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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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It is either dry humor or stupidity; Koda opts for the former. "We aren’t. We are hungry, though. Chasing that antelope right into your sights was hard work."

Tanya gives a small, amused snort. She says, "Ari’s good at shooting things. Particularly if he doesn’t have to get off his ass to do it." She gestures toward a double swinging door, steel clad and further reinforced at the bottom for waiters with their hands full. "Supper’s this way."

She leads them through the kitchen, still equipped to feed perhaps a hundred guests. Industrial-sized pots hang from tracks anchored to the ceiling; the sinks, all shining steel, are deep and long as bathtubs. A dusting of flour remains at one end of a polished pine workbench that anywhere else would pass for a banquet table. Kirsten walks between Koda and Tanya, her shoulders drawn in, hands on the straps of her pack. Consciously or not, she appears to avoid touching anything in the room, and a wisp of memory floats through Dakota’s mind. Persephone in the underworld, condemned to remain if she ate or drank from the table of Hades. For half a second she considers bolting here and now. Beside her, sensitive to her mood, Asi whines, and she reaches down to pat him.

Food first. Then a bath. If we still feel spooked, we can leave before dawn, no one the wiser.

The kitchen opens onto the dining room, its tables still white-draped like ghosts. In the darkened lobby, a cavernous room with exposed rafters, stuffed animal heads punctuate the walls. There are deer and elk, bear and buffalo. A pair of moose antlers over the mantle stretches almost the width of the large fireplace. Through the window Koda can see half a dozen children chasing a ball down the driveway, shepherding it for a stretch between their feet, then kicking. A woman follows them slowly, her body heavily pregnant. Her face, a little bloated with the nearness of her time, seems peaceful in the fading light, her hands clasped under her breasts as she paces. A golden retriever lopes along the path, shuttling between her and the children. Asi, his interest pricked at last, trots to the window and utters a sharp bark. The retriever looks around, puzzled, then resumes her care of her human family. "Shall we let him out?" Tanya asks, running her own hand down Asi’s back. "Or would you rather have him with you since he doesn’t know the area?"

"His feet are tired, too," Kirsten says with a smile. "Let’s let him rest."

A smaller room leads off the lobby to one side of the hearth. Bottles still line the wall

Behind the antique walnut bar, but half the shelves stand empty. Attrition has set in among the glassware, too; the stems for alexanders and whisky sours that hang above the bar show chips on some of the rims, and here, too, many seem to be missing. "Family dining room’s this way," Kriegesmann says, turning to open a door carved with a line of quail, the young ones strung out between their parents as they make their way through a jungle of columbine and lupines. A discreet sign beside the jamb names it The Covey. "This used to be the VIP club. Still is, so to speak."

The room is brightly lit by lamps and candles. Seven people sit at a long table in the center, staring at them as they enter. Tanya crosses the small room to a sideboard and begins to set two more places, while her brother introduces them. "My dad, Julius Kriegesmann." The man seated at the head of the table, his white beard and hair impeccably trimmed, nods in greeting. "My mother, Harriet." Harriet looks decades younger than her husband; not, in fact, much older than her son. Kirsten smiles at her, murmuring "Beaucoup Botox," under her breath so quietly that even Koda barely hears her. Another sister, Diotima, who is evidently the mother of the two children lately afflicted with spots, waves and gives a blinding smile when introduced; neither offspring, however, can be coaxed to look up from their mashed potatoes long enough to greet the visitors. "Errolllll," their mother whispers. "Vanesssa. Manners. Please." Humphrey Smith, Diotima’s husband, and a black haired woman with uptilted black eyes, introduced merely as Elaine, round out the company. Tension hums around the room, running a three-pointed current among Harriet and the two daughters, between Julius and Elaine, between Tanya and Ariel.

Gods. We’ve gone through the rabbit hole and landed in a Faulkner novel. Or maybe Flannery O’Connor. Good country people, for sure.

Koda acknowledges the introductions politely, slipping into a seat across from Elaine, Kirsten beside her. Ariel, standing with his hand on the back of one of two chairs to the right of his mother, shrugs and accepts his plate without comment. Julius serves both Dakota and Kirsten with thick slices of the meat from the platter, and Koda is pleased to find that it is venison, excellently prepared with red wine and bay leaves. A helping of mashed potatoes follows, together with disappointingly insipid pea-green peas from a can. Beside her, Kirsten tucks into her supper with enthusiasm, leaving Koda to make conversation with their hosts. It is as much tactics as hunger, Koda realizes; while no one here has apparently heard of the battle of the Cheyenne, these are precisely the sort of people who might well recognize Kirsten despite her lengthening hair and bronzed skin. A turn of phrase, a tone of voice, could give her away as easily as her face.

So Dakota is left to answer the inevitable questions. They are traveling west from Minnesota, aiming for Salt Lake and Annie’s family there, if they’re still alive. Medical school? Sorry, vet school, at U Penn. Yes, she has some experience with human medicine, too; veterinarians dissect human cadavers along with animal corpses as part of their training, studying human infections right along with distemper and feline leukemia. At this, Harriet winces and reaches for her wine glass with fingers that still show traces of a professional manicure. The children’s eyes, in contrast, grow large as their plates, and Errol pronounces his approval. "Hey, that’s cool. I bet it’s really, really, gross." This last is aimed at his sister, who smiles sweetly and rubs a handful of her potatoes into his face.

Koda aims a sharp glance at their uncle, two seats further up the table. "Looks to me like they’re making a normal recovery."

"Yeah," Kriegesmann answers shortly. "Pass the gravy, would you?"

"Recovery?" says Diotima, at the same time, frowning. "Oh, those spots." She turns to Koda. "They have allergies, that’s all. They got into some poison ivy or something awhile back, and now it’s sniffles. Nothing serious."

"I’m glad to hear it," Koda says thoughtfully. "They’re not used to the mountains in summer?"

"No, we usually go to the beach in June. We come here in winter, just like we did last year. And now—" Diotima shoots a resentful glance around the table—"we’re stuck. We can’t get out. We can’t go back. We’ll die out here in the middle of nowhere, all because of some stupid, stupid robots. The government never should have allowed Peter Westerhaus to make those things. He’s rich, but he’s crazy, you know?" She makes a circular motion around one ear with a forefinger. "If Clinton had stopped him, we wouldn’t be here now—"

"Dio," her father says repressively, setting his fork down beside his plate. "We’ve been through all this. Make the best of it."

"And how many droids did you have, Dio, dear?" Tanya looks up with a bite of meat halfway to her mouth. "At least your children were here with you. And your husband." Her smile is pure acid as she gazes at Humphrey. "Such a comfort, I’m sure."

"So many comforts," Elaine sniggers. "A comfortable masseur, a comfortable tennis pro, a comfortable ski instructor. . .."

"Like you’d know," Dio shoots back at her. "At least I’ve got kids."

"And how about you, Humph?" Elaine asks. "Are you comforted that she has kids? At least you have a chance to have some of your own now."

Smith, arrested in the act of cutting his venison, slowly turns the color of old brick, the blood rising under his tan from neck to receding hairline. "I have," he says, biting off each word as if it were the texture of pemmican, "fulfilled my obligations to this family and to the corporation. I will continue to do so."

"There isn’t any corporation any more, you idiot!" Dio wads her napkin into a knot and throws it, violently, into her plate. "It’s over. It’s gone! There’s nothing left but this—" the sweep of her arm encompasses the lodge, the mountain, the empty months and valleys between this spot and an urban existence as dead now as Babylon— this hellhole! I want out! I want out now!" She swings around on Kirsten and Koda. "When you leave in the morning, I’m going with you. The rest of you can stay here and rot!"

With a sob, Dio pushes her chair back so violently it rocks on its back legs and stumbles across the room, both hands over her face. She jerks the door open and slams it behind her; hanging upside down in its rails above the bar, the crystal chimes gently. Julius Kriegesmann’s face, stony pale where his son-in-law’s is a shade just short of purple, half rises from his own seat. His wife lays one hand over his, clenched around his wineglass. "Well," says Kirsten calmly, "now we know what happened to the glassware."

Julius turns his gaze on her, his face still thunderous. Then Ariel’s head comes up from what has seemed to be an earnest contemplation of his meal. He stares at Kirsten in the silence, then begins to laugh, a chuckle that begins somewhere around the middle of his chest and gathers force as it rises, shaking his shoulders. "Dr. Annie Rivers," he says between spasms, "you’re okay."

The tension in the room snaps, and Julius carefully sets down his Burgundy. The two children return to their suppers with only perfunctory mayhem, overseen by Smith. Julius rises to offer after-dinner brandy to the adults, pouring Courvoisier into the bottoms of ample snifters. He hands Koda hers with a smile, half rueful. "Sorry about the fireworks. It’s been stressful since the uprising, especially for a city girl like Dio who’s used to all the luxuries. She’ll be fine in the morning."

And we’ll be gone in the morning. Long gone. By ourselves. But she accepts her drink and the elder Kriegesmann’s oblique apology with a smile of thanks. The gathering breaks up into knots after that, the three men and Harriet huddling around the fireplace, Julius and Ariel gnawing the ends of expensive cigars. The Smith children—putatively Smith, at any rate, escape to play in the larger space of the lobby, where thumps and thuds attest to their energy. Tanya and Elaine seem to distance themselves from the rest, holding hands as their voices become quieter and more intimate. Letting her own hand linger on Kirsten’s arm, Dakota says, "You about ready to turn in? Tomorrow’s gonna be a long one."

Tanya looks up from her conversation with Elaine. "I’ll show you to a cabin. Unless you’d rather stay here, in the main lodge?"

"Thanks, we’ll take the cabin," Kirsten answers almost before the other woman finishes her question, and Tanya grins in silent agreement.

"It’s not always this bad," she says. "But it’ll be quieter up the road." To Elaine, she adds, "I’ll be up in a bit."

"I’ll be waiting." Elaine gives her a sultry look over the rim of her glass, all fire and smoke.

As they gather their things, Asi darts to the door ahead of them, whining. Ariel yells "Sleep tight!" to the accompaniment of quieter good nights. In the lobby, now well lit, the furniture shoved together in an improvised jungle gym, Tanya glances at her watch and announces, "Fifteen minutes, kids. Time to hit the books."

"Awwwww, Aunt Tanya, that’s mean!"

"Pleeezzzeee, just half an hour?"

"Fifteen and not a second more. Suck it up, guys!" She lets Dakota and Kirsten out the main door onto the deck, and Asi shoots away, racing full out up the drive, turning and cannoning back at speed, only to hurtle off into the woods that line the road, barking furiously. Tanya laughs. "He’s off on one of the rabbit trails. I don’t blame him; it got pretty thick in there, didn’t it?"

The conflict on Kirsten’s face is almost comical. If she agrees, she insults the Kreigesmann family; if she does not, she contradicts the most normal one of the lot. Dakota rescues her. "People get on each other’s nerves when they get too close. Your mom and dad seem to have a pretty firm handle on it, though."

"They’re used to managing hostile takeovers. Even our family’s a breeze after that."

They set off down the path, the shadows thickening about them. The wind moves through the tops of the tall trees, sighing among the pine needles. Out here, free of the power struggles and tensions of the Kriegesmann brood, Koda’s own stress begins to fade. She feels as though she has been walking in boots half a size too small ever since they came upon Ariel and has only now been able to pull them off. Relief courses through her body, and, oddly, a sense of kinship with the woman beside them. There is strength in her, and though Koda suspects the presence of a wide ruthless streak, a kind of honesty she can respect. She says, "Your mother was with the bank, too?"

Tanya glances up at her, her face shadowed. "Oh, Harriet’s not my mother. Ari’s hers, and Humph from her first marriage. Dio’s the oldest, though she doesn’t want to be reminded of that. Then me, with Wife #2. Ari’s the baby."

"And he doesn’t like to be reminded of that?" Koda finishes the thought for her.

"Or of the fact that he never made senior VP. A doorstop with a title, that’s our Ari. His talents—well, the one good thing about this situation is that he can be more useful here than he ever was at the office." A wry smile twists her mouth. "Not that that outweighs the negatives for the rest of us."

"Dio certainly doesn’t seem to think so."

"She’s a born mall bunny. Julius got down in the muddy end of the gene pool with that one."

Cabins line the main road once they pass the lodge’s turnout and parking area. Warm light spills from their windows, and the smell of woodsmoke rises from their chimneys. Though summer solstice is only a few days away, chill descends on the mountain with the dark. Here and there, women gather children into what seem to be family homes; elsewhere, two men, or three, sit late on the front decks, smoking and talking. Koda can feel their eyes on them as they pass.

Tanya follows her gaze to the men, then back. She says, "We had quite a few hunters here when the rebellion started. Some tried to get back to their families; others stayed to help defend Elk Mountain."

"You’ve fought them?" Kirsten asks. Her voice is dry, her skepticism barely concealed.

"We caught a half dozen scouts, a couple of them human. Otherwise they either don’t know we’re here, or they haven’t bothered with us. There are relatively few women here. Maybe we’re just not worth it to them."

"You know what they’re after, then."

"We know they’ve been breeding the women they capture." Tanya’s eyes narrow, her mouth tightening in a look of pure hatred. "We heard about it from the refugees who’ve settled with us. One woman escaped from a jail in Laramie, then damned near died when she took tickweed to induce an abortion.

"As to what they’re really after—hell, no, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does. Otherwise we could stop them, or at least have an idea how."

About a quarter mile from the main lodge, she leads them onto a side path. In a small clearing at is end stands one of the A-frame cabins, its weathered boards and cedar shakes blending almost imperceptibly into the woods around it. Tanya opens the door for them, switching on the light as she does so. Someone has clearly prepared the place for visitors; the woodbox by the kiva-style fireplace is full of split logs, while a basket on the counter that divides the living area from the kitchen holds dishes, a small jar of coffee, a box of cereal, sugar and canned fruit. "Breakfast is at seven in the dining room, if you want to join us. Otherwise—" She gestures toward the provisions. "Bath’s on the other side of the kitchen; bedroom’s up in the loft. See you in the morning."

