Stray Stallions
By Charles L. Honeycutt

Part Four


Stripe held on for dear life as the quad-axle monstrosity once again rolled out of the garage and down the driveway. Aspen was at the wheel, with hir in a special jump seat beside him and Grace directly behind. The front passenger seat was occupied by a rented holographic instructor, which was doing its best to keep the stallion from killing them all. The holographic "quange" had been designed to deal with young and exuberant drivers, but that didn't help a great deal if the driver in question wasn't listening. Aspen had clearly decided long ago that he already knew how to drive. He made a very tight turn onto the road, leaving a huge cloud of dust in the transport's wake. Stripe was especially worried by the fact that he had put on a cowboy hat before they left.

Shi had to concede, though, that he could handle the controls perfectly well. The stallion had clearly been given driving lessons before, but he had that recklessness at the wheel that only came from inexperience. The instructor asked him to ease back and he ignored it again. Stripe frowned, then reached forward and turned off the transport's safety features, a series of sensors that kept the driver updated on the positions of nearby objects, as well as any vehicles and pedestrians carrying a transmitter within a certain radius. The instructor immediately objected, but a few keystrokes pacified it.

Aspen started to turn his head towards hir, then snapped back to face the road. "Why'd you do that?" he asked.

"Because people don't always wear transmitters or communicators. Because sensors fail, drivers get cocky, and autopilots miscue," Stripe said gently.

"Oh," he replied, and his ears fell as he slowed down. "Guess I am behaving a little stupidly. I really don't like that thing, though." He pointed at the hologram. "It makes me twitchy. Can we turn it off and you shepherd me around instead?"

"I have no idea how to drive this thing, Hon, but I think Grace can help." Stripe looked back at hir.

Grace called out from the back, "Oh yeah, Sundance, I spent three weeks tooling around with a mate in the trucking industry three summers ago. Not quite the same thing, but I could pilot this wreck." Shi leaned forward and tickled his side.

"Hey now, this 'wreck' is my baby, don't speak badly of my baby," he said, waving his finger at hir. "It's going to be my roving chick magnet."

Stripe suppressed a laugh. "If by that you mean that it will attract a lot of housecleaning services, then I agree completely." Shi switched off the hologram and they pulled off to the side of the road so the chakats could switch places.

Aspen grumbled, but he gave hir a kiss before shi left the front seat. "Yeah yeah yeah, I can't help it if the spiders moved in while it was in mothballs. And it'll look great once I get it repainted." He blew on the dashboard to get rid of yet another puff of dust that had appeared from the hidden recesses of the transport.

Stripe was now seated behind them, perched in a sort of booster seat on top of the quange-sized original. "I thought you said you didn't like trucks, Aspen." shi said as he restarted the motor.

"No, I said I don't care much about them. But I have a little bit of an idea of what I'm doing from listening to my folks, and just because I get bored talking about trucks doesn't mean that I want to ride in something junky-looking. All strapped in?" He looked over his shoulder to see that hir harness was in place. "Cool. Ready, Grace Baby?"

"Always, Wild Thing. Engage," shi said as shi buckled in and pointed at the road. Shi turned the sensors back on, but swiveled the small monitor over for hir use instead of Aspen's, forcing him to pay full attention to his actions.

"Aye, Captain," the stallion responded, and pulled out, taking much more care this time. Stripe fought the urge to become a backseat driver and let them do the work instead. Shi watched Grace and Aspen jabber happily at one another, and reached back to touch hir belly. Shi had been pregnant for two weeks now. Shi wouldn't be showing at all for quite a while, but could feel hir cub very clearly. Stripe had even had a dream in which shi saw the color of the cub's coat, but had kept that private. It was probably just wishful thinking anyway. Shi was a little bothered that Grace wouldn't get to spend a lot of time with their child for the first few months while shi finished hir degree, and that by the time shi was six months old, Aspen would probably be at school somewhere far away.

Grace already had a job waiting for hir in architectural planning next year, using holographic design programs. Shi could work mostly from home, and would leave mainly to do "walk-throughs" in holosuites set up specifically to show building layouts and landscaping for easy modifications. Stripe, who hadn't spent any significant time in such devices, was fascinated by hir mate's upcoming career. Crunching numbers was beginning to bore hir, although moving hir office to the ranch house had alleviated that feeling for the time being. The social interaction with clients and the sense that shi was helping them plan for years to come were all that kept hir interested.

Aspen, though, was still completely undecided. He wrote and sketched casually (and was still anxious about having others look at his work), but wasn't committed to doing either for a living. He'd expressed a lack of interest in Star Fleet's military protocol, and their efficiently designed ships were for the most part no place for a creature of his size. He'd almost certainly end up either grounded at a base or piloting a combat vehicle, something Stripe had no desire to see him do. Especially if he drives them like this, shi mused.

The subject of Star Corps had come up as well. Their organization might better suit Aspen's style, though he still had no career path in mind. He still had plenty of time to decide, but the sooner he made plans the smoother the next few years would go. Stripe found hirself wondering what they would all do if he did make a choice that involved traveling far. Would hir family follow, or let Aspen go his own way?

She woke out of this potentially depressing line of thought, brought back to reality by the pair of tails swishing bewitchingly in front of hir. Shi reached out and gave each a playful tug, now thoroughly distracted by their motions. Stripe had discovered that the increase in libido caused by pregnancy was no exaggeration. If not for Aspen's presence, shi would have gone mad waiting for hir lifemate's weekend visits.

Grace had indeed gotten "first dibs" two weekends ago, and had come away purring and quietly content. But Stripe had spent far more time with the stallion since then. Shi had found him to be as gentle in bed as in everything else he did. He made love to hir with his mouth and hands, and seemed content to hold hir to him with one arm and bring hir to orgasm over and over with his fingers. Aspen, however, was very nervous about having his sheath touched, even by his chakats. They were slowly working past that, but the burn mark had left a deeper scar than was apparent.

