PART 40 - EPILOGUE
AUGUST - 1939
A bored looking feline of far-eastern extraction sat behind the desk in the gatehouse, fanning herself with a composition book as her tail listlessly waved behind the battered chair she was perched on. She lowered her impromptu fan, closing her eyes to enjoy the sensation of the breeze as it whirled through the open door and window of the little room and riffled the pages of a heavy text book laid open in front of her. Behind her, in a chair leaned precariously against the concrete interior wall, a mahogany-furred vixen with her brown hair done up in two pigtails yawned and stretched, then went back to absently flipping a nightstick over and over in her hand. Both females were clad in khaki fatigue shirts, shorts, and boots, a white circular patch on the left shoulder and collars depicting a black musical note with two bars sewn on the note's shaft. The feline's dark- furred face screwed up in annoyance as her china-blue eyes flickered over her shoulder at her companion.
She spoke with a flawless Westinglish accent. "MUST you keep doing that?"
The vixen smacked her lips and cast a drowsy gaze over at her with a slight smirk on her face. "Doin' what, cherie?"
She punctuated her reply with a flip of her nightstick, letting it smack into her dark- furred hand a bit more loudly.
The she-cat rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated breath, tossing the notebook down on the desk and scowling as she returned the textbook to its proper page. "Playing the 'lets annoy Suwai while she's trying to catch up on her studies' game. I don't want to play right now, all right? I've got to get three more chapters of this beastly stuff crammed into my head before our shift ends."
She cast a scathing glance back at the vixen. "If you were smart, you'd be cracking open a book or two as well."
The mahogany-furred fox gave her a grin, flipping the nightstick again. "If YOU were smart, cherie, you would not 'ave to play catch up on your studies over ze summer."
The feline let out a growl and turned testily back to her reading, her ears laying back and her tail lashing furiously behind her as she made a quite unsuccessful show of ignoring her fellow inmate.
She sat up straighter as she noticed someone approaching down the road, and turned to the vixen with an alert expression on her face. "Hey, Yvette. Company coming. Why don't you go out and bother them for a while?"
The vulpine female gave her a curt nod and shoved off from the wall, the chair's legs hitting the floor with a clack as she hung the nightstick on its lanyard from her belt and sauntered to the door.
A pair of rabbits could be seen approaching from the west, walking arm-in-arm down the dusty coral-gravel road. One was tan-furred, and dressed in a white shirt with a linen jacket, vest, and knee-length trousers over neatly wrapped puttees and polished brown leather shoes. A pine-green scarf fluttered around the slightly built rabbit's neck, and a wide-brimmed straw hat covered the close cropped, orange hair. All the outward signals, from the confident swagger to the clothing, said the approaching rabbit was a young buck, but the vixen was getting some signals in the stranger's carriage and configuration that said otherwise.
The companion was obviously, if not glaringly, female, dressed in a mulberry-colored silk dress that accentuated her eggshell-colored fur and graceful curves nicely. Her lustrous black hair was bound in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, with a soft lace cloche-style hat covering her head.
As they approached the gatehouse, the vixen stepped up to meet them and stood, her hands folded behind her and her legs set wide in an 'at ease' stance. "I'm sorry, mes amis. The Songmark School is closed for ze summer, and even if she weren't, we do not allow tourists on ze premises at any time, and even if we did I am afraid no males are allowed past zis gate under any circumstance."
The tan-furred rabbit looked her over and gave her a grin. The voice was definitely female. "Y'all need t' git yer facts straight 'fore y'all jump t' conclusions, darlin'. First off, I'm expected. Y'all can call in t'yer head office t' confirm. Second, we ain't no tourists, we're naturalized citizens o' the Spontoon Archipelago. Y'all can see our papers t'prove it. Third, and most important, I ain't no feller." She cocked an eyebrow at the young female barring her way. "If'n y'all want proof o' that we'll need t' go someplace private, 'lessen y'all want me t' drop trou right here at yer front gate."
The vixen blushed, a slight scowl settling on her features, and turned toward the gatehouse to call out to the feline watching intently from the window. "Suwai, call ze office and see if zis bunny is expected."
