The Gate

Chapter 3

I was greeted the next morning by the sound of Kristen chuckling to herself, followed by a loud 'Click!'  Opening my eyes, I saw her standing in the doorway with a camera.  "That was so cute, I just had to get a picture." She grinned at me.  "Huh?" I yawned quizzically, utterly confused by the proceedings.  Handing me a mirror from the dresser, Kristen pointed out that "It looks like Sasha pounced you!"  Looking at my reflection, I saw what she meant: the little plush fox had triumphantly taken up residence on top of my head, with her front paws hanging over between my ears, giving the impression of a victorious conqueror.  Groaning, I relocated her on top of one of the pillows, before playfully tossing another at Kristen.

Catching it lightly, she laughed "A little grumpy are we this morning?  Come on…It was a great picture." Yawning widely, I rubbed my muzzle absentmindedly before getting up and padding into the bathroom.  Sleepily I splashed cold water on my face in the vain hope of waking up a little bit more.  "It's going to be one of those days…" I predicted to myself as I joined Kristen at the breakfast table.

Sitting down at the table, I absentmindedly started in on my breakfast.  Picking at the plate of cinnamon rolls set before me, I sipped my orange juice.  "Is something wrong?" Kristen asked curiously, noticing that I was acting differently.  "Not really." I shrugged "I guess I'm just having trouble getting started today…"  "You just need a good, hearty breakfast." She decided, pushing the tray of rolls in my direction "Low blood sugar will do that you know."  Helping myself to another roll, I observed that "If I eat too many more of these, I'll end up with more sugar than blood."  "See, now you're waking up." Kristen nodded, then leaned over the table, putting her nose against mine. "Hello!" she laughed, staring into my eyes "I know you're home in there, I can see you moving!"  Smiling despite my best efforts not to, I rolled my eyes at her.  "There, see.  We're finding coherency in there somewhere!" Kristen laughed, before finishing her breakfast.


By the time we had arrived at work, I was in a much more positive frame of mind.  Humming to myself, I dropped by the labs in search of Chris, eventually catching up with him.  "I've got a beta version of the software ready to test." I informed him.  "We don't have the test hardware built yet." He shrugged "It probably won't be ready for a couple more days."  "Oh." I nodded, a bit disappointed that I couldn't find out if everything worked right yet. "Well, that kind of puts a crimp in my productivity for a while." I mused "Guess I'll go ask Kristen if they have anything that needs doing during the interlude…" Laughing, Chris recommended that "You should ask her for time off instead!" as I headed back to the offices.

Kristen was in her office, but was on the telephone when I arrived.  "…Okay, yes.  I'll bring him along to the meeting if you would like.  All right…I'll see you then…" Hanging up, she turned to me "That was the board."  "Is that good or bad?" I questioned curiously.  "Good." Kristen explained "They're very pleased with our work.  'Below budget' and 'ahead of time' are two phrases that make them very happy."  "So you have to meet with them again today?" I asked, wondering if she would have time to go out to lunch.  "We actually.  They're interested in talking with you."  "Ah." I replied, obviously not enthusiastic about that proposition.  "What's wrong with that?" Kristen questioned, sensing my sudden discontent.  "In my experience, when a board of directors takes specific interest in a low-level employee bad things are going to happen." I explained "So drawing attention makes me nervous."  "I think you'll be pleasantly surprised." She assured me.

"So, what did you need to begin with?" Kristen asked.  Explaining about the lack of test hardware for my program, I awaited further instructions.  "Well," she shrugged "maybe see if Russell needs any help interfacing his work with your programs.  You can ask him about that after our meeting."  Getting up, Kristen headed for the break room.  "We're supposed to meet them in fifteen minutes, so I'm going to grab some coffee first." She explained.


Flopping down on one of the chairs in the break room, I listened to Kristen complain.  "There's never any coffee." She groused, turning the empty pot upside-down to demonstrate her point.  "Honestly, you would think that I'm the only person around here who knows how to work this thing…" After fiddling around with  it for a few minutes, there was the audible sound of water running inside the machine.  "There," Kristen announced, quite pleased with herself "That's better!"  Grinning a little bit, I decided to be a pest.  "You know that we'll have to leave for that meeting before the coffee is done." I pointed out as she was digging through the cabinets in search of a mug.  "That's what you think." She grinned back, rinsing out a cup she had produced "I can always pour myself some before it finishes brewing!"  "Have you ever tried that before?" I asked, amused with the thought of the inevitable results of her idea.  "No, why?" Kristen shrugged, deftly swapping her mug for the coffeepot on the machine's hot plate.  "No reason." I replied with an evil twinkle in my eye "I was just curious."

"And…There!" Kristen declared triumphantly, extracting her cup from the machine while only spilling a few drops onto the hot plate.  "See, it can be done.  And now I get to enjoy some nice, fresh, hot coffee!"  Triumphantly, she held her mug in the air, then theatrically took a sip.  Pausing as the first drops of liquid hit her tongue, a puzzled expression crossed her face, then, screwing up her muzzle in a look of disgust, she swallowed the coffee with the greatest difficulty.  "That," she coughed, dumping the rest of her cup into the sink "is some of the foulest stuff I've ever drunk!"  "I told you so." I smiled sardonically.  "If you don't let it run all the way through, it ends up undrinkably strong."  Remembering an appropriate quote, I added, "It’s only good for two things, degreasing engines, and killing brain cells…"

Sighing loudly, Kristen dropped some coins into the vending machine, and selected a soda instead.  "I think I'm going to make it department policy to fire anyone who doesn't re-fill the coffeepot…" she decided, only half joking "Well, we probably should head over to the conference room.  It's not a good idea to keep upper management waiting, you know…" Slowly extracting myself from the armchair, I hazarded the opinion that she was probably right about that.  After dropping her half-finished soda into the refrigerator, Kristen took my paw, and led me back down the hallway.


"The board room is across the building from our department." Kristen explained as we got into the elevator.  "On the one hand, it's nice because we don't get dropped in on unexpectedly like some of the departments which are closer, but it is a bit of a walk when one is summoned…"  "Does that happen a lot?" I wondered as Kristen pushed the button for the third floor, and the elevator doors slid silently closed.  "On occasion." She shrugged

Leaving the elevator, we went down the maze of corridors, eventually arriving at an impressive set of wooden double doors, set with panes of frosted glass.  "Well, here we are." She announced.  Stepping forward, I opened the door, holding it for Kristen, then following her through into the room.  The conference room was in one of the building's corners, and the full-length windows along the outer walls gave an impressive view of the surrounding area.  Resisting the urge to go sight see, I instead focused on the people I found myself standing before.  The room was dominated by an imposing mahogany conference table, with high-backed leather office chairs placed at intervals along the length of the table.  Seated at the far end were the six board members.

"Come in, come in.  Pull up a chair and make yourselves comfortable." Greeted a distinguished looking older wolf, waving us to our seats.  Sitting down next to Kristen, I surreptitiously took in the other members of the board.  Besides the older wolf, there was a tigress of about the same age, and a second, younger looking wolf.  On the other side of the table sat a raccoon of indeterminate age, a grizzly bear with streaks of gray just beginning to appear in his fur, and a vixen of similar age and countenance.  They all seemed to be friendly enough, but I still couldn't help but be a bit nervous in front of this particular audience.  Sensing my apprehension, Kristen gave my paw a reassuring little squeeze underneath the table.

"So you're the new systems designer." The bear stated "We've been looking forward to making your acquaintance.  Ms. Whitepaw has told us so much about you."  Not quite sure what to say, I just nodded nervously.  "We don't bite you know." The tigress laughed, trying to put me more at ease.  Then, glancing teasingly at the bear added as an afterthought "Well, Joseph might, but only if he hasn't been fed recently…"  "You just don't know how to enjoy a good meal." Joseph shot back, puffing up in mock indignation.  Sensing that the conversation was rapidly getting off course, the raccoon brought it back around to the subject at hand.

"We have reviewed the work overview and progress reports you've submitted" He began "and we're very pleased with what we've seen.  Thanks to your efforts in the last couple of days, it looks like the project may not run past its deadline like we originally feared."  "The program still has to be tested." I cautioned "It would be a little bit premature at this point to assume that everything will work as we intend it to."  "Of course" the vixen shrugged "nobody expects it to work perfectly the first time that you test it.  That's not the point, the point is that we appreciate the extra effort that you and the rest of your team has put out to make the project a success."  "That's good to know." I nodded.