An hour later, Koda slips into bed beside Kirsten, her whole body feeling polished from the blast of the water jets in the shower. Her hair, still damp despite a session with the dryer, lies heavily across her bare shoulders. The small soapstone stove fills the space under the peaked rafters with drowsy warmth. Kirsten, the quilt pulled up around her ears, lies on her side, breathing softly and regularly, already asleep. Her pale hair spread across the pillow catches the glow from the lamp, a spill of sunlight in the surrounding dark. Wishing she were not blind-tired from the day’s trek and the bizarre familial wrangling of the evening, Dakota checks the revolver on the nightstand and settles beside her lover, drawing her against her own body, back to front, fitting together as if made for each other. Love you, babe. Love to love you, but I don’t want to wake you, and I’m just tired, so tired. . .. She never finishes the thought. Sleep claims her between one breath and the next, and she slips away into the dark.

CHAPTER FIFTY FOUR

SHE IS NEVER sure, afterward, what wakes her. Perhaps the snick of the key in the lock, perhaps a footfall or the voices of her dream, slipping through the pines in the wind. Asi stands by the bed, his ears up, tail stiff. Not a dream, then. Something is not as it should be. Early morning light sifts through the branches that are all that she can see out the one, high window at the apex of the roof, lays pale squares of light against the oak floorboards. She feels Kirsten’s body go suddenly rigid against her, her voice a barely audible whisper. "Dakota? What is it?"

"I don’t know yet. I think someone’s in the house."

Carefully she slips from the bed, her muscles moving smoothly and silently as Igmu Tanka’s own. Without sound, she lays a quieting hand on Asi’s head, then pulls on the jeans and shirt folded over the back of a chair, tucking the gun on the lamp table into her waistband. Kirsten glides from the bed behind her in one, smooth noiseless motion, reaching for her own clothes and weapons. Still barefoot, Koda steals toward the spiral metal stair that leads down to the ground floor. The loft opens onto the long side of the house, giving it privacy from the kitchen and living area below; all she can see from the head of the stair is the small game table by the floor-to-ceiling window and the shadow of the roof where it slopes to within a few feet of the ground. She stands there, scarcely breathing, her eyes closed as she concentrates her whole attention on her hearing, her thought spiraling out from her to touch the sense of wrongness that pervades her whole mind.

Someone is in the house. Quiet, not moving. Waiting.

Danger.

"Koda. There are men in the woods behind us. With guns." Kirsten’s voice is no more than a breath at her ear.

Dakota crosses the room to step up onto the chair beneath the small window. There are perhaps half a dozen of them, two of whom she recognizes from the bachelor groups of the night before. Which makes the whole situation quite suddenly quite clear. "Goddam asshole baboons," she mutters, biting her lip as she assesses options.

One. They can break the window and pick the idiots off. While satisfying, that still leaves whoever is downstairs, not to mention a riled community. Not a viable first choice.

Two. The skylight over the bed is just low enough that she and Kirsten can pull themselves and Asi through it. That leaves a long, risky slide down the roof, possibly a long, risky, noisy slide down the roof into the arms of the idiots presently gathered behind the house. Asi, particularly, is not likely to perform the maneuver quietly.

Three. Draw the said idiots toward the front of the building. Then proceed with Two.

She whispers, "I’m going to go downstairs and create a diversion. While I’m doing that, break out the skylight." Kirsten gives her an alarmed look, then her face clears as she nods her understanding.

Koda slips into her boots, loosening her shirt around her waist to hide the butt of the pistol. As she steps out onto the metal rungs of the stair, deliberately clanging her heels against them, she can hear Kirsten chiseling away with her knife at the sealer that holds the lexan skylight in place. She clatters down the staircase and around the corner of the kitchen. She pauses there for a long moment, hooking her thumbs into her belt next to her gun. A man sits at the table, a cup by one hand, a rifle by the other. Koda lets the silence drag out, then says, "Well, now. I sure don’t remember inviting you to breakfast."

Ariel Kriegesmann grins over the top of his cup, taking a long drink of the steaming coffee. "I remember it just fine. And here I am."

"How’d you get in?"

For answer, Kriegesmann dangles a ring of keys. "You forget. I’m the landlord."

"Funny. I thought that was your father."

A flush spreads across Kriegesmann’s face, pale in the early light, but he says evenly, "For the time being."

Koda moves toward him, out of the east light that silhouettes her against the window. His gaze follows her, half appraising, half hungry. "Does he know you’re here?"

"Actually, it was his idea. We need someone with medical skills at Elk Mountain." He shrugs. "We have plenty of food, relative safety, some of the comforts of civilization. It beats wandering around in the mountains."

Crossing behind him, Koda is faintly surprised to find the door is not locked. That must mean there are more armed men out in front, which is where she wants them. Holding it open, she says, "Then tell Julius I appreciate his offer, but Annie and I need to get on to Salt Lake. It’s been nice knowing you, etc., etc.. Now get out."

"Jeez, aren’t you the grateful one. How about, ‘Thank you for the good food, Ari.’ Or,

‘Thanks for letting us spend the night in the cabin.’"

"Thanks for the good food, Ari," she says. Her sight narrows, hunter-vision pinpointing him in a cloud of darkness. With an effort she shakes it off. She does not want to have to shoot him. That would take time she does not have. "Thanks for letting us spend the night in the cabin. Now get your ass out of here."

"Well, see, it’s not quite that simple." He rises easily, stretching. Strutting. He comes to face her across the open door. "It’s not just doctors we need. You may have noticed we’ve got a surplus of men."

"I noticed."

" Well, then. We need women. Healthy women who can have kids. You, for instance." He gestures toward the staircase. "Your little friend, for instance. You could be very comfortable here, you know."

"Is that a proposal? I decline." It requires all her strength to keep the contempt out of her voice. She does not want to goad him into a demonstration of his manhood here and now. The darkness closes in on her sight again. Gods, the stupid arrogance of the idiot.

Laying his hand on the door, Kriegesmann jerks it shut with a slam. "I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Get used to it."

To the end of her life, she will never know how she manages not to laugh in his face. Instead, she steps back, and in one swift motion draws her pistol and fires three times past his head. The plate glass in the tall windows shatters and falls to the deck, and as Kriegesmann jerks around to follow the sudden sound, she darts around him, snatches his rifle off the table and sprints for the stair. Grasping the center post to swing her herself up the spiral two steps at a time, she never pauses to look behind her. From outside, she can hear shouting. That is good; that means that the idiots under the window are now with the presumed idiots at the front, reinforcing their inglorious leader.

Kirsten, her own gun in hand, stands at the head of the stairs, one foot on the first tread. She backs up, relief clear in her face as Koda steps out into the loft. The skylight leans against the wall by the bed, nothing now between them and the pines that tower over the roof.

She answers the unspoken question. "I broke some windows, that’s all. Give me a hand here—"

Together they pull the bed over to cover the stair head. It will not keep the men out for long; what will keep them out longer is the belief that she and Kirsten are holed up in the loft with a small arsenal. With luck, they will be long gone by the time the ruse is discovered.

"The packs?"

"Already out on the roof."

"Okay. Let’s go."

Making a stirrup of her hands, Koda boosts Kirsten up and halfway through the open skylight. Anchoring herself by the frame, Kirsten scrambles the rest of the way through and scoots over to one side. Asimov is next. Dakota gives him a pat and a "Good boy," then lifts him through, halfway into Kirsten’s lap. Last Koda grasps the edge of the opening and levers herself up onto the shingles. The pine branches grow thick along this stretch of the roof, giving them at least some cover from below. Not that that will matter in a second or two.

From here, the slide looks decidedly longer and steeper than it did from below. Asi, looking down, gives an anxious whine, scrabbling against the rough surface with his nails. There is no time to waste thinking about it. Before Koda can speak, Kirsten gives herself a shove and goes hurtling down the slope, bumping along the shingles with Asi still halfway across her. Koda follows, coming off the edge of the roof six feet above the ground with a somersault that lands her, if not on her feet, at least not on her head or on her rifle. Kirsten, beside her, unfolds upward with a groan, while Asimov dances around her, tongue lolling. "Chirst, you beast," Kirsten says, and it is not at all clear whether she means her dog or her lover. Then they are running, all three, for the line of woods behind the house, Koda with her rifle in her hands, Kirsten’s finger on the trigger of her automatic. From behind them comes shouting, the sounds of a coalescing mob. A single gunshot cracks the air, followed by a full-throated roar from a dozen throats.

Sprinting among the trees, leaping the tussocks of undergrowth that bar their way, Kirsten pants, "Y’know—I’m—not sure—that’s—all—about us."

"I don’t think it is," Koda answers without breaking her stride.

"They want—what I think they want?"

"Yeah. And Ari’s—" Koda pauses to duck under a low branch that bars their way—"got the Oedipal thing bad. Gonna overthow papa."

Ahead lies the main drive to the lodge. Koda pulls up, motioning Kirsten and Asi to halt, and listens. The shouting of the idiot posse comes to them through the trees, along the side path that leads to the cabin. Faintly, from the tarmac that leads past the headquarters-cum-palace, comes the sound of running feet. A dozen or so, coming on fast. Shit. Koda pumps a round into the chamber of the 30.06; Kirsten, her mouth drawn in a grim line, pulls back the slide on her pistol. "Ready?"

"Ready," Kirsten answers, and they burst out of the trees onto the road just as Tanya and Elaine, three other armed women behind them, come pelting around the bend of the road.

But Tanya yells, "Go!" motioning them across the road with the sweep of her arm. "I’ll deal with them!"

With a salute of thanks, Koda and Kirsten, Asi loping full out beside them, sprint across the road and into the deep woods. Behind them gunfire erupts in a rapid exchange. The sound fades as the trees, towering pines and spruce, close about them, fallen needles silencing their steps as they become shadows in the darkness only, running ahead of the sun.

* * *

At evening, they camp on the shoulder of the Medicine Bow Range. The Platte runs blue below them, its course marked with brilliant splashes of color: the scarlet of Indian Paintbrush, golden yellow columbines, lupines in rose and purple. Snow blankets the high ridges of the mountains that rear toward the sky behind them. A faint breeze, chill from its passage over the latest fall, winds about them as they sit by the remains of their fire, their pots scoured and stowed, their supper of jerky and tinned beans lying comfortable if not tasty in their bellies. Asi, oblivious, lies snoring in the warmth.

"I’m going to get up any minute and get into the tent," Koda says, smoothing Kirsten’s hair against her shoulder. "Any minute now."

"Mmmm," says Kirsten. "Just drag me in after you."

After a moment, Koda says, "Those are pretty big mountains. You wanna go over or run parallel to ‘em down into Colorado?"

"You’re supposed to be the trusty native guide. Which way’s quicker?"

"Over, probably."

"Over it is, then.

"Know something?"

"What?"

"I’m never gonna say something’s no skin off my ass again. I’m almost scared to take my pants off and look at the damage."

"Want me to take ‘em off for you?"

Koda flashes her a grin. "Why, Ms. President. I thought you’d never ask."

* * *

"Looks like rain soon," Kirsten observes as she looks up at the sky and its rapid gather of clouds like guests to a party they absolutely cannot miss. Her breath comes hard and fast from the exertion of climbing nearly (to her) vertical grades with not a level plane in sight. She walks with the aid of a stout stick nearly as tall as she is. Asi lopes along happily, occasionally darting off the game trail they are following to investigate something interesting to his dog senses. Wiyo easily paces them high above, riding the currents of the increasingly chilly air.

They have made good time since The Elk Mountain Incident—as Kirsten is coming to call it, capital letters and all. They’d managed to scare up a couple of mountain bikes that had gotten them a good long way before a blown out tire ended that adventure for good. Not that it would have mattered soon anyway. The grades they were now climbing were too steep to even entertain the notion of riding a bike, unless one was Greg LeMonde, a title neither of them claimed.

Cars, of course, were out. Even if gas hadn’t been a problem, which it was, and they had been able to find one that would start after sitting idle for six or more months, which they hadn’t, riding in a moving vehicle might as well have painted a target on their heads, together with a sign reading "KIRSTEN KING IS HERE!!! COME AND GET HER, BOYS!!"

Androids do not drive cars.

While continuing her easy, long-legged stride, Koda cants her head, nostrils flaring as she scents the air. "Not rain," she murmurs. "Snow. And a lot of it by the look of those clouds."

"Not that I’m a weatherman or anything," Kirsten replies, chuckling, "but in case you’ve forgotten, it’s July, love. It doesn’t snow in July."

"Up here it can. Weather patterns are different up this high. A July snowstorm isn’t all that uncommon. People can get tricked up here sometimes, and come unprepared."

"If you start making Donner party cracks," Kirsten states with a nervous chuckle, "I’m gonna start running back down this damn mountain as fast as my slowly blistering feet will carry me."

Koda smiles. "We’ll be alright. We’ve got a little time yet to find shelter."

Kirsten looks around, seeing nothing but trees, trees, bushes, and more trees. "Um…I don’t want to sound alarmist or anything, but I haven’t seen anything even remotely resembling a town for hours. Hell, I haven’t seen anything resembling a house for hours."

"We’ll find something. C’mon."

With an exasperated sigh, Kirsten trudges on, every so often taking a wary glance at the clouds continuing to build and stealing the last of the bright blue of the sky.

* * *

Heavy flurries are threatening to turn into a full-out blizzard as Dakota leads them deeper into the forest. Her eyes constantly scan, ears primed for any sounds of danger. Asi ranges back and forth in front of them, nose to the ground and tail held at stiff attention. Though Kirsten trusts Dakota with her life, her old childhood fears of being lost in the woods have sprung to the surface with the turning of the weather, and though a chill wind is now blowing, a greasy sweat dots the exposed surfaces of her skin, dripping into her eyes and causing them to sting.

