The Gate

Chapter 1

"Economic downturn." I groused "Down Turn means I keep getting Turned Down."  Grinning at my bit of verbal cleverness, I couldn't deny that it held more than a scrap of the truth.  Ever since I graduated from college six months ago I had been trying to find work in my chosen field.  But there wasn't a whole lot of demand for an adaptive systems design engineer at the moment, so, failing that, I ended up working part time at the local lumber yard.  But at least things were settling into some kind of routine at this point, I mused darkly "Get up, eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, work some more, come home, which brings us to…" I paused for dramatic effect, despite being the only one in the apartment "Reading the day's rejections…I mean mail."  Flopping down into the sofa, I began looking over the small stack of letters for the day.

"Bill, bill, credit card application, you may already be a winner, hmmm…what's this?" The last piece of mail drew my attention.  It was an envelope made of old fashioned parchment paper, and addressed in a neat, flowing hand.  The return address was to an Integrational Technologies Development, Inc.  "I don't remember applying there." I thought as I opened the letter.  "Must be a pre-emptive rejection…" The letter inside was written in the same flowing handwriting, on the same kind of paper.  Reading it, I discovered that it was in fact a job offer, with a very attractive starting salary.  "Well, I'll be damned." I thought, reading it again, then noticing a postscript: "Please have reached your decision regarding the job offer by the 26th."  "That's tomorrow." I realized.

By the next morning, I had decided that the letter must be a joke.  There had only been the vaguest job description, and there hadn't even been any contact information for the company.  Picking the letter up off the counter, I tossed it in the trash.  By the time I left for work, I had already forgotten about it.


Getting home that evening, I was feeling pretty bad.  One of the other guys had called in sick, so I'd had to fill in for him, and consequently gotten home much later than usual.  "At least it’s the weekend." I sighed as I fumbled around for my door keys.  Putting the key in the lock, I became aware of an odd feeling.  It wasn't anything I could describe, just the sense that something was different.  "You've been working too hard." I mused, shaking my head a bit "I could really use a good night's sleep."  Not even bothering with the lights, I wearily shuffled inside, pulling the door shut behind me.

Entering the living room, I stopped cold.  I couldn't tell for sure in the dark, but it looked like there was someone sitting in my chair.  "Are you going to turn on the lights, or will we have to talk in the dark?" An amused voice said from the chair.  Taken aback, I flipped on the lights.

You could probably have heard my jaw hit the floor from three blocks away.  Sitting in my chair was the strangest person I'd ever seen.  His form was generally human, except for the fact that he was completely covered in a silvery-grey fur, and looked to be a cross between a human and some kind of canine.  "Umm, are you a werewolf?" I asked dumbly.  "No, a fox." He said a bit reproachfully, like it should have been obvious.  Then, standing up, he offered me his paw. "My name is David, and I represent ITD." I mutely shook his paw as he continued "Have you considered the job offer we sent you?"  Uhh, Yeah." I stammered, still at a loss for words.  "Oh good!" he smiled, stepping forward and taking me by the shoulders "We're glad to have you on board."  "Hey! Wait a…" But before I could finish protesting, I felt a strange lightness, like gravity had suddenly gone astray, and a heavy pressure inside my head.  Everything around me became a blur, and then I guess I must have blacked out.


When the universe sorted itself out again I found myself lying on a floor that was definitely not part of my apartment, and was feeling much the worse for wear.  Closing my eyes, and curling up a little, I hoped that the room would quit spinning because I really didn't think my tummy was enjoying the ride.  "Are you okay?" a female voice asked me.  "I think I'm going to be sick." I groaned, not opening my eyes.  "Lie still for a bit, it should pass." She suggested gently.

After a minute or two, I began to feel a little bit better, and slowly opened my eyes and sat up.  I was in a large room filled with a huge array of machines in various stages of disassembly.  Along one wall was an odd metal ring, which was apparently the cause of my recent discomfort.  David was fiddling with a panel mounted on it, apparently none the worse for the trip.  And sitting cross-legged in front of me was a very attractive reddish-orange fox.  She was neatly dressed, wearing a lab coat over jeans and a peach colored blouse, and had her headfur tied back in a ponytail.  "Feeling better?" she asked.  "Uh-huh" I answered, not entirely sure of the validity of my claim, then shakily rose to my feet.

"Where am I, and what exactly am I doing here?" I questioned, dropping heavily into a nearby chair.  "The ITD main offices." David replied without turning away from the machine "This is where you'll be working."  "I said I'd considered the offer, not that I'd decided to accept it!" I snapped, beginning to get angry.  "You didn't say anything about that before we crossed over!" He countered, defensively.  "Yeah, because I didn't have a chance to get a word in edgewise."  Sighing, I rubbed my temples.

"Damn it David!" she said, advancing on him "What part of 'try to fill the position' sounded like 'go kidnap an off-worlder'?"  "It was just a misunderstanding." He responded sulkily, avoiding her gaze "I didn't do it on purpose."  Snorting, she continued to glare at him, obviously not believing a word of it.  "We'll talk about this more later." The female promised him darkly before turning back to me. "I'm sorry," she sighed "he's got good intentions, but no common sense.  We'll send you back to your world immediately."  "I'm not going anywhere near that thing!" I interjected "I still feel sick from the last little joyride."

At that moment, a loud electrical crackling emitted from the machine, and a tendril of smoke began drifting out from behind one of the access panels.  "Uh-oh…" David said worriedly, looking at the display.  "What do you mean 'Uh-oh'?" I asked weakly.  "It's saying something is shorting…" he started, to be interrupted as a small flame curled out along the edge of the panel.  "Oh Crap!" he yelled, grabbing a fire extinguisher, and spraying down the machine until things were back under control. 

"That's not good…" David mumbled to himself, half submerged in the gate's access panel.  "Not what I wanted to hear." I groused, looking over his shoulder at the electronic carnage that was the control unit for the machine.  "So, what's your assessment?" the female asked David.  "It's pretty fried under there…  I'm probably not going to be able to get it working for quite a while." He shrugged "You might want to start looking for an apartment…"

"Well great." I griped as the female led me out of the room, leaving David dismantling the gateway.  Then, realizing something, I asked, "What's your name, by the way?  I like to know who I'm complaining at."  "Oh! I'm sorry.  It's Kristen Whitepaw." My companion replied, holding out a paw for me to shake.  "As long as you're going to be with us for a while, would you like to get some lunch and go over that job offer?" Kristen suggested.  "Why not." I agreed.