"So," the younger of the two wolves began, changing the subject "Kristen tells us that you moved rather abruptly when you took the position with us."  Startled by his comment, I glanced over at Kristen, who, predicting my question, gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head.  I was immediately relieved that they apparently didn't know all the details of just how abruptly I had moved.  Deciding that the best policy would be to not provide any information that I didn't have to, I shrugged.  "I didn't have as much notice as I would have liked to have had, and consequently there were a few…difficulties."  Hearing Kristen squelch a laugh, I continued humorously "It required a lot of changes in my life, and there was a period of adjustment while I was getting used to all of the new things that just sort of grew around me during the move."  As I said 'grew' I playfully tickled Kristen's leg under the table with my tail, making her erupt into a fit of giggles that she only just managed to disguise as a coughing fit.

"The city can be a little confusing, but I'm sure you'll get used to it soon enough."  The older wolf smiled, misunderstanding completely. "A lot of people who move here from smaller communities have the same problems."  Wisely, I decided that it would probably not be a good idea to comment on how that wasn't entirely true.  "Have you located an apartment yet?" The tigress questioned "I've heard that nice housing is difficult to find right now."  "Well, he was staying at my place until he found an apartment, but it worked out so well we've decided to keep it as a permanent arrangement."  Kristen explained.  Smiling, I added "I'm not really sure how it happened, but we're together now."  "Oh, that's lovely." The tigress said approvingly "You two make such a cute couple!"  Blushing, I shuffled my paws under the table in embarrassment.

"We've decided that a reward is in order." Joseph began "And, since you've really not got that much to do until the test equipment is finished, the board thought that we would give you a couple of days off.  Take a vacation, enjoy yourselves.  You too Kristen, Jackie was worrying that you've been working too hard lately."  "I'm still needed here." Kristen objected, not comfortable with the idea of leaving in the middle of a project.  "Now no arguing." The tigress admonished "You kids just go and spend some quality time together.  Maybe go on a trip, that sounds nice, doesn't it?"

"Sure." I smiled "A little day trip somewhere would be fun."  Nodding her agreement, Kristen added "I wouldn't really mind getting out of town for a bit either."  "Then it's settled," Joseph nodded, as he showed us to the door.  "You two have fun, and don't worry about work.  Everything will be fine here."


As the doors of the conference room closed behind us, I looked at Kristen and asked "So, where would you like to go on vacation?"  Shrugging she decided "We can figure that out this evening.  Right now I have to go finish some last minute things."  Returning to our corridor, I bid Kristen adieu, then went back to my office to do some planning.  Sitting down at my computer, I began looking at various travel sites.  Nothing particularly caught my eye, and before too long I grew bored with it.  "It doesn't really matter much to me where we go." I decided, pushing my chair away from the desk and standing up "It will be nice to spend the time with Kristen…"

Walking over to my window, I sat down cross-legged on the floor, leaning on the side of my desk as I stared through the full-length plate glass.  Outside I could see the wind blowing through the tops of the trees, rustling the sun-dappled leaves, and in the background, I could make out the twinkle of light reflecting off the waters of a distant lake.  "It's a beautiful day out." I thought to myself happily.  Closing my eyes, I could imagine myself out there among the trees.  The feeling of the sun, warm on my fur, and the smells of the pines and the lake.  "Nick?" A voice interrupted my reverie, followed by the slight rustling of Kristen sitting down next to me.  "Are you doing all right?" she questioned, rubbing me behind my ears.  "Uh huh." I nodded, opening my eyes and tilting my head quizzically as I looked into her eyes.  "Why?"  "Well, I don't usually find you hiding behind your desk…" she laughed.

"I'm not hiding." I shrugged "I just sort of sat down here and I was looking out the window."  Nodding, she turned towards the window too.  We sat quietly for a time, just enjoying one another's company.  Finally Kristen got up with a sigh.  "I've got something to attend to." She lamented as she headed for the door "But why don't we take off early today and go to the park?"  "That would be nice." I agreed as she disappeared back into the hallway.

"And I still don’t have anything to do…" I mused to myself.  Sitting in my desk chair, I debated going down to the labs and seeing how the test equipment was coming, but I eventually decided that it would probably annoy Chris and Shelly to have me looking over their shoulders while they worked, so for the sake of diplomacy I ruled out that idea.  Then, wandering towards the break room, I ran into Russell.  "Nick! Just the person I was hoping to see."  He laughed "I was going to ask you some questions about your programs so I can clarify some issues with the interfaces."  "I'll be happy to help." I nodded as I followed Russell to his office. 

"Grab a chair." He offered, leading me in to a room adorned with posters of outer space.  Looking around with interest, I saw that a great deal of care had been placed in their arrangement.  Then, looking up, I noticed a large mobile of a solar system hanging from the ceiling.  "Is that us?" I questioned, indicating the mobile.  "Yep." The raccoon nodded.  "That's us, and all of this…" he waved expansively at the posters "…is that which surrounds us."  Seeing my interest he explained "It's all actually accurate to scale, and everything is in it's relative space.  Well, except for the floor.  I was going to do that, but Kristen didn't think the building manager would like me tearing up the carpets to put in a Plexiglas cover."  Shaking my head solemnly, I hazarded that he probably wouldn't have appreciated the artistic merit of such an installation.  "Anyway," Russell shrugged, getting back to the subject at hand "about that program…" 

After we had gone over various aspects of the program's hardware interfacing for an hour or so, Russell decided that I had pretty much answered all his pressing questions."  "By the way" He asked as I was preparing to return to my office "you really should make up separate names for the different variants of the AI programs.  It would make things a lot easier to be able to refer to them individually.  And since it's your program, you should get to name them!"  "Okay." I nodded, thinking for a minute.  "The initial two incarnations of it will be HAL and DAVE."  "Any particular reason?" Russell asked, looking at me a bit curiously.  "Not really, no." I grinned.  "At least nothing important."  "You're one strange fox." Russell informed me, before dismissing it. 

"Want to go have lunch?" I asked Russell as we were finishing up "Everyone else seemed insufferably busy, and I hate to eat alone."  "I'd like to" he shrugged "But I was going to meet Shelly and Chris for a working lunch.  You can join us if you'd like."  "I'll pass." I decided "If you were planning on a working lunch I'd be getting in the way of things.  But hey, why don't we take a rain check on that and plan on some time later in the week?"  "Sure."  Russell agreed.  "Great!" I nodded as I gathered up my papers and headed out the door "So I'll see you a little bit later then…"


As I walked back to my office, I was feeling a little bit depressed about not having anyone to eat lunch with.  Smiling and shaking my head to myself, I thought back to my old job at the lumberyard.  Back then it was quite the opposite.  Rather than going out of my way to find people to eat lunch with, I would always take my lunch and go out to one of the more isolated storage barns to eat so that I wouldn't have company while I ate.  "Things sure have changed." I thought to myself.  "I'm doing work that is a challenge, instead of a mundane routine, I like my co-workers, and seek out their company, and I'm in a relationship with the most wonderful woman I could have ever hoped for."  Then, as an afterthought, I added "And I've got a tail!"  Glancing up and down the hallway to make sure nobody was around, I gave the appendage in question a quick hug.

"Wonderful, fuzzy things, tails are, aren't they?"  A female voice behind me said cheerfully.  "Uh huh."  I laughed, turning around to find that Jackie was standing in her office door.  "If I knew they were this great, I would have grown one a long time ago."  "I was just going to go down to the cafeteria for lunch, want to come with me?" Jackie offered "I brought plenty of extra food…"  "Sure." I nodded "I was just going down there anyway."  As we walked down the hallway, she informed me that "Kristen said she would meet me down in the cafeteria a little bit later."  "Any idea where she is now?"  I asked, holding the cafeteria doors for Jackie.  "Yes, she mentioned that she had to take care of a few things before going on her board-inflicted vacation."  Nodding, I sat down across the table from her.

"I'll be right back." I explained, standing up "I've got to go get my lunch…"  "Oh, that's not necessary, I brought you something for your lunch today." Jackie informed me, unloading food from a large paper bag she set between us on the table.  "Well, I can't argue with that." I laughed, watching as she set out a sizable lunch onto a tray before sliding it across the table to me.  Examining the selection, I found that my lunch consisted of a large ham sandwich, with a rather generous pile of assorted trimmings added for good measure.  Also included was a fruit salad, French fries, and a cookie for dessert.  "It looks good." I complimented appreciatively as I dug into the sandwich.  "See, healthy foods aren't necessarily unappetizing, are they?"  Jackie smiled as I devoured my meal.