Suddenly, Asi’s haunches stiffen and he lets go a volley of barks that almost sends Kirsten into orbit. She steps closer to Dakota as a huge flock of birds rises, screeching their displeasure. To her surpise, her lover seems quite relaxed, even smiling as she eyes the angry birds. "I don’t see what’s so funny," she snipes, angry more at herself for her jittery nerves than at her partner’s seemingly inappropriate sense of humor. "For all we know, he could be barking at a grizzly."

"It’s no grizzly," Koda replies, still smiling as she meets her lover’s eyes. "Birds wouldn’t be roosting around a bear."

"So…what is it then?"

"You’ll see."

"It" turns out to be a shack, though to use the term does great disservice to shacks everywhere. Short and squat, perhaps eight feet to a side if that, it has the faintly listing look of a party-goer after one too many shots of Cuervo. The only window peers out at the world through shattered glass, and the door, or what’s left of it, hangs forlornly from one rusted hinge. The roof, minus most of what passes for its shingles, is slightly canted and the rocks from a fireplace chimney rise from it like a strangely shaped mushroom.

To Dakota, it looks like nothing so much as a long abandoned ice-fishing shanty, though she knows that the nearest body of serviceable water is miles away in any direction. Still….

"Well, it’s not the Watergate, but it’s got a roof."

At this point in time, Kirsten is all in favor of anything that involves protection from the hard-driving snow and the wind that cuts through her light windbreaker like the blade of a knife. She takes a step forward, only to be held back by Dakota, who unshoulders her rifle and aims for the door.

"I thought you said there wasn’t any danger?"

"No, I said there weren’t any grizzlies," Koda replies, smirking. "Stay here a second. I’ll be right back."

Confident in being obeyed, Koda steps easily forward and nudges the door open with the nose of her weapon. It gives way grudgingly, squealing its protest via its one rusted hinge. The strong odor of animal spoor assaults her nostrils, but the scent is nowhere near as strong as it would be had it been currently occupied, so she relaxes and steps inside. Aside from the aforementioned spoor and spiderwebs festooning the corners like forgotten party streamers, the shack is abandoned. Warped floorboards bear dark stains and the walls have jagged cracks running through them, but even so, the place seems relatively sound for all that.

"Wowza. A little ripe, huh?" Kirsten’s voice sounds beside her left elbow and she turns her head to gaze down into the shining emeralds of her partner.

"I thought I told you to stay put?"

"So you did," is the complacent reply. "The fault in your logic is thinking that I’d actually obey. And since I’m the President and you’re only the chief cook and bottle washer, well…." Kirsten’s tone is light and playful. "Besides, I didn’t want you having any fun without me."

"Oh yeah. Fun."

Setting her rifle to stand in one corner, Koda, after a questioning eyebrow toward her partner, liberates Kirsten of her walking stick and walks to the good-sized fireplace taking up almost one entire wall. Squatting on her haunches, she maneuvers the stick up the chimney and pokes. A soft rain of elderly, almost white ash filters down, together with sticks, twigs, leaves, and part of a very old bird’s nest, sans birds. "Flue’s clear." With a nod of satisfaction, she hands Kirsten back her stick and rises gracefully to her full height, dusting off her hands. "I’ll go out and get us some firewood before the storm gets much worse, then we’ll figure out how to close off that window and get some warmth in here."

"Hang on a second," Kirsten says, unshouldering her pack, unzipping it, and pulling out one of their tightly rolled blankets. "Throw this around your shoulders. It’s too damn cold out there to be walking around in just a shirt."

"Best to keep our blankets dry," Koda counters. "See if my heavy flannel is in there. I won’t be out long."

Digging further, Kirsten comes up with Koda’s thick, lined flannel shirt, and she tosses the garment over. She watches as her lover shoulders it on and flips her braid out from beneath the neckline. "Be careful out there, alright?"

Koda responds by kissing her lightly; a kiss which quickly deepens as their bodies realize exactly, to the very second, how long it has been since they have last made love. The nights of late have found them both so bone tired that it has been all they can do just to strip and slide into their joined sleeping bags before falling deeply asleep, huddled closely together. "Hold that thought." Koda’s voice is suspiciously husky as they finally break for air, hearts pounding in tandem.

"Hurry back," Kirsten replies on a breath that is just as ragged.

* * *

The wind howls as it soughs through the trees like an express train headed east. Already, half an inch coats the summer-warm ground, and more accumulates as the seconds pass. Practically snow-blind by the driving blizzard, Koda hunts for firewood on instinct, straying near the deciduous trees with their new growth covered in crystals of virgin white. Within twenty minutes, she has all the wood she can carry bundled in a more or less neat stack, and is silently thanking her father for many such a chore in her growing-up years. She picks her way carefully through the newfallen snow, her inate sense of direction leading her surely to the small shack in the middle of nowhere that they’ve chosen as their temporary—she hopes—shelter.

"Get in here!" Kirsten shouts to be heard over the shriek of the wind, all but pulling Dakota through the doorway. "God, you’re soaked all the way through!"

"That’ll be remedied soon enough," she replies, walking to the fireplace and setting down the branches she’s managed to forage. Her fingers, quite numb from the cold, are sluggish to cooperate and Kirsten, seeing this, kneels down to help, scowling at her.

"You just get out of those soaked clothes. I’ll start the fire."

Koda’s stiffening knees send out twin bolts of pain as she rises, and she walks gingerly back to where Kirsten has laid their packs, rummaging about for some warm, dry clothing. She takes in a deep breath, and is pleasantly surprised at the vast reduction in rank odor permeating the place. "Nice," she hums.

"House-cleaning for backwoods shacks 101," Kirsten replies, shaking out a wooden match from the waterproof tube and lighting it on the first strike. "Find a branch with dead leaves—instant broom."

"Learned that from the felonious Martha did you?"

"Ha. Ha. I’ll have you know that beneath my bookish looks and geeky charm lurks a genuine Rosie the Riviter."

"Mm," Koda’s liquid voice sounds right next to her ear, "I like your bookish looks and geeky charm."

"Jesus!" Kirsten utters, as much at the sudden onrush of hormones as at the fact that she has almost burned herself to a crisp. "Honey, I love you, but I think I learned in Girl Scouts that it’s unwise to seduce someone when they’re trying to start a fire. At least…one in a fireplace."

"Interesting troop you belonged to, canteskuye."

"You have no idea," Kirsten purrs, this time managing to get the tinder to light underneath the larger branches and logs.

"What else did they teach you?"

Kirsten shoots her a coy look from beneath partially lowered lashes. "Get out of those cold, wet clothes, and you just might find out."

"You must have gotten the incentivising for fun and profit merit badge."

"Frist time out," Kirsten replies smugly. "Now scoot!"

"Consider me scooted."

As she turns away, Koda notices another improvement in the shack. Kirsten has used her bright yellow rain poncho as a windbreak, using their roll of duck tape to lash it securely over the hole masquerading as a window. Added to the now burning fire, the warmth is palpable, and Koda lets go a shiver as the pins and needles of sensation rush into her warming skin.

"You okay?" Kirsten asks, moving over to her side and helping her remove the sopping garments.

"Getting better. Nice job with the window, Rosie. Have any more talents you haven’t shared?"

"Maybe one or two," Kirsten replies, grinning. "However, they still don’t include cooking worth a squat so…any suggestions?"

"Trail rations, at least for tonight. And some hot tea to wash them down with."

Kirsten’s lips mou. "I could have done that."

"True," Koda replies, pretending to consider. "I suppose I could open the door and invite a couple of rabbits to hop into the stew pot—assuming we had one—but I think, personally, that they’d rather take their chances with the blizzard."

"Mm. You have a point there. Tell you what, I’ll scare up our jerkey and crackers, and you heat up the water for tea. Sound fair?"

"More than." Slipping on her loose sweatpants, she moves to their gear and pulls out the stacked cooking gear they picked up from the camping store, pours some water from one of their canteens into the largest pot, and sits it on the heath to warm. After setting out a couple of tea-bags, she moves to the door and, with a bit of effort, manages to get it seated more or less securely into its swollen, warped frame. By the time she’s completed that task, the water is gently steaming in its pot, and she returns to the fireplace and pours the water into two travel mugs, allowing the tea to steep.

Kirsten has already laid their sleeping bags atop a thick blanket, and has used a second blanket to cover the blackened floor. Their simple fare sits atop this blanket, several pieces of jerky, a tube of crackers, and some cheese she’d liberated from a holiday basket some weeks back. It’s not a feast, no, but when she thinks about it, it’s not too different from the cardboard tasting microwave dinners she’d used to eat when she was living in the lap of civilization—when she remembered to eat at all, that is.

And, she thinks, looking over at the beauty who comes to sit comfortably by her side, tea mugs in hand, the company is infinitely preferable.

"Penny for your thoughts," Koda remarks, tossing a piece of jerky to Asi, who sets to with vigor.

"Is that the going rate these days?" She chuckles. "Actually, I was just sitting here thinking that there could be worse places to be than holed up with you in some shanty eating cold food and waiting out a blizzard."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Home, for instance. I mean…the home before all this started."

Koda thinks for a moment. "What would you be doing if you were there instead of here?"

"What is it, about six or so?"

"Thereabouts." Neither wears a watch, but, as with many things in this brave new world, they’ve learned to get by without them.

"I’d probably still be at work. I never left much before nine or so."

"Hillary kept you running ragged, huh?"

Kirsten smiles. "Nah. I was pretty much a workaholic anyway. I was doing something I loved, and there really wasn’t anything for me back home…"—she is interrupted by a rather outraged whine—"except for Asimov, of course, I’d never forget you boy." She ruffles him behind the ears, earning a grunting acceptance of her oblique apology. "How ‘bout you?"

"Mm, pretty much the same thing," Koda remarks around a mouthful of tea. "I usually kept my clinic open till late. More often than not, Wash or one of my other brothers would be down helping, and I’d drive them back home and take dinner with the family. I’d usually hang out with them for a bit, see if there were any chores that needed doing, then drive home. One last check of my patients, and I’d head to the house for bed." She shrugs. "With Tali gone, there really wasn’t much else to do."

With the mention of Tali’s name, Kirsten feels a burst of insecurity, but it’s more of an echo now, not the sharp, bitter tang she might have felt not three months before. She smiles internally, pleased at the growth she can feel in herself. I’m getting there, she thinks. I might not be all the way yet, but I’m getting there. She blinks, startled as a tin cup clinks softly against her own, and looks up into Dakota’s soft, loving eyes.

"To us, and to the future we’ll build together."

"To us," she replies softly, the warmth rushing through her an answer to unuttered prayers.

The rest of their meager repast is eaten in comfortable silence between them. The shrieking of the storm outside is mellowed by the cheery crackle of the fire. And though the shacks cracked walls and questionable roof lets in some of the cold, the warmth between them more than makes up for it.

Kirsten sets her empty cup down on the blanket and wraps her arms around Dakota’s lean waist, snuggling her head against one well-muscled shoulder and sighing in contentment. Smiling, Koda sets her own cup down and trails her fingers through Kirsten’s now long hair, watching as the strands sift through her hand like rays of warm spring sunshine. "Cante mitawa," she whispers as Kirsten tilts her head up and their mouths meet, slip away, then meet again in loving welcome. Kirsten’s lips part to the tender, inquisitive touch of Koda’s tongue, and she shivers with delight even as her hand slowly raises to cup her lover’s firm breast, caressing it with her thumb as she feels its warm weight in her palm. The hand in her hair tightens and she feels her neck arching as her head is drawn firmly, tenderly back, exposing the strong column of her neck to the ravenous lips, tongue and teeth of her lover. She shivers again, then moans as her bounding pulsepoint is nipped, then soothed with the tip of an amorous tongue. A low growl sounds from Koda’s throat as she removes Kirsten’s hand from her breast and eases the younger woman back onto the blanket, lips still attached to her throat, suckling at the pale, tender skin presented her. Her hands and fingers are demanding as they tug and pull at Kirsten’s T-shirt, easing it up until her lover’s breasts are exposed to the chill air and her voracious gaze.

"Beautiful," she rasps. "So beautiful." Her eyes are the sky of a moonlit night, her pupils black holes and Kirsten feels herself drawn into their vortex. Long fingers dance over the pale, silken flesh, circling nipples hard and aching even as her thigh slides up and seats itself between Kirsten’s legs, pressing and releasing and gently grinding. Kirsten trembles, then cries out softly as a warm, wet mouth moves down over her left breast, taking her in and sparking a fire that flows through her veins, making her limbs heavy and leaden as sharp teeth graze her nipple and a tongue soothes the sting.

As Koda moves over to Kirsten’s right breast, her hands dance down over belly and hips in long, slow, reverent strokes, then work the button to her jeans with expert precision. Rolling partially away, Dakota draws down the jeans and undergarments over strong thighs and tanned, toned calves, and tosses them in the direction of their packs. She then returns, grasping her lover’s legs and bending them, spreads them wide. Her tongue peeks out to wet her lips as her eyes feast on the evidence of Kirsten’s passion shining in the dancing light of the fire. With a soft groan, she eases back between those legs, rocking her pelvis until the soft fabric of her pants chafes against Kirsten’s swollen need.

"Oh God!" Kirsten gasps out, fingers digging into the ragged blanket.

"Mitawa," Koda growls, circling her hips against Kirsten’s swollen wetness. "Mitawa." Leaning forward so that her thick, black hair forms a curtain around them, she melds her lips to Kirsten’s, nipping her lower lip and tonguing the fold in slow, suggestive strokes and circles.

Kirsten’s legs move of their own accord, wrapping themselves around Koda’s waist, pulling her closer. "Please," Kirsten whispers. "Please."