Stripe looked up to see Grace watching hir intently. The lioness wrapped hir tail around Aspen's rear leg and mouthed "Mine!" back at Stripe with a grin. Stripe responded by sticking out hir tongue, which hir mate imitated. Shortly Aspen was demanding to know why everyone was giggling, declaring, "I'm not THAT bad a driver!"

They came home for a lazy lunch, and took a short nap to freshen up for the evening. Stripe and Grace were planning to take their stallion to their former neighborhood and show him off at the lawn party. He had already warned them that "shenanigans" such as tying ribbons in his mane again would not be tolerated, but Grace packed some to take along anyway. When they got up, Aspen went outside to jog, his new ritual to burn off nervous energy before meeting people, and then sat on the porch listening to music on his headphones while reading. The chakats watched him through a window for a while, and then snuck out to join him.

Stripe set a hand on his shoulder and sat down. The stallion once again had his player turned up so high they could hear it clearly, and didn't notice hir until shi touched him. He switched it off and turned towards hir as shi commented, "I see you got all quiet, Hon, what is it?"

"Enh, just nerves again," he put a single arm around both of them. "All those people, and I still don't know what to say most of the time. These help me relax." He waved the player and book.

"You could always play with us tonight, Love," Grace told him. "I bet you've got a great singing voice, and we're strictly amateur anyway. I even plan to get Stripe doing it soon. You've heard hir yowl, tell me shi isn't a natural."

Aspen nickered. "No thanks, I'd just start acting like myself if you put me on stage. But a chakat duet would be great." He nudged Stripe, who shook hir head vehemently and changed the subject.

"What are you listening to?" shi asked, peering over at the stack of boxes beside him.

"Just this and that, little bit of everything, you know," he held up a couple and showed them the covers.

"And right now?" Stripe asked, nodding at his player. Shi knew exactly what he had in there. Aspen's collection had more than a few unsavory choices, songs with good beats and disgusting lyrics. Shi had been hoping to find out why someone as sensitive as him would listen to such things.

"That's nothing," he replied lamely, and started to open the player to switch discs. Stripe stopped him.

"No, no, please. I'd like to hear some," shi said, and Grace joined in, both chakats pressing the stallion until he was forced to switch off his headphones and play the first song for them. For three and a half minutes, they listened to raunchy, painfully rude lyrics. Aspen kept his head lowered and his hand on his forehead in embarrassment while the chakats sat thoughtfully. Stripe supposed that if he thought about it, Aspen would have realized their ears could easily pick up on what he was playing anyway. When it finished, he looked up again, his ears drooping.

"Okay, I get the point, it's filthy nonsense," the stallion said, "I'll toss them."

"It's not that we just want you to get rid of it, Hon," Stripe told him, "but you could think about how that sort of thing makes other people feel. Ultimately, though, your choice of music is your decision, and not our business at all, so don't let me push you."

Aspen, who was becoming used to having such conversations from all the time spent with therapists and chakats, told hir, "K, let me think a minute." He sat quietly, and then started tapping his fingers as a smile spread across his face. "Be right back," he said, and trotted inside the house. Stripe and Grace looked at each other in confusion. "Grace," the stallion called from inside, "what's the name of that big rock in all those postcards you have?"

"That's Ayers," shi called back, mystified.

"Great, thanks!" They heard him shut the door to his room and pace around. Aspen wasn't one for stealthy movements.

"What's this about?" Stripe asked hir.

Grace shrugged. "Don't look at me, he's your kid."

Stripe giggled and held hir, neither one in a hurry to leave the porch. About twenty minutes later, Aspen reappeared, holding a notepad. "C'mon inside," he said excitedly. They followed him in, and he turned on the main sound system that encircled the living room. "Okay, this is really lame, but I just had the system take most of the vocals out of that recording. I figured 'If thy lyrics offend thee, then pluck them out'."

"Aha, I get it," Grace said, "you wrote new ones. In fifteen minutes?"

"Twenty if you have to know, like I said, this'll be lame. I didn't put a whole lot of thought into it." He handed out a half-slip of paper to each of them. "That's the chorus, but I understand if it's too stupid to sing." Aspen shrugged. "I had a few ideas that had to get out, and at any rate it means you won't have to listen to the original anymore."

Stripe read the paper and laughed, then covered hir mouth. "I'm sorry, Aspen, it's great, I'm just surprised you did this. It's the first time you've let us see anything you've written."

"Yeah, well, after talking about sexual anxiety a few times, this isn't exactly a big deal, right?" His tone was mock sarcastic, but he was smiling. "Now c'mon, you two make me do all sorts of silly things, now it's my turn!"

Aspen started up the recording, sans vocals, and handed them a microphone to share, while he held the other of the pair he had found in a drawer. "We're going to play this karaoke style, ladies," he told them, and began singing his version of the song, which he had made into a sort of tribute to chakats. It was full of innuendo, but much gentler than the original, and had many romantic lines that clashed in a strangely pleasing way with the beat and harsh style. Grace groaned at the lines containing bad Aussie stereotypes, but went along with it anyway, and soon got into it wholeheartedly. Stripe, a better singer than shi would ever consider hirself, could carry the tune well enough, but shi was astounded at hir stallion's voice. He was an amateur, but his powerful voice surrounded them, reminding hir of some of hir favorite old romantic tunes. He carried the song enthusiastically, and was practically bouncing towards the end.

They played it twice more before taking a break. Aspen paused the music, and whinnied happily. All three had enormous grins. "Twenty minutes," Grace said to him. He nodded in reply. "Sundance, you're my new songwriter. A little practice and you could make money at this."

The stallion ducked his head and kissed hir on the ear. "Thanks, Grace." He looked over to Stripe, who smiled at hir paper and came over to nuzzle him.

Shi gave him a lick-kiss. "Looks like you're in the band, Sundance." Shi printed more copies of his work and they sat down to iron out the lyrics.

