The Storm

Chapter 2

Jan’s prediction that the storm was passing, it turned out, was a bit optimistic, but as we all took a look out our suite’s large leaded glass windows it was clear that it had hit a lull for the time being.  “So what now?” I asked, trying to stretch out some of the persistent aches in my fuzzy new body while still holding open my side of the curtains.  (I must have been a pretty funny spectacle, standing there trying to keep my balance while almost but not quite managing to bend in ways that anatomy clearly never intended; but Kathlyn and Jan were polite enough not to go beyond just giving me amused looks…)  “We’ve got to get moving again.” Kathlyn explained “If we’re here when the storm has passed by the area, then here we stay…”  “I’ll start rounding up our stuff then.” I nodded, clumsily beginning to get dressed.

“’Yall are going to have to explain this whole thing to me on the road.” I suggested to Jan as we hastily crammed the last of our wayward possessions into backpacks “The surprises are starting to make my brain hurt.”  “I can,” He nodded, grabbing up Kathlyn’s pack and heading for the door “But only if I can sit up front today.”  “That’s between you two.” I hedged “I’m not getting involved in the quest for shotgun.”  “What’s ‘shotgun’?” He asked as I wrestled the stable door open and started rooting through my pockets for the Jeep’s keys.  “We don’t have one.” I chose to misunderstand, popping the locks and helping Jan to load our packs.  “Where’s Kathlyn, by the way?”

“Outside icing her whiskers.” He grinned.  “I’m going to assume that is an expression I’m not familiar with.” I questioned, lifting an eyebrow.  “Yep.” Jan nodded seriously “In this weather it’s probably happening though…”  “I don’t doubt it.” I agreed, checking the gas, then cranking over the engine to let it warm up “But seriously…”  “She’s outside figuring out where we’re going.” He explained “I’m not sure how it works, really, I’m only a fourth year at the academy.”  “Well, don’t feel bad about it.” I laughed “You’re still way ahead of me!”

“Don’t give him any ideas!” Kathlyn laughed by way of a greeting, shouldering the stable door closed behind her “He’s insufferable enough to live with as it is!”  “So what’s the call?” I asked as Jan scurried over to the Jeep and hopped in the passenger seat.  “I was here first!” he announced victoriously.  “I’m pretty sure that’s not what he was asking, little brother.” Kathlyn informed Jan, all the while putting on an air of not caring a bit about the seating arrangement.  “The storm is moving out of the area.” She explained for my benefit “If we don’t follow and stay within it we’ll be stuck wherever we are when it’s completely gone.”  “So basically we just kind of follow it until we get where we’re going, then hunker down until it passes.” I nodded.  “Yes, except that eventually it will burn itself out, and when it’s over we’ll end up wherever we happen to be.  Think of it like a flooding river: it sweeps everything in its path along, but as the water slows and recedes it doesn’t have the power to keep moving the heavier debris, and things start to sink to the bottom and get left behind.  First boulders, then rocks, and finally grains of sand until the river is back to normal, and the water flows empty and clear again.”  “Ah.” I nodded, looking worried “Then we should make sure we aren’t the fish dumped off out in the middle of a field somewhere…”


In short order we were loaded back up (Jan having managed to time-share the front seat after all) and were back on the road.  “Pity this thing doesn’t have the courtesy to dredge us up a strip of asphalt.” I grumbled after clipping the edge of a particularly nasty hole in the dirt track and launching everyone up and into the cloth top of the Jeep.  “Be glad you can make it through at all.” Kathlyn shrugged “Before we met you Jan and I had spent several days picking our way across a gravel-covered mountain!”  “Wonder how that came about.”  “My best guess? It started out as volcanic mud or else a really angry water dragon.  There’s no way to tell, really, and as long as it wasn’t there when we were passing through I had more pressing concerns to worry about.”

“Shift into 4-low and complain less it is!” I laughed, grabbing Jan’s knee instead of the shifter and wiggling it around, eliciting a fit of giggles from the pup.  “Hmm…transmission seems to be acting up…”  Taking my paw by the wrist, he deposited it on the stick.  “Try that one!”  “He must still be having trouble with the new body.’ Kathlyn joked, leaning over the front seats and peering into my ear seriously.  “Hmm…”  “Don’t distract the driver.” I grinned back “If I get this thing stuck in the snow everyone has to get out and push!”  “I can’t push and navigate at the same time; we’ll make Jan do it, since he’s up front already anyway.”

We settled down into a comfortable silence for a while after that, the steady hum of the heater and the crunching of the tires on the snow settling into a droning rhythm.  The woods rose up, monotonously unbroken for well into the early afternoon, until we unexpectedly passed through a much thicker patch of fog than we had been seeing lately and emerged into a huge, flat field, appearing to stretch to the skyline all around us.  Glancing into the rearview mirror, I was more than a little disconcerted to discover that behind us was more of the same.

“Settle down, settle down.” Kathlyn reassured me gently “It happens from time to time.”  “I didn’t say anything…” I protested.  “Your ears are laid back flat.” She pointed out “That’s kind of telling with us.”  “Oh.” I nodded.  Braking to a gentle halt, I closed my eyes for a second and took a couple of deep breaths to settle myself.  No one else was concerned about it; I probably didn’t need to be either.

“Why don’t we stop for lunch?” Kathlyn suggested “Here is as good a place as any, and I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs a bit either…”  “Seconded!” Jan agreed cheerfully.  Turning off the engine, I set the parking brake and got out.  It was snowing lightly, and was only a little bit below freezing; it was probably the nicest the weather had been since we started out.  “It’s not passing us by?” I double checked.  I didn’t want to get myself stranded, and it had been on my mind all day.  “Nope, not at all.” Kathlyn assured me “Let me worry about that, okay?  I’m trained in these things.”  Nodding my agreement, I turned my attentions to working out all the unpleasantness from sitting in one place (relatively speaking) all day.

I hadn’t gotten over the aches and pains of being transformed into a fox by any stretch of the imagination, and being stuck in the car all day wasn’t helping.  And on top of all that, I’d managed to sit on my tail without noticing, and now that it was waking up again it was taking the opportunity to express its extreme displeasure with the situation.  Bleagh, I could have done without having that problem as well, given the option.

“There must have been some pretty bad winds here not too long ago.” Jan observed, gleefully tromping through the frozen grass “Look how it turned every blade into a little icicle!”  Looking down, I took a swipe at a patch of them with my foot-paw.  They made a very satisfying crackling crunch as the pieces went airborne across the field.  “Heh.” I giggled, not being able to help myself.  It was way more fun than it had any right to be, and between the two of us we did a rather credible ‘giant monsters smashing up a city’ impression.  Kathlyn decided to take the high road on the issue, and never would have admitted it, but to my great personal satisfaction I caught her grinning about it as she puttered around the back of the Jeep deciding what was worth eating for lunch.

By the time Kathlyn suggested Jan and I “eat something before the chef grew cranky” we had created a sizable ring of destruction in the grass-icicle forest in the vicinity of the Jeep, and would have needed to roam further afield anyway, so there wasn’t much grumbling as we retired form the field of battle.  To my absolute delight, Kathlyn had brought along some hot food from the inn.  It was mostly sandwiches, and for some reason a bowl of mashed potatoes, but she had also filled the large vacuum thermos I’d gotten with the rest of our supplies, and the tea was still hot enough to steam in the cold air when she opened it.  “Have I told you I love you recently?” I smiled, accepting a mug and warming my paws against the ceramic.  “Yes, but it’s still nice to hear.” She grinned back happily.

“Aww, aren’t you two cute!” Jan teased hopping up on the hood next to Kathlyn.  “And don’t you forget it!” she grinned back “I can make the food stretch a lot further if I decide you’re not getting any of it!”  “You wouldn’t do that.” Jan said sweetly “Because you’re my wonderful and generous big sister who is always looking out for her…”  “Now I’ve got the food!” I announced, grabbing the box and hopping up on the roll-bar between two of the floods.  “And I have I told you recently how brave and handsome a fox you are?  Always defending us from evil and hunger…”

“See how it is?” I grinned, sliding back down the windshield “Fame and appreciation are fickle, fleeting things, and so help me if you touch my food I’ll gnaw your arm off! “  “You need to feed him more often.” Jan observed mildly “He’s starting to be a grumpy little kit.”  “Damn skippy.” I nodded, unwrapping a sandwich and viciously biting off a piece.  “Now be nice.” Kathlyn teased back “He probably wouldn’t taste all that good anyway…do you know how long it’s been since he’s had a bath?”  “At the inn, same as you.” Jan grumbled, sticking out his tongue at Kathlyn and launching into his own sandwich.

Deciding she should probably stake a claim while there was still food left, Kathlyn snagged one as well, and we spent  the next few minutes sitting in a happy, munchies-filled silence.  After I finished my first sandwich I was just reaching for another when Kathlyn poked me in the ribs, then when I turned to see what she wanted waved a spoon at me playfully.  “That would be my titanium spork, wouldn’t it?” I accused.  “I’m not familiar with either ‘titanium’ or ‘sporks’, but I’m going to go with ‘yes’.” She nodded cheerfully.  “Titanium is a metal, a spork is the unholy spawn of a spoon and a fork, and you were digging through my pack, weren’t you?”  “That’s good to know; could they somehow add a knife to complete the set; and yes.”

I was just opening my muzzle to be a ‘grumpy little kit’ as Jan put it, when she very effectively shut me up with a scoop of mashed potatoes.  I’d have been continuing my pre-empted tirade, but they were skins-in and had garlic butter.  Okay, yes, my train of thought is easy to derail, but I’ve got garlic potatoes.  So there.  “That’s entirely too easy.” Jan accused Kathlyn disapprovingly.  “Yes.  Yes it is.” She nodded happily “If you get the chance to find a mate it works on, I can highly recommend it!”  “I’ll keep that in mind when I’m old and boring too…” He agreed, ducking the scoop of potatoes she flicked at him, grabbing a pair of sandwiches, then disappearing into the Jeep.

