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KichigaiKitsune
11 Jan 2012


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Posted 11 Jan 2012 03:08
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Astray - Week Four


 



Astray



By Kichigai ...

 

Astray

By Kichigai Kitsune.

Copyright, 2011, 2012.

 

Disclaimer: This story features coarse language, as well as explicit scenes of sexual, violent or potentially disturbing nature, involving a "cub" (young anthropomorphic, "furry", non-human character). Themes such as child abuse, use of alcohol by minors are also contained within this work. If you are under the legal age in your area/country/state to view materials containing these themes, or believe you may find them disturbing, do not read beyond this disclaimer.  Reading further is done with appropriate foreknowledge of the content contained, and you agree to not hold the author, or any other party, responsible for your informed decision to continue reading.

 

WARNING: I have been told by readers to reiterate this. This story contains discussion and description of extensive child abuse, involuntary incarceration in a behavior modification facility and resultant trauma. Sensitive readers and those who were unfortunate enough to have similar experiences should be forewarned.

 

 

Week Four - Chances

 

            DoctorAndrei Czejak sighed to himself, absently listening to his own muffled footsteps as he padded down the carpeted corridor to the interview room he had long grown to loathe, to an appointment that was likely a waste of his time.

Though most of the young teens ignored him, even avoided him fearfully, the few that knew the coyote better would meet his eyes with a smile. It was because of those smiles that he bothered to do this job, almost every day. Though today's visitation might prove utterly pointless, the coyote knew he couldn't forgive himself if he didn't try.

He knocked on the interview room's heavy door politely. After a suitable delay, he entered. "Good morning, Nick!" he said brightly.

The ten-year-old cheetah kit hadn't bothered to look up.

His hard, hopeless expression was directed at the table in front of him, and he sat slumped in his chair, arms crossed.

With a groan, Czejak sat on his customary chair, depositing his briefcase by the side of the desk. "Still don't want to talk to me?" he asked, smiling. "That's alright. It's up to you."

"Piss off," muttered the kit, shifting slightly. The infernal chain below the table clinked as he did.

Czejak was fairly sure that they were illegal, but he dared not complain. Nobody monitored places like Wilder Springs. It would accomplish nothing. They might stop using them whenever he was present, but it would be a pyrrhic victory at best. They already hated the idea of him being there. As much as it sickened him, he needed to stay in good graces with the administration here.

Besides, his experience with the law, particularly regarding parents and those who could inherit any part of their power, warned him to err on the side of cynicism.

            However, the coyote just smiled. "Don't worry. I won't take up too much of your time today."

            Nick just gave a long suffering sigh. He looked deathly tired.

            The cheetah kit was one of the latest arrivals to Wilder Springs, and most likely the youngest in the entire facility. Though he had only been at the remote 'camp' for several months, he was already garbed in the plain orange t-shirt and black tracksuit pants that marked a 'troublemaker.' Though nobody had ever explained directly to Czejak what those clothes meant, he had picked up enough.

            For one thing, it meant that Czejak was probably the only person that Nick was allowed to speak freely to without punishment-ostensibly. Yet the cheetah boy was yet to really say anything more than dismissive insults to him.

            "I hear that you were put on punishment exercises today," Czejak tried. "You and Matthew Lewis got into a fight." Silence. "I got a look at him on the way in; you really did a number on his nose."

            "Whatever."

            "He'll be looking for payback. It's a good thing the guards stopped him."

            Nick shot a look a venomous look at his counselor. "They didn't stop him."

            "I know. I know what they do, Nick. But if they hadn't done something, that goliath would've hit you back, and he's much bigger."

            The cheetah scowled. "Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you?"

            "Not really. That kid's a dipshit; I think the busted nose will do him good." Czejak shook his head, noting that Nick had frozen for a moment, confused by his language. "You're not the only kid I visit here. I know about that Lewis guy. He's good at playing the guards, if you know what I mean." He waited a moment. "What did he say to piss you off so much?"

            Nick looked troubled. "He said I was a fag," he grumbled. "Leave me alone."

            "Hm." Czejak thought for a moment. "Nick, what does the orange shirt mean?"

            "... What?"

            "Why do they make you wear it? What does it mean?"

            The kit frowned again. "You know what it means."

            "No, I don't," lied Czejak. "I don't work here."

            The system at Wilder Springs was surprisingly complicated - it went beyond mere colored shirts. It was a whole new world of rules and foibles the teens had to come to terms with once the gates locked behind them.

Though Czejak had picked things up from some of his charges, and gotten a few more detailed written notes and quiet whispers, the one thing he was absolutely certain of was this: there were secrets. There were certain things the kids were forbidden to tell outsiders.

            Though his interviews with the youths were meant to be private, Czejak knew better. The security camera in the corner of the room was equipped with a microphone. Their words were being monitored, as were any phone calls or mail coming into or out of the facility. Parents were almost never allowed to visit, and if they did, a staff member would be on hand to downplay whatever the youths might say.

            So it was with a great deal of difficulty that Czejak had extracted the details of daily life at Wilder Springs; details critical to his job, but something the staff wanted to remain secrets. Secrets known only by their own staff and the young furs they could bully into obedience.

            Even basic social interaction was dictated by a rigid caste system. New arrivals were considered 'level one', and acquiescence to the program would allow promotion - and with it, more privileges and a generally more tolerable existence. An increase was extremely difficult, and slight infractions could be punished by merely revoking a rank.

            The youths were forbidden from conversing if their 'levels' didn't add up to three or higher. Anyone under level three was exhausted into submission by forced exercise every night - and worse if they resisted.

            But the orange shirt was the mark of the lowest of the low, those without permission to even speak. Level 'zero.' Often, they were merely youths who refused to let their spirits break, attempted to escape or simply couldn't control themselves in such an environment; Nick, bitter and defiant, was a candidate for all three categories.

            "Looking around the yard, I think the orange shirt means you're not allowed to talk to anyone, or come out of your room." The coyote feigned thoughtfulness. "Is that right?"

            Nick stiffened. Suddenly, he looked confused. After a second, he glanced covertly at the security camera in the corner but he didn't say a word.

            Despite his ongoing defiance, Nick knew better than to speak of the facility's secrets.

            So Czejak continued. "If that's true, you're allowed to speak to me, Nick. It must be boring as anything." The psychologist waited another moment. "That's all I'm here for, Nick. That's all I can do. I'm just here for you to talk to."

            The cheetah appeared to ignore him. Then he sighed. "What do you want?" he asked dully. "Why the fuck do you keep coming here?"

            "I know you've heard this before, Nick. But unlike the furs that put you here: I really do want to help you."

            "Fuck off."

            Shrugging, Czejak leaned forwards on the desk. "I only want to talk to you - and to listen to you. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. Please just give me a chance, Nick." He lowered his voice. "I know the sorts of shit they do to you here. Don't make me just sit and watch. I really am on your side, Nick, so please give me a chance."

            A pair of grey eyes looked up at him, hard as stone. As always, Czejak was astounded: although Nick had the body and face of a young boy, everything else about him bespoke an unnatural, warped maturity. A cynical distrust and suppressed belligerence that was clear from his expressions and unfriendly body-language.

            Czejak kept his face impassive, and met the gaze.

            After a moment, Nick looked away again, seeming to wilt. "Whatever."

            A cold disappointment settled in Czejak's stomach, and he nodded slowly. "Alright, well..." He reached for his briefcase.

            "What's your name?"

            The coyote blinked. "Sorry?"

            "Your name, man. I'mnot callin' you 'sir' or any of that shit, got it?"

            Now Czejak had to fend away an exultant grin. "Andrei. Andrei Czejak."

            Nick frowned. "Fuckin' weird name."

            The coyote's watch beeped, and with an audible curse he glanced at it. Their time was up already; that's what he got for only scheduling several minutes to this interview - he didn't expect any progress like this, just to check in on the kit and make sure he was alright.

            Though it could be a good thing. Nick would need time to think about this.

            He looked apologetically at the kit. "Time's up for now," he said.

            "Yeah," murmured Nick.

            "... Back to your room, is it?"

            "No."

            "The yard?" Czejak took a deep breath when the kit nodded. It was almost breakfast time. Evidently, they had planned Nick's punishment exercises so he would have to skip breakfast too. "Well then. Next time, Nick, how about we make this interview a little longer, huh? Maybe an hour or so. I think I'll bring lunch."

            For a moment, it looked like Nick was going to tell him to fuck off again. But then the boy realized what Czejak was suggesting and he looked up in surprise. The coyote was grinning at him.

            But the almost imperceptible look of shocked hope dropped off the boy's face and he snorted derisively.

            "You think I'll be like your other social workers?" Czejak chortled. "Sorry Nick. You're stuck with me, and I'm not like that."

            Nick looked down at the table's leg. "Whatever."

            Picking up his briefcase, Czejak walked to the exit. "I'm sorry I can't stay for longer. I'll see you soon, Nick."

            "... See you, doc."

            "You will."

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

November 16th

           

            Karl Rankin was twenty-eight, and a powerfully built leopard. He had worked every kind of job imaginable, including working as a security contractor in a dusty warzone, a door bouncer in a busy New York club, and an orderly in a major psychiatric ward. Now, he was halfway through his eighth morning as an orderly for Wilder Springs - a youth 'reorientation' facility that he had never heard of, but had been spurred into applying for a position by his nigh-estranged family. Something about knowing someone in church.

            And this was the first job in his entire life that he was considering quitting before his second paycheck.

            It was absolutely not what he expected, to say the very least. On his second day, he saw a teenaged raccoon boy slammed to the ground and restrained in a way he knew to be dangerous. Karl didn't even know what the teen had done to deserve it, but he did know that he was clearly autistic.

            Trying to conduct his duties with any self of decorum while the raccoon kid was screaming blue murder nearby was nearly impossible. That had just been the beginning, too...

            Indeed, Karl was almost afraid to learn more of what happened here. Despite everything he tried, everything he told himself, he was conflicted and confused about his newest occupation.

            As a new employee, he was on probation, being trialed, though he had never been explicitly told that. They kept him away from the youths' therapy sessions, and there were many questions he had asked that had received no real answers. So he simply patrolled the yards, feeling unnerved by the eerie atmosphere projected by the dozens upon dozens of young teens - teens like the many he had befriended in other jobs - staring at him as though he was a monster.

            Sighing, he adjusted his belt and pushed open the security door to the yard - a heavy metal frame, with metal mesh overlaid by two dense sheets of glass. Every entrance and exit to the facility was fitted with these doors, and high walls and fences left no doubt in a visitor's mind that this was a prison. Just one with unusual décor.

Recently, he had been told, the guards had stopped using uniforms of any kind and now just wore street clothes. That was just fine by him, he was getting sick of uniforms. Though he suspected it was less about their comfort and more about confusing the teens about who was an orderly and who was a typical staff member. It barely mattered anyway.

If one of the youths looked closer, they might spot the holster on his belt. It was no gun, but a heavy oleoresin capsaicin canister of a familiar brand. He didn't really know if it was necessary, but he supposed some of the teens could be dangerous...

Before he had even made it halfway across the dry grass of the yard, the leopard heard his name quietly spoken from behind. Curiously, he turned and spotted a stocky adult lynx in the doorway he just exited from.

"Hullo John," he called genially, trying not to let the memory of the raccoon kid sour his disposition. "What's going on?"

John simply motioned him closer. "We've got a new arrival," he said, smirking. "So to speak. He's rejoining us. Might as well take the chance to let you see roughly how we process 'em."

Nodding, Karl turned back. "Makes sense to me."

Together, the large felines walked down the corridor of the facility over to the main entrance. Karl had to admit the place didn't look so bad, reminding him slightly of the psych ward he'd spent three years working for.

It was an older building, though kept in good repair. Dark blue carpets and pseudo-marble patterned linoleum contrasted nicely with the creamy white walls and heavy doors.

Many of the doors had obviously been replaced; though the administrators' office, for instance, had a simple, old wooden door, the typical dorm for their reluctant program participants was sealed by much heavier ones with a wide, square viewing port that gave outsiders a good view of the narrow sleeping quarters.

However, those ports were closed from the outside; just as the lights in each room were controlled from the corridor, and just as each room was lockable from the outside with thick, heavy deadbolts.

The teens slept in rooms that Karl had to admit weren't terribly uncomfortable. The beds were small and had thin, cheap mattresses, but they were hardly awful dorms. The kids didn't stay in them all day anyway.

Well, except for the ones garbed in orange. There were only a few of those. They didn't seem to be allowed to speak or leave their rooms, with those heavy deadbolts being employed as necessary, unless they were taking part in an activity.

Karl had been told to watch out for those kits. Apparently, they couldn't be trusted.

As they rounded a corner to the front office, Karl spotted a young boy, a cheetah, being marched towards the reinforced glass of the main door. He blinked. His paws were behind his back in a manner that clearly indicated he had been handcuffed.

"Huh..." the leopard mumbled out loud, attracting the gaze of the receptionist and the burly lynx. "He looks like a kid."

"Nick Davis," responded the lynx, shaking his head. "He's a nasty piece of work, buddy, don't be fooled by his age. He's about twelve, but he's a violent, offensive, Godless little faggot."

Karl furrowed his brow. That was vehement even for John, who had little respect for the majority of the youths he lorded over.

It turned out the lynx wasn't even finished. "He won't talk to you. He lashes out at everyone like a little fucking maniac." There was an indulgent little chuckle. "Don't worry though. Things have changed since he was last here. We're not letting him get away with his crap anymore. Alright, excuse me."

Karl simply nodded.

When the door was pushed open and the boy ushered inside by his escorts, a jaguar and wolf, Karl could see the new arrival more clearly.

Far from the violent, feral creature John had made him out to be, snarling at everyone and everything, the young cheetah appeared utterly dejected and hopeless. His eyes were visibly reddened, almost raw, as if he had been crying nonstop for hours on end.

As John and several of the administration staff met the boy and escorts, Karl swore the jaguar escort's paw even touched the kit's head sympathetically.

            The newcomer was un-cuffed and handed over to John and one of the senior counselors - an opossum of average build and a large, round face. Whilst his manner and tone towards the escorts was genial, Karl had seen this guy go utterly mad at a shy fourteen-year-old girl not long ago, screaming something about her not loving her parents enough.

            It wasn't uncommon here, Karl had realized. The staff were all quite cordial to one another, seemingly because they reserved their negative emotions for their charges.

            Karl was no expert, but he wasn't sure saying a thing like that was fair to the youths. Sure, some of them were little shits at times, but most of them weren't that bad at all - none of them deserved being treated like that. Yet it seemed to be the standard approach he heard from everyone else on the staff: the kids were repeatedly told that everything was their fault, and they had to shape up or else.

            It didn't strike Karl as fair, and he could only hazard a guess at how unfair things got in the teens' actual therapy sessions - but... at the back of his head, he wondered if maybe he was wrong.

            Only bad kids got sent to Wilder Springs, his new colleagues told him over and over. They were here to be helped to become responsible, accountable and to be good, respectful children again. It was tough love. A little disturbing to see at first, but it apparently worked.

            ... Though he doubted many of these kids were anywhere near that bad, his colleagues did not share that doubt. They were fervently devout about these things, so sure of what they were saying. They had to be cruel to be kind.

            Refocusing on his job, the leopard made sure to follow the lynx and possum as they lead the defeated-looking kit off to a room. Karl wasn't entirely sure where they were going.

            Both his and the cheetah boy's ears pricked when the possum spoke to another staff member as they passed. "Can you get Doctor Thornton to meet us in processing please?" he muttered.

            John callously ushered the kit on when he stumbled, and Karl noticed the boy flinch away in what seemed to be fear - the lynx didn't seem to care. "Good to have you back," sneered the bulky orderly, his tone dripping with mockery.

            "Leave me alone," murmured Nick weakly. His voice was youthful but strangely gravelly, almost forcedly so. The voice of a boy perhaps on the cusp of puberty, but trying to appear so much further along than that.

            "I don't think so. Keep moving."

            The trio continued on, with Karl politely staying a few feet behind them. If nothing else, he knew he could catch the kit if he tried to run back. The soft percussions of shoes and, in the case of he and John, boots on the carpet were the only really audible sounds.

            The opossum opened a heavy door at the end of the corridor and waved them all in. Once Karl was through, the door was shut firmly.

            Nick just stood there, a delicate, almost gaunt figure amongst the towering adults in the center of the room, waiting with resignation on his features.

            "Right," the possum declared, scowling at the boy. "We've got your details already, Nick. You're in here because I heard from Mister Banning that you tried to run away."

            "Not really..." Nick mumbled sourly.

            "Don't give me your shit!" snapped the possum, raising his voice aggressively and stepping towards the cheetah. "We're not interested in your flippancy."

            Nick drew away, visibly shaken. "I-I didn't... I just-"

            "Shut up, Nick!" John's voice also became a little loud. "Mister Wadlow wasn't asking you a question."

            The kit swore, but Karl didn't think it was directed at anyone. It was a despairing exclamation, and he couldn't help but feel sorry for the boy.

            "Watch your mouth. You're not coming back here and starting your behavior again. Speak when spoken to, do you understand me?" John loomed over the boy. "I said, do you understand me?"

            For a split second, Karl was certain the kit was about to snap back at the adults so clearly trying to intimidate him. But then he seemed to wilt. "Yeah..."

            If John was surprised, it didn't show.

            Mister Wadlow, the possum whose first name still eluded Karl, folded his arms. "Take your clothes off."

            Nick stiffened. "... Wh-what?"

            "Now, Nick! You ran away, and we're going to search you."

            The kit frowned and backed away... right into the corner. His expression became gravely worried. "N-no."

            "Nick, do it now." John made no effort to conceal the threat.

            Suddenly, Karl couldn't stand idle. He was speaking before he even thought about it. "Nick, please, come on," he said firmly. "I know it's not fun, but if you don't do as you're told you know what will happen. They just need to make sure you didn't bring any weapons in here."

            "F-fuck off, man!" Nick retorted back to him, his voice getting shrill with panic. "You take your clothes off!"

            The other two adults continued to back Nick into the corner until the boy was literally pressing himself up against the plaster of the wall; his breathing started to come in quicker and quicker gasps.

            The door opened and a ferret walked in wearing a crispy ironed blue and white striped shirt tucked into gray pants. He simply shut the door and stood by it, watching Nick with a clinical gaze.

            John scowled even more pronouncedly. "Mister Rankin has even asked you nicely, Nick. This is your last chance to do it yourself - move it!"

            Nick's legs buckled and he shook his head vigorously. "No!"

            The lynx strode forwards and Nick's paws instinctively flew up to protect his face. Even still, Karl was surprised to see the big, meaty paw of his colleague shoot out in a sharp chopping motion, straight into the kit's nose.

            The boy cried out and tried to clutch at his face but he was suddenly wrenched away from the wall and pushed insistently to the ground by his shoulders, 'helped' along the way by a skillful trip. He collapsed heavily onto his chest.

            "No, don't!" he screamed, struggling in vain to keep from being laid flat, the point where hope would be lost - but his 'restrainer' was well practiced in doing this, straddling the boy immediately, kneeling over his slender frame. There was a horrible, pained cry when John simply dropped his considerable weight onto the kit's lower back, settling that two-hundred pound frame on top of the recalcitrant child.

            Nick gave a strange winded cough that was also a choked wail. The kit continued to struggle, but his wrists were easily caught and held down by his sides. "You had your chance!" snarled John, lowering his muzzle to within an inch of Nick's flattened ears.

            After only a few panicked seconds, Nick mostly surrendered - likely having been in this position before. Karl knew it was effective, one of the first techniques he had been taught actually. Prone restraints were easy to apply and virtually impossible to break, and that was true for a fully grown adult. The cheetah boy, still wailing and weakly kicking his legs, his face twisted with fear and desperation, was as nothing to the lynx on his back.

            The kit was about up to John's upper arm, an adult of average height if not above average thickness, but in terms of body mass it looked utterly ridiculous to see him pinned under the much larger grownup.

            Nick began to cough and gasp, sucking in air between his crying. His stomach and lower chest were being compressed, crushed against the floor, constricting his breathing. Karl winced.

            "Kevin," muttered the lynx, completely undisturbed by the boy's sobbing.

