in a helpless "what-do-I-do-now?" way. Stripe shrugged and grinned at him, and he gave hir a glare. Then his ears perked up and he developed a grin of his own. The stallion put an arm under Melinda's rear and a hand across her back, and effortlessly lifted her over the railing. She shrieked as he held her six feet off the ground and ran a small circle.

"Want a ride?" Aspen asked, and when she nodded, he twisted his upper body around and gently set her across his back. Stripe's mouth was agape as shi watched. This was so unlike him that shi didn't know what to think. The stallion didn't go anywhere at first, giving Melinda time to settle hirself. She rubbed his lower shoulders and moved forward a bit to pet his mane again, which fell almost to the base of his Ďhumaní spine. She had a slightly awed look. "Got a good grip?" he asked over his shoulder. "Sorry, I don't do saddles. Just grab a double handful of hair if you need to." He looked back, and when Melinda nodded again, he headed around the yard, working up to a near-gallop, as fast as he dared go with her unsecured on his back. Aspen's build didn't lend itself to speed, but his rider clearly didn't notice. When they passed by again, her face was shining and she let out a whoop. When they came back after a few laps, Melindaís eyes were closed. She was leaned so far forward that her cheek rested against Aspenís mane, and her arms were wrapped around his waist. She was running her hands over the stallion's abdominal muscles.

"Time for the guided tour," Aspen said. He was beaming as they came back over to the porch. Stripe motioned him over for another hug.

"She adores you now," shi whispered in his ear as he ducked down.

"I kinda figured," he replied and kissed hir cheek. Melinda was still on his back, and seemed to be in no hurry to get down.

They stepped inside with her still seated and showed off the house. When they were finished, she reluctantly hopped down and ran off to the bathroom. As soon as Melinda was out of sight, Stripe asked Aspen, "Where did all that come from, Hon? It was a bit of a surprise."

The stallion shrugged. "Spur of the moment, no pun intended. I felt a lot better when I saw I didn't have to meet everyone at one time, and besides, she looked like someone who likes Quange," he said with a grin. "After the other night, I feel like I can take on the world, and she's a whole lot smaller. Got a great smile, too." He stepped back outside to retrieve his knee braces, while Stripe waited on their guest.

Melinda returned, pointing over her shoulder. "That bathroom is huge!" She craned her neck until she saw Aspen through a window. "Wow," she told Stripe.

Stripe followed her gaze. "Wow, indeed. So I take it you approve."

"Oh yes! He better get used to me. That felt good." They watched him strap the devices on, not an easy feat given his build, but he insisted on doing it alone whenever possible.

"I'll just bet. I wanted to do it too, actually. All that wind and strength. Now we just need to find him a chakat saddle!" Stripe joked.

"It was more than that," Melinda replied, "I've ridden before and this was much better. I'm more than a little wet right now," she confessed. She looked back outside, stroking her neck with one hand.

Stripe's smile grew wider. "He must sweat catnip and oysters with the way he affects people. I'm going crazy waiting for Grace. I can't take my eyes off him."

Melinda made a face. "That's the most disgusting metaphor I've ever heard, but I agree completely. You mean you two haven't done anything? Yet?"

"No, we haven't, and we're not going to," Stripe replied, "well, apart from a makeout session. He and Grace might choose to, but I shouldn't ask until he gets a little older."

"Why?" Melinda asked. "Because of the fostering issue? As far as I know, he is 'legal'. Someone could choose to take him away, but between you being a chakat and all the progress Grace tells me he's made, they'd be idiots to do that."

Stripe watched Aspen struggle to put the brace on his rear leg. Shi squinted and concentrated as if that would somehow help him accomplish the task. "It's not just that, Peach. He lost his parents, and I'm a bit like his mother right now. We spend most of our time together, and will for a while yet. He doesn't need to get so attached to me before he has a chance to go out and meet other people."

Melinda nodded. "I'm not taking any psych classes, so I won't pretend to have any good opinions on that point . . .damn, he's sexy, makes me wish I was a mare . . ." she trailed off.