Sliding her hands down to Kirsten’s hips—hot hands they are, so hot, searing her skin like brands—she begins to thrust in earnest, the soft cloth of her sweats giving her lover the exact friction she needs. Reaching up, Kirsten, in a burst of passionate strength, rips open Dakota’s T-shirt from hem to neck, then pulls the sweaty back down so that their breasts and bellies slip and slide along their lengths in time to their rocking thrusts. "More," Kirsten moans, her body liquid fire. "More, please, God, more!"

Dakota’s lips blaze a trail over her cheek and jaw and latch onto the fleshy part of her lobe; her tongue traces the whirles and whorles, still rocking, still thrusting, meeting Kirsten’s need with her own in a circle that has no end. Her hand slips between them and she groans as liquid heat bathes her fingers in a benediction of passion.

"Mitawa," she growls into Kirsten’s ear as she thrusts three fingers deep into her lover’s core, claiming her, filling her, loving her. Kirsten’s head slams back against the ground; her body arches like a bow bejeweled with sweat, every muscle taut and straining, every vein plump and thrumming just beneath the surface of her skin. Koda pulls her fingers out to the tips, twists, and thrusts back in with force, her eyes fluttering closed to her lover’s scream of ecstacy. Holding herself up by one trembling arm bent at the elbow, she begins thrusting in earnest, advancing and retreating to the rhythm of Kirsten’s wildly bucking hips. Her grunts of effort into Kirsten’s ear are low and guttural and send waves of sensation flowing through her and into her lover, causing Koda’s vision to blur and her head to spin. She slips out again, then adds a fourth finger to Kirsten’s delighted shout, and her thumb curls up to circle tease the engorged flesh, circling, circling, circling until Kirsten, finally, can take no more and crests on a thunderous wave of spiraling light that seems to have no end.

Sensing her lover is at her breaking point, Dakota begins to slow the rhythm and force of her thrusts, bringing Kirsten back to earth in the sweetest possible way. She lays butterfly kisses along closed eyelids and furrowed brow, on cheeks, and chin, and passion-swollen lips until finally Kirsten relaxes and drops back to the blanket, spent and gasping for breath. Koda gathers her in close, gently stroking hypersensitive skin, murmuring words of love and adoration she knows go likely unheard.

After several moments, emerald eyes flutter open, slightly dazed. "That was…you are….GOD."

"No," Koda jokes, "just a minion."

Kirsten rolls to her side, grabbing tight to the t-shirt she’s ripped and pulling Koda belly to belly with her. "I love you. I love you. I love you. I could say it a million times a day, and it wouldn’t be enough. Never enough."

"More than enough," Koda replies softly, tilting her lover’s chin so that their eyes meet. "More than enough, cante mitawa." Their lips come together again, and this time it is Kirsten who pulls away.

"I need to taste you," she says urgently. "Now. Right now."

Not needing to be told twice, Koda slips up to a sitting position and shucks off her sweats and undergarments in one easy move. As she moves to lay down on the blanket, Kirsten halts her. "No, sit up with your back against the wall. I want you to watch me. I want to watch you."

The naked, cracked wall is scratchy on her now naked and sweating back, but that minor annoyance is completely forgotten as Kirsten, licking her lips, spreads Dakota’s long legs, bends them at the knee, and situates her lover’s feet flat on the floor. Then she lowers herself onto her belly and takes in a deep breath. The spicy, exotic scent of her lover’s arousal flows through her senses, kick-starting hormones that had just given up the ghost. Her mouth waters and her eyes, filled with joyous anticipation, catch the dark, blazing eyes of her lover watching her every move.

With a little smirk, she begins by kissing the insides of Koda’s long, muscular thighs, using her tongue to gather up all traces of her lover’s passion and moaning in happiness over the taste that is, to her, finer than anything this world has to offer. "Touch yourself," she whispers, "your breasts. Make love to them as I make love to you. Here." Dipping two fingers into Dakota’s wetness, she reaches up and paints her lover’s nipples with her own essence, which shines like molten gold in the light of the fire. Dakota’s hands come up to caress her breasts, using the moisture to stimulate her nipples until they are stiff peaks that ache with sensation. "Now watch," Kirsten orders, dipping her head and using just the tip of her tongue to part Dakota’s lips. Dakota’s head slams back against the wall and she hisses with pleasure as she feels her lover’s talented tongue explore her folds, gently at first, then with more vigor. The first touch of Kirsten’s tongue on her clit almost sends her over, but she holds back with everything in her, squeezing her nipples and trying to keep her hips as steady as possible—a nearly impossible task given what Kirsten is now doing with her mouth.

Pursing her lips, Kirsten draws Koda inside, then traps the shaft with gentle teeth, leaving the turgid bud smooth and pulsing on her tongue. First lapping like a kitten to cream, then twisting and dancing, she finally settles down to a staccato rhythm that she knows Dakota particularly loves. Her lover is silent, like she usually is when being made love to, but Kirsten need only hear her labored breathing and feel the wiry tension in the inhumanly strong muscles clamped to her sides to know that she’s nearing the edge. With a final swirl of her tongue, she bites down as hard as she can without breaking the skin, and applies the perfect suction. One more touch of her tongue, a gentle, long lick, and Dakota climaxes, her entire body shuddering with the force of her explosion. Kirsten greedily drinks at her lover’s font, taking in every drop that springs from her like a waterfall until Dakota collapses, boneless, against the wall.

Getting to her knees, Kirsten moves forward and gathers her semi-conscious lover into her arms, stroking the sweat damp hair and whispering nonsense words into her ear as she recovers and comes back to planet earth.

"You…learned that in…Girl Scouts…did you?" Koda asks as strength and sensation finally opt to make a reappearance.

"That one I thought up on my own," Kirsten replies cheekily. "I’m glad you liked it."

"Liked it? As soon as I can find the top of my head around here, I’ll show you how much I liked it."

Kirsten chuckles. "We’ve got plenty of time for that, my love. Right now, I think sleep’s calling."

"Donwanna."

"Come on, boneless one, time for bed."

A truly aggrieved sigh follows, but Dakota allows Kirsten to help her to her knees and over to where their sleeping bags lie ready for them. They settle in, back to front, and Koda presses a kiss to Kirsten’s salty shoulder. "Love you."

"I love you too, Dakota Rivers. I love you too."

And with that, the two lovers fall into a well earned slumber.

CHAPTER FIFTY FIVE

FROM THE DEPTHS of her dream, Dakota hears the whine of a dog desperate for relief. "Wash," she mumbles, shifting beneath the blankets, "let the dog out." Another whine, this one louder and even more desperate. "C’mon, Wash. She’s your dog. Let her out already!"

A somewhat grouchy, somewhat sleepy grumble sounds right next to her ear, causing her eyes to open. It comes to her, then, with sudden clarity that this stunning blonde vision is about as far from being her youngest brother as it is possible to get.

"All right. I’m up already. I’m up!"

"I’m sorry, love," Koda replies, rolling up and wiping the sleep from her eyes. "I was dreaming. I’ll get him."

"No, no," Kirsten states, eyes still closed as she struggles out of the confining sleeping bag, "he’s my dog, I’ll let him out."

Both manage to get to their feet at about the same time and spend a moment leaning against one another as they fully awaken to a new day. Asi whines again, all but crossing his legs. Kirsten swears his eyes are yellow. "You poor goober," she sighs. "We forgot about you last night, didn’t we."

His expression appears to say that yes, they did forget about him, but all will be forgiven if they would just please use their opposable thumbs to unlatch the door and let him outside…post haste, if you please.

Snagging the top blanket to wrap around herself, Kirsten stumbles to the door and, after a few good yanks, manages to pry it open. Asi takes one step out into the still raging blizzard and stops. A wide strip of fur from shoulder to tail spikes up and he tears off into the whiteness, barking insanely.

Kirsten freezes. "Asi—."

"Asimov! No!!" Without thought, Dakota runs naked into the blizzard toward the sudden snarls—which aren’t Asi’s, and the pained yelp—which is.

"Dakota!!" Kirsten screams, already losing sight of her lover in the driving, thigh-deep snow. "Shit!!" Turning, she runs back into the house and grabs the first set of clothing she can lay her hands on, yanking on too-large sweatpants and her own t-shirt and shoving her feet into her still wet boots. Dakota’s gun is closest to hand, and she grabs it and heads back outside at a run. "Dakota!! Asimov!!"

"Stay back!" Dakota’s voice is commanding, though oddly flat, as if muffled by cotton batting.

Ignoring the order, Kirsten bounds into the snow, following the short trail Dakota has blazed, rifle cocked and at the ready—for what, she doesn’t know. Another series of high-pitched and piercing yelps is followed by an unearthly howling that all but freezes Kirsten’s heart in her chest. "Dakota!!!"

The howling cuts off abruptly and Koda reappears through the curtain of snow, blood covered and carrying Asi’s limp form in her arms. "Get my kit and build up a fire! Hurry!!"

Without further question, eyes wide and fearful, Kirsten turns again and races through the deep snow back into the shack. Setting the rifle in the corner, she hurries to the packs and quickly digs Koda’s first-aid kit from the larger one. Placing it on the sleeping bags, she then strides to the fireplace, drops to her knees, and starts feeding sticks into the smoldering fire, fanning it to hurry the process along. Dakota enters a moment later and lays Asimov gently down on the sleeping bags. "It’s okay, boy," she says softly, stroking his fur, "you’re gonna be alright. I promise."

The fire blazing, Kirsten comes to kneel beside her lover, placing the blanket over Koda’s icy shoulders and looking down at her beloved pet. A long, blood slice lays open his side from mid-chest to belly. Blood pours liberally from the cut, obscuring its depth. "What happened?" she asks, eyes brimming with tears.

"Wolverine. Get me some rags, t-shirts, anything to wipe this blood off, and some water. Hurry."

Kirsten grabs random batches of clothing from their packs and starts shredding them as Koda opens her kit and removes several items. Her fingers are like ice, but the adrenaline rushing through her body causes her not to notice. Grabbing a rag from her lover, she covers the wound and presses hard. Blood soaks through quickly, and she tosses it away, retrieving another one and repeating the process until finally the blood from the gouge begins to slow to a trickle. Grabbing a pair of battery-operated clippers, she quickly and efficiently begins to shave away the fur around the gash until his skin is smooth to the touch. "Give me a couple of wet rags," she orders.

Wet rags in hand, she carefully wipes the blood from the edges of the wound, breathing a sigh of internal relief as the cleansing reveals that the cut, while deep, does not break through the deepest barrier of skin. His organs are intact and undamaged. "Does he mind shots?" she asks, without looking up from her work.

"I…I don’t think so. Koda…?"

"Is he up to date on his rabies?"

"I…um…."

"Kirsten!"

"I’m thinking, alright!? It was maybe two weeks before everything went crazy. Asi stepped on a thorn or something and I took him to the Vet. He got a shot."

"Was it rabies?"

"I don’t…yes, it was. His year was almost up, and the vet decided to give it to him then so I wouldn’t have to come back."

"Good."

"Do wolverines carry rabies?"

"They can, yes. Get another wet rag and try to keep the cut clean of blood so I can see what I’m doing."

Swallowing hard, Kirsten does as asked, using her free hand to gently stroke Asi’s trembling flanks. Reaching into the kit, Koda removes several narrow syringes. "Lidocaine," she explains to Kirsten. "It’ll deaden the area I need to stitch. Just a little prick, boy."

Asi looks at her with offended eyes, and Koda chuckles softly. "Yeah, that’s what all you men say. Ok, here we go." Pinching up his skin, she injects the drug into several places, then sits back, waiting for the medication to take effect.

"Dakota," Kirsten says gently, "you need to get warmed up. You’re nothing but a block of ice."

"I’m alright," Koda replies firmly, shaking Kirsten’s arm from her shoulder. "I need to take care of the dog first."

"But you can’t--."

"I’m alright." Reaching out, she touches the skin around the cut, nodding. "Okay, boy, time to stitch you up. Kirsten, sit over there near his head in case he gets a mind to bite me."

"He’d never bite you!"

The look Koda gives her convinces her to switch positions, and a second later, she’s settled next to Asi, his head in her lap. "It’s gonna be okay, boy. You’re gonna be okay. Promise, ok?"

Raising calm eyes to his mistress, Asimov licks the inside of her wrist, causing her to giggle. "Stop, that tickles!"

Slipping powdered latex gloves on over her icy hands is an exercise in slow torture, but Dakota manages, and further manages to make the fine motor skills of her fingers work in picking up the threaded suture needle. "Ok, boy, here it comes."

It takes a double row of stitches to close the deep wound, but Asi bears it well, without even a whimper, and soon Dakota’s work is done. A bit of antibiotic salve rubbed over the stitches, and she removes her bloodied gloves with a snap. "There, all done. It’ll leave a scar, but his fur should cover it, and if it doesn’t, he can brag to all his buddies about the time he went up against a wolverine and lived." Then she looks directly at her patient. "And no licking, or I’ll have you looking like Mary, Queen of Scots in a heartbeat, understand me?"

Asi gives an affronted growl.

"Just remember what I said. I’ve got plastic collars right here and if you don’t want to be mistaken for a radar dish for the next week, no…licking. Got me?"

With a truly martyred sigh, Asi lays his head back in his mother’s lap and closes his eyes to further discussion on the matter. Kirsten looks up at Koda, eyes shining. "Thank you."

Dakota gives a short nod. "Just trying to protect his family."

"The wolverine?"

"Asimov. It was pretty brave. Stupid, but brave."

Testing an unsure barometer, Kirsten gives a small smile. "Speaking of both of the above." She inclines her head, scanning her lover’s naked, mottled and blood spattered body. "Please," she whispers. "You helped Asi. Let me help you. Please?"

After a moment, Dakota nods, then tries to stand. Her knees refuse to bear her weight and she winds up sitting on the wet, bloody floor beneath her. Laying Asi’s head carefully down on the sleeping bag, Kirsten jumps to her feet and grabs the rest of their blankets, bundling her lover in them before going over to the fire and removing two pots of water she’d set to heat when she built up the blaze. Liberating some soap and clean cloths from their bags, she comes to her partner’s side and gently begins to clean the crusted blood from her limbs and body. She doesn’t miss the stiffening, nor the soft intake of breath when she reaches for Dakota’s left arm. Bringing it slowly out into the light, her eyes widen even as her face pales. "Dakota?" she asks, her voice tremoring. "Did Asimov bite you?"

