To Every Season

A Chakat Story

© Terry Knight, 1999

 
Light spilled through the open curtains of my room as I wake up, the Chakonan sun bathing everything in a soft warm glow. Groggily, I stirred myself, lifting myself up on my forelegs into a crouching position, wincing as pains from some joints shot though both my lower and upper bodies. Everything seems to take longer these days.

Well, I am getting old, even for a Chakat.

We're long lived, but we're not immortal. Other races - especially humans - tend to forget that, which I guess is understandable as we live almost twice as long as they do. Even in my advanced years, I'm still active. Mostly. Still, if I was a human and not a chakat, I'd either be dead or stuck in bed on life support.

As I do most mornings, I look for several minutes at the hologram picture on my dresser. My lifemate, Chakat Swiftwalker, passed away several years ago, and I miss hir terribly. Every time I go to bed, I see the empty spot where shi slept beside me, and something inside me aches with the wanting of hir to be near me again. Some of my chakat friends have suggested that they could move in with me and keep me company, but even though I'm tempted I don't know if it would work. Most of them now are half my age at most, and would a young Chakat really want to move in to my bed with one as old as I? Besides, somehow it would be a final acknowledgement of Swiftwalker's death, and I don't know if I could do it. We were together nearly seventy-five Chakonan years, after all.

Ah well.

I manage to climb out of my large bed, and slowly move over to the dresser. I study myself in the mirror, the familiar feline centaur-like form with the cougar-like face, white-tipped feline ears, and red and orange striped fur coat looking back at me. Actually I don't look too bad, even though there's more signs now signs of my advanced age in the form of grey flecks of fur and whiskers on my muzzle, and several patches of grey in my pelt elsewhere. My long prehensile tail wraps itself automatically around my feet, making me look remarkably like a large Terran house cat from the waist down - albeit one five and a half feet tall and five feet long out the back.

I reach for my grooming brush and shift all four of my legs apart to stabilise myself properly as I being my daily ritual, first rigorously brushing my cropped black head-fur, then working my way down my upper torso and over my breasts, chest and tummy. Sleeping 'in the fur' does have its benefits in that it's easier to get yourself groomed in the morning... especially when you've got double the fur area of a Terran tiger to cover!

My left rear leg trembles a bit as I twist around and brush over the back of my lower torso, and I wince somewhat with pain as I feel the artificial joint acting up again. Time to pay another visit to the medlab in town I think. But not today. I have some important visitors today.

*       *      *

"Grandma! Grandsire!"

Several cute little fuzzballs of Chakat cubs all rush towards me and hug me. All my great-great-grandcubs are here today, part of a family reunion that, to me at least, seems to happen more often these days. I can't remember the years going past this quickly before, but the calendar confirms that this is indeed the special celebration day for our clan. And as the oldest Longtail in the family, I have special status as well. A crowd has already formed from all the family that have arrived so far, and it feels like I am the centre of attention. Almost like what royalty must have been like, I grin to myself, as I mix with everyone in the throng of guests.

Goodness! So many are here, it seems like the clan grows larger every year! From long-tailed matrons not much younger than myself, down to the youngest chakat cub still getting to grips with the concept of walking, the room is filled with the happy noise of talk and playful cries. Those chakats who are wearing clothing are wearing their very finest tops, while the remainder are immaculately groomed, some wearing necklaces and rings in lieu of clothing as well as the occasional tail-bow. I wander through the assembled throng, 'meeting and greeting', murmering hellos and making sure to welcome each of the family personally. I almost do a double-take at one of my graddaughters who appears to be sporting an earring, before realising that it was merely a clip-on and not actually pierced. Obviously shi's feeling a bit rebellious - but I take it in my stride and compliment hir on hir decorations. I bet that wasn't the reaction shi was expecting!

"How are you today, Mother?" asks my youngest child, Silverpaw, smiling across the room to me as shi and hir jet-black chakat mate enter the room with their own offspring in tow. Of course, considering that Silverpaw is almost a third of my own advanced age, hir 'kits' are all naturally grown up and have cubs of their own - but still, sometimes it's hard to think of your own offspring as any more than the loveable scamps they were in their youth. Still, it is always good to see hir.

"Oh, I'm well enough for a Longtail, dear Silver," I lightly reply, reaching out and embracing hir in greeting. "It is so good to see you both today! I thought you might not be able to make it, from what you says in your last note to me - "

"We couldn't let such an important day as this go past without being with you, Mother Longtail," Silverpaw's mate Blackmane says, embracing me as well. "Yes, we were involved with some oceanographic research in the southern end of the Skunktaur Archipelago, but I was able to convince..."