*             *             *

After the third time that Stripe had to track down hir stallion and drag him to meet their friends and neighbors, shi threatened to handcuff him to hir. Aspen snorted and gave in, and they strolled through several backyards, chatting and mingling. Grace was with hir friends, taking a break from playing. This time the band was called Half Past Dew, a name they couldn't explain and no one wanted to take credit for. The sun had set, the streetlights were rather pleasant, and most people were fed and two drinks into the evening. The only completely sober folk were the children and young adults up to Aspen's age, a few people playing chaperone, and the hardy chakats. Stripe watched the stallion's emotions, ready to intervene if he felt out of control, but aside from the occasional panicky glance he seemed to be coping with all the attention. Shi could feel him wince mentally every time someone called out to them, but he wasn't in serious distress as long as shi was nearby.

Stripe knew he would stand out in the crowd, but shi had underestimated how much. Aspen was easily two hundred kilos above even the largest quange stallion present, and shi could tell that the combination of his good looks and shy mannerisms was not lost on the other equitaurs there. Grace had managed to get two quange families with a total of three fillies about his age to attend, and two mares from hir school that were barely a year older. Several were looking for opportunities to meet him, but Aspen had dodged them several times, exhibiting all the grace of a wounded duck in his escapes.

"Aspen, why don't you mingle with some folks around here?" Stripe finally asked him. Shi pretended to look around before gesturing in the general direction of the two palomino sisters nearby. They were clearly whispering about him. "They might be nice, why don't you find out?"

Aspen snorted. "Don't think I don't know what's going on, Stripe. There are more fillies here than adult quange. You two have been calling people." He bent over to speak quietly to hir. "It's okay. I know you're giving, but I don't need anyone else right now."

"But you will," Stripe replied just as quietly. "Trust me, I'm an authority. At some point you're going to want a foal, and for that you need a mare with whom you can share at least part of your life. You might as well try talking to a few." Shi gave him a crooked grin. "Besides, after talking about sexual anxiety, this isn't such a big deal, right?"

"That was just evil of you," Aspen said, scowling. "Why do you keep doing things to me for my own good?"

"Because we love you, Silly." Shi blew a kiss to hir stallion as he rose up again.

"If you take pictures of me making an idiot out of myself, I'm going to use that camera for a Hackensack bag." He turned and casually walked at an angle designed to take him closer to the palominos. Stripe felt him trying to slip out of his emotional tether to hir, to go up to the pair because he wanted to and not because his "mother"/companion told him so. Shi considered taking pictures anyway, in case he met anyone he truly liked, but knew it would make him self-conscious. Instead shi walked towards where shi left Grace, hoping to see that cute wolf morph again, and introduce him to Aspen. A minute later, shi felt a twinge of confusion and irritation from hir stallion, that quickly blossomed into serious resentment. Stripe turned and hurried back.

Shi found Aspen near a series of picnic tables loaded with food, talking to another quange who was clearly a relative of the palomino fillies. Probably five years older than Aspen, and somewhat smaller, but he had a chiseled, powerful shape, like a bodybuilder. He had certainly quaffed a few drinks, but wasn’t unbalanced yet. One of the college-age mares was standing behind him, and she moved in the direction of the fillies. To Stripe, whose empathy clarified social responses easily, it seemed that the other stallion was trying to impress the mare he had been talking to and "protect" his siblings at the same time. Shi took that in before shi was close enough to hear anything they were saying. The stallion had on a friendly expression, but Aspen had one eyebrow raised and his head turned slightly to the side, as if the other quange’s breath smelled bad. The stallion gestured towards an unoccupied table. Stripe got close enough to hear Aspen say, "fine, sure guy, let's do it."

The palomino stallion stretched his arms and shoulders out, then sat on one side of the table and put his right elbow on it, hand held up at an angle. Stripe stared, unable to believe that he was serious. Arm wrestling? Aspen said, "You know we might break that table."

The other stallion responded in a tone that made Stripe's skin crawl with a vague distaste. "Yeah, I might, but I'll cover it. Have a seat, big guy." He flexed his hand menacingly. "Where'd you get those ugly scars, anyway?"

Aspen didn't miss a beat. "I chewed up the last guy that got in my face and the doctors had to cut him out of me." He sat down while the stallion was processing that, and held out his own hand. They locked up, settling their grips and taking hold of each other's off-hand to prevent either from using it for leverage. The stallion’s expression changed to a cockeyed grin as he nodded towards the mare. Stripe was astounded at the older quange's stupidity.

"You got kind of a weak little grip to be a big guy, you know," he told Aspen.

Aspen faltered for a second, then replied, "Well excuse me all to hell if I don't masturbate for exercise." The stallion sputtered, and Aspen smiled and added, "At least you could have washed your hands first."

The stallion didn't say another word, but lunged his arm into Aspen's, nearly pushing his hand to the table. Aspen held his ground, glanced at the fillies, and fought his way slowly to a vertical position. Stripe tilted hir head, confused. Shi knew hir stallion, and could sense that even though he was in nowhere near the physical condition of his opponent, he wasn't putting a great deal of effort into the match. They wrestled for several more seconds, and then Aspen forced the stallion's hand to the table with a sudden motion. The stallion fought to avoid neighing in pain; his knuckles had impacted on the wood rather hard. Aspen stood, said "Good match," and walked away to get a drink two tables down while massaging his hand.

Stripe realized that a crowd had gathered to watch, and made hir way through them, casually stopping near Aspen. "What was all that?" shi asked while sipping a beer.

Hir stallion looked at hir drink, then set down his soda and grabbed an oversized beer bottle from a cooler. He popped the cap off with his thumbnail and took a swig, then tried to hide the horrible face he made. "Oh gawd, that's nasty."

"That's what you get, Hon. You're lucky no one would think to card you."