“You could always levitate him head first into a snow drift.” I suggested cheerfully.  “It probably hasn’t occurred to you yet, but when the magical types grow up with brothers and sisters we tend to become really good at defensive magic pretty quickly.” Kathlyn explained “I’m good, but it’s been years since I could have made that work.” Kathlyn explained, looking a bit exasperated.  “Makes sense.” I nodded.  “Someone told me once that the best combat training out there is having a couple of older brothers…”

Getting back to the food, Kathlyn offered me another spoonful of the potatoes in between bites of her sandwich.  “I wish I’d been able to get you something we could put in a bottle for you, but all the juices they had at the inn were things that would plug up the nipple, so we have to settle with the potatoes…”  “Life is difficult, yes.” I nodded seriously.  “At least you’re cheerful about it.”  “I would be if there was less talk and more food.” Kathlyn was informed firmly “Full tummy will reduce the chances of biting!”  “So would a time-out…” she warned, waving the potato-laden spork threateningly.  Leaning forward, I nonchalantly slurped the spork clear, then stuck out my tongue.  “Not scared of you, you’ll have to try harder than that if you think…” A sudden banging on the inside of the window made me jump with a very heroic “Eep!”

Jan waved from the inside of the Jeep, looking way too pleased with himself. “You’re going to end up in a snow bank if you’re not careful!” I glowered fiercely at the cheeky little pup. “I warn you, you’re walking a thin, thin, line there!”  Jan just grinned, reaching for the windshield wiper lever with an innocent little gesture.  “You’re pushing it…” I warned “Don’t think I won’t make your tail into a scarf!”   “Not scared of you.” He mimicked “You’ll have to try harder than that!”  I playfully thwacked the front window in front of Jan, but he was expecting it and I didn’t get a reaction out of him.  “Spoilsport.” I complained.  “Hush and finish your lunch.”  Kathlyn admonished, tapping me on the nose with the currently empty spork.


After lunch and a brief grooming session where Kathlyn cleared up a couple of little potato globs that had taken up residence in my whiskers (hey, I’ve not gotten used to having them there, and Kathlyn had declared my thoughts about shaving them off a Bad Idea, so stay they would.) we got back on the pseudo-road again.  For reasons the explanation of I couldn’t quite fathom (and eventually just wrote off as “Because she said so.”), Kathlyn directed us on a winding and circuitous route through the huge, perfectly serviceable field.

“I’m fine with ‘because I said so’” I sighed after the first hour or so “but is there really not a route that doesn’t require quite so much doubling back on itself?”  “If you don’t mind driving out of reality and into a dark oblivion, then yes.” She informed me congenially.  “Will it have cookies?” I asked seriously “I could hook the winch up to something solid and pull us back out when we’re done if there will be cookies…”

“I could drive a while if you’re getting tired.” Jan suggested hopefully from the backseat where Kathlyn had banished him after lunch, by way of making it to the passenger seat first.  “Maybe sometime when there’s less dark oblivions around.  It doesn’t sound like there will be cookies, so I think it would be preferable to avoid them if possible.” I decided “Also the possibility of having to walk again.  And bugs.  Bugs too.”  “See what happens when you get him started?” Kathlyn laughed.  “Oh sure, pick on the poor little foxy…” I sighed in mock resignation “I’m always so unappreciated around here…”  I didn’t get much further than that because Kathlyn took it upon herself to spoil a perfectly good rant by leaning across the console and kissing me on the muzzle.

Swerving the Jeep back onto a straight line, I snapped my eyes back on the road.  “I’m not complaining about that for a second, mind you, and would love to pursue it further later, but I’d prefer I didn’t wreck the Jeep either…” I grinned.  “Walking is good for you.” Kathlyn informed me “And it’s only misting a tiny bit outside, hardly even worth mentioning really.”  For once, the universe’s timing was out to get someone else, and just as Kathlyn was finished praising the relative mildness of the weather there was a crackling thump, and we were somewhere else entirely.  Somewhere where it was snowing.

Braking to a crunchy halt, I looked around our new surroundings in thinly veiled displeasure.  “We didn’t exactly trade up this time, did we?” It didn’t take more than just impressions to get the feeling that there was something badly wrong with this place.  Everything had tones of muted gray as if we were looking at the bleak, barren landscape through a camera lens filter: the few trees we could see were either dead skeletons or stunted, misshapen things, as if trying to parody something that they had never actually seen and were only passingly familiar with.  The ugly grey snow covered the whole landscape, making odd, Escher-esque mounds from unidentifiable pieces of the landscape.  Where the wipers pushed the snow around on the windshield they left a greasy smear on the glass.

“Ugh, what is this place? Jan asked, leaning over the center console and peering out the front windshield.  “I think it’s from my end of the block.” I answered, starting to get a really bad feeling about things.  “Jan, dig around in the back and get my first-aid kit for me, would you?” I decided, slowly continuing on in the direction Kathlyn had indicated.  He eventually found it and handed it up when I stopped again, and after a bit of looking I produced a pill bottle.  Popping off the lid, I took two of them then started the bottle around the car.  “Two each.” I instructed.  “What is it?” Kathlyn  asked, fishing out two of the pills and handing the bottle off to Jan.  “Potassium Iodine.” I explained, taking the bottle back from Jan and setting it in the Jeep’s cup holder, then adjusting the timing ring on my watch.  “Preventative maintenance, just humor me...”

The going was much slower now  because what at first glance looked like flat ground really, really, wasn’t.  Not even a little bit.  Between the rolling, pockmarked ground and the ubiquitous grey snow drifts, any progress was good progress.  “We’re going to be stuck here a while…” Kathlyn sighed.  “Yeah, I think this mess is pretty depressing too.” I nodded. “Just as long as we don’t have to stop over for the night.  There doesn’t look like there’s anything out here.”  “At least we can see anything wandering around coming from a long way off.”  Jan piped in cheerfully.  “Yeah, but have you seen anything alive since we’ve gotten here, besides trees I mean?”  “No…” he frowned, beginning to catch my meaning.  “See?  There’s always something walking around somewhere.  But not here.  No birds, no bugs, nothing.  Just the trees.  So best case scenario there’s some super nasty predator living here that everything is hiding from.  Worst case?  Acid rains, or maybe a hot zone nearby.”  “Hot could be nice for a change…” Jan said hopefully “I wouldn’t mind thawing out for a while.”  “Different sort of ‘hot’.” I sighed, negotiating around a dip big enough to see under the snow.

After several more hours of tedious driving we came upon the edge of a deep valley, which, to everyone’s surprise had a fairly intact looking little town nestled at the bottom of it.  “I didn’t think we would run into one of those again until we had crossed over to somewhere else…” Kathlyn commented, sounding pleased.  “I wouldn’t hold your breath.” I warned “I doubt there will be anything there worth the trip…”  Quite a lot of driving along the rim of the valley eventually produced a route downhill, which was by far the scariest part of the trip so far.  Ice, low visibility, and the generally horrible condition of the road had my ears laid flat and my fur poofed up long before we reached the comparably flat ground at the bottom.

“It looks like I’ve got quite a lot of brushing ahead of me tonight!” Kathlyn laughed, flicking my muzzle with the end of my now massively fluffed-up tail.  “Don’t make promises…we’re probably going to be sleeping in the Jeep if I have to stop for the night.” I warned “And I have no plans to do that if there’s any way to avoid it.”  “How long exactly do you think you can keep going without sleeping?” she asked skeptically.  “Historically?  Probably thirty-five hours before I really start to feel it, forty before I’m dangerous to operate machinery, then maybe another six or eight before I collapse on ‘yall.”  “If we find somewhere safe here we’re going to stop for the night.” She decided.  “Okay, but I decide what is and isn’t safe.”


The town was completely deserted, but surprisingly intact.  The ground obviously had shifted, since every building in town that we passed seemed to have cracked foundations and walls, and more windows than not were broken out or at least cracked.  “What are you looking for?” Jan asked, sounding a little frustrated after we had been driving around a while.  “A post office, high school, or city services building.” I explained “I’ve not been able to date any of the cars around here to later than the end of the 1950’s, so this place must have disappeared from the very early ‘60’s in its timeline.  Anywhere with a civil defense station will have what we need.”  “Oh.  What’s that?” he continued expectantly.  “I’ll explain when you’re done with that magic lesson you keep promising me.” I grinned.  I was enjoying the look Jan was directing my way enough that I almost missed the school as I drove by.  The sign declared it ‘Edderville Consolidated Sc’, the rest of the sign having been broken off at one of the top corners, but still proudly telling me this was ‘The Home of The Eagles’.  There was a looped driveway leading to the covered entryway to the three story red brick building, but parking and the playground and sports fields must have been around in back.

I hopped up over the curb and worked the Jeep as close in to the covered corner with the driver’s door about six inches from the wall.  “You two stay here.” I instructed “Keep the car sealed up: no doors, no windows, and go ahead and leave the heaters on the lowest settings.  And don’t turn off the engine.”  “I’m not liking the sound of this.” Kathlyn argued as I fished out three bandanna handkerchiefs and a cheap plastic rain poncho.  “It’s probably safe.” I explained “But on the off chance it isn’t I don’t want anyone else getting sick.”  Kathlyn didn’t look happy with it, but she didn’t argue with me.  Jan just looked scared.

Digging out an unopened bottle of water, I took another two of the potassium iodine pills, then passed the bottle around again.  I fished out my multi-tool and lopped the top off the bottle of water and stuffed the bandannas in it.  “Dust mask?” Jan asked.  “Yeah, but I’m not sure how well it’ll work with the new muzzle and all…”  “It will probably end up freezing solid on you.” Kathlyn warned “Your whiskers and facial fur will freeze into it, so whatever you do, don’t pull it off until it thaws!”  “Oh.  That’s good to know…” I nodded “Sad thing is, even if I find some masks or a hood they aren’t going to fit me any more.”