Stripe put hir hand around Melinda's waist. "I got a similar impression from Grace, actually," shi remarked. "And quite the opposite one from Aspen. I can tell that he loves to watch chakats move. He gets the same look in his eye that you have right now. Oh, looks like he's done, let's go corral him." They headed outside and did just that, making the stallion give Melinda another ride and then bringing her inside for a light snack and conversation. After a bit, Aspen said that he was getting stiff and needed to go stretch his legs, and excused himself with a flick of his white tail. Stripe and Melinda looked at each other for a moment before the chakat picked up hir guest and walked towards the bedroom, whinnying at hir in imitation of a quange and making them both giggle. They had quite a bit of unrelieved tension and at least a little time in which to take care of it.

It was two hours before they heard from Grace again, and the sky was beginning to darken. Stripe put the phone down and sighed as the others watched hir expectantly from the living room floor. "Thamey's truck broke down again. The console computer went out, so they didn't have any warning that something was wrong," shi told them. Melinda groaned and fell back against Aspen, who was serving as her Ďcouchí.

"Crap," he remarked without a pause in devouring the small meal before him. The stallion needed so much food that no one begrudged his eating long before dinnertime. "They've been on the road, what, six hours now? How close are they?"

"Judging from Grace's description, they're probably only about six miles away," Stripe replied. "I can just go pick them up while you two start dinner." Shi pointed at Melinda. "Aspen Hon, keep an eye on her and tie her up if she puts anything weird in the salad."

Melinda stuck out her tongue. "All I ever do is try to expand your horizons and this is the thanks I get. On the other hand . . ." she looked up at the stallion, "maybe you do like me after all, Stripe."

Aspen ducked his head bashfully and then turned to Stripe. "Actually, can we come with you?" he asked. "I'd like to take a look at the truck, and I can always walk back. Not that I mind staying," he added as Melinda ran a hand through one of his fetlocks.

"If you're sure, Hon. You know how uncomfortable my car is for you."

"Yeah, but it'll put this Thamey in a better mood if we can go ahead and bring the truck home now. He's a biped, right? If we can't fix it, Iíll him a ride back." He took Melinda under the arms and lifted her up, then hopped to his feet.

"Sounds good. Sorry, Peach, no quality time for you two right now," Stripe teased. "Want to come?"

"No thanks, we need to get dinner ready. You'll just have to trust me." She favored Stripe with an evil grin. The chakat rolled hir eyes.

"Dead, I'll be dead one of these days. They'll find my corpse clutching half of a hamburger with raisins in it, and you'll be right there, whipping up another batch and hitting on the detectives."

"Only the cute ones," Melinda retorted.

Aspen headed for the door while Stripe was gathering hir things. He tossed on a huge light blue jacket, a gift from Stripe and Grace. "I'll grab some tools and stuff, be right there," he called over his shoulder.

Shi stepped outside, and moments later, Aspen appeared carrying a toolbox, some lengths of chain, hooks and a quange harness that looked like a large leather horseshoe. "Just in case," he said in response to hir unspoken question. He set everything in the PTV and crawled inside, ignoring the pitiful groans from the vehicle. Stripe raised an eyebrow, both confused and suspicious, then climbed in and pulled the vehicle around.

A little over ten minutes later they spotted the large truck pulled off to the side of the road. Grace and Cameo were watching them approach from beside it, but all Stripe could see of Thamey were his legs and hindquarters, wrapped in cutoff jeans and poking out from under the raised hood. The chakats waved at them, and Grace swatted Thamey's rear several times to get him out of the engine. The poor tod was spattered with oil and grime.

Stripe pulled just past them to make it easier to transfer their luggage to the PTV, got out and pulled back the side door for Aspen. Grace ran to them for a group hug, and Cameo stared for a second or two before coming over, dragging Thamey with hir tail. Introductions were quick but clumsy, with the colt bending halfway down and the chakats rearing up to hug him. Stripe hugged and licked Thamey despite his protests that he was filthy, and then put him in front of Aspen. The two held out their hands automatically, then looked around at the others in embarrassment, aware that it wasn't proper etiquette to shake hands in this crowd.