"We were able to convince, you mean!" Silverpaw mischieviously interrupted.

"Okay, we were able to convince hir to give us the time off!" Blackmane laughed, putting hir arm around Silver's shoulder. "To cut a long story short, we managed to negotiate time off in lieu only at the last minute, so we took the first available transport from New Bletchley and made it on the last flight to Berdoovia only by the tips of our whiskers! It was a near thing!"

"Well, I'm very very pleased to see you both today, my dears, it does my old heart good to see you," I warmly reply, stepping backwards slightly - not without a jolt of pain, unfortunately - to regard them both. Luckily, my immediate wince of pain went unnoticed. "You both look very well, and my home is yours for the duration of your stay. Do you have many bags to unpack?"

"Only what we've got on us, we tend to travel light," Blackmane answered. He looked over to Silver. "I'll take your pack if you like, love, and you can catch up on news. Where can I put this lot please, Mother Longtail?"

"Down the hallway, second on the right - the main guestroom for now," I inform hir. "It all needs sorting out who's staying where, I think your Sunstripe is looking after that..."

"No problem!" Blackmane grinned, unbuckling and lifting up Silverpaw's pannier bags from hir lower torso, then carrying both of hir loads of baggage down the hallway as I had directed. After shooing some of my miniature admirers out from around my legs, Silverpaw motioned us away from the general crowd.

"You're holding up all right really, Mother?" shi asks, a look of mild concern on hir muzzle. Shi always worries about me, considering it hir job to watch for my continued well-being. What with hir being the nearest of my cubs to me, I expect it's natural enough. "Your heart has had no further complications?"

"No, my dear, it is fine for the moment," I reassure hir, taking hir hands in mine. "The doctor has me well under observation." I show my silver-grey furred daughter my medical monitoring bracelet, the one that monitors my vital signs and relays that information to the village medcentre. "As you can see, they can tell of any problems with me before I can myself! So there's really nothing to worry about."

"I know, it's just... " Silverpaw falls silent for a moment. "You're more vulnerable than most other Chakats your age, you being Alpha and everything. What if... "

Shi means well, but sometimes it's annoying. "Look, Silver dear," I interrupt, "Alpha chakats have lasted longer than I have, and that was without what has been discovered in medicine since those times. There's really no need to worry so much, though I know you mean well." It pains her, I know, to speak about these things, but sometimes it has to be discussed. "How do you think other races get on when they're old, those that are not as gifted as us? Besides, it's not like you have to worry in that regard, your Omega sire took care of that before you were borne."

Silverpaw stands there before me, looking shamefaced. I smile reassuringly, and hold her to me. "I'm sorry if I upset you, my dear, I do appreciate your concern, but it's all in hand. I do still love you very much, and I am so glad you still care so much for an old flea-bag like me." I give hir a gentle squeeze, and shi returns my hug, looking a little more like her normal assured self.

"I love you too, Mother."

"You used to call me Firestripe, or just 'Mum', once you know."

"Yes - but you weren't a Longtail then... "

*       *      *

It's now the main meal of the celebration, and everyone is seated at the long table - myself, my kits and mates, their kits and mates... several generations are seated here in this one house. Luckily Swiftwalker and I extended the place just before Silverpaw was mated! The food has been served, and the conversation lulls a bit as everyone is eating. As per Chakat custom, the table is a low-lying affair, with everyone seated on cushions and pillows - these furnishings serving in place of chairs for us 'taurs, standard chairs being useless for beings that have a quadruped lower body and an upright torso. Some of our newer visitors joke with us that a Chakat gathering at a table looks from behind more like a gathering of Terran felines than anything else! Several non-'taurs are also with us today, making the best of things by the looks of it. Though I pity the wolf-'morph and the Caitian, having to find some way of tucking their tails around the side of their legs as they're sitting...

As befits the current Mother Longtail of the clan, I am at the place of honour at table, waited on hand and paw, and given the plushest embroidered cushion to sit on. Appropriately, I'm dressed in my best top today - the deep blue halter with the gold embroidered edging, and a necklace that Swiftwalker gave me for a present. I nod and chat with my daughters as the waiters - organised by Sunstripe, she has really outdone hirself this time - keep us all supplied with food and drink. It reminds me of what I've read about the old human aristocracy on Terra, and I feel quite spoiled! I can't remember this sort of extravagance when my own grand-sire was in this place, and it was my sisters and I who were organising the clan celebration, but then I guess the clan was smaller in those days.