            Mister Wadlow walked over and caught a hold of Nick's ankles, grunting as he lowered himself to kneel on the backs of the slender shins.

            "Now we have to do it like this, you fucking idiot!" he snapped at the distressed youth. "It's your fucking fault!"

            Nick could barely move, let alone accomplish any sort of struggle, as his shoes were suddenly tugged off and thrown to the side. There was nothing he could do nothing aside from splay his toes to prevent his socks being removed either. It didn't work.

            "Check those," directed the possum, nodding at Karl. "Please."

            A little stunned still, it took Karl several moments to react. Once more forcing himself to refocus, he knelt and picked a shoe off the carpet, checking what few parts of it could possibly be used to conceal anything.

            But Nick suddenly screamed. "NO! Stop it!"

            Karl's head snapped up again and he saw that the possum had slipped off to the side and had pushed his paws underneath the pinned child's waist. In scarcely a second, he had undone the kit's khaki pants and was roughly pulling them down, mindless of the ineffectually kicking legs.

            The pants landed next to the socks.

            The boy squealed and pleaded some more, but Mr. Wadlow paid zero attention as he gripped the waistband of the plain white briefs and wrenched them down. Holding the fabric away from the cheetah's exposed backside, Wadlow fished about in a pocket.

            He withdrew a small keychain light.

            Karl gulped, but his muzzle had taken up the texture of sandpaper. There was a child being cavity searched not four feet from him.

            "Oh, Jesus," he whispered, almost unable to believe what he was witnessing.

            This was definitely not necessary.

            Nick reacted the way just about anybody would: with a despairing wail and renewed struggling. It hurt everyone's ears, and John angrily reprimanded the helpless kit.

            Thankfully, the counselor let the boy keep his underwear on and moved on to his torso. Together, the restraining adults removed his black and red hooded t-shirt and also tossed it to Karl.

            Snapping out of it again, Karl tried to search the items of clothing, but Nick's howling continued to distract him.

            "This is the last time, Nick!" John suddenly growled. "The director is sick of your bullshit. You either shape up or we're going to fuckin' put you through hell!" No response. "Do you hear me!?"

            "Get off me!" Nick sobbed. "Stop doing this to me!"

            "I asked you a question, Nick!" The lynx looked over at the door, and Karl was surprised to realize he had forgotten about the ferret standing just behind him. "Do you see what we mean?"

            "Yes, I do." Quickly, Karl deduced that this individual had to be Doctor Thornton - the facility's psychiatrist. "I looked over his files. Oppositional Defiance Disorder; his social worker did everything aside from name it himself."

            Nick, now clad in just his underpants and what seemed to be an electronic ankle tether, tried once more to squirm free. It ended in complete and utter failure, and he went limp. His sobbing died down, but didn't end entirely.

            "Well, we're sick of letting him get away with his bullshit," John said calmly. "What can you give him?"

            Dr. Thornton's expression became dubious. "Th-there are no officially condoned chemical resolutions for O.D.D.," he said weakly.

            "C'mon doc. Don't be like that."

            Eventually, Thornton nodded. His expression had gone blank. "I'm pretty sure he's got anxiety disorders as well. I might have something to help with that and keep him controllable."

            Nick gave a strangled gasp.

            "No!" he wheezed. "No! Nooo!! Don't, don't do it! Shit!"

            But the kit was ignored, and he started to sob even harder.

            "The same stuff as usual?" Wadlow enquired, still crouched by Nick's side. The doctor nodded. "Get it now, please, if you can. We have him restrained here already."

            "Don't do it!" pleaded Nick, scarcely coherent. "I'll do what you want! Shiiiit!"

            "Be quiet. You brought this on yourself." John settled even heavier upon the kit's coccyx.

            Karl stared open-mouthed as the psychiatrist wordlessly slipped from the room. Perhaps the only one as stunned as he was the cheetah boy himself.

            "I'm sorry you had to see this," apologized Wadlow, smiling slightly. He looked down at Nick, his expression disapproving. "This rude, selfish little child has been causing trouble here for almost a year. We're going to nip it in the bud, now he's back."

            "Not surprised they didn't want you," remarked John, smirking.

            The cheetah just sniffled pathetically.

            Only several minutes later, the ferret returned, clutching a small plastic case. Wordlessly, and with his features strangely wooden, he knelt by the restrained kit and opened the case.

            A thin syringe was lifted out and the cap removed from its long needle. Nick twisted his head away and closed his eyes. He was whispering something over and over to himself...

            "He can still move his neck," noted John. "Where are you going to inject it, doc?"

            "How about the buttocks or lower back?" Wadlow suggested, shifting back to kneel once more on the kit's legs.

            "... Alright, that will work." The ferret shuffled closer on his knees. The white underpants were tugged down again and the boy's slight waist held firm by the possum.

            "You're fuckin' perverts," groaned Nick between sobs, shaking all over as he felt the doctor swab at his left butt-cheek. "Let me go..."

            "Yeah?" John laughed. "I've got a wife and two kids, you little faggot. You're the one that says he likes it in the ass."

            Nick hissed as the needle silently penetrated his flesh, just above the buttocks from what Karl could tell. Then he started to bang the side of his head on the blue carpet. "Oh, shiiiit!"

            "We're not putting up with your shit any more, Nick," said John. "It's been a year. We're not going easy on you anymore. You are going to participate in your program, cooperate with your therapy and do what you are told." He leaned down again. "Do you understand?"

            Nick shook his head urgently, but didn't reply.

            It didn't take very long. The ferret withdrew the needle carefully and pulled himself to his foot-paws. "There we go."

            Once again, Nick's underwear was put back in place. "Alright. Thanks doc."

            "J-just remember what we talked about before..." The ferret placed the syringe into the plastic case and immediately hurried to the door.

            Karl dropped the boy's t-shirt onto the rest of his clothes. "N-nothing," he reported.

            Wadlow simply nodded, scratching at his rounded face. "Nick, if you'd just done as you were told, none of this would've happened."

            There was a choked moan from the cheetah kit, who was still having difficulty drawing breath. "Go to hell," he whimpered, heart not even slightly in the invective.

            "Don't blaspheme," warned the counselor acidly. He shook his head, standing. "Well, would you look at this? You've been back for less than half an hour and already you're going to be put back in orange." He gestured at the leopard. "Can you take those clothes, please Karl? Nick won't be needing them."

            "Yeah, alright." Tingling all over merely from witnessing the scene, Karl gathered the bundles of cloth to his numb paws.

            "Don't move," ordered John, lifting himself up slightly. "If you get off the floor before we shut the door, I'll give you a face-full. Do you want that?"

            Nick froze instantly, a weak sob escaping his muzzle. John simply stood then, leaving the kit on the ground and heading for the door.

            When the others left the room, Karl couldn't help but cast one concerned glance at the distraught preteen; a gently sobbing child face down on the carpet in only his white underpants.

            At last, Karl knew he had to force himself out the door too. It was John who shut it then... and Karl couldn't help but flinch when he heard the thick deadbolts slam into place...

            What, in the name of all things holy, had he just been party to?

 

*

 

November 19th

 

            The office looked as he remembered it. It was familiar, stiflingly warm and the air was crisp. Dry.

            That helped.

            Gary shucked off his jacket and smiled at the receptionist. "Morning, Baja," he chirped, ruffling his head-fur dry. It was no surprise to him that he got caught in the rain for the short, two minute walk from car to office.

            The vixen waved happily at him. "Welcome back, Gary!" She smiled. "We've all missed you!"

            "Good to be back," lied the cheetah, passing the desk by and heading into the back.

            It wasn't a big office, and, as always, it was almost empty so early in the day. Whoever else was there was preoccupied. Gary headed to his old station, still as immaculate as always. He had always been a fastidious fur, and his workstation reflected that.

            Setting down his laptop, Gary switched on the desktop machine and listened to its startup whine.

            ... Then he spaced out.

            It had been three days now. At first, Gary planned on taking a few more days, maybe weeks, off work but he quickly realized he couldn't handle that.

            He noticed almost immediately that he was sinking into depression, and his urge to consume entire bottles of vodka wasn't helping. Gary, who spent much of his spare time online reading all sorts of miscellaneous garbage, had encountered more than enough sources telling him the warning signs and what to do.

            The absolutely worst thing he could do was to hide away at home, so he snatched up his cell phone and told his boss he'd be in the office the very next morning.

            Just having the resolution to do that made him feel better.

            But not a lot. Even as he struggled to not think about it, he knew he was avoiding looking at his reflection in the monitor not eight inches away...

            With a grunt, Gary sat on his chair. Where had he left off? Did he still have to convert their client database over to the new system? Jared could've easily done that while he was away, but only if he had the time.

            Oh crap. Jared. The gregarious serval, a few years younger than Gary, was virtually guaranteed to ask him about his stupid foray into the world of foster parenting.

            "Fuck," muttered Gary, adjusting the position of his keyboard.

            Not that he didn't want to meet Jared again. They got along pretty well.

            Okay. No, that wasn't true. Jared was his friend. His only friend.

            That was just pathetic.

            Gary groaned. He had to get out more. Or at least ask Jared if he wanted to do something after work. Be like real friends. Though the idea did seem kinda strange...

            Suddenly, Gary wished he had stayed home.

            Checking his email, he found several things to spend his time on, and, to his relief, they were sufficiently distracting. It was well over two hours later that the rest of the office started to fill properly.

            "Gary!" a voice called. It was youthful and energetic, somewhat like his. The cheetah looked up and smiled, in spite his earlier concerns. "Hey man!"

            "Hey Jared!" Gary chortled. "How's it been going?"

            The serval, clad in black pants and a tucked white shirt, skipped over and held up a paw, evidently expecting a greeting high-five or something. Gary obliged, not really too interested in rising from his chair, and was surprised when Jared turned it into some sort of hybrid-hand shake. He didn't grip too tightly, but it was clear that the serval was pleased to see him.

            Gary felt slightly shy all of a sudden.

            "Pretty good, bro!" Jared laughed. "It's been pretty crazy since you were last here."

            "Of course. I leave and everything falls apart. I expected that." Gary grinned, turning the chair around. "Did you get that database thing sorted out?"

            "Yeah, had a few quiet days. It's mostly working fine, but, uh, if you could look at it, you know?" Jared grinned.

            "No worries," Gary leaned back in the heavily cushioned office chair. "Did I miss anything?"

            Jared shook his head. "No... but I heard Tyrell is leaving; so you might be getting his desk, if you want it."

            "Oh man." Gary raised an eyebrow. Tyrell was their team leader. He wasn't sure if he wanted the extra responsibility.

            "Hey, he totally gets paid another fifteen-percent of what we get. Play your cards right, you know?" Jared winked.

            For some reason, Gary felt himself get a hot flush all over his body.

            They continued to speak for a few minutes, though Gary was distracted.

            When they decided to get back to work, Gary felt like his stomach had been replaced by an iron balloon. Thankfully, Jared hadn't asked about Gary's 'foster kid.' But it wasn't that.

            Was it because of Nick in some way? The talks they had? The things... well, that one thing in particular, that they did?

            Because Gary had just realized he now, and always had, found the slightly younger serval really attractive...

            Oh, shit.

            It had been years since he even thought about...

Gulping, the cheetah started to type away again, his paws moving at a fraction of their usual speed. Paying zero attention to what they were doing.

            Ohhh, shit.

            What a can of worms that boy had opened.

 

            Czejak got out of the car slowly. He felt lethargic. Not a single glimmer of energy in him.

            The grounds of Wilder Springs were the same as always. He had been coming here for years now, but never once had the facility looked substantially different.

            Christmas, Halloween, every special day that came and went... did they ever celebrate them here? Czejak doubted it.

            Those things were reminders of the real world. A world they wanted the inmates to forget. They wanted them to focus on where they were now; that was their world now.

            The parking bay was almost empty, as always. Practically all the staff lived on site at least most of the year.

            The gravel crunched under the coyote's shoes as he made his way towards the administration office, a slight dusting of snow coming down from the skies.

            It was unlikely Nick would be pleased to see him. Or perhaps he would - someone at last he could vent his frustrations at, someone to swear at and blame. But Czejak would take any amount of abuse to help the cheetah boy now.

            When he stepped past the security doors, he was ushered in the direction of the interview room with barely a word from the deputy director. When he stepped inside, it was no surprise to see Nick, face down upon his own forearms, at the usual table.

            A plain orange shirt hung from his slender shoulders. He looked exhausted.

            Almost immediately Czejak felt sick and his knees turned to jelly. This was not a sight he ever, ever wanted to see again.

            "Good morning, Nick." Silence. Czejak slipped into the room and sat down, placing his leather briefcase by the side of the table as always. "Nick?"

            "Go away..." Nick said quietly.

            Czejak stared at the boy, his eyes watering. He sifted through his mind for something to say - but what could he say to a kit in Nick's position?

            To someone he let down like that...?

            "Nick," he tried. "I'm so sorry... I didn't-"

            "Go away," repeated Nick, sniffing once. "Just fuck off."

            "Nick... I can't go yet."

            A heavy silence fell over the room, and Czejak could practically hear the gears in the kit's head whirring at a million miles a minute.

            The coyote shook his head, speaking now even though he knew he should not. "Nick, do you think this was my fault?" No reply. Czejak sighed. "Please, Nick, I never wanted this to happen."

            The kit just sniffed again. "Go away."

            Czejak sighed. "Alright," he assented. The psychologist got to his feet. "I'll see you next week, okay?"

            Nick sobbed. "Why?!" he demanded. "Why don't you all just fuck off?!"

            "Because I care about you, Nick."

            "Fuck you!" Nick's voice was weak, despite the harsh and angry words he spat.

            Czejak shook his head. "Nick, I know why you want to blame me. But it wasn't my fault." This was awful. Czejak knew the cheetah didn't really want him to leave... but if he ever let that show, then Nick would.

            "Whatever..."

            "Please Nick, don't be angry at me. I'm really sorry; and I don't want to give up yet. I want to get you out of here still."

            Nick looked up at last, his eyes wet and reddened. "Why did he do it?" he asked weakly. His voice cracked, shooting up an octave. "The fuck did I do wrong, man?"

            Czejak sat down again. "Nothing, Nick, he got scared."

            "But he said i-it- he told me-! What the fuck?" Nick wiped at his eyes. "Why does this always happen to me?"

            "He was scared, Nick. He made a mistake." Czejak rubbed at his own. "I'm so sorry. I know you did your best. You can't control when somebody else does something stupid."

            Nick slammed his head back into his forearms. "Fuck him!" he sobbed.

            The coyote swallowed. "You wanted to stay with him, didn't you?"

            Nick sniffed and composed himself for a moment. Then he nodded.

            "You were getting along very well." Czejak shook his head again. "Nick, I'm sorry."

            The kit had no response.

            Czejak studied his charge intently. Nick was depressed, obviously, and angry, as expected. Even more lethargic than usual, despite the intensely powerful emotions that Czejak knew had to be roiling and blazing like a furnace below the surface...

            The coyote shifted. "Nick..." he said gently. "I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, do you want to talk to me about anything?"

            Nick shook his head. "What d'you mean? What can you do...?"

            "I don't know yet. I'll see." Czejak sighed. "Are you feeling alright?"

            "No."

            "What are you going to do after I'm gone?"

            The boy shifted slightly. "I dunno... th-think it's group development."

            "Alright." Czejak smiled slightly. "Do you still want me to go?"

            "... No. Don't." Nick sniffed. "I fuckin' hate this..."

            "I know."

            "I-I don't wanna be here..."

            "Are you angry at Gary for this?" Nick nodded. "Because he got you sent back here?" Another nod. "You were trying your best. It wasn't right for him to do this, I know."

            "Asshole..." Nick tensed, but he couldn't stop the sob. Again, his voice started to crack "It's not fair. I j-just wanted... I was gonna do whatever he wanted. I just wanted to stay there. Why did he do all this if he was j-just gonna send me back?"

            "Gary was wrong to do what he did, Nick. It wasn't your fault. He was scared. People have been telling him lies too." Czejak sighed. "He loved you, I think."

            "... Bullshit."

            "He did. I think he wanted you to stay with him, but was scared he'd hurt you." Czejak smiled gently.

            Suddenly, Nick started to cry. "N-no!" he groaned. "I didn't wanna go!"

            "I know, Nick..." Czejak swallowed.

            "Nobody ever listens to me! I wanted to s-stay..."

            "I know." The coyote shifted uncomfortably. "Don't give up, Nick. Please."

            Nick shook his head firmly. "F-fuck it... I don't care! E-everyone..."

            "I promise I won't abandon you, Nick."

            The cheetah kit suddenly looked up, staring at Czejak with watery eyes. "... y-yeah..."

            "And I'll be here for you, and I'm not going to stop." The coyote smiled. "So don't tell yourself otherwise, okay?"

            Nick sniffed and gave him the slightest hint of a lopsided grin. "Don't tell me what to do..."

            "Okay. C'mon, let's talk for a bit, huh?"

            The boy stared at him steadily, then snorted disgustingly to clear his nose.

            "A-a'ight, whatever..."

           

            It was almost an hour later that his counselor left, and Nick found himself alone in the interview room. His right ankle was still encircled by the cold metal of the manacle, but he felt much better. He always did after getting to talk to Czejak.

            But when that door closed, and he realized that in only a few minutes he would be escorted to another group 'development' period...

            Usually he tried to not participate in them. That was how he coped. Though that almost always resulted in being taken down or given punishment exercises. Even if they didn't, it was just so horrible... Stressful.

            The kit swallowed.

            He wanted to tell the doc about what they did the first day he was back, but they had told him what they'd do if he did. How it wouldn't matter... Czejak was just a social worker, they said. They were his parents, they said. Could do whatever they wanted.

            Given his experience with the system, Nick believed them.

            After that needle sunk into his skin, it only took maybe half-a minute before his entire body turned to lead and he started to feel weird. For at least several hours, he lost track of time entirely, couldn't concentrate on anything, sort of like when he had been drunk and tired, without any strength or will to move. Almost like he wasn't really there - everything around him was just a boring show he was watching, dissociated from. It was overwhelming at first, but thankfully it had tapered off over time.

            The door opened and the lynx guard walked in, expression stony. Nick's heart stopped.

            "Stand up," the orderly said, his southern accent and deep voice sending chills down Nick's spine.

            Six months ago, Nick would've refused - simply because it was this dickhead asking him. But now he stood immediately, though without vigor; no energy or interest in starting a fight.

            Of all the staff, this guy was the cruelest, angriest of them all. Whenever the heavyset feline was anywhere near him, Nick started to shake and he wasn't sure why.

            His brain, even now, came to an abrupt halt at that wall and didn't even try to go around it.

            Unaware and uncaring of the kit's thoughts, the lynx knelt and undid the manacle with a small silver key. Then he pulled Nick aside and insistently guided him towards the door. "Move," the guard ordered, pushing the door open. When Nick went to turn right in the corridor beyond, he firmly grabbed the kit and pulled him around. "Not that way."

            Nick stumbled, biting back a complaint. But he was confused. "W-wait," he moaned. "Th-the group room's the other way."

            "You're not goin' to group," growled the lynx.

            "What?"

            The orderly pushed him onwards. "You're going to seclusion."

            Nick tensed. "Wh-what did I do?!"

            "We're just saving time."

            Baffled, Nick didn't resist or speak again as he was led down the corridor.

            Seclusion?! What the fuck? But he hadn't done anything!

            Nonetheless, he was led to that gray, uninviting door at the far end of the corridor, and the lynx reached out, opening it for him.

            Without a choice, Nick stepped inside and was unsurprised to see the counselor he was forced to call Mister Wadlow already in the room, idly checking his phone. The opossum put it away and eyed the kit. His gaze unfriendly.

            Nick swallowed, his heart-rate already increasing. Quickly, he glanced about the room. The walls were unpainted concrete and the carpet was a dull, itchy brown material. Three chairs and a simple school desk had been brought in - Nick had spent much time in the seclusion room and knew they weren't usually there. "Wh-what?"

            The door was shut and locked behind him.

            Mister Wadlow folded his arms. "Good morning, Nick."

            Nick swallowed his pride. "G-good morning."

            "We're here because the director thinks this would be better for you than group development." The possum frowned. "If you cooperate, we'll let you back into group activities."

