Roses and Thorns

by Chris Hoekstra

chapter 1

"Um, here," said Michael as he set the piece back down on the board.

The raccoon across from him looked at the new arrangement a few moments before nodding. "An interesting move."

"Yes, quite," agreed the stocky, red bearded man next to Michael.

"And it would be a great play," concurred the moose that was sitting next to Michael, "were it not for the fact that rooks cannot move diagonally."

Michael groaned inwardly as he took back his piece. Rick and some of the other members of the lumber crew had been trying to teach him how to play chess. They had been going at it for about an hour now, and he had yet to win a game. He had lost the first game inside of four moves. Before he knew what was going on, Rickkter had his queen right at the beaver's front line and his bishop set-up for the kill. Rick had apologized for doing that so suddenly, saying that he had always wanted to do that, and had let the next four games go longer.

The most frustrating part for Mike was the movement of the pieces themselves; he just couldn't keep straight how each moved. While he was told it was a common thing, still it was nagging. And Rick seemed to always exploit that one weakness. He couldn't remember the number of times in those past games the raccoon had used his knights to decimate his defences. Licking his nose, the beaver selected a pawn and moved it up a space.

Rickkter leaned back and shook his head. "Now Michael, you didn't really think about that move, did you?" Reaching out, Rick tapped the top of the beaver's remaining bishop. "Because if you did. You would have noticed that your bishop has been sitting in a cross fire for the last five moves. I just thought to point that out, though I'll let you keep it this time." Rick picked up a knight and the recently moved pawn in one paw, setting the knight were the pawn was. "You have to remember, Michael, that pawns are minor pieces and should be used to protect your more important ones."

"Well, let's see if there's some damage we can do in return," said Lance as he looked over the board from this seat. Rickkter had conceded allowing the beaver a coach after the first two games. Tutor and student discussed options for removing several different pieces, but in all cases they would lose the piece they used to take it. They eventually settled on moving the least important piece, taking out one of Rick's rooks in the process.

The scowl on the coon's face showed his displeasure at that. But he decided to have pity, stringing along the beaver for a while longer. He just decided to move a knight into position for taking down Michael's queen in another move. That left the moose and beaver to debate what to try and do to remedy the situation. But they never got the chance, as another animal morph decided to take an interest in the game

"Ah, what do we have here?" asked a female skunk as she sauntered up to the table. The lumbermen cleared her a small path as she went. Upon reaching the game in progress she put both hands on the table and leaned over a little to inspect the arrangement of the little black and white pieces. "So how long has this been going on, Rick?" she asked, turning to him.

He smiled. "Hello, Kayla. And we've been playing a while now, mostly while I was waiting for you to come."

"I meant this game."

"Longer than the others," he admitted with a shrug. "Why?"

She pointed to a flying wedge arrangement of pawns and the knight behind them. "Because you're using a variation on the Hasslar's third gambit. With this, he should have been done for long ago, especially considering the position of his king."

"Well, you see I have been trying to /teach/ him how to play. And one cannot learn if one is beaten inside twenty moves or less per game, now can they?"

Kayla shook her head. "I was taught a different way, I guess. Mind if I help him out here?" she inquired, pointing at the board.

Rickkter murred. "I don't know. Rule is, minimal help from the peanut gallery," he explained as he gestured to the lumbermen standing around. He looked up at her, standing there in a rather low cut blue dress, her lustrous black and while fur contrasting nicely. The way her thick tail was slightly perked up showed an uncharacteristic eagerness on her part. "But since it's you," he relented, "and waiting for you was the whole reason I was here, I suppose I can allow it. But you only get, say... ten moves."

"More than I need," Kayla said as she moved behind Michael a little, leaning over his left shoulder. He moved his head back a little and looked up at Kayla where she leaned over him. This close, he could easily detect the strong musky odour that pervaded from her. Much to his surprise, it wasn't horrifically unpleasant. Just a little stronger than some of the other mustelids. After being around animal morphs so long, he was used to some odd smells. And it did feel rather nice, the way she had her hand on his shoulder like that. He could even feel her small claws though his light summer shirt.

"Now what you want to do here," said the skunk as she leaned over a little more, "is to try and set it up so if he takes any of your pieces, he'll lose something more valuable. Take that bishop he has all lined up there." She took it and plunked it down several squares away. "Let's see how valuable he thinks his queen is."