Going out a side door, we emerged into a parking lot, where Kristen led me to her car.  "There's a good place to eat not too far off." She informed me, as we pulled out of the lot.  From the outside, the restaurant looked like any one of the more upscale steak and barbecue places back home, and as we got out of the car, I couldn't help but notice that there were some delicious smells wafting across the parking lot.  Walking in, we quickly got a table among the lunch crowd.  As I looked around the restaurant, it quickly became apparent that the population of wherever I had ended up was much more varied than back home.  Doing a quick mental count, I estimated that there was probably ten or fifteen different species at the tables surrounding ours.  I also noticed, a bit uncomfortably, that I was drawing a number of curious looks myself.

"Order anything you want, my treat." Kristen commented as we looked over the menu.  "Hello, my name is Richard, and I'll be your waiter this afternoon.  Are you ready to order, or do you still need a minute?"  A voice asked from behind me.  "I think we're ready to order." Kristen answered "I'll have the roast chicken with a dinner salad, and iced tea to drink please."  "And you sir?" The voice queried.  Turning to face the speaker, I found myself looking up at a rather large wolf.  "Umm…yes.  I'll have a steak, medium rare.  And a stiff drink, I don't particularly care what at this point."  "Very well sir." He replied, taking our menus "And I'll be right out with your drinks." 

"I'm not really sure where to start explaining things." Kristen mused "We needed a systems designer to fill an opening badly, and were unable to locate one locally, so David sort of…improvised with the gateway."  "What about the gateway?" I asked "If your company built it, why is it so much trouble to repair?"  "It was a pet project of one of our engineers." She shrugged "He built all sorts of stuff just to see if they would work, but never bothered to keep much in the way of records of what he was up to.  Well, about a month ago, he was killed in a car accident.  David was put in charge of sorting through the mess in his workshop, and he found the gate while he was cleaning it out.  We have a pretty good idea how to work it, but nobody has any clue exactly why it works, and Doctor Bradshaw's notes were not a lot of help.  Especially considering that he used them to clean up a coffee spill at his desk at one point…"  "Why don't you show me the job offer?" I suggested, becoming a little uneasy at the thought of being stuck in a strange place with nothing but my clothes and a wallet full of useless paper.  Considering that it might take a very long time for David to figure out how to fix the gate, I reasoned that it would probably be a good idea to get some kind of income as soon as possible.

Our food arrived as Kristen was digging some papers out of her briefcase.  My steak looked great, and as I dug into the food I realized just how hungry I was.  "The position is for an adaptive systems design engineer, I believe that we've already mentioned the salary in the initial letter we sent.  The job has very flexible hours, but I should tell you up front that our current project is nearing its deadline, so things will be busy for a while.  The work itself involves designing a system of artificial intelligences capable of communicating and responding to input from each other, for use in a suite of specialized medical equipment."  Kristen then began to go over the fine points of the job in great detail while we ate, and coincidentally finished up just about the same time that we ran out of food.

After giving her offer some careful thought, I decided to accept the job. "Even if I wasn't stuck here, I think I'd take it.  The work sounds challenging, and it's much more interesting than any of my prospects back home."  "Great!" Kristen smiled, explaining the necessary paperwork to me.  Five minutes and a few signatures later, I was officially the newest member of the Integrational Technologies Development, Inc. staff.

"Well, since I'm going to be here for a bit, I probably should pick up a few things." I started, doing my best to keep a straight face "Just some simple stuff, groceries, maybe a new pair of jeans, a house…"  "Finding an apartment on such short notice won't be easy." Kristen contemplated. "Why don't you move in with me temporarily? It'll beat sleeping under your desk until you find a place."  "Wouldn't that create some problems?" I asked hesitantly.  "I don't see why. My place is far bigger than I need, and I've got a spare bedroom." She responded, shrugging a little.  "But, aren't you…well, kind of with David?  He might not be too enthusiastic about the idea." I asked, becoming embarrassed and beginning to blush.  Laughing merrily, she explained "He's my brother.  And a younger one at that.  So I don't think it will really be much of an issue with him.  Or any of his business for that matter."  "Oh." I replied, feeling curiously relieved by the revelation that Kristen was single and unattached.


After settling the check, Kristen and I went back to the car.  "Now that we've got something keeping belly from backbone, why don't we go to the mall and pick you up some stuff?" Kristen suggested.  "I guess it might not be a bad idea to have more than one pair of clothes…" I joked as Kristen started driving.

A short while later, we arrived at the local mall.  Leading me into a convenient department store, we sought out the men's section and began our shopping.  Grabbing two pairs of jeans, a selection of T-shirts and some slightly more personal articles of clothing, I began looking around for a cashier.  "You can't be serious." Kristen said disapprovingly.  "What?" I shrugged.  "That's it?  A couple of shirts and two pairs of pants?  That's all you need?"  She quizzed me.  "It's all right, I can run a load of laundry half way through the week." I defended.  "Men." Kristen laughed, shaking her head "Let's try this again, and see if you can find something presentable this time around." 

Going through the racks of clothing again, I reluctantly selected some dressier choices, jokingly holding them up for Kristen's approval.  After sufficient compromises had been reached, I again started heading for the cashier.  "Aren't you going to try them on?" She reminded me.  "Fine.  I'll try them on." I groaned, rolling my eyes.  As I was in the process of trying on the clothes, I noticed Kristen looking at me examining myself in the mirror; her gaze lingering long enough that I got the impression that she was watching me.  After changing into the last outfit I'd selected, I intentionally caught her staring at me, grinning and winking at her in the mirror.  Much to my amusement, she quickly looked down at the floor, and I could have sworn that she was blushing.