"Cut out the macho crap, you two," Grace informed them, and practically shoved the fox morph into Aspen.

"Enh, when in Rome, right?" Thamey asked, and held out his arms.

"Yep, do as the Romans, or get fed to the lions," Aspen finished, nodding in Grace's direction and spreading his arms as well. When they hugged, the chakats all applauded them and then joined in. When they separated, the two males laughed and shook hands anyway. A few quick questions were passed around the group, and then they got to business. The fox and quange pulled out some diagnostic tools and gathered under the hood of the truck for a conference, while the others transferred the luggage to Stripe's vehicle. Stripe listened to them after the chakats finished emptying out the truck. Shi caught a few snippets, and discovered that Aspen had spent a lot of time watching his parents fix their vehicles when he was young. Apparently both elder Shires had been mechanics, and had at one point owned a half dozen repair shops. Shi wondered why they had left those businesses behind to move out west.

The two raised their heads after a short while. Now Aspen also had a layer of grime on his hands, and a few discolored spots on his nose. "Folks, it's done for," Thamey announced, making a gesture and sound as if shooting the engine with a pistol.

Aspen's face grew momentarily dark, and Stripe spoke up quickly. "Thamey, think about what that means, Hon." That gesture had come from the archaic practice of shooting a lame horse, and had somehow managed to survive the centuries.

The tod just looked confused for several seconds, then the corners of his mouth fell. "Oh man, I'm so sorry, Sundance. I never thought about it. Are you pissed at me?"

Aspen regarded him for several seconds. "Nah, I'm not, but I'm going to have to get back at you now. I hear it's a tradition." He grinned crookedly and gave a short evil laugh, which sounded very strange coming from a quange mouth.

Grace clapped hir hands together. "Yay! That's my boy!" shi said, and aimed an infuriating smile at Cameo. Stripe suspected that the Siamese had finally gotten hir payback for the incident with the fliers. "Now give each other another hug," Grace added, looking back at them.

They both grumbled and complied, and Aspen picked Thamey up off the ground and gave him a tight squeeze. "Say 'Uncle'," The stallion told him with a grin. All Thamey could manage was a small, squeaky sound and a weak struggle. "What's that? I can't hear you!" Aspen said, but he relented anyway.

"Sundance," Thamey said after his feet touched the ground, "when you get a chance, make me a list of things that tick you off, so I'll remember never to do ANY of them!"

"I'll make it up to you. Let's get your truck back to the house." Aspen turned and shut the hood.

"How? The motor's shot, we'll have to wait and get it towed."

"Nah," the stallion replied, "we'll tow it." He trotted over to Stripe's car and began dragging out chains.

"Aspen, Hon," Stripe told him, "That could be dangerous." His intentions were obvious as he pulled out the synthetic leather harness, which was designed to fit around his "waist".

"No problem, Stripe. We'll turn on the hazard lights, and I have some orange reflectors and a warning transmitter that I can put on. It'll be fun." He felt around in the PTV and displayed the safety reflectors, designed just for a quange to wear. "You guys can go get everything ready, and Thamey can steer and make sure I don't get run over. . .," Aspen became suddenly quiet. Stripe felt Grace take hir hand worriedly. The stallion blinked and smiled. "It's cool, besides, this way we might be able to get this thing running again immediately, instead of having to worry about how they're getting back to school later."

Stripe opened hirself to Aspen. Shi would have expected him to have some misgivings about dragging a truck down the road, even on the shoulder, but he seemed genuinely pleased with the idea. Shi had the impression that he might be planning to show off a little by hauling a two-ton truck six miles, but he was clearly up to the task. "Okay, I'll run them home, then come back by and see how you're doing."

"Right!" Aspen said cheerfully, and began hooking himself to the truck bumper.

