Daylight Fading

by Chris Hoekstra

Kayla reached down and took the white rook, replacing it with her bishop. "You're not on your game tonight, Rick. What's the matter? You've lost six already."

The raccoon seated across from her reached up to massage his neck. His movements had a kind of lethargic motion to them that had been prevalent all evening. She watched as he slowly massaged the muscles under his thick gray fur, eyes closed and lost in the shadows of his face as the lamp light highlighted the white on is face and nose.

"I'm sorry," he murmured in a gravely voice. "I guess I'm just not very good company tonight."

Reaching across the table, Kayla gave his arm a quick rubbing, dragging her small claws through his fur. She knew how much he liked that. The fact that his eyes opened and a smile came to his face was proof enough of that. "Bad day?"

Rickkter gave a half-hearted murr and looked into her eyes. The light from the many candles glinted from his brown eyes. "You could say that, my dear," he said with a small smile. "I spent the afternoon with Caroline."

"Ah, I see. She getting better?"

"Some. Physically, she's doing remarkably well. I figure that she might be able to start using her hands again within the next week. Mentally?" He shook his furry head. "That I couldn't tell you."

"I do hope she feels better soon," muttered Kayla. She had picked up one of Rick's bishops she had captured and was turning it end over end between her fingers. "I like her and it hurts to see her like that."

A small smile came to the raccoon's lips. "She likes you, too. Claims it 's nice to talk to someone who isn't a soldier, just another woman. She also told me you're invited to stop in and see her sometime this week. Something about planning a ‘surprise' for her man."

Kayla snickered, still toying with the chess piece. "Oh, I wouldn't doubt that. Are you going to ever make a move?" she asked with a flick of her head.

"Yes I am." He stood up and walked across the room to the door, stopping half way and turning back to her. "I'm going to get a late dinner. Would you care to join me?"

"Hum, let me think about that." Kayla leaned back in her chair a little and tapped a claw on the game board. "I could either go with you and get some food, alleviating that feeling of starvation I've been having for the last few hours. Or I could sit here and hold intimate conversations with a bunch of pieces of wood, hoping to divine the answers to the universe."

Rick's ears perked up to full attention. "Really? Well, let me know what all of you finally figure out then."

The skunk's sharp, barking laugh brought a smile to the raccoon's face. "Just for that one, you're taking me someplace good. For a change," said Kayla as she sauntered over, her lush tail swishing around behind her. "And you're paying for it all."

Rickkter chuckled as he slipped on his coat and put an arm around Kayla as she wrapped herself around his waist and snuggled up against his chest. "Well, considering it's you, I suppose I can." As he looked down at Kayla, it struck her that he seemed to want to do something else. Instead, he just gave her shoulder a little squeeze and started out of the room.

Kayla kept close to the raccoon's side, and was pleased that he left his arm were it was. It was so nice to have someone that wanted her close like that. So long being nearly alone with just Jessica and some of the gang from The Tavern's Heath for comfort, only now to have two people interested in her. Muri was easy enough to explain to her mind. He was a skunk, he had never been around any other morphs before, and he looked to her for guidance. After all, he had that mink, whom his heart seemed to belong to.

The thought of Llyn sent a small shiver though her. Like so many others, Llyn seemed to possess an irrational hatred of Kayla. Normally such behaviour would have been written off to the fact that she was a skunk. But Muri was a skunk, and Llyn didn't seem to have a problem with him. Which of course left the fact that she was a female skunk. Jessica was probably right; Llyn viewed Kayla as competition for Muri's affections.

Drawing her companion closer, causing Rickkter to sway a little as they walked, Kayla murred contentedly to herself. She had her own man, what did she need with anyone else's? Of course she couldn't understand Rickkter's motivations. From the first time they had met, he had always been something of a mystery. Why they were drawn to each other, she didn't know. But based on the results, she didn't much care. The smell of new leather filling her nostrils was enough for that. Rickkter had had no reason to ask her to help him select the jacket he was wearing, and while she had been surprised at first by his request, she had enjoyed the trip. That had been a few days ago, and this was only the second time she had to seen how handsome he looked in it.

And handsome he did look. It was times like this that Kayla noticed just how much the curse had changed some of his extremities. The body was still humanoid, retaining much of its original shape and build. Unlike Brian Coe, Rickkter's arms and legs had retained human proportion instead of acquiring the squatter animalistic ones some keepers had. That feature was one of the few they had in common. Rickkter walked with his tail swishing behind him near his feet, unlike Kayla who carried hers up against her back to keep from catching it on anything. There was nothing remarkable about his face; the muzzle was slightly elongated as opposed to her own, but it fit his raccoon profile. As did the black mask and grayish ears. Unlike her own, his were covered with thick fur.