Growling lightly to himself, Rickkter cracked one of his knuckles. "Far more so than that lone bishop." Taking a pawn from his starting line, he moved it two spaces up. "But that's what pawns are for."

"Well if THAT'S the way you want to play it..." said Kayla as she reached for her pieces again.

The game continued in a rapid back-and-forth fashion for some time, well beyond the agreed upon ten moves. Rickkter and Kayla just kept moving the pieces, totally oblivious to the world around them. And oddly enough, they both developed the same look on their faces as they did so. Both had small smiles that exposed the very front of their teeth, their whiskers perked, and both kept looking into the eyes of their opponent except when moving a piece. It took Michael some time to place the look, but he eventually did. It was a look of enjoyment, one brought on by finding a challenge after searching for one a long time.

He wondered if either was aware just how ridiculous those grins looked on them.

But it was unlikely if anyone else was following the beaver's train of thought, as pretty much everyone was focussed on the rapidly advancing game that was being played out. While Lance had been coaching Michael in a more defensive strategy, Kayla was matching Rickkter's offensive one. For every piece that he took, he almost always lost his own. There was one sequence where they removed eight pieces from the board in as many moves. But the mephit had been at a serious disadvantage from the beginning and it was a short time before Rickkter crowed, "Check."

Kayla growled a little, taking some time to reassess strategy. As soon as she had moved her king, Rickkter pegged off her remaining bishop. This gave her more pause, and she began to move with deliberate care. The grin that Michael had noticed so in evidence earlier had changed to more of a glower. Rickkter's, on the other hand, had grown with each piece he took as he kept her king almost constantly pinned. Eventually he managed a final check mate using his last rook and his queen.

Leaning back, Kayla chuckled to herself as her bushy tail swished back and forth a little. "Well played," she finally admitted. Looking down at the plaid coloured beaver beside her, she offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that Michael, but it's easy to get caught up in the game."

"Oh, don't worry about it too much," he offered. "I've been losing to him all evening, and it's nice to see that I'm not the only one whom that happens to." The other lumbermen all shared a chuckle at that.

Kayla snorted, her tail flipping around to give the beaver a light swat on the back. "Uhn. Well, I'll take that as a compliment, then."

"A wise move," said Rickkter, looking out from where he sat with his chin resting on clasped paws. "As for you, Michael, I do hope you enjoyed this evening as much as I did." He shot a look at Kayla. "I hope you leaned a lot as well, including that in this game, not all situations are futile."

"Yes, I think you two proved that admirably well," admitted the beaver.

Rickkter's claws made a quick staccato rapping on the table. "Well, I have other matters to attend to." He offered Michael his paw. "Again, I hope that you had a good time. I'll leave the board, in case you want to get some more practice."

Michael took Rick's black paw in his own yellowish one and gave it one quick shake. "It was a pleasure. Sure you don't want it back, though?"

It was a veiled glance that Rickkter gave the skunk, but Michael could see the smile flash briefly on the raccoon's muzzle. "No, something tells me that I won't have much time for games tonight. I'll get it next time we play."

"Well, if you insist," said Michael. He wished the rest of the small audience well, and the other lumbermen thanked him for the show in return. Their complements accepted, he found himself moving away with the charming female skunk


"So?" echoed the skunk.

"So how about someplace different for dinner tonight," Rickkter eventually ventured. "We can go to town, or something? This place is getting old fast."

With a snort, Kayla placed her hands on her hips and glared at him. "What? Don't want to be seen with me in front of your friends?"

"Oh, no. Nothing like that. I just thought that you might want to go somewhere different for a change."

The mephit gave him another discriminating look before saying "Okay, sure. Why not?" and started out the door, Rickkter in tow.

After they had gotten outside and several paces down the walk, Kayla asked about needing anything else for the weather. Rickkter just spread his arms and tilted his head back to look up at where the stars were just starting to come out. "It's a lovely evening. A touch cool, but still nice for this time of year. We've got fur coats anyway, so what does it matter?"

Kayla looked around, rubbing her arms. "I suppose you're right. It's not like we'll have many more of these nights left to us."

Inhaling deeply, Rickkter leaned his head back and savoured the early evening air. Kayla noted how his long whiskers twitched with the satisfaction of it. "Then we must make note to enjoy it." Beckoning to the town, he suggested they get started.