            That didn't exactly thrill Nick, but the cheetah kept his face impassive.

            But the counselor's eyes narrowed. "You're going to tell us," he said, voice firm and inviting no argument, "exactly where those friends of yours are. You're going to tell us where they are, so we can tell the police."

            Nick stared. "Wh-what?!" he asked in a small voice.

            "Sit down, Nick. You're telling us everything, today." Wadlow shook his head. "No more stupid secrets like a fucking spiteful child. This can't go on."

            The lynx forced him in the direction of one of the chairs. "Sit." Nick took a hold of the chair back, but looked around in fear. "Sit, Nick. Enough of this. You know your friends are criminals. You can't keep doing this. You're going to give back to the community and tell us. Now."

            Mister Wadlow shook his head. "It's the first step to becoming a good citizen, Nick. Instead of a selfish little criminal."

            Nick felt his blood turn to ice.

            But Mister Wadlow simply frowned at his reluctance. "You want to be good, don't you, Nick?"

            Oh fuck...

 

            He could barely see. Staring at his screen for so long, Gary couldn't believe it, but when he closed his eyes all he saw was lines upon lines of code...

            It had been six hours since he started work. He hadn't taken a break yet.

            "Hey, Gary?" came a voice from behind him.

            "Yeah?" he replied automatically, not really sure who it was who spoke to him.

            "Wanna go to the café across the road for lunch?"

            Gary turned, and blinked. It was Jared. "I... yeah, why not?" He shook his head vigorously. "I'm goin' video blind here."

            "Yeah, you've been working pretty hard there." The serval chuckled. "You feeling alright?"

            Gary lidded his eyes. Shit. "No," he answered honestly. "Really distracted."

            "Got that kid waiting for you at home, yeah?"

            "Not exactly." Gary swallowed. He spun his chair around and frowned at his workmate. The younger serval's face was curious, friendly. Non-judgmental. Gary stood and lifted his coat from the back of his chair. "L-let's go get a sandwich or something. I'm going video-blind here."

            Together, the felines prepared to venture from the office's front door, through the drizzle, to the small home-style café on the other side of the complex.

            Gary found himself suddenly more alert than usual, looking about the neat office with its blues and whites with an almost preternatural attention to detail. The soft grey and blue carpet; the creamy white walls...

            But outside it was dark. The sun had retreated behind thick winter cloud as if afraid to face the world, smothering everything in a bleak, colorless twilight. Beyond the front door, beyond the artificial light, it was cold and uninviting.

            Yet he and Jared walked together, towards the enticing smell of the café they both knew produced such wonderful food and warmth. They talked as they walked. About many things. But Gary knew.

            The younger programmer had politely dropped the topic of his failed attempt to be a parent. His foolish pretending. The serval knew something was wrong.

            And that made it all the worse.

            The café was practically empty when they strode in. Gary quite liked the place; it was very cozy and warm, perfect for days like this.

            The floorboards were of dark, heavy wood, and the décor was homey. Windows, half-obscured with gingham curtains, allowed some natural light in, but it was the warm glow of the bulbs overhead that provided most of the visibility this dreary day.

            They ordered coffee and some sandwiches, nothing complex, then made their way to a table at the back.

            Gary started slightly when he realized that this was the first time he had gone out with the serval for lunch - great! That was exactly the sort of thing he had just figured out they should do.

            "Oh, man I love this," murmured Jared, sitting down heavily. "Nice and toasty warm, huh?"

            The cheetah nodded slowly. "Mh. If we're lucky, we're not going to get a blizzard for Christmas."

            "Heh, doubt it. Had one for the last four years." Jared leaned on the table. "Oh, hey! Looking forward to Christmas, huh? First yuletide season with your new guest, right?"

            Gary shook his head. "No," he said sadly. Might as well get this over with, he decided. "I couldn't keep him."

            "Oh." Jared looked away sheepishly. "Too, uh, too much to handle?"

            "Not exactly. I just... can't do it." Gary sighed and hung his head. "I let the kid down, and I feel like shit for it."

            "Not all of us can handle parenthood, y'know?" Jared smiled gently at him. "Don't kick yourself over not being something you're not."

            Gary had to smile at that. See, the problem had nothing to do with what he was not, but what he was.

            Another sickening wave of revulsion washed over him, making him nauseous. What he was? He was one of 'those' furs.

            One who took advantage of a young, abused boy that had come to trust him, then sent him back to hell for his troubles.

            "Don't sweat it, Gary. I'm sure the kid'll be fine, and get himself a good family someday."

            Gary nodded. "I hope so." He paused. "It still doesn't excuse me from being another shitty chapter in his life, you know?" With a sigh, he passed a paw over his face. "We were getting along so well. I almost convinced myself I could do it, you know? Then I freak out and send him away just like every other jackass that's wasted his time."

            "There's no practice period, man," Jared said solemnly. "You don't know if you can be a good dad until you've tried. I guess he might not get that, but you should."

            "I suppose so." The cheetah looked up and smiled. "Thanks."

            "Anytime. Luckily, I already know I wouldn't make much of a dad."

            The coffee arrived then, and Gary expertly steered the conversation away from the subject of Nick. Regardless, Jared listened attentively, large ears perked, responding enthusiastically.

            It was great, just to be able to speak like this. It wasn't an office rant. It wasn't all business...

            They continued speaking for almost half an hour and Gary felt the insides of his ears start prickle with warmth. He even felt a little giddy and he tried to tell himself it had to be the café's slightly stuffy heating.

            But he knew it wasn't. He had been in a dark place for the last few weeks, especially the last few days. Nick had been good company at times, but...

            If nothing else, having the kit in his home had made Gary realize just how much he was pining for company. Just for someone to talk to about things and to interact with. To get those heavy, gloomy feelings off his chest.

            "So, got the house to yourself again?" Jared asked, grinning.

            "Yeah."

            "There we go, always a silver lining, right?"

            Gary snickered. "Not quite. I live in a damn boring area." He sighed. "Guess it's back to playing video games most of the time."

            Jared gave him a curious little frown. "What do you play?"

            "Oh, all kinds of crap. Mostly, uh, Sword of the North - you know, that stupid online role-playing thing."

            The serval grinned. "Dang straight I know it!" he chortled. "What server are you on?"

            Gary blinked. A stupid grin fought to proudly display itself on his features, but he beat it away. "Oh, uh, quite a few..."

             "Well, hey, which ones? We're looking for a fifth member in my regular group. How about you join us?"

            The grin redoubled its efforts, and Gary lost this time. "That sounds like a plan."

           

            All he saw was whiteness.

            The indistinct blur of the surface of the desk in front of him. A choking, smothering fog had enveloped his thoughts, and he found himself struggling to turn off; forget where he was.

            But they wouldn't let him.

            "Nick..." a voice cut through the fog. "This can't go on."

            "I don't know, man!" Nick responded, blinking. How much of the haze was from the drug? From what they were doing to him now? He didn't know.

            "Nick!" The lynx growled at him. When Nick looked up, the face he saw made his heart freeze. "Fuck's sake, we've been here for two hours! You think we're enjoying this?"

            Nick couldn't hold back a sob. Why were they doing this? He didn't want to tell them! Why wasn't that enough for them? Why wouldn't they leave him alone?!

            Mister Wadlow shook his head. "Nick, this won't stop until you tell us where they are."

            "I d-don't remember!" Nick insisted, though he knew he wasn't very convincing...

            "Stop it, Nick!" snapped the counselor. "You're lying to us, and we're not letting you get away with it." There was a pause. "That's another fifty."

            Nick moaned aloud, clutching at his head. "No!"

            He was up to three hundred now.

            Three hundred sit-ups. Three hundred jumps. Three hundred laps around the yard. Three hundred pushups.

            "Yes!" snapped the lynx in his deep, loud voice. "Does that make you happy? Do you like this, Nick? Because it's going to keep going until you tell us!"

            "I-I don't remember!"

            The lynx stood suddenly. "No!" he yelled. "We've had enough of your lying! What is wrong with you, Nick? This is just getting fucking ridiculous!!"

            Mister Wadlow shook his head. "And that's a week in seclusion. A week. Are you happy, Nick? Do you like making us do this to you?"

            Nick wailed and thumped his head on the desk between his arms.

            No! He couldn't do this to his friends! He wouldn't! Not even now!

            But he had been in this room for hours now. He couldn't even find the courage and conviction to tell them to fuck off now. Not anymore.

            "Nick, where are they!?" the lynx roared, slamming a paw on the desk.

            Nick jumped, keeping his eyes averted. His heart skipped a few more beats and he tried to bite back a sob.

            He was scared.

            They had been yelling at him for hours.

            Everything he said, they just told him had added to his punishments. Just screamed at him more and each time would make him jump and his heart stop.

            He was trembling all over. A cold, empty nausea had settled in his stomach. Adrenaline flooded his body and his muscles ached all over... he couldn't take this much longer. He wanted to be sick.

            He wanted to flee, but he couldn't. There was nowhere. He was afraid, but... he couldn't do it.

            Couldn't betray his friends, not even now.

            "Nick..." the lynx said, his voice firm but quiet now. "This is going to keep going. We aren't gonna stop until you tell us, and you're gonna be stuck in here until you do. Okay?"

            Nick shook his head. "I can't!" he wailed.

            "So you admit you know where they are?" the possum sighed. "We knew that. Stop being so selfish, Nick! We want out of here too! Where are they?!"

            "No!"

            "Another fifty! What's wrong with you, you-?!" The possum hissed and looked away.

            "If you tell us, Nick, we'll cancel all of it," the lynx promised, actually softening his tone for a second. "But enough of this. They're criminals, Nick. Like you. Protecting them makes you a criminal too, and we're not going to let you get away with it any more. Stop making this worse for yourself."

            Nick shook his head, unable to keep a sob back. He tensed, hoping to disappear, to melt into the ground and be forgotten...

            A cold silence fell over the seclusion room. Nick pinched his eyes shut tight.

            "Stand up."

            Nick raised his head slowly. "... What?"

            "Stand up!" The lynx got to his paws. "Get up."

            "No..." Nick refused in a tiny voice. But all the strength fled his body when he saw the lynx's face.

            "UP!"

            Nick flinched from the yell, but his body froze. It wasn't a matter of obedience or defiance. All he could see was the coldly angry face of the orderly, and the disapproving stare of the counselor...

            The lynx stepped around the table and grabbed him by the neck. Nick couldn't even bring himself to fight. The best he could do was plead as he was ripped from the chair and shoved face down to the ground.

            "No!" he screamed trying to crawl forwards to escape the restraint he knew was coming. But he was pulled backwards by an ankle and a crushing weight slammed onto his spine almost immediately afterwards. "NO!"

            He threshed ineffectually under the weight of the lynx. Thankfully, his arms weren't twisted upwards into his shoulders, but instead kept at his side.

            "We're not going to stop, Nick!" said the lynx, pinning him effortlessly. "This will all keep going until you stop your lies. Is that what you want?!"

            "No! Let go!" Nick screamed, slamming his head into the carpeted floor and kicking his legs. It was the only movement he could make. "Stop iiiit!"

            "We know you hate this, Nick. Do as you're told, or you're going to find yourself like this every time you're in here!"

            Nick sobbed, threshing his limbs uselessly under the weight of the orderly. Barely able to kick, scarcely able to move to his shoulders. Once again unable to change anything...

            A face suddenly came to his mind. Just for a split moment.

            But it quickly evaporated. Nick reflexively struggled in the firm clutch of the restraint, but he knew from the start it was hopeless. More than anything, he fought to not remember...

            To not let the fear of the past become the truth of the moment.

            "Let me gooooooooo!!!"

 

*

November 21st

 

            Things looked promising.

            Though he had to keep reminding himself that.

            The first 'period' in the controversial, secretive experiment had finished. Twenty-one of the twenty-two youths had opted to stay with their new guardians for a further few weeks. Things looked promising.

            Czejak sighed, resting his forearms on his work desk. His wrist was sore from scribbling like a madman nonstop for the last hour.

            "I need a vacation," he mumbled aloud, staring out the window. Delicate snowflakes danced past, seeming to tease them with their effortless flight.

            Karen had taken her leave, devoting her time to study for the rest of the year. Although Czejak had said he would shut down his clinic for that time, he found it much harder to do than he thought.

            Besides, he was still searching.

            The coyote shifted in his chair, trying to stretch his back a little. With a sigh, he reached over and once again started to leaf through the stack of papers Wilder Springs had filed with the inquiry board after...

            "No," he chastised himself, putting them down and closing his eyes.

            He had to leave in twenty minutes. If he was to get to the facility by half-eight, he had to leave in twenty minutes. Couldn't be late.

            He checked his watch. Quarter to six.

            Every morning he had to go to that hellhole, he had to get up at an ungodly hour. Then again, that's what they made the youths do anyway; they could be almost boot-camp-esque at times, though Wilder Springs was certainly nowhere near as bad as some of the facilities that actually marketed themselves as such.

            Czejak wouldn't mind, but they insisted on only letting him visit a maximum of two youths at a time. Meaning he was heading up there three or four days a week nowadays.

            For the first time in months, Czejak swore to himself. It wasn't a particularly rude curse, but it was unusual for him nonetheless.

            He stood and checked his pockets. Time to get ready.

            His pointed muzzle was cracked open by a magnificent yawn and he almost staggered into his desk.

            Maybe he should close down the clinic for a few months after all. Take the paperwork home. That way at least he would get to sleep in on most days, and actually have a chance at keeping his health as well as getting everything done.

            If he wasn't careful, he would be just the insomniac that Nick was.

            Of course, he thought this, but Czejak wondered if he would ever go through with it.

            He was too afraid.

            The coyote snatched up his jacket and briefcase before making his way to his clinic's bathroom. The lights were out in the waiting room, as it was so early. Pushing aside the heavy white door, Czejak went straight to the sink and started to wash his face.

            Withdrawing a small travelling toothbrush from his briefcase, he started his morning ritual - a ritual he rarely could complete at home, so he was quite used to helping himself to his own clinic's facilities.

            When he was finished, he checked his head-fur was presentable, then stepped away.

            "Well," he quietly addressed the careworn and weary face in front of him, flat upon the mirror's surface. "Shall we go get another day over with?"

            He wasn't sure if the face agreed, because he couldn't bring himself to keep looking at it.

           

            If he didn't know better, he would have sworn he was on fire despite the chilly pre-dawn air and his light clothing.

            Staggering, Nick felt his burning legs buckle and he fell to his hands and knees. The cheetah gasped, trying to suck breath down his air-scorched throat into his lungs, which felt like they had been inhaling cinders. The gravel bit into the soft flesh of his paws.

            Acid seared his stomach and chest as he fought to keep from throwing up. Again.

            "Get up!" yelled the counselor, an angry faced short fox. Nick couldn't remember his name - though he probably did before, but at the moment he couldn't think about anything.

             Nick blinked, desperately trying to refocus. His muscles trembled and burned, completely unwilling to cooperate. He didn't speak though. Complaining wouldn't help - he'd probably be given another ten laps if he did.

            They had changed the way they did the punishment exercises since he had been gone. He wasn't doing laps, he was running from one side of the featureless gray, gravel court to the other, and had to hit the floor before running to the other.

            The constant sprinting, stopping, kneeling, turning and sprinting again was far more exhausting, and the counselor supervising him urged him to maintain a certain speed - with threats of violence if he didn't keep his movement at a sprint.

            There was a series of crunching sounds as the counselor marched over to him, but Nick couldn't make himself look. He could barely support himself with his arms.

            Roughly, he was jerked to his foot-paws again. "Get up."

            Nick continued gasping in breath, too weak to resist as the counselor pushed him towards the wall of the main building and forced an oversized bottle of water into his paws.

            "Drink it all." The fox, clad in just a polo shirt and olive-tan pants, folder his arms and watched.

            Nick averted his eyes and collapsed against the wall, unscrewing the bottle. He didn't want to drink, as his stomach felt like it had shriveled to the size of the walnut and was aching to shrink further. Acid kept threatening to rush up from inside him again.

            But he knew any resistance on the exercise yard was always met by pepper-spray to the face, and that was just the minimum. So he forced himself to drink.

            "All of it," reminded the fox. "And don't throw up again."

            By the time Nick was halfway through the bottle, he realized how much of a danger that was - with a baulk, he took the bottle away from his muzzle and fought away the sudden urge to puke.

            When he finished, the counselor snatched the bottle from his paws. "Another fifty at lunch-time." The fox scowled. "Fifty more before bed."

            Nick slipped down the wall, almost falling to his backside.

            "You know how to stop all of this. Up." The fox motioned for him to stand; he barely could. "You've got five minutes to shower and change, then you're back in seclusion until your social worker gets here. Go. Be back here in five."

            The fox led him to the door inside, unlocked it and pushed a white towel into the exhausted cheetah's paws. Nick stumbled but miraculously kept his footing when he was shoved through the door.

            With a groan, he started to pad towards the showers on shaky legs.

            He tingled all over, tasted sour metal in his muzzle and was still hyperventilating. His lungs and throat felt utterly shredded to the point that mere act of breathing hurt and a dull ache throbbed all over his body. Still, a powerful sense of relief flooded his mind.

            Thank fuck that was over.

            For now.

            At least for now he was out of the seclusion room. He would be able to use the showers a little before the others woke up, and when he did get back in seclusion... he would need the time to rest. Maybe even sleep. Then he could speak to his counselor.

            Shit, he was lookin' forward to that.

            The shower block was empty when he went in. It was scarcely six in the morning. Fifteen minutes before the staff would wake everyone else up.

            Nick stumbled over to the bench on the far wall, his upper legs long having gone numb. He glanced around one last time to make sure he was unobserved, then stripped without ceremony, laying the towel over his clothes.

            It was rare for him to get the showers to himself. If he even bothered with them. This was an opportunity, a chance to actually enjoy bathing for once here, but he was absolutely ruined.

            With trembling paws, he gingerly touched his stomach. Taking inventory of the pain.

            It was hard to decide which part was the worst. This was the craziest set of punishment exercises they'd made him do, and the drug had made it hard to focus and work up the will to move like he used to. His body felt weaker and more sluggish too.

            He'd never done fifty pushups before, and he wasn't very strong - the pain had been incredible and though his arms had seized up several times the counselor had forced him to continue until he was satisfied. The sit-ups were easier, but the dull, painful tension that knotted his flat abdomen made him wince with the slightest movement.

            The running and jumping had been just plain torture.

            Every single inch of him hurt, even his insides, churning distressingly from the liquid he had been forced to drink.

            The cheetah boy twisted a tap and stood under the resultant stream of lukewarm water, closing his eyes.

            Thankfully the fox wasn't like some of the others - they made him change, switch from pushups, to sit-ups, to standing up and running, then back to the pushups... made it much worse.

            But Nick knew to not count his blessings yet. Not only did he have to endure it two more times today, there was no guarantee it would be the same staff member in charge of him.

            Or that he wouldn't get another three hundred when they...

            "Fuck..." he whimpered, eyes watering. Suddenly, his legs gave out and he collapsed against the tiled wall with a cry. For several seconds he struggled to post an arm to support himself, but there was no strength in either of the limbs. He fell to his knees, chest and face pressed into the slick tiles.

            He couldn't do this another two times today. This wasn't going to end.

            Maybe he should just tell them...

            But just considering that filled him with self-revulsion. 

            They were his friends. Even if things were different now, they had saved his life. How could he-?!

            Nick sobbed, slumping against the wall.

            This was wrong! It was all wrong!

            It was hopeless. He had been surrounded by monsters, and Nick had nowhere to run, nobody to hold on to. No way to fight anymore. Nobody cared, nobody was gonna help him.

            His friends were gone and the one person he wanted to stay with had got rid of him like the useless, crazy idiot he was! There was no point to fighting now.

            And he had felt like this before. Things like this had been done to him before. But before, he had been able to run.

            Before, he was stupid and believed that he could make things better. That maybe someone would help him. Now he knew that wasn't true.

            With a pathetic sniff, Nick turned and sprawled under the cascading water. He had to finish up and get back to the yard. Once he got back into the 'quiet room' he could rest - he couldn't fall asleep here.