A smile came to her lips at the memory of playing with them several days back. They had been out at the Mule along with Misha, Caroline, and other Long Scouts. She had left for a moment to freshen up, and when she came back she had walked behind him. It was probably her good mood resulting from the good wine that gave her reason to reach out and lightly touch one his ears. She had only touched the guard hairs, where they stuck up just above the rest of the fur, and laughed at the erratic flicking it produced. So did the rest of the table, though Rickkter was quick to hunch is head down and glare back at her. But his eyes shone with a good humour that kept the grin that was on her face.

"What are you smiling at?" Rickkter asked.

Kayla snapped back to the present then looked up at him. She snuggled up against his arm. "Oh, nothing really. Just remembering Misha's face the other day, when you dumped that whole pitcher of mead over his head when he kept teasing you about being sprayed by Muri."

Rickkter shook his head. "I don't know which I want to hurt more, the skunk of the fox."

"I suggest the fox. Safer that way."

"I think so, too," Rickkter admitted as he squeezed her arms. "So have you decided on where to go for this expensive dinner of yours?"

"Jolly Collie, I think. From what I remember from the reports on that whole incident with Bolva, it sounds like a nice place."

"At least we know the food can't be half bad if Long Scouts can survive it."

Kayla burst into laughter. "Longs can live on bark and dirt and LIKE it."

"Let us hope they have first class bark here, then!"

The skunk and raccoon both dissolved into laughter and sauntered down the street, arm in arm, in a mildly drunken manner, looking for their restaurant.

The main room of the Jolly Collie was only sparsely populated with various keepers and a few traders and teamsters staying for the night. There were other couples at the tables and several groups occupying the long table with benches near the one wall. A few solitary drinkers dotted the bar. Kayla and her raccoon had a table near the hearth, where a small fire glowed.

Their orders had been placed with the serving girl several minutes ago, and they were just passing time now. Kayla had made good on her threat of ordering an expensive meal; she would be dining on a dish of thrushes based in wine sauce, stuffed with figs. At least the cup of wine she ordered to go with that wasn't too much more.

"You know, that sounds good," Rickkter commented. Never the less, he chose something a little easier on his funds for the evening; he ordered pheasant with a cup of mead.

Jessica had been right, Kayla reflected. She was lucky to have Rickkter. But it was then she realized she didn't really know anything about him. Like much of the keep, she knew the regions he was from and what he used to do. But she didn't really know anything about HIM.

"I've been wondering, Rick. How old are you?"

He turned back from gazing at the fire place. The flames from the fragrant wood that was burning reflected brilliant amber off the white around his nose and mask, and Rickkter's eyes flashed gold for an instant as they caught the light just right. "Thirty-four, why?"

Oh, not as old as she had expected at first. They weren't that far apart, than. "As of when?"

Rickkter shrugged. "Some time in the summer."

Blinking once, the skunk frowned at him. "What do you mean?"

Sighing, Rickkter put his elbows up on the table and leaned across from her. By his tone, she could tell he had done this before. "I mean, that I don't know an exact date when I was born. I don't even know a season for certain. It's just that each summer I feel older, so I decided that's when it would be. Heck, even age is an estimate. Where I grew up, seasons don't change much, so I had few benchmarks to go by, resorting to comparing myself to other people. How about yourself?"

Kayla was a little taken aback by that. "Um, twenty-nine. Born late June. Rick, what about your parents? I'd be interested in what kind of a family you had before coming here."

It was obvious she had touched something there, for Rickkter's expression hardened and his whiskers drooped down to over his hands were they rested beneath his chin. "Perhaps you should go first this time."

Kayla looked down at her plate and ran her tongue over her jowls. "Well where to begin?" she said, wuffing a laugh. "You already know my grandfather, so I don't know what I could say there." Kayla's grandfather was Elijhah Tremayne, a renowned tactician famous for advocating unconventional tactics over more accepted battle-field manoeuvres. She had found earlier that Rickkter was an admirer of the man. "That just leaves my immediate family, then.

"I really don't know my mother. She died when I was very young and my father rarely spoke of her. I often wonder if my father ever really loved her. His name was Andrew. You see, my grandfather had acquired a good deal of wealth during the wars and never really did anything to manage it. My father never really took to games of war, but he had quite a head for money. Over several years he took a small fortune and made it a very modest one by the time he had met my mother. From what I gather, from what my grandfather told me, it was a marriage of alliance and power. After two years of that, I was born. A year later my mother was dead; she caught some dreadful disease that they couldn't cure. After that, we moved around a lot, eventually winding up in Chantry.