Stripe put hir arm around Thamey's shoulder. "Keep both eyes on him, Tim," shi said quietly.

"And the other two on the road," the tod agreed, and went to help Aspen hitch himself up.

*             *             *

A little over sixty minutes later, the Rider-Whistler overland expedition rolled into view of the house. Stripe had driven back by them and handed out food and drink to take the edge off the tod's long day, and he seemed relaxed as they slowly steered over to the garage. A short distance away, the stallion unhitched himself and casually pushed the truck inside, then went and showered with the hose again. Stripe shook hir head. That trip had been unnecessary, but Aspen had wanted to be useful and most likely, to look good at the same time. Shi liked his outgoing side, but hoped he didn't become too confident.

Cameo had been given a house tour, and Thamey's could wait until he was cleaned and fed. Instead, they fired questions at Stripe and Aspen while everyone was lounged in the living room. Stripe sat beside Thamey, while the others alternated sprawling against the stallion. Shi was absolutely certain that Aspen would purr if he could. Even the tod took a turn using him for a cushion, albeit under pressure from the chakats, and once the two got over their inhibitions they spent a while talking about their musical interests.

The sun had been down for more than two hours, and folk were getting weary. Stripe needed a good long discussion with hir family, but while Grace was watching hir with alert and sensuous eyes, Aspen was yawning two or three times a minute. Shi resigned hirself to waiting for morning at least, knowing shi would be in heat by then. The impromptu party broke up, with Thamey and Cameo needing to bed down and Melinda not far behind them. Aspen got to his feet, stretched his arms, and turned his upper body to remove his rear leg brace, then leaned his weight back and unstrapped the front one.

All three chakats turned towards him at once, sensing his pain before he did. Aspen took two steps in the direction of the bathroom, then his rear leg buckled and he began to tip over with a cry of pain. He had just passed Melinda, who was still seated on the floor, and began to fall in her direction. The quange, making an unconscious decision, threw both front hooves back, and landed heavily and badly on his knees instead of toppling onto the human. Grace and Stripe were already on each side of the stallion by the time he let loose a bellow from the impact. He brought up a fist and slammed it on the floor so hard it boomed through the house.

"Cam, there's a medical kit in the top drawer of my dresser, go get it!" Stripe called, and turned to Aspen, adding soothing words to Grace's and stroking his head and nose. His teeth were clamped tight and his eyes streamed tears. Cameo ran to the bedroom while Melinda and Thamey helped them roll the stallion onto his side and off his legs. Shi returned with the box, sliding into a sitting position beside them. Stripe opened it and pulled out a prepared hypospray.

"He's so stiff from lying down the last few hours," Grace said as shi stacked pillows between Aspen's legs to take pressure off the joints. "Look how swollen the knees are." No stranger to strained joints, shi sent Melinda to get medicine and Thamey for ice. The quange was breathing through clenched teeth, and had enough control now to try to keep his legs straight and still.

Stripe prepared the injector, and swiftly used it on each leg just above the joint. "It'll help with the pain," shi explained. "I insisted we be allowed to take something home in case this happened." The joints were so inflamed they felt like heated stones. Aspen was cursing in a low tone, calling himself every terrible name possible. "Stop that now, young one," Stripe told him, "the pain will fade shortly."

Topical medicine and icepacks were placed on each leg, and they all concentrated on making the stallion more comfortable. "It's my fault, I'm so sorry, Sundance!" Melinda said, hugging him. "I saw those leg braces and asked you to run around anyway."

"Don't do that, Hon, you hardly weigh anything," Stripe said. "I shouldn't have let him pull the truck." Beside hir, Thamey was shamefaced at having been involved in that. Grace as well was sick at not having spoken up. Shi was quiet, but Stripe could feel hir guilt. Shi started to reassure the two of them also, but was cut off.

"Bullshit!" Aspen said, lifting his head from his pillow for a second. "I'm the only one here who knew how bad I get, and I did it anyway. I've been pushing all day, trying to be tough, and acting like I wasn't going to pay for it later, so shut up!"