"Enh, I think I earned at least one of these," he said. "That wasn't real satisfying though. The dumbass was showing off for that dappled mare like he was in high school. I don't like narcissists." He managed to finish the bottle with only a grimace. "Anyway, there's only room for one hot stallion around here."

Stripe laughed. "You do fill the quota, Hon. But why didn't you beat him sooner? You were barely even trying."

"He almost got me right off the bat. I gave his hand a squeeze when he mouthed off, and I guess he figured his only chance was to surprise me. I didn't want to make him look really bad, though, with his sisters right there. Poor doof has it rough enough already for one night." He pointed towards the palomino fillies, who were telling off their brother. They turned together and stormed off. "Wow, they're really ticked."

"That they are," Stripe agreed, "because they think you won't talk to them now. Pity for them too."

"Well, I'll leave them alone for now, but Grace must think they have something going on to invite them. We might get a chance to talk later." He stared at his empty bottle for several seconds, and then smiled. "So they're upset over me . . ." he tossed it in a trash bin and looked around. "Where's that dapple grey lady?" He saw her a short distance away, winked at Stripe, and trotted off with two more beers in hand.

The evening passed seemed to last forever. Stripe found Bay Carlisle, and they spent some quality time strolling around and then cuddling on top of the transport. Due to its size, it had been parked well away from the party, and they were able to lie back and watch the stars without the sounds of hir neighbors all around. Shi tried to find a chance to introduce the wolf morph to hir stallion, but every time shi saw Aspen, a filly or mare was stroking his mane with a fascinated expression. The stallion finally gave in and let the dappled mare put some small braids in it (and the ribbons he had previously complained about). Grace chided him about that all the next day.

Stripe and Bay were joined by Cameo later, who had spent quite a while tracking them down. Shi climbed atop the transport with an extra blanket and immediately pinned down Bay for a makeout session. Stripe joined in a little, reflecting on how dominant Cameo was with hir biped friends and how much they seemed to enjoy it. Shi had a giggle fit as shi pictured the Siamese chakat in a skimpy leather outfit with a leash in hand. The image seemed oddly natural. That somehow made hir think of Aspen, but then most thoughts seemed to lead back to hir family. He had followed hir lead in their first encounters, but he was by no means timid, and had been taking the initiative since learning more about hir body. Stripe, whose male phase was subdued by hir pregnancy, hadn't minded at all. Shi just basked in being the center of his attentions.

Grace eventually dragged their ward back to the transport. Aspen had managed to swipe and down five liters of beer, but between his two full stomachs and prodigious mass, he wasn't even tipsy. He had several napkins with writing on them in one hand, and he smelled strongly of perfume. Grace declared that shi had finally found their stray, but that he might need to have his shots updated. Aspen gave Stripe a smile and a 'thumbs up', and said that he might have a sore throat in the morning because someone named 'Sharon' had been sticking her tongue down it. "Nice girl," he remarked, "she seemed very . . . intelligent."

Stripe covered hir mouth, but couldn't stifle a laugh. "Oh yes," shi noted through hir hand, "she's a college girl, you know. Grace Hon, you know her, maybe there's some event they might like to go to? A concert, maybe?"

"I think she's more of a theater lover, but there are always two or three productions going on," Grace replied as shi sorted through a small trash can they had left out beside the transport and picked out the recyclables. "Les Mis is pretty much always going somewhere, but it's very depressing and Cameo will call you up just to pester you with hir French accent if shi knows you went to it. Shi's in rehearsals now for an updated version of The Crucible being done by a small company near the campus, but that's about four weeks away still. Thankfully their run will be over by the time classes get out." There was a clatter as shi picked up a bag of cans and bottles and set it inside the transport. "That should be really interesting, but too dark for my tastes. Instead of witch trials it will have a combination of humans and morphs being persecuted during the Gene Wars, for supposedly breeding horrible hunting recoms to terrorize a small and very religious town." Shi shrugged. "Sounds like a horror movie to me, but Cam is weird enough to go for that. Shi told me shi auditioned because shi might get to wear a big monster mask. Personally I think it's just so shi can be put in chains on stage."

Stripe and Aspen both spat out the water they were sipping at that. "Okay, that just made the 'must-see' list," Aspen said, wiping his mouth. Grace was still trying to come up with a good idea, but the stallion interjected, "I might have something in mind already. Do you guys think we could have a party at our house two weekends from now?" His ears were perked hopefully. "We have all the space, inside and out, that we could need, and I know Grace has a three-day weekend so we can get set up without being rushed."

The chakats looked at each other and reached an instant consensus. "That's a great idea, Hon," Stripe told him, "it's also a good excuse to invite people we wouldn't normally see too often, like our new neighbors."

Grace clapped hir hands together. "We can decorate, too! That place needs lots and lots of flowers, it has too much room sometimes." Shi tilted hir head at him. "So what made you think of this, Sundance? Are you feeling the love tonight?" shi said in a teasing voice.

"Sort of," their stallion replied. He picked up the napkins he had brought back and read from them. "I kinda already told Sharon and Mercedes that we were having a party and gave them the address."

"That's my boy," Stripe said. Both chakats were grinning broadly. "So, do you still have plenty of energy left?"

"Lots, I don't think I'll bed down for a long time yet. I had fun tonight." Aspen leaned against the transport and tasted the air. "Thanks for dragging me out here. I like this place."

"Mm hmm, the people here are wonderful for the most part. We'll still come back whenever possible." Stripe moved up to hir stallion and rubbed his upper belly as he idly stroked hir head. Grace, who had stepped inside the transport to wash off hir hands, came back out and tried to steal his attention by imitating their pet cats, ducking down and winding hir way around his front legs while meowing loudly.

"C'mon, Sundance, we have some brainstorming to do on lyrics," shi told Aspen and pushed him inside the vehicle. "You too, Love," shi said to Stripe, "you can pleasure us to stimulate our creative processes. Make with the petting!" Stripe just shook hir head and followed hir mate's swishing tail.

