PART 16 - MULTIPLICATION AND DIVISION
As the four of them walked back towards the huts, Jane began to lag behind, stopping frequently then hurrying to catch up. Dorothy paid it little mind, until the quartet of females stepped down from the boulders onto the litter and vine-choked floor of the forest, and she felt a tentative tugging on her shirt sleeve. She turned, and was mildly surprised to see Jane standing next to her, wearing her open khaki shirt, while a few steps in the distance another Jane stood dressed in her undergarments, wringing her hands, her ears drooping and her usual brash manner replaced by a look of turmoil, her chisel teeth gently biting her lower lip.
The one standing next to her reached up and closed the shirt with clenched hands, and spoke in a low, strained whisper. "M-missus Pearl. Can I talk t'y'all in private fer a second?"
The feline cocked an eyebrow, her ice blue eyes scanning her cohort's faces curiously. "Of course, Jane."
She turned and called out to Gwen and Loretta. "Girls! Miss Early and I are going to take the long way around. We'll see you back at the huts."
As the vixen and raccoon turned and looked back at them, the tabby heard the sound of rapid footsteps on the jungle floor behind her, and glanced back to see a single rabbit doe standing with affected nonchalance at her side. Gwen gave nod and a casual wave, then the partners continued ahead down the beach.
Dorothy turned to her companion with a searching look. "All right, so what is it Jane? You seem... out of sorts."
The rabbit doe took a few moments to answer. "I was jest wonderin'. Did... did y'all look them gals over while we were havin' lunch. Th' mermaids, I mean."
The feline nodded, a wary look on her face. "I did. Kaleia's a little vain, Nolakeli's a little shy, and Malakeli's a little bossy, but otherwise they're good girls. I didn't see anything really unexpected."
Jane fidgeted with one of the buttons on her shirt. "What about Miss Junko? What'd y'all see in her?"
The feline's brow furrowed slightly. "Sweet-natured. Patient as a mountain. Determined when she sets her mind to something. Very much a fish out of water, no pun intended."
Dorothy's eyes flickered as she saw a blush appear on her lapine cohort's cheeks, and bloom at the tips of her ears.
The tan furred doe swallowed hard and met the feline's gaze. "S-so did y'all see anything in thar about whether she'd... uh... whether she maybe likes g-gals or not? I mean, y'know. Likes 'em..."
The feline pursed her lips and hooked her thumbs in her belt loops. "That... that's not the sort of thing I look for when I gaze at someone's aura." Her eyes narrowed. "And I think we have more important things to worry about right now than whether that usagi would want to go out on a date with you or not."
Jane's eyes flared angrily. "Now y'all jest wait a dang minute, pussycat! I..."
Dorothy planted her hands on her hips, her tail lashing behind her as she cut her off. "Wait? I've got two long years to wait before I can even think about approaching a male, if even then. I think you can wait until after we complete our mission before you start chasing after that girl's fluffy little tail."
The rabbit doe's hands clenched into fists and her lip curled back in a
snarl. "Oh fer... Git th' heck up offa th' stone table, Dorothy. Two
years? Try havin' t' wait seventy gol'durn years 'fore the world gits
back t'where y'all are used to it. And knowin' all along that if'n I
make it that far I'm gonna be a rickety ol' grey hare. Y'all don't hear
me bringin' it up all the dang time, 'cos I'm capable of adaptin' t'
what cards I got dealt. It's yer own damn choice t' be in mournin' that
long, yer mate sure as heck ain't askin' y'all t' do it."
The tabby let out a growl and a hiss and before she was even aware of what she was doing she popped her claws and hauled back to strike her rabbit cohort across the face. She let out a gasp as a tan furred hand flicked up and caught her wrist in a grip like iron, startled both by the speed of Jane's reaction and the sight of her own claws curving out from her fingertips.
Her voice took on a slightly panicked edge as her fingers began to go numb. "Ow! You... you're hurting me, Miss Early."
A hard expression came to the rabbit doe's features, as she tightened her grip on Dorothy's wrist. "Y'all better pull them claws back in 'fore someone really gits hurt Missus Pearl."