After checking out, we headed to the grocery store that Kristen shopped at to pick up the last few things I'd need in the immediate future.  Splitting up, Kristen went to pick out some stuff for dinner, and I headed into the toiletry section.  After selecting a toothbrush, shampoo, cologne, and a variety of other things, I began looking around for a razor.  But, despite my best efforts, one was not forthcoming.  Just as I was giving up and going to look for someone to ask, Kristen showed up, asking me if I'd "Found everything?"  "Almost.  I can't seem to dig up a razor." I replied, frustrated, and somewhat annoyed at this point.  "Oh," She started, explaining the problem "Few, if any, species needs to shave on a regular basis, and razors are only used as a medical tool, prepping for surgery and all that.  So you wouldn't be able to find them at a grocery store.  I guess you'll just have to order one somewhere."  "Ah, that would explain it." I shrugged, as we checked out and went back to the car.  "So, where to next?" I questioned.  "Well, unless you can think of anything else you need, over to my house so you can start settling in." Kristen informed me as she started the car up and pulled onto the road.


Kristen, it turned out, lived outside of town in a very attractive little place in the woods.  "Here we are!" she commented, opening the front door for me while I carried in my packages from the mall.  "The spare bedroom is down the hall, you can drop off your stuff there." I obliged happily, dropping my new clothes onto the bed, and looking around the room.  It was quite a bit larger than the bedroom in my old apartment, and was more nicely furnished as well.  "Very nice." I grinned, starting to unpack my purchases. 

A thought occurred to me as I was cutting the tags off of my new pants.  "You don't happen to have a sewing kit around here, do you?"  ""Somewhere, why?" Kristen questioned.  Laughing, I held up a pair of pants, and wiggled my fingers at her through the tail hole. "They assumed that I'd have parts that I don't." I stated, explaining the obvious "So I'll have to do a few minor…alterations before I can wear them."

"Umm…well, actually…you might want to wait on that for a while." Kristen replied nervously.  "Oh, why is that?" I asked lightly.  "If you stay in our world for too much longer, you'll change into a form like us."  "Really." I stated flatly, not sure that I liked this new revelation "Why is that?"  "I don't know" Kristen shrugged "there's quite a bit we don't know about how the gate operate…"  "So what will I become?" I asked warily. "You'll just have to wait and see." She replied.  "Great." I commented, my unenthusiastic tone making it quite clear that I wasn't certain about this particular turn of events.  "Don't worry, you'll get to go on medical leave while the changes occur." Kristen hastily explained.  "Well," I sighed resignedly "I suppose what will happen, will happen, and worrying about it won't change anything."

Changing the subject as I finished putting things away, I began questioning Kristen about her world.  It turned out that they were very similar physically, with the only differences being in the shapes and arrangements of the continents.  "How about the people?" I queried "It seems like there's an astronomical number of different species, how does that work out?"  "Everyone pretty much gets along." Kristen shrugged "We're civilized people, you know…"

After I had finished settling in, Kristen made a quick dinner out of a variety of microwaveible entrees, after which I decided that it would be a good idea to turn in early.  "Sorry to eat and run as it were," I yawned "But I'm about to fall asleep on my feet.  It's been a long, strange day."  "Good night." Kristen smiled as I headed for my room.


When I woke up the next morning, I felt bad.  I had a massive headache, and hurt all over.  As I came into the dining room, Kristen looked up over her coffee, and immediately set it down, a worried expression appearing on her face.  "You don't look so hot Nick." She said, standing up to feel my forehead. "You're running a fever too.  Back to bed!" She declared, shepherding me back to my room.  Walking back to my room, I vaguely noticed that that I was a little dizzy, and my balance was getting worse. I had already stumbled on the way down the hall and had to lean on the wall to keep from falling over twice before I collapsed gratefully onto the bed.

I remember very little of the next couple of days, just pain and scattered images.  Kristen standing over me, with a cool washcloth for my forehead. A little stained glass nightlight shaped like a butterfly glowing in the corner.  A bird sitting on a branch outside my window.  The next thing I remember clearly was having to go to the bathroom.  Getting up slowly, still a bit out of it, I found that I was a little shaky on my feet, but decided I would be able to manage well enough.  Finding my way to the bathroom, I fumbled with the odd pair of underwear I was wearing for some reason, then did my business.

Washing my hands, I looked up in the mirror to see someone else looking back.  It took a minute to register, then with a little "Yipe!" I realized what had happened.  The fox looking back at me bore more than a passing resemblance to my old self, though admittedly looking a little bit worse for wear.  After a few minutes of examination, (involving quite a bit of posing) I'd reached a verdict: "Not bad…" I said to myself.  "I couldn't agree more."  a voice from the doorway replied. "You make a very hansom fox." Kristen grinned, leaning on the doorframe, where she had apparently been watching me.  "How long were you planning to stand there watching me make a fool of myself?" I blushed.  "Until the show was over." She laughed, coming over and brushing a stray strand of my headfur out of my eyes.  "It's good to see you up and around again."

Heading back to my room, I dug out a clean set of clothes.  Then I finally noticed what I was wearing.  "Um, Kristen, why am I wearing a diaper?" I asked curiously.  "When you changed, it took a while for you to regain some kind of basic control of your body." She explained "And I didn't want to have to keep washing the sheets."  "Oh." I said, sounding about as embarrassed as I felt. "It's all right." She assured me, trying to make me feel a little better "Now, how about some food?"  "That sounds great," I nodded, unfastening the diaper, and, finding that nothing needed any cleaning, started getting dressed.  The tail hole in my pants, I discovered, complicated things a little bit, but in short order I was dressed, and Kristen was helping me to the dining room.


Sitting down to a small breakfast of toast and orange juice, I began to discuss plans for the day with Kristen.  "I thought I'd head into the office later today, and see about getting my workspace set up." I began. "I don't think that's such a good idea." Kristen interrupted  "You've had a hard couple of days, and you're still not completely used to your new body.  You need to stay home and take it easy for a little while longer."  I was going to protest that I wanted to start in and make a good impression at work, only to remember that she was the boss, and (though I didn't like to admit it) she really did have a point.  Gracefully acquiescing, I agreed to stay home for the day. 

"I'm going down to the office now.  I'll call around noon, maybe, to see how you're getting along." Kristen informed me after breakfast.  "So what am I supposed to do all day?" I complained.  "Oh, I'm sure you'll figure something out." She laughed as she was going out the door "Have fun, be good."  "Make up your mind!" I grinned, watching her walk to the car.  "You know, she really is kind of cute..." I thought to myself as her car pulled out of the driveway.