"So where did you learn to play?" asked Rickkter as they walked along. They had just passed the outer walls and were on the outskirts of the town, the gravel road crunching lightly under their feet. Kayla cocked her head in a questioning manner. "It's just that you're good. Very good, in fact. That first time, in my quarters, I never even saw that checkmate. And just now... well, it's been a long time since I've played people that good. Including around here."

Kayla's tail swished around a little as she clasped her hands behind her and leaned her head back. Her muzzle was open a little, and Rickkter saw as her tongue run over her teeth. The way the moonlight highlighted the white fur running from beneath her neck and down her front, as well as the stripes along her back, it really caught his eye.

"It was my grandfather," she answered eventually. "He started me playing when I was a little girl, back home in Eramosa." A small smile lit her face. "I always loved it. Him and I would sit and play for hours on end. He almost always used to beat me, especially at the beginning. But he always pointed out my mistakes, usually after I made them." She paused. "I miss him."

"I understand," said Rickkter. "You know, I was in Eramosa once. I went though it after a quick jaunt through the Holy Lands."

"Beautiful places, aren't they?" asked Kayla. Much to her surprise, she saw a grimace come to the ‘coon's face.

"You know, with all honesty, I hated every minute I was there. You see," he explained, using his hands for emphasis, "it wasn't the people or anything like that; it was the mana. You're not involved with magic, so I'm not sure how much you'd understand. But for me, that place was the pits. My entire life has been dedicated to magic. And that is, literally, the one region of the world where magic doesn't work. I spent a week there, but I was too miserable to really enjoy it. Just the FEEL of the place set me on edge."

Kayla nodded. "I think I understand. Gramps said that place wasn't for everyone. Mostly people think it's made up of the superstitious and the ultra religious. I didn't really find it that different from any other place. But even still, I think it's a lovely place."

Rickkter murred as they continued. "So who was your grandfather? Some kind of chess grand-master?" he asked after a little while. When asked why he wanted to know, Rick replied that he was "Just curious."

"Well, if you must know, he was a soldier, like yourself. The name Elijhah Tremayne mean anything to you?"

Rickkter frowned, seemingly thinking it over. "The stagiest?" Kayla nodded, a rather indifferent look on her face. Rickkter, on the other hand, did a quick double take as surprise came over his masked features. "Unbelievable! I've read his books on unconventional tactics. Brilliant work! Something that's inspired me for a long time. Moore was a brilliant thinker, always expounding improvitisation and surprise over the more accepted controlled battle manoeuvres." He shook his head and gave her a half-smile. "You know, I would have given almost anything to meet that man."

"Well, I don't know what you would have thought of him. By the time I had come along, he had pretty much withdrawn from the military life. About as tactical as he got then was chess."

"Yes, and I can see where you get it from. Now that I know your source, I shall be better prepared for our next match."

Kayla favoured him with a burring chuckle. "Grandfather had a saying. It was: One cannot play chess if one becomes aware of the pieces as living souls and of the fact that the Whites and the Blacks have more in common with each other than with the players. Suddenly one loses all interest in who will be champion'."

Rickkter thought it over, humming and hawing to himself. "Very interesting," he finally admitted. "But there is something else I wonder." He stopped and turned to an immaculately constructed entrance-way. "Did your grandfather ever say anything that profound about food, because I'm really hungry."

"Well, as a matter of fact he did," admitted the skunk with a sharp laugh. She came up next to him, wrapping her arm around his. "He said that food is anything edible that doesn't try to eat you back."

The raccoon's laugh echoed up off the stone walls of the building. "Then your grandfather was indeed a wise man. Let's hope that this place has something tame enough for us to eat without too much trouble."

chapter 2

The problems that were encountered at the restaurant weren't those of unfriendly appetisers, unfortunately, but rather a pricy menu of strangely unappetising items as well as a room full of markedly unfriendly patrons.

"Look at this stuff," said Kayla as she motioned to the columns of items. "Infant rabbits, fawn, bear, swan, eagle, heron, eels in saffron sauce, tureens of spiced scallop bisque and almond fish stew, porpoise and peas in onion white sauce... And who would want to eat sparrow's heart?"

"Nobles," replied Rick as he looked over the finely dressed patronage. Lots of lace, lots of velvet, lots of gold, silver and other adornments the rich favoured. "It's said to stimulate lust."

"Then that would explain the prices. By the gods, some of these things cost more than I make in a month."