*             *             *

Aspen tapped the microphone twice and lowered his upper body to an almost horizontal angle to speak into it. "Is this thing on?" he asked, and returned Bay's 'thumbs up' when the wolf morph signaled in the affirmative. "Testing . . .testing . . . Houston, we have a backache," he quipped, and received a well-deserved groan from Grace, who lowered hir head in shame at the awful joke. "Uh, thankyaverymuch," the stallion said into the mike with his lip curled, and backed away from it quickly with a idiotic grin as he ushered the chakat up to take his place. He trotted towards the porch and Stripe, who was lounging in the cool, slightly damp air with a mug of tea.

Shi couldn't help but smile back, and held out hir hand to touch Aspen's as he ascended the short ramp that took the place of porch steps. Shi already had a mug for him also, but that was gone in two swigs, and he switched to water so as to save tea for the others. He sat down, and Stripe took his hand and put it on hir belly. Shi still wasn't showing, but shi looked and felt radiant. Grace and Aspen especially had commented on how glossy hir summer coat was already.

They watched Cameo trip over a cord and yell cheerfully at Bay as he worked frantically to get everything in its proper place. Aspen was just as good with the wiring if not better, but he had deferred to the wolf morph's smaller, quicker hands without any rancor. He had instead spent most of his time hanging lights, cleaning gutters, and any number of other jobs. Stripe thought that he had easily done the work of ten 'typical' people. Who needed a ladder when your Companion could reach four and a half meters into the air without even stretching? The ranch house and yard looked beautiful, the vehicles were gleaming, and they had set up several birdbaths that were a joy to watch. Aspen's cat, Penny (Copper had sadly never turned back up), made constant vain attempts to catch birds but was hampered by the bell on hir collar. Sassy and Flapjack continued their indolent ways, lying on every warm surface in a state not far removed from hibernation.

After a few more minutes of relaxation, Stripe rose and went to take care of a few more last-minute details, leading hir stallion behind hir by the hand. They set up tiki torches and a number of candles to discourage insects, made a small shopping list of overlooked items, and went inside to make snacks out for everyone. The first guests would probably show up in about four hours, and they wanted everything to go smoothly so they could enjoy this party. It was a lot for a household of three to handle, though, even with the tremendous assistance given by their friends. Even the quange-size kitchen would be put to the test tonight.

Thankfully the kitchen and bathroom counters were more accessible now. Stripe and Aspen had built a step that ran in front of most of the countertops to make them more convenient to use. Hir stallion had drafted Bay shortly after their first meeting on the previous weekend, and together they had built a number of small additions in the kitchen from plans he researched, all to make cooking more convenient for the chakats in the family. Shi was continually amazed at how resourceful and handy hir supposedly clumsy stallion was, and told him so every day. Stripe was learning quite a bit from him also. Hir lifestyle had never required hir to use tools very often, and shi picked up new things constantly while assisting him. Aspen was in turn learning how to clean, groom and massage chakats, as they suffered sore muscles and dirtied fur on every project. There were no better days in Stripe's life than those that ended with hir lying across hir stallion's arm while he worked his fingers into hir backs and Grace brushed out hir hair. Hir lifemate was likewise addicted to the combination of attentions, and the two all but wrestled for the "prime" spot between the quange’s hands.

Aspen, while he enjoyed their touch immensely, just wasn't as sensitive as a chakat. He couldn't bask in the sensation of touch to the same degree as Stripe and Grace. The two did everything they could to make it up to him, though he had never complained. Their empathic talents were exercised as never before while they worked to convey their physical and emotional reactions back to him, and every night they spent close gave them a stronger link. Aspen's unconscious resistance was strong at first; that same emotional bottleneck that had kept him from seeking help made it difficult for him to accept real intimacy. But the time spent with his therapist had let the stallion recognize the problem, and he fought valiantly to overcome it.

That empathic intimacy gave Stripe another insight into hir Companion. His genetic line had been an early experiment on a breed of animal that had existed mainly due to a sense of tradition and affection on the part of their owners. There had been little use for a massive workhorse in the modern age, and Shirebred quange had been created as much out of curiosity as for any other reason. As a result, there had been no incentive to seek out and correct every negative genetic condition, as there had been for many recombined species. Aspen had instinctual throwbacks so deep and subtle he had never had reason to even notice them.

Chief among them was an automatic dislike for male quange, and other male taurs to a lesser extent. Mayhew had made a sidelong comment about that long ago, and Stripe agreed completely now. Aspen had an instinctive need to protect his family, his "herd", and anything that resembled a stallion triggered an inborn response that made him more confrontational. Bipedal males were friends, as were chakats, whom he didn't see as a threat due to their hermaphroditic nature. But once Stripe realized what was going on, shi could actually watch Aspen's demeanor change from moment to moment whenever a stallion or male taur was in view. He wasn't even aware that it was happening.

Stripe could understand and deal with jealousy, even if shi never felt it, but this visceral reaction of his didn't even have anything to do with hir or Grace. It was a blessing that the instinct was so unrelated to his actual feelings that it didn't affect their relationship. Aspen had already shown that he could share their love with others. Still, it was something that both he and his therapist needed to know, and Stripe planned to bring it up after the weekend. Shi recalled the descriptions of Aspen given to hir by clinic staff, and how they didn't seem to fit the stallion shi knew. It was possible he had fought and wrestled with the quange orderly months before just out of unleashed instinct, never realizing why his anger had been triggered.

Stripe stepped away from the snacks shi was preparing and went to give Aspen a long hug. He was no longer surprised as he would have been a month earlier, but he still gave off a thrill of pleasure at the contact. He was so gentle and caring at heart; all that pain and still he trusted hir so easily. Stripe purred into the stallion's neck. "You're absolutely perfect, you know," shi told him.