There's over two dozen Chakats, as well as other guests and partners, here today.

And virtually all of the chakats here are descended from me.

It's a sobering thought.

But one that gives hope for the future, something that will last after I leave this existence.

I wish Swiftwalker was here to see it.

*       *      *

The meal is finished, and drinks are served, of course myself and my immediate descendants - Silverpaw, Riverscent, Largo and Tuftear - are served first, as is our custom. As always at gatherings like these, a vacant place for my mate Swiftwalker, and our children Allegro and Quickleap is left, a reminder of the departed for the first of our clan. Allegro's mate and cubs sit next to hir empty space, but sadly the disease that took Quickleap from us did so before shi managed to find a mate. There is only hir sisters and I now that remember what shi was like when shi was alive.

Surefoot, Allegro's youngest, now with a family in hir own right, now bears many of the same traits and bearing that Allegro had, in some ways shi is a living memorial to hir sire. I still remember the terrible day we were informed of the accident on board the transport ship Quezon City, where an accidental warp core breach on the voyage between Terra and Voxxa had claimed Allegro and over five hundred others. While we chakats are not the sort to hold to any particular religion or faith, amid the grief we felt for Allegro's loss I thanked whatever gods there were that the rest of hir family were still on Terra at the time. If the whole family had been lost... well, it would have been more than I could have borne. As it was, we all were in mourning for well over a month. It was very hard on all of us, especially as I was hir mother and felt the loss more deeply. The one bright spot from that time was when Allegro's mate gave birth to Surefoot, sired by Allegro before he departed on that diplomatic mission to Voxxa - that joyous occasion finally helped the family to heal the wounds left by that terrible tragedy.

But I mustn't be maudlin, today of all days. I have a lot to be proud of, being Mother Longtail to such an accomplished clan. One of Riverscent's daughters, Dawnfire, is now second-in-command of one of Terran Deep Space Command's latest exploration vessels, having worked hir way up from a raw cadet at Cape York Academy on Terra. Others of my granddaughters have excelled as well, being well-placed in such diverse areas as the Chakonan Diplomatic Service and the prestigious Dewclaw University. Of course, most of the clan are not quite so noticed or distinguished, but living full and productive lives nevertheless. If people are happy doing the things they want to do, then of course that's what matters most - and who am I to be the judge?

"Here, let me take that for you, Mother Longtail," one of the younger guests offers, as I struggle with taking another large empty tureen back to the kitchen. "You really should relax and let us do the work..."

I appreciate the sentiment, but all this "Mother Longtail this, Sire Longtail that" is starting to get on my nerves. For goodness sake, all I've done is to be older than the rest of you, and this gives me some kind of royal status? I have a name, dammit! I shake my head depreciatively, saying "Look, I'm FINE, it's just a little thing - " and turn to carry the dish away from the table.

All of a sudden I am hit by an explosion of searing pain, enveloping my entire body from muzzle to tailtip. I involuntarily howl in agony, my eyes wide open as my body goes rigid with shock, a loud CRACK!! sounding from somewhere close as I sense everyone in the room turning to look at me. For some reason, I can't stand up any longer, and I feel myself starting to topple to one side - through the blinding pain, I try to move my rear legs to compensate, but I find my left rear limb no longer obeys my commands -

- the pain, it's more intense than I have ever felt, even through six birthings -

- I'm falling!!!

The tureen clatters to the ground as I blindly throw my arms forward, my legs struggling to regain my balance, but my body betrays me and I collapse on the floor, my head narrowly missing the wall. Through the commotion I hear Silverpaw screaming for help, feel hands and paws on my body trying to assist me - and a gasping, sobbing voice full of the most excruciating physical pain that one can ever experience.

As I lose consciousness, I am suddenly aware that the pain-filled voice was my own.

*       *      *

It is an effort to open my eyes, but eventually I am able to do so. I find myself in a hospital bed at the medcentre, with all my daughters, their mates, and Nightshade, Allegro's mate, in attendance.

"Wha... what happen...?" I groggily ask, trying to clear my head. Nothing seems to work right. It's difficult to move much at all, and soon I find that it's not just due to my body. From what I can make out, I'm lying on my right side in some kind of cradle, or to be more precisely strapped in. I'm so weary, can't move anyway...