The cat gave a nod and picked up a phone receiver from the desk next to her schoolwork. Yvette turned back to face them and held out her hand. "All right, let me see zese papers of yours, Monséur or Madame."
The rabbit tsked and reached into her back pocket, pulling out a freshly-minted Spontoon passport with a green cover stamped with a tiki-faced sunburst in gold on the front. She handed it over, as her graceful companion rooted around in her elegant handbag and produced a similar little green book.
The vixen made a pronounced show of suspiciously examining them as the feline's voice called out from the gatehouse, her hand cupped over the receiver. "You are Early?"
The tan furred rabbit looked over at her and glanced at a watch she'd fished out of her vest pocket. "Yeah, by about five minutes, I reckon. Hope that's okay."
Suwai's china-blue eyes rolled in her dark-furred face as she elaborated. "You are Jane Early? The applicant for the self defense instructor position?"
The linen suited doe slipped her watch back in her pocket with a nod and a grin. "Ayep. That's right."
The vixen snapped shut the passports and brusquely handed them to her. "That is what zese documents say as well, Suwai."
The feline nodded and spoke into the phone, then hung it up. "Miss Devinski says to bring her straight in. And to mind your manners while you do it, Yvette."
She suppressed a grin as the vixen's ears flicked back, a nervous look flitting across her pointed features for a moment. She gathered her composure and turned, beckoning to the tan-furred doe. "Very well. Follow me please."
Miss Early smiled to her shapely, pale-furred companion and gave her hand a squeeze, and started to fall into step behind the vixen, but was brought up short at the young female fox's upraised hand. She pointed at the graceful usagi with pursed lips. "Ut! This female is not expected, she'll have to wait outside ze gate until we return."
The tan-furred doe turned to her companion with an apologetic shrug. She received a fond smile in return, and the dark-haired female stepped up and planted a soft kiss on her cheek, whispering in her ear. "Knock one out of the park, Jane-chan."
With that, the shapely, pale-furred doe turned and made her way to the sheltered bench, sitting down demurely with her elegant hands folded in her lap. Miss Early gave her a long, lingering look, and turned away to follow the vixen into the compound beyond the gate.
The pale-furred female in the mulberry silk dress had been sitting calmly under the rustling palm trees all the time they were gone, her almond eyes closed as if she were sleeping. At the sound of the tan rabbit's approach, she stirred and stood, looking at her companion expectantly.
A broad grin spread across Miss Early's face as she gave the graceful usagi a nod and opened her arms. "Home run over center field with bases loaded, darlin'."
The pale-furred doe let out a squeal and bounded over to her, pulling her into a long, passionate kiss that set both cotton tails fluttering.
Suwai blushed uncomfortably and averted her eyes from this very public display of affection, turning her attention to the stunned vixen beside her. "What in blazes happened to you?"
Yvette replied in a low, shaky voice. "Ze... ze rabbit's job interview..."
The feline cocked an eyebrow. "What?"
The vixen shook her head, a shiver going through her limbs. "Ze tutors... zey 'ad me 'elp Miss... Miss Early demonstrate 'er skills in ze... in ze gymnasium." She shook her head slowly, casting an awestruck glance at the tan-furred rabbit. "I wish I could log ze hour I just... just spent airborne in my logbook, but all ze crash landings would probably not look very good at all on my record."
The feline turned back to look in amazement at the rabbit does, who finally disengaged from their embrace and turned toward them, the tan-furred rabbit holding the graceful usagi's hand as she placed her hat back on her head, tipping it toward them as she did. "Thank y'kindly fer all yer help, Miss Ee-vette. Nice t' meet y'all, Miss... Suwai was it? I reckon I'll see y'all in class."
With that, she turned and proffered her arm to her companion, who took it with a joyful little hop and snuggled in close to her side as they ambled back down the road from whence they came.
Suwai turned at the sound of Yvette shuddering behind her. The vixen stared out the door at the receding does, and turned a rueful gaze to her companion. "I... I think ze 'and to 'and courses are going to present quite ze challange zis year, mon chere."