"No," Koda replies from between tightly gritted teeth. "Wolverine."

"Oh, god." She looks up into her lover’s pain shadowed eyes. "What do we do? What--?"

"It’s alright," Dakota spits out. "Just clean it as best you can with soap and water and wrap it. I’ll give myself a couple of shots that should take care of it."

"A couple of shots?? Dakota, did that wolverine have rabies???"

"There wasn’t time to tell. I was too busy trying to keep him from cutting me into filets." She smiles slightly. "Relax. I have the vaccine here and as long as I take it, I’ll be fine. You know that."

"Jesus, Dakota! You could have been killed out there!"

The smile disappears from Dakota’s face as if removed with acid. "It was either that, or let Asimov die. I saw a chance. I took it. End of story."

Kirsten opens her mouth, then closes it with a snap of teeth. This isn’t time to argue, and she knows it. Dakota is in pain, and she concentrates on that, cleansing the wound with as gentle a touch as she can manage. "Jesus," she whispers as she examines the angrily swollen puncture marks on her lover’s forearm. "Dakota, we need to get you to a doctor."

"No, we have what we need right here. It would be worse trying to go out in this weather. Believe me, I’ll be fine."

Kirsten has reservations, a whole ton of them, but pushes them back hard. "Ok," she says instead, tossing the bloody rag away, "what now?"

"Throw those rags in the fire, then grab the syringe marked ‘rabies’ from my kit. There’s also a bottle of pills in there marked ‘Amoxicillin’. Get those too, and some water."

By this time, the adrenaline she’s been working on has completely worn off and in its place, violent wracking shivers invade from top to toe, making even her guts clench with the force of the contractions. "You’re…gonna have to…give me…the shot…I think…."

"Whatever you need me to do, Koda. I’ll do it. Just show me how."

"Hel…p…me l…lay down on my s..s..side."

With a tenderness that surprises her, she is able to lay her lover on her side, cushioned by the sleeping bag. "Ok, what now?"

"Th…there’s a landmark. Be..between my hip and my asscheek. Almost a triangle…of muscle. Feel it?"

"I…I think so, yes."

"G..good. Now, pinch up the skin, just…just grab it and pull. Then take the needle and stick it in, like you’re throwing a dart, right into the muscle."

"I…um…."

"Just do it."

Taking a deep breath, Kirsten wills her hand to stop shaking and inserts the needle. "It’s in."

"I can feel it, yes. Now…now pull back a bit on the plunger. Just a little. Check…check for…b…blood. Is there any?"

"N-no. I don’t see any."

"Good. Now p..p..push the pl..unger in, nice and sm…mooth. Like that, yes. Then remove the needle and clean the puncture with a clean rag to stop the bleeding."

"Okay, it’s done. It’s not bleeding anymore."

"P…perfect. You gi..gi..give go..go..good shots, Dr. K-king."

"Thanks, but that’s the first and last shot I hope to ever give in my life, so we’ll keep that little talent a secret, shall we?"

"Wh-whatever you s..s..say, Doctor."

"Now, how about those antibiotics? Can you drink some water?"

"I can try."

Koda sticks out her tongue and Kirsten places the capsules in her mouth, then tilts the mouth of the canteen up to her lover’s lips. Koda takes a few choking swallows, enough to wash down the meds, then turns her head away. "N..no more right now…I’ll just..ch..choke on it."

"Alright, then. It doesn’t take an MD to see that you’re suffering from exposure and hypothermia. So, Asi and I are going to make a Dakota sandwich and warm you up, whether you like it or not."

"’s the b..best i..i..idea I’ve h..h..heard all day."

"It had better be, because it’s the only option you’re getting. Can you try and scoot over a little next to the dog?"

Koda manages a weak half-crawl, and collapses next to Asi, who immediately snuggles against her, back to front. Stripping, Kirsten slips into the bag and presses her warm front against Koda’s ice-cold back, then draws the covers over them all, praying with all that is in her that this will work.

* * *

For the second time that day, Kirsten awakens to a whine from Asimov. Tension flooding her, she twists within the confines of the blankets and the body pressed against her. "Asi?!"

Whining again, Asi stares past Kirsten, his tongue bright pink and lolling from his mouth, his sides heaving with the strength of his panting.

"Asi? What’s wrong boy? Are you okay? What’s wrong?"

He continues to look past her, still whining plaintively, and finally Kirsten’s sleep-numbed brain gets the message and she rolls over, and freezes, one hand moving up to cover her mouth. Dakota’s normally bronzed complexion is pale as curdled milk save for two high, clownish spots of color resting on her cheeks. Her entire body is bathed in sweat and suddenly, Kirsten can feel the immense heat radiating from her as from an oven. "Jesus!" she chastises herself as she scrambles from beneath the heavy, sodden blankets, "What was I thinking? How could I have fallen asleep?! Jesus! Koda? Sweetheart? Can you hear me?"

An unintelligible moan is her only response.

Throwing the blankets away from the makeshift bed, she stares in horror at Dakota’s arm. Massively discolored, it is swollen to nearly twice its normal side. The puncture marks constantly ooze bloody drainage mixed with yellow, foul-smelling pus, and, worst of all to Kirsten’s view, long red streaks radiate from the wound up the arm. "Toward her heart," Kirsten whispers, hand against her own chest. "Oh god. Oh, god. Ok. Ok, Kirsten, think. Think. You can do this." With a slightly shaking hand, she touches Dakota’s uninjured arm and squeezes, just the tiniest bit. "Dakota? Dakota, can you hear me? Honey, you need to wake up now, please."

"Ina?" Koda rasps, eyes still tightly closed. Her soaked head thrashes back and forth on the makeshift pillow. "Ina?"

"No, sweetheart. It’s Kirsten. Please, you need to wake up now."

"Wakinyan he. Wakinyan tuwapiIyuha te."

"Sweetheart, Dakota," a harder shake, "honey, wake up. You’re dreaming and I can’t understand you. Please, please wake up."

" Kohipe, ina," Koda moans, still thrashing desperately. " O opa le te. Tali."

"Dakota! Please!!"

" Ikahe. Waciyeye."

Kirsten pulls back, wringing her hands. "Ok, ok, you just need to calm down here and not panic. Now, she’s got a fever, and she’s delusional. That’s to be expected, right? So…what do you do for a fever?" She looks around. "Water. Cool water, on a rag. Wipe the sweat away, cool her off. And…aspirin. That’s good for a fever, right? Right. Okay, let’s just get this done."

Grabbing one of their clean t-shirts and a canteen, Kirsten wets the cloth with the last of their fresh water. "I’ll need to melt some snow to get more," she tells herself. "It’s gotta be pretty clean out here in the middle of nowhere. I hope."

Once the rag is fully wet, she brings it to her lover’s face and gently bathes the sweat away, slightly comforted when Dakota immediately stops thrashing and seems to calm beneath her tender touch. "That’s right, sweetheart, just let me help you, ok? You’re gonna be alright. You are. You have to be."

"Ina," Koda whispers. "Kohipe, ina."

"It’s alright, Dakota. It’s alright, sweetheart. I’m here. I’m right here." Not sure what else to do, she begins to hum, slightly off key, a tune she’s heard Dakota hum in the past. Even if the tune isn’t exactly right, it seems to reach down into whatever hell Dakota is trapped in, and her labored breathing eases slightly as she seems to fall into a deeper sleep. Continuing to hum, Kirsten gently bathes the sweat from the rest of her lover’s body, leaving the brutally injured arm for last. She doesn’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that Koda shows absolutely no reaction to the cleansing of what has got to be a horribly painful wound.

"Ok," she says, tossing that rag into the fire and listening to the flames’ hissing protest, "now Aspirin, and more Amoxicillin. Water first, though." She rises to her feet a bit unsteadily, battling down a wave of dizziness that threatens to take her back down to her knees. "Oh no, you’re not going to get sick too. Not going to happen, so you can just forget that action. Asi? You stay here, boy. I’m going outside to get some snow for water. I’ll be right back."

Slipping into some dry clothes and wet boots, she grabs the pots from the cooking kit and heads outside. The storm appears to be slowly tapering and Kirsten breathes a sigh of relief over this one bit of halfway decent news. Staying within a pace of the shack, she grabs handfuls of snow and packs it tightly into the three pots she carries. "Okay, this will have to do for now. I’ll just melt it over by the fire and see if I can get Dakota awake enough to swallow it with some pills."

Satisfied with her course of action, she lifts the pots and heads back into the shack, kicking the door closed behind her. Asi lays full length next to a too-still Dakota, once again offering his warmth. "Thanks, boy," Kirsten says, bringing the pots over to the hearth. "I’ll check on you and let you out in just a minute, ok? Just got to get some medicine into Koda first."

The snow quickly melts and Kirsten pours some into one of their drinking cups, then roots through the packs for Aspirin and Amoxicillin. Two caplets of each in hand, she moves over to Koda’s side and sits cross-legged beside her. "Now for the hard part."

Dakota’s head lolls like a corpse’s as Kirsten gently tries to lift it enough to get the cup to her lips. "Come on, sweetheart, you can do this. We can do this. Please." Setting the cup down, she opens her lover’s mouth and slips all four caplets on her dry, discolored tongue. Then she retrieves the cup and starts to trickle the water in. Most of it runs harmlessly down Dakota’s cheek and chin. With a sigh, she tries again, this time using her thumb to close her lover’s mouth and one finger to gently stroke her throat, as a mother would when trying to get an infant to swallow formula. "Thank god," she says when it works. "Oh, thank you, god."

Taking away the soaked bundle of clothing she’s using as Dakota’s pillow, she replaces it with the last of their fresh sweats and gently replaces her lover’s head on the prop, tenderly stroking tendrils of wet hair away from her cheeks and brow. "Now you just rest, sweetheart, and let the meds do their work. Asi and I are right here and we’re not going to let anything happen to you. Just concentrate on getting well, ok?"

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she regains her feet, takes away the dirty clothes and cup and puts both in a corner to be dealt with later. "Okay, boy, your turn. How’s your side, huh?"

Asi obediently comes to her, easily and without a limp or obvious pain, and as she pets his great head, she looks at the wound on his flank. Despite her own serious injury, Dakota had done her job to perfection. The wound is clean, dry, and free of swelling or discoloration. "Another thing to be grateful for, huh? Ok, let’s let you outside to do your business and then come back and keep watch, alright?"

The snow has tapered off even more to isolated flurries when she opens the door. Asi goes bounding out and heads immediately for the blood-covered area where the corpse of the wolverine lies. Lifting his leg, he marks it, then turns away, sniffing at other trees, bushes, errant leaves, and whatever else strikes his fancy. "How did you kill it?" Kirsten wonders out loud. "You didn’t have a gun. Hell, you didn’t even have any clothes on. How did you kill it?"

The chill breeze gives no answer.

* * *

Kirsten rouses from her watch from time to time to add wood to the fire and to stir up the embers. Its warm glow spreads over the stones of the hearth and the crude walls of the cabin, over their spread sleeping bags and Koda’s face. Kirsten is not sure how much of the flush of her lover’s skin is the flame’s reflection, how much is the burning of an inner fire. Her breathing seems more rapid now than the last time Kirsten checked, her lips dry. Kneeling beside the pallet, she turns the cover back from Dakota’s bandaged hand. The forearm strains tight against the wrappings, its swelling grossly unmistakable now where the flesh balloons around the elbow. Scarlet stains the gauze and lycra, bright against older, rust-colored spots. A bright yellow streak, fresh drainage, seeps through with the blood.

A chill runs along Kirsten’s spine. The infection from the bite has grown worse, spreading to adjacent tissues. Whatever it is—Staph? Strep? One of those flesh-eating megabugs?—is not responding to the Amoxicillin. If it gets into the bone, or goes systemic, into the blood, Koda may not be able to throw it off. She may not be able to throw it off, even now.

For the half-dozenth time, she rummages through Dakota’s kit, hoping to find something, anything, she’s overlooked. There’s a second antibiotic, Sulfamasomethingunpronounceable. Maybe if she gives it in addition to the Amoxy? Sometimes, she knows, drugs can be more than the sum of their parts. Breaking two of the large, white tablets from their foil-and-plastic blisters, she lifts Koda’s head from the rolled jeans and flannel shirt that serves as her pillow and slips the tablets into her mouth with a trickle of water. Without awakening, Dakota swallows, reflex taking over. With Asi beside her, Kirsten wraps her own hand around Koda’s and does the only thing she can do. She waits.

Kirsten walks a corridor filled with light. Her nylon-soled shoes make no sound against the tiled floor as she passes what seems to be an endless series of wide, numbered doors on her right, an equally endless series of tall windows on her left. Men and women in white coats and surgical scrubs pass her in a human stream, their elbows cocked to hold clipboards, stethoscopes draped over their shoulders, their pockets brimming with coiled wires and esoteric-looking instruments. Looking down, she sees that she, too, wears a lab coat and carries a file, the name blurred against its red label.

She reaches an intersecting corridor, marked by what is apparently a nurses’ station. An endless rank of white-clothed figures stares at monitor screens arrayed on the desk, so many it might almost be a computer lab. None of them moves or speaks to her, or raises a head to acknowledge her. It comes to her that she does not know where she is or why she is there. One of the nurses might know, but she hesitates. Perhaps something terrible will happen if she asks one of them a question. Or, perhaps, something terrible will happen if she does not ask. Galahad—no, not Galahad, one of those other impossibly priggish knights, she can’t remember his name—at the Grail Castle, too polite to ask the obvious and heal the King.

But that doesn’t make any sense. I’m the King

Doctor King.