A familiar voice answers my question. "Your left hind leg gave out again, Chakat Firestripe - only this time you managed to shatter most of the bone at the same time." I managed to blearily focus on the form of Doctor T'Levn, a thylacine-morph in a white doctor's coat, who was making notes on a datapad. "I'm afraid that you'll be in traction here with us for around three weeks or so while it heals."

At that, I groan out loud. Not traction again! I know what that was like from the last time, just before I got that artificial joint. Strapped in a movable cradle so I wouldn't develop bed-sores, my lower legs splayed apart and held fixed, unable to move anything below my waist - and the humanoid races thought they had it tough!

"You shouldn't have overexerted yourself, you shouldn't have - " Silverpaw's voice breaks in. 'What were you thinking, Mother? What if it had been something else? What if - "

I was too weak to respond, but luckily I didn't have to. "It's not hir fault, sister, no-one knew that would happen," Nightshade tries to reassure hir. "The doctor came as quick as he could."

Silverpaw says nothing, but I noticed tears starting to roll down hir muzzle. "... I'll... all right..." I say, every word slurred and requiring a great effort. "... love,... good hands... here." At that, shi brushes hir hand over my face and muzzle, her gestures speaking more than words.

Shi's a good chakat, really, and shi must be going through hell, seeing hir mother like this again. I wish I could respond more, but I feel like I'm drugged up to the eyeballs (which is quite a lot for a chakat, when you think about how big we are) and all I can do is weakly grasp at hir outstretched hand. I'm here, my daughter, I'll be back before you know it...

"Mother Longtail?" a shy young voice enquires. It is visiting time, a week after my accident, and I have recovered enough to be placed in more of an upright position in the traction cradle, certainly more comfortable for receiving guests.

"Yes, little.... errrr..." I struggle to remember who this is.

"Chakat Swifty, Mother Longtail" shi helpfully replies.

Oh yes, now I remember. One of Tuftear's daughter's kits, around nine Chakonan years old.

"Can... can I ask you something?"

I nod, slowly. "Yes, my dear. Go on."

"Mother Longtail..." The little chocolate-furred chakat pauses for a moment. "Aunt Silverpaw says you're an Alpha, but you look like a chakat, like me... What's an Alpha, Mother Longtail?"

I sigh heavily. Silverpaw's concern - and I would think over-caution - is rubbing off on the little ones as well. "It's nothing to worry about, really," I tell hir. "If I tell you, you won't worry like Auntie Silverpaw, mmmmm?"

Shi nods her head affirmatively.

"When you learnt science at school, Swifty, how many hearts do chakats have?"

Hir answer is prompt. "Two hearts, Mother Longtail. One in the top body, and one in the bottom body."

"Do all chakats have two hearts?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure?"

Swifty looks puzzled. "I... I think so."

I take hir hands in mine. Soft furry hands, cute and child-like. Such innocence. "Swifty, most chakats now have two hearts, but when the Chakat race was first created we only had one, like most other races here on Chakona. They were the Alpha chakats, the first generation... and I am a descendant of them."

"You mean... you only have one heart, Mother Longtail?" Shi looks amazed. "But, you are my great-grandmother - and I have two hearts! We found them in class, so I know I have two - why do you only have one?"

I smile. "You can thank your great-grandsire Swiftwalker for that. Shi was a descendant of an Omega chakat, the second - and last - variety of chakats to be created, and they were designed with two hearts for our very special bodies. When Swiftwalker and I had your sire and your aunts, he passed on his gift to them."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why do all chakats have two hearts now?"

Here's the hard part. I can see where this is going, and I try to make the best of it. "Swifty, the Creators wanted the best for us," I explain, "and they saw that we needed to be strong so we could make a good life for ourselves. Because we have double the body of other races, a heart for each body is better for us." I stroke hir headfur. "I've made it this long and had a good life with only one heart, Swifty - so don't worry. I'll be here for a long time to come."

Shi looks reassured at that. "Are there many Alphas now, Mother Longtail?"

I shake my head. "Not many now, dear Swifty. For all I know, I'm one of the last. But that doesn't really matter, as there's plenty of Chakats in the world now." I smile, and pat Swifty's head affectionatly. "Does that answer your question?"

"Yes, it does, thank you Mother Longtail", shi smiles. Swifty kisses me goodbye, and I watch hir leave.