The feline gave her a smug grin before she turned back to her studies,
her dark furred tail curling behind her. "Well then, perhaps you'll need
play some catch-up, my dear."
SEPTEMBER - 1939
A stout, grey-haired raccoon worked at his desk in a tidy government office, pouring over dossiers full of sensitive documents that brought the rumors and speculation currently agitating the general public into sharp focus for him and others like him.
As sharp a focus, at least, as he could manage after a long day like this. He sat in his shirt-sleeves, his tie loosened and his jacket cast atop the chair of a nearby stenographer's station whose occupant had gone home with his blessing two hours earlier. Her husband had been recently activated and would be reporting to Fort Reliant in a week. It wasn't the first night he'd stayed late, and as events unfolded across the globe he was certain it wouldn't be the last for a long, long time.
He finished skimming a report and signed it, indicating he'd reviewed it, and then slipped it into an inter-office mail envelope marked "Secret" and wound the red thread around the grommets to secure it, before signing the outside as well.
With a tired sigh he rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath the frames of his reading glasses, then reached over and punched a button on a nearby intercom. "Miss Leeland, are you still here?"
A clear, cheerful female voice responded. "Still here, Mister Frankenthaler."
A slight smile crossed his features. She was the brightest girl in the office, both in terms of her mind and her personality. He hit the talk button to reply. "Could you come here and take this envelope down to Morton's office?"
"I'll be right in."
She was easy on the eyes as well, a pretty cinnamon-colored hound with silky feathers of fur trailing from her long ears and the delicately tapering curve of her tail, her champagne-colored hair done up in a tight bun. Even at the end of a long day at work she wore a smile. Her skirt and blouse were neat and crisp, her patent-leather shoes gleaming in the dim lights of his office.
He handed the envelope across the desk to her with an appreciative nod. "Thank you, my dear."
He cast a musing look past her towards the door. She inclined her head solicitously. "Is there something else, Mister Frankenthaler?"
He shook his head, blinking back into focus. "It's nothing, Miss Leeland. I was just wondering if there were still any coffee in the urn out front."
She gave him a warm smile. "I just brewed a fresh pot, I'll get you a cup when I get back."
He let out a sigh and grinned at her. "Freida, have I told you recently that you're an absolute treasure? You're going to make some lucky dog very happy someday."
She blushed slightly, her tapering tail wagging merrily, as she clutched the envelope to her chest and gave a short bob of her head. "That's very kind of you to say, Mister Frankenthaler. I just try to do the best I can. Now, if you'll excuse me...."
She turned and hurried out of the office with her delivery as he leaned over and lifted another envelope full of documents from a tall pile in his inbox, unwinding the red cord of its fastener with his grey-shot, dark-furred hands.
At her right a tan-furred rabbit doe stood, dressed in a male's baggy pants, a shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a garish floral pattern tie and looking at him with a faint smirk on her face as she peered with intense green eyes from under the brim of a Capital City Cavaliers baseball cap. To her left, a silver-furred female dog regarded him with level grey eyes. She wore a dark-blue tunic and trousers tucked into knee-high polished boots, rather like a riding costume or a chauffeur's uniform, with a red kerchief around her neck. Her ears were clipped and pointed, and jutted alertly on either side of an dark khaki garrison cap that covered her closely-cropped black hair.
After he'd gathered his wits, Frankenthaler let out a deep breath, looking up at the tabby ruefully as he shook his head. "Oh, it's you. I suppose I shouldn't expect anything less than a dramatic entrance."
He cast a searching glance at the others. "These are friends of yours, I presume?"
She gave him a nod. "Yes, you can trust them. They were of tremendous help in the Jormungandr affair."
He nodded, giving them a smile. "An affair which by all accounts was settled quite satisfactorily. Your country thanks you, ma'am."
The feline gave him a slight smile in return as her icy eyes flickered. "We appreciate that, Mister Frankenthaler. There is, however, one aspect of the whole business that hasn't been quite as completely settled as you say."
The raccoon raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what might that be?"
The feline pursed her lips. "Our arrival in the Spontoons was anticipated by several parties, both friendly and hostile, whom we would have rather not have been aware of our presence. My partners and I have reason to believe there's a spy in your office."