"Oh no!" I joked "I should have seen a moral hiding behind the food!"  "Too late now." She grinned back, starting in on her own lunch.  Sniffing, I declared "Hey!  Your sandwich is different from mine!  How come you don't have to eat healthy foods too?"  "Mine is a chicken sandwich, not a ham one.  Kristen mentioned that you don't care for chicken, so I made yours ham instead."  Jackie explained patiently.  "That was very considerate of you." I nodded seriously.  "Well, I try." She joked "Even if some people are hard to please…"

Changing the subject, Jackie asked me "So, how have you been feeling lately?"  "A lot better, thanks." I explained, sipping my iced tea "I'm not tired as much as I was, and I think that I'm a lot more cheerful too."  "That's good." Jackie nodded, staring intently at my eyes.  "Say 'aahhh' please."  Not wanting to risk another scene like the other day, I complied readily.  After a brief examination, Jackie was apparently satisfied, sitting back down and finishing her lunch.  "Well," she explained between bites "I believe that you've got a pretty clean bill of health.  You still should avoid exerting yourself for a little longer though."  Nodding my agreement, I began to nibble the corners of my cookie.  As an afterthought, she added, "Have you been having any other symptoms?  Ringing in the ears maybe, or dizziness?"  "Nope." I shrugged, finishing up my cookie "Nothing like that."  "Good."

At that moment, someone behind me put their paws over my eyes.  "Guess who!"  Said a sing-song voice.   I couldn't quite place where I had heard it before, but since there were not many people on this world who would feel they knew me well enough to play these kind of games, I took an educated guess.  "The cute little paws belong to Kristen, but I'm not entirely sure who the voice belongs to."  Swiveling my chair around rapidly, I reached out with my foot and tripped Kristen, who was now in front of me, guiding her fall into my lap with my knee.  "Hi." I said softly, kissing the very surprised but unhurt vixen on the nose "I'm glad you could make it."  "How did I end up sitting on your lap?"  She asked me with an amused expression on her face.  "I'm the luckiest fox alive, I guess." I smiled.

"I've got to get back to work." Said the voice from before, which, it turned out, belonged to a young female Lemur.  "Okay." Kristen grinned "Thanks for letting me borrow you, Jen."  Waving, the lemur headed back to the hallway.  "She's a friend of mine from another department." Kristen explained "Jen was working as an intern in our department one summer, and we hired her out of college.  I was really happy that she'd still be working in our building."

Shifting around to get a bit more comfortable in my lap, Kristen put her arm around my shoulder, grabbing a cookie from the table.  Seeing that she had no intention of standing up, I swiveled my chair back around to face Jackie.  "So, what were we talking about?" I asked Jackie as I reached for another cookie.  "We were discussing the improvements in your condition." She explained.  "Oh, and what's that?" Kristen questioned.  "I gave him a clean bill of health, conditional on him gradually returning to his normal physical activities." Jackie explained.  "I'll relay the message." Kristen nodded with mock seriousness, ruffling my headfur.  Looking at her watch, Jackie declared that "I've got to get back to my office, I'm expecting a telephone call in about ten minutes or so."  "Okay.  I'll bring back your lunch bag." I offered as she got up.  "That's fine." Jackie nodded "A couple of good healthy meals will do you good."  And with that, she excused herself.

"You know," I commented "Jackie seems to be taking quite an interest in my well being.  She keeps trying to treat me like a six year old or something…"  "All of her puppies have gone out of town to attend college." Kristen laughed, quite amused "Maybe she's auditioning for a replacement.  Be careful, or she might decide to adopt you!"  "Well," I grinned back  "That wouldn't be so bad.  She's a great cook for one thing…"  "Seriously though." Kristen shrugged "Collies have a tendency to be a bit eccentric like that.  It's just their nature."

Walking down the hallway with Kristen, I brought up our vacation.  "So, any idea what you want to do for the next couple of days?" I asked "I'd make a suggestion if I knew of anywhere around here to suggest…"  "I've got a few ideas." She smiled mysteriously "But let me check on some things before I tell you."  Sighing theatrically I declared that "You're not going to make me have to read your mind, are you?"  "Try it.  Tell me what I'm thinking right now!" Kristen grinned.  Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I was quiet for a minute, then declared "You're thinking about what you would rather be doing right now!"  With an amused little grin, Kristen kissed me gently on the muzzle. "Well," she agreed "In the general sense you're right…" Rubbing her behind the ears, I nodded "I usually am."


Taking Kristen's paw, we continued down the hall to my office, where David was waiting for us.  "I was beginning to wonder when you two would show up." He grinned, extracting himself from my chair and walking over to greet us.  "Right then." Kristen laughed "I trust you'll be able to keep him distracted for the next couple of hours…"  "I think I can manage." David nodded seriously.  Feeling confused, I interjected "What's this all about?"  "I want to arrange a surprise for you." Kristen explained lightly "And I can hardly do that if you're looking over my shoulder, now can I?"  "So she enlisted me to be a diversion." David added, obviously pleased with himself.  Feeling a bit put-upon, I began to pout.  Seeing my mournful expression, Kristen laughed  "Oh come on, it's not that bad!"  Then, giving a little wave, she ducked back into the hallway.

"So," David asked "What do you want to do?"  "Spy on Kristen." I said definitively.  "But if we did that I wouldn't be a good distraction." David explained equally seriously "So we should do something else instead."  "We could always go car shopping." I shrugged.  "Good idea." He nodded "It should get you out of the office for an open ended amount of time.  We'll go with that."  Getting up, David started down the hallway.  "Hey! Wait up!" I yelled after him, having to sprint the first couple of feet to catch up with his rapid stride.  "What's the hurry?" I panted, catching up with him.  "Just thought I'd give you a little exercise…" David grinned evilly, slowing the pace a bit now that I had caught up.  Plotting revenge for his treachery, I followed him out into the parking lot, where, in short order, we were on the way.

"So, do you have any idea what you're interested in getting?" David questioned as he drove.  Shrugging, I explained that I'd not had time to familiarize myself with the local offerings, when a thought hit me: "You do use internal combustion here, don't you?  Gas/piston?"  "No," David replied, looking surprised "We use a cold fission electric powerplant.  It runs on a hydrogen reaction, which is used to produce a sustained yield electric current, which in turn runs the motors driving the rear axles."  As I stared at him with a look of shock and horror, he suddenly burst out in a fit of giggles.  "I can't believe you actually thought I was serious…" He managed to choke out after he got things under control again.  "That's not funny." I grimaced "How am I supposed to know you're not serious?  For all I know you've got a hamster wheel under the hood."  "Yeah, but cold fission?" he laughed "I didn't honestly think you'd be gullible enough to fall for that…"

We pulled into the car lot as I was looking around for something large and pointed with which to make my displeasure more obviously noted, and, after fending off a number of rather eager salesmen, we began poking around the lot.  After we looked around for a while, I had yet to be impressed with anything.  "These are all mechanically uninteresting."  I complained to David "Is there somewhere around that sells something different?" "What do you mean by different?" he questioned.  "By different I meant 'not these'." I explained.  Thinking for a minute, David decided that "Well, there's a place not too far away that sells some more exotic stuff.  We could go take a look at what they've got…"  Nodding in agreement, we got back into his car, and with only slight difficulties found the place he was talking about.

"Now this is what I was looking for."  I grinned happily as we got out of David's car.  The lot looked much more shabby than the first place we had visited, but had what counted:  A large selection of unique and eccentric cars.  Grinning like a little kit in a toy store, I began walking down the rows of cars, David trailing along behind.  Stopping every now and then to look at a promising offering, I hadn't really found anything that held my attention until David exclaimed "Look at that!  They've got a MetalSmith!"

The car in question was an absolutely beautiful silver two seater.  "It's a Mk. III" David told me as I began looking it over.  "Hmm, Let's see..." I mumbled, more to myself than for David's benefit "Two seater, mid-engine design… Looks like it's got a removable hard-top…" Fumbling around under the dash, I found the hood release and took a look at the engine. "Four cylinder, breathing through a pair of downdraft carbs on what looks like dual runner plenum manifolds…" After picking it over for a while longer, I had reached a decision.  "It's showing a little bit of age, but nothing drastic.  Where's the salesman, I'd like to take it out for a bit…"

The salesman (a somewhat shifty-looking weasel) was a bit hesitant about letting us take it out for a test drive without supervision, but after I logically explained to him that the only way to fit three people in it would be for him to sit on David's lap (and, probably more importantly, showed him a bank statement with a number of digits on it…) he relented, and gave me the keys.  Turning over the ignition, the engine fired up on the first try, but then fell back to an extremely rough idle.  "Too bad." David sighed, looking disappointed "It sounds like the engine is shot…"  "Not really." I shrugged. Grinning widely, I hit the gas pedal, the engine note immediately resolving itself into a decidedly healthy-sounding roar.  "3/4 race camshaft grind." I explained "Little to no idle, but it’s a beautiful thing when the engine is running wide open…" With that I pulled out of the lot and headed for the highway.