"Well," I said to myself "What am I going to do today?"  Dropping onto the sofa, I turned on the television and began flipping through the channels.  After a few minutes, another similarity between our two worlds became apparent: Daytime television is a waste of time.  The novelty value of the programs kept my attention for a time, but I soon grew bored with it, and decided to look around outside for a while.

It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny, but not unpleasantly hot, and as I stepped out of the house, I decided it was perfect weather to take a walk.  "Besides," I reasoned "It's not like Kristen told me to stay home, just not to go to work."  And with that, I headed out into the great unknown.

Walking to the end of the driveway, I headed down the street.  Taking a deep breath, I could make out the aroma of the trees and grass around me, and a faint hint of water somewhere.  "Seems like my senses are getting better." I thought to myself "It must be a side effect of the transformation..." It surprised me that I didn't see anyone else outside by the time I had gotten to the main road.  "I guess they're all at work." I reasoned to myself.  At the corner I pondered whither I should go back home, or walk some more.  But my body, still sore from the transformation, made the decision for me, and I eventually headed back to the house.

As I was walking back through the living room, I decided that I'd clean up a bit.  Since Kristen was nice enough to let me stay in her home until I could find an apartment, I felt compelled to help out some.  There were still dishes left over from the breakfast, and I had laundry that needed to be done.  "Besides, it's not like there's a whole lot else to do around here." I griped, never one to sit around and be bored.  In the kitchen, I rapidly loaded the dishwasher, and, after a bit of trial and error, got it started.  Then, finding the laundry basket, I started rounding up some dirty clothes.

It didn't take long for me to collect my laundry, and after discovering that I didn't quite have enough clothes, I headed across the hall to Kristen's room.  Her clothes hamper yielded enough extras to make up a full load.  As I was getting ready to go start the laundry, something by her closet caught my attention.  It was a pack of diapers.  Blushing a little bit, I went to grab them out of her closet.  "Wonder why she didn't leave these in my room?" I thought to myself, assuming that she'd bought them for me when I'd had my little problem.  Opening her closet, I quickly discovered this wasn't entirely the case.  As well as the diapers, I found a collection of baby bottles, pacifiers, and an assortment of toys for little kits.  "What in the world is that all about?" I wondered.  Deciding not to mess with anything, I took my questions and went back to the laundry, debating whither or not to ask Kristen about it when she got home.

After I'd gotten the laundry started, I was feeling pretty tired.  "Guess I'm still not completely recovered." I thought to myself.  At that moment the phone began ringing.  "Hello?" I answered.  "Hi Nick!  How are things going?"  Kristen asked from the other end.  "Not bad." I replied "I was just debating whither to have lunch or to take a nap."  "Ah, decisions, decisions.  I'm glad I don't have to make tough choices like that." She joked.  "Well, I was just checking up on you to make sure everything was okay."  "I think I'm still alive, but let me check to make sure." I quipped.  "Well, I'll see you this evening." Kristen finished.  "Bye."  Hanging up the phone, I decided on food first, then the nap.

Grabbing a quick snack out of the refrigerator, I sat down in the living room.  Setting my plate on the coffee table, I got comfortable on the sofa, somehow ending up lying down on my side instead of sitting up like I had intended.  Yawning, I changed my mind, and decided to take a little nap before lunch.  Snuggling into the overstuffed couch cushions, I closed my eyes.


The next thing I knew, Kristen was gently shaking me awake.  "I'm home" She smiled.  "You're early" I pointed out rather incoherently, still not quite awake.  "I thought you weren't going to be back until the evening."  Laughing good naturedly, she rubbed me behind my ears, which, to my surprise felt wonderfully soothing.  "It's seven thirty." She pointed out.  "Oh." I answered, not entirely surprised that I'd slept the afternoon away. 

"Will you be joining me for dinner?" Kristen asked, right as my tummy rumbled loudly.  "I guess so." She grinned.  "I'll call you when it's ready."  "Okay." I agreed, already halfway back to sleep.  Dinner was on the table shortly: lasagna with garlic bread.  "So, did you keep yourself busy today?" Kristen asked, conversationally.  "More or less." I replied "Though I'd really like to get started at work.  Sitting around gets to me, I'd rather be active."  "Well," Kristen compromised "If you're feeling all right in the morning, why don't you come in for orientation, and we can get your workspace set up for you."  "That sounds good." I smiled, happy to be starting something new.  "But you have to promise not to exert yourself too much.  You don't exactly look like you're completely up and about." She admonished, wagging a finger in my direction.  "Well," I sighed "Under duress I shall tactfully cede to you the concessions asked for."  Laughing at my mock seriousness, Kristen pointed out that "I thought you would."

The rest of dinner was filled by light conversation.  I couldn't quite make up my mind about whither or not I should bring up the things I had discovered that afternoon, and before too long it had gotten late, and the opportunity passed.  "Well," I joked, after helping Kristen with the dishes "I suppose I should turn in now.  I've got a big day tomorrow after all, and I'd hate for that disagreeable old harlot that I work for to have any reason to complain about me."  "No doubt your woefully inadequate performance as not just an employee, but a person in general will leave her plenty of room to berate you." She grinned.  "See you in the morning."


Getting up the next morning, I was a little bit nervous about starting a new job.  Self-consciously I picked through my small collection of clothing, putting together an ensemble that could pass as either semi-formal or casual, depending on what the situation required.  Going down to breakfast, I met Kristen in the dining room, where she was starting in on a bowl of cereal.  Pouring myself some coffee, I joined her at the table.

"Well, don't you look nice today?" Kristen grinned as I started in on my breakfast.  "I'm a little bit nervous." I admitted, polishing off the tray of blueberry muffins "I guess I'll feel better once I meet everyone and get settled in at work."  "It'll be fine." She told me, reassuringly "Our group has a relatively small staff, and everyone is friendly.  A little bit…eccentric maybe, but friendly."  The subject deviated from work for the rest of the meal.  Declaring "We should probably be leaving now." Kristen grabbed her purse, and we headed out the door. 