After Kathlyn and Jan had helped me with the mask and I got the poncho on as well as I could inside the Jeep, I quickly opened my door the bare minimum necessary to get out, taking my prybar with me.  Picking my way to the front door, I discovered that the foundation shifting had warped the doorframe and kept it from being able to latch properly.  That was a bit of good luck as far as I was concerned.  With a grunt of effort I convinced the door nearest the wall to open, then tugged it shut solidly behind me.

I found myself in a high-ceilinged main hall, wide enough to accommodate the rampaging horde of students that must have escaped through it at the end of every school day.  The blue and white linoleum tiled floor was heaved at an odd upward angle with sharply cracked lines spiderwebbing across its surface.  There were places where flows of the unhealthy grey show had found its way in through cracks in the walls, and had melted partially and refrozen on their way to the floor.  “Must have been warmer in here before the power went out.” I mused to myself.  The floor looked to be pretty clear, so this wing must be fairly well sealed still.

Off to my right hand side, in front of where the hallway split off into different wings was a large complex of rooms with big picture windows overlooking the halls.  Most were covered by those crummy white metal industrial blinds everyone seems to buy for some reason, but the ones nearest the doors overlooked a reception desk, complete with an actual mechanical typewriter, several bulky black plastic rotary-dial telephones, and a collection of pens, pencils, and other desk clutter.  The doors were locked, and everything inside looked absolutely pristine behind the double-paned glass.  The easiest thing to do would be to just break a window, but I didn’t want to contaminate a potential clean-room if I could help it, so I forced the thin end of the bar behind the latch’s hasp and pushed it down until it ‘snicked’ itself back into the door.  There was no deadbolt, so that was all it took: I was in.

I was right about the area being completely sealed, I decided as I unlocked the doors from the inside, then hanging the poncho over a bronze statute of an eagle in flight that was guarding the entryway.  “Hold that for me, my good man.” I grinned.  Going behind the reception desk and out into the office at large, I quickly located what I had hoped to see: the black and yellow triangle of the civil defense sign tacked to a coat closet’s door along the rear wall.  (There was, I noticed, an empty coat tree sitting in a nearby corner: the closet must have gotten itself requisitioned…)  It didn’t have a lock, I observed with amusement.  I guess they never thought anyone would dare to be on the wrong side of the counter.

There wasn’t all that much inside when I opened the door, they must have figured help form somewhere else in town wouldn’t take long to get there.  I found several pairs of handheld CB walkie-talkies along with a large fixed position antenna disassembled in a box, two dozen old-style metal flashlights, a pair of large red first aid kits, emergency blankets, fire extinguishers, then the two bright yellow metal boxes I’d been searching for: a Geiger counter and a set of dosimeters.  The Geiger counter was one of the early models that could measure low level readings at the expense of being able to register the very high end amounts.  That was okay though, the electronics in the Jeep would have fried in seconds from that much radiation, and the little digital clock in the dashboard was still ticking away happily, if not a bit uselessly.  Plus we all would have been coughing up blood.  I would probably have noticed that by now.

Fiddling around with the control knobs I soon had the Geiger counter figured out.  It was registering in the upper green.  Residual radiation to be sure, but there wasn’t a hot emitter anywhere nearby.  It was probably fine to walk around in the snow, likely it was just ash blowing in from somewhere else.  Breathing a deep sigh of relief, I put the dosimeters in their base unit to reset, then started polling around in search of a roll of masking tape, then, failing that, grabbed a stack of index cards to wedge the latch on the office door open before going to wave Kathlyn and Jan inside.

“I had trouble getting the stupid key out.” Kathlyn accused after we had all settled in to the office.  “There’s a little latch thing.” I explained helpfully, earning myself a look, followed by a resigned sigh.  “The good news” I explained “is that we won’t drop dead from sitting around here.  I wouldn’t want to set up house here or anything, but there’s no obvious reason why we wouldn’t make it out of here.”  “That’s good.” Jan nodded, more interested in the supplies I’d tossed on the floor while digging through the closet.  “Now here’s a creepy thing!” he declared, holding a gas mask in front of his face.  “Boo!”  “Jan!  Don’t play with that!” Kathlyn admonished sternly.  “Oh, it won’t hurt anything…” I defended “Won’t do any good either, but won’t hurt anything.”  Jan stuck out his tongue at her, she tossed a crumpled up piece of paper at him, and the subject (but not the gas mask…) was dropped.

“Come to think of it I sort of doubt it would be all that useful even if it did fit.  Pretty much all NBC’s absorb through the skin, and I don’t think they had even invented micron filters until the ‘70’s.”  “I find that quite reassuring.” Kathlyn nodded.  “That was the whole point of the ‘duck and cover’ doctrine: you may as well place your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye for all the good any of it would do, but everyone felt reassured about it all…they had a procedure.”   “So what’s the plan then?” Jan asked, still pondering the anatomical possibilities.  “Rest for a bit, then get out of here.” I decided “There’s probably not much here we can use, and it’s not like the place is exactly scenic…”  “Oh I don’t know…” Kathlyn shrugged, an artificially serious expression on her muzzle “I could see it growing on me after a while.”  “All the more reason to keep moving.  Grass will eventually grow on you too, that doesn’t mean I like the prerequisites…” I pointed out.  “So very negative.” She laughed, ruffling my headfur.

“Well fine then, no new toy for you!” I growled, tossing Jan a dosimeter, and clipping another of the cigar-tube shaped little gizmos inside my shirt pocket before relenting.  “No, that would be mean.  I don’t want you to feel left out…”  “How do they work?” Kathlyn wondered, examining the one I handed her.  “Look through it, pointed at a light…if the little gauge needle starts leaning into the orange and red, be somewhere else, soak in clean running water, and flush through as much liquids as you can.  Finding a fully equipped emergency center would be good too, since they’re so handy around here.”  “What do they actually do though?” Jan wondered.  “Technically?  They measure cumulative radiation exposure.”  Shrugging, Jan obviously just wrote it off as in the ‘useful stuff’ category and turned his attentions to other things.

“I think I’m going to look around the building, make sure there aren’t any little surprises around here.  I’d hate to have something bite my tail off, considering I just grew the thing!”  “Can I come too?” Jan asked eagerly.  “Up to Kathlyn.” I deferred with a shrug.  “Go ahead.” She nodded “He needs to burn off some energy anyway: if he stays here I’m definitely not getting a nap!”  Jan jumped up with a grin, grabbing my paw and hauling me towards the door.  “Take your scarf.” I instructed as I scooped up my rifle “And one of the hooded sweatshirts, to keep the slush out of your fur.”  “You too…” Kathlyn instructed from where she was setting up a comfortable little nest on one of the reception area’s couches.  “You heard the wolf…” I nodded pulling on mine as well.  “Ready?” Jan demanded impatiently.  “One last thing.” I nodded, handing him the boxy yellow Geiger counter “I’m putting you to work!”

Jan was a good sport about it, and after instructing Kathlyn to make sure the doors locked behind us (I’d already double checked the offices and wired the other door handles closed, just to be sure…), Jan and I were off.  “Are we looking for anything particular?” Jan wondered as we paced down one set of halls after another, looking through classroom windows along the way.  “Not really.” I shrugged “Mostly I just needed to stretch my legs.  I doubt the kitchen would have had anything stored, so except for the chemistry lab and maybe the library, I don’t expect much…”  “Or maybe we’ll find pirate treasure just down the next corridor.” Jan disagreed as we approached the next set of double doors “You really need to choose to think positively!”

The windows on the next set of doors were opaquely dirty, the reinforced glass cracked badly enough that only the wire mesh between the panes was still holding it in place.  Our little yellow friend wasn’t concerned, and with Jan’s help I eventually got one of the doors wedged slightly open, despite its squeals of protest.  Taking a look through the crack, we discovered that the hallway simply ended, open to the outside sky, after another ten feet or so.  “Ground must have sheared away, taken that wing of the building with it.” I decided.  “Let’s get this door sealed back up…”


“So what’s the news?” Kathlyn asked a while later after we finally managed to wake her by banging on the office doors.  “A whole lot of nothing.” I shrugged as we all flopped down on the couches.  “We hard something howling off in the distance that Jan thinks are your nightstalkers still, but there doesn’t seem to be anything native around here.”  “Or useful either.” Jan chimed in “Nick found some bottles in the chemistry lab, but no pirate treasure.”  Kathlyn gave me a ‘look’, clearly stating she’d missed something on that one, but wisely let it pass.  “So…bottles?” she asked instead as I cleared away a spot on the floor, prying up several linoleum tiles in the process.  “There’s good stuff in chemistry labs.” I nodded gleefully “And Jan tells me he can make a nifty little magical fire for me, and create a little breeze to push the fumes away, so I’m going to do some cooking!”

“Just promise me you won’t accidentally kill us, I’m going back to sleep…” Kathlyn grunted, rolling over and promptly doing just that.  “And ‘yall say I’m grumpy.” I sighed, feeling a bit put out.  “Getting us through that field earlier was really hard to do.” Jan explained.  “Ah.” I nodded sympathetically while I started laying things out.  Jan sat down a little ways away, and with a look of concentration soon had a little ball of blue flame wink into existence.  With his end of things taken care of, I puttered around dumping various foul smelling liquids into a jar of nails, then putting the mess on to boil.  “Smells yummy!” Jan laughed “What’s for lunch?”  “Iron oxide.” I said, then explained a bit further when he raised an eyebrow “Rust.  At least in the short term, anyway.”  “Because that’s very useful.” Jan nodded dubiously.