I lean back in the cradle, letting out a deep breath of relief. I had got away with it. Got away with avoiding the real reason why Omega chakats existed in the first place - and why Silverpaw was so concerned. Dual-heart chakats have a built-in backup if one heart fails... and heart failure is a high probability with chakats my age.

*       *      *

Doctor T'Levn is as good as his word, three weeks restrained in that bloody contraption before he and his nursing assistance pronounce me sufficiently healed to go into a powered wheelchair. Looking more like a cross between a motorised trolley and a miniature forklift than a traditional wheelchair, this type of 'chair' is specially designed to handle quadruped and centauroid forms like chakats, and I'm told I would be using this one for at least a month until they are sure my leg had healed properly. A month!

It shows how old I really am, I guess. If it had been one of my grandcubs, they would be walking on their own with leg braces by the time I got out of traction...

My homecoming is a quiet affair. Silverpaw picked me up from the medcentre, and insisted that this time I have someone to stay with me. I pointed out that when I had got into this predicament, I was surrounded by most of the entire clan, let alone hir family, but this time Silverpaw refused to back down. Shi had had enough of a shock then, shi stated, and was not going to take chances with my living on my own again.

Eventually I relent. I have to. I could see the logic in hir argument, especially as I was still in the damned wheelchair and needed assistance to do even the simplest things like getting in and out of bed or the shower tub. I had always maintained my independence, even after my retirement from the air transport industry on Chakona, but after this rather public accident I really had no choice in the matter, despite being a respected Longtail. I tell myself that it was more for the family's sake than mine, and I almost believe it too.

So Silverpaw and Blackmane - that fine specimen of chakat-hood, my daughter had chosen well there - set about arranging for a live-in assistant for me. Trying to make the best of a bad job, I had thought that I might now take up the offers I previously had from some of my friends, but Silverpaw wasn't having it.

"Mother, most of those are the same age as you - you need someone younger than them to take care of you properly," shi points out.

"I'm not a complete basket case yet," I testily reply.

Silver merely pointed to my wheelchair, and my bandaged and braced hind leg.

I shut up.

If all this sounds like I was ungrateful and resentful of Silverpaw's assistance, I wasn't. I did appreciate hir help and assistance, and most of our discussions were friendly and respectful. It was just inevitable, I suppose, that two independent spirits as ours would clash from time to time. Most of the applicants we interviewed were young students and the like from the local University, and I had to admit that I was rather enjoying myself being present at the interviews. I might be old, but it hasn't dampened my appreciation for a pretty Chakat form!

Our eventual choice is a cute thirty-year-old dapple-grey furred chakat named (appropriately enough) Greyspeckle. Shi had recently completed a degree in Historical Studies, and was looking for an interim job that would allow hir to continue hir research project, so shi accepted our offer and moved in with me into one of the guest bedrooms a week later. Greyspeckle had a charming personality, and I found hir quite handsome as well, though at the time I doubted that anything romantic would happen between us. Besides, even if I did, shi probably wouldn't - or so I thought.

In fact, we hit it off quite well. After the morning rounds of getting out of bed, showered, groomed, and breakfast, I would go out into the garden out the back of my house in the wheelchair while Greyspeckle would do some work on hir doctoral thesis. Shi didn't seem to mind helping me out occasionally during the day, and actually I was able to assist hir by drawing on my memories of the events of my life. You see, the area Greyspeckle was particularly interested in was the development of Chakat culture on Chakona, especially with respect to how a newly colonised world develops its own sense of culture. As I was a second-generation colonist, shi found shi had stumbled onto a mine of information about the day-to-day life during the formative years of the Chakonan settlement! Serendipity at work!

So Greyspeckle and I found ourselves growing closer as we work together. Sometimes we'd sit up late at night discussing some piece of my family history, other times hir recorder would be storing my reminisces as we walked through the village park together. As well as Silverpaw and the rest of my family visiting us, plenty of Greyspeckle's friends come over from time to time as well! And over the next few months, I pass on a lot of my accumulated knowledge and experiences to the younger generations of Greyspeckle, my daughters and their cubs, as is traditional for Longtails to do.