            After lying motionless for several moments, just soaking and feeling the water bounce off his thinly furred chest, Nick forced himself to roll over. His sides stung, but though he winced, he managed to ignore it.

            He crawled over to the bench and hauled himself up slowly. He dried himself as best he could, but his fur was still damp when he pulled his clothes back on. Remembering at the last second to stumble over and turn the shower off, Nick made his way back to the exercise yard.

            Though he tried, he could barely manage a slow shuffle down the facility's corridors, unable to look up from the burred, dull carpeting.

            When he had almost reached the yard, he realized that the fox counselor was waiting just inside the door for him.

            "You're late."

            Nick just hung his head and swayed on the spot.

            Fuck this guy.

            "Let's go."A paw gripped his shoulder and pulled him around. He felt himself being pushed onwards, guided down the corridors by a firm and callous hand.

            After several seconds, Nick managed to look up and see the gray door of the seclusion room just in front of him. But something was very strange.

            It wasn't the only thing that was gray.

            Everything had gone a curious monotone.

            "What...?" he managed to moan at the fox still pushing him along before he suddenly felt himself falling.

            The grayness swiftly became black.

             

            The gray door filled his view, and Nick just stared at it - mind as blank as the door's surface. Another stressful 'group development' session was behind him, and he felt sick. The counselor had forced him to talk about a time he had tried very hard to forget.

            He refused, and the entire group had turned against him in an instant. Worse, now here he was, facing the seclusion room's featureless, heavy door once again.

            Struggling to not think about what they had said to him.

            "...Did you do it?"

            Nick started and looked up at the teenager, surprised. She was grinning at him. That happy grin she always seemed to wear.

            "... Yeah..." he mumbled in return, directing his gaze to the toes of his ruined sneakers on dirty blue carpet. "The fuck you doin'? You're gonna get us fuckin' killed!"

            "Aw, don't worry, he's gonna be away for a few minutes." She shrugged dismissively. "How did it go?"

            Nick lidded his eyes briefly. "A'ight..."

            "Told you!"

            "Whatever."

            The leopard winked. "Gotta have a little faith in folks, that's all!" Nick had always found the almost musical, southern lilt to her voice to be soothing. "Sometimes it pays off, y'know?"

            "Bullshit." Nick sighed.

            Evelyn shrugged and looked the cheetah boy over. "You feelin' okay?" she asked, running a paw through her long, snowy head-fur. "You lookin' like hell."

            Nick groaned internally. They were in the middle of the corridor leading to the seclusion room, where a counselor had ordered him to stand and stare at the door while he went to get or do something - something that was probably not going to be pleasant for Nick. If they were caught talking...

            She always did this. But it was good. Nobody else tried to talk to Nick like she did.

            "Fuckin' tired..." he mumbled, rubbing an eye.

            "Bad dreams?" Her voice was soft with compassion.

            Nick shook his head. "Just can't sleep."

            "Boy do I know how that goes..." Evelyn whispered cryptically. "So what's he like?"

            "Who?"

            "The guy, the coyote. He's your social worker, yeah?"

            Nick just stared at the floor some more. After several seconds, he gave a non-committal grunt. "I don't give a shit..." he mumbled. "I wanna be left alone."

            Evelyn looked at him steadily for a moment. "Um, Nick..." she said gravely. "Trust me, hun... it's easier if you got someone to talk to. When they're all against you."

            "What?" The cheetah looked up properly at last, attempting to meet the older girl's eyes for the first time today, but she was looking away herself now.

            She smiled wanly. "I had a friend," she murmured. "He was awesome, you know. My mom and dad... church, everyone was, like, everywhere, always goin' on about fags and sluts..." She paused. "I thought I had nobody to talk to 'bout it, but this guy listened. Even said he'd pretend to be my boyfriend to get the heat off me, you know?"

            "Yeah, and you still got here," Nick grumbled sourly.

            Her smile became indulgent. Mysterious. "Yeah, but I don't care." She inched closer. "Nick... can I tell you what he told me?"

            "Whatever." Nick twitched, looking over his shoulder when he heard a sound. The corridor was still empty.

            When he looked back, bizarrely, she was wiping at an eye. "It's... y'know... it's got me this far," she whispered. "Just knowing this."

            Nick frowned and looked up at her. Her blue eyes were shimmering, and the sincerity on her face took his breath away. "What...?"

            Evelyn sniffed and wiped at her nose with a wrist. After a suitable pause, she opened her muzzle and -

            Suddenly, a shriek shattered the air... shattered everything.

            GO AWAAAY!!

 

            The deafening voice reverberated throughout his skull, like a scream in a tiled room, shredding the memories and images inside apart with desperate fury like paper.

            It was his own voice.

            His vision had gone a pure, brilliant white, but when it returned, Nick realized he was sitting up and breathing hard.

            The fuck was that?!

             Why...?! Why had he-? He never wanted to, never again!

            With a gasp, he scooted backwards into the wall, folding his knees to his chest and burying his head in his arms. His entire body was stiff and aching.

            It had been a painfully vivid dream. An almost perfect recollection. He could see her, right in front of him, as if he could reach out and touch her and...

            But she was dead! They killed her!

            "No-no-no!" he wailed to himself, voice scarcely a whisper. "Don't!"

            He didn't want to think about this.  

            This wasn't the first time. Memories long buried had stolen their way to the forefront of his dreams in the last few weeks. It hadn't been too bad at Gary's, but the dreams were getting worse now.

            Nightmares he could handle. But not the memories.

            They were like Gary's basement that day several weeks ago. Dark places he didn't want to go ever again. Caves and holes where vague shadows lurked, whispering quietly of threat and fear.

            Despite his best efforts, he started to cry. He wasn't even sure why. There were too many possible reasons to be sure. Maybe all of them.

            Suddenly, he stiffened.

            Had they cancelled his interview with Czejak because he had passed out?! Shit!

            He got to his paws and knees and crawled to the door across the concrete. The room was dark, though not quite pitch black. Though he listened intently, no sound penetrated the walls or slipped beneath the door. As usual.

            "Shit!" the cheetah whined, slamming his back against the door, fully aware that could result in further punishment if it was heard.

            They couldn't do this to him. He needed to talk to his counselor.

            A chilling thought came to him then. If they stopped Czejak from visiting...

            "Oh shit!" Nick closed his eyes tightly.

            The idea was too horrible to bear, and he struggled to forget it as quickly as it sprung up.

            With a deep breath, Nick tried to calm himself.

            They wouldn't do that. They couldn't, right?

            Nick swallowed, realizing his mouth was dry and throat sore. With a shaking paw, he rubbed at his flushed face.

            The door he sat against clanked as the external heavy deadbolts were manipulated. Belatedly, Nick tried to move away. With a groan, he fell to his side and just eyed the door as it swung open.

            The light from beyond blinded him immediately, though he was sure it was the short fox counselor from before.

            "Come on, up." The wavering silhouette gestured at him.

            Slowly, Nick picked himself up. He stumbled forwards as his thighs seized painfully, but the fox caught him and propped him up.

            "Ah, shit!" he complained, gritting his teeth. Without thinking, he pushed away from the counselor, instinctively retreating from the bigger male.

            "I told you to warm down," the fox said heartlessly. Nick didn't remember being told that at all. "Your social worker will be here soon. Come on."

            Nick bit back a swear word and straightened. He was ushered out of the seclusion room into the comparatively blindingly bright corridor beyond, the staff member following him closely. Likely watching to make sure he didn't pitch forwards like he did last time.

            The building was not empty. Never was at this time of day - the morning exercise drills and other rituals were probably all over for now, and everyone was back inside. Keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the floor in front of him, Nick stumbled past several adults and older teens going about their business.

            The 'interview' room wasn't far away, and another staff member was at the wooden door waiting for him. It was the leopard, the one Nick was fairly sure he hadn't seen until recently.

            He was led inside and quickly shackled as usual to the hard-point under the desk. The leopard actually smiled at him as he knelt to lock the ankle-cuff around Nick's slender ankle. It confused him.

            Saying almost nothing, they both left. Locking the door behind them.

            With a groan, Nick collapsed to the chair and slumped forwards onto the desk immediately.

            Weakly, he tested the leg restraints, simply trying to spread his ankles. It took several moments for him to even work up the energy to even do that, and the stiffening limbs barely listened.

            As usual, the thin, steel chain just clinked tauntingly.

            Nick had endured all kinds of strange things, but before being sent here he had never felt cold metal around his ankles. He did not like it. Though the chain seemed delicate, almost like a toy, it was anything but - the simple fetters were impregnable and when Nick had first been introduced to them on both legs, his most desperate attempts to spread his ankles more than shoulder-width were completely useless.

            There was no point to them. Nick knew that. ... Evelyn had told him about it.

            It wasn't about holding someone in place. The locked doors, the pepper-spray, the restraints, and in the case of the real crazies, the leather cuff-like things made sure that none of the kids at Wilder Springs went anywhere when the staff didn't want it.

            It was about making them think they were prisoners.

            It was about making them feel weak and scared and bad. Even when they were talking to a social worker or whatever. Just like the orange shirts that Nick had been wearing for almost a year now.

            Nick fell still and closed his eyes. He wanted to go to sleep, but he had to talk to Czejak; they wouldn't let him rest afterwards.

            Regardless, he found himself getting as comfortable as possible, head upon his forearms.

            It would be okay. The doc would wake him up when he got there.

            With that in mind, Nick embraced the lethargy and attempted to relax. His brain's yammering tempered by what had to be the clear fluid they forced into him each day, he found it much easier than usual.

            The constant anxiety, dulled but now ever present, took a backseat to the sheer tiredness he felt. Slowly, everything started to fade away.

            But all too soon, he heard a gentle voice calling his name.

            "Nick?" it whispered, sounding almost amused.

            "Nuh..." he moaned in reply, forcing his eyes open. It took several moments and several blinks later for him to raise his head even slightly and look for the source of the voice.

            Czejak smiled at him from the doorway, which he had closed behind him. "Wakey, wakey!" the coyote jested. "I hate to wake you, Nick. You always seem to be behind on sleep."

            Nick fought away the warm blanket of somnolence that had swaddled his mind. That overwhelmingly powerful tiredness that made waking after a short sleep so painfully hard. "'M good."

            "Alright. I've not got long, and I really want to talk to you." Czejak sat down at last. "You really do look exhausted though. Are you okay?"

            "... No," Nick answered honestly.

            The coyote's smile grew taut. "I suspected not. Nick, I have to talk to you... and it's a little more serious than usual."

            Nick frowned. His counselor had never said anything like that to him before. "...What?"

            "It's alright, we have time enough for you to wake up." Czejak winked and opened his briefcase. "Got something for you."

            The coyote pushed a small brown paper bag across the table, and Nick's nose instantly told him what it was. Though his heart leapt and stomach growled, he hesitated.

            "It's okay. Nobody's told me I'm not allowed to bring you food."

            The kit reached out and tentatively pulled the bag closer. It was his favorite: chicken nuggets and fries - he didn't even remember telling the coyote...

            "That don't matter," he mumbled, opening the bag.

            He was starving, but even many months ago he would've been unsure about accepting it when he was in seclusion. Now...

            "I'll take responsibility for it, Nick. You look terrible, and your health is my number one concern. If it makes it any easier: I'm telling you to eat it." The coyote's eyes narrowed slightly, and Nick shivered slightly. There was something strange going on - Czejak would've never said that normally.

            Nick wished he hadn't. It didn't make it any easier at all.

            Would they get him in trouble for eating when he wasn't allowed, or for disobeying an adult? In things like this, it seemed to depend on the mood of whichever staff member felt like confronting him over it.

            At last, he reached in and grabbed a chicken nugget. It wasn't like they could punish him much worse than they already were. He hoped.

            Czejak just watched him, softening his gaze again, while he chewed the nugget lethargically. After the first, he wiped his muzzle of saliva without embarrassment and went straight for another.

            "Nick," the psychologist murmured. "How are you feeling?"

            "Like shit," responded the kit after a second, swallowing the second nugget.

            "Are you still upset at Gary?" Czejak smiled slightly. "Dumb question, I guess."

            Nick paused, staring at the brown bag. "... No." He slowly reached for a third. "... I don't care anymore."

            "Before he sent you back here, how did you feel about him?"

            Nick froze, his paw in the bag.

            How had he felt? He wasn't even sure himself.

            For a brief few days, Nick had considered the adult a friend. A quiet, hopeful voice in the back of his head had been excited at the possibility of staying with someone so cool. So... weirdly there for him, almost like his counselor.

            At the end, Nick trusted the older cheetah in a way that shocked even himself. Reminded of the safety and warmth he felt in his younger years; something he had scarcely felt at all since he had been taken from his father.

            Then he turned on Nick like all the others had.

            How did he feel? How had he felt? There were no words for it, not in his limited vocabulary.

            Nick blinked, refocusing his eyes. "I wanted to stay..."

            Czejak nodded. "Nick... did you really want to do what you did with him?"

            Jerkily, the kit nodded.

            "Nick, did you do it just so he wouldn't send you away?"

            Suddenly, Nick realized his eyes were watering. "Yes..."

            "Was that the only reason?"

            "No..." He swiped at his eyes. "I wanted to. I-I wanted to."

            Czejak's just looked at him with a bittersweet smile. "Was it that you liked being close to him?"

            Nick suddenly felt bitterly embarrassed and looked away.

            The coyote nodded. "That's a part of it, Nick. That's a part of why we all do those sorts of things... but it's okay to ask for hugs and things like that without having to do them as well."

            Briefly, the kit closed his eyes tight and swore.

            "But I have to ask. Were you really okay with doing it with Gary?" When Nick hesitated again, Czejak added, "You can be honest with me, Nick. This is a big part of the experiment. I'm not trying to embarrass you."

            Nick nodded. "Yeah," he said shortly. After a second, he felt compelled to elaborate. "... I did... I mean, that's why I d-did it at first... But it was cool."

            "I have to say, Nick, that's one heck of an ice-breaker." Czejak chortled briefly. "But this is why we didn't want you to know. Not just the night where, if I heard correctly, you busted Gary's nose, but this too. We didn't want any of you to feel pressured into doing anything like that - if it happened, it happened."

            "Shit." Nick sniffed. "... I j-just didn't want to be sent back here."

            "I know, Nick. I don't mean that I agree with what Gary did, and if you say it didn't bother you, and that you felt happy doing it, then I believe you."

            There was a moment of silence before Czejak reached for his briefcase again.

            "There's a lot I need to talk to you about, Nick..." he said, a note of regret in his voice. "But I don't think I can. Not while you're here. Not yet."

            Nick instantly understood that to mean while they were under surveillance. That made sense... if the staff discovered what he had done with Gary, they would go absolutely insane.

            They always went at him about it. The things he did with his friends. His 'belief' that he was interested in other boys.

            The kit slumped even more. "I fuckin' want out of here..." he whispered. "I don't wanna be here..."

            Czejak put his briefcase down and straightened up again. As far as Nick could tell with his peripheral vision, the coyote hadn't taken anything out of his leather-bound briefcase. "I know that, Nick. If I could, I'd get you out of here forever." Suddenly, the coyote's eyes narrowed with concern. "Nick, are you feeling alright?"

            "No, I told you."

            Czejak sat forward."Nick, do you mind answering a few questions for me?"

            "... What?"

            "Nothing difficult. Just a few quick questions." The coyote interlaced his fingers and leaned on his elbows. "Since you came back here, have you felt even more tired than usual? Just had less energy, been too tired to do anything?"

            Nick blinked in confusion, but gave a slow nod. It was true, though he wasn't entirely sure why. Part of him had put it down to the injections.

            "Is there anything you look forward to?" Czejak raised an eyebrow. "I know there's not a lot here for you but... is there anything you can think of that you enjoy doing?"

            The kit frowned for a moment. "I dunno..." After a moment, he forced himself to answer. "T-talkin' to you."

            The counselor smiled. "I look forward to talking to you too."

            "Whatever."

            But the coyote simply continued to smile. "When was the last time you felt happy? Do you remember?"

            Nick stared in bewilderment. "I dunno..."

            "At Gary's?"

            "I guess."

            Czejak nodded. "Nick... is there anyone you count as a friend? Here?"

            "No..."

            "Okay." The coyote scratched his muzzle. "Have you ever thought that you were useless? That you can't do anything special, or that nobody likes you?"

            "... What?" Nick felt his breath catch in his chest somewhere.

            "Been thinking it more often recently?"

            Nick's eyes started to sting. He had to look away.

            "... Because Gary didn't want you?"

            Nick sniffled, chastising himself for it mentally. "Why're you askin' this shit?!" he demanded.

            "I'm sorry, Nick. I'm just checking something." Czejak went for his briefcase again. He withdrew a notepad and started to write on it - something he hadn't done since his first few interviews with Nick. "It's not true, Nick."

            "What?"

            "It's not true." Czejak looked up. "You're not useless, Nick. I don't care what they tell you here. It's not all your fault that your placements didn't work."

            Nick stared at the now cold chicken nugget still loosely held by his numb fingers. After a minute, he raised the nugget and placed it into his muzzle, tentatively chewing it. Barely tasting it at all.

            "Nick..." The coyote shut his notepad again - thankfully. "There is a way I can get you out of here."

            Immediately Nick's ears pricked. "How?"

            But Czejak's face was sad. "You know what it is. You have to agree to go to another home and remain under surveillance." Silence. "But you won't do that, will you?"

            The kit shook his head.

            "You can make a placement work, Nick. You can, and you'll be safe this time. I promise."

            Nick felt his whole body start to shake.

            It wasn't something he could explain. It wasn't something that made sense.

            All he knew was that he wouldn't go back to that. He wouldn't take that chance. He couldn't. Staying with Gary wasn't the same as going back into the system.

            On the other side of the table, Czejak just observed him. Watching patiently. Nick knew that the coyote was waiting for him to reply, but he could think of nothing to say.

            Finally, Czejak brought an end to the silence.

            "Nick... I know this is hard for you. I know, and I'm sorry to even bring it up. But I think we need to discuss your time in that house." Czejak cleared his throat. "The one you ran away from."

            Immediately, Nick stiffened. A sickening dread, an oozing chill, seemed to bleed outwards from somewhere deep in his chest as he slowly looked up.

            His counselor simply stared back at him - and though there was sympathy in those eyes, there was something else too.

            Though he wasn't sure what.

 

            Already, Czejak knew that the image of Nick's face when he looked up would haunt him for years.  A mask of fear and pleading. Begging to be allowed to keep the doors shut on a chamber of horrors.

            Forcing the cheetah boy to discuss these things before he was ready was the very last thing he wanted to do, and he made that perfectly clear.

            For over fifteen minutes Nick had made him wait now, and Czejak had absolutely no problem with that. It hadn't been easy to convince him to even consider it.

            While he waited, Czejak eyed the boy neutrally. Trying to keep his alarm off his face.

            It was expected that Nick would be devastated after Gary's rejection. But there was something amiss, and Czejak couldn't place it.

            Nick wasn't merely depressed, and the psychologist already doubted the wisdom of even bringing up the idea of discussing the horrors Nick would rather forget. Suddenly, he realized that his silence could be seen as coercion.

            "We don't have to talk about it," the psychologist murmured aloud. "It's okay, Nick. We can talk about other things if you like. I don't mind."

            It had been obvious almost from the very start that Nick's ordeal in that home had scarred him. Badly. That it was one of the most major causes of his fear of being forced into another foster placement - and now that Czejak had confirmed their existence, he was fairly sure the kit's panic attacks were strongly related too.

            But Nick had buried these memories. At least the details of them. They lurked below the surface, causing painful ripples; but pain likely incomparable to what it would be like to openly process them again.

            The slender young cheetah wordlessly placed his head atop his folded forearms.

            Eventually, he looked up. His eyes were raw and watering, ears flat to the side of his head. Czejak felt his own heart come to a complete stop.

            The adult gripped own paws tightly, trying to stop the tingling. "You've told me he wasn't so bad at first..." he said gently. "What happened? When did things go wrong?"

            Again, the delay was considerable before Nick could even force a syllable past his reluctant jaws. Czejak was anything but impatient, though. He just watched, keeping his expression as silently encouraging as possible.

            This was probably it. This was probably going to be the biggest breakthrough with the embittered cheetah cub since he had bothered to learn his name.