After driving the vehicle down the highway in a manner that would probably have caused the salesman to go into cardiac arrest and die had he been in attendance, David and I returned with it to the lot.  "So," the salesman greeted us, a look of relief at the car's safe return on his muzzle "what do you think of it?"  "I think it's going to come live in my driveway now." I replied seriously, digging out my account information "But I'm in a hurry, I've got to go pick my girlfriend up from work in a half an hour or so.  So here's what I suggest: I'll pay you three-quarters of your asking price in cash, and you have one of your employees fill up the tank while we're doing the paperwork."  Giving me a very scrutinizing look, he eventually decided that "That will be fine." and twenty five minutes later David and I were pulling back into the ITD parking lot.


I wanted to go straight to Kristen's office and show her my new toy, but David was still taking his job as my official distraction for the day very seriously, and insisted that I wait in my office while he saw if she was done with her secretive project.  Grudgingly agreeing, I settled down in my office to wait, while David went in search of Kristen, only to return a bit later with some bothersome news.  "There's a guy in Kristen's office doing some touch-up painting on the ceiling, so she's not in there right now." He explained "But I'll bet she went down to the R&D labs to use the computers there."

While David went down to the labs in search of Kristen, I continued to wait less than patiently in my office.  After I had waited another ten or twelve minutes, boredom overcame me, and I began look for something to do while I was waiting for them to return.  Eventually, I decided to do a sign on my marker board to tell people I was on vacation.  Sitting down with my box of multi-colored dry erase markers, I began sketching out the sign.  Going with the theme of a previous joke, I drew an old fashioned wooden signboard, with a bow and quiver of arrows leaning against one post, and a peaked hat like the one Robin Hood wore hanging from the opposite post.  Stepping back to admire my work, I made a few little changes to the picture, and then started in on the lettering on the sign: "On Vacation.  Please rob yourself until I return."

Having finished with the sign, I waited around a while longer, but after another ten or twenty minutes, I decided to head over to the break room.  "If I have to sit around and wait, I might as well wait somewhere with a vending machine and a coffee pot!" I said to myself as I walked down the hall.  As chance would have it, I ran into Kristen as she was leaving the break room.  "I was just going to find you!" she smiled happily "You've got perfect timing."  "As usual." I grinned back, ducking in to the break room to emerge a moment later with a candy bar.

"I want to show you something." She grinned, leading me to her office.  "Did you find us a nice little vacation spot?"  I questioned, figuring that was what she wanted to show me.  "I did, but that's not what I wanted you to see." Kristen nodded as we went into her office  "So, do you notice anything different about the ceiling?"  Looking up, I examined the painting as I finished my candy bar.  "I don't see anything different…No, wait."  The little diapered maiden's corner had undergone some changes since last time I was in Kristen's office.  She was no longer alone in her corner, having been joined by an archer in a green and brown tunic, with his hat sitting at a jaunty angle.  Upon further examination, it became obvious that the woodsman bore as striking a resemblance to me as the maiden did to Kristen." What do you think?" she grinned mischievously.  "I think that the archer in the corner is a stunningly handsome example of a fox." I replied, matching her grin.  "I thought you'd like it." She nodded happily "So, what did you want to show me?"

"It's outside." I replied excitedly, tail twitching in expectation.  Smiling at my enthusiasm, Kristen followed me down the hallway, with David rejoining us as we passed his office.  "So, why are we in the parking lot?" she asked as we went out the front door.  "I bought a car!" I grinned.  "That’s nice." She nodded indulgently "Where is it?"  "The silver one over there." I explained, pointing it out.  Seeing the car, a strange expression passed over her muzzle.  "You bought a MetalSmith." She said in a flat, disbelieving voice.  Then, turning to David, she continued "You let him buy a MetalSmith… Do you have any honest idea what those cost?"  "We got a good deal on it." David shrugged, not seemingly bothered by his sister's somewhat unhappy attitude towards the situation.  "Besides, it's his money, and that's what he wanted." David added a bit defensively.

"I really like it." I agreed, hoping to placate Kristen before she did something David would regret more than she would. "It's in good condition, and it wasn't all that expensive."  "And besides," I added wickedly "It's a lot of fun to drive!"  Shaking her head in resigned amusement, she decided "Okay, I won't get annoyed…But you have to go take me for a ride!"  Laughing, I agreed. "I think that we can arrange something before too long."


After showing off my new toy to Kristen, we went back inside to make sure everything was dealt with before we left on our vacation.  After we finished our individual double (and triple) checks, I met up with Kristen in her office, and we officially began our vacation.  Since I had to follow Kristen home in the second car we didn't get to talk any during the ride, and I ended up spending most of the trip speculating to myself about her mysterious surprise.  From what I knew about the area I had found myself in, there wasn't a beach of any great size nearby, nor were there any amusement parks.  (At least I'd seen none advertised on the television, which admittedly doesn't mean a whole lot…)  By the time we arrived at home, I had resigned myself to Kristen telling me her secret in her own good time.

Digging out her house key, Kristen mused that "I do believe that this is the earliest I've gotten home in months."  "Well then you shouldn't get annoyed when upper management steps in for your own good." I decided, giving her a hug as she pushed the door open.  "I just feel like I'm needed at work, that's all." Kristen muttered, becoming a little defensive.  "I promise you'll be glad they did." I placated, grabbing a couple of soft drinks out of the refrigerator before joining her on the sofa.  Draping my arm around her shoulders, I sipped my drink while rubbing her back.  Before too long, her annoyance softened, and was replaced by a happy little grin.  Kicking off her shoes, she glanced over at the clock on the mantle.  "I was planning on going on a little trip with you tomorrow," she started "But Russell is throwing a pool party.  Sort of a social get-together for the department."  "That will be fun." I nodded "They're all great people, and I really would like to get to know them better somewhere we don't have to be professional."  As an afterthought, I added "Well, except for Shelly.  I don't think I can imagine her being casual."  "Be nice." Kristen admonished, tapping me gently on the nose with a fingertip.  "I didn't mean anything by it." I shrugged.  "Anyway," she said, changing the subject "we can go the day after.  I don't think you want to miss the pool party any more than I do."

"So what do you want to do about dinner?"  I wondered "I was thinking that since it's still pretty early we might go out to a movie, then maybe grab a bite on the way back home."  "That would be great." She agreed "There's a good little burger place near the Movie Theater that I've not been to in a while.  And you've never been there at all."  Following me back to the bedroom, she continued humorously "That's one of the great things about you, I can take you almost anywhere on the planet and it will be new and interesting!"  "Whereas I have to work my tail off to impress you."  I griped in mock displeasure as I took off my dress shirt and began looking for something more casual.  Returning from her own room, already changed, Kristen laughed "I'm very impressed by you." Turning around to see her unabashedly looking me over from the doorway, I grinned.  Then proceeded to pose a little bit as I searched for something to wear.  "Here." Kristen offered, pulling a metallic green dress shirt from the closet "This one looks really good on you."  Feeling flattered, I decided that it would do nicely for the evening.  "Ready?" I asked, grabbing a few little odds and ends from Kristen's toy box.  "Ready." Kristen declared, stepping out the door.


"At least the seats are nice and comfortable."  Kristen observed, situating herself in the passenger seat, and figuring out the four-point harness in short order.  "You are so superficial." I teased "You'll hurt its feelings if you're not careful.  It's beautiful inside." With that I turned the ignition key and revved the engine, producing a throaty roar.  Putting the car in gear, we were soon on the highway.  "Take that ramp." Kristen said, guiding me in the right direction "But don't exit here, it's the next one down."  "You know, I always was bad with directions." I mused, "It's a pity that I didn't develop a better sense of direction to go with my tail."  "You're not doing to badly." Kristen observed "We've made our exits so far…" Giving her a quick kiss on the end of her muzzle, I hazarded that "It was only because I've got a highly intelligent, not to mention beautiful navigator!"  "Flatterer." Kristen smiled, rubbing me behind the ear.  "I mean it."  I laughed.

Pulling into the movie theater parking lot, a thought struck me "What are we going to see?  I've not exactly taken the time to get current on what is in the theaters…"  "I'm not sure either." Kristen shrugged "We'll just have to pick something that looks good."  Taking a look at the movie posters in the lobby, we eventually decided on Disney's latest offering.  "It looks pretty good." I decided "And a late showing like this won't be crowded at all because most parents are getting dinner ready right now."  Nodding her agreement, Kristen stepped up to the teller's window and got our tickets.

Since we had gotten there early, a good selection of seats remained.  Deciding unanimously that we would prefer to sit most of the way up the isle at the top of the riser, Kristen went up and got our seats while I went back to the lobby for some snacks.  Since we were going to be having dinner right after the movie let out, I decided it would be best for my little kit not to fill up on junk food.  After ordering popcorn and a soda from the teenage equine behind the counter, I returned to our seats.