"Now if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black," Aspen responded. Stripe giggled and pushed in against him. "Why so quiet, little lady?" he asked. "I saw you over there putting on your thoughtful face. You know Grace will string you up if shi catches you like that. Better save yourself the pain and speak up now." He tickled hir nose lightly with a finger.

"Just thinking about my wonderful family," Stripe said, "I'll tell you later. But speaking of family . . ." shi ran a hand across his abdomen, "let's get together after the party. Grace will be here, and everyone else will be busy or worn out."

"Humph, after? Hell, I say we pull a vanishing act in the middle of the party." He sighed ruefully. "I knew we should have hired a magician for the entertainment, instead of these slacker musicians. Yeah, that's right, I'm talking about you," the stallion added as Thamey walked into the kitchen with a quizzical expression.

"Huh?" the tod responded brilliantly, and Aspen nickered. "Grace says hurry up with the eats or shi's going to put me on vocals. Trust me, it's not a good thing." Thamey made hurrying motions at them.

"Sure thing, Guy," Aspen said, then got a sly grin. He picked Stripe up and held hir out towards Thamey. "Hey, Tim, want a chakat sandwich to tide you over?"

The tod's eyes bugged out a second before he started laughing. Stripe squawked and playfully swatted the stallion on the nose, then rolled out of his arms and pretended to storm out with hir tail and nose high in the air. "Looks like I'm finishing up as payback for that. Gimme a hand here," shi heard Aspen say after shi left the kitchen and turned into the dining room. There was the sound of clapping. "Haha, foxbait. Now pick up that knife and help." Shi heard a blade on a chopping board for several seconds, and Stripe idly rearranged the knickknacks in the dining room. The house was so quiet. Shi heard Aspen's voice again, speaking low. "God, shi's incredible. What did I ever do to deserve hir?"

"It’s nothing you did, man, it’s who you are," Thamey responded. "I’ve been around them long enough to tell you that. They know more about us than we ever will." There was the sound of plates being moved around on a counter. "Shi picked up on something in you. Just always be yourself, that’s my advice. Shi’ll never ask you for anything else."

"Oh good," Aspen remarked in a sarcastic tone, "I was afraid it would be hard. ‘Being yourself’ isn’t exactly the simplest thing."

"Nope, and shi knows it, that’s why you’re free to work on that and don’t have to worry about the other nonsense. They’ll call you out if you start messing up, trust me." The tod was filling up glasses from a pitcher, judging from the sound. "After all, how many times have they made us hug just so we’ll get over it?"

"Thirteen," the stallion replied without a pause. Stripe covered hir mouth to suppress a laugh.

"Oh boy, unlucky number, Sundance, we’d better go ahead and get the next one out of the way before they find out." Thamey’s voice was full of humor.

"Hug this," Aspen said, and they both snickered. Stripe knew that the stallion was making a rude gesture. "You’re right, though, since we were in the same room, someone’s going to ask about it. Let’s get this over with." They didn’t make a sound for a few seconds, and then Stripe heard patting noises.

"Welcome to the family, Sundance," Thamey said without a trace of sarcasm, "this makes us cousins or brothers or step-nephews or something, I don’t know."

"I’ll go with brothers, Tim. Our friends aren’t going to let us get away with anything less."

"Well, you’re getting five brothers for the price of one then," the tod said with a smile in his tone, "I have tons of them. But you’re my ringer when we pick teams for football at the family reunion." There was the sound of the kitchen door being opened, and Thamey let out a terrific whistle to let everyone know that food was imminent.

"So how long until Bay joins the fraternity, do you think?" Aspen asked, clopping around the room and jangling silverware.

"He’ll be sucked in before summer vacation. That way the ladies can make him spend most of it with them. You know, Sun, after we’ve all had some time for family, I bet most of us are going to end up here for about five or six weeks."

"I kinda figured that, though we haven’t really talked about it," Aspen replied. "You, me, Stripe, Grace, Bay, and Cam and Peach some of the time . . . it’ll be good. This place is too big anyway." He sounded far away as he said that. There was the sound of quick hoof steps, as if the stallion was circling the kitchen. "Oh, gawd help us, here comes the Hug Brigade. Look at their faces, they’re planning something."

"Hide me," Thamey pleaded, pitching his voice in a high, nasal fashion.

"Put on a brave front, Tim," Aspen told him, "they can smell your fear!" The door opened again a moment later, letting in a fast-moving stream of teasing voices. Stripe, feeling a little ashamed at hir eavesdropping, no matter how casual the conversation, circled through two rooms before reentering the kitchen.

Shi stroked Aspen and Grace as shi passed them, and stole enough food from Aspen’s plate to fill hir own before uttering a ‘hmmph’ at him and swatting his flank with hir tail. Stripe moved to the main table, looking over hir shoulder at hir mate and lover, who each caught hir eye and returned the look. Grace had the healthy glow of an afternoon spent outside, and Aspen had become even more attractive to Stripe after the conversation with Thamey. Shi was going to have a hard time waiting for the day to end.

The guests began arriving almost three hours before dark. It was a varied mix of species and ages. Some had been invited from the half dozen houses close to Aspen’s, a number of them were friends and students known to Grace and hir companions, Stripe’s coworkers, family of Cameo and Thamey, the chakats’ former neighbors, and even two or three people from the Tatherson Clinic. Many had also been told to invite a friend or two. The chakats were hoping to see a few relationships form by bringing together people who normally had no contact, and spent all their time grabbing arms and making introductions. Several attendees had been drafted before their arrival to help bring out food and help with odds and ends, and nearly everyone had brought something to put on a grill.

Melinda was in absolute heaven. She had all the kitchen windows wide open and was experimenting left and right, to the horror of those who knew her well. Thamey wore a green t-shirt that read "Foxy Laddie". He spent his limited free time sharing embarrassing stories about his brothers with any female with whom they tried to have a conversation. Both soon had to go join Grace and Cameo ‘onstage’ and entertain the swelling crowd.