"Have you ever been there Rick?" she asked. He shook his head. "It's a wonderful city. Very cultured. You can feel the ages past when you walk the streets. The houses have a good charm to them, and the temples and gardens are often breathtaking. You'd be amazed at the amount of marble in some of them. And that is where I spent most of my years growing up."

The mephit shook her head and leaned back, the firelight dancing off the white markings of her face. In the old days, it would have danced off the gold at her neck and in her hair. Briefly she lost herself in the memories of another time, a time when she had been beautiful. Rickkter's rather deep dislike of nobility came to her mind as she started with the next part. "I spent those years enjoying the privileges that wealth brought. In Chantry the Tremayne name held power. Oh, not too much, but enough. I had no worries, no cares, none of what the average woman my age had to contend with. Oh, my grandfather was still a large part of my life. In fact, he basically took over the role of father for me, as my real one was now occupied almost full time with his money. He kept up the role of banker and a money lender, much to his father's disapproval. Grandpa always wanted him to carry on the family tradition of military service, even if he was just an officer. My father didn't want to do that, he was more interested in managing the money and reaping the rewards there. Eventually my father won out."

Her eyes lowered to the table top, and she started picking at a groove in the grain with a claw. "And so I grew up in a life of pleasure and privilege. Until he died when I was nineteen, my grandfather was about the only man I had to learn from. After his death, my father and I moved up here. He had heard there was some new trade routes opening up and figured he could get in on some good business opportunities. That was... god, that was ten years ago now." She sighed, remembering.

"So I take it you had a great deal of suitors, then?" asked Rick. His voice was so quiet that Kayla almost missed hearing it. She looked up briefly and noticed that he was lounging back in his seat, one arm over the back. His posture was casual, but she could see in his expression that he was listening to everything she said.

"You might say that," she admitted as a small smile played on her muzzle. "They weren't exactly beating my door down, but they were there. I wasn't the most beautiful women, but I had my charms. They were attracted those, but mostly the money, I think. And after the Battle of the Gates, that was all gone." Kayla's smile quickly turned bitter. "Over the course of several days I lost everything. The raiders destroyed our home just outside the keep, smashing anything they couldn't take. Metamor needed all the warriors they could get, so my father and the man whom I loved then went out to try and hold the Lutins off." A single tear rolled over the black fur of her cheek as she squeezed her eyes shut. "Nasoj took them both from me. And then he took the last thing I had, my body. And gave me this," she concluded with a disgusted flick of her paw.

"But you made it," Rickkter said. Leaning forward, he reached, grasping Kayla's other one where it lay on the table. He squeezed it between his own. "You made it through that and you're here now. You can't ask much more."

Kayla was still focused on the past and the gesture was lost on her. "You think so, do you?" she asked sarcastically. "After the Battle, I was left with next to nothing. For the first time in my life I was left without family and the support it and its money provided. Most of my father's assets were tied up in business ventures and the Lutins had stolen much of the rest. After the gates, his creditors didn't think they had to pay a dead man, and so didn't. I spent a day going through what was left of my home, picking out things that might be of value and looking for any currency they may have missed. I didn't find a lot in either case. The friends that I thought I had? Gone. Either dead, uninterested in a poor girl, or repulsed by my form."

"I was abandoned by everyone!" she growled, snatching her hand away. "I had never worked a day in my life and had no idea what to do. The money I had, what little there was, only lasted for eight months in rent and food. I even had to skip meals to stretch that out as it was." She decided to skip over the whole affair with John Glass. "About the only one I had at that time was Jessica. That was it.

"Do you know it was her who got me that job with intelligence? Even so, I practically begged for the job." She shook her head. "At least I had my father's memory for facts and my grandfather's ability to out think the enemy, or I never would have lasted. At least when Phil finally took over about a year later it got better." Rick knew that Phil, due to his rather permanent, high-degree change, was unable to write for himself, so he often dictated things to her when he needed it done quickly. "And that's pretty much where I've been ever since."

Her timing for the conclusion was perfect, as it coincided nicely with the arrival of their food. Rickkter graciously accepted his plate of pheasant, starting to pick at it almost as soon as he had it down. Kayla paused over her meal inhaling the sensuous aromas. It had been a very long time indeed since she had indulged in this particular taste. Picking up one of the small birds with her fingers, she tore off a wing, the skin and cartilage tearing wetly. The skunk's sharp teeth made quick work of the morsel, sucking the tender meat from the bone. It had been too long since she had experienced this. When she was done with the wing, she looked over at her companion. He was resolutely working on his own dish, giving her no regard.

"You still haven't answered my question, Rick."

Rickkter shrugged and looked up at her. "Not a lot to tell."