On the way to the office, Kristen did her best to calm my first day jitters.  "I think you'll like working with us." She started "It's a really nice office, and your co-workers are nice."  "When will I get the project specifics?" I questioned. "Oh, I'll get you all the relevant files today while you're getting settled in, and I'm sure the engineering department can answer any questions you have." She explained as we pulled into the parking lot.

As we went inside, I was struck by how bright and airy the building was.  Everything was much more open than in the office buildings I'd been inside in my world.  There was the usual morning bustle that you'd expect to find in a place of business, regardless of the location.  "Well, where should we begin the tour?" Kristen mused rhetorically leading me down one of the many hallways.  "We're located down here." She said as we turned the corner into one of the wings.  "All the offices are on this end of the hall, and the computer labs and testing facilities are down at the other.  The restrooms and our break room are in the middle." Kristen explained "Our copy and printer equipment is all down by the computer lab.  Oh, and the cafeteria is down that main hallway we came in, just in the opposite direction.  Hmm, I think that's everything." She decided as we stopped in front of an office.  Opening the door, she felt around for the light switch, eventually finding it and revealing the room to be empty.  "This one will be yours" I was informed "we can go down to warehousing in a minute and get whatever furniture you'll need." 

Stepping over to the far wall, I pulled up the blinds to reveal a nice view of the park next to the building.  "I've even got a view." I mused, deciding that I would have to get some potted plants.  "Ms. Whitepaw?" A female wolf asked, materializing at the door "The procurement guys called for you.  They said it was urgent." She explained, ducking out again.  Sighing, Kristen turned to me "I have to go deal with this.  Let me just grab someone to show you where warehousing is, and I'll be back as soon as I can."  Looking down the hall, she quickly found someone in an adjoining office.  "Hey Chris, can you do me a favor?" She questioned, reappearing in the hallway with a male rabbit.  "Nick, this is Chris, he works in the Research and Development labs.  Chris, this is Nick, he's our new adaptive systems guy." She introduced.  "Hi" Chris said, extending a paw.  "I was trying to get him settled in, but I've got to go straighten something out.  Would you mind taking him down to warehousing and helping him pick out some furniture?"  "Sure, no problem." Chris grinned.  "Great, I appreciate it." Kristen smiled, making her exit.

"I'm glad she finally found someone." Chris said as he led me down the hall "I can't finish building the thing without input from whoever is programming it." He laughed.  "Of course now that you're here, I'll actually have to do some work once in a while."  "Well," I grinned back "You could always call in sick half the time, and I could call in sick the other half.  That way neither of us would actually have to get anything done."  "That sounds like a plan." Chris agreed as we reached our destination.


Warehousing turned out to be a massive room stacked with a wide variety of furniture of all types.  "Well, all you have to do now is find what you want." Chris explained.  "They've got just about anything you could want in here somewhere…" Sitting down, I began to list what I'd need.  "A computer table, office chair, maybe a book case or two, and a filing cabinet." I decided eventually.  "Don't forget one of those shelving units." Chris added as I read off my list.  "Right," he said, "Let's start looking."  Splitting up, we began digging through the offerings, eventually locating everything on the list, as well as a marker board that I thought would be nice to have as well.  After tagging all the furniture, we headed to the break room.

"It will take them a while to get that all moved in for you." Chris commented as he poured himself a cup of coffee "And it really doesn't make much sense to go get your computer equipment until you have the furniture set up."  Nodding my agreement, I sat down at the table with him.  "Could we go look at the labs in the meantime?" I requested.  "Sure." Chris shrugged, getting up and leading me back down the hall.  Stopping in front of his office he explained "I've got to check on something here first."  Standing in the doorway as he dropped down in front of his computer, I took in his office.  It had to be the most eccentric collection of stuff I'd ever seen in my life.  His walls were covered in a mix of framed art prints and post-it notes, while most of the flat surfaces in the room bore a variety of rubble: plants, coffee mugs, a dragon shaped hour glass, and a number of partially assembled prototypes co-habited with a wide variety of tools and manuals.  The ceiling sported a fine collection of little crystal prisms hanging from what looked like fishing line.  "Right." Chris declared, standing back up "Onwards!"

Arriving at the labs, Chris gave me the standard tour.  The labs turned out to be much neater than I thought they would be, judging by Chris' office, but everything else was pretty much as I'd expected, and I left thoroughly convinced that this was going to be quite an acceptable place to work.  "Well," Chris joked as he accompanied me back to the offices "If you don't mind terribly, I really should go do some real work.  They're not paying me to be a tour guide you know…"  "That's okay," I quipped back "You would look lousy in the uniform anyway."  Grinning, I continued on to my office.

Inside I discovered that my furniture had all been delivered, but, with the exception of the marker board, which had been hung on the wall already, the furniture was all piled in the middle of the floor.  Sighing, I thought about trying to enlist Chris to help me move things around, but decided against imposing on any more of his time. 

After spending the next forty-five minutes or so arranging my new office the way I wanted it, I was feeling pretty bad.  "Guess I'm not back to my old self yet." I surmised, collapsing into my new chair.  Debating whither or not I had a good excuse, I ended up taking a nap at my desk.

I awoke somewhat later with a paw shaking me gently.  "It's your first day, and you're already sleeping on the job?" Kristen asked with mock severity.  "I just finished moving all this furniture around, I protested "I'll rest my eyes a bit if I want to."  "You shouldn't be moving anything that heavy yet!" Kristen berated me in a concerned manner "I thought we agreed that you'd take it easy today?"  "I forgot." I shrugged.  Shaking her head, Kristen asked me "Do you have a list of the computer equipment you'll need?"  Nodding, I handed her the list I had written up earlier.  "I'll go send this in so it will get delivered over the weekend, then we're going home early." Kristen told me as she disappeared across the hall into her office. 

Deciding to do something useful while she was gone, I began reviewing the stack of project specifications that had been delivered with my furniture.  Becoming engrossed in the material, I didn't realize Kristen was back until I heard her clear her throat.  "Ready to call it a day?" she questioned.  "Almost." I responded, taking the stack of papers I'd not read yet, and turning out the lights.  "Done."


On the way home, I commented to Kristen that I would like to do some shopping over the weekend, to pick up a few decorations for my office.  She thought that was a good idea, and commented that she was glad that I was starting to settle into my new surroundings.