At this the middle-aged raccoon furrowed his brow and leaned forward with his elbows on the desk, steepling his fingers in front of him. "That's a serious charge to make. Are you certain that..."
He was interrupted by a soft knock on the door, and he looked past the cat, dog, and rabbit to see Frieda Leeland had returned, a steaming cup of coffee on a saucer in her hands, doubtless made exactly how he liked it.
She bobbed her head apologetically to the stout raccoon. "Oh, I'm sorry to interrupt, if you please Mister Frankenthaler. I didn't realize you had visitors." The cinnamon-furred canine glanced warily at the trio of interlopers. "Shall I get coffee for you ladies?"
Both the grey eyes of the silvery-furred she-dog and the ice-blue eyes of the feline narrowed as the office assistant's gaze lingered on the visiting canine's docked tail and clipped ears.
The tabby gave a nod to her companions and turned to cast a searching look at Miss Leeland. "Yes, I think that would be lovely. What do you think, Marta?"
The grey eyed dog nodded, fixing the pretty female with her own gaze . "I think I vould also like to have this vun < STAND FOR CORRECTION ! >"
Her sudden bellow of command startled Frankenthaler, but had a completely unexpected effect on Frieda, who flinched with her entire body and dropped the coffee cup with a clatter, snapping into an upright posture with her head bowed and her eyes cast downward, her hands involuntarily clasping behind her neck as she spread her feet slightly apart.
A beat later she looked up at them with sick horror washing across her face as she realized what she had just done. With a yelp the cinnamon-furred hound turned and bolted through the door, the rabbit doe and silver-furred canine leaping after her in pursuit. The frantic pursuit crashed through the lobby past Miss Leeland's desk and out into the hall beyond, where a shriek and the sound of bodies hitting the floor could be heard.
Frankenthaler lurched up out of his seat and hurried around his large mahogany desk, a look of shock and alarm written on his naturally masked features as he rushed to the door past the cryptically-smiling feline, who turned and fell into step behind him with her tail sinuously waving behind her.
He leaned out into the hallway beyond the reception area to see Miss Leeland writhing on the floor with her arms pinioned behind her back by the silvery-furred canine, who straddled her with a grim look on her face while the tan rabbit doe stood nearby with a fierce grin. Marta grasped the office assistant's wrists in one sinewy hand and leaned forward, taking the struggling canine's flopping, cinnamon feathered ear between her thumb and forefinger and pulling it back so that it's pink skinned inner surface was exposed. She narrowed her grey eyes and peered closely at the skin.
The supine female let out a whimper, trying to tug her ear free with tears brimming in her eyes. "M... Mister F-frankenthaler. Help me! Get... get this maniac off of me, please!"
By now a few office doors, those that weren't dark inside due to the late hour, were opening and curious onlookers were leaning out to get a look at what was going on. The burly raccoon took a step forward to assist Miss Leeland, but found his way barred by the rabbit doe, who interposed herself with her hands planted on her hips. "Jest cool it fer a second, Mister. Save yer chivalry fer someone who deserves it."
The brown-furred tabby walked forward with her hands crossed behind her back, meeting the silver-furred canine's frank gaze as she dropped Miss Leeland's ear and nodded. "Plastic surgery. It's very faint, but you can see the scar if you look closely enough." She twisted around, pushing down on her struggling quarry's back to keep her pinned, as she tugged at the cinnamon feathered tail, pulling it out straight from between the canine office assistant's feebly kicking legs. "This, however, is impressive. A fully-functioning tail, and a pretty vun too."
She glanced at the rabbit and back to the feline. "There's only vun person I know who might be capable of this kind of thing."
The tan furred doe grimaced. "Our ol' pal Doctor Kerr again, huh?"
Marta narrowed her eyes as she looked down at the gasping, straining canine pinned beneath her. "I can think of no vun else in the vulf's employ who could make a living tail and attach it so convincingly."
Frankenthaler finally recovered enough of his wits to speak. "You're telling me that Miss Leeland is a spy for the Steppenwolfs?"