Ignoring the doubter in my midst, I backed well away from Jan’s fire, set out a large sauce pan from the kitchen, and began methodically shredding the pile of old filmstrips we had recovered from the library into little pieces.  “It passes the time and all, but why exactly are we doing this?” Jan queried, moving over next to me and beginning to help.  I got the feeling he just wanted to talk for a while to break up the monotonous silence, so I obligingly began to lecture.

“Old film stock was made out of something called nitrocellulose, that also happens to be an early type of smokeless gunpowder.  Which is why we’re over here away from the fire, by the way: film from that era is incredibly flammable.  It’s also not particularly stable, which is why a lot of old movies have been irrecoverably lost over the years…”  “So why this then?”  “We can dissolve the stuff, then evaporate it out into sheets to make it into a low powered, but relatively high shock force explosive…”  “You are having way too much fun with this.” Jan decided.  “Yes, well, not all of us can make wind and fire appear at the snap of a finger…” I pointed out “So occasionally I’ll improvise when I need to get results.”

“Kathlyn will probably make you go back to school when we get home…” he mused as we watched my project simmer “It will be fun to get to be your tutor, but you’re going to have problems with the tables…”  “Tables?” I wondered, raising an eyebrow “I  really hate having to memorize things…”  “No…” Jan giggled “The tables…they’re all kit-sized for the students!”  “Ooh…” I felt quite a bit better about that; I really do hate memorizing things.  “Maybe if I teach you some stuff on the way you could be in my class!” He realized excitedly “That would be fun!”  “I’m not sure that the school would really want me there…” I mused “I’m not exactly the right age group for going to primary school.  Plus, I already know math and all that, so I’d really mess up the grading curve!”  “Maybe if you taught potions it could balance out.” Jan mused.  “And I’m sure that they would just love me teaching a bunch of kits how to make blasting caps and thermite.”  “Should I be taking notes on this?” he grinned “Besides, how old were you when you learned this stuff?”  “Okay, I’ll give you that one.” I sighed.

“Here.” I nodded, handing him my pot of rust “Scrape that out of there onto a piece of paper.”  Jan got to work on that while I started powdering an aluminum pan with a file.  “I should have given you the hard job.” I grumbled, having him spread the iron oxide in a thin layer on the floor to dry out.  “I’ll do yours for a while if you want.” He offered generously “You’re probably tired from driving anyway, you could go nap with Kathlyn for a while…”  “I’ve got to keep an eye on my film.” I explained, handing over the file “That stuff is pretty ugly, and I don’t want you getting hurt.”  “Well, if you’re going to be mean about it…” he teased.  “I’ve got to make some igniters anyway.” I explained.  “Can I do those?” he asked “I’m not getting educated enough right now…”  “Your sister may disagree.” I laughed, poking him with a spoon.

I began idly stripping apart a couple of extra rifle cartridges, then began slitting the cases for fuses.  “You’re right about me being tired.” I sighed “It’s a good thing I’m about done with this.”  The other can had pretty much finished turning into goo, so I went ahead and dumped it out onto a cookie sheet to dry.  “What now?” Jan asked, magicing away the fire.  “You can sit up and watch all this dry while I go take a nap.” I suggested sweetly.  “I can if you would like.” He nodded seriously “I know how old people get when they’re up late!”  “And don’t you forget it!” I grumbled in my best ‘crotchety old man’ “And keep off my lawn!  Crabgrass!  Loud music!  Umm…paci?  No…that one’s different…  Bah.”

“I get the feeling I missed something important to deciphering the conversation here.” Kathlyn laughed, having caught the last of our talk.  “Not really.” Jan sighed patiently “Nick is just being Nick again…”  “I suppose I’ll take it from here, then.” She nodded, taking my arm and leading me back towards the offices.  “Don’t touch the nitrocellulose!” I hastily threw over my shoulder.  “Don’t worry, I’ll keep myself busy and out of your fur for a while!” he grinned knowingly.  (And to my non-trivial embarrassment…)  “Great, now he’s starting up with that too…”  “He likes you.” Kathlyn shrugged “That’s no small thing.  You’ve not had cause to see it, but he’s an incredibly protective kit.  He has, in very short order, metaphorically shredded every other male I’ve been with.  Gleefully, I might add…I’d much rather have him being mildly overenthusiastic.”  “I can live with that, I guess.” I sighed.  “That’s very mature of you, dearest.”

Our destination turned out to be a conference room a few doors down from the lobby.  Kathlyn had migrated all the removable cushions from the surrounding rooms, and, after pushing the rest of the furniture out of the way, had made a nice little spot in one corner.  The heavy conference table lay flipped on its side blocking the windows.  Most of the stuff that had been brought in from the Jeep had migrated here too, I noticed.  “In case you two caught the other room on fire.” She explained to my questioning look.  “Your confidence in my abilities are overwhelming…” I sighed.  It didn’t warrant a response, Kathlyn instead getting my backpack and hauling me back into the hallway.  “There was a perfectly good room back there…” I observed as we continued down to the end of the hallway where it looped and a parallel branch went back the way we came “If this is a round-about way of telling me I could stand to get some exercise…”

A sort walk later placed us outside the nurse’s office.  Even abandoned it was a particularly antiseptic little place, and I got the feeling its previous occupants would look dimly on us bringing in dirt on our shoes.  The room itself looked pretty much like what one would expect from a small scale dispensary: a skinny little exam table (complete with paper covering) behind a ceiling-affixed curtain, a sink with a couple of glass door fronted cabinets full of neatly arranged supplies mounted over it, and an assortment of really retro throwback looking health advisory posters adorning the walls.  (Can something be ‘retro’ if it’s still the first time around?)  There was also a small desk and a pair of filing cabinets nestled in an out of the way corner of the room.

“I’m not particularly impressed.” I shrugged, idly looking for a copyright date on one of the posters.  “Hush, you.” Kathlyn chided, patting the crinkly surface of the table invitingly, then pulling off the paper with a frown.  “Who thought that up?”  Nodding, I hopped up on the table and pulled off my boots.  The nap must have really done Kathlyn a lot of good because she was completely back to her usual cheerful, bubbly self, in contrast to my rapidly developing comatose self.  Hopping up next to me on the exam table, she pulled off my shirt, deciding that “You’re not driving that long at one time again, you look like you’re going to fall over!”  “No I’m not.” I disagreed, then promptly collapsed on to the padded table.  My attempt at comedic effect fell just as flat: Kathlyn was apparently having a ‘serious mommy moment’, and didn’t seem to appreciate me making light of things.

“I’m sorry.” I corrected, sitting back up “But I really am okay, just kind of tired.”  “My point still stands.” She told me a little severely “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”  “I’ll submit to your better judgment in the matter.” I placated.  She was satisfied with that answer, and resumed stealing the rest of my clothing, leaving me sitting naked on the table, preserving my modesty with my tail.  “Silly little kit…” she grinned happily.  Being in no particular hurry, Kathlyn took the time to neatly fold my clothing before setting them aside in a pile on the sink’s counter.  Then, once she was satisfied everything was in order, she turned back to my backpack of supplies and began sorting out what she would be needing for the task at hand.  “I really can’t wait to get us all back home.” She mused “Once we have somewhere to actually put things our horizons broaden considerably.  I’m going to take a bit of time off from my duties, and you’re going to take some time off before we see to starting your education, and we are just going to relax and do nothing at all for a while!”  Seeing her return to my side with a new diaper from the backpack I automatically lifted up to allow her to thread my tail through the tailhole before settling back down again.  “Well, actually” she grinned wickedly “we won’t be doing nothing…”

I did my best to just maintain an innocent expression at that as Kathlyn continued the ‘nothing’ we were already in the middle of doing.  Taking out the jar of powder she dusted everything ‘down there’ to her satisfaction, then folded up the front of the diaper and fastened the tapes up.  “There we are!” she announced, gathering up our stuff, then taking my paw and guiding me back to the conference room.  Without any pants on I made a rather loud (or at least it seemed loud to me) crinkling rustle as I went.  Giving Kathlyn a questioning look I was about to voice my concerns when she laughed and ruffled my headfur.  “I really, really doubt Jan can hear us all the way down at the other end, and I promise you he won’t come down here and barge in on us.”  I looked at her a bit skeptically, but she just gently pulled on my tail.  “Come on, little kit…you’re the one who is concerned with being seen, I would think that you wouldn’t object to retiring from the hallway!”  I could see the logic in that, so I allowed myself to be drug back in (by the tail).

“It must make parenting much easier when all the kids come with built in leashes…” I mused as we settled down on Kathlyn’s little cushion mountain.  “That has been known to come in handy, yes.” She laughed.  Turning off the battery operated fluorescent work light we had been using since leaving Jan with the big lantern, Kathlyn took us from its anemic glow into very nearly complete darkness, then, snapping her fingers, brought life into the large collection of stumpy white emergency candles she had grouped around the room.  “There, that’s much nicer, isn’t it?” she smiled in the candle’s softer, more intimate glow.  “Your way is much less effort, but the light is a bit harsh to be relaxing…” I nodded my agreement, suitably impressed.  I had to admit, that was a neat trick.  “Oh, pick your jaw up off the floor.” She laughed “That’s a really simple trick, truly.”  “For you maybe.” I disagreed, climbing into her lap and pulling her tail up over me “But I’m still impressed.”  “Well, if you insist I guess it’s okay.” She sighed in mock resignation “But you’re going to have to work on getting past that before you get home or you may run out of impressed.  And I hate going to the store in the middle of the week!”  “I’ll try, but only as a favor, mind you.”