"Well, just tell me what there is." She licked some of the sauce from her muzzle. "It's only fair. Believe it or not, you're the first person, besides Jessica, since the Curse, whom I've told my story to. So, come on."

"Well, where to start? You already know I don't have an exact birth date. Would it surprise you to learn I also don't have any real family name?" Kayla's brow shot up and her eyes grew a little wider. "Heh, I guess it did. It's true though; I have no family name, no kingdom, and no place to call home. My physical characteristics mark me – er, MARKED me as north eastern, yet my earliest memories are of the Southlands, with my father. Unlike you, I don't know my father's name. If any of the people we ever met used it, I can't recall. All I know, was that he looked like me, called me his son, and taught me some magic. The last I saw of him was when I was a little over seven, when he left me with a sect of warriors to become one of them. I can't tell you why he did it, only I think he might have been suffering from the same thing I was when I came here. Either way, I was never told and doubt I'll ever find out."

Between mouthfuls of pheasant, retold of his history with the Kankoran, Ebon, and after. His early life was kept as vague as he could manage, no names being used. He gave different details, mostly of his travels, during other parts. The only part he kind of stumbled over was Deanna. Of course he always stumbled there. She had been the best thing in his life and he had been responsible for destroying her. At least the pretense of the food allowed him to gloss over the parts he didn't want to or couldn't talk about.

"Wow. I don't think I've heard anything like that before. Ever since you showed me around your apartment that one day I've been wondering where a person like you would learn to play. And you do a wonderful job of it, too."

He smiled at her, his hands coming together beneath his chin. "Thank you. Oh, you remember how I told you I spent the afternoon with Caroline? Well, it seems she's decided to take up the flute. She's been practicing a bit overmuch now, but when her hands have healed some more she'll attack it with a vigor."

"If she's as good at that as she is at archery, than I look forward to hearing some of her playing. Perhaps you and her could get together, have a little duette?"

With a smile and a nod, the raccoon across from her agreed it was a distinct possibility. They then quietly resumed their dinners, trying to finish the meals before they went completely cold. Kayla mulled over in her mind what he had told her, trying to see how both the story and the man across from her fit the image she knew. It was an odd combination, and a fascinating one all the same. But there was one more thing she wanted to know.

"So what are your feelings about being changed into a raccoon morph, Rick?"

"What are my feelings about the transformation?" repeated Rickkter. He raised his paws, resting his chin on his thumbs, and idly clicked his index fingers together. "I think I've come to accept that I'm stuck like this forever. But... I've realized it's not so bad. I've always been here, I've always looked out from behind these eyes. Nothing can change that." He closed his eyes and sighed. "It feels like it's taken me a lifetime to realize that."

"So what finally made you do it?"

Much to Kayla's surprise, Rickkter's hand snaked out and took hold of hers."My friends helped a lot. They've dealt with it for years." He raised them both off the table a few inches and imparted a small lick on her knuckles. "I think you've helped the most. A... lovely female who has spent time with me by her own choice."

Kayla was quite taken aback by such a comment. Oddly enough, she found herself laughing over the whole notion. "You're glad I spent time with you? Why do you say that?"

Letting go of her hand, Rickkter withdrew his own, looking away and flicking his eye ridges. "Well... because it's true. All of my other friends are either warriors or mages. Misha, Caroline, Kershaw, even Muri... but, uh, I like to think you're different." He snickered. "At least you're certainly a sight prettier than Misha."

If she didn't have her mouth full, Kayla might have laughed. As it was, she only managed to snort, then giggled around her food as she tried to chew. "Is that a compliment?" she finally managed to get out.

Rickkter smirked. "I would advise taking it at one, yes."

Kayla laughed, then returned to her food, working to finish her meal of the thrushes. This was probably the single most expensive meal she had eaten in years, and probably more than she should have asked of Rick. But still, she felt like something special tonight, something extravagant. Rickkter didn't seem to mind though, and he was calmly sitting across from her, the candle making the white around his mask glow bright amber, nibbling the last few pieces of his pheasant from their bones.

Her mind drifted back to what he had said to her. Rick had been spending time with her for, what? A couple of months now? At least since the summer solstice festival. That had been the first time he had asked her to join him for anything. Heck, it had been the first time ANYONE had asked her to join them for anything like that in far too long. Of course she was reminded of Glass and had shied away. But still, there was... something about him, and she had realized that after their evening in The Tavern's Hearth. During their time together she had also gotten to better know his friends, especially Caroline. She had known the Long Scout for reports, but had never really gotten to *know* her. She could empathize with the otter over what had happened to her...