As if in response to her thought, the intercom crackles above her head. "Dr. King. Dr. King. Room 486 please. Stat. Dr. King, go to Room 486. Emergency."

No single head turns away from its monitor. The human traffic continues to flow around her, oblivious. Kirsten begins to run, paying attention to the numbers on the rooms for the first time. 400. 410. She dodges around a meal cart, pushed by a young man who spares her not so much as a glance. 420. 440. She crosses a second intersecting hall, a third. 460. Her chest heaves with the effort; surely she has run half a mile, three-quarters of a mile since the intercom’s summons. 470. The corridor makes a double-dog leg turn, leading away from the bright hallway lit by windows. Here rooms run on either side of her, and she panics, almost skidding to a halt in her tracks. The numbers on the doors no longer march in sequence. She passes 239, then 863. But no, there is 472, and a bit further on, 475.

As she runs, the passage constricts and becomes darker, the lights above dimmer, the traffic diminished. Finally, at the end of the hall, lying now almost entirely in shadow, she comes to the door she seeks. Her breath coming in gasps that are part exhaustion, part fear, she pushes it open and brings her hands to her mouth, stifling a scream.

The room lies in near-total darkness, lit only by running LCD readouts on screens that rise up from the head of the hospital bed to the ceiling. In their flickering rainbow light, she can dimly make out Koda’s face on the body lying so still and stiff on the bed, a white sheet drawn up to its chin. Oddly, none of the instruments seem to be connected to her—no tape, no tubes, no needles.

Oh gods, no. It’s the morgue. No.

"No, it isn’t. Not quite."

Kirsten follows the sound to the corner of the room. A white-coated figure stands there, the multi-colored lights playing about him like an acid-dream aura. The person takes a step forward, ostentatiously checking a Rolex the size of a saucer that lies against his slim brown wrist.

His brown furry wrist.

"There is not," he says, "very much time."

Another step forward, and Kirsten can see him clearly now, partly in the instrument lights, partly in the glow from the lighted dial of the immense watch. Bottle-bottom round spectacles perch over his pointed black nose, and a brushy tail, grey stripes and black protrudes from beneath the pleat of his lab coat. The hand that turns the Rolex so that she can see the time bears five long fingers, and no thumb.

"You!" she snaps. "What the hell—"

"Tch. Again with the manners. Your mother should hear you."

"What the hell"-- Kirsten can hear her voice rising, out of her control—"What the fuck are you doing here? I don’t need you! I need someone who can help!"

"On the other hand, your mother shouldn’t hear you. What a mouth you’ve got." He gives an indignant sniff. "Besides, look where you are. Have some respect."

Kirsten’s gaze returns to the still figure on the bed. She stares fixedly at the sheet for a moment, willing it to rise and fall with Dakota’s breath. It does not stir.

All the fight goes out of her, her spine slumping with the sudden weight that falls on her. "She’s dead," Kirsten says in a voice so flat she does not recognize it as her own. "I couldn’t help her. The infection got out of hand—" She swallows hard against the dry contraction of her throat. "We didn’t have the medicine, and I couldn’t help—"

"And it’s all your fault, yadda yadda yadda. Suck it up. You can help."

"Wha-- Didn’t you hear me? The medicine doesn’t do any good! What are you going to do, give me somebody’s grandmother’s recipe for a magical herbal tea? She needs a doctor. She needs a hospital. She needs—"

"This prescription." Tega extracts a notepad and a pen from his coat pocket and begins to write, holding the ballpoint between the middle joints of his third and fourth fingers. He tears off the script and passes it to her across the bed. "Here. Any questions?"

Kirsten glances down at the paper in her hand. Printed in fine, flowing letters across the top is the legend, W. T. Kunz, M.D., Ph.D., A.P.A., F.R.C.S., D.V.M., LL.D., K.C.B.E.

Half the alphabet soup she does not understand, and it occurs to her that that is probably just as well. Beneath it, in clear block print, is "Levaquin Injectable. 500 mg 2/day for 10 days. Packet 10 3cc syringes w/needles." It is the most lucid prescription she has ever seen, and the most useless.

She says bitterly. "It might as well be skunk cabbage tea. Where the hell am I supposed to find this? There’s no Walgreen’s over the next ridge, or if there is, it’s looted."

"How about the hospital pharmacy?" Tega cocks his head to one side, looking at her as if she is a slightly backward child.

"What hospital? There is no hospital, dammit! This is a dream. We’re marooned in some god-forsaken fishing shack in the god-damned middle of god-damn nowhere!"

"Craig," says Tega.

"What? Who’s Craig?"

"Not who. Where. Over the state line in Colorado. There’s a clinic. In Craig. With medicines. You can fill the prescription there."

"But—"

He glances at his watch again, steadying its immense dial with one hand. "Get out the map, put on your boots, and go. There isn’t much time."

"Wait! What—"

The intercom interrupts her. "Dr. Kunz. Dr. Kunz to Emergency. Code Purple. Stat."

"Gotta go, schweetheart. It’s been fun, and it’s been real, and get up off your ass and go get the meds." With that he begins to fade, and the hospital room around him. Kirsten’s eyes snap open, to the now-familiar sight of the fire and Asimov’s anxious gaze, and the too-quiet form beneath the sleeping bag.

"Gods, what a damn dream—" Without thought, she raises a hand to rub at her aching forehead.

There is a paper in it. A paper that was not there before.

Hardly trusting her sight, let alone her mind, Kirsten looks down at the words that march across the corner of the Wyoming/Colorado map from Koda’s rucksack. In her own neat handwriting it says, "Levaquin Injectible. 500 mg/day for 10 days. Packet 10 3 cc syringes w/needles."

"Ok," she says, wiping her hands on her pants. The script crinkles in protest. "I can do this. I have to do this. Even if that nutty striped Marcus Welby wannabe from my very weird subconscious didn’t tell me, I’d still have to do it. So let’s get going. First things first. It’s gonna be a long hike, so I need to be dressed for it. Or as dressed as I can be, anyway."

Slipping off her sweats, she tugs on a dirty pair of jeans, then pulls the sweats back on over them, then pulls Dakota’s sweats on over them, changing her appearance to that of a housewife who’s spent a little too much time with the bon-bons and soaps. They have two dry t-shirts left, and she pulls both of them on, then one of her own flannels, then one of Dakota’s, and finally Dakota’s heavily lined flannel that is more jacket than shirt. A third flannel is tied, babushka style, over her head. A pair of heavy, clean socks double as mittens. "I know, I know," she remarks to Asi, who seems to be laughing at her, "I look like the bagperson from Hell, but at least I’ll be warm. I hope." Three pairs of socks and her boots come last.

Fully dressed for whatever may come, she waddles over to Dakota and, with the effort of a small child in a full snowsuit, lowers herself to her knees. "I’ll be back soon, sweetheart. I promise you." She strokes the damp hair from her partner’s forehead. "I’ll have the meds you need and you’ll be better in no time. Then we can finish this shit and get on with the rest of our lives, ok?" Tears sting her eyes and she swipes at them. "Just…hang in there while I’m gone, alright?" Bending still further, she places a tiny kiss on Dakota’s forehead, and a longer one on dry, cracked lips. "I love you, Dakota Rivers. Never forget that. Ever."

Pulling away, she pauses for a moment, and looks up at the ceiling. "Ina Maka? I don’t know if you can hear me. Hell, I don’t even know if I believe you even exist. But Dakota does, I know that, and that’s enough for me. I don’t pray much—heck, I don’t pray at all, really, but I’m doing it now. Please, please watch over her while I’m gone, ok? I know that you and her are close, and you might be thinking of calling her to your side so you can be together all the time, but…don’t do it just yet, ok? I need her. I need her and I love her…so much. And if you really are up there, you know that. So please, just…watch over her for me, alright? Thanks."

Struggling back to her feet, she takes one long, last look at her lover, then turns to her dog. "Guard her with your life, Asimov. I mean that. Do you understand me?"

A stern bark is her answer as she exits the cabin without looking back.

CHAPTER FIFTY SIX

WITH A SOFT GRUNT, Kirsten lays the crumpled map flat against a rock whose cap of snow has melted away in the warm summer sun. Removing her makeshift mittens, she pulls out the old-fashioned compass, surprised she still knows how to read one in these days of GPS tracking, takes a reading, and looks back down at the map, frowning. "The compass says I’m going the right way. The damn map says I’m going the right way. So would someone please tell me what the hell this mountain is doing here?!?"

The world around her is, unsurprisingly, silent on the issue.

"Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, three goddamn hours of walking for what?!?" She looks slowly left, and then right. The snow-covered cliff face, nearly vertical and reaching almost as high as the clouds, stretches to the horizon in both directions. The town of Craig is only five miles away. Five miles and an unscalable mountain away, that is. "Fuck! What now?" She can’t turn back. That much is certain. Just the memory of her lover, lying still and pale as death, fills her with a desperation that fires her nerve endings and urges her muscles into action. Any action.

"What I wouldn’t give for a goddamn pair of wings."

Perfectly on cue, a piercing call sounds above her head, and as she looks up, she sees the trademark shape of a hawk circling above her. A disbelieving smile comes to her face. "Wiyo? Is that you, girl?"

The hawk, who is indeed Wiyo, calls out once more, then gracefully shoots in for a landing atop the rock where Kirsten’s map is perched. "It is you! God, it’s so good to see a friendly face around here." She reaches out, but Wiyo takes a step back, not quite as trusting of this woman as her two-foot companion. Kirsten laughs. "That’s okay, girl. I was only wishing for wings. I wasn’t planning on stealing yours." Sighing, she slumps forward, leaning her elbows on the sun-warmed rock, letting the heat of it bleed into her cold-numb body. "I hope Dakota’s doing ok. I hated leaving her. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done…but I had to do it. I have to. There isn’t any other choice. And now this…this…blasted mountain is keeping me from getting back to her."

Wiyo cocks her head, dark eyes piercing and somehow frightfully aware. After a moment, she takes off from her perch on the rock, crying out her signature call. "Sorry, girl," Kirsten says, watching her go, "I guess I’m not very good company. Be safe, wherever you’re off to."

Which, it turns out, isn’t very far at all. The hawk lands atop a huge, snow-covered fir and screeches out again, twice.

"I’m sorry, girl," Kirsten calls. "If you’re talking to me, I don’t understand you. Dakota would understand you, but she’s not here and I’m not her." She looks around, slightly abashed. "Great, now I’m talking to birds. I’m definitely losing it here."

Wiyo calls again, lifts off a bit from the top of the tree, and lands once more. "What? Are we playing charades? I don’t understand you, girl!"

With yet another call, Wiyo jumps from her perch and lands on the next pine over, fluttering her wings. If it were possible for a hawk to look supremely frustrated, Wiyo is accomplishing the task admirably.

"Ok, ok, I get it. You’re trying to tell me something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something alright." Shoving her map and compass back into her pockets, she slogs through snow still up to her knees toward Wiyo’s current perch. Just as she arrives, the bird takes off, arrowing for another pine a hundred or so feet away. "Great. First it’s charades, now it’s tag. You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Or maybe you are and you just can’t read a map. Or a compass."

At the sixth hopscotch, and approximately a mile away from where she had stopped at the rock, Kirsten stands staring in amazement at a tiny pass through the mountain. "Holy Jesus! I never would have found this in a million years!" She looks over her shoulder at Wiyo, perched on yet another tree and presumably agreeing with her. "Yeah, I know, I’m not super tracker, but…thanks, Wiyo. I owe you one. And I’ll pay up. I promise."

With a screeching call, Wiyo takes off once again into the skies, circles once, and is quickly gone from her sight.

* * *

Craig, Colorado, a small city which, in its heyday, boasted a population of just under ten thousand souls, is a ghost-town. Wandering through its empty streets, Kirsten can’t help wishing for a set of eyes in the back of her head. Something about the town is eerie, though she can’t quite put her finger on just what that might be. Her raccoon hallucination hadn’t seen fit to give her the name of the clinic she is supposed to be raiding, nor its exact address, so she finds herself wasting yet more precious time trying to track down the medicine she needs to save her lover’s life.

Choosing a street more or less at random—more or less only because she has seen a physician’s shingle hung out on one of the well-tended houses and figures where the doctors are, a hospital can’t be all that far away—she lengthens her stride, peering fitfully at the sun which has already started its downward descent. The road she is on is narrow, curving, and steep, and as she breasts the hill, the clinic, or what remains of it, comes into full view. It had once, she surmises, been a rather beautiful place, as medical clinics go, with its broad expanse of lawn just now going to seed and a fantastic view of the mountainous wilderness seen in panorama like a postcard in a fancy boutique. It is now a mostly burned out hulk with the words "YOUR BABIES WERE MURDERED HERE" scrawled across its once-pleasant wood and stone facing in huge, red letters. "Great," she sighs, unsurprised to feel the sting of tears, once again, pricking at her eyes. "I walk all this fucking way to find a bombed out abortion clinic. Shit!" Still, her desperate need presses her onward in the hope that something, anything, of value might yet be scavenged from the wreckage. "Please, God, just this once, ok? I’ll never ask for another thing again as long as I live."

As prayers go, it’s been heard before, and many times at that, but she means every word with all of her heart and soul.

Stepping over fallen beams and shattered glass, she enters the clinic, wrinkling her nose at the stench of melted plastic and cordite that still permeates the air despite the obvious signs that the damage was done several months ago, at the very least. A fitful sun shines through what remains of the roof, turning the ugly scene oddly beautiful as the shards of glass sparkle like diamonds in the snow. At the rear of the reception area is a door that has somehow escaped the brunt of the blast. She walks to it and, with a hard yank, pulls it open. Beyond is more destruction. To the left, the walls and ceiling have collapsed, leaving whatever is beyond inaccessible to her. Straight ahead, a long corridor has, for the most part, been left to stand on its own. Taking out a small, but powerful, flashlight from her pocket, she switches it on and shines it down the undisturbed hallway. The walls are a soothing blue, and the doors, six to a side, are painted in cheerful primary colors. She walks slowly, cautiously, down this hallway, opening each door in its turn. All reveal neatly kept examination rooms with real beds instead of sterile tables, and all the high-tech medical equipment a prospective mother could want to be assured of the continuing health of her developing fetus.