Rickkter just grunted as he took in the smug and vaguely concealed condescending looks they were being given by the other people in the restaurant. Whether it was their lack-luster attire, Kayla's species, or the fact that they clearly weren't nobility, Rickkter couldn't say. Most likely a combination of all of the above. "Sounds about right. Though in this case of this crowd, I think the sparrow is only serving to breed hostility."

As Kayla's own gaze followed his around the room, it was painted with an old hurt. He could see that she had been though this many, many times before. "Perhaps we should go somewhere else?"

"A wise idea," he said as they headed out the door. Rickkter had his arm wrapped around her shoulders as they did so.

The next place down wasn't much better, serving an aberrant array of sea foods. While such things as the crayfish, herring, fried pike, bass, millet, and trout were appealing to both their tastes, the prices were not. Even Rickkter gave a disapproving rumble at the mention of sturgeon roe and gurnard flanks, and the codling pie in sauce vert.

"Well, we're not having much luck tonight, are we?" mused the raccoon as he and the female skunk ambled down the street in the growing twilight. "Do you know anyplace?"

Kayla folded her hands behind her back once more, murring softly to herself. Rickkter's eyes were once again drawn to the expanse of white fur that ran from her chin, down the front of her neck, to disappear within the cut of her dark blue dress. "I do know of one place, a little out of the way place that I like to go sometimes. It's not the fanciest in the world--"

"Hey, I was the kind of person who would eat almost anything BEFORE I was changed into a raccoon, I'm not going to let that stop me."

"Well, I guess that settles it, then. The Tavern's Hearth pub it is!"

"I've been wondering about something that you said during the games," admitted Rick after they had strolled down a few blocks, him following the skunk's lead. "You said that we're both rare transformations. I know that Coe and I are the only raccoons here, perhaps in the whole valley, but how many skunks are there?"

"Oh, only about a half dozen or so that I know of." Rickkter remarked on only seeing her around Metamor. "Well, I meant in the whole valley." The look that crossed her black and white muzzle showed how it caused her some pain to talk about it. "There is one down at the south end at Castle Grenier. He's a warrior in his late thirties by now, married with kids. Next up, there's a noble in the mining town on the east mountains. His family made a fortune from those mines, but ever since the Battle of the Gates, he's become a real recluse. He has a large estate outside the main city that he's kind of walled himself away in. No one has seen him in at least the last five years. He might even be dead by now, as he was quite advanced in age, last I heard.

"The last two are simple soldiers, though," she continued, her tail and whiskers drooping. "One is named Deller and he's part of Lorland's militia. He's in his early thirties by now, but had a wife before changing. I've seen his name in a lot of reports from there, as he's a Sergeant at Lorid's old castle and works directly with the steward there. Lastly, there's this one in Glen Avery." She gave Rickkter a rather discerning look. "I'm not sure how much I should really say about him. We had a kind of relationship a while ago."

"Oh? What happened?"

"Are you sure you want to know?" Rickkter shrugged, said he didn't care, really. "Okay. You see, it happened about two years ago, in the spring-time. He was in a company from the Glen that had come here for some cross-training with Misha's Long Scouts. And he and I... had a rather turbulent affair. Basically we saw each other, got one whiff of each other's scent, and wound up in bed for the rest of that day and pretty much of the one after."

When she looked up at the raccoon, he was giving her the most peculiar look He had both ears and one eyebrow cocked as he looked over at here. "Yeah, you might say that was a bit unusual."

Kayla looked puzzled a moment before barking a laugh. She then gave him an odd smile, tilting her head to one side to look at him allowing him to see the bottom of her small, sharp front teeth protruding from beneath her lips. "You've never been in heat before, that's right. If Coe's behaviour is any indication, then your mating season is January through March, with a peak sometime in February."

"You certainly seem to know a lot for someone who's not even a raccoon."

"Oh, taxonomy and zoology are just two skills you're going to acquire while living around here. Whether you want to or not."

Rickkter nodded to himself. "So what about you?"

"Well, as I said it was spring when I met him, about early march. For skunks, mating takes place from mid-February until about mid-March. It is... It's..." She shook her head. "I can't describe it. It's like all you can think about is sex. No matter how hard you try to concentrate on work or anything else, your mind keeps drifting back to it. And then when you meet one of the opposite sex of your species..." Her eye closed to thin slits and she chirred in what Rick could only take to be a fond contentment. "It's something that just has to be experienced to be really believed."