A cry of indignation caused the skunk to look up from her meal and across the tavern. There, near the far end of the bar, was a man dressed in the garb of trader and had his hand locked on the arm of one of the wrenches. The sever was a young girl, probably not quite eighteen, and wasn' t taking the advances of the trader well. From the look of things, the girl probably still wasn't totally comfortable with her form. Kayla looked over the bar wondering where the owner was and why he wasn't doing anything about it, and why no one else was helping. But considering the man was about six-foot-four and most of his over two-hundred pound frame was muscles, it was unlikely anyone would want to even try and stop him. He also looked to be almost twice as old as the young girl he was trying to take.

"Aren't you going to do something about that, Rick?"

The raccoon looked up from his food and over at the small commotion. "Not my business," he mumbled around a bite.

Kayla shot him an incredulous look.

Rickkter looked up at her and saw the look on her face. He cringed and stopped eating. "Okay, okay. I'll go over there and see if I can do anything."

He didn't know WHY he said that, as he got up from their table and started over across the tavern. As he had told Kayla, this wasn't his business; if the girl really was unwilling, then her boss could sort it out. Besides, this was a natural thing in bars all over the world.

So why was he doing it?

The answer was surprisingly simple; because she had asked. Well, because she had more or less demanded it of him. If it had been anyone else he would have argued the point or told them to go do it themselves. Not her. No, she was something different, someone... special? to him. And now here he was, standing behind a large, obnoxious, foul smelling trader.

"Hey," Rickkter barked. "Lady doesn't appear interested. Let her go."

"And I say that all she needs is a little persuading," growled back the man as he moved his face a few inches closer to the squirming tavern waitress. Rickkter could tell by his thick accent he was Fassitian. "Now be a good little raccoon and leave me be."

Okay, the direct approach was for naught, so Rickkter tried something else. "Do you have a thing for men? You do know she used to be a man, didn't you? We're all cursed here, even those that don't appear to be."

"And I don't think you heard ME," snarled the trader as he turned his face to Rickkter. "Leave us. Now. Before you regret it."

Subtle humour wasn't working, so onto something more drastic. "Look, you ugly cretin, I'm sure you're not as stupid as you look. Nobody could be. Now, since you're obviously depriving a village somewhere of its idiot, let the girl go and get out of here."

The man's face was an ugly scowl as he inched it closer to Rickkter. "Or what?"

Rickkter's rabbit punch hit the man solidly on his stubble-covered jaw. When subtly didn't work, more often than not, hostility did. Or so the raccoon had found.

The face of the trader went from surprise to rage in an instant. Rickkter had guessed right, this man was a bully. And like any bully, he was shocked to discover that someone would actually stand up to him, let alone physically strike him. Getting to his feet, the man all but threw the girl to the ground as he towered over Rickkter, trying to use his bulk to intimidate the keeper. Considering he had almost half a foot and about eighty pounds on the raccoon, there was a good chance of that happening. Or so his imposing stance seemed to indicate he believed. Their exchange was drawing looks from all over the Jolly Collie.

<<You flea ridden, piece of shit,>> the man growled in his native tongue. <<You'll pay for that. Your hide is going to be lining my wagon seat when I leave here tomorrow.>>

Rickkter had never been impressed by bullies and that had led to a lot of fights in his youth. Of course he had won most of them and against people who were larger than this hulking trader. This was a man whom experience taught, thought he could get others to do anything simply be pressing them hard enough. Well, Rickkter wasn't one to bend under such pressure.

"Hey, look," he said, answering in the common tongue despite being able to understand what the other man had said perfectly well. He wanted to keep that for later. "I don't think either of us wants any trouble here, do we?"

<<Your kind make me sick,>> snarled Rick's opponent in a drunken manner. <<When I'm done with you, then I'm going to have with both the girl AND that fucking stinking girlfriend of yours.>> He sneered down at the raccoon. <<Not that someone like you could get anything better than that smelly bitch.>>

Rickkter's expression cooled instantly and he let the loud, drunken trader see exactly how large a mistake he had made. << Oh. Now you shouldn't have said that,>> he muttered.

Whatever the man was going to say when he opened is mouth would never be known, as Rickkter drove his fist deep into the man's gut. The trader let out a loud grunt as he was rocked back by the blow. His face went pale and his hands folded over his stomach by reflex.

Which allowed Rickkter to get a hold of the man's hair and smash his face against the top of the bar. The sharp, wet crack as the man's nose was crushed and several of his front teeth were knocked out drew the attention of the rest of the bar. The trader began to slide backwards, leaving a smeared trail of blood on the dark, scarred wood of the bar top. Pulling the man's head up, Rickkter put his muzzle next to the stunned trader's ear.

<<You boke ma nose,>> the man muttered as he dabbed at his ruined face.