"Here we are, snacks!"  I sighed, collapsing into my seat.  "No candy?"  Kristen asked in a smaller voice than normal.  "Candy will ruin your dinner, little one."  I explained  "Besides, popcorn goes better with movies."  Seemingly satisfied with that answer, she nodded vigorously then settled down in her seat.  She sat patiently for a while, but as time passed and the movie still didn't start, Kristen began to fidget.  Just as I was beginning to think that I may have to do something about it, the lights dimmed, and the previews began.  The first one was for some inane movie about a kid's sports team which turns it's losing season around with help from a coach with magic powers, followed by a preview for a movie about an evil plot by two sinister wolves, and a little chipmunk's attempts to foil it and save the world, and finally a preview for a cartoon about a band of space explorers, in their search for the new and interesting.

At long last, the movie began.  It wasn't too bad, I decided.  While it was inarguably a children's movie, I caught a number of little jokes that had been meant for the adults in the audience, and while I was sitting there munching popcorn I found myself becoming involved with the plot.  Kristen, I saw glancing over, was utterly engrossed in the story, only looking away to find the popcorn every now and again.

Halfway through the movie we ran out of popcorn, and since we were dining out afterwards, I thought better of getting a refill.  Seeing Kristen become a little restless, I dug through my pockets and produced her paci, which I had brought along for just such a contingency.  Popping it in her mouth, she was soon sucking on it contentedly, her attention returning to the screen.

"So, what did you think?" I asked as the credits began to roll as the movie ended.  Popping her paci out of her mouth, Kristen dropped it in her purse, and replied in her adult voice "I liked it.  They seemed to have improved a bit from some of their other more recent ones."  "So you had a good time?"  I smiled, holding the door for her as Kristen stepped back into the parking lot.  "Uh huh." She nodded, finding our car  "But now I do believe that it's time we start thinking about food."  My tummy rumbled sympathetically as I unlocked the doors and slipped behind the wheel.  "I agree with you wholeheartedly." I nodded, starting the engine and pulling out onto the road.


Kristen was looking thoughtfully out the window as we drove along.  "I remember a place you might like." She mused "It's a little different form most of these other restaurants, and the food is pretty good."  "Sure." I nodded "I'm willing to try somewhere new."  "Okay." Kristen nodded "Take a left up at this second light…"

Following Kristen's directions, I soon found myself pulling into what looked like an old fashioned drive through.  "This place is one of those nostalgia type restaurants, but the food is much better than you would expect from a place like that."  She explained as I pulled into one of the parking spots.  Small menu boards were mounted on either side of the car, one showing the food and drink offerings, and the other for dessert.  Unlatching the roof, I stowed it in the trunk before deciding what I wanted to eat.

Eventually deciding, I pushed the button, and placed our order with the carhop.  "Your food will be out in a minute," Said the voice at the other end of the speaker.  Before too long, a squirrel arrived, bearing a tray of food.  "How are you two doing this evening?" she asked, passing me our order.  "Not bad, and you?" Kristen responded, digging a handful of money out of her purse and paying for the food, as I tried in vain to find somewhere to put things in the rather spartan interior of the car.  "There aren't any cup holders." Kristen observed lightly about the time I started growling softly to myself.  Sighing, I gave up and started in on my dinner.  The food was quite good, and I had soon forgotten about my minor annoyance.

I finished eating before Kristen did, and began idly examining the dissert menu.  "I'm not really hungry enough for anything…" I commented "Want to split something?"  "How about a strawberry sundae?" she suggested.  "That would be good." I decided, ordering the snack in question.  "I've always liked those…"

Retrieving the ice cream from the waitress, I tried a few bites while Kristen finished her burger.  "Any good?" she asked, eyeing the sundae.  "See for yourself." I laughed, feeding her a spoonful.  "Yummy." She grinned "They always make good ice cream here."  "Like another bite?" I asked humorously "Or should I finish it off myself?"  "Oh, I think I might have some more." She decided, reaching for the spoon.  "I'm afraid I have to hold on to the spoon." I said, waving a finger at her, then feeding her another spoonful of the ice cream.  "You seem to be enjoying yourself."  Kristen laughed good-naturedly.  "As a matter of fact, I am." I nodded seriously.  "Well, I'd hate to spoil your fun…" she decided.  Kristen allowed me to feed her the rest of the sundae, and to be honest I probably enjoyed it as much as she did.

"Well," she thought out loud "I guess the next question is do we want to go home now, or find something else to do?"  Giving it a bit of thought, I cast my vote: "I think I'm ready to go home.  It's been a nice evening, and I'd sort of like to go lounge around for a while."  "Sounds good to me." Kristen nodded, daintily wiping a spot of ice cream off of her muzzle "It's been a busy day anyway."


Arriving home a little bit later, I went upstairs and changed out of my nice clothes before going back down to the living room.  Lying facedown on the couch, I closed my eyes for a minute.  Sitting down next to me a few minutes later, Kristen began rubbing my shoulders.  "You look tired." She commented.  "I feel tired." I nodded, looking up at her "It seems like it was a long day."  "Well, you did a lot of things, and went a lot of places." She reasoned "Of course you're going to be a little bit tired."  Sitting in a comfortable silence for quite a while, I slowly began to feel better.  Sitting up, I asked "Is my little kit feeling tired tonight, or would she like to stay up a bit later?"  Grinning cutely, Kristen replied that "I'm not tywered.  Let's pway!"

Taking her by the hand, I led Kristen up to the changing table in the bathroom.  "Now sit here for a second, I've got to get everything together." I instructed as I began digging the necessary supplies out of the cabinets.  Besides the usual collection of diapering stuff, I made one addition to the pile: a pretty little green ribbon I found in Kristen's room. 

Helping Kristen out of her clothes, I lifted her up onto the changing table.  "Is my little kit ticklish?" I asked, eyeing the pads of her paws mischievously.  Giggling, she shook her head in the negative.  "Oh really?" I replied, arching an eyebrow "We'll see about that!"  And with that I began to tickle her mercilessly, soon having her squirming in a fit of laughter on the changing table.  "Well," I shrugged, doing my best to look serious "I guess you weren't ticklish.  It's my mistake.  Now, let's get that didie on, shall we?"  Panting slightly, she helpfully raised up her bottom so I could thread her tail through the tail hole.  After dusting everything with a light coat of baby powder, I fastened up the tapes, and held out a paw to help her down.  "There we are!  Isn't that better?" I asked rhetorically as she stepped off the table. "Now hold still just one little bit longer…  Obligingly, she sat on the edge of the bathtub so I could tie the pretty little green ribbon I had found on her ponytail.  "Absolutely adorable." I nodded, quite proud that I had managed to tie a perfect bow on the first try. (No small feat, considering the only things I had ever previously tied were shoelaces and lumber tie-downs…)

Taking me by the paw, Kristen led me back downstairs to the living room, where I slid down onto the sofa with a contented little sigh.  "Can we have a snack?" she questioned, flopping down next to me.  "That might be nice." I mused "Would you like some juice, or milk, maybe?  Or did you want some food?"  "I want some juice, pweese." She decided, after giving it a moment of thought.  "Okay." I agreed "But let me put on some music first, I'd like to listen to something soft."  Scrambling over to the entertainment center, Kristen pointed to one of the top cabinets. "They're up there, but I'm not supposed to touch anything in there, it's ex-pen-sive." She informed me, carefully sounding out 'expensive'.  "You're a helpful little kit." I smiled as I tousled her headfur.

Going through the cabinet, I faced the problem of finding something that would match my rather mellow mood when I didn't know any of the artists in question.  Selecting a handful of CDs with covers that looked promising, I sat down on the floor next to Kristen, who was rocking back and forth while watching me intently.  "Which one do you like best, little one?" I questioned, presenting her with my selections.  "This one." She decided right away, pointing to an album entitled 'Nocturnes of Spring'.  After carefully placing the others back into the cabinet, I put the disk in Kristen's CD player, and headed for the kitchen, Kristen trying to pounce the tip of my tail for the entire trip.

After preparing Kristen a nice bottle of raspberry juice, I decided to have something for myself as well, selecting a bottle of white zinfandel from the refrigerator.  Turning to ask Kristen where she kept the crystal, I found her playing with her toes and thought better of it, taking a tall iced tea glass I found among the dishes in the cabinet.  After pouring my drink, I decided to be a little bit creative, adding a generous (probably excessive) amount of the cinnamon liquor and a dash of mint for good measure.

Thus equipped, we headed back to the living room, but, looking out the dining room window, I decided on a change of plans.  "It's a really beautiful evening," I thought aloud "why don't we take this outside and watch the sunset?  You don't mind, do you?"  "I don't mind, I like outside." Kristen agreed, opening the patio doors and setting the drinks on the patio table.  After turning up the music a little bit so it would carry outside, I picked up the overstuffed armchair and carried it onto the deck within easy reach of the table.  Sinking into the blissfully comfortable chair, I patted my lap invitingly.  Not needing a second invitation, Kristen joined me in the chair, pulling the lever on the side to bring up the footstool after sitting down.  "There." She smiled at me, pleased with herself.  "Thank you, that was very considerate of you." I commented as I kicked off my shoes, wiggling my toes in the air.