The corridor ends with a stark white door, larger than the others, and bearing the legend: "Authorized Personnel Only".

This door opens easily, and she steps through, into yet another corridor—sterile white, this time. "Now we’re getting somewhere," she says, feeling a faint spark of hope bloom. There are several doorways with no doors to bar the view, and she walks to the first one, peering inside. A rather large centrifuge and other identifiable pieces of equipment identify this room as a lab. Her light reflects back at her, sparking off of many rows of glass tubes used for blood collection. The open cabinets reveal nothing of great interest, but she goes through them meticulously anyway on the off-chance that some needed item might be stored within. Coming up empty, she plays her light in a last sweep over the room and steps back into the hallway.

"Paydirt!" Her happy cry echoes through the empty corridor, though the squeaking of disturbed rats tell her the place is not exactly as empty as she might have liked. "Ok, time to find out if my furry, striped hallucination is worth the ulcer he’s giving me."

Stepping into what obviously is the pharmacy portion of this little operation, she shines her flashlight over row after row of open cabinets, and several which appear to be securely locked. "Oh well, no narcotic bliss for me. Let’s see. Pills, pills, caplets, tablets, pills, pills, more pills, vials! Yes!!" Walking over to the cabinet containing the vials, she squints at the names on the boxes which house the ampoules of liquid medication. "Damn, I should have remembered my damn glasses. Stupid…. Ok, what do we have here. Sodium chloride. Potassium chloride. Gentamycin. Vancomycin. Zythromycin. Erythromycin. I’m not gonna even try to pronounce that one. Ampicillin. Amoxicillin. V-Cillin, Hello Levaquin!" She pulls down a box of twenty five 50cc vials. "Ok, they’re not pre-filled syringes, but the dose is right, and with my crash course in Shot Giving 101 yesterday, I think I can manage. Now all I have to do is find some syringes."

Acting on a hunch, she pulls open a large drawer beneath the cabinet and finds a plethora of sterile-wrapped syringes of different sizes, from 10cc down to TB. Grabbing handfuls, she begins stuffing her pockets with as many as they can possibly carry. "Thank God there aren’t any cops around anymore. With my luck, I’d get arrested for drug pushing. I know it." Another drawer reveals hundreds of alcohol prep packets, and she grabs those as well.

Pockets filled to overflowing, she takes a final look around, sees there isn’t anything else she thinks she’ll need, and steps back out into the corridor. "Alright, I think it’s time to blow this one-horse town and get back to where I belong."

Without thinking, she turns the wrong way and faces a somber brown metal door with a safety bar across it and an "EMERGENCY EXIT" sign just below the wire-crossed window that is too high for her to see through. Seeing no reason to take the long way around, and well aware of the need (and desire) to get back to Dakota as quickly as possible, she ploughs ahead, hitting the safety bar and taking a step outside, before just as quickly reversing and allowing the door to slam closed in front of her. When it does, she sinks to her knees, breathing deeply and trying to convince herself that what she thinks she’s seen out there isn’t what she did, in fact, see. The visual imprint of the scene plays itself out behind her closed eyes, cutting her futile hopes in that direction to shards.

The first thing that comes to mind is a newsreel, seen long ago in some dusty History class in school—High School, she thinks, though it doesn’t really matter. Done in black and white, it showed, in incredibly vivid and heart-wrenching detail, scenes captured just after the liberation of the concentration camps of post World War II Poland. She remembers giant bulldozers pushing before them the emaciated bodies of dead Jews, Gypsies, and gays into gigantic earthen trenches.

The trenches are here, as they were there. She’s seen them, no matter what her mind tries to tell her. Instead of musselmen, however, these slashes in a weeping earth bear the bodies of infants. Not fetal abortions—even assuming an abortion clinic would toss their remains in some stinking, rat infested pit—but infants, and even, she would swear before court, toddlers.

"Jesus Christ," she moans, her body rocking in a completely unconscious self comforting gesture. "Oh sweet Jesus Christ. What the hell is happening here?"

Her plaintive wail goes unnoticed and unremarked in the cavernous emptiness of the bombed out clinic. Even the rats, it seems, have no answers for her.

Ok, Kirsten, she thinks, putting her hands over her ears like a child not wanting to hear a fight between her parents, you’ve got to let this go for now. There’s nothing you can do here. There’s nothing anyone can do here. They’re dead, and dead they’ll stay. You’ve got someone out there who loves you and depends on you, and damnit, you’re not going to fuck this up. Get a hold of yourself and get the job done. Mourn later.

Thus bolstered, she rises to her feet. A spasm hits her belly, and everything she’s eaten for the day comes up in a large glut, pooling on the ground between her feet. Black speckles dart before her eyes and she stumbles blindly until her back is against the wall, her flashlight falling to the ground and breaking, plunging her into total darkness. She can feel panic begin to draw its icy talons down her spine. She fights it down as she fights the waves of nausea and the threat of fainting, digging down deep to a reserve of strength she senses is Dakota’s as much as her own—the bond they share. That same sense of her lover tells her that she’s running out of time, and that scares her far more than what she’s dealing with here. Her stomach settles and the dizziness and cold sweat of panic recede, enabling her to move away from the wall, hands in front of her like a blind woman. One booted foot slips in the mess she’s left, but she continues on, one hand skimming along the corridor wall until she’s able to find the door. She opens it quickly, and steps into the second hallway, this one just as night-black as the first. Hurrying now, a map of this corridor firmly in her head, she runs down the hall and grabs the doorknob, yanking it open and breathing a sigh of relief when the charred rubble of the waiting area appears before her.

It’s snowing again. Hard. The flakes fall in straight, heavy lines through the roof’s many holes, adding to the accumulation already on the floor from the earlier blizzard. Kirsten barely notices as she stumbles through the partly covered wreckage and into what remains of the day. Frosty breath jutting in twin streams through her nose, she secures her hard-won and newly gotten gain and begins to run.

* * *

The door to the shack opens reluctantly on its one squealing hinge. A gust of bitter wind enters and flows over Dakota’s uncovered, sweat-shiny body. She shivers, then stirs. Sunken eyes, ringed with deep, dark circles, flutter open, dazed. A huge wolf, gray-pelted and sleek, steps through the open door and looks down at Dakota, dark eyes wise, calm, and affectionate.

Dakota struggles to sit, but it too weak to do more than lift her head the merest inch from its makeshift pillow. "Wa Uspewicakiyapi? Am I dreaming?"

"No." His voice is deep and comforting in her mind. "Nor do you walk the Blue Road, Mato Sica Kte." (ed. Note: Killer of the Wolverine—loose translation.)

From the depths of her illness, Koda musters up a smile. "You saw that, huh?"

"Indeed. It was most…impressive."

She looks away, hopeful that the slowly guttering fire hides the blush that creeps onto her cheeks, but knowing that her old teacher’s eyes are keen indeed.

"The reason I have come," he continues, "is because your mate is in danger."

Koda’s eyes snap back to him, wide and fearful. "My m….Kirsten?" She cranes her neck, looking frantically about the tiny shack. Asi lies, oblivious, next to her, deeply asleep. "Kirsten?!?"

As she struggles to rise, all thoughts of illness, and its attendant weakness, forgotten, Wa Uspewicakiyapi steps forward and places a forepaw on her shoulder, easily holding her to the floor. "As you are now, there is nothing you can do, young one. Your mate has gone to The Far Away Place to gather healing for your wound. Your body is too weak to follow."

"You don’t understand! I have to--."

"I understand well, my friend," he replies, putting more of his weight down on her shoulder, sharp claws not quite digging into the tender flesh beneath them. "As you are now," he repeats, words measured and deliberate, black eyes staring deeply into hers, willing her fevered, panicked mind to understand, "you cannot help her. Remember."

"Remember what? I can’t --."

Again she struggles and again he presses more of his weight into her. He can feel his time growing short. The solidness of his body begins to shift and grow insubstantial. "Remember my lessons. Remember where your true strength lies. Goodbye for now, my friend. I will be watching."

"Wa Uspewicakiyapi! No!! Wait!!! Please!!"

"Remember…."

Her frail strength depleted, Dakota slumps back on the ersatz bed, shivering in pain and distress. "Remember. I need to remember…." Her gaze darts about the empty cabin, searching…searching. "Kirsten!! Kirsten, where are you?!? I have to find you! I have to…." She struggles, but it’s one that’s over before it has truly begun. Her body is weak, wrung out, her mind delirious with fever. Delirium tells her she is simply dreaming, but the more rational part of her mind, buried deep and struggling to maintain its hold, tells her the truth of the matter. She is not dreaming, and Kirsten is in danger.

"Remember," she mutters to herself, dragging her good hand through her sweat-tangled hair. "Remember…."

Her eyes drift closed and a vision, not of Wa Usepwicakiyapi, but of her grandfather, appears in the darkness. His face is exactly as she remembers it; lines as deep as river-cut canyons running down from the corners of his somber mouth, braids iron gray and tightly wrapped, eyes stern, but always with a tiny twinkle of amusement sparking their pale depths. He holds in one gnarled hand a teaching stick. A feather, tied off with rawhide, dangles from its end.

In this vision, fever induced or otherwise, she sees herself as she was many years ago, a weaning-child, all pudgy arms and legs, a mop of coal-black hair, and pale blue eyes. Giggling with joy, this younger version of herself reaches for the pretty feather and topples forward, into the feather’s bright colors and the paleness of her grandfather’s eyes. Dakota finds herself merging with this younger version, and together they fall into the swirling void.

"Remember…."

* * *

The blizzard has grown greatly in intensity, but Kirsten, at the bottom of a deep ravine, barely notices. Both sides of the ravine bear signs of her struggle. The back side, scuff and tumble marks from where she had, in her haste, blundered off the path and down the steep embankment, end over end, and the front side is covered in the broken branches and muddied snow that marks her scrambling, frantic attempts to get back out.

For the moment, she lies at the very bottom, bruised, aching, sore, and above all, tired. It does not seem like she is lying on snow at all, but rather a soft, warm bed that appears to promise her a restful sleep if only she’d close her eyes and sink into the gift it offers. The scientist in her knows the dangers of such seduction—hypothermia will kill her far more quickly than any animals who might slither down this cut in the earth looking for an easy meal. The medicine she has somehow managed to keep safe, though the thought of Dakota seems far away—hazy almost, as if she’s dreamed that part of her life. "Sleep," she murmurs, laying her cheek into the soft, so very soft snow. "Just a little rest. I can try again when I’m stronger. She’ll understand."

Some part deep within her fights this sudden lassitude, but the pull of seduction, like the Siren Song of old, spins its false promises to avidly listening ears. Her eyes begin to drift closed, by slow degrees until her outside view of the world is cut off completely in the darkness that follows.

A minute later, an hour, she isn’t sure, she is awakened by something that feels suspiciously like a tongue licking her cheek. "Ew! Dog kisses!" she mumbles, pushing the furred snout away. "C’mon, Asi, just a few more minutes, ok?"

A low, deep throated growl that could never have come from Asimov snaps Kirsten’s eyes open, and when she sees an enormous black wolf staring down at her, she forgets her aches, bruises, and tiredness and begins to crab-scrabble backward on hands and heels until her back is slammed into an overturned log, preventing her further retreat. Her heart slams against her ribs, her mouth going dry as cotton. She crab-scrabbles backward on hands and heels until her back slams into an overturned log, preventing her further retreat. Duck and cover. The scream dies in her throat. High, shrill sounds mean distressed prey, and Kirsten wants to do nothing to provoke the four-footed death in front of her. Making herself small against the log at her back, she curls up with her head down and her hands over her neck. "Nice wolf," she sing-songs softly. "Niiiice wolf. You don't want me for dinner, Mister…er….Miz Wolf. Really. I'm too tough. Bad for the digestion." With effort, she clenches and unclenches her hands, stiff and chapped with the snow. "Nothing but gristle."

Growling again, the wolf takes another step toward her, then sits down on its haunches, looking down at her. Kirsten, risking a glance upward, swears that she can see a look of expectancy in those eyes, even in her fear.

Those blue eyes.

Staring at them in frank wonder, she quite unconsciously echoes Dakota’s earlier words. "Am I dreaming? ….or dead?" She unfolds slightly from her crouch; a firm pinch to the inside of one reddened forearm answers that question quite nicely. "Ok. So you’re a blue eyed wolf. Tacoma said they weren’t as rare as I thought they were, and he should know, right? Right." So why does it seem that this particular blue-eyed wolf is laughing at her?

Scooching forward a bit, the wolf places a fist-sized paw on Kirsten’s thigh, then cocks its head in a gesture so familiar that it steals her breath. Then the more rational (she believes) part of her mind reasserts itself and she laughs in self deprecation. "Must be hypothermia," she mutters to herself, staring down at the huge paw still resting on her thigh. "Are you…uh…testing for choice cuts," she hazards, "because I’m telling you, an old boot would taste better than me right now."

After staring at her a moment longer, the wolf lowers its massive black head, takes her wrist, very gently, between its long, sharp teeth and tugs lightly. Startled, Kirsten cries out before realizing that she isn’t being hurt and that, in fact, like Wiyo, this animal is trying its best to communicate with her. And like Koda's wolf, like her own--patron? mascot? familiar?--raccoon, this one must be at least in part a denizen of the spirit world. Gently she reaches out to touch the massive shoulder, knotted with muscle under the thick fur. Not entirely a spirit, then. At least this one doesn't talk, or dress up in hospital whites. When the gentle tug comes again, she sighs and shakes her head sadly. "I…think I know what you’re trying to tell me," she comments, feeling vaguely embarrassed to be having a rational discussion with a wild creature who, logically, should be ripping into her guts right now, "and I wish I could, but I’ve tried and I just can’t make it up there." The tug comes again, and with a sigh, she gets stiffly to her feet, crying out softly as her twisted left ankle is forced to bear weight.