The feline's ice blue eyes gleamed with uncanny light as her ears laid flat against her head. Jane went stiff and immobile. Dorothy's tail bristled and her voice became a low growl, dripping with icy rage. "Don't you DARE threaten me..."
The brown furred feline grimaced and tried to pull her hand free, but found herself stuck in the rabbit's iron grip. After ineffectually tugging at her frozen cohort's grasp about her wrist, her shoulders sagged in defeat, and she broke eye contact, the glimmer in her eyes fading as Jane's rigid muscles suddenly relaxed.
Before she could react, Dorothy found herself tumbling headlong through the air and slamming onto the sandy ground hard enough to knock the wind out of her chest.
As she laid on the ground gasping, Jane Early stood over her with a fierce scowl. "Y'all oughta know by now I don't threaten. I happen. Now if y'all will excuse me I guess I oughta git back t' work... boss."
With an edgy shake of her head, she spat on the ground and turned on her heel, stalking off through the forest toward the huts.
After a few moments Dorothy regained her breath and propped herself up on her elbows, staring after her cohort with a mixture of disbelief, outrage, and anguish on her face. She sat up painfully and propped her elbow on her knee, supporting her forehead in her hand as she wiped a sniffle and a tear away with the back of her other hand.
Moments before, Jane had come up to them with a black scowl on her face, grabbed a couple of heavy bundles from the pier where Malakeli, Nolakeli, Kaleia, and Junko were stacking them, and carried them away toward the huts without uttering a word, pausing only a moment to stare hard at the usagi before tossing her head and muttering something to herself under her breath. For her part, Junko seemed a bit taken aback by Jane's glare, and spontaneously dropped her ears and bowed self consciously.
As Dorothy picked up her pack and tossed it over her shoulder, Gwen cleared her throat. "Uh... Miss... Missus Pearl?"
She took a step back as the feline's head snapped around to face her, her ice blue eyes positively throwing sparks. "Yes, what is it?"
Loretta instinctively stepped up next to her vulpine cohort, her grey eyes wary and her posture relaxed but defensive, as the vixen spoke in a tentative voice. "I, uh... I asked Nolakeli about the... um... the catnip. She said chopping a palmful and boiling it in a tea would relax you without being too much for you to handle."
The tabby nodded curtly. "All right. We'll give it a try. I want to be in the air in an hour at the most."
Loretta bobbed her head. "Okay, we'll have Junko go put the kettle on."
A mirthless smile crossed the feline's muzzle as Jane hove into view at the head of the pier. From the twitch of her ears, it was clear she could hear the conversation. Dorothy's voice came out with a sardonic edge. "Better send a chaperone along with her."
With that she turned, walking briskly away down the planks and passing the rabbit doe without stopping or acknowledging her. Jane cast a glare at her tabby cohort as she passed. As she picked up a couple more packages, she growled to herself under her breath, repeating Dorothy's words in a nasal, bitter tone. " 'Better send a chaperone along.' " Her voice became low and petulant. "I'll chaperone y'all, y'tail-lickin' lemon-suckin' ice queen. Oughta have 'em mix some rat poison in with that 'nip. That'd relax y'all right proper."
She effortlessly hefted the packs on her shoulders and stomped off down the pier again, her muttering invective fading into the distance. Gwen looked at Loretta with a raised eyebrow, to which the raccoon shrugged helplessly. Shaking her head, the vixen turned to Nolakeli and Junko and gave them instructions.
Jane Early stood sullenly at the head of the pier, her hands shoved into the pockets of her khaki pants and her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, a sour look on her face as the feline approached.
The rabbit flicked an ear as Dorothy's bare feet thumped on the planks. "Y'all want me t' come along... chief?"
The brown furred tabby tossed her head as she passed. "Well I didn't bring you out here for a vacation, did I, Miss Early?"
The rabbit rolled her eyes and fell into step behind her, glaring daggers at the back of Dorothy's head. They passed under the wing in tense silence as the engines sputtered and roared to life and the props started spinning.
The feline was all business as she looked up at the raccoon engineer. "Let me know when we get to two thousand feet, and then I'll get into position. I'll have the rabbit here relay instructions as we go, got it?"