Everyone was quiet after that. They petted and massaged the stallion until he declared that he could move to the bedroom. That was a task in itself. Aspen was able to walk stiffly once he got to his feet, but he had to be rocked to a sitting position first. "This is why I hate being big," he muttered, grasping at doorjambs and furniture to keep his balance while the strong chakats supported him.

"You're absolutely perfect, love," Grace told him, and stroked his neck. He didn't argue.

They made him the best possible bed, and he let out a fresh stream of curses as he slowly got off his feet. Melinda distracted him by taking breakfast orders for the next day, and Cameo stayed for a bit to use hir skillful hands on his backs and legs. Thamey, not much given to nurturing, compared scars with Aspen for a while. He had more than his share, owing to a childhood full of tree-climbing and stupid bicycle stunts. After Thamey described the circumstances of a 'tightrope walking' trick he had attempted on a length of steel pipe, which ended with his suddenly and unintentionally straddling the pipe, Aspen was nickering with amusement and not paying any attention at all to his pain.

After the stallion finally obeyed Grace and laid his head down, Stripe took Thamey and Cameo aside. "Thank you both so much," shi told them. "You made a new friend."

"It's not like that, Stripe," Thamey protested, "I need my mechanic on his feet if I'm going to drive back!" Stripe was about to say something when Cameo tied up the tod's ankles with hir tail, pulled him to a seated position and put hir hand around his muzzle.

"Stripe, what he meant to say is that it was a pleasure and Sundance is a great kid and we're really happy for you. Isn't that right, chuckles?" Cameo asked, looking down at Thamey, who nodded while bugging out his eyes in an exaggerated way. "That's a good little furball. Keep being nice and I'll give you a treat." The two chakats exchanged smiles. "Now go pester your family, Stripe. I'll make sure Melinda doesn't feel guilty or neglected either." Shi stood the tod back up and walked with him to the guest room.

When Stripe returned to hir room, Grace had taken over the storytelling duties and was regaling Aspen with hir own childhood, putting on exaggerated accents when imitating hir family and making the quange fight to avoid whinnying in hysterical laughter. Stripe crossed hir arms and gave hir mate a mock scowl. "Hon, if you keep doing that, he's not going to able to keep a straight face when he meets them."

Aspen looked up. "Meet?" he asked with a slightly panicky look. "When are we doing that?"

"Not for a few months, dear. We'll spend part of Grace's summer vacation rooming near Melbourne, about two weeks. And you'll get to meet my sire much sooner. We can spend a long weekend with hir family on hir birthday, and you can meet my half-siblings as well. We can fly to hir home in a couple of hours, even taking a budget airline."

"Sounds good," the stallion said, "but why haven't we been introduced over the phone yet? I'm guessing they already know about me."

"They do, Hon, we just told them that we all needed some settling-in time first. They're anxious to meet you, but our parents are all very patient people." Stripe and Grace had explained some of Aspen's difficulties to their parents, but there was no need to go into such details with him.

"And don't forget, love, there's other news we want to be able to give them soon," Grace interjected.

Aspen looked back and forth between them. "What news?"

Stripe settled down where shi could stroke his flank without being too close to his elevated legs. "Well, we do need to talk, but it can wait if you're tired."

"Oh right, about this week and stuff," Aspen said, looking at Grace. "Things got complicated."

"Life wouldn't be any fun if it wasn't complicated, love. Tell me all about it." Shi moved over, lying down where Aspen could rest his head on hir forelegs, and played with his ears. "I love how you feel without the earrings. Toss them in the trash, Sundance." Shi smiled at him, scratching behind them and stroking the tips.