*       *      *

Despite the fact that it has been quite a number of months since my accident, I'm still in the wheelchair and leg-brace arrangement that I had left the clinic in. My body's regenerative capabilities have finally given up, the bone stubbornly resisting healing completely, so the only other way that Doctor T'Levn could fix it was through surgery. While the process is simple and straightforward enough, by this time I had spent too much time in hospital care for my liking, and I certainly had no inclination on being reacquainted with that torture rack of the traction cradle! Besides, I have grown to like having Greyspeckle around, as I said before.

Today, shi is helping me with my daily shower in the bathroom as usual, shampooing my fur and working the lather in, standing in the shower tub with me as shi works. Everything at first goes much the same as it has done every day since Greyspeckle's arrival, but after a while I become aware that shi's spending rather too much time running hir hands over certain parts of my body than shi strictly needs to!

Somewhat surprised, I ask hir about it.

"Don't you like what I'm doing, Firestripe?" Greyspeckle replies innocently in that 'butter-wouldn't-melt-in-hir-mouth' tone that I know very well by now.

"Uh... no, I do like it." I admit. "But I'm wondering... why?"

"How do you mean?"

I turn my head to face hir. "Isn't it obvious? I'm old enough to be your grandsire for a start!"

"Well... " Shi shyly shuffles a bit, water from the shower hand-unit shi was washing me with pouring over me. "You don't look that old... in fact, you still look rather pretty."

"Flatterer." I smile. "But I thought you could have done better for some intimate recreation than an invalid like me. Some young strapping chakat that doesn't need assistance to get out of bed in the morning, for instance."

"That all depends upon what you do with hir the night before!" Greyspeckle jokes. "But seriously, I like you Firestripe, and I do feel rather attracted to you."

"Even though I'm old?"

"In some ways because you're older than I am. It's hard to explain."

"Greyspeckle..." I ask hir slowly, "Are you trying to ask me if you want to be a Companion to me, rather than just my live-in housekeeper?"

"Yes... yes, I do want to," shi answers. "If it's okay, that is."

Well, this was unexpected. I looked at hir again. Shi does seem sincere, and I must admit that I'd been feeling a bit the same way about hir myself. Even though my libido has dropped from what it was when I was younger, and I'm well into the chakat version of menopause, there was still enough embers in the fire for something to happen. "Greyspeckle, I... well, I'd like to as well, I think," I eventually reply. "But it's just so... well, I've told you how close Swiftwalker and I were."

I pause, thinking furiously. For years I've been alone after Swiftwalker died, we loved each other so much that - unusually for chakats - neither of us felt the need for other mates or companions in our family. Even when shi wasn't with me anymore I simply couldn't face having another companion in hir place, let alone a mate. But it's been so long that I've been alone like this...

"I know, Firestripe," Greyspeckle says, "I know, and I respect that. And I don't want to replace hir. I just... want to make you happy, to care for you, to... show you love again."

Shi touches me reassuringly, obviously noticing the conflict reflected in my face. Hir touch electrifies my fur and skin. Shi's here for you, shi wants you and you want hir, part of my mind whispers. You don't have to be alone anymore, you don't have to live on just memories!

But Swiftwalker was your lover, your mate, the other part of myself says. Taking another in your bed? In hir bed as well? Don't you love Swiftwalker anymore, treating hir memory like that?

I look at Greyspeckles' hand on my shoulder, and suddenly realise how much I have been longing to be touched by a lover, to share my feelings and body with another, to wake up in my bed with someone I care for instead of in solitude...

I feel tears running down my muzzle. Oh Swiftwalker, what am I to do? Even after these years I still love you...

But Greyspeckle is here and now, in the flesh - not as a substitute for my long-dead lover, but as hirself, and hirself only. And memories can only go so far to fill the space left behind.

I place a hand on Greyspeckle's, drawing it away from my shoulder and clasping it gently as I come to my decision. "Greyspeckle - dear," I haltingly say, "I... I..."

Shi nods encouragingly. I take a deep breath.

"Will... will you be my Companion, Greyspeckle?" I ask. "I've grown to care for you a lot since you've been with me, and..." My voice begins to crack with emotion, as I take the final long-delayed step in letting go of Swiftwalker. "I... I don't want to sleep on my own anymore..."

"I would be honoured to be your Companion, Firestripe," Greyspeckle happily replies, looking relieved and breaking into a wide loving smile. "And I understand how you feel. I will try and do my best for you."