The raccoon nodded, casting a nervous glance at Jane as she sat fuming in the harness directly across from Dorothy. She looked over her shoulder with a searching look on her face as she went forward to the cockpit.
Jane and Dorothy sat in icy silence, staring across the cabin at each other as Gwen backed the plane away from the dock and brought it around to taxi out of the lagoon.
Dorothy took a sharp breath as her equally sharp claws popped and dug into the canvas, her eyes going wide as the rippling blue water fell dizzily away. She stole a glance across at Jane, her brow furrowing as she saw a smirk on the rabbit's face. With a snarl, the feline willed her eyes to stay open and fixed on the floor. She wasn't going to give the tan-furred bunny the satisfaction of watching her clamp her eyes shut like a terrified kitten. She clenched her hands tighter on the cushion to keep them from shaking, and laid her ears back resolutely as the water rushed past farther and farther below.
Dorothy tore her gaze away from the plexiglass windows and turned to face her. "All right. Have Miss Riley fly the south-by-southeast route."
The raccoon nodded and receded back into her and her partner's domain as the feline looked back down at the transparent floor, unbuckling the straps of her air harness. When she had gotten it off, she sat for a long time, staring at the yawning gulf beneath the plane's bottom-mounted windows, caught between what she had to do and a strong urge to curl into a ball on the seat.
She looked up, startled out of her reverie, as Jane's sarcastic voice came across the cabin at her. "Better git to it, boss. Y'all ain't here fer a vacation neither."
The she-cat's muzzle curled into a bitter scowl as she glared at her companion. Without a word, she climbed down from the canvas bench and laid face down on the floor, pressing her delicate pink nose to the plexiglass.
A shudder went down her spine and out to the tip of her tail, as every follicle stood out along its rigid length as if connected to a million volts. It was even worse than being on the bench, where at least she felt like she were perched on a secure ledge.
Now she felt like she was suspended above the distant ocean in free fall. She reached her hands out to either side and grasped the foot rails, holding them in a white knuckle grip. Dorothy supposed that the catnip tea must have been doing it's job, since otherwise she probably would never have made it off the seat and closer to the abyss beneath her, and she definitely wouldn't have been able to concentrate enough to do what she did next.
Her icy eyes glittered as the vast, featureless ocean beneath her faded and became insubstantial, and the topology beneath became visible as if they were flying over rolling plains and valleys. Here and there, a shipwreck or crashed plane could be seen, crusted over like bread that had gone moldy. Fish and other sea life darted through what seemed like empty air, as if they had become flocks of wingless birds.
If Dorothy would have been in the proper state of mind to appreciate it, it would have been definitely more interesting than mile after mile of water, but making the ocean's surface vanish had the added problem of making it seem like they were even higher up. She gritted her teeth and bore it, well aware of Jane's surly gaze upon her. This was what she had come all this way and faced so many dangers already to accomplish, and she was damned well going to see it through.
A few hours later, Dorothy rolled onto her back with a moan, pressing the heels of her palms into her eye sockets as ragged, labored breaths caused her chest to rise and fall rapidly.
Her voice was a throaty croak. "I... I... I can't... can't take any more. Take... take me back to the island..."
Jane cocked an ear, a solemn look on her face. "Y'all sure?"
Dorothy's lip curled back as she prepared to make a sarcastic reply, but it was pre-empted as she promptly threw up.
Jane let out a loud exclamation of shock and disgust and recoiled, her feet instinctively pulling up to the edge of her bench as the former contents of the miserable feline's stomach sloshed across the transparent floor, obscuring the surging waves in the distance below in a thoroughly unpleasant fashion.
Moments later, Loretta's head poked out of the cockpit door, curious at the rabbit doe's exclamation, and a weary look settled on her features as she appraised the mess in the cabin with a sigh. "Oh no..."
She looked over at Jane and pointed at Dorothy, who curled into a wretching, heaving, shuddering ball on the floor. "Get her up out of that mess. I'll be back in a second."
With that she leapt lightly around the noisome puddle and headed for the door to the rear of the cabin, where the toilet and storage closet lay.