Rickkter shook his head to get the man's attention. <<I'll break a hell of a lot more if I ever hear you speak that shit about her or any other keeper again, understand?>> he snarled in the man's ear.

The trader nodded dumbly.

<<Good.>> Rickkter released him to slump against the bar, then delivered a swift chop to the back of the trader's bull neck. That crumpled the obnoxious human like the sack of shit he was.

When Rickkter looked up as he resettled his jacket on his shoulders, he noticed that the bar had gone silent and everyone in the place was looking at him. He adjusted the coat on his shoulders a little more and turned to a pair who were dressed similar to the man at his feet. "I believe your friend here has had a little too much to drink tonight. I suggest you take him back up to his room and see that he stays there for the rest of the night." The two nodded dumbly and came over to retrieve their unconscious friend.

Kayla sat in her chair looking rather stunned at the whole affair. She hadn't known what to expect when she asked Rickkter to go over there, but it wasn't that! The language the two had spoken had been unintelligible to her, but actions spoke louder than words. It was only now, while the two men were hauling out their friend, that fur on Rickkter's neck and tail was lying down. He watched the two men depart then went to talk to the serving girl. By this time normal conversation had resumed, and they were talking in tones too low for her to hear, anyway. Rickkter spent a few minutes in conversation with the girl before returning.

"So what did she have to say?" Kayla asked after Rickkter had seated himself and resumed his dinner.

The raccoon moved his eyes to look up at her, tearing off a bite of meat and swallowing it. "I just wanted to know if she was alright, she said she was. I also asked about those men. Apparently they're part of a convoy that will be heading out tomorrow morning."

"You're not worried that those three might try something?"

Rickkter shook his head. "Nah. I've been around people like that for years. They won't try anything tonight and they're leaving tomorrow. Anyway, if they did, I could handle them. His kind are nothing."

"Well, I hope you're right." Kayla went back to her meal, taking a bite off the breast of her remaining thrush. "What did he say to you?"

Rickkter eerfed at her.

"Just before you... bounced his face off the bar, what did he say to you?"

After swallowing his bite of pheasant Rickkter licked his chops. "Oh that. That was just something inappropriate that I didn't believe should have been said in front of ladies." Without further explanation, Rickkter returned to his meal.

Kayla "Oh"ed as well and went back to her dinner. But something about the way Rickkter had said it, the look he had given her, told her that there was perhaps something more to that. She didn't know what it was, but only hoped she could find out soon.

Rickkter's distant mood carried over during their trip back to the Keep. He made conversation with Kayla readily enough, but never kept it going or initiated any of it on his own. Kayla tried to keep it up at first, but as their journey wore on she let it go and they walked in silence. Instead, she turned her thoughts inwards, trying to figure out what was making him act like this.

It wasn't the fight that was on his mind, that was certain. She had been out with him on a number of occasions to the Mule, where they had spent evenings at tables of Long Scouts, and he could match tales of bar fights with the best of them. Kayla also doubted that his tales were as blown out of proportion as a few she had heard, so it wasn't that.

But it was connected to that fight, somehow, of that she was certain. The only thing that it could have been was what the man said. When the man had starting going on the second time, in that guttural language of his, she had seen Rickkter's ears go flat against his head. Moments after that he had delivered two extraordinary fast blows then was holding the man's heard while snarling viciously at him. Never had she seen Rickkter lose control like that.

They were ascending a wide, circular stair case with an open centre when the raccoon finally said something to her. "We still have that chess game, you know. Do you want to go back to my place and finish it?"

Kayla looked up at him and smiled. She squeezed his paw. "Sure."

When they walked into the room, Rickkter waved his paw causing the various lamps and candles to burst into flame. Such displays had at first taken Kayla by surprise, but she was used to it by now. Rickkter went over to his seat at the chess table and took his seat, perching over the pieces and wiggling his fingers as he tried to decide which piece to move.

But the female skunk wasn't ready for the game yet. Instead, she decided to examine some of the other things Rickkter's apartment held. As she was walking out of his room, passing the book case, something caught her attention of the corner of her eye. Stopping, she moved over to the small pile papers where they sat upon their portfolio on the shelf. A small smile came to her face when she saw the top picture. She loved looking though such things, especially when it was Rickkter who had drawn them. The first time she had seen his drawings had been when she had stumbled upon him in the gardens one afternoon. They had spent that lunch looking over the different sketches and having such a good time in general that she wound up being late in getting back to work.

"Um, what are you looking at?" said Rick as he rose from his chair.

Kayla shuffled the top picture Saroth basking in the new dawn light to the bottom as she picked up the pile and moved closer to a stand of candles. "Your pictures. You didn't tell me you did any today." She moved past a portrait of another dragon, that one named Gornul if memory served. "I don't know why. You know how I love these things, Rick."