The wolf immediately drops her wrist and stares up at her with what Kirsten swears is concern blazing from those strangely colored eyes. She finds herself blushing. "I twisted my ankle falling into this blasted hellhole and twisted it again trying to get out. It…hasn’t been the best of days for me."

Cocking its head again, the wolf then trots easily down the mouth of the gully, returning a moment later with a large, forked branch in its mouth.

"A crutch?" Kirsten asks incredulously. "You’ve brought me a crutch?" She stares down into the disconcerting eyes—"Who are you? What are you?"—and swears she feels something pressing at the recesses of her mind. Then, like a fleeting dream upon awakening, it is gone and she finds herself taking the stick from her newfound companion and propping it under her arm. It is slightly too short, and pokes at her uncomfortably, but it helps bear her weight and for that, she is grateful. "I…um…thank you. For this. It helps. Though I’m not sure how much good it’s going to do once we have to start climbing."

Giving her one more look, the wolf turns and trots toward the incline several feet away. Shaking her head in bemusement, she follows, limping and wincing as the snow continues to fall around her. The truth of her prediction is borne out as, two steps into the hill, her good foot slips and she finds herself falling. The wolf is immediately there, and she instinctively wraps her arms around its well-muscled neck and chest, astonished at the easy strength and supple grace of the animal as it climbs the steep ravine, hauling her along as if she weighs no more than a sack of feathers. As it hits the steepest part of the incline, the wolf’s sharp claws slip and slide over the loose ground cover, but it digs in and continues climbing, scrabbling over the fallen branches and snow-slick leaves until finally, with a final heave of its sleek, muscled body, it brings them both over the lip and onto level ground once again.

When she feels the ground flatten beneath her, Kirsten releases her death-grip on the wolf and leans back, breathing deeply. She finds herself briefly alone as the animal disappears back down the ravine, then reappears, her crude crutch in its mouth. Still muddle-headed from the cold, she scrambles to her feet as best she can and gratefully retrieves the crutch from the she-wolf’s massive jaws. "Maybe you could come home with me and teach that trick to my dog Asimov. Not that…of course…I’m comparing you to my dog. Or any dog, actually. I’m…uh…pretty sure that’s an insult to you, being a wolf, and…I should probably stop babbling now, right? Right." Once again, the wolf’s eyes seem to sparkle laughingly up at her. A thought comes to her as if from out of the blue, creasing the space between her brows in puzzlement before she rejects it as out of hand. "I’m losing it. I know I am. Gotta get back to Dakota."

Settling the crutch securely as possible beneath her arm, she sets off, completely unsurprised when the she-wolf trots ahead in the same direction, looking back over her shoulder to make sure her companion is following.

* * *

The low sun lays blue shadows on the snow, crusting now as the day’s melt begins to freeze with the falling temperature. Kirsten stumbles and slips as she crests the last slope leading up to the fishing shack, her attention wandering with lack of sleep and the increasing effort of setting one foot in front of the other. All feeling has gone in her legs, and she knows she is moving only because the wolf still paces steadily beside her as the landscape shifts. Her brain has gone numb, too, all fear gone, all feeling. For the last twelve hours, she has been driven only by will. She has not allowed herself to think of what she will do when she arrives at the cabin, still less of what she may find.

But she will be there. If she had gone, I would know.

The thought comes to her now, and with it the conviction of truth. She does not know how she would sense her lover’s death, nor why she is certain that Koda still lives. But she does not doubt, cannot doubt.

"Gonna make it girl," she murmurs, perhaps to the wolf, perhaps to herself. "Gonna make it."

For answer, the wolf glances up at her, a glint in her improbably blue eyes. The last of the light strikes white sheen from her fur, thick and lustrous even through the hunger and sleeplessness of the forced march from the Colorado line. That is strange, as is the fact that she has not seen the wolf eat or drink along the way.

Huh. What’s strange is that a wolf pulled you out of a ditch. What’s strange is that a wolf is trotting along beside you like a poodle.

Scratch that. You’re the poodle, King . She’s the one in charge here.

Almost as if she understands the thought, the wolf turns to Kirsten, tongue lolling in a wide canine smile. She moves closer, half-pushing, half-supporting Kirsten as she takes the last few steep steps to the crest of the rise, her bulk warm and solid against her leg. Below, the stream runs through the small valley, its floor in shadow now, the square shape of the hut clear along the rising curve of the hill on the other side. Kirsten sniffs the wind for the hint of smoke, but there is none. Koda has not been able to rise to stoke the fire. So much for the forlorn hope that she would return only to find Dakota up, dressed and full of vinegar, wondering where the hell she’d gone.

A frisson of fear runs down her spine. Dakota cannot, must not . . .. She cannot even think the words.

A different pressure then, the wolf’s nose cold and wet against Kirsten’s hand. The wolf looks up at her with that same heart-breakingly familiar sidewise glance, then gives one sharp bark, wheels and trots along the top of the rise to disappear into the stand of pines that runs along its western edge. Kirsten can just make out her shape, a shadow among the tall trunks, as she begins the descent to the other side.

"Hey, you sure you don’t want to get a signature on delivery?" The small joke bolsters her confidence, and she picks her way down the slope, splashes through the water without feeling its chill, and scrambles up the other side, slipping once and resorting to all-fours where the granite juts from the hillside in broken slabs. Vaguely she remembers that there is an easier path, but she cannot take time to find it in the gathering dark. Besides, the frontal assault is quicker.

At the door she pauses, gathering courage. With an effort of will she quiets her suddenly hammering heart, slows her breathing. It is going to be all right. She is in time. Koda will recover when she has the medicine. Tega said so.

Riiighht. Now you’re taking medical advice from a delusional raccoon.

Or maybe it’s not Tega who’s delusional.

Gently she pushes open the door. A blast of air greets her, colder than the evening breeze that now ghosts over the snow. The acrid smell of wet ashes greets her, mingled with the musty odor of unwashed human and unwalked dog. Asi whines, stretches and comes to meet her, his gait stiff from confinement and lack of exercise. "It’s okay, boy," she says quietly. "We’ll go out in a minute. How’s Koda, huh?"

Asi whines again as she approaches the bed. The blanket rises and falls visibly with Koda’s chest, but her breath comes in small, rapid gasps. "All right," Kirsten says softly, partly to herself, partly to Dakota. "All right. First thing, get some light in here. Then the shot. Then the fire."

Kirsten turns up the wick of the Coleman lamp and lights it. Dakota’s face is pale almost as the puffs of condensate that form with each breath, frosting in the chill air. Her face is not so much pale as grey, its rich bronze faded to brass, her lips cracked and dry. A sliver of white shows between her eyelids, yet she does not wake.

"Okay," Kirsten says, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. Out of her mind. "Lamp’s lit. Water." From the canteen by the bed, she trickles a few drops into Koda’s mouth, raising her head to aid her swallowing. Dakota’s throat moves convulsively, a dry tongue running over her lips, and Kirsten dribbles more water from the flask. Twice more she repeats the process, then sets the water aside. No more putting off what she has to do. "Shot. Get it over with."

Kirsten tears open the packet of syringes, and, holding the Levaquin ampoule close to the lamp, she pierces the seal and draws the fluid up to the mark. "All right," she tells herself. "I can do this. Nothing to it. Just stick it in, push the plunger, that’s it."

Kirsten pulls back the blanket, vacillating between arm and thigh. The arm is easier; one handed, she rolls up the left sleeve of Koda’s shirt and stabs the syringe down, her thumb driving the plunger home. With a sigh of relief, she recaps and discards the syringe. "Hey boy, how’s that? I didn’t panic and pull it out. Now we just gotta wait." Wait for the medicine to work; wait for Koda’s burning skin to cool.

Waiting is something she has never had a talent for. Fifteen minutes of wild running about the small clearing and the desperate relief of a leg lifted against a tree burn off at least some of Asi’s tight-held energy, but Kirsten feels as though her nerves have wound into a tight spiral within her. Gods, what I wouldn’t give for a drink. Just a shot of bourbon, just one. Or a mouthful of old man Kriegesmann’s brandy.

But no such luxury is available, and she lays out a few strips of jerky for Asi and sets about rebuilding the fire. When it is burning nicely, she turns to Dakota. In the red light of the flames, her face seems touched with flame from within, the fever eating its way to the surface to show the white bone beneath. Carefully, Kirsten removes the bandages from the injured arm and hand; the skin lies drum-tight over the distended flesh. More carefully still, she wipes the dark blood and serum and oozing pus from the punctures made by the wolverine’s teeth. Red streaks run through the purpura that surrounds the wounds, and Kirsten forces down her fear, feeling the spring within her tighten another turn. "All right," she mutters. "All right, damn you, you masked quack. You promised she’d be all right. She damned well better be, do you understand? Do you understand?"

That is not quite true, but she has no time for nuances. She intends to hold her delusion accountable, promise or not.

But all she can do now is replace the bandage, tuck the arm underneath the sleeping bag and wait. Somehow she manages to choke down a few bites of jerky, then settles in the one serviceable chair to keep vigil, Asi beside her.

She is never sure, after, what wakes her. She claws herself up out of the depths of a sleep she never intended to Asi’s sharp barking, the rustle of cloth, the sound of a voice. Weak and scratchy, vile with every four-letter word in the English language and others in a language she does not understand, but a living voice. Koda’s voice.

"Fuck. Shit. Burning up. Goddam. Gotta pee." More rustling. "Damn. Hurts."

Kirsten starts upright to see Koda struggling with the sleeping bag, half sitting up with one leg over the side of the bed. Her face, her hands, her throat are bright with sweat, her lank hair lying over her shoulder as wet as if she’d been standing in the rain. A huge wave of relief washes over Kirsten, and she throws her arms around Dakota. "I got you, love . I got you. It’s okay. It’s okay."

"Goddam arm. Hurts like hell."

"It’s okay, I’ve got something for it. What do you need?"

"Pee," Koda says succinctly, and, wrapping her in the sleeping bag, Kirsten helps her outside into the first light of morning, the sun barely brushing the peak of the mountain behind them. Half, supporting, half carrying, Kirsten steers her back into the cabin, back to the bed. Lucid she may be, but Koda remains catastrophically weak, and subsides onto the narrow cot with a sigh. "How long?" she says.

Kirsten pauses to do the calculus of her journey. "A couple days, maybe three." Gently she strokes Koda’s forehead, cool now beneath her touch. "You can go back to sleep in a few minutes. Just let me change the dressing again and give you your shot."

"Mffph," Koda says, covering her face with her good arm. "Gods. Stink. Mouth feels like a regiment camped in it for a month." Then, "What shot?"

"Antibiotic. Levaquin," Kirsten replies, pulling the injured hand toward her and beginning to unwind the gauze. It comes off slackly, the swelling already visibly reduced. The discoloration has also receded, crimson and purple lingering around the wounds themselves, but the surrounding flesh is clean, normal color returning. Koda flinches under her touch, and she bites her lip. "I’m sorry, love. It looks better, though."

"Goddam nerves waking up. Where’d the AB come from?"

"A clinic a few miles away," Kirsten lies without even thinking about it. She can tell Koda later about her dream, about the trek across the state line, about the wolf.

About the dead children.

Later. Much later.

She rewraps Koda’s arm and reaches for the Levaquin and the packet of syringes. Koda’s eyes follow her movements, and she gives the second injection with what she hopes is more aplomb than the first. Rummaging in her pack then, she finds the Vicodin and taps a pill out into the palm of her hand. "Here you go," she says. "Something for the pain."

"Dr. King," Koda says, a faint smile turning up the corners of her mouth as she swallows the tablet. "How’d you know where to find an unlooted pharmacy?"

"Just followed directions." And as Koda glances sharply up at her, "Later. Can you eat something?"

A half hour later, with Koda sleeping soundly, her breath slow and easy, Kirsten leans back in the chair, propping her feet up on the edge of the mattress. Dreamless sleep rises up about her, and she surrenders without a struggle.

CHAPTER FIFTY SEVEN

KODA STIRS HER soup slowly, savoring the aroma of parsley and bay. For the first time since her fever broke, she can smell something besides her own tainted breath, and the steam from the dried herbs and reconstituted vegetables is the very perfume of Paradise. The bowl’s warmth also soothes her injured hand, and she shifts her grip to lay her wrist against the heat. That’s not to say that the Vicodin doesn’t help, too. So does the burnished feeling of her clean skin beneath clean clothes. It required a dozen pans of heated snowmelt and almost two hours, but with Kirsten’s help she has at last scrubbed the stink of illness off her.

She glances out the window of the fishing shack to where Kirsten has carried the sleeping bags to lay them in the open on a slab of dry stone. Snow still lies blue in the shadows under the pines, but where the sun strikes it has melted, running down the slope to swell the stream below. Kirsten stands just at its edge, spreading their laundry on a sandstone boulder that juts out into the water, making a narrow rapids. Asi has made himself comfortable on the grass beside her, belly turned up to the summer warmth, tongue lolling. A dark-crested Steller’s jay, its vivid blue a splash of color amid the dark needles of a balsam pine, pries at a cone with its bill, ignoring Wiyo where she floats high above aginst the open sky. Her cry floats down on the breeze, mingling with the song of a cardinal hen and the scolding of a tuft-eared squirrel. It is not a day to stay inside.

Carefully Koda pushes herself up from the edge of the bed. The Levaquin has done its work, and the infection is clearly under control. She is not so sure about her legs. Transferring her spoon to her bowl, she uses her right hand to steady herself as she progresses from bed to table, from table to door, and finally from the door to the trunk of a fallen larch halfway down to the water. She reaches it gratefully, steadying herself again as she sits and gives herself a moment to catch her breath.

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