            "I-I don't know..." Nick whispered, his expression unreadable. "J-just one day, I said something... and he hit me in the face."

            "He had never hit you before then?"

            Nick shook his head. "Said he would..." He swallowed.

            "What happened next?"

            The kit shifted nervously. "H-he pulled my ear. P-pulled me in his room and started... he kept hitting me. W-with, like, a plastic... thing."

            Czejak narrowed his eyes slightly. He knew Nick had been struck with an implement, but never before had any details emerged. "A plastic pipe?" he asked. "Pretty thin?" Nick nodded slightly, and the coyote held his breath for a moment.

            The simple PVC 'switch' was common enough. Czejak had heard of it being used before. A vicious implement, bought from a typical hardware store - the mark of someone who approached what could euphemistically be termed 'corporal punishment' surgically and deliberately. Religiously.

            The mark of someone who called abuse by another name: discipline.

            Nick's breathing was audible now. Not so much faster, but deeper than normal. "He did it a lot..."

            "But it wasn't all he did, was it, Nick?" Instantly Czejak wanted to hit himself.

            The kit simply shook his head. "Wh-when he stopped, he- the basement..."

            "I know." The coyote swore mentally. "Nick, we can stop if you like. I know going further than this is going to be hard."

            "... I got scared," Nick announced suddenly. "I-I thought he was gonna keep me there."

            "Okay. What happened next, Nick? Do you remember?"

            Surprisingly, the kit answered, closing his eyes. "I th-think... he got me up the next day. Said I w-wasn't goin' to school no more. I w-was too bad and he was gonna..."

            Nick hesitated and immediately Czejak interrupted again. "Nick," he said clearly. "Stop for a moment."

            The boy looked up, his eyes glassy. Czejak smiled at him fondly; he would've offered the kit some tissues, but he knew Nick didn't bother with such things.

            "Nick, take a few minutes to put everything together." Czejak quit wringing his paws. "Take your time. You can tell me whatever you want to. No more. It's okay. We can stop talking about this whenever you like."

            Nick sniffed and refocused his attention on the brown bag in front of him. Vaguely, Czejak wondered if he had actually forgotten about the food it contained.

            "I-I dunno, man," mumbled Nick.

            "He took you out of school, but what did he make you do instead?" Czejak flicked an ear. "Anything?"

            With a loud ripping sound, Nick started to tear the brown paper apart. Slowly. "H-he made me do stuff." A pause. "S-sit in a corner for ages. If I moved, he'd... h-he'd hit me again. O-or... shit!"

            The kit sobbed aloud, simultaneously tearing the bag apart and jerking his knees, causing the chains under the table to clink. The food fell onto the desk, and Nick immediately swore and tried to gather the escaping nuggets together. Several rolled clear off the table.

            "It's okay, don't worry about it," Czejak insisted, sitting forward. "I'll clean it up. Don't worry. Just eat them."

            But Nick wasn't listening. He started to cry. "Fuck!" he gasped, withdrawing into as much of a ball as he could, legs manacled to the ground below the simple plastic chair. "I can't-"

             Czejak felt his body tense. Muscles almost engaging to the point that he stood - momentarily determined to dart to the kit's side. But he didn't move. He couldn't.

            Instead, he slowly relaxed. Staying silent and just observing.

            Nick slowly shook his head. "The fuck, man...?" he squeaked, voice a much higher pitch than usual. Obviously fighting to keep himself together.

            "Nick, he's not here." Czejak felt a hot, angry flush surge through his body. "Please remember; you're safe here with me in this room, and he's just a bastard who tried to hurt you a long time ago. He has no power over you, Nick. Nothing. You got away, Nick."

            "It doesn't matter!" Nick cried, far louder than Czejak expected. "I can't..."

            "Yes you can," contradicted the coyote, lidding his eyes briefly. "You can, Nick. You're a strong boy. Very strong."

            "No I'm not!"

            "Yes you are." Czejak was startled to realize he had to wipe his nose on a sleeve. "You are, Nick. This guy hurt you when you were young and small. That doesn't make you weak. It just makes him a bastard." He swore softly. "Nick, that's the only reason I want to talk to you about this. I need you to understand that. He was just a sick, angry, weak little sadist; you were not responsible for his actions. Nothing he said or did to you was right."

            Nick inclined his head in a feeble attempt at a nod. "I-I couldn't sleep..." he whined, sounding oddly plaintive.

            "I know."

            "N-no. Not that..." Nick looked up then, and Czejak recoiled. There was a look of faraway terror in his gray eyes. "I was tryin' to sleep... an' he came in an' he wakes me up- he-!" There was a moment where it seemed like he was about to vomit. "H-he said if I wasn't good, he'd put me in a bag an' t-throw me out with the t-trash."

            With a grim effort, Czejak kept his composure.

            The cheetah covered his face with a badly trembling paw and stared at the blank tabletop. It was clear how much this was hurting him, scaring him. But as always, once Nick started he wanted to tell his counselor everything.

            He was so alone. When the chance arose and the inertia overcome, he wanted so much to tell someone about these things. Someone who would validate him. Encourage him.

            But this time it seemed more like he had released a floodgate and couldn't stop the ensuing deluge.

             "He woke me up!" Nick gasped, his youthful features contorting. "He fuckin' stood there... w-with a bag! I couldn't sleep! I thought he was gonna do it! Every fuckin' night!"

            In seconds, Nick was in tears. Incapable of speech.

            Czejak contended with nausea. He honestly felt sick.

            Though Nick's speech wasn't clear, he got the idea. The bastard was keeping his foster child in constant fear. As he had long expected, that was what it had always been about.

            Fear. Control. Power.

            "I didn't do anythin'!" Nick blurted at last. "I didn't stop him... I just did wha' he wanted! I couldn't-" he trailed off again.

            "That's okay, Nick," assured his counselor. "You were small, and you thought nobody would help you."

            "Kept sayin' I was bad." The kit clawed at his face. "T'wuz my fault."

            "He was lying, Nick."

            "M-m-made me take my clothes off... put me under the shower with just the c-cold water an' h-held me there." By now, Nick was hiccupping. Crying too hard to talk properly. Czejak frowned in concentration, trying to decipher the quiet, choppy sobs.  "Thasswhy... G-Gary 'n' the shower..."

            "With the gasoline?" murmured the psychologist. "It's okay, Nick. Things like these stay with us for a long time. But not forever, I promise. You're stronger than that."

            The kit trembled, clutching at his head. Czejak was fairly sure he could hear anger in the boy's sobs. It hurt to realize it was probably not aimed at the one who deserved it.

            No, Nick was angry with himself. With the effect the memories were having on him now, even when he knew he was safe. With his weakness. Embarrassed that he was saying all this to his counselor.

            Ashamed to be a victim.

            "I'm fuckin' useless," Nick moaned, half to himself. "I dun wanna be like that..."

            Out of nowhere, something seized Czejak's stomach. Constricted it like a thick snake coiling around his waist. "Nick," he suddenly asked, ears perking. "Did he ever... did he ever hold you down? The way they do here?"

            The response was immediate. Nick turned to stone. He even stopped crying.

            "... Yes," he exhaled in a tiny voice. "L-lots."

            Czejak nodded, concealing a wave of disgust. He suddenly understood what others meant when they said a small piece inside of them just died. An invisible knife just seemed to punch into his chest.

            "I dun wanna stay here," Nick whispered. "C-can't..."

            "Nick, if there is one thing I will ask you to do, it is to listen to me now." The coyote straightened. "I have to tell you something."

            "What?"

            Czejak took a deep, deep breath. "I know what it's like to be your age, Nick. You don't think of yourself as a child; you're just as much a person as anybody else, even if they don't treat you like that sometimes."

            Nick slowly looked up.

            "And I know that... when you go through the things you have, time kind of blurs together, doesn't it?" The coyote smiled. "It's hard to tell one day from the last. A year is a long time, but you're waking up with nightmares of things that happened a year ago, aren't you? Longer than that? You remember it like it was yesterday."

            The kit gave a choked gasp.

            "But no matter how smart you are, how capable or how mature you are, even now, you are still growing up. Three years ago, you were even smaller and younger than you are now. You will grow, but for now, you're not even half my weight, Nick. Of course an adult is going to be stronger than you; it proves nothing." Czejak spoke each word firmly and clearly. "There was nothing you could have done to stop this guy. You're tough, Nick, but you're still a fur. Everything he did was designed to crush your spirit and make you think nobody was on your side. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Not that you couldn't stop him, and not that it hurt you so much.

            "You're tough and I respect you, Nick. But you weren't prepared to handle what that guy did when you were only eight. I've met a lot of tough kids in my line of work and none of them were really that tough that they would have done any better than you."

            Nick nodded, starting to cry again.

            But Czejak wasn't finished. He was not done. He leaned forward, over the table as much as possible, and lowered his voice.

            "And I know they try to do the exact same things here, Nick. But you're strong, and you better believe I'm on your side. Don't give in, Nick. Don't believe them when they say it was your fault." He grinned impishly at the cheetah boy. "You're one tough cookie. Whatever they say, you've got an admirer in me, and in Gary too. Everyone that's bothered to know you knows that you're an honest, good kid with more guts than a butcher shop. There's a saying, okay? 'Don't let the bastards grind you down.' They want your spirit. They want what they can't have, Nick. Just remember that."

            Nick smiled slightly. A token effort. A signal of appreciation. He sniffed loudly.

            "We're going to work all of this out. But it's going to be much harder if you give up. Or if you blame yourself for things you couldn't possibly be to blame for."

            "Okay..."

            The coyote sat back and folded his arms. "I don't know many, if any, other furs that could take what you have when they were so young and still be such an awesome person," he said. "And I mean that."

            "... Whatever," Nick retorted, a shy, though genuine grin coming to him at last.

            "Okay. Now, finish your food, because I'm going nowhere until you have."

            After only a grateful glance into his counselor's face, Nick returned his attention to the chicken nuggets.

 

            Czejak shut the interview door, still trying to suppress the shaking that had come over him.

            It was a foolish mistake, honestly, but one he continually made. A therapist isn't supposed to let the emotions of his client affect him. Or to be upset by their issues. It was hard to help someone free themselves from problems that clouded their judgment and emotions when you let them disrupt your own judgment.

            If he kept this up, he was going to emotionally exhaust himself into an early grave. But he couldn't stop if his doctor told him it would kill him tomorrow.

            As the coyote straightened his shoulders and looked ahead, he saw he wasn't alone in the corridor.

            A bulky, imposing leopard was standing scarcely twelve feet away. Despite his physical stature, when his eyes met Czejak's they seemed almost guilty.

            "How is he?" asked the leopard suddenly.

            Czejak was taken aback. Badly. He had never been asked that - he knew the staff were told to treat him as a necessary evil, an intruder to be ignored and shunned. "Oh." He looked back at the heavy wooden door. "Not well."

            "I can tell." The guard shuffled.

            Czejak decided to say it. "Thank you," he said frankly. "For caring."

            But the leopard seemed slightly uncertain. "Yeah. Uh... is he okay? I mean, is he depressed or traumatized or something?"

            "Perhaps." Czejak smiled stiffly. This guard was not like the others.

            There was a hiatus while the leopard seemed to struggle with something to say. Though Czejak got a very good idea of what he was thinking.

            "You're his social worker, right?"

            The psychologist nodded. "Social worker and therapist."

            "I don't think he should be here."

            Czejak's smile became even tighter. "With respect, none of these youths deserve to be here." He paused, realizing what the guard meant. "It's not up to me. Nick is an adjudicated delinquent - he's here by court injunction." Without even thinking about it, the coyote made the final word sound like an invective.

            "Oh. Okay." The leopard shuffled some more. Though Czejak got the impression this was actually an intelligent, capable fur, he was acting like a guilty schoolchild. Ashamed of what he had done; whatever that was. "Uh, never mind."

            "Can I ask you a favor?" Czejak said bluntly.

            The leopard blinked. "Yeah?"

            "Keep an eye on Nick, please." Czejak swapped his heavy briefcase to his other paw. "I don't think he's in the best of spirits, if you know what I mean."

            Instantly, the guard nodded. "We have a suicide watch program, I think..."

            "No." Czejak's voice was firm. "Please. Take a look at what the suicide watch program here actually is. It doesn't help. Just talk to him occasionally. Make sure he doesn't do anything... You can help him. Please."

            After a moment, the leopard nodded resolutely. "I will."

            Czejak nodded. "Thank you." He moved to walk past the guard. "The name's Czejak. Andrei Czejak. Ph.D, et cetera, et cetera."

            "Karl. Uh, Karl Rankin." The leopard grinned. "Former PMC contractor, I hate to say."

            "A more interesting job than mine, if nothing else," Czejak chortled smilingly. "Thank you. You can help these children a lot more than I can."

            "It's no problem." Karl's eyes hardened. "It's the least I can do."      

 

            Nick felt heavy, though it wasn't the numbness that seemed to be coursing through him because of the injections.

            He'd felt this way before. Just exhausted - tingling all over and deathly tired after talking with his social worker; sometimes after one of those 'panic attacks.' The emotions had worked their way through him, taking so much energy to process.

            Though at least a part of it was sheer sadness. He was alone again.

            It was utter torture to have his counselor there for an hour or whatever and then be left all alone. But Czejak had explained, in whispers as always, that it wasn't his fault. He was only allowed to visit for a short time.

            In fact, his counselor had visited him a lot lately. More than usual.

            But it still wasn't enough.

            "Shit." Nick shifted.

            It was time for another interview, now that his social worker was out of their way.

            He wished he'd leave them alone, at least for a few days. He still didn't know what to do.

            If they just gave him time... but they wouldn't.

            Soft footfalls approached the door. Nick sighed and rested his head on his arms.

            But it didn't open. Instead, someone started to talk. A voice, muffled, came through the door.

            "... too dangerous. You need to think of something else."

            After a second, Nick perked an ear. Tired though he was, he still had that desperate need to know what was going on. To pick up whatever hints he could about what was going to happen to him next.

            The voice that replied was deeper, much harder to hear. The lynx guard. As expected. The asshole was almost always around Nick now.

            "It's been almost two weeks," murmured the first voice. "The anti-psychotic will be starting to affect him now. He won't be able to handle it. He needs to eat, too."

            ... Starting to?

            Nick's eyes cracked open.

            Starting to? Were they talking about the injections? It hadn't really started messing with him yet?

            They continued to confer, just outside the door. They lowered their voices so Nick couldn't hear them.

            The kit groaned and just waited.

            He couldn't believe it. Still. That they were really, honestly, for-truth drugging him.

            On the streets, he heard tales of other foster kits being drugged by their guardians. It was one thing he was glad he didn't endure from his own. At the very least he never did this... though, it didn't really matter. He didn't need drugs to do what he did to Nick's brain.

            "No." Nick growled to himself, pushing all thoughts of the asshole out of his head.

            He didn't want to face those memories alone.

            However, as much as it seemed almost surreal, it was happening.

            Shit. What would Chris say about that...? That he let this get done to him?

            ... Fuck... this wasn't fair. He knew they did it here, but he couldn't believe they were doing it to him now...

            All he ever wanted was for them to leave him alone... this wasn't fair.

            At last the door opened.

            Even without looking, he knew he had guessed right. The big lynx asshole was kneeling down to undo the cuff around his ankle.

            "Get up," ordered the adult sourly. He probably didn't even notice the curtness of his own words - but Nick did. It made him wonder just what the hell had been said out in the corridor.

            This time, Nick didn't even presume to guess which way he was going. He let the meaty paw on his shoulder do the guiding.

            But once he was practically shoved out of the interview room, he was surprised to find that the lynx turned him to the right. Bemused, he staggered along. By himself he doubted he could walk any quicker than an excruciatingly slow shuffle. In a strange way, he was grateful he at least got the assistance.

            For some reason, he was not startled when he was led past the group development rooms. His heart sank when he realized where he was being taken.

            The exercise yard.

            "Not gettin' out of this so easy," muttered the grownup steering him by the shoulder.

            "What?" Nick moaned before he could think to stop himself.

            No reply. In much less time than the cheetah was happy with, the door to the yard was opened and he was pushed through it.

            The yard wasn't empty. A large group of teens, mostly the younger ones, all boys, were being shouted through their mid-day drills by other staff members. It looked almost like a boot camp, with every single one of them wearing nothing but t-shirts, shoes and shorts. One boy, an averaged-sized fourteen-year-old wolf, was being screamed at by an aggressive 'counselor' as he heaved and coughed in sickened exhaustion on the gravel.

            The wolf was probably new. Nick felt a dull pang of sympathy for the older boy. He had been in that situation. Many of them had. It was going to get much, much worse for him if he didn't stand up soon.

            Evidently, this time Nick was to do his punishment exercises in front of this group of older boys. He swayed, watching them with uneasy embarrassment.

            Embarrassment that was suddenly obliterated by fear.

            He seized up and looked around, openmouthed, at the lynx.

            The adult feline's eyes were hard and narrowed. Pissed off. "Take your shirt off," he growled. There was a hint of frost in the air, and even though it was mid-day their breath formed dense clouds of mist. "You're gonna need to. Get stretching."

            Oh fucking shit!

*

November 22nd

 

            The clacking of the keyboard was soothing, cathartic, though nowhere near as much what he was typing.

            For some reason, he had been on the internet watching an old, emotionally-charged music video by a band he'd heard as a teenager, though more or less ignored at the time.

            Now here he was, pushing thirty, watching "emo" pop-rock music videos and typing a vigorous denunciation of some anonymous jackass that had the gall to leave a disparaging comment about it.

            When he finished typing, he paused to look over the fruits of his labor... and immediately realized he wasn't going to post it online.

            Oh, he believed every word of it.

            Sometimes kids felt down. Life was hard for young folks, harder than many wanted to admit - especially for some. Wanting to have their feelings validated, getting the help to process them, by listening to a song, even if the lyrics were a little cringe-worthy, was nothing for a kid to be ashamed of. He believed it all.

            But Gary clicked the 'cancel' button almost the second he finished typing it.

            "The hell is wrong with me?" he muttered, getting to his feet.

            Not only was he defending some juvenile pop-song he knew he was too mature to listen to (right?), that wasn't relevant for him at all (right?!), but he knew better than to get involved with internet arguments. Especially with someone whom he knew just one thing about, clear as day, from a single comment: that this person was a judgmental dickhead.

            Gary was an adult, with some semblance of a life. What was he thinking?

            Lost in thought, the cheetah padded down the stairs.

            The lights were out in the foyer. It was cold, and he could hear the wind outside whistling eerily. There was a slight breeze from one of the open windows, but though the air was unstill there was no other movement. No other sound but the interminable thrumming of the refrigerator.

            Empty.

            Gary walked into the kitchen and tugged open the noisy metal beast he kept his cold food in. Less than a second later he had withdrawn a beer and was heading back upstairs.

            Yes, beer was something he usually only drank on special occasions, but given how he felt now, the cheetah knew that he had to avoid hard liquor.

            Opening the bottle of his favorite microbrew, Gary stood and stared listlessly at his computer.

            There was nothing he wanted to do. Nothing. No game or movie held any allure for him at the moment. Reading required too much concentration for his maudlin, pop-rock stimulated mind at the moment.

            And he could barely even think about his collection of 'interesting' images without wanting to be sick.

            So he turned off the computer, picked up his beer and decided to instead go outside. Slowly, he made his way downstairs again and to the front door.

            For some reason mindless of the fact he was wearing neither shoes nor socks, he undid the locks and pulled the ornate door open.

            It was almost pitch black outside. The much colder outside air struck him and Gary hesitated. Listening to the subdued patter of rain on the path from his front door, looking out into the undulating shadows.

            It was uninviting, but he felt so cramped. So... restive. It had been years since he went outside after midnight. Especially in the rain, so underdressed instead of wrapped in dreary coats and scarves. He didn't want to go, but then he did.

            So he forced himself to take the step. Then another. The third was much easier, and by then he could feel the drizzle through the fur on the back of his head. His forearms. The tops of his foot-paws. The wet paving beneath them.

            Gary inhaled the crisp, moist air deeply, then raised his bottle and took a long draught.

            "What the hell am I doing?" he whispered to himself.