"Kayla, I don't think..." he began, only to trail off when the skunk pulled free the next picture. From the look on her face, her wide eyes and her muzzle hanging open a few centimetres, he could tell exactly what picture she was looking so closely at. The silence dragged on as she stared at the picture, eventually lowering it and the rest to her side. Neither of them had anything to say.

"Rick," Kayla eventually ventured, "why did you do this? It... it's exquisite, but why did you do it? Why me?"

It was an inner battle for Rickkter, trying to reconcile what he should tell her. "Why does a painter paint what they do? Or a writer write? They do so because they have to, they feel a need to create what their muses demand they do. I am a slave to my muse, and you were the inspiration, the same as the rest." Well, that wasn't entirely a lie. The others were inspiration. Her picture, and the time invested to capture the details his mind's eye knew so well, that was something else. Something more.

"Oh, I see," replied the skunk as she put her picture back with the rest and returned the stack to its place on the shelf. Rickkter's eyes never left her, despite the fact that her gaze was directed somewhat at the floor and had a very nervous quality to it as she turned and headed out. "Good night," she whispered upon reaching the exit.

"Good night, my dear."

Kayla abruptly turned back though she couldn't look at him. "Tell me something, Rick," said the mephit as she held out the sides of her skirt a little, her thick monochromatic tail swishing around behind her as she slowly danced from foot to foot, "tell me... tell me if you think I'm pretty?"

Rickkter stood there, the light from a candelabra playing shifting patterns of candle light where it showed on the lighter sections of his fur. The silence stretched, his eyes roving over her form several times, taking it in as though it were the first time he had ever really seen her. "No, I don't," was his eventual response.

The blue eyes of the female skunk across from him rose to meet his, something akin to shock and hurt welling up in them. Her tail drooped and her ears laid back flat against her skull.

Rickkter could scarcely believe the words that came to his lips next. He couldn't believe he was admitting this to her. "You are not pretty, you're beautiful. Very, very beautiful."

The smile that came to her face, her lovely, round black ears perking up at his words. They, along with the look in her eyes, made it all worth it. Rickkter felt as though a weight had been lifted from his heart. "Do you mean that?" she whispered.

He nodded. "I do. Pretty is not beautiful. Pretty changes. Beautiful is what the mind arranges." Kayla rushed up to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him close to her as she buried her face in his shoulder. Rickkter's hands slowly rose behind her back and as returned the embrace, he finally let go of all the inhibitions he had concerning her. And for the first time since they had first met, he savored contact with her. Slowly rubbing the bottom of his chin against the top of her head, he worked his way down until he was nestling his nose against the base of her neck. Even with the spell field of her talisman, he could detect a faint hint of her musk.

"That is something I've had to relearn since I arrived here," he murmured into her thick black fur. "What somebody looks like, what somebody is externally, isn't important. It's what that individual is on the inside that counts. I once heard it said that there is no beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." Pulling her away from him, Rickkter regarded her meticulously in the room's candle light. "And to my eyes you are beautiful."

Kayla's paws were resting on the raccoon's sides as his slid up to her shoulders, the right one cupping her cheek and rubbing gently at the abundance of soft fur there. That brought another small smile to her lips and a purring deep within her chest. From the look in Rickkter's eyes, it almost looked like he was trying to figure out what to do next. As time drew out, the two stood there in the room that was silent aside from the sounds made by the skunkette. She was about to question this when his expression broke and he started to chuckle.

His eye ridges pulled together in a sort of embarrassed cast, his chuckling intensified until he was actually laughing. Kayla wore an puzzled frown, her eyes open wide as she nervously laughed along. Of all that Rickkter had done that evening, this puzzled her the most. She was about to ask but he beat her to it.

"It just occurred to me," he confessed. "I have no idea how one is supposed to kiss with a muzzle."

Kayla wuffed, smiled, then laughed openly at that, the tension of the whole situation breaking. She raised her eye ridges in an "Are you serious?" expression, a huge grin on her open muzzle. Rickkter only nodded and laughed harder, his brown eyes never leaving hers. The remaining tension of the encounter left the two of them in a rush as they were both caught up in the laughter. Rickkter actually had to back off, one hand on his knee for support, the other clutching his side.

But that little interlude didn't last long and their mutual laughter slowly died. The apartment resumed its candle it facade, the dancing light playing off the white fur of the two animal morphs. Kayla and Rickkter both looked up from their bent over positions, their eyes meeting and locking as they straightened up together. The tension that had existed between before ignited into a passion that cause the two morphs to once more come into an embrace.