Shuffling around a little bit, we ended up with Kristen on my lap, leaning up against one of the sides of the chair.  Wrapping my arm around her shoulders, I offered her the bottle.  With a cute little sigh, she popped the nipple into her mouth, and began feeding unhurriedly.  Taking a sip of my drink, I found it stronger than I had intended, but with a very agreeable flavor, bringing to mind a slightly more fruity version of the apple cider that we had always made during the holidays.  As a gentle warmth spread through my body, I absentmindedly began to play with the fur on Kristen's tail.  She responded by curling it around my arm, and gently tickling the end of my muzzle.

Feeling that all was right in the world we watched the sun slowly creep down towards the horizon.  The bright yellow of the daytime gradually gave way to oranges and reds, reflecting and diffusing throughout the clouds, giving everything a soft, warm glow.  Listening to the slow melody of a reed flute, I gave Kirsten a long, lingering hug.  "Isn't it beautiful?"  I asked softly, feeling her nod her agreement against my chest.  Handing me her finished bottle, I traded Kristen for her paci, which I had retrieved from her purse on the way outside.  Snuggling up closer, we watched the sun continue to retire, reds and oranges giving way to intricate shades of purple and blue, and finally the last rays of the day danced across our faces before being replaced by the gentle glow of the stars.

Sitting there with Kristen, I remembered a song from my distant childhood.  Softly I began to sing. "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might have this wish I wish tonight."    "You sing pretty."  "Thank you." I said, somewhat startled.  I had never considered myself musically inclined.  I could load a CD and turn on a radio, but that was the extent of my abilities in the musical persuasion.  "Pwease sing something else." She requested, tugging on my arm.  Closing my eyes, I began to sing All The Pretty Little Horses.


Much later, when the moon had already passed the summit of its nightly journey, we were still drowsing in the recliner, both reluctant to get up and go to bed.  "Sometimes I'm afraid that I will wake up one day and find that all of this was just a dream." I sighed "I don't ever want to lose you Kristen, you're all I ever wanted from life".  Kissing me tenderly on the muzzle, Kristen replied "Silly foxy.  It's all real.  I'm real, you're real, work, our friends, the house…they're real.  And I'll love you forever."  Looking deep into her beautiful emerald green eyes, I felt deep down in my soul that she meant every word of it.  Somehow I found myself beginning to sniffle.  "Oh Nick, what's the matter honey?" she asked, taking me into her arms and beginning to gently rock me back and forth.  "I don't know.  I guess I feel a little bit sad right now. "  I sniffed, closing my eyes and snuggling into her chest.  Kristen held me until my sniffles slowly subsided and stopped.   "Come on Nick," she decided "It's closer to dawn than sunset, and we really should be getting to bed.  After all, we have a pool party to go to tomorrow.  You'll want to be rested and relaxed for that, won't you?"  Nodding an affirmative, I reluctantly drug myself out of the recliner and carried it back inside while Kristen got our dishes.  "Now come on." She said, taking me by the paw "let's get you to bed."


I woke up late the next morning, to find myself alone in the bed.  Still half asleep, I glanced over at the clock, and, seeing that it was far later than I normally got up in the morning, hopped out of bed and frantically began searching for my clothes.  "Damn it, I'm supposed to be at work already!" I berated myself.  Grabbing a shirt out of the closet, I pulled it on, buttoning it crookedly in my haste.  "Why in the world didn't Kristen get me up on time?"  I continued, looking around for my shoes.  "Because we're on vacation." Said a rather amused voice from the doorway behind me.  Turning around, I found Kristen grinning in gentle amusement at my mistake.  "Oh.  Yeah." I groaned, feeling like a complete idiot.  "Do you realize that you didn't put your tail through the tail hole?"  "I guess I didn't." I shrugged "I didn't really have my mind on things."  "Well, whatever you do, don't…" she began as I sat down on the bed.

Sitting down, a sharp pain spiked up from the base of my tail as I accidentally sat on it, bending it in an odd position.  "…sit down on your tail." She finished, even though it was obvious that it had become a bit too late for her warning.  Wincing, I got back up and threaded my tail through the tail hole.  "That really hurts." I grimaced, rubbing the base of my tail as I did.  "I'll bet it does." Kristen sighed sympathetically "You have to try to be more careful about things like that, tails are a bit more delicate than you would think they'd be."  "Well, I don't think I broke anything." I decided, wiggling my tail experimentally "At least I hope not…"

Following Kristen back to the kitchen, I remembered the plan for the day.  "So, what time does the pool party start?" I asked.  "Russell said around 12:30 or 1:00.  He was planning on barbecuing so everyone will be expecting an early dinner." She explained as I quickly ate a bowl of cereal.  "So we should probably be heading over there pretty soon." I noticed, glancing at the clock.  "We've still got a little time." Kristen disagreed, pouring me a glass of orange juice. "Finish your breakfast first."  Rolling my eyes I promptly stuck my tongue out at her. "Shan't." I declared for the sake of being contrary "I don't like breakfast, it's the worst meal of the day, and besides I don't want to!"  "Finish your juice!" Kristen growled, putting both paws on the table and leaning forward so that her muzzle was inches away from mine.  "Yes ma'am." I said quietly, looking down into my bowl.  Laughing cheerfully at my act, she leaned the last few inches forward and gave me a little kiss on the nose. "Good boy." She joked "I like how you're always so agreeable."  Grinning back, I scooped up a soggy piece of cereal onto my spoon and flicked it across the table, landing it right on the end of her nose. "I'm just a mischievous little scamp, aren't I?" I asked rhetorically.  Looking a bit exasperated, Kristen wiped my breakfast off her muzzle.  "We'll head over to Russell's house as soon as you're done with breakfast." She decided, going to change for the party.


We decided that it would be best to take Kristen's car, since she already knew the way to Russell's house.  (Though the fact that I wanted to change the oil in the MetalSmith before I put too many more miles on it played a part in the decision as well…)  Russell lived a good distance away from us, probably twice as far as we drove to get to work, but there wasn't any traffic to contend with, and the drive turned out to be quite pleasant.  "You know," I mused "This is the first day off I've had since I got here.  Well, except when I was sick, but then that doesn't really count as a vacation…"

"Nick, there was something I've been curious about." Kristen started, a bit nervously "I mean, if you don't mind talking about it."  "Try me." I shrugged, not being able to think of anything that she would ask me about that was terrible enough to cause her to hesitate.  Encouraged by my response, she explained what had been on her mind: "What was it like back in your old life?".  "Being a fox is much better, thank you very much." I decided.  "My old life…  Well, my old life wasn't all that great, to be honest with you.  I wasn't really close with my family, they were always kind of disappointed in me.  I didn't have too many friends, nobody who would really miss me anyway.  I was stuck in a dead-end job, living in a crummy little hole, and really didn't have a whole lot going for me.  I'd just bought a really nice new motorcycle, and had an impressively massive collection of science-fiction novels.  Those are what I really miss, my toys."  Leaning across the car, I gave her a little kiss on the muzzle. "Why do you ask?"  Looking obviously relieved, she explained "I've had this nagging feeling that you might not want to be here.  I mean, David basically kidnapped you for all practical purposes.  I guess I was just a little bit afraid you might be resentful deep down somewhere."  With a look of genuine amusement I patted her paw.  "I've never been happier in my life, and I wouldn't leave even if I could."  Seeing that we had arrived in front of what I assumed (judging by the sign in the yard saying 'party here!') was Russell's house I added "Now let's go have a good time, okay?"

Getting out of the car, Kristen took my paw as we headed for the door.  Ringing the doorbell, we were greeted by a female raccoon.  "Hi!" she greeted, shaking our paws "I'm Janis, Russell's wife.  You two must be Kristen and Nick.  Come on in, the party is around back."  Following her into the house, I took a look around at my surroundings as Janis led us through to the back yard.  Russell's house was very tastefully decorated, with nice earth tone furniture.  A lot of the pictures hung on the wall were of space scenes, both real pictures as well as fictional art prints, which really didn't surprise me much after seeing his office.  As we passed through the living room, I noticed that there were a number of those mind-teaser puzzles like the two nails twisted together and the horseshoe and ring puzzles that one used to find at truck stops and novelty stores back in my world.  Seeing me looking at them, Kristen whispered "Raccoons as a species are very dexterous with their paws, and most of them enjoy puzzle games like those."  "Ah." I nodded as we exited onto the back porch.