            In three months, he would be twenty-nine. He didn't have a partner, or even any friends. The best he had been able to achieve was a few self-taught programming languages and a job that was devouring his life.

            ... He could've had a kid. Could've been somebody to someone, and made a mark on the future.

            But he was too scared to walk through that door. Hell, he was too scared to walk through any of those doors. Partners, kids, a more fulfilling job... Yeah, if you went by his annual salary, Gary was doing fine.

            Just three weeks with a delinquent child had shown him how meaningless that was. How lonely and sad he was.

            Gary grunted and sat down on the wet path. Grit crunched quietly under his buttocks as he did, extending a leg and looking up at the sky. Thick, dark clouds sat low above him. It wasn't yet cold enough for more snow.

            Though he tried to not think about it, it was almost impossible for him to not wonder how Nick was doing. If the staff at the detention center were treating him better now that he'd been away for a few weeks. If maybe he'd quickly consent to another placement and get the fuck out of there now.

            Anything to indicate that Gary might have helped in some way.

            As he discovered that day - the one that he could never, ever possibly forget - he wanted nothing more than to know the hard-bitten kit was happy. Though he only knew the boy for a few weeks, Gary had fallen for him. Hard. Foolishly.

            That's why what he did was better for Nick. Right?

            "Aw, shut up," Gary grumped at himself, dismissing his own bullshit.

            There was a flash, and a few seconds later a rolling growl. Another storm. The weather was atrocious this winter. Almost symbolic.

            Suddenly, Gary thought of Jared. The friendly young programmer he was developing a crush on even quicker than he had on Nick.

            It was pathetic. Despite it all, he had latched onto Nick like a limpet, and now that he was alone again he desperately needed company. Intimacy. Intimacy he probably could've got from Nick, but he burned that kid badly.

            Likewise, he knew he couldn't handle a relationship with another guy. He wouldn't even try.

            It was a door that not only could he not walk through, but it remained locked no matter what he tried. How hard he tugged on it.

            It remained locked, and that asshole had died with the keys.

            Gary drained the rest of his beer. Staring at the wet pavement just in front of him.

            "Fuck you, dad."

           

            Czejak had no clue how long it took for him to shake away the mental cobwebs and realize the bizarre, shrill noise that kept trying to wake him up was in fact his cell phone.

            Exhausted, it still took him well over a minute to even open his eyes. They seemed to be glued shut, and opening them even for a split second was painful.

            It took considerable effort, but the coyote rolled over from his pretzel-like sleeping position and sat up. His phone was on the other side of the room, on his dresser. Groaning, he got up and staggered over to it.

            He was still fully dressed, apart from his shoes. How the heck had that happened?

            By the time he reached it, the phone had stopped ringing. Picking it up, Czejak checked the call log and realized he had slept straight through three separate calls. All the same number.

            Gary's cell phone.

            Czejak sighed and looked around at his bedroom.

            It was messier than usual, though that didn't amount to much. The bedside clock insisted it was ten in the morning; the latest he remembered sleeping in for years - thank goodness it was a weekend.

            He padded over and opened his curtains, letting some light in. The room smelled, so he opened a window too; that's what he deserved for not showering or changing before deciding to lie down.

            Putting the phone to his pointed ear, he pressed the button to call Gary back.

            It was the closest to what Czejak could call "his day off" but judging from the four missed calls, the cheetah really wanted to talk to him.

            Instantly Gary picked up, and Czejak stood at his open window to talk. The fresh air wasn't just pleasant to the coyote at the moment - it was necessary. He felt terrible.

            "Hello, Gary!" he murmured, trying to inject some enthusiasm.

            "Oh... Sorry doc." The replying voice sounded vague and tired. "Did I wake you?"

            "As a matter of fact you did, but that's fine. You sound like you haven't been to bed, though." The coyote adjusted his collar fastidiously, spotting his transparent reflection in his window.

            "You can tell." Gary coughed quietly, clearing his throat. "D-doc, I know it's a Sunday, um... I just wanted to ask, if- uh- if you had nothing better to do. Could I, uh, talk to you for a bit? In person?"

            Czejak frowned to himself. "I suppose I can come up there..." he said. "I don't really have anything else to do today."

            "That's not a good thing, doc..." Gary paused. "I know you have to be under a lot of pressure. B-but if you don't have any plans, I could drive over-"

            Immediately Czejak cut the cheetah off. "No, no need. You sound like you're about to pass out. I can come visit you."

            "Okay... really, I appreciate it."

            "Don't worry. I'll be quite some time, Gary, so how about you get some sleep? Nap for a few hours. I'll be up there... I suppose at four or so."

            "What if I fall asleep and don't wake up in time?"

            "I'll bring a packed lunch and pretend I was going out for a picnic instead." Czejak chuckled. "Okay?"

            "Alright," Gary sounded grateful and relieved. "See you in the afternoon, doc. You're a saint."

            Czejak hung up and sighed.

            Dropping his phone on his bed, he padded across the thickly carpeted floor to the bedroom door, fully intent on getting several coffees before his shower...

 

            How long had he been stalling?

            Hiding across the street, taking refuge in the alley beneath the fire-escapes when sleep finally took him? Trying to hide in the shadow of the tall buildings as the cold rain did nothing but increase in intensity?

            Two days now? Most of the time was spent locked in thought and avoiding the eyes of the occasional passersby.

            Chase was shivering uncontrollably now, peering into the quiet, mostly empty street from behind a gently thrumming, fenced off ventilation fan. His simple, torn clothing was soaked and covered in grime.

            This was a shitty, dangerous place to stay, and he knew that. He knew his friends would tell him that. In his usual honest fashion, Nick would probably call him a fuckin' idiot or something. But he wasn't here out of choice.

            The dirty furred snow leopard boy was frozen there. He wanted to go further. To cross the street. To do what he had to do. But he couldn't.

            Because he was scared.

            Unlike Nick, he was never abused by a foster parent. He had never experienced firsthand the demeaning, frustrating process of being shunted from carer to carer like a flea-ridden pet nobody really wanted. He had heard of all these things, and understood why they would be so painful, but that wasn't why he hesitated.

            No, it was his own father that he was afraid of.

            It was over two years ago now that Chase had fled his home, fearing for his life.

            He remembered it like yesterday. His father would hit him, sometimes a lot. Sometimes for no apparent reason, sometimes at night. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober.

            But then one night, his father stormed into his son's room like a wrathful hurricane, rage of a depth Chase had never seen before in his eyes. Immediately, the twelve-year-old knew he was in for the beating of his life.

            He had kissed another boy. Their neighbor. A year younger than him. It was just fooling around at first, but their experimentation got a little more serious. They both were willing, but it was unlikely they'd go much further than they did.

            But then they were caught. By the other boy's mother. Chase had begged the stupid cunt to not tell his father - she didn't understand, didn't know what his father would do. She ignored everything he said. Said something about his father needing to talk to him about 'appropriateness.'

            Chase stopped just short of telling her that his father 'talked' with his fists. She wouldn't have believed him anyway.

            So after work, his father received a phone-call. Politely thanked the bitch. Put down the phone. Picked up his beer and furiously charged straight for the bedroom on the other side of their cramped, tiny house.

            The amount of times his father called him a "worthless faggot" was probably a world record in repetition. Each time it was punctuated with a punch. To the head. Face. Sides. Back.

            No amount of wailing dissuaded his own father from beating him until he drew blood. By the end of it, Chase couldn't wail at all. It hurt too much to make a sound. Or breathe.

            That night, as he lay crying in his room, he realized that it wasn't going to stop. If anything, it would get worse now.

            Sneaking to the bathroom well after midnight, he washed his face as best he could, trying to stem the bleeding. To use the cool water to soothe a little of the hot pain. Looking at his battered face and half-shut eye just confirmed it was time to leave. A few band-aids later, he grabbed the small backpack he had kept in case of emergency - this type of emergency - since he was ten. He was eleven now, and the time had finally come. His fantasies of running away were going to come true tonight, he told himself.

            In the early hours of the morning, Chase filled the rucksack with some more clothes, stole whatever he could from the fridge (spitefully leaving it open, of course), and climbed out of his bedroom window. Intelligently, he made sure to take everything he could possibly want or need; he wasn't coming back. He would never take the risk, even for his most prized possessions. Luckily, he had little possessions to speak of.

            If he did, and got caught, he would be dead.

            But now... years after being branded as a runaway- a criminal just for doing that! - he was staring at the bland face of a white, concrete building. The only sign on it, by the side of the door, read: "Child Protection Agency".

            ... Was this a good idea?

            He was a runaway. A criminal. Would they put him in juvie? ... They were almost definitely gonna call his father. He knew they sometimes didn't believe kits; they might just hand him right back over to his dad.

            This was why living on the streets was so tough for him years ago. He wasn't stupid: he knew he could never go to a soup-kitchen or anything. A youth shelter. Perplexingly, so many of them required parental permission for kids to stay there. They turned runaways right over to the police. Right back to those they ran from.

            The parents' 'rights' always mattered more.

             Was it safer to turn away now? He had lived on the streets before, it couldn't be so hard to return to it for a little while to make his decision. Though the longer he stayed on the streets here, the more likely he'd be spotted by someone who knew him - maybe even Chris and Jack themselves.

            Finding the building hadn't been easy. He went into a service station at night, looking every bit as bedraggled as he expected to. Sleepless nights in the cold had taken their toll on him.

            When he asked for the address of the nearest agency building, the ferret behind the counter had gotten concerned. Asked if he wanted to stay until they could come pick him up.

            Chase appreciated it. The offer of a warm place to stay that wet night.

            But in no uncertain terms he warned the ferret that he wouldn't take being locked up until some suits picked him up. He wanted to do this on his own terms, alone, and would flee or fight if he had to.

            It wasn't being rude, not to Chase. Even if the way he said it really kind of was. It was prudence. There was no way he was gonna stay trapped in a building with some guy he didn't know.

            Thankfully the dude understood and just gave him the directions. Smiled back nervously when the disheveled young teen shot him a grateful smile.

            Now here he was, too piss-terrified to make the move.

            With a shaking paw, he wiped his overly long, matted, dull-brown head-fur from his eyes. It used to be grayish-white - at the house, they all took showers. Infrequently, but they did bathe. After only a few days on the street, lurking and dashing from place to place, he already felt filthy.

            He didn't like that. Maybe because he was gay - and he had no doubt of that now. But he couldn't find a public restroom to linger in long enough to clean himself up. It made things even more complicated: the dirtier he was, the more he looked like a street kid, the more he had to hide from every single 'concerned' eye in the city.

            Moving at night was almost the only thing he could do at this point, with nothing to do during the day but hang out in alleys or something. Particularly this alley. Stalling. Watching the building he had promised himself he would boldly walk straight into and do what needed to be done.

            Fuck.

            Chase swallowed. He couldn't keep going on like this. He either went in there, or he retreated to another part of town. Too many furs- even cops! - were passing this alley. Many of them worked in the very building he watched for hours each day with trepidation.

            The building's door opened and a fur exited. A vixen with fiery orange head-fur, which she proceeded to cover with a thick hood. She cast a quick glance in his direction and Chase shrank back, hiding behind the ventilation unit. The fox simply turned and started to walk along the street. Chase sighed.

            Close call.

            He shifted back and sat up against the dirty building's wall. A car drove past, its tires splashing wetly along the blacktop. The hissing sound melted into the persistent white noise of the rain.

            What could he do? Was there any way to talk to someone in there without committing himself?

            His father would murder him. Chase was bigger now, but he had no delusions: he was still a small kid. He'd seen far bigger fourteen-year-olds than himself. Two years of lazy, underfed, drunken existence in that house meant that he was anything but muscular.

            Oh, fuck... how would his dad react to that? Underage drinking, smokin' pot... making porno videos with a kit younger than him?

            Oh man... all of this was going to be a problem. What would they all do to him for all that? Jail? A place like the one they sent Nick to?!

            "Excuse me?" a gentle voice called.

            His head snapped up. The hooded vixen stood at the alleyway entrance, ten feet from the ventilation unit. Chase gasped and stood quickly, inelegantly. He stumbled away from her, looking around, even behind himself, evaluating his situation.

            Checking to see if he had been surrounded. If another fur had taken up position at the other end of the alley.

            "It's okay!" the vixen said softly, holding her paws out to show they were empty. "It's okay, I just wanted to say hello." After a second she seemed to understand what he was doing. "It's just me, I promise. You've been coming here for the last three days. I just thought you might want to talk."

            Chase started breathing heavily, the shock jolting his young heart. His flustered brain quickly ran down his options. Eyeing the vixen with hard suspicion.

            She wasn't very big. Then again, neither was he - she was still bigger than he was. Depending on how determined she was, he'd have to give it his all and be vicious.

            The alley behind him was still clear. He could flee. A way better option than fighting.

            She stepped backwards. "It's alright. I just wanted to see if you were okay."

            Chase looked at her, but didn't let his guard down. This could still easily be a distraction or trap. He had been on the streets too long to fall easily for the old tricks.

            "Would you like to come inside?" offered the vixen, a gentle smile on her face. "We're having lunch. If you're hungry..."

            The teen felt his stomach tighten. The last thing he ate was a sausage roll he bought with the little money he'd had. At this rate, his next meal he'd have to acquire through less-legal means.

            But he shook his head, quickly pushing his wet head-fur out of his eyes. It hadn't been cut in years.

            "Okay. But we don't need to stay out here in the rain, do we? Do you want to come inside with me?"

            Chase frowned. "N-no fuckin' way."

            "Okay." The vixen smiled even wider. "We can talk here if you like. How does that sound?"

            Chase sized her up some more. Trying to sense her intent. "You call the cops?" he asked in a trembling voice. Suddenly he realized he was freezing - he only had a t-shirt and pants, no jacket or anything.

            "No. No, of course not. You've done nothing wrong."

            The leopard teen shuffled back a little more, his pulse racing. Words deserted him. He wanted to do this on his own terms, not have one of them come up to him.

            ... He felt he wanted to turn around and run, and several times he felt muscles in his body twitch as if preparing to do so. Urging him.

            The vixen raised her paws again. "Listen, honey, I promise I'm not going to touch you or try to make you come with me. I just wanted to know if you wanted to talk. I promise."

            Chase thought about her words. Mulling them over. It wasn't as simple as being talked out of something; he still had his doubts. His fears. No matter how nice the fox-lady seemed...

            She could still lie.

            "You can ask me whatever you need to know." 

            He stared her right in the eyes for well over a minute. At last he inclined his head to her in a nod. "A-a'ight."

            "Okay. What's your name?"

            "... Chase."

            "Alright, Chase," she replied, her expression warm with compassion, "what do you want to talk about?"

            He trembled for a few more seconds, trying to think what to say. She just waited patiently. Waited for him to work up the courage.

            He took a deep breath, holding it for several seconds before letting it out slowly. The teen forced an almost imperceptible smile.

            "N-nice weather, huh?"

 

            Gary felt sick.

            He'd had three coffees in the last hour. Making the total up to ten in the last thirty-six hours.

            Having set his alarm for quarter to four, he forced himself awake immediately and headed straight to his coffee machine downstairs.

            But now the doc was late. Not by much, but enough that Gary started to worry.

            He had counted so much on talking to the coyote. The one guy he knew he could talk to about this. Now it seemed like he wouldn't be able to make it.

            Or perhaps he was just feeling pessimistic.

            Ultimately, it was good that he had forced himself awake. He felt half-dead, but at least he'd be able to hit the hay at a reasonable time tonight. After spending all of last night and much of the morning wallowing in self-pity, it was at least a little bit comforting to know he wouldn't be going to work exhausted the next day.

            Just as he finished the third coffee, to his uneasy stomach's chagrin, he heard the doorbell tinkle. Standing, Gary made his way into the upstairs guest bathroom and washed his face quickly. Whoever it was at the door didn't deserve to see the visage plastered on the front of his head at the moment.

            It would be a crime.

            Rushing downstairs, Gary composed himself and tugged the front door open. A grinning coyote greeted him.

            "Oh, thank god," Gary exhaled quietly. "Hey doc!"

            "Afternoon!" chortled the coyote. "Good to see you too."

            Gary flushed slightly, though he felt a little too tired to truly be embarrassed. "Sorry. I just needed to talk." He moved away from the door.

            "I gathered." Czejak nodded and stepped inside. "It's okay, Gary."

            "Like I said... no it isn't." Gary sighed and pushed his door shut negligently. "I appreciate this. Even if you charge me weekend rates or whatever. This experiment thing must be driving you nuts."

            "You haven't spoken to my secretary perchance, have you?" grumped the coyote playfully. "It's fine, Gary. I know you have to have things you need to ask."

            "I hadn't heard of a psychiatrist who'd do house calls until I met you." Gary chuckled. "Coffee?"

            "Do you need to ask?"

            As usual, they stood around as the coffee machine growled its way to boiling the water.

            "Was thinking of getting a proper espresso machine..." he said softly, watching as the brown liquid started to drip into the pot. "More effort. Better coffee."

            "I can attest to that. Made the purchase myself not too long ago." Czejak chuckled. "Nothing's better than the latte you made yourself."

            Gary snickered. "I'm more of a flat white kinda guy."

            "You absolutely have to try an affogato." The coyote grinned widely. "Though it makes me feel middle-aged to even know what one is. More than I already feel that is."

            "I've seen them in cafés. Look interesting." Gary sighed. "Um..." Czejak just eyed him. Curious. "H-how's Nick?"

            Czejak nodded slowly. "I thought that might be the problem."

            "N-no... it's just related."

            There was a pause. "Are you sure you want to know?"Czejak shot him a look that said 'you really don't'.

            Regardless, Gary nodded. "Please."

            Czejak exhaled heavily. "Gary... I wouldn't usually talk about other clients..."

            "I know. I-I just wanted to know if he was okay."

            "I'm very concerned." The coyote gave him a wry smile. "I gave him a quick depression test. Nothing very conclusive by itself. But I suspect he's... well, depressed."

            Gary swallowed painfully. "I'd expect that. There's more, isn't there?"

            "Perhaps," admitted Czejak. "Why do you ask?"

            The cheetah smirked - that may have been the most obvious attempt to change the subject, even if only slightly, the psychologist had ever attempted on him. "I... well. I was thinking last night."

            "Oh? I couldn't tell."

            "Behave." Gary chuckled, somehow managing to find the levity within him to appreciate the friendly sarcasm. "I... there's this guy at work. I, um, just realized that I kinda... You know." He glanced at the coyote with shyness inappropriate to a fur his age. He felt like an errant schoolboy again.

            Czejak's eyes sparkled almost mirthfully. "Gary," he reprimanded. "You can say it."

            "Alright. I, uh, have a bit of a crush on him." Gary flushed nervously, his rounded ears flattening slightly. "That's the problem."

            "Oh." Czejak's teasing grin grew wider. "Is that the serval? The one you told me about?"

            Now Gary's face burned, yet he couldn't help but laugh. The coyote seemed to know that he could take a little friendly teasing. It actually helped him to relax, knowing that the words he was afraid of hearing were said, but rendered unthreatening by humor. "Yeah."

            "You feel a little uncomfortable, don't you? With the idea?"

            Gary nodded slightly, reaching out and turning off the coffee machine's hotplate. "Yes..." he said softly. "I got no idea how he'd react to... You know."

            "Gary... You know this fur. Jared, wasn't it?"

            Gary was taken aback. His therapist somehow remembered that name? The name of the guy he'd once told him was a friend at work? And guessed correctly that it was him Gary had a crush on? With everything he did and all the other clients he had?!

            The coyote continued. "It might take some time, but you'll know." There was a pause while Czejak thought. "It isn't just him, is it?"

            "Huh?" Gary blinked, pouring out the coffee. He looked over.

            "You're not just afraid of rejection, are you?" Czejak's expression was that typical gentle, non-judgmental one he almost always wore.

            "No..." Gary poured the two coffees, but stopped before he added the milk. He closed his eyes and sighed. "No. It's... I don't know what to do. If I can handle it."

            "Go on."

            Gary nodded. "Yeah. It's just... I don't know. I don't. I just feel all knotted up. I can't, doc. I can't. One night or whatever is one thing, but a relationship? It's like... signing a contract, or something like that. I don't know if I'm ready to." He paused. "I just feel sick. I don't want to be..."