We embrace each other for what seemed like forever, my fur still wet from the shower, and kissed each other tenderly. Greyspeckle licks my salty tears from my muzzle as I hold hir to me, the aching and loss in my soul gradually filling out into a wonderful sensation of joy of hir being with me, and release at finally leaving the last of my past life behind. I rest my old muzzle on my new Companion's shoulder, luxuriating in hir touch, feeling almost as if hir youthfulness and spirit is flowing into me.

After we get ourselves composed again, we dry my fur off, and after Greyspeckle had tidied up the bathroom shi takes off hir halter top (which after our hug was now wet from my fur!) and leads me towards my bedroom.

"You know," I say, almost back to my old self, "If you're planning on doing what I think you're wanting to do, I'm not sure how we would go about it in my condition."

Shi giggles. "Oh, I think between the two of us we'll figure out something..."

"Just remember I'm a bit more fragile than you are."

"Like a fine china vase, Firestripe - and you're just as precious."

Afterwards, we lie back on the bed together, half-dozing in each other's arms.

"I think after that you'll have to move into this room with me," I smile. "I haven't felt this good in a long time."

Greyspeckle sighs happily. "Thanks, Firestripe. I'm glad I was able to make you happy." Shi strokes the side of my face, and I purr softly with pleasure. At first, it was difficult, and not just physically. I felt at first like Swiftwalker was watching me as Greyspeckle made love to me in our bed, and sometimes when I mounted hir my mind flashed back to when Swiftwalker and I used to spend weekend afternoons in a flurry of passion. Yet, when I saw Greyspeckle beneath me, or next to me licking and caressing my breasts and lower body, my mind and heart was filled with warmth and love for my new Companion, and I felt that, if Swiftwalker had been watching us together, it would have been with amused indulgence.

"What will your friends think of... us?" I ask curiously. I'm still coming to grips with the idea that a young chakat under half my age can still find one as aged as I attractive. But it feels wonderful, what we shared together then, and hir next to me now, and I don't regret now what we did. It'll take some time, but I can get used to this...

Maybe I hadn't lost Swiftwalker after all, and even if I had... perhaps this made up for it. I certainly hoped so.

"I don't think they'll mind too much," shi says, after some consideration. "After all, you're a Longtail, and that counts for a lot. Besides, they'll probably think that you'll be instructing me in lovemaking or something."

With that, I burst out laughing. "You're right, Greyspeckle dear," I giggle, "But when I planned for the time I was going to start passing on my knowledge to the younger generation, I wasn't expecting that to be covered!"

*       *      *

It's over a year later, and the end of another day. As usual, Greyspeckle helps me out of my wheelchair onto our large chakat bed, making sure that I am comfortable and have taken my medication. I settle back into the soft padding, sighing heavily as Greyspeckle finishes hir final chores and joins me, the young dapple-grey chakat gracefully curling up next to me.

"Good night, Chakat Firestripe," shi smiles, giving me a hug. "Sleep well."

"G'night Greyspeckle," I reply dozily, already starting to drift off to sleep. I seem to be getting more weary these days, and of late I have become even more glad that Greyspeckle is here with me. I didn't realise how much I'd missed having company in my bed until shi came. Maybe Silverpaw had had a point after all, maybe I should have listened to hir sooner. While we don't really make love that often since we started sharing the same bed, snuggling together like this is rather nice...

I feel a dull tightness in my chest, disturbing me from my slumber, and I recognise it as another one of those heart twinges I've been experiencing of late. The medication is keeping it under control though, so they're no more than a passing nuisance. I groan muffledly as one brief, sharp pain stabs through my body, but almost immediately it vanishes and a lovely feeling of peace and tranquillity washes over me. Good old Doctor T'Levn's medicine working again.

"Firestripe... Firestripe, my love..." A strange yet somehow familiar voice, soft and gentle, whispers into my ears. I lie back, barely aware of a soft warble at the threshold of my hearing. Sounds like an alarm of some kind -

"Firestripe... can you hear me?"

- damn neighbour's security alarm I bet , why doesn't someone turn it off? I feel Greyspeckle wake beside me with a start, and her body suddenly locks rigid for a moment before shi bounds out of bed. What's wrong?

"Firestripe..."

"Who's there?" I whisper. I can hear Greyspeckle activate a commlink, shi seems worried about something but my hearing is starting to buzz for some reason. I can't understand what shi is saying -

"My love, it's me. I've come to take you home." says the voice, softer yet clearer than that of my Companion.

"'m already home... trying to sleep..." I mutter, though strangely I'm starting to feel more and more alert. Suddenly a cold wave of fear and apprehension rush through my being as I recognise the voice.