 The backyard, was dominated by a large swimming pool, surrounded with a lovely landscaping job, which blended it in perfectly with the rest of the backyard, almost giving it the impression of being its own little pond.  "And here they are!" Russell announced "You two are the last ones, and we were beginning to wonder if you were going to be late."  "Well, here we are." I grinned "Sorry to disappoint you."  Picking out lawn chairs, Kristen and I sat down while Russell made introductions.  "There's a couple of people you two probably don't know.  The tiger over by the grill is Nathan, Shelly's husband.  He volunteered to do the grilling, mostly I think because he's trying to make a case with Shelly to buy one of their own, but I digress."  Turning towards a middle aged border collie, Russell continued "This is Vic, Jackie's husband."  "Nice to meet you." I nodded, reaching over the table to shake his paw. "Equally." He grinned. "And," Russell finished "You've already met my wife Janis."  Looking back over my shoulder, I saw that Kristen and Janis were discussing something with Shelly over by the food.

"Hey Nick!" yelled David from the pool, where he and Chris were in the midst of building a beer can pyramid on top of a pool float.  "Pardon me a moment." I nodded, excusing myself from the table and walking over to the far edge of the pool where Chris and David were swimming.  "So, how is everyone on this wonderful day off from the confines of work?" I asked verbosely after sitting down at the edge of the pool.  "Doing good." Chris grinned "But we're actually working right now."  Providing him with the lead-in for his story that he was fishing for, I asked "How is that?"  "I'm glad you asked!" David answered, slurring his words a slight bit "The esteemed Christopher has done an excellent bit of freelance design work for our benefit here, and I am helping him with the procurement of materials for our mighty endeavor."  "Yes, though we could really use another procurement specialist." Chris nodded seriously.  "Well," I slowly replied, with the heaviest mock seriousness I could muster "I'm not sure if I'm totally qualified, but if you will have me, I will try my hardest to be a beneficial member of your enterprise's development team."  Laughing Chris asked "Did you use that line when you were interviewing for ITD?"  "I just might have." I nodded, grabbing a beer.


Some time later, after adding more than one can to the pyramid, I went back to join Kristen and some of the others around the table.  "Hi Nick." She smiled, making room for me on the bench she had procured for herself.  "So, what were you all up to?" I wondered aloud.  "I was just going to go for a swim." Kristen explained "Care to join me?"  Shaking my head no, I explained "I wasn't planning on swimming, my tail is still bothering me from this morning, and I didn't want to aggravate things more than they already are."  "That's probably a good idea." Jackie agreed "If Chris or David decided to roughhouse a bit you can end up having that little problem become a bigger one pretty quickly."

"You should keep a better eye on the little guy, he might break if you're not careful!" Janis teased Kristen  "Oh he's pretty durable." She joked back.  "I think I might just go soak a little bit in the shallow end." I mused "Hey Russell, where's your bathroom?"  "Oh, I think Vic just ducked in there, why?"  "I need to change into my swimsuit." I explained.  "Just go change in the living room." Russell shrugged, then, seeing my rather uncomfortable expression asked "What?"  "He's just easily embarrassed." Kristen explained.  "Am not!" I retorted a bit defensively, feeling somewhat picked on at this point.  "Oh yeah?  Well then why is it so easy to make you blush?" she teased. "Huh?" I queried, starting to feel a bit confused at this point.  Turning to the others, Kristen smiled "Watch."  Then, leaning over she whispered something incredibly suggestive, and more than slightly dirty into my ear, licking her muzzle seductively.

"I told you!" she declared triumphantly as I turned bright red.  "What'd she say?" David asked eagerly.  "That" Kristen grinned, lobbing a spare rib at him "is none of your business little brother."  Grinning wickedly, I disagreed "Oh, but he really wants to know!  See how sad he is over there, wiping off the barbecue sauce you so unkindly spilled on him…"  Standing up in front of the pool, I struck an orator's pose, one foot up on the ice chest.  "You wouldn't dare…" Kristen growled, beginning to blush as red as I had been moments before.  Clearing my throat theatrically, I recited "Kristen said that after we get back home she's going to get a can of whipped cream and then wait until I'm getting ready to take a shower and then she's going to…" That was as far as I got.  "You're dead, furball!" she snarled, jumping up from her seat at the table.  Pouncing me in a beautiful flying tackle, she sent both of us over the edge and into the pool with a huge splash.

"Argh! Cold!" I yelped in surprise, flailing around in an unsuccessful attempt to extract myself from the clutches of the pool.  Kristen meanwhile had surfaced a few feet away, and was laughing good naturedly as I finally managed to drag myself out of the pool and stood on the deck, my good clothes dripping a large puddle around me as I shivered in the breeze.  Looking down at the ridiculous picture I presented, I couldn't help but laugh along with her.  "Looks like you're going to have to change whither you want to or not." Chris observed mildly "The 'drowned-fox-in-business-attire' look doesn't suit you very well."  Climbing out of the pool, Kristen met my exasperated look with a smile.  "At least you were wearing your swimsuit." I observed as she led me back to the bench we had been occupying. "I guess you should have thought of that before I decided to pounce you into the pool." She laughed. 

"I've probably got something that will fit you." Russell decided heading towards the house "My nephew left some stuff here last time he visited, and you're about the same size."  "You knocked over our pyramid." David observed glumly "I put a lot of effort into that."  "I'll help you rebuild it at work if you'd like." I promised, consoling the dejected fox.  Perking up a little, he went over to the pool and started the lengthy task of retrieving the cans, being joined shortly by Chris.  Before too long the pair had turned it into a diving competition, and the cataclysmic destruction of our majestic building was forgotten.  "Here you go." Jackie announced, returning from inside with a huge, fluffy beach towel, which she draped around Kristen and I "You two just warm up a little bit.  The barbecue will be ready in a minute anyway."  Nodding my thanks, I snuggled closer to Kristen, resting my head on her shoulder as she leaned against the wall.  "You're comfy." I complimented.  "Well thank you." She smiled "But you'll have to get up now anyway, Nathan is bringing over the barbecue!"

The tiger had really excelled over at the barbecue pit, and consequentially there was a sizeable pile of appetizing options that were heaped on the table.  Grabbing a plate, I loaded up a little bit of everything, and after getting another drink returned to our bench.  Kristen returned a little bit later, with a more reasonably sized plate of food.  "Do you think you missed anything?" she commented, looking at the large pile of food on my plate. "I hope not." I chuckled "Everything smells so good, I don't want to miss anything!"

"Everything smells good because everything is good!"  Nathan laughed slapping me on the shoulder as he sat down in the chair next to mine.  "Try the teriyaki chicken, you'll love it."  Snagging a piece from his plate I chewed on it thoughtfully, and quickly reached a verdict. "I usually hate chicken, but this is really good!"  "Really?  You're probably the only fox I've ever met who didn't…" he said, scratching his muzzle quizzically "Well, then I guess I'm flattered that you like mine." 

As everyone was getting their food and gathering around the collection of makeshift tables and chairs, a thought struck me, "Hey Nathan," I questioned "what do felines do at a pool party?"  "I give up, what?" he asked, misunderstanding my intent.  "No, seriously." I prompted "Don't felines sort of not like water?"  Seeing that my question was genuine, he set down his plate and explained "That's actually not really true.  There's a much higher percentage of felines with water related phobias than other geni of furs, but all in all we enjoy swimming just as much as anyone."  "That's interesting." I mused, setting down my plate to pass the ketchup to Shelly.

Chris chose that moment to return from the kitchens with a large salad.  After tossing some of the teriyaki chicken onto it, he joined us at the table.  "Into the den of the carnivores!" he laughed theatrically.  "I notice you’re eating meat too…" I pointed out, waving my fork in the general direction of his salad.  "What?  You thought I was a vegetarian?" he shrugged.  "Actually, yes." I nodded.  "I like meat.  It's just that our two digestive systems are set up differently.  I've got to eat it as more of an accent than a dish, or else it disagrees with me." Chris informed me, but without the initial strange looks that I had gotten from Nathan when I asked what should have been an obvious question.  "This is becoming a very educational meal." I commented to Kristen.  "Food:  Making education fun." She grinned, before returning to the conversation she was engaging in with Shelly and Janis.


"That was really good." I sighed happily, summing up everyone's feelings "But I think I'm going to have to wait a bit before I tackle dessert."  Leaving everyone to continue their various conversations around the tables, I grabbed another drink in one hand, and a pool float in the other, and headed back to the water. Since I was already soaking wet a little more water can't make things too much different I decided.  Stripping off my shoes, I emptied my pockets into them and set them on a patio chair.  Then, unbuttoning my shirt, I pulled the damp, clingy fabric away from my equally damp and clingy fur, and hung the shirt up on the back of the chair.  Tossing the float into the pool, I quietly slipped into the water, stifling the urge to yelp at the temperature again. 