They walked past houses with lit windows and shops with dark and closed ones, both sharing a now awkward silence. "So what happened to you two?" he eventually asked.

Kayla pulled some of the cooling dusk air through her teeth, creating a slight whistle. "Well, as you see it never worked out. We did plan on getting together afterwards, talked about how we needed each other, being lonely as we both were. He said that he would come back for me after he returned to the Glen." The mephit shook her head sadly, staring at the cobbles in front of her. "It's been two years this spring, and I haven't seen or heard from him since."

Rickkter didn't really know what to say to that. Hell, what COULD he say to something like that? "So this is the place?" he finally managed as they approached a door set between two lighted windows. It was a small pub, sitting next to a closed butcher shop and a low class inn.

"Yup. Welcome to Myra's," she said, pulling open the door on the slightly smoke, fire lit interior.

"Evenings, Kayla," said a seductive looking woman with long brown hair behind the bar. "Always good to see a regular. And I see you brought a friend with you this time," she said with a nod in Rick's direction. "Who is he?"

"Oh, just someone I picked up in a bar," admitted the skunk, a smirk on her face and a light swish in her tail. "I thought I'd bring him down here for once, show him that there's better food than Donny's around here."

Myra laughed, a throaty sound. "Flattery will get you everywhere. So what'll it be tonight?"

"You got some of that famous stew of yours?" When Myra admitted she might have some, Kayla turned around, raising her eyebrows at the raccoon.

"Looks like we're having two of those," he acknowledged. The barkeep laughed again and told them to take a seat, anywhere would do, and she'd be out with their food in a bit.

They selected a booth, Rickkter taking a seat that would allow him a good view of the door to the kitchen. There was an stifling quiet between them for a bit, the only sound that of Rickkter rubbing his paws back and forth on each other. "A nice place," he finally admitted, saying it if only to break the silence. "You come here often?"

"Often enough. I find it's more out of the way, less well known than the Mule. Only the regulars seem to really know about it. Well, them and some of the travellers to the inn, but that's about it."

Rickkter had stopped rubbing his hands back and forth and was gazing intently at the demure skunk across from him. He noted how her short, black whiskers were down turned and her ears held at a slight crook. But it was her azure eyes that really seemed to say it all for him. "Even after all this time, this is the one place that seems to accept you, isn't it?"

When Kayla looked up at him, he was expecting some sort of harsh retort or comment. Instead her eyes just clouded over and she looked away to the wall, giving him a sad nod as she bit her lower lip a little.

"Hey, you know you're not the only one who detests what they've become," said Rick. He waved his black-furred paw between their faces. "There are days where I almost can't stand this myself."

Kayla looked back up and frowned at him. "You? What possible reason could you have for that? You have a beautiful form, one that suits you quite well. From what I remember, how you looked before, this looks very good on you."

Rickkter was slowly shaking his head. "No, it doesn't. At least not to my eyes. For thirty-three years now, I've always woken up to the same face. I knew who I was, who I looked like, how my body acted in every manner. Now when I get up, I don't see me. I see this," he said, flicking his paws down his front. "This is something else. Something that I am forced to accept because I have no other choice in the matter."

"Rickkter, from what I head, this curse gave you a new lease on life. How could you hate such a thing?"

"It mocks me," he replied. "Every day, with every little sensation and betrayal of what I am, it mocks me. I found the cure, but only after the curse had taken hold." Holding up his paw for her to see, he moved the tips of two claws so they were almost touching. "I was this close. Centimetres away. Yet at the same time I was miles away, a whole damned lifetime away," concluded the raccoon before propping his chin up on a paw and gazing over the small restaurant. His brown eyes were glazed and appeared to be looking at something very far away.

Kayla was a little surprised. Rickkter always seemed to her the kind of person who was never bothered by what happened to him, not like her. But now there he was, looking positively miserable as he watched the kitchen door, awaiting the arrival of their food. Where he appeared so sure of himself when he asked her here, now he looked quite lost.

The fur on his arm had a slightly coarse texture to it when she first touched it, but as she rubbed up and down it she found it to be soft underneath. "You shouldn't let something like that get you down. Everyone here has been changed like you were. Everyone, from those who were here when it first happened, to those came here willingly, to those who were caught unintentionally. We all have to deal with it at one time or another. Some are just more accepting of it than others.

"It's been speculated that the curse is a living thing, you know, that it has a life all its own. It chooses who it will capture and who it will let go. I guess it just wanted to keep you around." She left out the fact that she was feeling kind of glad for that decision.