The conversation trailed off into a comfortable silence for a while after that, both of us content to just cuddle there in the dreamy candlelight.  Kathlyn eventually shifted around slightly, producing a bottle from my pack, taking off the top, and wordlessly offering it to me.  Nodding my assent, I let her place the bottle’s nipple in my mouth, and began to nurse.  She had dug up a jug of sports drink from the random food in the Jeep: it wasn’t as good as juice or milk would have been, watermelon with an odd sort of aftertaste, but that wasn’t the point of it anyway.  Even plain old water would have been wonderful: Kathlyn was feeding it to me.  I looked up into her eyes, they had a contented twinkle in them, and when she smiled down at me I could tell she felt the same.

“Are you comfortable, my little kit?” she questioned when I had finished the bottle.  “Uh huh.” I nodded, snuggling closer now that ‘somewhat upright’ wasn’t a requirement.  “That’s good.” She explained “Now this is going to make you mad, but I want you to try not to get too worked up, okay?”  “Okay…” I frowned, stifling a yawn.  “That bottle had a sleeping draught in it, so you’re going to be taking a nap pretty soon…”  “What?” I snapped, trying to extract myself from her lap and jump up.  “Shh… Shh…  Settle down…” Kathlyn soothed, beginning to rub my tummy with one paw while putting the other around my shoulder to convince me to not get up.  “I feel bad enough about doing it, but you are truly pushing yourself too hard, you need to get some sleep.”  I closed my eyes for a moment.  I was not going to get mad at her about it.  In her best judgment it had been necessary.  I really wouldn’t have let her talk me into it.  And it was too late to do anything about it anyway…

“Okay.” I nodded “The subject is closed.”  “I feel really bad about…” Kathlyn began.  I reached up and placed a finger on her lips before she could finish.  “I forgive you, and we won’t speak of it again.  The subject is closed.”  Kathlyn nodded, still looking kind of uncomfortable about it.  “You didn’t have to stop the tummy rub…” I chided, scooting around a bit until I was happy with my spot.  “If you insist.” She agreed, resuming her skritching, the recent unpleasantness already forgotten.  More or less, anyway. Naptime clearly wouldn’t be waiting much longer.  I decided it would be best not to keep trying to postpone the inevitable.  Kathlyn was good at what she did, and I really didn’t even want to any more…

I found myself wishing that I had my paci available.  Did I have one in my backpack?  I couldn’t remember.  It was a fair bet that I did, but it seemed like an awfully lot of trouble to find it.  Nah, going with the other option was a much more attractive thought at the moment.  With that dilemma solved, I located the paw Kathlyn wasn’t intently occupied rubbing my tummy with (It’s important to keep one’s priorities straight, after all.), selected what looked like a tasty finger, and popped it in my muzzle contentedly.  “Didn’t you get enough dinner earlier?” Kathlyn asked in amusement.  (Not, however, making any effort to get her finger back.)  I decided it was a rhetorical question, partially because it’s rude to talk with one’s mouth full, and partially because we both knew Kathlyn already knew the answer to that one.  Playfully, I nibbled on the finger a little, not enough to hurt, only enough to elicit a giggle and “None of that now little guy…”  Then with a bemused expression she decided that “We’re going to have to get you something to teethe on.”

“Bah.” I grumbled, not ceding the point (or the finger).  Kathlyn didn’t really seem to mind, actually, just making a point of letting me see her dramatically roll her eyes in an obviously long-suffering way.  I nipped her a little bit, just so that she would know I noticed, then we both settled down again.  It was nice: one could almost pretend things were back to the new normal I had been looking forward to so eagerly.  Every now and then the wind managed to work its way in to the outer building through one hole or another, making that odd whistling noise it does, but, that aside, things were peacefully quiet.  I’d have probably already fallen asleep if I didn’t have to go pee…

It was inevitable, I suppose.  And I was prepared for that eventuality, as it were…rather a convenient coincidence, as I had absolutely zero inclination to stand up at the moment.  With a little giggle I shifted around a bit, doing my best to avoid having the diaper’s makeshift tailhole be ‘downhill’ as much as possible…it was originally designed for less appendages than I now had, after all, and I didn’t want to accidentally wet Kathlyn as well.  That would be at least mildly awkward, one has to admit…  Kathlyn apparently had some idea about the thought behind that because she tweaked my nose gently, smiling benignly.

I almost got up and found a bathroom, but I guess Kathlyn felt me shifting around again because she draped her arms over my shoulders.  “Could still get up…” I challenged sleepily.  “I believe you.” She agreed with a grin, then promptly began tickling my tummy.  Being ticklish is one of those things that is so very easy to have used against you: aside from not being able to get up, it tends to also make you really not particularly want to.  I could remember why I was going to, I just didn’t care any more.  “Now you’re just being stubborn!” Kathlyn accused, redoubling her efforts until I was squirming around trying to escape, giggling hysterically.  “Oh, you know how to make me stop!” she reminded me in a singsong voice “Yes you do!”  Yes I did, all right, and I wasn’t disagreeable to it, but I still felt the need to hold out against the inevitable as long as I possibly could…

…which turned out to be about another thirty seconds or so.  With a little gasp I couldn’t hold it any more and let go, a slight pattering sound the telltale evidence of the spreading warmth that was soon causing the front of the diaper to begin to bulge.  “I win again.” Kathlyn grinned, leaning down to gently kiss my muzzle.  “It’s hard to care with such nice consolation prizes…” I observed, grinning back.  “Did we want to get this changed before you drift off?” she asked, patting the bulging front of the diaper playfully “Or will you be good for a while?”  Now that the excitement (not to mention the urge to tinkle) had passed, my nap was rather militantly campaigning to reclaim its stolen time, and I was quickly losing the battle.  “Nopers.” I decided, failing miserably to stifle a yawn “I’s good.  Don’ wan’ ta  get up…”  “That’s probably for the best.  You’re slurring pretty thoroughly, so I think everything is all wrapped up for the moment regardless.”

Shifting around again I eventually located the perfect napping spot, tucking my tail up between my legs and snuggling my muzzle down into its fluffiness.  Kathlyn produced one of the brown wool emergency blankets from the supply closet and draped it around me, tucking in the edges.  To my great surprise, it didn’t smell like mothballs.  I was silently impressed by that: I don’t think science back home ever quite worked out how to remove that particular residue…  Being impressed is for the awake, however, so it passed pretty quickly.  The last thing I consciously remember before dropping off entirely was hearing Kathlyn yawn.  I guess she’d be joining me…


I must have been much more tired than I had thought because I was out for a long time.  The little bit of light that had been filtering in from outside was completely gone: either the weather had picked back up, or, more likely, the sun was down.  “Hey little kit, are you back up?” Kathlyn had found a book somewhere to keep herself busy after she had woken up first.  A quick glance at the cover, with its embossed leather binding, and what looked like actual gold leaf gilding made it patently obvious that it wasn’t one of the school’s.  “I thought I’d catch up on some homework.” She explained, observing my look.  “Here?” I asked incredulously “No wonder I was never head of my class…”  “No work ethic.” Kathlyn accused with a laugh.  “Exactly!” I grinned “How will I ever get ahead if I let a mere magical apocalypse interrupt my studies?”  “That’s going to change when we get back home and you start school again.” She informed me “And speaking of change…we’re going to need to get you changed soon!  We can’t get back on the road all wet, now can we?”  “Time to displace again?” I sighed “Well at least we may end up somewhere that isn’t raining mildly radioactive ash…”  “Thinking positively again, are we?”  “Only as a last resort.” I agreed, leaning up and kissing her muzzle “But keep it to yourself, okay?  If word gets out pretty soon folks will start having all kinds of expectations.”  “Can’t have that…” Kathlyn agreed, feigning seriousness,

“What time is it, anyway?” I questioned as she tucked away her book, then offered me her paw when I tried to get up.  Early afternoon, maybe late evening, I guess.  It’s dark because of the weather, not the time, so I don’t exactly know for certain.  ‘It seems the sun will not rise nor set upon this blighted realm of dusk.’”  “What’s that from?” I wondered, taking her paw in mine and following her down the hall.  “One of the great bards.” She laughed “We have to memorize parts in school...actually, at this point I pretty much despise him!”  “Nothing ruins good literature like having to care.”  I agreed.

The nurse’s office, unsurprisingly, was as we had left it.  Kathlyn hadn’t brought the camp lantern, so instead she just snapped her fingers to create a brightly glowing sphere that easily matched the original bulbs it hovered in front of.  “Still impressed…” she observed in amusement.  I suppose I was a lot like the primitive tribesman staring suspiciously at a lighter…With a shrug I just hopped up on the exam table, with my foot-paws dangling over the edge as I watched her expectantly.  Kathlyn was thoroughly immune to being rushed, however.  She quite patiently lined up a few things from the pack on the counter before pulling up the rolling stool and explaining that “It’s completely up to you if you would like a dry diaper, or if you’d rather a pair of big boy undies, but I would strongly consider the ones that are easy to run in…”  “You’re right, of course.” I sighed, picking up a pair of underwear between two fingers with as much disdain as I could fake.  “If you’d prefer the other option I’ll be happy to try to make it work.”  “Oh, it’s fine.” I assured her “Besides, I’m not fond of the idea of potentially ending up storing radioactive water in that particular bodily region!”

The idea earned me a cheerful laugh from Kathlyn as she efficiently began unfastening the current soggy diaper, slipping it out from under me and thoroughly cleaning up my little boy parts with a rather large percentage of our remaining supply of wipes.  “It could be a while before we get a chance at another bath tub.” She explained “I’d rather worry about finding more of these than worry about you getting an irritation because I didn’t clean you up properly!”  She had a valid point, so I just nodded as she dusted on extra powder, then let me put my underwear back on.