Jane let out a heavy sigh of her own, and a double appeared next to her, free of both clothing and her five point harness, and gingerly stepped down from the bench, avoiding the mess as best she could and hauling Dorothy's limp form up off the floor and onto her bench.
As she strapped her in, the rabbit doe gagged and muttered under her breath. "Gah. Nothin' worse'n a meat eater's lunch when it comes 'round a second time."
The feline glared at her with glazed eyes as Loretta returned with a tin bucket of wood shavings and sawdust, that she scattered liberally on the floor.
Dorothy looked up at her with a woeful expression on her sickly face. "Oh Miss Pike, I'm s-so sorry."
The raccoon gave a slight shake of her head and a half smile as she unfurled a heavy paper bag and set about scooping up the sodden shavings with a couple of pieces of thin, scrap plexiglass. "This is hardly the first time I've had to do this, as you might well imagine, Miz Pearl."
When she'd scooped most of the mess up, she rolled the bag up tightly and walked over to the hatch. She looped a strap around her waist and hooked it with a carabiner to a ring set in the fuselage, then turned to face her passengers with a smirk on her face. "Hold on, it's gonna get windy for a second."
With that, she threw the latch on the portal and shoved it open against the howling blast of wind that suddenly filled the cabin. The raccoon shouted over the din. "Look out below!"
Without further ado, she tossed the bag out over the ocean and pulled the door shut.
She gave them a grin and a wink. "One of the benefits of a glass-bottom plane is that we've hardly ever dropped one of those on any boats or inhabited areas."
The feline gave her a thin, sickly smile. "S-speaking of which, I think it's time to head back in, Miss Pike."
The Jane sitting across from her in a harness gave a snort. "Oh, y'all think so?"
Loretta gave her a sharp look and turned back to Dorothy with a solicitous expression on her face. "I'll tell Gwen. You just relax as well as you can. Do you want the catnip?"
The feline moaned and shook her head, clenching her eyes tightly shut. "N-no. You'd probably need to clean the floor a second time if I had any of that stuff right now..."
The Jane sitting next to her gave her a sympathetic look, in spite of herself.
The raccoon bobbed her head at her. "You'd better strap in, or congeal or repatriate or scrum up or whatever it is you do, we're gonna be maneuvering soon."
The tan furred doe nodded and made to cross the cabin to her duplicate, but was brought up short by an upraised hand. "Oh like heck y'all are. Not with that... that stuff all over yer fur. Y'all can jest strap in over thar next t' th' pussycat."
Her double scowled and leapt across, vanishing as a wail of disgust rose from the remaining rabbit's throat.
Loretta shook her head and rubbed her eyes with thumb and forefinger. "I'm never gonna get used to that."
At this Jane's angry voice replied as she turned and headed back into the cockpit. "Try gittin' used t' havin' somebody else's puke under yer clothes. GAH!"
The rabbit slouched angrily in her seat, shuddering in revulsion, and glared across at her feline companion, who huddled in her seat with a whimper. A look of regret spread across Jane's features as she gazed at Dorothy's troubled face while the plane banked into a turn and headed for home base.
She was met at the head of the pier by Malakeli and Nolakeli, who carried a bucket of water, a scrub brush, a fur brush and comb, a couple cakes of that coconut-scented native soap, a washboard, and several folded towels between the two of them. The younger otter cast her eyes downward and spoke to Dorothy in the singsong dialect of Pipikaula Island.
The dark furred otter shook her head and translated. " 'Sorry, Nolakeli dear is, that her preparation of catnip tea did for calming Miss Dorothy not help.' "
The feline gave them both a fragile smile. "Oh no; tell her it helped immensely. Your employers would have had to carry me out of the plane if it hadn't."
The elder otter smiled her bright toothed smile and turned to translate to her cousin, who blushed and gave a shy grin as she took Dorothy by the hand. As she led the feline away, the dark furred otter turned to Jane, her brow furrowing as she sniffed the air with her broad muzzle.
She extended a webbed hand to the rabbit doe. "Come as well, Miss Jane had better. Like week-old chum you smell."