Rickkter's eyes had slid over to her and he was wearing a very coy smile. "You're a philosopher, I see."

"No, I'm just a nobody. I have my little job, and I do my part to ensure that the grand machine that is Metamor works. Like so many others, I get no glory, no notoriety. My work is only seen by a handful of people, and they're the ones that get to take the credit for the results. Of friends I have previous few. Oh, it used to be different, when I was human. I had friends, suitors." She sighed, looking past Rickkter and into her memories. "When things change for the worst, Rick, that's when you know who your real friends are. A real friend is someone who walks in when the rest of the world walks out on you."

"A poet, too."

The skunk shook her head, withdrawing her hand and placing it to match Rickkter's posture. "No, just well read."

"Which is more than can be said for some." He shifted over slightly, his dark eyes now probing the depths of her azure blue eyes as opposed to the worn and scarred facade of the kitchen door. "Do you know that to some, intelligence is considered the most attractive attribute of a person? Does that do anything to pique the philosopher in you?"

Kayla churred, a long, drawn out sound. "Now that... is a very interesting statement."

"Isn't it, though?"

And so the two morphs sat, and stared, and thought their own private thoughts. And that was the way that the server found them when he eventually arrived with their food. It was only the food's arrival that broke their facade, causing them to lapse back into a normal conversation that two people would be expected to conduct over an intimate dinner. Their conduct was relaxed and their laughter frequent. Yet were anyone to have observed the two of them in their little social ballet, they would have noticed the growth of a fondness between them, something that even the two parties involved were blissfully unaware of. Nevertheless the looks they kept giving across the table told that things might not stay that way for long.

"And this is where I live," said Kayla as they reached the door. She had been walking arm and arm with Rickkter ever since they left The Tavern's Hearth. She enjoyed the way it felt, her fur rubbing against his, and had snuggled up against him for much of the way. He hadn't objected in the slightest and they had taken their time returning

She reflected that it had been a rather pleasant affair, spending time with someone new. The talk had spanned a wide variety of interesting topics, but what she recalled most was what Rickkter had said about travels.

"Travelling was probably the single greatest joy in my life," he had told her. "I had the means and the will to go where I wished, when I wished. I saw places of stunning beauty, such beauty. There was ugliness too, as there always is in life. But as with so many things, one always seems to recall mainly the good parts." Kayla had smiled at that and indulged him in some tales of her own travels on the way to Metamor. Rickkter seemed to really enjoy that part. He also had some interesting things to say afterwards.

"That's one of the things that I miss most about this whole situation. There are people I would love to discuss this curse with first hand, but I can't. It was actually an ironic decision for me. Either exile here, spending my remaining years in this one little section of the world, or death. And for me, death was not an option." The smirk he gave her was a bitter, humourless one. "Though at times I have to wonder at that price."

She had thought it odd at the moment, but the conversation switched topics and she didn't have much time to reflect on it then. And she still didn't, as she realized that they had reached her quarters by then.

"Well, I guess that's it then," she said. "Thank you for the lovely evening. It was the most enjoyable one I've had in... a long time."

"Well, then I'm glad." He pointed at the door. "Mind a little tour? As compensation for the one I gave you?"

Kayla stood there thought about it. Under almost any other circumstances she would have said no without a second though. But this was... different. Rickkter had a certain air about him, standing there in the flickering light of the torch-lit corridor. And she did owe him. "Okay, you can come in. For a bit."

Rickkter followed behind her as she replaced the key to her room upon entering, taking a quick survey of it as she went around and lit a pair of oil lamps. Actually, it was pretty much like the majority of apartments at the Keep. It was a small, single room with a modest bed and several other pieces of furniture. First of these was a desk piled high with papers in a profound state of disarray, then a small table against one wall with a single chair, a wardrobe, and a set of shelves. The raccoon smiled as he went over to the shelves, looking over the two rows of books there. Several thick novels, a handful of plays, some volumes of poetry. He didn't recognize most of the titles, so he guessed they were more tailored to female tastes. But there was one that did catch his eye.

"Something from your grandfather?" he asked, taking a book down and looking over the spidery script inside.

"Yes it was. A personal memento, something to remind me of my family."