            "If you are, there is nothing wrong with it." Czejak shrugged. "We have no say in how we were born, Gary. You know that."

            "Being born without any legs doesn't make it any easier to know you've lost them," Gary muttered, stepping over to retrieve the milk from his fridge. "I was just thinking. I have a crush o-on Jared. But I, well..."

            Czejak waited patiently, raising an eyebrow. Gary turned, glancing upwards as he returned to the counter by the coffee machine.

            "Shit." The cheetah rolled his eyes at himself. "I can't lie, doc. This is too fuckin' important. I have... had a crush on Nick too."

            "That's understandable, Gary." Czejak shrugged. "He's a good looking kit. It's no coincidence he was scouted out for those videos."

            Gary winced internally at that. "W-well... I can't, doc. I can't do it. E-either of them..."

            "Gary, think about what you just said to me for a moment," murmured the coyote. "Was this the primary reason you couldn't have Nick here? Because you were afraid of a relationship with him?"

            Gary stiffened. "No!" he yelped, almost dropping the milk. "No, that's not it! I didn't mean that! He..." The cheetah swore and thumped the cardboard container on the countertop. "Maybe I was a little freaked out, yeah, but-! Doc, how could I keep him here knowing he was engaging in fucking survival sex with me?! So I wouldn't send him away?!"

            The coyote nodded. "I'm sorry, Gary. I apologize. It's just how that sounded - do you think that might have been a factor at all?"

            But Gary shuffled slightly. "I couldn't... doc, I... how would that work? Me, his 'dad' and we had that kind of relationship? If he offered could I have said no?"

            "Yes," responded the coyote instantly. "I know you could have. Had you the slightest idea that Nick wasn't interested for the right reasons, you would have stopped instantly. That's precisely why I chose you."

            Gary literally felt his throat close.

            "Do you know how I know, Gary?" the therapist said, eyeing his client sadly. "Because he did offer again, and you had your doubts. You turned him down. But then doubted yourself. You know what you did together didn't hurt him - it only made you closer." The coyote pinched his eyes shut. "Gary... the second time he asked, he only wanted to be close to you. That was his real reason."

            It took several seconds for the words to sink in. By then, Gary was shaking slightly. "W-what?"

            Czejak's expression had gone strangely sheepish and he drew away. "I'm sorry, Gary," he blurted. "I shouldn't have said anything."

            But Gary just stared. It felt like his chest had been shredded apart by a thousand barbed claws. "He... only-? What? Did he say-?"

            Czejak averted his eyes. "I'm sorry. I should go. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to..."

            "No!" Gary gasped. "Wait!"

            The coyote wilted. "I'm sorry. You put his wellbeing and your morality ahead of your desires, Gary. I won't ever challenge that - it's just ironic that this is exactly why I thought you'd be perfect for him." He inched away a little more. "You were right to do what you did."

            "Please, doc..." Gary swallowed thickly. "How is he? I have to know. I'll go fuckin' nuts thinking about it if I don't!"

            "Gary," the psychologist murmured, looking at him again at last. "I don't even know myself. If he wasn't so tightly controlled at the center, I'd be concerned about suicide."

            Gary stepped away. No way. The idea was unthinkable.

            "I don't think it's your fault," added Czejak, smiling wanly. "The staff seem to have been very tough on him since he got back."

            "I sent him back." Gary felt like he was about to throw up. "I built up his trust then broke it. I'm no fucking better than that bastard that abused him."

            "No. Believe me, Gary, you've got a long way to go before you get anywhere near him." Czejak composed himself. "Don't for one second think you're like him. That's the entire problem here: you did not abuse Nick."

            Gary swore.

            Czejak paused for a moment, his eyes going vacant. "The bastard was a monster," he whispered.

            "I can imagine."

            "Can you?" Czejak sniffed, evidently too affected to hide it. "Gary, he threatened to kill Nick, wrap him in a garbage bag and toss him away so nobody would find him. Then he woke him up from time to time, by standing at the bottom of his bed at night and unfurling a garbage bag." The coyote paused for effect. "For months, Nick's days comprised of being beaten with a weapon and forced to sit still in a corner for hours. If he moved even a finger, which would be impossible for him to not do, he would be beaten again, or held under a freezing shower until he couldn't stand for the trembling. That's only what he's told me so far! The only thing sicker than knowing what the monster did is knowing that he might have thought it was for Nick's own good."

            Gary shook all over. "Tell me this motherfucker is in jail."

            "No, Gary. No, he isn't. Because it's his word against Nick's, and Nick... Doesn't. Talk. To. Police. He doesn't talk to anyone about what happened to him. He wants to forget."

            "Why did he do that?" Gary was bewildered. "Why would you do that to anyone...?"

            "Control. Confusion. Destabilization. Leaving Nick so scared and confused that he didn't dare speak out of turn." Czejak's expression darkened. It sent shivers through Gary's spine. "I suspect he was inspired by farcical attachment 'therapy' techniques. Wanted Nick's utter obedience. We're entirely lucky he didn't go even further than he did. So far as we know."

            Gary fell silent. After a moment, he lifted the milk carton and poured a few measures into the coffee mugs.

            Though he tried to seem calm, he knew he was trembling worse than he ever had in his entire life. Even that time he had been caught in a snowstorm in just a t-shirt and jeans - only half an hour down the road from where he stood now, twenty years later.

            "Doc..." he asked softly. "What chance do I have of getting him back? To get him out of there?"

            The coyote thought for a moment. "I don't know. The best anyone has."

            Gary's eyes lost focus. "Will you help me?"

            "With every breath in my body, Gary."

            "We'll see then." Gary took a deep, relaxing breath. It didn't work, not really. "Do you think I should ask Jared out one day?"

            "I believe you'll know very soon. Use your judgment: it's usually very good, I've found. Usually."

            The cheetah snorted. "Yeah. I'll steel my heart, then get down to the store and buy myself some frilly underwear."

            Czejak laughed delightedly. Recovering from whatever emotional turbulence he had been passing through. "Gary, come on!" he snickered, wiping an eye. "Just being gay or whatnot doesn't mean you need to ascribe to a set of silly stereotypes. Just be who you are. Nick understands that - don't you?"

            Gary couldn't hold back a smile.

*

November 23rd

 

            Nick stumbled, trying to push the mop bucket ahead of him with the long, metal handle of the mop itself. The overfilled container rumbled along the tiles until the very edge of it clipped the wall, sloshing soapy water to the shower's floor.

            He hadn't slept for more than a minute of last night. His muscles, still sore this morning, burned with unnatural heat all through the night. A heat that settled somewhere in his head too, made worse because he felt like all the moisture in his body had been sucked out.

            It wasn't like he could knock on the seclusion room's door for a drink.

            Still, he felt more tired than he ever had in his entire life. He had gone without sleep before, getting to a stage where actually falling asleep even when he had the chance was impossible - this was even worse. He spent the night, shirtless, sore and overheating, spread-eagled on the concrete floor of the empty cell. Couldn't even do what he usually did when he was stuck there overnight and slump in a corner to sleep.

            This was the second night in a row he had spent like that.

            After just one set of punishment exercises with the lynx, he was destroyed. Nick couldn't even finish them; the asshole went crazy, but eventually he realized that no amount of yelling and threatening could get Nick to lift his body from the ground, let alone start sprinting.

            The next day had been no different, but that didn't stop them from trying, and Nick found himself throwing up again. Not that they cared. It was torture. They just kept forcing him on until he could do no more.

            Finally, this morning, the possum counselor had roused him from the semi-doze he'd finally managed and informed Nick that he'd be cleaning the showers and bathrooms instead.

            It was strange. This meant he was out of seclusion, and as unpleasant as it would be, it was nowhere near as bad as being made to do fifty pushups.

            On the upside, Nick hoped the pushups would be making him stronger. Maybe later they would, but for now he felt almost kittenishly weak, and his chest just where it met his arms felt like two knives had been stuck into the muscle.

            Manipulating the mop was going to hurt.

            This couldn't be all either. It wasn't like them to let him off easy.

            With a soft, youthful grunt, Nick pulled the mop out and let it splat to the tiled floor. The shower room wasn't very big, though he was going to have to do all four of them, plus the toilets. More than anything, what worried him was the notion he might miss a spot or something.

            The lynx-asshole would go crazy if he decided Nick did it on purpose.

            Nick started to move the soggy mop-head over the slick tiles, losing focus. It wasn't like he really needed to see what he was doing. They'd given him busywork like this before. It just annoyed the heck out of him, really. What else did he have to do? They'd taken his TV away, he didn't want to talk to anyone and he couldn't read.

            But, again, he reminded himself this wouldn't be all. They were definitely going to do something else to him as well - this was too easy.

            Grunting again, he put the mop back in its bucket and moved it along slightly.

            For a moment, he stopped. Swaying on the spot.

            He spaced out briefly, staring unfocusedly at the floor. The episode was brief, but it hit him almost aggressively. Hard and quick. Once again he noticed how remote and far away the few sounds he could hear were.

            Shit... What was going on?

            He was starting to feel weird.

            Like he didn't really care anymore. Almost... Except he did. Kind of like when he got tired or upset and just didn't want to think about anything - only all the time. He couldn't put it into words. He always felt tired, but not sleepy, unable to concentrate and his body just heavy all over. He could still move it, but it felt slightly awkward, especially his long legs and arms.

            He had tried to resist twice now. To fight them. It was pointless. If only they'd stop... Each time they did it again, that overwhelming apathy would return stronger. It wasn't tapering off like before.

            Shaking himself out of the sudden stupor, Nick started the lazy back-and-forth motion with the mop again.

            Fuck this was boring.

            At least in the seclusion room he could try to sleep. Or, if that failed, he had other ways to entertain himself.

            Now he had to pay attention to what he was doing, when all he wanted to do was take a shower himself and pass out in a quiet room. Concrete, mattress, whatever. He didn't give a shit.

            For a brief second he considered hurrying up so he could maybe rest before they came up with another thing for him to do.

            That wouldn't work; it'd just make it more unpleasant. Better to just go at a slow pace. Maybe he could hurry up the first couple, and then do half of the last bathroom. Take a break on the toilets.

            No... there were no doors on the stalls. He'd be caught.

            Shit. Whatever.

            Nick continued to mop. The shower rooms were easy, more or less just one tiled floor. All he was allowed to do was mop with hot water, so they couldn't get him to do much more. The cleaning tasks were usually not given to the orange-shirts. Nick guessed that was because they didn't want to give them any cleaning stuff, like bleach.

            Fine by him, that shit stank.

            When he finished, he pushed the bucket back over to the entrance and stopped. There was a bump on the ground, a raised rubber strip along the entrance that the container of now misty-gray water couldn't go over. He'd have to lift the fucking thing again.

            There was carpeting in the hall beyond too. He'd have to carry the bucket up all the way until he got to the bathroom - meaning, the toilets. Nick never understood why they called it a bathroom. There was not a single bath in there, just shitters.

            He gripped the carrying handle on the yellow bucket and lifted it, the lightweight mop itself still sitting inside. Awkwardly, he hobbled along, weighed down terribly on one side.

            As he rounded a corner, zoning out once again, an object appeared right in his face.

            The collision wasn't particularly rough, but it was enough for Nick to drop the mop bucket and stagger backwards. The bucket fell to its side, slopping the dirty, still steaming water over the carpet, and the bottom half of whatever it was Nick had smacked into.

            "What the fuck?!" yelped an unfamiliar voice.

             Nick looked up and realized he had blindly walked straight into a teenager he'd never seen before: a red panda - a relatively rare breed - of roughly fifteen by Nick's guess, thickly built and tall for his age. Almost adult size, Nick barely came up to just below the teen's shoulders.

            The soaked teen made a noise somewhere between a snarl and a howl, stepping forward and drawing his fist back. Nick tried to pull away, but he was just too slow, his body reluctant to move with speed.

            The surprisingly big fist caught him on the side of the head, sending him toppling backwards to the corridor's wall.

            "You fuckin'-!" the teenager stepped forwards, anger and dismay on his face, with his paw drawn back again.

            Nick stumbled, trying to regain his footing. Trying to get ready to defend himself, even though he knew right from the start that he had no hope against this goliath. In his current state, he doubted he could throw a punch of his own.

            "Hey!" thundered a deep, commanding voice from down the corridor, behind the teen.

            The panda turned to look and noticeably faltered.

            It was the new guard, the leopard that Nick had seen on his first day back. Furious, he stormed right over to them - he was built like a freight-train despite his typically slender species.

            "Get a grip, Kennings!" he snapped, confronting the teen.

            "He fuckin' spilled this shit all over me!" retorted the panda, sounding strangely upset. As if about to cry.

            Nick knew what it was like. With an insight uncommon to kits his age, Nick knew that it was this place that was doing it to them all. Everyone, all the kids at Wilder Springs were under stress. It was so easy to crack like that.

            "He accidentally spilled some water on you," stated the leopard, his eyes narrowing in a manner that brooked no objection. "You deliberately punched an eleven-year-old in the face. You're a fucking idiot if you think that's a fair exchange."

            The teen's eyes watered and he stepped back. Intimidated and shamed.

            But the guard lowered his voice. "I know how it is," he said softly. "It ain't easy for you kids here. But you can't just get pissed off and punch people in the face over nothing. He's half your size, Simon."

            'Simon' actually sniffed and wiped his nose.

             "You're a good kid, I can tell." The guard paused for a moment while Nick watched on in bewilderment. "Glad I caught you before you got even more pissed off and did something you'd regret, right?"

            Nick had never heard a guard talk like that here.

            Simon looked briefly over at him. "Shit... sorry, man."

            For a second, Nick wanted to tell the teenager to fuck off. Retaliate in some way for the attack he had no way to defend against or get revenge for. But instead he shuffled in silence, nursing a sore temple and letting his anger cool - something he knew he wouldn't normally have been able to do.

            He wasn't allowed to talk anyway. He wouldn't make that mistake again.

            The leopard eyed him momentarily, then looked down at the teenager again. "Hit the showers," he murmured softly. "Clean yourself up and get some clean clothes from your room. Okay? We're not gonna mention this again."

            With a quick nod, the teen slipped past Nick and into the shower room the cheetah had just finished mopping.

            When the guard took a few steps towards him, Nick couldn't help but back away.

            "Are you okay?"

            Nick kept his eyes on the adult's shoes - expensive black boots of some kind.

            "You can talk, Nick."

            But Nick's jaw remained tightly shut.

            He was still pissed off, even at the orderly for intervening. It was an accident, and the asshole panda had got clean away with punching him in the skull.

            After everything else, now this? It wasn't fair, fuck!

            The adult looked him over for a few seconds, then straightened up. "Come on, Nick. We gotta get a cold-pack on that."

            Nick hesitated, wary for some reason, frowning at the floor angrily.

            This was bullshit... that asshole... it wasn't fair.

            Fuck him. Fuck everyone.

            His eyes started to water bitterly.

            The bulky orderly smiled at him then. He actually smiled. "Come on."

 

            "Shall I order for you?" a familiar, droll voice murmured, just on the periphery of his awareness. "Or are you going to rejoin us anytime soon?"

            Czejak blinked and shook his head. "Oh, goodness." He realized the waitress was there, waiting on his order. The bored, haughty looking bob-cat lady had one paw on her hip, looking at him flatly. "I'm sorry. Um, I'll go with the cheese and onion omelet, thank you."

            With a sigh that said 'about damn time!' the waitress gave them a perfunctory smile and ambled off.

            "Are you alright, Andrei?" the wood-fox demanded, leaning forwards. "I've seen you distracted before, but this is just ludicrous."

            "I'm sorry," repeated Czejak, straightening up in his chair.

            They had met this time in a little greasy-spoon diner, one they'd never seen before but decided to try anyway. It was quiet, and judging by the behavior of the waitress, Czejak was pretty sure that was due to reputation, not the time of day.

            "So what on Earth possessed you to get out of your office today on your own volition?" Dr. Joshua Hallman asked, his eyes glistening with a dry mirth.

            "Depression," Czejak muttered. "I think my work is starting to get to me again."

            "I was pretty sure it was." Hallman nodded. "If you'll forgive me, Andrei, it's time for you to take a break, or at least take a step back and reevaluate things."

            "I'll try." The coyote smiled slightly.

            "That's not much of a promise."

            "It wasn't meant to be." Czejak sniggered, aware himself of the undertone of tension in his voice. He looked around. "I haven't been to a place like this for a while. Hope I'm not getting out of touch."

            "No, I'm pretty sure that waitress is what we experts would vernacularly call 'a bit of a bitch'."

            "Oh good. Though I suppose it's my fault for spacing out like that." Scratching his muzzle with a single finger, Czejak eyed his friend. "I have to ask you something, Josh."

            "Go ahead. Is it a professional consultation? I charge quite a bit per hour."

            "Oh, that's alright, won't take more than a few seconds," the coyote quipped sardonically. "I need to know if you've heard a certain name."

            "Go for it."

            Czejak twisted and dipped a paw into the coat he had hung over the back of his chair. Withdrawing a small, leather-bound notepad, he leafed quickly through, searching for a specific page. "... Aloraprozine."

            The wood-fox blinked. "That's an anti-psychotic." He frowned. "It's a brand of anti-psychotic registered about sixty years ago. It's not widely used nowadays. Very potent for its day, but with a host of possible extra-pyramidal effects."

            "I'm not entirely familiar with this area. What would it be used for?"

            "The same as most drugs of its class. It was primarily developed for the treatment of schizophrenia and for its calmative, anti-anxiolytic properties." The psychiatrist shrugged.

            "What were the negative side-effects?"

            Hallman frowned curiously. "Again, the same as much of its class. Ranging from difficulty staying hydrated to restlessness to tardive dyskinesia. I honestly don't know much about it; it's been superseded."

            Czejak nodded and put away his notepad. "What would happen if it was given to someone who did not suffer from schizophrenia?"

            "Well, ironically, it could cause a lot of the symptoms of schizophrenia. Notably the apathy, lack of focus, et cetera. Probably hallucinations and nightmares. It's very disorienting and unpleasant to be given this sort of thing by mistake. Mind you, it's not used just for schizophrenia, per se, but any disorders of its kind. It's an effective sedative regardless, so it was used liberally until enough studies had concluded it was ill-advised to administer it unless necessary." Hallman paused. "Sometimes it seems that's sort of the story behind every psychiatric drug on the planet. The tests are all done first of course, but that doesn't stop some from getting creative with their prescriptions."

            "On the topic of physical side-effects again..." Czejak's expression was bleak. "Breathing problems?"

            "Possibly... I don't recall any particular mention of-" The wood-fox's ears perked suddenly. "Aha! No, I remember now. One of the contraindications was asthma or bronchitis." After a second, the wood-fox noticed his friend's gaze had gone flinty. "Is something wrong, Andrei?"

            "What could happen to someone who had chronic asthma..." the coyote enquired, "and was given this drug? Perhaps more than was necessary?"

            "It could trigger an asthma attack, I suppose. Probably nothing that couldn't be handled with a rescue inhaler though. Why?"

            The coyote's jaw had clenched. "I'll tell you later," he said. "This is going to put me off my food if we keep going, and I haven't eaten since last night."

            Hallman blinked and checked his watch. "But it's eleven-thirty."

            "Breakfast sort of slipped my mind." The coyote sighed and passed a weary paw over his face and through his head-fur. For a split second, he looked haggard and much older than his scant forty years. "Been very busy of late."

            "Andrei... go home. You need to rest." But Dr. Hallman knew his friend wouldn't listen. He never did. "You look like death. Anger is not the best fuel to try and run on."

            But when Czejak looked up again, he was composed and smiling slightly. "I can't tonight. I have a rather special appointment in a few hours."

            Hallman exhaled slowly, but nodded. "What kind of appointment?"

            "A party." Suddenly the psychologist gave a wry chuckle. "There won't be many guests, but I have to attend anyway."

            "How many guests?"

            "Oh. Just one. That's why it's so important that I go."

 

            Gary raised the takeaway coffee cup to his muzzle and drained the dregs. They were cold, but he was used to that - working in an office for hours, he had quickly learned to make his coffees last. They were one of the few diversions he permitted himself when he was working.