I was just pulling on my pants when Jan barged in loudly ‘eep’-ing, I hastily fastened things up, giving the two of them decidedly ugly looks.  “He’ll give us privacy’ my fuzzy butt!  “I’m sorry, Sis, but a big crack opened up in the hallway floor, and something down there is hissing at me!”  “Oh.” I nodded, my annoyance instantly evaporating.  “Well that’s not good…”  I quickly laced up my boots and pulled on my shirt while Kathlyn stuffed the rest of our diaper supplies into the backpack.  “At least there’s nobody left to complain about us leaving a mess…” Kathlyn observed before tossing our leftovers into the sink.  “You actually feel bad about it!” I realized, gearing up for some good-natured teasing.  “Umm, guys?  Hissing floor hole; maybe not the time for it…” Jan prodded, looking nervously at the blocked over hallway window.  “He has a point.” I nodded “Let’s round up and get the hell out of here!”  “You’re sure that you don’t want to hang around for a while?  Where else are we going to find scenery like this?” Kathlyn teased.  While, you will note, grabbing both Jan and my paws and rather hastily hauling us towards the front of the offices.

While Jan and Kathlyn quickly pulled on their ‘Haz-Mat ponchos’ I rapidly dumped my now dried and powdered concoctions into a couple of jars, taking note to explain to Jan exactly what ‘don’t touch this’ meant.  Grabbing my tarp and our remaining stuff, I quickly followed them to the Jeep, nobody slowing until we were inside and the engine was cranked over and warming up.  The hole in the floor was obviously visible, even through the little windows of the building’s front doors.  It was pretty narrow, but ran for several yards along the corridor.  “It’s probably nothing.” I mused “I’ll bet the sub-members over the basement just gave out from us poking around in there…”  “I’ll be happy to discuss it with you when this place is in the rear window mirror.” Kathlyn suggested in a tone that was anything but.  “Rearview.” I corrected idly as I fished out the burlap feed sack with my jars “It’s a rearview mirror.”  “Yes, that thing.” She agreed.

“I’m going to go take a look before we go.” I decided, packing a pair of the blasting caps into an empty tuna fish can “I wanted to test this stuff out anyway…”  “That’s the first truly stupid thing I’ve ever heard you say!” Kathlyn snapped, her ears laid back, and her tail beginning to go bottle brush.  “Be nice.” I admonished cheerfully “And keep the engine running…”

Grabbing up my rifle and a handful of chemical light sticks, I sprinted back inside before Kathlyn could grab anything potentially useful as a leash.  I cheerfully admit I’m a bit of a pyro, and once I’d fallen into ‘things go boom’ mode I tend to develop a bit of a one track mind.  Daylight only did a mediocre job of illuminating the building, let alone the big hole, and it wasn’t until I’d pitched a couple of the light sticks in that I realized quite how deep the thing was.  The surface, it turned out, was maybe five feet or so thick, and then it dropped off into a huge, slick-walled cavern.  From the sheen reflecting off the floor my first guess was that the whole inside of the thing was coated in a volcanic glass of some sort.  …which was probably the only thing that had kept the spiders down at the bottom where they couldn’t eat us.  I love geology…

It was an incredibly eerie sight: a few seconds after the sticks hit the floor they were silently set upon by a horde of translucently grey forms about the size of a small horse.  In short order they had been torn open, and the splattering viscous green liquid inside helped define the outlines of the creatures below as resembling nothing more than gigantic banana spiders.  “Well, at least we don’t have to worry about Jan hearing things…” I observed wryly.  The spiders hissed in agreement.  Well, not really, but the other choice was that they were enthusiastically discussing eating me.  In that light I rather preferred my far less probable choice.  Backing up quietly I resisted the urge to toss one of my little jam-tin bombs in after the light sticks: with my luck it could create footholds, draw unsafe attention, or simply bring the rest of the floor down into the hole, and me along with it…

Once I was closer to the exit than I was to the lip of the hole I broke out in a sprint, shouldering open the doors and quickly letting myself back into the now pleasantly warm Jeep.  “That was a hasty exit.” Kathlyn observed.  “It was a casual exit…” I disagreed, thrusting the rifle in her direction and engaging the clutch, rapidly throwing the Jeep in reverse “It just happened to be attached to quite a hasty entrance!”  “Nothing blew up.” Jan accused, obviously disappointed by the fact.  “Next time.” I promised, bouncing us over a curb and back onto the road “When there are less mutant spiders involved.”  “Drive faster.” He agreed, looking unhappily out the back window.  “Jan doesn’t like bugs.” Kathlyn grinned “It’s always been a good way to keep him out of my room…”  “Me too.” I nodded in solidarity “Especially huge ugly ones who want to eat me like those…big icky glow in the dark ones with long hairy legs and about a million eyes above those long, dripping fangs…”

“You can quit it now…” Kathlyn suggested seriously “Jan looks pretty close to wetting your seats as it is!”  “Point taken.” I agreed.  “Good, because I don’t change relatives older than two!”  Even Jan had to laugh at that one.  Out of embarrassment if nothing else…  It was funnier now that we were all pretty certain they were only in that cave, not out and about…  “I think we’re done in this little town.”


There was the remains of a state highway going out of town that seemed to be in our direction, which at least meant the road was basically solid under the accumulated radioactive snow.  The Geiger counter was prominently taped to the middle of the dashboard, and since it had been pretty passive we were beginning to feel good about things in the first time in a while: there wasn’t any scenery to speak of, the weather was bad, and the ice kept us moving sideways about as much as forward, but at least we were on our way somewhere else.  Much like driving through Kansas, come to think of it…

“I want to see the sun again.” Jan sighed with a note of melancholy someone his age should not have been familiar with “I want to be home now…”  “We will, pup.  We will.” I assured him gently.  In all honesty at this point I was beginning to feel like I never wanted to leave home again myself.  “It’s a pity the weather isn’t any better either.” I grumbled as we hit what felt like a particularly bad patch of road, which a partially buried road sign a moment later assured me had been a railroad crossing.  “Stop for a minute, will you?” Kathlyn requested curiously.  Pulling over with a shrug I watched noncommittally for a moment as she got out and walked back to the crossing before I turned the Jeep around and headed back to give her some light.  “Anything I should know?” I asked Jan as we observed Kathlyn through the windshield.  “Probably not.” He shrugged “This place just has an odd feeling to it, that’s all.”  Chalking it up as something I didn’t get, I closed my eyes for a bit.  The reflected light from the headlights was tiring, and I was beginning to get a headache from it anyway, so a stop was in order regardless.

After a time I heard Kathlyn climbing back in the Jeep, then explaining to Jan that “It must have been a magical echo from something passing through.”  “Do we echo?” I asked, more curious than concerned.  “No.  Well, not like this anyway.  If I worked a large spell it would be slightly evident in the area for an hour or so before it faded, but just in that spot.  This is more like a magical construct was following the railroad tracks.”  “Or a whopping big creature!” Jan added excitedly “Can we go see what it was?  Can we?  Please?”  “He wants to be a zoologist when he grows up.” Kathlyn explained “Unfortunately it’s been known to get the better of his common sense…”  “That’s a ‘no’.” Jan sighed, his ears drooping in disappointment “It might have been something good too…”  “Somehow I don’t think he means small and harmless.” I observed dubiously “I don’t think I’m up for anything not small and harmless…”

Jan’s retort was interrupted by, of all random things, a train arriving.  “Alternately, Kathlyn laughed gleefully “It could be a really big magical construct that will be following the railroad tracks in a little bit!”  I was having one of those moments when one has so many questions that they get stuck and none of them make it out.  “This will be a good test for you, Jan.  That way mom and dad can’t accuse me of letting you get away with neglecting your education…explain while we get on board!”  By the rush that was apparent in Kathlyn’s tone of voice I got the impression that the train wouldn’t wait forever, so I did my best to quickly round up what I could carry…which was probably a good thing, since the closer I looked at our new conveyance the less I liked the idea.  Putting it simply, the train wasn’t exactly there.  It seemed to be doing its specific best to not be examined: every time I tried to focus on it the thing sort of faded out into a mist of sorts.  What I could discern from the corner of my eye seemed to be a hodge-podge of historical styles and forms, from old Pullman cars to modern bullet train carriages, to some things that I probably  couldn’t identify with a guidebook and expert witnesses.

Once we had our selected luggage I asked one last time: “You two are sure about this, then?”  “Absolutely!” Kathlyn said with conviction, Jan nodding in support.  “Okay.” I nodded, getting a grease pencil from the toolbox.  Leaning across the dash, I penned ‘We’re not coming back for it.’ across the inside of the windshield as neatly as I could manage.  Then, tossing the keys on the driver’s seat, I closed the door, hefted my pack, and clambered after Kathlyn and Jan.


We emerged into something that looked just like any of the cross-country carriers one might have ridden back at home.  It was a two-level, but we were the only ones in evidence as the train lurched into motion.

“Right, everyone sit down for a minute and let’s see how well Jan has been paying attention in class!” Kathlyn teased, flopping down in the nearest seat.  “We should find a carriage and settle in first.” Jan suggested, completely failing to change the subject before sitting down with a sigh and beginning, a pout in his tone.  “It’s a Traveler.  We don’t know what exactly they are or where exactly they come from, just that they are sentients of a sort that follow the storms, picking up bits and pieces to add to themselves as they go.  Or cause the storms.  Or are the storms.  That’s still a point of debate…  The part that matters to us is that they pick up hitchhikers and always seem to reliably get them to where they’re going.”  “Are they all trains?” I wondered.  “Nope.” Jan elaborated “They can be pretty much anything.  That’s a point of debate too, actually…”  “Very good!” Kathlyn praised, ruffling Jan’s headfur “See, all that studying is paying off after all!”