"Oh, that reminds me," said Rickkter, tucking the book under his arm and rooting around in an inner pocket for something. Kayla saw a yellow sparkle from the lamplight when he took his hand out. After replacing the book, Rickkter turned back to Kayla with a rather sheepish grin. "I, uh, have something for you, but I never knew when I should give it to you." He brought up his paw, palm towards himself, giving the wrist a quick roll in the process.

"Rickkter... what is this?" she asked, lifting the bauble as far as she could. It was attached to a fine gold chain which was still entangled around his fingers. It was a teardrop shape composed of a pearl-like material suspended from a silver clasp and strung on a gold chain. The material it was made from was rather odd, looking like liquid pearl that had been dripped over a long period of time to build up what was there now. The light metallic blue sheen it possessed made one think it would be oily to the touch, but it wasn't. It was slightly scaled, as its surface suggested, but aside form that it felt like a normal pearl.

"Something I've been working on," he replied in a soft voice. There was a slight smile on his lips and because of the poor lighting, his eyes were lost in the blackness of his mask. "I was given an enchantment years ago that camouflages my scent. While correcting some imbalanced that cropped up from my change, I decided to experiment with it a little. This pendent houses a simplified version of it. I'd like you to have it. If you will."

Kayla was more than a little surprised at that. She was shocked, in fact. "Oh, god," she wuffed. "This... this is just too much. I... I really don't know what to say."

"'Thank you' would be a start."

Her jaw hanging open slightly, she looked up at his face then back at the pendant, then back at him again. "Thank you," she finally managed. "It's... it's just been so long since anyone has done something like this for me." Kayla lowered her eyes back to the gift. "Thank you."

"I'm just glad you like it," he replied in that slightly raspy whisper of his. Lifting the pendant away from her, he waved his other hand around it, muttering a few words the skunk took to be a magical spell of some sort. The pendant and the chain itself took on a defuse, greenish glow. "I've already set the spell, I only need to tune it to you. Once that's done, this won't work for anyone but you."

Kayla could feel the tension as Rickkter drew in closer to her. Not really knowing what to do, she lowered her eyes and tried to think of something else. It was an unconscious reaction that she began to wring her hands and fold her bushy tail between her legs. It was a test of will that she didn't move away when she felt Rickkter's paw on the side of her head.

He softly muttered a few things she couldn't understand, probably spell components, as he smoothed out the black and white fur atop her head. Carefully he drew on a simple sigil of runes that would key her mind to the spell within the pendent. Looping the last line of the sigil around one claw, he touched the glowing phosphorescence to the chain causing it to flare brightly for a moment then return to its natural state.

"Oh, cold," Kayla burred, rubbing his arms as her tail jumped around behind her.

"No, that's just the spell field taking hold." Pendant still in hand, Rickkter's head swivelled around the small room. "I don't suppose you have a mirror around here." It was more a statement than a question.

"Actually, I do," she replied.

Rickkter went to the small tapestry she indicated, moving it to one side. Sure enough, below it was a modest sized mirror in a finely made wood frame. He motioned her to come over, placing his right paw on her arm to guide her so she was standing in front of him. "There. Now you can see what this looks like," he explained as he unhooked the clasp and placed it around her neck. "These things are always so difficult to do yourself," he said as he finally closed it.

Kayla never really liked looking into mirrors, as they reminded her of what had happened. That was why she always kept it covered, except for purposes of grooming and even then it was only uncovered for a short time. Yet this time was somehow different. Her eyes flicked over the pendent and chain, where they had settled on the white fur of her breasts. They slowly moved up, over her own black and white fur. They stopped at the face of the raccoon, where he stood a few inches taller than her. She could now make out his eyes in the candle light where it clearly showed the lazy smile on his lips, his whiskers perked in such a way as to highlight the mirth. Rickkter's paws hovered over her shoulders for several seconds before coming to rest on the soft blackness there.

"See," he said in that soft voice of his. "I knew it would look splendid on you."

The skunkette looked at her gift once more, bringing up a hand to touch it. She could feel each of the tiny, individual links as she ran her claws along its length, just over her collar bone. He was right, it did look splendid. A loop of gold, with that odd drop of pearl like substance nestled just within the valley of her white-furred breasts. It was a simple thing, simple yet elegant. "Why did you do this?" she wondered out loud.

"Challenge," he answered. "Because I didn't know if I could, because I had the time, because I needed something to test myself with." He tightened his grip slightly, sliding his hands a few inches closer to her neck through the lush fur there. "Because I felt that you could use it."