After a little bit, I became used to the water temperature, and flopped down on the float, grabbing my drink and then setting myself adrift.  Closing my eyes, I let my mind drift.  Before much time had passed, I found myself becoming wonderfully relaxed.  "Ahhh…" I sighed, feeling the light breeze blow across my fur, ruffling the damp fur gently.   Just as I was beginning to drift off into a nap, I was jerked back to reality by the sound of a certain young rabbit yelling "Cannonball!"  And, about three seconds after that, I found myself involuntarily thrown into the water for the second time today.  Coming up for air, I was just in time to catch the tidal wave produced by David joining us in the pool via the same route that Chris had chosen earlier.

Spluttering a little bit, I began to grouse.  "You know, I sat on my tail this morning, and it still hurts a bit, and I was hoping to just be able to take it easy for a while, but instead between you two and Kristen I end up mostly drowned…"  "Ouch." David nodded sympathetically "I hate it when I do that."  Grabbing the raft and pushing it over to me, Chris made a very good point "One of the fringe benefits of being a rabbit is that you never have to buy a stereo amplifier…" he said seriously, pointing at his ears "the other is that you have a whole lot less tail to get in the way."  "I like my tail." I said sulkily, getting back on the raft and continuing my lounging as Chris and David started another diving game.

A little later I was disturbed again.  "Ohhh, he is cute, isn't he Kristen!" Shelly said teasingly.  Opening my eyes, I saw Shelly and Kristen sitting on the edge of the pool deck eating ice cream and staring at my chest. "As long as you were coming over here to oogle, the least you could have done is brought me some ice cream too." I admonished lazily.  "I'll get some." Shelly decided, getting up.  "I wanted a drink anyway."  Paddling over to the pool deck, I grabbed onto Kristen's foot for an anchor.  "I rather like this anchor, maybe I'll find something else to throw overboard…" I grinned.  "Flatterer." Kristen laughed, handing me the ice cream cone that Shelly returned with.  Holding onto Kristen, I listened to them make small talk while I finished my ice cream cone.  Finally, I was cast adrift again when Kristen excused herself to go to the restroom.  Drifting peacefully, I soon began to doze.


I awoke to Kristen pulling on my raft.  "Come on Nick, it's getting dark.  Time to start heading home."  Stretching, I waded over to the stairs and began rounding my clothes up.  After we had thrown most of our wet clothes into a big plastic bag (Kristen had already changed out of her bathing suit), Russell handed me a pile of clothes that he thought would probably fit me, and directed me to the bathroom.  Shutting the door behind me, I stripped off my wet pants, and vigorously dried myself off the best I could with one of the beach towels.  Then, noticing a hair dryer, I decided to blow-dry out the last of the dampness.  Quickly figuring out the switch for the dryer, I soon had the hot air pulling the moisture from my fur.  "Ahhh, that feels good…" I sighed, enjoying the feeling of the warm air blowing through my fur.  I was rather reluctant to turn the dryer off after I was completely dry, and quickly resolved that this newly discovered pleasure was one that I would have to partake in quite often, given the choice.

Having dried myself off, I turned to the clothes that Russell had found for me.  Upon trying them on, I discovered that they were a pretty good fit.  The pant legs were a little bit short, his nephew must have been just a little bit shorter than I am, but the T-shirt fit just fine.  Looking in the mirror, I ran my paws through my headfur a few times, coaxing it into behaving, then, with one last glance over my shoulder, I grabbed my wet pants and went back to find Kristen.

I found her in the back yard, getting the bag with our wet clothes in it.  "Ready to go?" she asked as I tossed my pants in with the rest.  "I do believe so, yes." I nodded, following Russell as he led us to the door.  "We had a wonderful time." I smiled a bit tiredly "I think that we're going to have to have these things more often."  "It was fun doing something outside of the office." he agreed "Well, you two enjoy the rest of your vacation.  And don't worry, I'll personally make sure that David and Chris don't tear the place apart while you're gone, Kristen!"  Waving as he went back into the house, Kristen dug out her keys and unlocked the car.  "That was a lot of fun." I decided as I collapsed into the passenger seat.  "I told you that you'd have a good time." She laughed as she pulled out on to the road.


There wasn't any traffic to speak of, and before too long we were back home.  While Kristen was dumping our wet clothes into the dryer, I set out a few things in the bathroom before meeting her in the hallway outside the laundry room.  "Well, it looks like my little kit could use a bit of grooming." I observed cheerfully as I ran my paw through her damp headfur.  "Why don't we go up to the bathroom, and I can get you all fluffed up and ready for bed?"  Nodding, she took my paw and I led her up to the bathroom.

Getting her to sit on the edge of the bathtub, I took two large, fluffy bath towels down to the laundry room, and put them in the dryer for a while.  Returning to the bathroom, I found Kristen waiting patiently.  "I've got some nice warm towels for you!" I told her, helping her out of her clothes "We're going to get my little kit nice and warm and dry."  Finding that there really wasn't anywhere convenient to sit down in the bathroom, I settled for the edge of the bathtub next to Kristen, and began to vigorously rub her fur with the towels.  Laughing, she tried to duck out from under the towel.  "Does that tickle?" I wondered aloud.  "A little bit." She admitted.  "Well, we're nearly done with the towels."  After a brief examination, I decided that there wasn't a whole lot more to accomplish with them. "There! No more tickling." I declared, putting the towels aside and getting out the blow dryer.

Kristen really seemed to enjoy the attentions of the blow dryer.  The moment that the warm air began to tousle her fur, she closed her eyes and turned her muzzle to face the dryer, making little churling sounds of pleasure.  "Does that feel nice?" I asked, somewhat rhetorically.  "Uh huh.  It's warm."  She nodded, not opening her eyes.  Smiling at how much Kristen was enjoying this, I took my time drying her off.  When I was finished, every hair in her entire coat was fluffed up, making her look about twice her normal size.  She looked ridiculous, but in a beautiful, cute kind of way, and I couldn't resist giving her a little hug.  "You're a very fluffy little kit." I informed her seriously "I think that there's going to have to be some brushing in your future."  "Okay!" she replied, jumping up and going to get her brush.  "In a minute, in a minute." I cautioned, grabbing her before she made the door. "First thing is first."  Lifting her onto the counter, I dug out her changing bag.  Putting her tail through the tail hole, I slid the diaper under the attractive vixen, then rooted around in the bag until I found the container of baby powder.  Sprinkling on a good helping of powder, I noticed that we would soon have to get another can.  "I'm going to have to do some shopping soon…" I mused aloud as I fastened the tapes on her diaper "Don't let me forget, okay little one?"  Nodding her head vigorously, she hopped off the counter.

Going through the bathroom cabinets I quickly located a selection of brushes.  Picking a large one with very fine bristles, I held it up for Kristen to examine.  "I think this will do nicely." I mused.  Looking around the bathroom, I decided that it would probably be a lot better idea to go to the living room where we could sit on the sofa while I combed out her fur.  The edge of the bathtub was large enough for the two of us to sit on, as I had discovered when I was drying Kristen's fur, but I really wanted her to be able to sit in my lap, so we could be close and cuddle while I brushed out her fur.  "Let's go sit down on the sofa." I suggested, taking her paw.

Moving to the living room, I turned on the table lamp by the sofa, and then sat down with Kristen.  "You have really pretty fur." I complimented as I ran the brush through it "It's so soft and shiny."  "Thank you." She replied, sounding a little bit more grown up than earlier. We sat in a comfortable silence as I brushed her fur.  After a time, I noticed that she was beginning to drift off to sleep, not quite falling asleep, but just floating in that comfortable little place between sleep and wakefulness.  Admiring her tail as I brushed it, I noticed that Kristen's coloration wasn't a uniform reddish-orange, but instead had lighter and darker streaks intermixed with her color.  Looking at my own fur, I found that I had subtle patterns too. Finally finishing Kristen's fur, I admired its soft sheen in the diffused light from the table lamp.

Awakening from her reverie, Kristen yawned daintily, then rubbed her eyes.  "I'm tired." She informed me in a small voice "Can we go to bed now?"  "I think that's a good idea, little one." I nodded as she took my paw and we went down the hall to the bedrooms.  After I tucked her in, Kristen closed her eyes and was soon drifting back to sleep.  Taking off the clothes I had borrowed from Russell, I carefully folded them up and set them on a chair, intending to wash them before I returned them to him later.  Crawling into bed next to Kristen, I stared off into the darkness and thought over the day.  "I really have been busy…" I thought to myself as I settled in, finding a comfortable spot.  As I settled down, I felt Kristen snuggle up to my chest and nuzzle me affectionately.  "I love you." She whispered sleepily.  "I love you too." I whispered, nuzzling her back.  Then, kissing her softly on the muzzle I added "Now try to get some sleep my little kit.  Tomorrow will be another beautiful day." 

To Be Continued...