Having decided on an early dinner, Kristen put our food on to cook shortly after we got home while I was changing clothes, then I watched the food, adding a few improvements in the seasoning department while she did the same.  Returning to the kitchen, she tasted the soup that was simmering on the stove. 

"Did you add something to this?" Kristen asked, raising an eyebrow at my (somewhat guilty) denial.  "So what did you think of your first day?" she asked as we sat down to eat.  "I think it went pretty well." I decided after a moment's thought "I'm really happy about having an office with windows, and I got all my furniture moved in without too much trouble."  Pausing, I helped myself to another piece of bread before continuing "I was hoping to meet more of my co-workers though…"  "Well, we have a pretty small department," Kristen began explaining "so normally there would have been more people around, but today happened to be a conference day."  "Ah." I grinned "That would explain why it seemed so empty.  I thought I'd at least run into David around too."  "You seemed to be hitting it off pretty well with Chris." Kristen commented.  "Yeah, he's a nice guy." I agreed "It will be fun working with him."

Dinner continued in a comfortable silence after that, until Kristen interjected "Okay, Nick.  Spill it, what's on your mind?"  "Hmm?  Nothing, why?" I evaded, looking down at my plate.  "You're a horrible liar." Kristen accused, crossing her arms over her chest and staring at me.  "Okay" I sighed "I was trying to think of a way to ask that didn't sound nosey, but here goes.  When I was doing the laundry yesterday I saw some stuff in your room I was a bit curious about."  Seeing her look at me strangely, I added quickly "I wasn't snooping!  Your closet was open, and I just kind of saw it!"

Looking thoroughly embarrassed, she began to explain.  "I've had a stress-related problem for a while now, which makes me occasionally wet the bed at night.  So as a practical thing I started wearing diapers to bed if I've had a particularly hard day." She shrugged "It beat having to wash the sheets every morning."  "What about the other things, the bottles and little sleepers and stuff?"  I asked.  Not meeting my gaze, she continued "After a while, I started liking to wear diapers, and it sort of led to other more babyish things.  I found that it felt good to just be able to relax and forget about everything for a while.  Being a little kit makes me feel better when things aren't going right, or I've had a hard day or whatever."

"You must think I'm pretty weird." Kristen stated, sniffling a little.  "No, not at all." I soothed "If that makes you happy, I don't have a problem with it.  I mean, it's not like it's hurting anyone."  On impulse I went over and gave her a hug.  "Why don't we have some dissert?  I think I saw some ice cream in the freezer earlier…"

Feeling a bit worn out from my first day at the office, I decided to go to bed early.  As I was heading for bed, Kristen met me on the stairs.  "Nick?" she started "Thanks for being so supportive.  I was really dreading having that discussion with you.  I mean, living here you would have found out eventually, but I just couldn't bring myself to talk about it."  "Sure." I smiled.  Hesitating a moment, Kristen leaned over and gave me a kiss on the muzzle.  Then, while I was standing there in mute surprise, she went across the hall to her room.

Lying in the dark waiting for sleep to find me, my thoughts began to wander.  With a start, I realized that I was falling in love with Kristen.  She was kind and smart and funny, and despite it being new to me, I had to admit that I found foxes to be attractive, and Kristen was certainly an attractive Fox!  And, when I thought about it, it really did seem like she was interested in me as well.  Resolving to bring it up the next day, I fell into a pleasant, dreamless sleep.


The next morning I slept in late, being woken up eventually when the telephone rang.  Listening, I could make out Kristen's muffled voice coming from downstairs.  Noticing that she didn't seem to be very happy, I decided that I should probably go find out what was going on.  Getting out of bed, I pulled on my pants and, after having slight difficulties with the tail hole (yet again), I headed downstairs.

I found Kristen in the kitchen, hastily eating a bagel.  "Oh good, you're up." She greeted me "They called from the office.  They're having some kind of problem with the building's key card readers, and I'm going to have to go in and help clear it up."  "Oh." I said, visibly disappointed that we wouldn't be going shopping.  "Don't worry!" Kristen laughed, seeing my glum expression "It can't possibly take very long.  I should be back around lunchtime, then maybe we can go do that shopping, okay?"  "Well, I suppose if they really need you…" I pouted.  "I'll be back before you know it." She assured me.  Then, giving me a quick kiss, she went out to the garage.

Sitting down to breakfast, I began debating what to do this morning.  Since I didn't have a car, truck, motorcycle or skateboard, my options were somewhat limited.  I didn't really feel like sitting around in front of the television all day, there had to be something more productive (and interesting…) to do around the house.  Then I remembered that I had brought a stack of work home with me the night before.  Cheered by the prospect of being able to do something useful, I dug out my box of papers, and immediately decided that the first thing I was going to buy next time I was out would be a briefcase!

After spending a good half-hour or so sorting out the mess that was my work, I spread them out on the floor in the living room, and flopped down on the carpet.  Studying the technical specifications and electrical schematics before me, I began drafting a battle plan.  Their requirements were not particularly difficult, but since the product was going to be used in the medical field, it required a number of redundant backups, to prevent any unpleasantness should something fail at an inopportune time.  "It wouldn't look very good if customers died on us…" I laughed to myself as I jotted down notes.  After a far longer time than I realized, my leg began to fall asleep where I had been sitting on it.  Getting up, I took a walk around the yard to get the blood flowing again.  "I really should see if I can talk Kristen into getting me a workstation at home." I mused to myself as I came back inside.

Sitting down on the sofa, my attention was drawn to my tail.  Staring at it, not really thinking about anything in particular, I moved it around, curling it around my arm.  It looked so soft and fluffy, I couldn't help but smile a little.  Then, giving into a sudden urge, I buried my muzzle in the soft reddish-orange fur, lying down on the sofa and snuggling up with it, like a huge, fuzzy stuffed toy.  Feeling unaccountably happy, I decided that I really did like my tail.  Thinking back, this had really been a strange few days.  I had a new job, a new home, and a new body for crying out loud.  There had sure been a lot of changes in my life.  And, as my thoughts wandered a bit more, I found myself sort of hoping that I'd found a new girlfriend as well.  Kristen really was something special.  "Well, back to work!" I declared, sitting up suddenly and stretching my paws over my head.