“So since this has been an educational trip, can I have a week off from school when we get back home?” He tried slyly.  But to no avail: Kathlyn just grinned and informed him that “It’s up to mom and dad, I’m not getting involved again, I still remember what happened last time we had this talk!”  “She’s just mad that I out maneuvered her…” Jan informed me conspiratorially “Sis can be a sore loser sometimes, you should probably remember that.  Like there was this one time when she was getting a little bit…frisky, and I told some of her classmates it was okay to just go on up to her room, and…”  “That will be quite enough of that!” Kathlyn interrupted, blushing thoroughly.  “’Frisky’?” I teased in mock seriousness.  “She gets very frisky when she goes into heat.” Jan explained helpfully “But you’ll find out all about that yourself later, I guess…” 

“If you don’t change the subject right now…” Kathlyn growled, looking around for something convenient to throw at the pup.  Luckily for him everything in the carriage appeared to be pretty well bolted down, so Kathlyn had to settle for glaring at him horribly.  “Now don’t get mad, it’s all in the spirit of full disclosure…” Jan said sweetly “You don’t want to be accused of hiding things from anyfur, do you?  Not after he told you everything about himself.”  “Pup, you have no idea how close you are to getting left behind!”  Kathlyn threatened dourly.  “Nick likes me.” Jan said with confidence “He’ll watch out for me until you’ve cooled down.”  “Exactly!” I nodded “The both of you are under my protection.  Even from each other!”

Kathlyn decided to let it go at that, instead pointing out that “We should go stake out a carriage somewhere, we’re probably going to be here for a while, we might as well find somewhere with a door.”  “And nicer seats.” Jan decided, disdainfully rapping his knuckles on one of the coach’s grey industrial plastic bench seats.  “No argument.” I agreed, nearly tripping as the train swayed particularly roughly.  Getting to the end of the car, I slid open the door and we stepped into something straight off an Asian subway: no seats at all, just handrails and ceiling mounted grab bars.  “Nope.” Jan announced, a bit superfluously.  The car after that turned out to be a baggage hauler, complete with caged industrial lighting and a tinny rattle that threatened to vibrate my brain loose.  Reflexively clamping my ears back against my head, I quickly picked up the pace, having to consciously keep myself from tucking my tail between my legs.  (I wasn’t familiar enough with that particular appendage yet to trust myself not to step on it.)

To everyone’s great relief the next car, while still a cargo hauler, was much older and made of wood: no high pitched screeching!  “Anyone want to go back and dig through the luggage?” I joked, scratching inside my ear where the velvety fur wasn’t quite happy.  “I don’t, but we’ll wait if you would like to!” Kathlyn offered sweetly.  “Maybe later…”  I decided “I think I’d like to find somewhere to drop off our stuff before my shoulders dislocate.”  “Wuss.” Jan accused, trying to open the door on the far side, but having it get stuck after the first couple of inches.  “You were saying?” I laughed, sticking out my tongue before setting down my stuff and moving to shove it the rest of the way open.

The door to the next car seemed to be bowed outward, causing the other one to bind against it.  Swearing as I examined it, I realized that the rusty, dented up door was actually made up of a collection of mismatched and poorly welded scrap steel, to the point where I couldn’t tell where the door ended and the patches began.  The handle, or at least my best guess as to what was intended to be a handle, was an extremely tetanus-inducing looking piece of angle iron.  Turning around to complain, I was helpfully presented with the crowbar by a bemused looking Kathlyn.  “It’s hinged to open outwards.” She pointed out helpfully “Did you want me to get it?  You look like you’re afraid of getting cooties!”  “Yeah well we’ll talk again the first time you get a tetanus shot…” I grumbled, levering the crowbar until the door groaned open.

Cautiously stepping inside, I quickly came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to go wherever it was that the car had come from.  It had probably started out life, a very long time ago, as a freight car, but at one point or another had been converted to carry passengers, mostly by the bolting of a random assortment of park benches to the floor.  Lighting had apparently not been a priority to its builders either, the only illumination coming through thin slits cut in the improvised armor plating welded to the walls and ceiling.  “Well this is nice.” Kathlyn joked as we picked our way across the rubble strewn floor “Why don’t we take over this one?  Look, the light coming through all the little holes in the walls even looks like twinkling stars!”  “And this one is a moon, I suppose?” I agreed, rapping my knuckles on the wall next to a large hole punched through the mismatched steel plates.

“What made this one?” Jan wondered aloud as he curiously examined a splatter of copper on the opposite wall.  “Shaped charge, probably a tank-buster rocket.” I explained “It uses a directional blast of superheated metal to cut through armor, but any kind of air-gap lets it cool down enough to just go ‘splat’ on the other side.  I’ll teach you how to make them sometime, they’re pretty simple.”  “Wonder what was going on…” Jan mused, helping me move some junk that had piled up by the door, probably at some point when the car had stopped suddenly.  “Who knows?” I shrugged “Besides, this car smells funny and has icky seats!”  “Aww…are you starting to time out on me?” Kathlyn laughed, ruffling my headfur playfully.  “Yeppers.” I agreed, working to pry the rusted-solid latch on the door open.  “My paws hurt and I’m hungry!”

At that point the lock obligingly decided to simply snap off the frame, slamming both me and the now properly working door into the opposite side of the frame, putting a good sized gouge into my arm along the way.  “Oww!  Stupid damn…” I began before hauling off and putting an equally large dent into the wall with the crowbar.  That seemed quite satisfying, and I was leaning back for a repeat performance when Kathlyn interceded on the wall’s behalf.  “Hey!  That’s not going to help anything!” she chided, swatting me on the butt to get my attention “Let’s go find somewhere with a clean floor and get a bandage on that…”  Sighing by way of agreement, I cradled the gash up against my tummy to try to keep from dripping on the floor as we moved on.  (No sense in leaving a blood trail to give potential ‘somethings’ any ideas that they didn’t already have…)


Two empty flat-cars later we found something better than I had allowed myself to hope for: a turn of the century Pullman sleeper car, the rail palaces of the golden age of trains.  “I think this just might do…” Kathlyn grinned, swinging open the door to the plushly appointed space.  Unconsciously wiping the dirt off my boots, I followed her and Jan inside.  Wood, brass, and velvet made up the main room, which ran most of the length of the car, being subdivided at the end into an additional bedroom and bath.  A sitting nook with a round table and built in bookshelves flanked a marble-topped bar on one end of the car, an ornately carved desk and map table filled the other, with a sofa and several chairs occupying the space between.  A pair of small but effective chandeliers illuminated the room cheerfully despite next to no light making it in from outside the windows.

As Jan double checked the imposing looking locks on either door, Kathlyn guided me down into one of the chairs, indicating I should let her take a look at my arm.  “Well, it’s bleeding freely.” She sighed “But I think it will be okay if we clean it out and bind it up…”  “’Clean it out’?” I asked a bit dubiously as she dug out the first aid kit.  Poking at the edges of the cut gingerly, I observed that I had managed to get more than a little bit of paint chips and other assorted nastiness into it somehow.  This wasn’t going to be fun…

Jan got a deep tray from behind the bar without being asked, and nodding my thanks I held my arm over it while Kathlyn rinsed it out as best she could.  “At least it didn’t bleed on the furniture, right?” I joked weakly as she used a pair of tweezers to remove some larger, more firmly embedded pieces of debris that hadn’t washed out, then rinsed out the cut a second time.  “You’re going to have to talk me through the rest of this.” Kathlyn told me apologetically “I don’t have my healer’s bag, and I’m not familiar with the things in yours…”  Poking around in the first aid kit, I came up with scissors and a disposable razor, instructing her to trim back the fur around the cut before swabbing it with iodine (linguistically educational for Jan) and pulling the edges of the cut closed with butterfly tapes.  “We’re going to try to get away without suturing it.” I explained, finding gauze and a compression dressing “One, I’m just not up to it right now, and two, since I don’t have any antibiotics worth the name we may have to open it up again to clean it if infection sets in…”  With a nod Kathlyn did an admirable job of wrapping everything up while Jan looked on in fascination.

“You look somewhat unwell.” Kathlyn observed when she had finished up “Why don’t you lie down on the couch there while Jan and I get us settled in?”  “Yeah.” I nodded “But I’ll get the little stove working first, it’s actually kind of chilly in here…”  “I can do it!” Jan offered eagerly.  Sitting down in front of it, he closed his eyes in concentration for a moment before muttering something under his breath.  And with a tiny ‘snap’ a cheerful little flame sprung up behind the glass of the stove’s door.  “Very good!” Kathlyn praised as he took a little bow.

“I’m going to make some tea.” I decided as the two wolves went to haul our stuff into the other room.  I had the tea fished out of my pack before Jan had relieved me of it, and a bit of digging around the bar revealed both a teapot and a large glass water reservoir built in to a cabinet.  In short order the teapot was bubbling away merrily, and I was settling back down on the sofa with a bottle of something else I’d acquired behind the bar when Kathlyn and Jan returned to join me.  “The tea’s about up…” I offered, beginning to get up only to have Kathlyn push me gently back down on the couch.  “I’ll try not to let it hurt my feelings.” I griped in mock seriousness as Kathlyn lifted up my legs and slipped down next to me.  Jan, meanwhile, staked out a spot on the floor in front of us, grinning tremendously as I unconsciously began scratching behind his ear.

“So what now?” I asked idly, feeling better now that the alcohol I had procured was kicking in a bit.  “We settle in and wait.” Kathlyn explained “I have no idea how long it will take us to get to where we’re going.  But at least this way will be safer, and a whole lot more comfortable!”  “I like it!” Jan decided, taking off his shoes and socks and curling his toes in the thick rug “There’s a lot more room and it doesn’t smell funny like the other one…”  “Plenty of room to work on your studies.” Kathlyn hinted with a complete lack of subtlety.  Seeing me grin at Jan’s now dour expression, Kathlyn added as an afterthought “You too.  You’re going to have to eventually, we may as well use the time to practice some of the basics.”  “Or” Jan suggested as I poured another two fingers in my glass “You two could start working on making me an uncle… That would impress the other pups at school, if they had to start calling me by the ‘uncle-of’ honorific…”  “The only thing they’re going to be calling you is Jan the Sore-Bottomed!” Kathlyn laughed, taking a halfhearted swipe at the cheeky little pup.