Aspen had a black handmade t-shirt on, one of the few pieces of clothing he owned. Items in his size were ridiculously expensive, and very easy to damage. The word "STAFF" was printed on it in gold lettering, and he received several unsolicited comments about it. The stallion drew a crowd when he pushed a guest’s van out of a ditch single-handed, then went to wash the mud off his legs and change into a nice, dark blue button-up shirt with long sleeves. He then spent a good part of the evening giving rides to children and enamored young biped females, and endearing himself to dozens of people.

Stripe put Bay on "Wallflower Patrol" when he ran out of things to do, and he handed out dances like candy. Apparently the wolf morph had been taking a dance class during the last semester, and his long-legged grace was appealing to his partners. Another student that Cameo knew joined Bay and helped out with the shier males, and no one was left out.

Later in the evening, after everyone with children had gone home, Grace hopped up on the porch and waved. "May I have your attention, please?" Shi said into a microphone, and smiled winningly. There were two or three scattered whoops, and someone yelled ‘Take it off!’ Grace promptly removed hir top, eliciting a round of cheering from most of those still present.

"I just wanted to show our appreciation for these fine people working hard to give us a good time tonight," shi pointed to everyone on the ‘stage’, which was really just several large pieces of wood laid out to rest the speakers and other gear on. "Melinda Peachtree, Chakat Cameo, Thamey Whistler, our guests Jamie Finney and ‘Pretty’ Paul LeStrende." Grace looked around and pointed ‘offstage’ at a wolf morph who would have hidden if possible, "’Baby’ Bay Carlisle, who keeps us up and running, and," shi waved hir finger in the air as if hir target was undecided, then zeroed in on the huge Shire nearby, "our new muse, Aspen ‘Sundance’ Rider! Folks, These are Stray Stallions! Give my mates a round of applause, for me."

There was a general round of clapping and cheering, and Stripe noted several females, including bipeds, smaller taurs and a quange moving in closer to Aspen and Bay. Grace began a slow, sultry and very suggestive song then, and Stripe looked for someone to share a dance. Shi found a human that shi knew from work and just enjoyed moving slowly with him for a few minutes. Fortunately there was a lot of room, so shi didn’t bowl anyone over with hir hindquarters whenever shi turned.

The scent of hir stallion caught Stripe’s attention, and shi looked up to see him pass close by without looking down at hir. Aspen walked up to a human who seemed to be about his own age, a tall, thin teen with dark hair. They shook hands, then the boy gestured towards the house and they both walked around the side and out of sight. Stripe glanced back the way he had come and saw a couple of very put out females watching him as he disappeared.

The song ended, and Stripe’s partner was complimenting hir, but shi didn’t really hear him. At this range, shi couldn’t sense much about Aspen, but his emotions had again taken on that shrouded quality. It was something shi had seen only rarely after hir stallion left the clinic, and not at all in recent weeks. Shi started to head after him, and felt a sudden chill as shi got closer to the house. It was that deep, betrayed cold that Stripe had only barely seen in Aspen once before, when he was talking about his nightmares.

Stripe broke into a run, and turned the corner of the building, stepping out of the lit areas behind hir. Only the windows of the house illuminated this side of the house at the moment, and hir eyes didn’t adjust immediately. All shi saw at first was the blunt, powerful outline of the quange and the person dangling in front of him. Shi nearly backed up again, assaulted by the anger in front of hir. "Aspen!" shi called, loudly, but the stallion didn’t seem to hear hir. There was a muffled cry of pain from the human shape he was holding up.

"Shut up!" Aspen was snarling at the boy, "just shut up!" One of his hands was wrapped around the teen’s arm, and the stallion had hauled him more than a meter off the ground. The boy started to whimper, and Aspen shook him by the arm, eliciting a louder cry. Aspen’s other hand closed around his mouth and neck, covering the sound. "Look at me!" he yelled into the boy’s face. Stripe’s night vision became clearer as shi took in the scene. Foam was dripping from the quange’s lips, and to the chakat his eyes seemed as wide and white as the moon.

Only three seconds had passed, but it was an eternity to Stripe before shi could move hir legs. Shi ran to within a few feet of hir stallion, yelling, "Aspen, let him go. Aspen, put him down now!" Shi was almost frozen with panic and fear for both stallion and boy, realizing that there was no way at all that shi could make the quange release his grip. Aspen didn’t look at hir, and Stripe sensed that he hadn’t heard hir speak. That cold inside him was flaring up into a flame of rage, and shi thought he was seconds from snapping the boy’s neck.

"What the HELL do you think you’re doing here?!" Aspen was demanding. Now that he had a grip on the teen’s neck, he was bending back the arm he held viciously, and the human was shaking and starting to scream into the stallion’s palm. Stripe reared up and grabbed his left forearm, on the side that held the boy’s head, but could barely budge it even with hir full weight. Shi yelled his name twice more, to no avail. The quange was panting as if he had been running for miles, and his eyes were seeing nothing. He repeated his question, shook the boy again, and virtually roared into his face, "I ought to KILL YOU!"

Stripe felt his arm begin to tense up and shake in hir grip, and did the only thing shi could think of. Shi sank hir fangs into the stallion’s wrist as deeply as shi could. His hand went suddenly limp from the vicious damage to the base of his thumb, and Stripe’s heart broke as his blood flooded into hir mouth. Shi felt the pain move through his body with glacial slowness before he reacted to it, letting out a scream of his own and releasing the boy’s arm. Aspen’s good hand shot out with the speed of a cobra and grabbed Stripe by the hair, ripping hir head from his wrist. Shi was dangling, only touching the ground with the toes of hir hind legs. For a long moment his wide, raging eyes were locked on hirs, but Stripe had no fear for hirself. Shi knew hir stallion could not harm hir.