Settling back down to work, the rest of the morning passed quickly.  By the time I was considering fixing myself something for lunch I had done all the pre-planning for my project assignment, and was just contemplating trying to schedule a meeting with Chris and the rest of the engineering team Monday.  "I need e-mail, damn it." I griped to myself  "How am I supposed to get anything scheduled when I have no way to contact the rest of the development team?"  As if to point out the obvious solution, the telephone chose that moment to introduce itself into my life.  "Hello!" I answered cheerfully.  "Well, at least someone is having a good day." Kristen griped from the other end of the line.  "You don't sound so good." I noted, becoming a little bit worried "What's the matter?"

Sighing deeply, Kristen began to explain "There was a power outage down here for most of last night.  The power company said a transformer shorted out, but I guess it really doesn't matter what caused it.  Anyway, all the computers have battery backups with an auto-shutdown feature, so there wasn't any problem there, but the building security system was on the main line, and it got completely wiped out."  "Uh-oh." I said sympathetically.  "You have no idea." Kristen continued "Not only did the power failure trigger an automatic lockdown, we only got back in about ten minutes ago by the way, but the computer lost all the key card data.  Nobody's badges work right now, and we're going to have to get a technician in from the security company to reset all this.  It's a huge mess…" 

"Do you know when you'll be getting back home?" I wondered aloud.  Sounding resigned to her fate, Kristen predicted "I'd be surprised if I was back before late this evening."  "Well, when you do get home, I'll have a nice hot dinner waiting for you." I decided "So don't worry about any of that, okay?"  "You're sweet." She replied, sounding a bit less stressed than when she first called "I'll be looking forward to it."  "I'll see you this evening." I nodded, hanging up the telephone.

Standing there by the telephone, I made up my mind.  "I think I love her." She was different from everyone else I'd ever known.  I cared about her, and decided that there was something that I wanted to do for her.  Going through her closet, I looked over some of her little kit things, eventually finding a bottle, and a few other necessities I would need for the upcoming evening.

Towards the late afternoon, I began preparing to make dinner, as promised.  I had a little trouble deciding on what to make.  I wanted something that she would enjoy in her kit persona, but also would be suitable for an adult if she didn't feel like games when she got home.  Eventually I decided on spaghetti, mostly due to the fact that Kristen had not bought groceries in a while, and I found myself lacking just a little in raw materials. (As it were.)  I decided on garlic bread, and, at the last minute, a Parmesan chicken recipe that was being showcased on a cooking show I stumbled across on television.  The show was hosted by a rather hyperactive lemur, who was, despite being a little hard to follow, an excellent teacher, and judging from the smells wafting from the oven, things were going to turn out quite acceptable indeed.

Another moment of slight confusion came when I was debating whither or not to make a salad to go with the meal.  Thinking back, I couldn't remember seeing Kristen ever eat a salad, but I hadn't known her for very long either.  "Are foxes carnivores or omnivores?" I mused, trying to remember my high school biology class.  Then after a bit more thought "And is that even relevant to my particular situation?"  Eventually I compromised by making a small salad, with a nice vinaigrette dressing.  "If she doesn't want any" I reasoned "there's not that much there, and I can always finish it myself tomorrow for lunch." 

With that taken care of, all that remained was selecting a nice wine to go with the meal.  Going through the pantry, I found her wine rack.  Examining the bottles, I was quickly lost.  "Should have known that there wouldn't be anything I had heard of." I shrugged mentally.  Short of opening things and trying them, I really didn't have any good way of making a selection.  So, doing what any connoisseur would do when faced with a no win situation, I picked the one with the most attractive label, and set it in the refrigerator to chill.

Closing the pantry, a bottle buried in the back caught my attention.  Reaching all the way in the back, I extracted it from the shelf.  The bottle had obviously been there for an exceptionally long time, the intricately blown glass had collected a thick coating of dust, and the label had yellowed noticeably.  Blowing off the dust, I admired the unique bottle.  It had a gracefully curving shape, almost like a decanter, with a neck that twisted into a looping spiral as it thinned towards the top.  The liquid inside was a reddish gold color, looking like no liquor I had ever seen before.  The printing on the label was in a faded, spidery script which I gave up trying to decipher.  I had the greatest urge to try a bit, but also got the impression that whatever it was probably was quite expensive, so I set it on the counter, resolving to ask Kristen about it that evening.


Kristen actually got home before the food was done cooking.  Hearing her pull up into the driveway, I retrieved the baby bottle of juice that I had prepared from the refrigerator, and went to meet her at the door.  I admit, I was actually pretty nervous about how she would react, and I think that if she said that she wasn't interested in pursuing this with me I would be quite disappointed.  The idea had grown on me with time, and I was beginning to look forward to it!

Looking through the little windowpanes set in the front door, I saw Kristen come around the side of the house.  She looked like she felt horrible.  Her tail hung limply behind her, and her ears had none of their usual perkiness, I didn't have a whole lot of experience reading canine body language, but even I could tell that what stood before me was one tired out fox.  Opening the door, I stepped out to meet her.  "Rough day?" I asked, somewhat rhetorically.  "Uh-huh." She sighed.  "Well, why don't we go inside?" I suggested "Dinner won't be ready for a bit longer, but I've got a nice bottle of juice waiting for you…" Offering her the bottle, I waved her towards the living room. 

Seeing me seriously offering her the bottle, she gave me a questioning, hopeful look.  Smiling and nodding, I sat down on the sofa, and patted the seat next to me.  With a look of real happiness, she sat down next to me, and I knew that I had done the right thing.  "Here we are." I said after she had snuggled down on the couch, with her head in my lap.  "Isn't that much better?"  Taking the bottle, she slowly started to drink her juice.  I began rubbing her shoulders while she lay there with the bottle.  After a bit I felt the muscles in her back and shoulders start to loosen up as the tensions of the day left her.

I took the empty bottle when she was finished with it, setting it on the coffee table, and continuing to rub her back.  Playfully, she tickled my muzzle with her tail, then looking up at me with her beautiful green eyes she grinned "Nick, that ten minutes made up for this entire lousy day."  "I hoped it would." I said softly "You sounded pretty tired over the telephone this afternoon, and I wanted to do something special for you."  Wrapping her arms around my neck, she kissed me tenderly on the muzzle.  "That's the third time you've done that." I noted "I think it's my turn now."  And with that, I kissed her on the muzzle.  Then, rubbing her behind the ear I asked "Now, how about some dinner?"