Marta looked him in the eyes and gave a grim nod. "That's right, if you please, sir. She is just as much a thrall as I vunce vas, although this vun's collar is around her heart, not around her throat. Am I right, bitch?"
The cinnamon furred canine trembled, looking up at her interlocutors with tears running down her cheeks. "You're crazy! I'm a Sylvanian citizen! I was born in Noreaston. I grew up there!"
The rabbit cocked an ear and gave her a grin. "Oh really, y'all a Clippers fan then?"
The pinned canine blinked, thoroughly flustered. "Of... of course!"
The doe rolled her eyes and turned to Frankenthaler. "Y'see, Mister? She's lyin' like a cheap rug. No natural born Red Foxes fan would say that in a million years."
Miss Leeland clenched her eyes shut and thrashed under Marta's grasp, her voice taking on a hysterical edge. "I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU'RE EVEN TALKING ABOUT! LET ME GO!"
The feline stepped forward and crouched down beside her, her. Her ice-blue eyes glittered as Marta gave the cinnamon-furred canine's ear a tug, pulling her head around to meet the tabby's gaze.
Her long, sinuous tail waved as she looked into the pinioned female's tear-filled eyes. "Perhaps then you should do some talking, dear. Tell us the truth."
In a stammering monotone, the office girl began to speak, her flawless middle- Sylvanian accent fading into a voice straight from the Steppelands. "My proper designation is Number Seventy-Four, and I am a deep cover agent for the Steppenvulf Empire, sent to keep tabs on the Sylvanian military's state-of-readiness in anticipation of our Vinter conqvests. I have been in this country for five years under a forged identity, passing secrets from this office to my masters in Isengrim via our netvork. If you search my desk you vill find I have a microfiche camera hidden in a cigarette packet. If you develop the roll, you vill see I have taken pictures of most of the documents you handed me to deliver this veek. My drop box is at the Down Home Café on Monument Street, in a hollow in the vall behind a cameo print in the ladies' powder room."
She blinked in horror at what she'd just said, then collapsed, sobbing.
The feline averted her gaze and looked up at the stunned raccoon. "There you have it, Mister Frankenthaler. Is that enough proof for you?"
A couple of military police officers came rushing up the hall, their ears perked inquisitively as the rabbit and the silvery-furred canine dragged the slumped Miss Leeland to her feet.
The stout executive dragged a shaky, dark-furred palm across his face, then looked sharply up at the cinnamon-furred canine. "Yes. I'm afraid it is. Gentleman, please take this female into custody."
The office girl gasped, placing her hands to her mouth as the guards gave each other a puzzled glance and moved in to take her by the arms.
As the feline's dog and rabbit cohorts passed her into the officer's hands, her face contorted into a fierce snarl, her eyes blazing with madness. She thrashed out of the startled soldiers' grasp and lunged for Marta, her fingers like claws and her lips peeling back from her sharp teeth in a grimace of rage. "<Traitorous bitch! I'll bite your throat out!>"
The silvery-furred canine pivoted on her heel and backhanded the desperate spy, sending her staggering backwards into a leaping spin-kick from the tan-furred rabbit doe that brought her hobnailed boot down on the back of Miss Leeland's neck. She slammed hard onto the marble floor and lay still, whimpering softly as she lost consciousness. The rabbit straightened up from her combat stance and extended a fist to her canine cohort, who nodded tersely and reached out to bump it with her own.
The brown-furred tabby turned to Frankenthaler as the stunned officers carried the insensate spy away. The stout raccoon had staggered over to lean on the wall, rubbing his temples with a look of profound distress on his face.
He looked up at her with a haunted expression. "All this time... She's been handling secret documents for over a year. She gained her certification without a hitch. What... what does this all mean?"
Dorothy Pearl looked at him with her ice-blue eyes, then glanced at Marta and Jane, who stepped up beside her with grim set faces. She looked over her shoulder as the military police carried the insensate spy out of sight.
Her faint tabby-stripes deepened the furrow in her brow, as the jeweled brooch glittered at her throat. "It means you really need to tighten up security, and that my friends and I have our work cut out for us."