Then they took up soap, scrub brush, and washboard and led them down into the surf. With brisk efficiency, they quickly stripped the rabbit doe and tabby down to their bare fur, unbinding Dorothy's brunette hair and letting it fall loose down her shoulders.
Malakeli plucked Jane's ball-cap off of her head with a grin, putting it on her own head backwards as she collected up their discarded clothing and knelt in the surf with a cake of soap and the washboard and set to work. Nolakeli took Jane and Dorothy's hands and pulled them further into the waves until they were waist deep, and encouraged them to duck under the water by doing so herself, coming up with a shy nod as her sleek fur gleamed like glass under the tropical sun and her flowing hair poured down her back like a black river of silk.
The rabbit and cat glanced at one another and turned a mutual cold-shoulder, ducking under as instructed and coming up with their fur slicked down by the clear water of the lagoon. The otter stepped forward, and proceeded to lather them each up in turn, softly singing to herself as she swirled the scrub brush across their bodies. When she'd left them coated in thick white suds, she motioned them down into the water again for a rinse. Nolakeli looked them over and gave a shy nod, then beckoned them inland.
As they walked back through the surging waves, Dorothy stumbled, and would have fallen if Jane hadn't moved to catch her. A blush spread across the feline's delicate, striped features, and she pushed herself away with a scowl, her wet fur standing in points on her shoulders and the base of her tail.
She let out a hiss at her cohort. "Watch your hands, Miss Early."
A snarl came to the rabbit's face in response. "Watch your mouth, Missus Pearl."
At this, Nolakeli turned and spoke to them in a tentatively remonstrating voice.
A merry laugh arose from Malakeli as she scrubbed their garments up and down the washboard. "Nolakeli-dear says: 'Miss Jane-dear and Miss Dorothy-dear while bathing mustn't quarrel. The water spirits at your naked mortal bodies laughing hard enough are, without more of a sport giving them by shouting and angry faces making. Better your cares and bad feelings carried out to sea are allowed to be.' "
Both sodden females blushed and self consciously looked away from each other, covering themselves as the lithe otter slipped between them and laid her sleek furred arms across their shoulders, leading them out to the edge of the surf. There, she bid them stop, and walked lightly over to the towel, dropping the soap and brush off and picking up the bucket with a grunt, bunching her shoulders at its weight as she carried it over to her sulking charges.
Nolakeli 'Tsked' and set her burden down in the surf. She then gently
pushed Jane and Dorothy in close to one another until they stood
shoulder to shoulder, causing both to stiffen and blush hotter, avoiding
eye contact with rigid faces. The slender otter then picked up the
bucket and gave a mighty heave, throwing an arc of fresh water in the
air, dousing them both and leaving them spluttering and blinking, as it
was a bit colder than the warm surf that lapped at their ankles.
With a nod of satisfaction, she tossed the bucket onto the sand and took them by their hands, leading them over to the towel. She plucked up a couple of smaller towels and proceeded to briskly dry them off, expertly piling Dorothy's hair in a towel after combing it, then proceeded to work Jane's close cropped hair and both females' pelts to a gleaming finish with the fur brush.
While Nolakeli was grooming Jane's tan colored fur, smoothing it down over her taut muscular body, Dorothy glanced up in the direction of the huts while tying up the light cotton sarong the otter girl had given her. Her ice blue eyes flickered as she spotted a pale furred face and the dipped end of a long, black tipped ear watching intently in their direction from the window of the meeting hut.
The feline glanced over at her rabbit cohort. Jane was facing out to sea, luxuriating in Nolakeli's gentle ministrations. When she looked back toward the hut, the watcher was gone. Dorothy pursed her lips for a moment, her brow furrowed in thought, as she stole another look in Jane's direction.
Her expression hardened, and she turned with a flick of her tail away from her cohort. "I'm going to go to the sleeping hut to get some rest." She looked over at Malakeli as the otter female wrung out a handful of sodden clothing. "Malakeli, tell your cousin that she did a wonderful job, and she has my gratitude."
Jane cocked an ear and looked over her shoulder with a bitter look on her face. "At least somebody does..."
Dorothy's back stiffened, and she turned her nose in the air and padded
away across the beach, her tail lashing behind her.