The food had turned out wonderfully, despite the fact that I cooked it.  Kristen looked approvingly at the wide selection before her, deciding on a little bit of everything, including, I noted, the salad.   I love this chicken!" she complimented, after taking a second helping then jokingly asked "How did you know that's always a good thing to offer a fox?"  "Oh really, why is that?" I questioned.  Starting to grin, she realized I was serious and explained "Most species have some throwbacks to their less civilized predecessors.  I guess that foxes just have an ancestral holdover about liking chicken." "Funny," I laughed "I truly despise chicken.  I guess that's a throwback to eating far too much of it when I was in college."  "You make a very odd fox." Kristen joked good-naturedly.  "I've been told I'm handsome too." I answered with mock seriousness, sticking out my tongue.

We both agreed that dinner was quite good, and the fact that there wasn't any leftovers was tangible confirmation.  After dinner, I asked if my little kit would like to watch a movie.  Kristen ventured that she would like that a lot.  Leading her upstairs, I asked her to hop up on the bathroom counter while I got a few things from her room.  Rounding up her diapers as well as some diaper cream and a little jar of baby powder, I returned to the bathroom. 

"Do you think it's cold enough for a sleeper too?" I asked Kristen.  "No." she shook her head emphatically, already getting back into being a baby.  "Okay then." I nodded, helping her out of her adult clothes.  "Here's a nice new didy for my little kit." I announced, keeping up a bit of a running monologue.  I was admittedly a bit nervous about diapering the beautiful vixen, though I was also exited by it as well.  (I was hoping that this fact wouldn't become too obvious…)  She obligingly lifted up a little bit so I could slip the diaper under her backside, threading her tail through the tail hole.  Then, sprinkling on a coating of baby powder, I fastened up the diaper and helped Kristen off of the table.  "Now, how about that movie?" I suggested.  "Yay! Movies!" She giggled, scampering back to the living room and digging through the entertainment center, having firmly sunk into babyhood for the evening.

Flopping down on the carpet next to her, I began to root through her video collection with her.  She had an interesting mix of tapes.  Besides a good collection of movies for older people, Kristen had a fine selection of the Disney classics.  Seeing all my old favorites from when I was growing up, I couldn't help but gain a little bit of Kristen's excitement over it all.  "So, which one will it be?" I grinned.  "Wobin Hood!" she lisped, handing me the tape.  "Good choice, it's one of my favorites." I declared, putting the tape in the VCR, then retreating back to the couch.  Snuggling into my lap, Kristen joined me, and we began the movie.

As the story unfolded, I noticed that Kristen began to get more and more tired, eventually drowsing in my arms, pretty much asleep.  I decided not to wake her until the movie was over.  I told myself that I was watching the movie, and wanted to finish it before we all went to bed.  I felt content there with Kristen, warm in my arms, feeling the little movements that a sleeper makes when they subconsciously look for that one perfect spot.  There wasn't anywhere else in the whole world I would have rather been right then.  "So this is love." I thought to myself, smiling in the dim light of the television.


All too soon the tape ended.  "Okay little one." I whispered, gently waking her "You've had a busy day, and I think it's past your bedtime now."  "But the movie isn't over yet." Kristen protested sleepily.  "Yes it is honey." I explained, using what I hoped sounded like an authoritative voice. (Having never babysat, I wasn't really sure how to go about handling little kids.) "Now off you go!"   "You know," Kristen mused sleepily on the way to her room "Robin Hood looks quite a bit like you…"  "Do you find dashing rogues attractive?" I joked as I tucked her into bed. "If you're a dashing rogue, then yes." She answered, already falling back to sleep.  "Sleep well, little one." I whispered. Then, kissing her on the forehead, I quietly walked out of her room.

Not feeling tired yet (having lounged around the house all day) I went down to Kristen's study.  I remembered from an earlier investigation that she kept a large collection of books there.  Selecting a book of poetry that looked appealing, I headed back to my room, stopping first at the kitchen.  Retrieving the bottle I had found earlier, which Kristen had told me over dinner that I could help myself to, and an appropriate glass, I retired to my room for the evening.

The poetry, it turned out, was of a decidedly serious vein, but it matched my mood at the time quite well.  Opening the bottle, my nostrils were caressed by a wonderful cinnamon fragrance, with another underlying scent I couldn't quite place.  Trying a bit, I found the liquor to be very good.  Sitting up reading and sipping from the wonderful cinnamon concoction, I mulled over a particular piece called On Plum Blossoms.

The Plum Blossoms

Floating in a mountain stream

Are quickly swept away.


As the blossoms float away,

So too does time move all things.


Blossoms in a stream

Will reach the shining blue sea

At their journey's end.


Floating in the stream of time,

One will always reach the sea.


As the journey is ending,

All had the same: a lifetime.


And yet when you go

The place you depart

Continues on.

After a time, it seemed to have been a while, but I couldn't really know for sure, I found myself in the midst of a deep melancholy.  Turning off the light, and trying to sleep, I began thinking about my old life.  My friends, the places I had been and the places I had hoped to go.  I don't know why exactly, maybe I was drunk, maybe the poems had just put me in a sad mood, but I began to cry softly.  I felt alone, lying there in the dark, worlds away from everything I had known, everything I had been.  It scared me, I felt like I was spiraling out of control and my destiny was no longer my own.

I guess that I must have woken Kristen up, because I heard the sound of soft footfalls, and plastic crinkling, and then she was crawling into bed next to me.  "There, there." She whispered softly "Everything will be okay.  I know there's been some big changes in you life, and it's only natural for you to feel a little bit strange.  But it will be okay.  I promise."  And I believed her.  As long as I could be with her, I could deal with anything.  Snuggling up next to her, I gradually began to feel better.  Feeling her put her arm around me, I smiled to myself in the darkness.  Her tail somehow ended up right beside my muzzle, and as I drifted off to sleep I found myself hugging it a little bit.  The last thing I remember before I fell asleep was hearing her diaper crinkle a little bit as she hugged me back. 

To Be Continued...