"Mmm, if you promise to keep doing that I'll think about it," he said as he shifted and settled into bed. It took Aspen a minute to compose his thoughts, but then he told Grace about his nightmares, the burn scars and what happened to make him run in front of a truck. Stripe learned a few more details, and managed to get the names of the teens that had been coming over to the house and who attacked Aspen. He had already told the story twice, and it was much easier on him this time. Grace, who had long since guessed that someone else had burned him, was bent over and crying into his neck before he finished, and Stripe and Aspen did their best to comfort hir. When shi was calm, they spent a few minutes discussing the stallion's injuries. Most of his scars could be reduced or cleared up within a few weeks once they arranged to have them treated, but all of them felt he still needed time to become more trusting and allow surgeons to touch him. Similarly, his swollen joints could likely be replaced with artificial ones, and only a few weeks would be needed for total recovery. The chakats, while not at all fond of artificial implants, saw how much they could help Aspen, and convinced him to consider working towards that end.

As they chatted, the stallion noticed the looks that Stripe and Grace were giving one another. "What?" he asked, "Is there some secret here? I'm not empathic, but I'm not stupid either, so what's the news you mentioned?"

"Well, Love," Grace began as shi pet his ears, "after we call up our parents and introduce you, we'd like to be able to tell them that we're expecting."

Aspen's mouth fell open, and he stared at each of them before breaking into a grin. "Awesome! Who's the momma?"

"I am, or we hope I will be," Stripe said. "We haven't tried yet." She moved in front of Aspen, then took his enormous hand and held it in hir lap. "I'll be in heat very soon, Aspen. At the earliest our cub would be born about seven weeks after you turn eighteen. You're a part of our family, and we want to know how you feel about it." Grace took his other hand in both of hirs.

Aspen looked shocked. "Wait, I hope this isn't because it'll be my house and you don't know what I want to do! If you guys ever move out it'll be because we're all moving somewhere better. This is your home just as much as it is mine, and you know it." He smiled and ducked his head a little. "I didn't expect to ever have someone ask me my feelings on their getting pregnant. Okay, my opinion is that you should do this as soon as possible, and that sounds like it'll be right away. Happy?"

Both chakats pushed in close to nuzzle and hug him and each other. "Ecstatic, Love!" Grace exclaimed, and licked his ears. "We thought we would have to wait until next year to have enough room to start a family."

"I've wanted to do this for a long time, Aspen. You don't know what it means to us." Stripe was lick-kissing his shoulder and neck, and the stallion was reveling in all the attention.

"You could have told me before now, you know," the stallion pointed out. "Not as if one more surprise would kill me at this point."

"We just didn't want to pile too many things on at once," Grace told him. "If you're feeling comfortable now, we can go ahead and switch bedrooms to wait for Stripe's time. Melinda would be happy to come in here with you."

Aspen paused a moment. "Hold up," he said. "I read everything I can about chakats so I won't be surprised by stuff you guys do. I'm going to be at the cub's birth, right?" He reached out and ran his hand along the side of Stripe's belly.

"Right beside us if possible, and if you want to," Stripe told him, and Grace nodded in agreement.

"Well, of course I do," he replied. "But . . . if I'm going to be around for that, is there any reason I can't be present now? It seems like the same thing." His ears blushed. "I mean, if itís not rude or embarrassing, you don't have to leave tonight. If you don't want to." He looked at each of them in a shy way and flicked an ear. "I know that it's kind of a strange thing to ask."

Stripe smiled at the stallion and looked over to Grace, who nodded. "Not strange at all, Aspen. It's often private, but that's in no way a rule or tradition. If we all stay together, it can only strengthen our bond."

Grace got a mischievous look and winked at him. "Why Sun, I didn't know you liked to watch. And you told us you were shy."

"Bah," Aspen told hir, "I'm being home schooled, remember? I figure if I learn a few things, I'll do better on the pop quiz later." He kept a completely innocent expression until the chakats broke down and laughed. They settled in around him, and everyone cuddled casually until they got sleepy.

Hours later, Stripe awoke suddenly and raised hir head. Hir hearts were beating as if shi had been running. Shi sniffed the air, amazed at how hir senses could be so sharp and yet covered in a thick haze at the same time. It had been twenty-six years since hir first heat, and still shi was always surprised by the strength of hir urges. Looking around, Stripe saw Grace's green eyes reflecting the moonlight through the open window. Hir mate was already awake and watching hir.