Kayla reached up, ruffling the fur on the back of Rickkter's neck before sliding her hand down to the side of his chin. The other was rested on his left shoulder. "Come here, you silly raccoon," she murmured as she guided his head to one side.

He leaned down to meet her kiss. Kayla leaned up, feeling his breath on her muzzle from where it came from his slightly open mouth. And then their muzzles touched and pressed together, their heads turning slightly to the side to allow better access. Rickkter seemed hesitant at first, tensing at the first contact, but the feeling of Kayla's warm tongue brushing over his lips and muzzle made him quickly relax. Their muzzles opened a little more, their tongues meeting and entwining, probing each other's mouths. Kayla felt Rickkter's larger canines with her tongue, his own playing along side hers. Their whiskers quivered and brushed together, Rickkter's longer ones tickling Kayla's muzzle and adding to the thrill of the moment as they explored each other with all of their senses. The kiss went on and on, until at last they had to separate and come up for air.

"Rick, how long has it been since you were with someone?" she panted as he moved his nipping down to the side of her neck.

"Don't know. Can't say. A while," he mumbled as his teeth pricked the lose flesh at the nape of her neck. Her smell, the feel of her fur on his paw, her taste; it was intoxicating. "You?"

"Far too long."

"Then we'll have to do something about that," he rumbled as he brought his head up and pressed his muzzle to hers once more.

It had finally happened. One of Rickkter's arms went around behind her shoulders, the other going to her waist. Their tongues continued to play with each other and he pulled her close, reveling in the feel of the skunk's spline body against his own. And for the first time in months, he felt all the burdens go away only to be filled with his feelings for her.

It was glorious.

It was... morning. Or so the pale light that came in through the open doorway and the fireplace told the still sleepy raccoon. He squished his eyes closed and murred deeply as he stretched his body. But his eyes snapped back open when his foot touched something behind him. Rolling his head back, he saw what was in his bed.


Rickkter was careful when he rolled the rest of himself over, as the last thing he wanted to do right now was to disturb her. She looked beautiful, so beautiful, lying there. The blanket had tented a bit when he had rolled over, revealing her chest to him. It was a lovely white, the coloration starting at the underside of her jaw, traveling down the front of her neck where it spread out to cover her front. Her breasts, not very large but still ample, were covered in that fine white fur, except for the area around the nipples. The fur around them still held a matted look from their activities the night before. The fur on her stomach was a little longer, Rickkter observed, as he ran his paw up her front, rubbing them in slow, small circles. His paw came to rest deeply entwined with the lush fur at her side.

The events of the night before came to his mind, the last time he had had his hand on her furred side like this. They had just made it to his bedroom and just finished disrobing, and were admiring each other's form.

"This is the first time you've done this since you changed?" she had asked.

"How did you know?" he had answered her with an embarrassed grin.

"A guess," she replied. She then ran her hands up his chest, twining some of the lighter gray fur she found there around one clawed digit. "Yet considering your profession, I find it surprising. I know the other soldiers here tend to frequent the prostitutes in town. I've ever heard it said that some of them prefer the animal morphs."

Rickkter was still running his hand through the fur at her hip, working it through the layer of fur to the skin beneath. He couldn't believe how wonderful it felt and couldn't help but wonder why he hadn't wanted to do this earlier. The answer was an uncomfortable one. "Because I was ashamed. Of what I had become."

"Ashamed?" she had whispered. He heard what could only be surprise overlaying a heartfelt comfort. She backed off until she was at the very end of his arm's length. "How could you be ashamed of this?" she had wanted to know, running her claws through the fur over his muscular chest.

His reply had been simple. Taking his paw off her hip, he brought it to the white under his chin, running it forward to the edge as he tipped her head up to meet his gaze. "How could you be ashamed of *this*?" he whispered. Her response was to give him another passionate kiss, one of many that night.

The skunk beneath his slowly rubbing paw stirred, drawing Rickkter back to the present. Kayla's pirr intensified greatly as she came around and stretched her body from fingers to toes and tail. But when her hands were coming down, the right one coming to rest on Rickkter's shoulder, her eyes flew open in surprise.

"Good morning, Kayla," was the first thing that came to his lips. He lay there for several seconds, taking in the black and white form of the female skunk across from him. While having appeared nervous and unsure at first, she seemed to have calmed down, her blue eyes large and roving over the exposed parts of his body. "So what do you think of you decision now? In the cold light of morning?"

The mephit was silent a while longer and Rickkter began to get worried over what her reaction might be. Then she moved beneath his gentle touch and slipped forward a few inches, her mouth opening to reveal the rows of small, sharp teeth and a pink tongue inside. That tongue darted out and gave Rickkter a quick lick on the nose. "Good morning, lover," she burred.