            He had been working almost feverishly, non-stop since he had sat down in the morning, and he wasn't entirely sure why. Even Gary wasn't that dedicated.

            "How's it coming along?" a voice asked him, called out softly from somewhere across the office.

            Gary twisted around slightly to look over his shoulder. It was his team-leader, an unassuming wolf named Tyrell, standing over at his cluttered workstation with a sandwich in paw.

            "Almost finished..." replied the cheetah, drumming his fingers on the desk. "Say, uh, Tyrell, can I ask something?"

            "You just did." The wolf grinned, adjusting his collared shirt. "What can I do for you?"

            "Uh, if I finish this, d'ya mind if I clock off early?" Gary dared to let a little hope show on his face. This was the first time he had ever asked to get off early.

            Tyrell looked a little surprised. "I guess... It doesn't bother me. I might have to explain where you've gone though; it's a Monday, Randy will ask after you."

            "I just, uh..." Gary frowned. He wasn't even sure why he had asked. He just knew he wanted to get home. "I just have a personal issue I need to work out. I've finished implementing the database and everything else that was in my inbox."

             "Sure, why not?" Tyrell sat down, careful to prevent the egress of the mayonnaise-smothered lettuce that was slowly escaping from his sandwich. "Your nose hasn't left that screen since you got in. Deal with whatever you gotta deal."

            "Thanks." Gary swiveled around again and started typing away again.

            It was scarcely a quarter of an hour later that Gary was satisfied and he quickly shut down his workstation. Within a minute, he had said his hasty goodbyes and was outside.

            It wasn't raining today, though it was overcast and cold. The chill in the air stung his wet nose the instant he stepped through the office's heavy glass door. Each breath produced a lingering, heavy mist and Gary kept his eyes on the wet bitumen as he crossed the mostly empty parking lot.

            Trying his very best to keep his mind empty.

            "Gary!" piped a familiar voice.

            The cheetah looked up, reflexively rubbing at his mottled nose. "Hey, Jared!"

            A grinning serval jogged over to him, holding a coffee in his gloved paws. "Off home early, huh?"

            Gary returned the grin. "Yeah, have never done it before, thought I'd give it a try."

            "You do kinda work a little hard," noted the serval, his expression neutral. "Uh, alright then. I'll see you online, right?"

            "Sure, yeah." Gary adjusted his jacket collar. "I'm, uh, just gonna go home and think about some stuff. Can't really think about it here."

            The younger feline nodded, though his gaze was searching. "A'ight. Cool. Good luck."

            Gary smiled and stepped by, heading directly for his car. Fighting the urge to start jogging. He had to get home. Had to get home and take inventory of his life and everything he'd gotten used to.

            Because he wasn't sure he was ready to do what he had already promised himself he would.

            "Gary?"

            The cheetah looked back over his shoulder, paw reaching for the front door of his green sedan.            "Yeah?"

            The expression on Jared's face was unreadable. "Uh... good luck. I mean it."

            Gary swallowed, watching his coworker, equally impassive. The sounds of traffic continued unabated in the distance and a chill breeze swept over the parking lot.

            "... Thanks." Gary smiled, jerking open his car's door at last. "I might need it."

            "It didn't cost me anything to say." The serval beamed at him for just a second. "See you later."

            "Sure." Gary froze. "Uh... Jared?"

            "What's up?"

            "After work tomorrow, you, uh, want to head to the bar down the road?"

            "Just you an' me, huh?"

            "Uh... yeah."

            "Sounds good. Got nothing else to do."

            With that, Gary slipped into his car, lowering himself quickly to the soft leather chair. Shutting the door, he watched his coworker walk briskly towards the office, seeking shelter from the biting cold.

            After a second, Gary slowly turned his head to look to the front. A grin broke out on his features and he twisted the key in the ignition, resulting in a throaty, deep growl from the engine.

            That had been easier than he thought.

            Maybe he wasn't quite as pathetic as he'd convinced himself for the last twelve years.

 

            It was later in the evening when they came to collect him.

            The leopard guard, whom Nick neither trusted nor understood, had come to his defense. Just before the counselor could rip him a new one, the new guy stepped in and quickly said that Nick was in the medical office on his orders, and that he'd seen the kit get hurt.

            It did little to diminish the hard glare the short possum had directed at Nick, but thankfully nothing more was said. Instead, he ordered the kit to put down the cold-pack and follow him.

            Right back to the seclusion room.

            Worse, when the heavy gray door swung open, that simple school-desk was in the middle of the room, and the lynx was seated next to it.

            Nick had wondered when they were going to get back to this.

            Without a word, the counselor directed him to take the hard, plastic chair on the other side of the desk. Nick felt like lead had been pumped into his veins, but regardless his body moved automatically. This was going to be bad enough; he didn't need to make it any worse.

            Mister Wadlow sat down next to the lynx and interlaced his fingers.

            "I think we can skip the preamble," he said quietly, but with a hard edge to his tone. "I'm not wasting three hours of my time on you again just because you want to be childish, Nick. Do you understand?"

            Nick affixed his gaze on the table just in front of him, as he customarily did.

            "Look at me, Nick," snapped the possum. "I asked you a question."

            The kit winced and slowly forced himself to look up. "Yeah..."

            Wadlow narrowed his eyes and stared. "I'm waiting, Nick."

            Nick's stomach upended. He hated when they did this. He wasn't good at saying these kinds of things... "Yes, sir."

            The possum nodded in what seemed to be approval, and Nick quickly looked down again.

            "Doctor Thornton has asked us to go easy on you, because of your medication." The cold way he said it made Nick shiver. 'Medication'. As if he was just sick. "But that's not going to save you. We've let you off with only doing a third of your punishment exercises, and even let you miss out the regular morning runs. I'm going to ask you just once today. Tell us where your friends are, so we can tell the police, or Mister Hickman here will be taking you through a hundred every day, as well as your regular drills, for the next week."

            The lynx leaned forwards. "At least. That's not counting whatever else I think you need to do."

            "Tell us and you can go back to your room. If you don't, you're in for a very long night."

            Nick wilted as he absorbed what they were saying.

            This was insane. They were gonna kill him if he didn't tell them.

            Suddenly, the lynx's muzzle twisted into a cruel smirk. "Your counselor is coming here tonight. It would be a pity if we told him you weren't able to talk to him, Nick."

            Blinking his eyes, Nick let his head hang. Staring down at the bright orange fabric that clung loosely to his skinny frame.

            His mildly drug-addled mind lost track of time.

            This had to stop. He couldn't take this anymore. If they took away the one person he cared about, he'd kill himself. Or they'd do it for him.

            They'd done it before. Even if they called it an accident.

            It could scarcely have been a minute when a harsh voice growled at him. "Stand up."

            The sound- and the threat- jolted him back into reality.

            "Wait," he whispered weakly, a subtle burn starting just behind his eyes. "A-alright, alright. I'll tell..."

            "We're waiting."

            Then Nick realized a problem. "H-how'm I gonna tell you?"

            The possum looked nonplussed. "What do you mean?"

            Nick wanted to collapse in on himself as his vocabulary failed him. Suddenly, he realized that he didn't really know where his friends and he had lived. He couldn't read, neither maps nor street names, and he had never worried about those things.

            He felt his pulse quicken slightly and his stomach clenched in upon itself.

            Oh shit. They weren't going to believe him!

            "Nick, I told you I don't want my time wasted today."

            Nick tensed all over. "No!" he insisted. "I don't know!"

            Now the lynx sighed angrily. "You said you were going to tell us. Were you lying, Nick?"

            "No!"

            "Fuck's sake." The bulky adult moved to stand up.

            Nick flinched and looked up, his sight blurred by hot tears. "No, wait! I d-don't know the address, man! I swear!" Thinking quickly, he continued, "I can't read! Shit!"

            The lynx eyed him steadily.

            "That's alright." Mister Wadlow seemed unperturbed. "Was there anything near it? Any landmarks? Like a shopping mall?"

            Nick swallowed and nodded. "I think..."

            "Good. Mister Hickman, can you go borrow a laptop from the office?" The counselor looked at the distraught boy across the table. "We'll work this out. You'd better not be trying to lie to us, Nick. You have no idea what'll happen to you if you are."

            Nick just buried his head in his paws.

            This was unbelievable...

 

            A quiet, yet persistent, voice had been nagging at him for the last hour or so.

            Czejak closed his eyes, feeling a strange sensation, something that played on his balance, as if he was falling slowly.

            His stomach was unsettled and his eyes were unpleasantly dry.

            Despite his obvious lack of sleep, he had opted to drive himself to Wilder Springs - and that was no small feat. The camp was remote, though not the most remote of all the facilities he'd ever had to visit, and getting to it had entailed driving for hours in the waning visibility of twilight.

            Hours of driving tired. A momentously stupid thing to do, as the quiet voice kept reminding him.

            The coyote sighed and rubbed his face through his short fur, grabbed his jacket and worked his way out from his car. Making sure to pick up the unmarked, white cardboard box from the passenger seat. Tucking the basketball-sized container under an arm, he walked towards the facility.

            It was a chilly evening, dark already at six o'clock, and the minimal parking lot was empty. Czejak was glad they at least had a parking lot here. He was getting a little too old to be trekking for twenty minutes just to get to an appointment.

            It was strange, he reflected, just in how many ways this prison, harsher than most government juvenile detention centers the coyote had visited, resembled a high school. High security fences, complete with vicious razor wire; security checkpoints; lockable doors that compartmentalized the entire facility...

            Come to think of it, they didn't have metal detectors at every entrance and exit like so many schools did now.

            That was a disturbing thought. High schools with more security than a high security lockdown residential facility.

            He was greeted at the front office, none too warmly, by one of the counselors who simply directed him to sign in and head to the interview room. The facility was mostly quiet. It was likely most of the kids were in the refectory, eating the last meal of the day before evening exercises and bed.

            As he traversed the corridors, a teen staggered past him, being roughly pushed ahead by an orderly. Neither met Czejak's gaze, though Czejak noticed the youth's face was covered in blood and worse. He was sobbing quietly as the adult directed him to what seemed like the medical office - something about their demeanor told the coyote louder than words that the orderly had probably caused that busted nose himself.

            A welcome sight stood by the interview room door. The leopard orderly, clad in basic street-clothes of functional black pants and a white shirt, lounged against the wall looking pensive.

            "Hullo," said the coyote, smiling.

            "Good evening." Karl returned the smile only briefly. "He's waiting for you."

            "Alright."

            "He's had a bad day." The leopard exhaled slowly. "Alright. My break's over in two minutes. Good luck."

            Czejak raised an eyebrow. "You spent your break just standing here?"

            "Nah, just thought I'd check in on him." The guard thumbed in the direction of the door. "He got a bit banged up earlier, just wanted to make sure he was alright. He can tell you about it."

            "Alright. Thank you."

            "No problem. Good night."

            With that, Czejak stepped forwards and knocked politely on the door. Receiving no answer as usual, he twisted the handle and pushed it aside.

            Yet again, Nick sat slumped forwards, resting his head upon his arms. Slowly, the kit looked up.

            "Evening, Nick," said Czejak, moving over to the table and setting down his briefcase and the white cardboard box. "How're you today?"

            Nick looked down again.

            "Hm." The coyote sat down. "Are you feeling any better?"

            There was a minute of silence, and Czejak knew something was wrong immediately. When Nick raised his messy, spiky-haired head again, the cheetah kit was crying. Or rather, his eyes were watering.

            His expression was somewhere on the far side of despairing.

            "I told them," the kit quavered. "Where they were."

            Czejak blinked. "Oh." For the first time ever, the coyote was sure he saw a trembling lip. But Nick fought it away - whatever it was, a compulsion to cry, or to speak, he fought it away. "Nick? Is something wrong?"

            Nick swallowed hard and wiped clumsily at his face. Again Czejak got the impression he was struggling to say something. By itself, that was nothing new; Nick often struggled to say simple things like 'please' or 'sorry'...

            The cheetah boy's breathing was choppy and he fidgeted restlessly.

            "What is it?" Czejak urged gently.

            "I-I'm sorry... f-for lying," Nick mumbled at the table. There was no inflection in his words. No energy. No life. "I'm a bad k-kid."

            Czejak eyed the disheveled kit sadly.

            Nick sniffed and rubbed his nose lethargically on his wrist. He didn't seem sure what to say next. "I don't wanna be like this."

            "Then don't be." The coyote cast a venomous glance at the microphone equipped camera in the corner of the room. "Nick, what happened?" Nick said nothing. Didn't even move. "Nick? Talk to me, please. It's okay."

            At last, the kit shifted slightly. "They don't even care about me," he whispered, "right?"

            "I don't know, Nick. I'm sorry, but I'm not concerned about them right now." Leaning forwards, Czejak lowered his voice. "They told you to say this, didn't they?" Nick inclined his head slightly. "Well, I'm sorry, but I need the old Nick back. Is he still there?"

            Nick's bony shoulders sagged even more somehow. "What's the fuckin' point...?"

            "Nick..." Czejak's features softened.

            He'd never seen the prickly cub like this before. The staff must've come down on him like an avalanche.

            And Gary's apparent rejection had probably made it all the worse.

             Nick swayed slightly in his chair, his head unsteady upon his neck. His eyes looked red and raw, blearily unfocused.

            An idea, a suspicion, suddenly came to the psychologist and he looked at the kit sharply.

            Thinking fast, he grabbed his pen and a notepad from his briefcase and started scribbling nonsense in indecipherable shorthand. Before he'd finished three sentences, the coyote pressed the tip of the silver pen into the paper and flicked his fingers slightly - sending the pen skittering across the table noisily.

            Nick started belatedly, watching in surprise as the implement spun across the desk and off the edge to land on the carpet just behind him.

            "Oops," Czejak said cheerily. "I'll get it."

            Nick was visibly confused, but didn't say anything as the adult slinked past him to retrieve the pen.

            The kit almost missed it when the counselor spoke. It was a hushed tone, almost inaudible even in the quiet room, and directed at the floor rather than at him.

            "Are they drugging you?" hissed the coyote, kneeling and pretending to be unsure where the pen landed. "Injections? Nick? Quickly."

            Nick shifted in his chair, watching his therapist uncertainly.

            "Nick!" Czejak realized it would look suspicious if he continued the pathetic ruse, so he grasped the pen and reached up to take the back of Nick's chair to aid his stiff legs in pulling himself upright.

            The kit instinctively cringed away from the paw on his chair.

            As he moved around the table to his chair again, Czejak kept his eyes on the boy's face.

            Those gray eyes were wide and darting, flicking, all over the coyote's face. Nick was scared to answer.

            As he sat down, Czejak lifted his eyebrows expectantly, urging an answer. His skin was prickling under his fur already.

            Nick gave a quick nod, and a paw went to his thigh unconsciously. "Don't do anythin'..." he whispered softly.

            "We'll see..." muttered Czejak darkly, suppressing an abrupt surge of anger.

            It made sense now. All of it.

            The kit hid his muzzle with a paw and looked away. "I dunno wha' to do..."

            "Neither do I, Nick..." Tears threatened Czejak's own eyes, but he pushed the sadness away. Instead, he sought all his anger and frustration and clung to that. "You need to decide, Nick. Do what's easier for you."

            The cheetah boy had no response.

            "Nick." Czejak hesitated. "I won't be able to come back for a week or so. I'm sorry."

            "... Why?"

            "I have a lot to do. I've got a lot of other kids to visit. Some of them are here too, in fact. I know you're going through a hard time, but unless something happens, it'll be at least a week until I see you again. I can't just ignore the others."

            Nick stared at him unblinkingly. "A'ight." His voice was numb, but Czejak knew the kit wasn't impressed.

            "Be strong, okay? I'll be back before you know it. Stay out of trouble and all that nonsense." The coyote smiled. "But until I have to go, let's talk about something happier."

            Nick shot him a dead, hopeless look that challenged his counselor to think of something he'd find happy.

            Czejak drummed his fingers on the white box. "You don't happen to feel different, do you?" he asked mysteriously. "Perhaps a little older?"

            Nick cocked an ear. "... What?"

            The psychologist chuckled. "It's November 23rd, Nick. Happy twelfth birthday."

            A dumbfounded stare. Czejak just grinned a little wider and opened the box, withdrawing a small chocolate mud-cake on a stiff paper plate. It was smothered in runny chocolate syrup - lots of chocolate syrup. "Sorry there are no candles," the coyote apologized lightly. "Apparently I'm not allowed to bring matches or anything in here. We don't need that though, do we?"

            Nick stared at the cake. "... Birthday?" he repeated weakly.

            "Uh-huh." Czejak gestured at the chocolate drenched object, sliding it a little closer to the kit. "I made it myself, believe it or not. I wasn't sure what you liked, so I just went with 'drowned in chocolate' flavor. I know I used to like it."

            But Nick's expression was blank, his ears pinned down flat. "Twelve...?" All of a sudden, the kit's face twisted in dire anguish and he fell forwards. "Shit!!"

            Czejak blinked in astonishment. "Nick?"

            With a broken sob, Nick started to cry - quietly. Reaching out blindly, the kit pushed the cake away, covering his fingers in wet, sticky chocolate, and then buried his head into his forearms again.

            After a minute, Czejak tried again, forcing the concern from his voice. "What's wrong, Nick?"

            Nick looked up despairingly and shook his head. "Six..." he moaned, scarcely intelligible. "Fuuuuck!"

            "Six?" exclaimed Czejak, lost. "Six what?"

            Nick fell forwards again, sniffing pathetically over his arms and the table's unyielding surface. "Six years..."

            Czejak literally felt the blood drain from his face. He stared in dismay at his charge. "Not," he said in a voice too calm to be natural, "if I have anything to say about it."

            But already he was asking himself: did he?

 

 

End of Chapter Five

 

 

- Kichigai Kitsune, 2012



Hammerfist 2 years ago 0
Goddamn. If your intention with this chapter was to get me to cry like a baby all the way through, you've been wildly successful. I suppose it's the mark of a good author that you make me emotionally invested in your characters, but I'd appreciate a happy ending once in a while. Seriously though, damn good story. Keep it up and for fuck's sake, hurry with the next chapter.
KichigaiKitsune 2 years ago 0
Heehee! This hobby is making me strange. It's not often that I grin happily when someone tells me I made them cry. New chapter is out, obviously!
TheDarkGod 2 years ago 0
Great story. Yeah Gary and Nick should be together again as clearly they like each other a lot and also they miss each other.

Czejak , I can tell is opening his own investigation into the death of Nick's former friend Evelyn. As well as Nick's own treatment at the facility.

Will Gary go looking for the little shit that abused Nick? Because the way he reacted sounds like he wants to.
ozknine 2 years ago 0
woah....That almost had me in tears at some point. Well done on yet another successful chapter. Can't wait to see what happens next. There is nothing that I can suggest you improve in this story, as the saying goes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." And anyone who does suggest you improving this story, obviously doesn't know what makes a good author.

Thanks for the read :)
KichigaiKitsune 2 years ago 0
Thank you, though I'm sure I'm gonna be doing a lot of changes when I go through for the final editing sweep. *ulp* Definitely the least appealing part of writing. I'm so glad that people seem to be enjoying it as it is now - as I always say, you're pretty much reading second-drafts or so at best. It won't be finalized until I've finished every chapter and I go through it as a single novel.
forfildur 2 years ago 0
Yes the powerful emotions that you control in these stories, very well done. I start imagining what I want to do with these poeple that do not care for human life. I know what's it's like to be bullied around day after day, to the point to do not know if you want to keep wasting your time trying any more. But I never went through the things Nick is portrayed as going through, I hope he has the character nature in him to persevere through this, but fully understand if he doesn't. Awaiting what happens next.........nibbles finger nails.........
KichigaiKitsune 2 years ago 0
Thanks. Don't worry, there will always be some measure of justice. At least in my stories, I don't know about real life. :3
takumadog 2 years ago 0
hey i love nick and gary maybe you see that they what they need
Golden Puppy 2 years ago 0
Bloody hell. Kind of like a soap opera though. Still a good read.
KichigaiKitsune 2 years ago 0
=C

... Everybody needs good cheeetaaahs, to be there for one anoootheeer...
ozknine 2 years ago 0
ahaha it's better than a soap opera. neighbours annoys the hell out of me. same as home and away.