He fished a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of his white cotton shirt, which he wore over a fairly plain lava-lava with his clan's pattern dyed along the hem. Casting a glance over his shoulder, he took out a cigarette and lit it, his hands shaking slightly as he held the match. His mother, and by extension his ever-watchful adopted brother, didn't like it when he smoked in the long house. Neither did his sisters. Then again, he didn't like them seeing him when his hands started to shake, so this was a fair compromise. A cigarette would generally get the shaking to go away now that he was over the worst of his withdrawl, and then he could go back and join his family without upsetting anyone.
Shaky footsteps coming up the path caused his long, drooping ears to prick up, and he turned to peer at an approaching figure who shuffled like a ghost under the dappled light cast by a canopy of palm trees running like a colonnade behind his family's home.
He raised a hand to his mouth and called out in accented Spontoonie with a voice like the groaning of heavy timbers. "<Laffi? Mother Lakea and Lamakala are ready to serve supper. Come to the hearth and eat thy fill!>"
He was answered with a scream, and his head whipped around to see the young canine backpedaling through the back gate of the family compound, where he tripped over a frantically flapping chicken and falling backwards onto his bottom as the birds scattered in all directions. The hulking dog leapt down from the porch and ran to him.
The huge canine dropped to one knee and supported the smaller male in his thick hands as he stared with wide, terrified eyes at the back gate and pointed. "<He is here! He brings the eyes of the darkness on my poor weak head! He brings the poisons that burn my insides from their need! Oh shield me from his evil! >"
The larger dog looked out the back entry to see a huddled figure standing there, pale and wan in the dappled sun. A face he recognized, and had never thought he would see again.
A fierce scowl contorted the hulking dog's normally placid features, baring a mouthful of fangs as his eyes blazed. He stood, looming to his full height and interposing himself between the interloper and his adopted brother, a deep growl like thunder on a mountaintop issuing from his massive chest. "You leave him alone! I vill make you dead again if you do not go avay and never come back!"
The scrawny fox dropped his canes and collapsed on the dirt road, whimpering and covering his head with shaky hands, his dark-furred wrists like sticks coming from the gaping folds of his ragged sleeves.
As the huge canine got a better look at him, he seemed little more than a skeleton with a faded, half-bare pelt stretched over it. His cheeks were sunken and his single eye was glazed and watery, his tail more a half-chewed pipe cleaner bent at odd angles than the brush of a fox. He shivered in the loose, threadbare cloth of a dirty cotton shirt and stained trousers held up with a length of rope, a bit of floral-pattern cloth wrapped over his missing eye - the only bit of weak color on a figure otherwise composed seemingly of dust and grime.
A quavering voice came from the huddled figure in a low whimper.
"Please... D-don't hurt me. I... I didn't come to cause n-no
t-t-trouble. I was... was just hopin' m-m-my ol' pal Laffy might be
willin' t' s-s-spare a cowrie or so for... for... for an old b-buddy
who's down on his... his luck."
The hulking dog took a step forward and crouched down over the tiny, shivering figure laying prostrate at his feet, looking down at him with a quizzical look. "How is it you are still even alive, little red? I thought you were liquidated."
The wretched fox feebly raised his head, a haunted look on his haggard face. "If you mean that wolf's pet bitch..." He paused, recoiling as a low growl issued from the dog's throat. "...uh, the boss' maid-gal tried t' ice me, yeah. She... she came close. Pumped me full o' horse and left me t' die."
A wan grin creased his prematurely wizened features. "Lucky fer me, I guess, that the nurse got back just in time to get the doc and as it was it took 'em the rest of the night workin' to keep me from snuffin' it."
He gave the dog a pleading look. "And that's the last bit o' luck I had ever since. I was in a coma for three months. Long enough for my bones to knit up, but I wasn't walkin' so good for a while. St-still ain't. Hospital bills cleaned me out to my last nickel, I had to hock everything, even my eyeball. N-now I'm flat busted and eatin' outta garbage cans..."
He struggled to raise himself into a seated position. "L-look. I... I know y'don't need a lowlife like me around. I'll just be on my way."
With that he picked up his battered canes in his shaking hands and tried to rise.