"You smell nice," Grace whispered. Hir lips were slightly parted, and shi was almost panting.

Stripe smiled. "You smell . . ." shi stopped and shivered as shi took in the scent of hir mate. "It's time," shi finished.

Grace eased to hir feet in total silence to move close to Stripe, settling alongside hir. Their eyes remained transfixed as if they had hypnotized one another. Stripe's tail instinctively entwined with Grace's, and the lioness stroked hir backs, making Stripe arch and bite hir lip to contain hirself. That hand was like electricity coursing across hir skin. Shi looked over at Aspen, not quite awake, and laid a hand on his lower shoulder. The stallion woke and blinked himself awake, then smiled. He reached out and stroked their cheeks while lifting his nose to catch their scents, then settled back again.

The two chakats turned back to one another and clasped hands. In turn they spoke the loving words of the ritual that preceded the act of procreation, finishing together. They paused a moment and then dove into each other. Their lovemaking quickly became fiery and strong. To an outsider, it might have seemed at times as if they were fighting. Their thick hides didn't mind the nearly vicious nips they traded. The couple had always been aggressive towards each other in their most aroused moments. Stripe thought later that Aspen might have been the first to see them take each other like that.

When Grace mounted hir, Stripe yowled and clawed at Aspen's blankets. Shi leaned forward and braced hirself on all six limbs to push against hir lover. They soon settled into a rhythm, and Grace's arms wrapped around hir waist to pull hir back up. Stripe felt another touch and opened hir eyes. Aspen was seated before them and had gently taken hold of hir hands. Stripe could feel him clearly through their contact. The stallion caught hir eyes in his, and simply shared in their bond of love. His touch was transmitted to Grace as well, and it magnified their own sensations, sending them both over the edge with a shudder and a scream. When Stripe was able to focus hir vision again, shi smiled at Aspen, whose expression was one of pure amazement.

The couple mated several more times, and Aspen touched or held them each time, not demanding anything else. They drank of each other's milkwater, bringing each to orgasm again, and brought the stallion's head down to share that as well. They rested a long while afterwards, but none of them could fall asleep. The sounds of crickets and night-creatures outside had died down, leaving the world in unexpected silence, when Stripe made hir decision and asked Grace to become hir lifemate. They nuzzled and cried in joy, and shi saw that Aspen was crying as well. They pulled him over to share the hug, and feeling them against hir, Stripe made another decision.

"Aspen," shi said, "I need to make clear how I feel about you. I've been finding excuses not to say this since you came to us, but with you both here, I can't fool myself any longer. I care about you very much. Will you be my Companion?" Shi touched his chest and looked up at him with serene eyes. Wrapped up in their arms, shi felt more security than even hir sire had been able to give hir as a cub.

The stallion was dumbstruck. He just stared at hir for a time, and then his mouth began to work, though no sounds came out. The shroud of fog had evaporated from his emotions, leaving Stripe with an image of lushly forested valleys and a dark, snow-capped mountain under a blue sky. That was Aspen at his heart to hir, clear and wild and gentle and proud. Shi saw an image of hirself in there, the part of hir that he had let roam those valleys inside him. It was a person he respected and trusted perhaps more than anyone he had ever met, and that person had just asked him to become closer to hir. Shi blushed deeply in the darkness. Finally he found his voice.

"I told you I couldn't have asked for a better family," Aspen said, "and I meant it. You had your answer two days ago." He kissed hir above the eyes and hugged both chakats to him. "Yes, Nightstripe. You know I love you. I have since I met you." Stripe wrapped hir arms around his waist and rubbed hir cheek against his velvet-covered chest. Outside the window, the world was slowly lightening towards sunrise.

"I still have first dibs, love," Grace informed them from deep inside the hug, and Aspen jumped and let out a yipe as shi nipped his belly.

 


Continued in Part Four

 

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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