“Hey now, don’t put me in the middle of this!” I laughed “I’ve had a long enough day as it is!”  That was actually pretty true, I decided after a little consideration.  “Come to think of it, taking a nap doesn’t sound like a bad idea…”  “You go ahead.” Kathlyn decided, giving me a paw up “I’m going to set my brother and sorely inattentive student up doing something productive, then I’ll be by to help you get bedded down for that nap…”  “Or…” Jan laughed, not bothering to finish his suggestion as he retreated from his sister’s now intently purposeful stare.  Shaking my head with a grin I collected my glass and the decanter I’d been making friends with and retreated to the bedroom amidst the sound of scurrying paws.


The bedroom was dominated by an immense green velvet appointed canopy bed, which looked thoroughly inviting.  With a tremendous exertion of willpower I didn’t just flop down, dirty clothes and all, on the bed; instead taking the time to remove anything that could be described as greasy, bloody, grungy, filthy, icky, or soiled.  Which left me (barely) with my underwear.  Lacking running water, the train car had an old porcelain washbasin and pitcher of (curiously, warm and oddly rose scented) water on a vanity in one corner.  With a happy sigh I set about doing some spot clean up, and in a fairly short amount of time I had myself actually feeling clean again.

I considered for a moment seeing if the bathroom had a tub, but at this point it wouldn’t have made me any cleaner, just wetter, so I let the thought pass…instead I somewhat gingerly climbed up into the middle of the huge bed, feeling almost a little guilty about messing up the perfectly arranged bedding.  In the end comfort won out and I burrowed my way under the collection of covers so thorough they included things I didn’t even know the name of.  Looking around with rather a ‘now what’ feeling, I noticed that the bed’s awning had a decorative lattice of ribbon-y little ropes forming an interweaving pattern across it, suddenly giving me an idea.

Getting back up for a moment, I went digging through my pack until I had produced several chemical glow sticks.  Weaving them randomly into the awning made a cheerful little collection of glowing splotches behind the fabric, and as I sat back down again I was feeling inordinately pleased with myself.

After digging out my paci I settled down to watch my little surrogate night sky.  The train’s gentle rocking motion made the fabric sway a little, and, as tired as I was, it didn’t take very much to firmly seize my attention.  Suckling my paci rather more contemplatively than was strictly necessitated by the task, I had the rather cheerful occurrence that in fact this was a rather agreeable way to travel: it certainly improved upon the miserable driving I’d been forced into by circumstances of late. (A glance out the window quickly confirmed that the weather hadn’t miraculously improved in the last hour or so…)

“It sure beats walking!” Kathlyn agreed, surmising my thoughts from my satisfied expression as she entered the room.  “You can bet your tail on that one!” I agreed enthusiastically “No more ice and cold…I think I could stay here for a bit, all things considered…”  “We probably won’t even have to.” She grinned, taking a seat next to me on the bed “We’re going to be home soon, I can feel it.  That’s what I came up here to talk to you about, I wanted to make sure you had a chance to get any concerns you had addressed before we got home…”  “Y’all have disposables there, right?” I mused “I’m not sure if I’d like cloth or not…”  “We do, yes.” Kathlyn laughed “I was thinking you might have some more…weighty questions?”  “Nopers.” I yawned, scooting around to rest my head in her lap. “Maybe if I have time for a nap or not before we get there…I don’t want to be scruffy and tired when I’m making my first impressions on everyfur there…”  “I’m pretty sure it will be sooner than that, little one.” She sighed “But you can probably curl up on the sofa for a bit…”

At the moment I was deeply planted in whatever the polar opposite of wanting to get out of bed is, and it took more than a little bit of cajoling to get me up and dressed again, but with some gratuitous promises of the fun to come ‘when we get there’ Kathlyn eventually managed to get me on my paws again.  “These are never going to come clean again.” She informed me, tossing my old clothes to me “Empty out the pockets so we can throw them out…” “And I’ll be wearing what exactly then?”  Opening the closet with a grin Kathlyn revealed it to be filled with a wide array of men’s clothes.  Grinning wider she closed the door, opening it again to reveal that the contents had completely changed, now being an equally vast collection of women’s clothes, then a third time revealing a wardrobe in Jan’s size.  “I’m not even going to ask…” I sighed, opening the door again myself to the original selection of men’s clothes.

Patting my head, she went off to get Jan, commenting that “We all might as well trade up to things that actually fit properly…”  I could see her point, I decided as I flipped through the closet’s offerings, nothing exactly fit right since I’d changed bodies, and I’m sure Kathlyn and Jan felt the same way: ‘off the rack’ makes certain assumptions, particularly regarding the presence of a tail.  Yep, finding something with a tail hole that wouldn’t absorb water like denim does was a definite priority.

After quite a bit of digging (do you have any idea how many colors jeans come in?) I found something made of a lightly colored synthetic that was thick enough to be pretty warm and that I figured was probably waterproof.  No leg pockets, but you can’t have everything all the time.  Pulling them on I immediately discovered what Kathlyn had meant: life is just better when your pants don’t make your tail bend in ways it doesn’t want to!  I’d decided to keep my footwear, despite them being a bit low for hiking through snow drifts, so I was more than a little pleased to find a set of heavy-weight leather gaiters.  After strapping them on over my boots the next step was finding something in the vicinity of a shirt.  Since there really wasn’t any way to do more than vaguely guess at what the weather was going to be more than maybe five minutes into the future the best thing, I decided, was to go with layers.  T-shirts were easy, a light grey one bordering on a bit tight serving, but overshirts were a toss-up until I happened across a forest green sweater that, for some reason I couldn’t begin to guess, had a little teddy bear embroidered on the upper left pocket area.  Which had nothing to do with my selection, I assure you.

I decided to keep my old coat, since it was a favorite and there wasn’t anything wrong with it, and I was just about to declare myself done when I noticed something that looked suspiciously like a marksman’s cloak hanging in the corner.  Pulling it out I discovered that yes, it in fact was!  The closet was certainly turning out to be a handy little bugger!

Since I was pretty much set for anything that wouldn’t require a spacesuit at this point I rounded up the few bits and pieces of my stuff that had managed to get unpacked since we had gotten on the train and was just in time to bump into Jan and Kathlyn coming the other direction.  “Ouch.” Jan frowned, rubbing his muzzle.  “Sorry!” I apologized “Guess I need to get my brain back in gear, huh?”  “That’s what you picked to wear?” Kathlyn observed “You wouldn’t prefer something a little more…umm…stylish?”  “I’m not sure if I should be offended at that.” I said a bit drolly.  “I’m sure you’ll figure it out eventually.” She teased cheerfully “As a personal favor, try to decide while Jan and I are changing.  Our time here grows short, and I think we can all agree that we don’t want to miss our port of call on this one…”

Waving them through with a snort of agreement it occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea to pillage the liquor cabi…err…kitchen.  Which, it turned out, would have been much easier had any of the labels been in a language I could read.  Most of the food wasn’t things that would store, which simplified the task.  After filling the few plastic bags I could locate in our things I ‘liberated’ a few of the better bottles from the bar: one does not simply walk away from an eighty year old bottle of single barrel scotch.  (I was definitely going to need to get a locking ‘treasure chest’ when we finally made it home…)

“You do realize that back home we mastered the art of distillation quite a number of centuries ago!” Kathlyn teased as she and Jan returned just in time to see me zipping up my backpack with some difficulty.  “Much like you mastered the art of high fashion?” I asked with a dubiously raised eyebrow.  She and Jan were both dressed like royalty straight out of a big-budget period drama.  “Exactly.” She agreed “And on that subject, I don’t suppose I could talk you into changing into something a little bit more…apropos?”  “Not a chance.” I disagreed cheerfully “We’re not there until we’re there, and I’ve not yet ruled out the possibility of us finding our way into an active war zone, or apocalyptic invasion, or who knows what other kind of surrealistic nightmare of a deranged mind.  Besides, what if your parents meet us at the train station?”  “Then I would think you would want to wear something a bit less…showy.”  “I’m showy?” I asked in baffled amusement “You two are the ones dressed for a masque!”

“I want a cape!” Jan interrupted “How come Nick gets one?”  “Because he’s not an apprentice, munchkin!”  “It’s not a cape!” we both interjected.  “Wait, an apprentice?” I queried, sensing that I was missing a big chunk of the subtext of the conversation.  Seeing my confusion, Kathlyn explained that “Our culture uses capes as badges of rank, particularly regarding jobs: different things represent different jobs or social standings…  It’s complicated, and I wasn’t going to explain it to you until I actually had some to show you.”  “Great.” I almost spat, correctly interpreting that this was going to be a huge pain in my brand new tail.  The rising urge to toss the offending garment aside didn’t win out, but only by the narrowest of margins.  “Don’t worry, you’ll learn!” Jan assured me quickly “I’ll even take you down to the museum and help you!”  “I’m beginning to get the feeling that I’m about to end up relegated to the preschool like the slow kid who just won’t stop eating paste during arts and crafts time.” “Look on the bright side,” Jan explained cheerfully “Paste makes your coat shiny!”  “You’re not helping…: Kathlyn accused, flicking one of Jan’s ears.  “Yeah.” I agreed, sticking my tongue out at him.  “Yes I was!” he began, only to be interrupted by the train smoothly coming to a halt, the outside door sliding open of its own accord in a blast of wintery air.

“Well, one thing is for sure anyway…” I decided as we stepped off the train into the snow “I’ll never have to worry about getting bored with you two around!”

To Be Continued...