Aspen’s grip relaxed and Stripe dropped to hir feet. Both of them were shaking and weak-kneed. The quange had a look of horrified shame on his face as he stared at the chakat. The human boy was sitting on the ground, clutching his arm and crying. Aspen fell to his knees, holding his wrist and staring at the ground. His arms were soaked with blood. Stripe’s muzzle was painted with it. Shi wanted desperately to go to hir stallion, hold him and tend to his wound, but he was completely shut off, and somehow held hir physically at bay with the emotional wall around him.

Neither one of them noticed the others, their friends tying a belt around Aspen’s arm, Grace trying to clean the blood from hir lifemate’s lips and mouth, or the flashing lights. Stripe couldn’t seem to hear or smell anything, and could only watch, paralyzed, as Aspen was helped to his feet and into a white vehicle. Shi didn’t break down until he was out of sight.

*             *             *

Stripe took hold of Grace’s hands as hir mate stepped back into the waiting area. The secured doors sealed shut behind hir, and the sound made their tails curl up close to their bodies protectively. The doors were transparent, and Stripe could see a uniformed officer waiting for hir on the other side.

Shi leaned in close to lick the tears from Grace’s cheeks, and held hir as a fresh stream poured out. "How is he?" shi asked when Grace was calm again.

"He’s . . . his arm is mostly repaired already, it’s swollen but the doctor said it’ll be fine in a couple more days," Grace managed to say. "He told me that Aspen didn’t want them to do cosmetic work, that he said to leave the scar." Shi looked away from Stripe. "Aspen wouldn’t talk to me about that part."

"But how is he, Hon?" Stripe asked again, stroking hir hair.

"He’s so quiet, Stripe," Grace sniffed, "he’s been crying and his eyes are red and swollen, and I don’t think he’s slept much. He hugged and kissed me, but he wouldn’t really talk. I think he’s afraid to see you."

Stripe put hir head against Grace’s and sighed, then let hir go and walked to the secured doors. The officer opened them for hir, and shi followed him through two halls that each terminated in secured doors, while a second officer walked behind hir. It was against the juvenile center’s policy to allow more than one visitor at a time into this area, and so Stripe had been forced to wait until hir mate saw Aspen before shi could enter. Most of the facility wasn’t so secure as this area. Shi gathered that they were close to the higher security wing used for more violent offenders. The chakat had to quickly dampen hir empathy as shi progressed through the halls.

They stopped before a set of vault-like double doors, and Stripe wondered if those were enough to keep hir stallion contained without the force fields that reinforced them. The first officer gave a command on his communicator, and they were admitted into a pleasantly lit visitors’ room, with transparent walls dividing it into several smaller areas. The only occupants were two quange guards, and Aspen in the last transparent "cell". It covered an area about two meters by five, larger than the others and clearly intended for quange. At either end of the cell were sealed doors. A force field arch divided its interior, so that a visitor and inmate couldn’t make contact without authorization. One guard was near the cell door on hir side, the other watched from a second exit on the far side of the room from where shi had entered, standing more or less behind Aspen.

Stripe tried to keep from looking alarmed when shi saw hir stallion. He ducked his head when they saw one another. Aspen’s hind legs were attached to the floor with chains, such that he couldn’t back out of the cell or turn around in it. One of his arms was in a cast, keeping the wrist and hand immobilized. An officer admitted hir into the cell opposite him, and then resecured the clear door behind hir. At hir request, the force field between them was lowered. Aspen didn’t look up.

Stripe hadn’t known how shi would feel when shi saw him again. The last day had been a jumble of unidentifiable emotions for hir, and nothing shi could say to or hear from Grace had made it any clearer. In this building shi couldn’t open hirself up to Aspen at a distance, but shi had to find out how they both felt. Stripe paused for several seconds, then shakily raised hir hand towards his nose, afraid of what shi might find.

Aspen flinched as hir hand came close, and his shoulders began shivering. Stripe realized that he was as frightened as shi was, and gently laid hir hand on his nose and stroked up to his eyes. He flooded into hir with that contact, and Stripe closed hir eyes and let out a small sound, overcome by his bottled-up emotions. They brought hir own into perfect clarity. Shi still knew who hir stallion was, and loved him dearly. The side of him that shi had seen that night hadn’t changed hir feelings at all. He was exactly the same person that shi had met and with whom shi had bonded. Shi just understood Aspen a little better now.

Shi felt a touch on hir hand, and opened hir eyes. Aspen had covered it with his. His shoulders were still shaking, and he was crying uncontrollably. "I think I was going to kill him," the stallion said, "thank you."

Stripe slowly pet his nose, and wiped at his tears. "That was one of the boys who burned you," shi said.

Aspen nodded. "Yeah, that was Adam. I don’t know why he came to the house. I was going to tell him to leave, and then I just couldn’t see anything." He leaned back, mindful of his bound legs, and settled on the ground. Stripe moved up where he could bring his arms around hir and they nuzzled each other.

"How are they treating you, Hon?" Stripe asked. "You look a little tired."

"Pretty good, I guess. This is the first time they’ve hobbled me," he glanced over his shoulder and then back to Stripe. "Listen, tell Grace I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. I was so scared about what you both thought." His chest hitched up, as if he was fighting back a sob. "Don’t tear yourself up about the bite, Stripe. I know why you did that. You were protecting me."

Stripe let the tension flow out of hir body then, leaning against him and letting his fingers run along hir back. "We’ll get you out of here, Hon. He’s not really hurt, just a lot of bruises and some sprained joints."

"Good," Aspen said. Stripe couldn’t really tell what he meant by that.

"His family is pressing charges," shi continued, "but it will help enormously when you explain everything to the police and name the people involved. We can’t take you home just yet, Aspen," Stripe said as shi took him by the chin, "but I think it will be very soon."

They reached up at the same time to wipe tears from one another’s face, and that made them both smile. "And what then?" Aspen asked hir.

Stripe lick-kissed his nose. "Then we try again," shi said.



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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