Stranger woke before dawn. It was best that he left now, before anyone tried to stop him. This was something he had to do alone.
He struggled into his pants. Binding four legs into the shape of two seemed harder each time he did it, and not just because the Grubbs saw that he was better fed than in his solitary life before. He slung his bag over his shoulder, checked his crossbow and set out.
Frayda caught up with him before he was out the gates of Last Legs. “Steef, you don’t have to do this.”
“Yeah, I do. Tired of… hiding.”
“You don’t have to do it alone.”
He didn’t meet her eye. “Wouldn’t want you… getting’ hurt. I’ll be back when I’ve got this… sorted.”
A couple of dozen Grubbs had gathered by this point. As they watched him walk away, one near the back nudged his friend and asked, “D’you think he’ll come back?”
“Oh, yeah. Anyone with that look on their face comes back.”
“But what about when Mark said he was going to have it out with them Wolvark- ow!”
“He’ll be back,” he repeated.
Stranger walked awkwardly into the new doctor’s office and dropped a bag of Moolah on her desk. She didn’t so much as glance up as she emptied the bag onto her desk, counted the contents, and swept the lot into a draw.
Stranger never felt so much like a curiosity than when the Vykker did look at him; a butterfly pinned to a cork, a specimen under the scalpel. He snatched the contract from her and glared at the paper to avoid having to meet her eye.
“Just sign the thing,” the doctor grumbled. “It just means your nearest and dearest can’t sue me if you die on the slab. I don’t want to get strung up like the last doctor in these parts.”
Odd, her voice was grating. His eyes skipped over a clause then doubled back and painted the words across his brain.
“Why do you want that?” His claw pinned the contract to the desk as he pointed out the offending clause.
“What does it matter? You won’t be wanting them.”
Stranger growled and loomed at her. He was good at looming.
“Fine. Steef are a game species and more valuable for being endangered. Your DNA is valuable. If I can find a male Steef – another male Steef,” she corrected herself. “Then that’s my retirement paid for.”
Stranger glared at her for a few more seconds, but what choice did he have? He needed this, and it wasn’t like he’d ever planned on bearing a child anyways.
He scribbled something illegible at the bottom of the document.
“Thank you.” The contract was stowed in the desk and he was shepherded into the operating room.
He lay with some reluctance on what passed for an operating table, trying to avoid the areas with the worst staining.
The doctor turned back to him with a syringe in hand. “This won’t hurt a bit,” she said with more accuracy than kindness.
He bit back a yelp as the needle sunk in and glared at her for a few moments until unconsciousness welled up and dragged him into darkness.
Reality came back slowly and painfully. Stranger remembered waking briefly, the room changing between light and dark between those few confused moments of recollection.
“Damn, doc. D’you perform surgery with a sledgehammer?”
“Oh, you’re awake,” she said in the same tone one might use to comment on the drizzle. “If you can walk, you can go. Do you still have the notes I gave you?”
“Yeah.” Frayda had pinned the damned thing above his bed. There was no chance of him going against doctor’s orders even if he had wanted to.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Stranger stopped with his pants around his hooves.
“What part of ‘no pressure on the site’ did you not understand? Don’t bind your legs for the next couple of months if you know what’s good for you.”
“What’s good for me is not being hunted… for a damn trophy.”
“You had the option of leg surgery. It’s not my fault looking like a male Steef mattered more to you.”
“I am a… male Steef.”
“And now you have to deal with that. But I don’t want you running from an angry mob three days after surgery.” She thought for a moment. “Tell you what, I’ll let you out the back way after dark.”
It was sunrise before Stranger came within sight of Last Legs. A moonlight run wasn’t what the doctor had meant by light exercise, and it was a struggle, by that point, just to put one hoof in front of the others. It was made easier by the Grubbs running to meet their Steef, and especially by Frayda, who changed his bandages and cleaned his wounds.
Later, Stranger rolled his eyes when he heard her telling the young ones that the scars on his chest had been won in battle. She looked across at him. “It’s true. There is no greater victory than in the battle to be your true self.”