"I think you should go," said Kayla, quickly breaking off from Rickkter. She retreated almost to her bed, her arms folded beneath her breasts, vigorously rubbing the fur on either one. "It's late and I need to get up early tomorrow. Phil said he wanted to go over a whole series of incident reports, something about the Darkmen that we've been encountering lately."

Rickkter nodded, his whiskers and tail drooping ever so slightly. "In that case, I understand." Then, in a brighter tone, "I want to thank you again for the lovely evening. It's good that I finally got to have dinner with you, and I'm glad neither of us was disappointed. I'll be seeing you around?"

Kayla flashed him a small smile, trying to sort out something from her jumble of emotions. "I hope so, Rick. Good night." He replied in kind before going out the door.

He managed to make it around a corner before the emotion of the whole evening overcame him and he was forced to bring up his paws to cover his face. He stopped and leaned against the cool stone wall, hoping that no one was around to see it.

As Rickkter leaned back against the wall, he lightly dug his claws into his face above his mask as his elbows sank down to his knees. He growled lightly to himself before quickly rising up and slamming his head quickly and repeatedly against the wall. Rickkter growled and cursed himself and raked his claws through the soft fur over his eyes. "Oh, damn, why did I have to do that?"

Great Maker, he hadn't felt this way about a woman in... years. All the ones lately, it hadn't meant anything to him. They were just casual lovers to pass the time with while he had been travelling around. And now what was he doing? He was stumbling around, acting like some dumb youth. Great maker, what did he see in that skunk? And why was he already missing her company?

Rickkter eventually pulled his thoughts from the mental mire and started once more down the hall. Yet even still, his thoughts drifted back to the skunkette he had just left. The way she had moved, her scent, those eyes, that soft voice of hers... there was just something about her that seemed to entrance him. He was so lost in the remembering, indulging on her scent where it lingered in his clothes, that he didn't hear his name called until it was for the second time.

"Oh, Scratch," he said, a small smile alighting his lips. "Good to see you here. I trust things are well with you?"

The adolescent tiger walked up to Rick, a lazy grin on his orange and white face. Rickkter saw he was carrying a single rose. "Oh, they are very well. Your spell is still working, so you don't have to ask about that. And I am off to spend the rest of the evening with the lady I love. Things could not be better at the moment."

"I'll bet not." The raccoon pointed at the red flower. "That for her, then?" When Scratch remarked on who else might it be for? Rick asked if he could see it. After Scratch handed it up, Rickkter just held it there slowing rolling the stem between two pinched fingers. The tiger saw the ‘coon's whiskers drooped and his eyes glaze over as if he where someplace far, far away.

Rickkter's mind swam with memories of long ago, the last time he had been truly happy. They touched on the beautiful, intelligent woman he had known and loved and learned so much from in that time. He remembered how she loved fresh flowers, all kinds but especially red ones.

Placing the petals up to his nose, Rickkter closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Roses always held an enchanting scent, one that inevitably spawned memories of love, no matter where in the world one was from. He paused and revelled in the heightened sense of smell once more that night. It was amazing, really, to detect all the little nuances he never knew were there before. So wonderful.

Eventually Rickkter lowered the rose, staring at it where he once more rolled it back and forth in his hand. Scratch was giving him an odd look, but Rickkter didn't much care. "Have you ever heard the expression about thorns and roses, Scratch?"

"Which one?" asked the tiger.

A slow laugh was the raccoon's response. "‘Some people complain about roses having thorns,'" quoted Rick, his eyes never leaving the delicate red petals, "‘but I'm just thankful that thorns have roses.'"

Scratch smiled, half at the phrase and half at the expression on Rickkter's face. "Yes, I've heard that one before."

"She used to have lots of little expression like that," confessed Rick, his thoughts still lingering on the last time he had given such a flower to anyone. Then whatever spell was over him broke and he snapped back to reality. Taking one last whiff of the flower, but not letting it linger as long as last time, he handed it back to Scratch with a smile.

"Here. You take this and you show that beautiful porcupine of yours how special we both know she is."

Scratch accepted and shook his head, a slight smirk on his blunt muzzle. Sometimes Rickkter was a real puzzle to him. "I will, Rick. Good night."

"Good night, Scratch," said the raccoon, turning back up the hall way. He reached up and scratched a small itch on his breast bone."Gooood night," he muttered once more to himself.