The massive dog reached out, laying a broad hand on the fox's fragile shoulder, and spoke gently to him. "Just rest here for a moment, little red."
He turned and glanced back towards the other canine, who had gotten to his feet and watched warily from the rear gate. "<Laffi, go to Mother Lakea and ask of her some kindness from the hearth for a lost wayfarer, then bring it here. This one has no harm in him.>"
The mottled canine dithered uncertainly. "<But... I was commanded by the darkness to not speak to that one, or it would come back to haunt me.>"
A faint smile flitted across the towering canine's face. "<Do not be in fear, brother. I will speak to him. Nothing will haunt you for sharing a warm hearth's kindness with a lost wayfarer. Go swiftly.>"
Laffi cast a nervous glance toward the slouching fox huddled in the road against the wall he and his adopted brother had built, and nodded to the huge canine, heading back inside.
He reached up with shaking hands and grasped the huge dog around his thick wrists as he reached to take back the plate. "Z-zoltan. You're... you're a good egg, buddy. I don't know how t' thank ya..."
The hulking dog replied, his deep voice vibrating the ground beneath him. "Do you have family, little red?"
The a maudlin look settled on the fox's features. "I... I got a sister on Rain Island. I ain't spoken to her in years."
Zoltan nodded. "You should go to her."
He looked back at Laffi, and past him to the figure of Lakea, who stood in the doorway craning her neck to see what her sons, both natural and adopted, were up to. "It is good to have family to fall back on."
She herself had become something akin to the shapely creature depicted on the sign, as a year of sunshine, good food, and active living had done much to fill out her formerly scrawny frame. Her fur was glossy and golden, her bronze hair gleamed in the bright tropical sun, done up in a braid that reached to the small of her back. She'd even grown a couple inches taller, according to Loretta, although she was still a bit shorter than the grey-eyed raccoon. She wore a pair of khaki shorts over a maroon-and-white knit bathing suit, with low-cut deck shoes on her feet and a bright-red bow tied around her stub of a tail.
She leaned back to admire her handiwork as she finished driving the final nail, and her ears perked up as a voice called up to her from below. "Aloha! Postman! Hey, beautiful, how's tricks?"
She looked down to see a smiling, grey-muzzled Spontoonie mink dressed in a white uniform jacket and pith helmet over a colorful lava-lava, with a bulging canvas satchel over his shoulder. He gave her a gap-toothed grin and tipped his hat to her as she smiled down at him and tumbled backwards, deftly catching the struts of the ladder and flipping over, to land lightly on the balls of her feet on the deck below.
She grinned as she accepted a sheaf of proffered letters from him, her stub of a tail wagging behind her. "Learning new vuns every day, Mister Pohua. How is your hip?"
He shrugged, a rueful look on his face. "Old, just like da rest of me. It's gettin' so I can't make it here before you girls get da shells back up on da sign up there." He gave her a wink. "I guess I can't complain, tho. I'd rather see a real pretty girl up on da ladder fixin' it any day o' da week."
She blushed slightly and fidgeted, a warm smile brightening her features. "Oh, that is very kind of you to say, Mister Pohua."
He chuckled as he turned to head on his way. "I mean it. I'm to old to flatter girls anymore, I just tell da truth like da old fellow is supposed to. You take care now, Missy Vanya. I hope dat letter for you is a love letter."
She gave him a cheery wave as he hobbled down the dock, then did a double take and stared at the pile of letters in her hand. "Letter for ME?"
She caught her breath, and began to rifle through them with growing excitement. Her liquid-brown eyes went wide as she saw her name, care of D Tails Excursions. The return address was on stationary incorporating a musical note in a circle in the top left corner next to an official looking block of text: Songmark Aeronautical Boarding School for Young Ladies, Eastern Island, Spontoon Archepelago.
Vanya began to shake from her heels to the top of her head as she clutched the stack of mail in her hands. She turned and dashed through the door, slamming it open and startling the sandy-haired vixen at the desk inside into spitting a fine cloud of recently- sipped coffee over a set of sea charts she'd been studying.
Gwen looked up at her in alarm, noting the tension written on the young canine's face as she wiped her muzzle with the back of her arm. "What's up, pup?"