"Swiftwalker?"

"Yes, it's me Firestripe. Do you know why I'm here, love?"

I open my eyes, and am amazed to find I can see everything in the room, better than I have been able to for years - and right beside me, stands the shimmering form of my dear departed lifemate, Swiftwalker. Shi looks to me as shi did when we first declared our mateship to each other, hir fur shining and bright, hir body displayed in all its beauty, and as I lie there stunned shi reaches forward and touches me.

"It's time for you to come home, dear Firestripe. Your true home. I've been getting it ready for us all these years we've been apart, and now we can be together again..."

I look into hir shimmering eyes - and suddenly I understand.

"Greyspe... spekle..." I weakly call out, feeling my strength going with each breath. Shi rushes to my side, cradling my upper body in hir arms.

"The medics are on their way, Firestripe," shi says urgently, "They'll be here in a few moments, you'll be okay love, you'll be okay - "

I shake my head slightly, every movement taking the greatest effort now. "No... love... it's time..." I manage to whisper. "Have to... go..." Another jab of pain in my chest, longer yet duller than the first, tears through my body, causing me to moan softly.

"Don't die Firestripe, please don't die!" Greyspeckle pleads. "I love you so much... please don't leave me! It's not too late, we can save you..." Shi begins to cry as shi fiercely holds me to hir, and I begin to weep as well, my heart torn between the love I'm going to and the love I'm now leaving behind. "Don't want you to go, Firestripe..."

I try and reach out to hir, but I can no longer move, and as I look up into Greyspeckle's tear-filled face everything in the room begins to go hazy. I become aware of Swiftwalker's arms around me, and I see hir beside me on the opposite side to Greyspeckle, my long-lost mate's shape solidifying as my companion's shape begins to blur.

"...'eyspeckle... Swift... w'lker... love... you..." I manage to croak.

"Swiftwalker's... here?" Greyspeckle whispers between sobs. "Is shi..." Shi says something else, but hir voice is growing more and more distant, and it is a strain to make out much of hir shape any more.

Oh Greyspeckle - there's not much time left now, there's so much I want to say!

"Little... love... Greyspeckle..."

"Oh Firestripe..." shi weeps, "Love you... much... good..." The rest of Greyspeckle's words fade into a unintelligible hiss as I feel myself slipping away. I can't even see hir muzzle anymore.

"... take care... my lover... will... mi-miss you..." I struggle with every bit of my remaining strength to speak, my words slurring together. "Remember... me... kits... family..."

One last breath please, oh gods one last breath... "Good... bye..."

Greyspeckle's tears falling on my face and muzzle are the last things I sense before sensations disappear from my body completely, and I slump back into Swiftwalker's arms. I'm exhausted, utterly so, and yet...

A hand takes my own, and I look up to see Swiftwalker before me - no longer a shimmering image, but as real as Greyspeckle was minutes before. Shi smiles at me with an expression of near-infinite love, and helps me up from the bed.

"Welcome home, my love," shi whispers tenderly to me. "Welcome home."

I take a last look around the room that has formed part of my home for all these years, finally looking upon Greyspeckle's weeping form and the motionless striped chakat body cradled in hir arms.. It feels odd looking at your own body from the outside as others do, but the one I have now is as good, if not better, than the one I had as a young chakat. I think I'll miss my old body though, we've been through a lot together.

And I'll miss my old life as well. All my friends... my family, my daughters, my granddaughters... and now Greyspeckle, most of all.

"Poor Greyspeckle," I sigh, looking at Swiftwalker who is standing silently next to me. "I wish I can comfort hir, love, tell hir it's all right -"

"Shi can't hear or feel you touch hir anymore," shi replies apologetically. "I know Firestripe, I know how you feel. I felt exactly the same when it was my turn. But seeing you here, with me now, well - I can't tell you the joy I feel in being able to be together again..."

Swiftwalker embraces me, and our forms seem to merge together.

"What about -" I begin to ask, worried about the rest of our family, but my mate interrupts me.

"They will be fine, they'll cope well. They will mourn for you and remember you for your life, not your death... as you did when I left." Shi smiles lovingly, and I feel both of us beginning to transform into something totally different and wonderful...

"Is this the end, Swiftwalker?"

"I think love... that this is just the beginning."

FINIS.


Copyright 1999 Terry Knight.
 For more information contact: mayfurr@ibm.net

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