Without a word, the golden furred female turned the letters around until the topmost envelope faced the vixen, who squinted across the desk at it with a cocked ear.
A moment later her eyes went wide, and she leapt to her feet and bounded to the back door, throwing it open and shouting across the small bridge toward the open door of the shack beyond. "LORETTA! GET YOUR TAIL OVER HERE! IT CAME!"
A moment after that the raccoon came stalking back across the bridge, wiping her muzzle on the sleeve of her oil-stained coveralls. She stopped in the door with her dark mask compressed under a furrowed brow, glaring at her partner and their young employee with her grey eyes. "Gosh darn it, Gwen, you made me spit coffee all over that new magneto. What's here?"
Gwen pointed emphatically at the stack of mail Vanya held in her shaking hands. In turn, Loretta's eyes went wide. She gave the young canine a nod, crossing her arms in front of her. "Well, okay. What are you waiting for? Open it up!"
At this, Vanya's face went pale, and she turned the letter back to face her, staring at it as she bit her lower lip. She set the rest of the mail down on the desk, reached into her pocket, pulling out her treasured Alpine knife and opening the main blade. She carefully slit along the top of the envelope, and gingerly pulled out the folded paper inside.
Her brow furrowed as she read, picking her way carefully over the type-written text of the letter. "Dear Miss Cook, after careful consideration of your application ve have decided by unanimous vote of our senior faculty to ACCEPT YOU FOR ENTRY TO THE SONGMARK AERONAUTICAL SCHOOL FOR YOUNG LADIES!"
She let out a squeal and leapt into Gwen's arms as the vixen let out a squeal of her own in harmony to the young canine's. With a broad smile on her face, Loretta stepped forward and deftly plucked the letter out of Vanya's hand as she and Gwen began to hop up and down, adding a staccato rhythm to their two toned exultation. The raccoon read over the rest off the letter with a broad grin, ignoring the cacophony at her side.
She looked up as a voice sounded out from the doorway. "Aw dangit. I jest missed it, didn't I ?"
Vanya and Gwen stopped bouncing and turned to see a tan-furred rabbit doe leaning in the front door, a wry grin on her face. She wore a light cotton dress and a ball cap with a tiki logo on the front. The young canine disengaged from the vixen and bounded across the room, leaping into the athletic rabbit's arms, laughing with glee.
Loretta cocked an eyebrow at her. "I'm surprised you didn't just leave a double to stake out the office, Jane."
The tan furred rabbit chuckled and shook her head as Vanya disengaged from her and ran across the room to nearly tackle the raccoon in a hug. She fished a watch out of the pocket on the front of her dress and cocked one of her long ears, clicking the button. "I prolly would have, but I had one o' th' second years who're pullin' custodian duty fer th' summer calculate how long it'd take th' letter t' git from Miz Devinski's office t' yer door. She was off by jest a couple minutes, so I owe her one at Song Sodas."
Loretta gave Jane a wry grin as Vanya let loose of her neck and took back the letter, pouring over it and fairly quivering with excitement. "Coddling the students already are we, sensei?"
The rabbit cracked her knuckles. "Oh, I reckon I'll be whuppin' that ice cream outta her hide once classes start up."
The raccoon cast a wan glance over at Vanya. "You do realize just what you've gotten yourself into, don't you kiddo? All the late nights and hard work over the past year is gonna look like an extended tropical vacation next to what they've got planned for you at Songmark. You think you can handle it?"
The golden furred canine drew herself up with a resolute expression on her youthful face. "I have the brave, the smart, and the tenacious. I vill do the best I can vith vhat I got."
Gwen threw her arms across Vanya and Loretta's shoulders, smiling at them and Jane. "Well, getting back to the subject of Song Sodas, how about we go on over and raise a Nootnops float in celebration!"
Loretta grinned and slapped her partner on the back. "That's your best idea yet, Gwen. Lets go!"
With that, the quartet of adventuresome females, the vixen, raccoon,
rabbit, and ecstatic young dog walked out under the smiling carving of
the Nobikini mermaid, and headed down the docks toward the water taxis.