Nine Millimeters and a Million Miles
I owe my friend Joan a debt of gratitude. She is a patient listener and has spent a lot of her time listening to me rant and rave about various things pertaining to faith and the odd ways some folks have of practicing theirs. She's also a fantastic storyteller. She wrote a wonderful tale called A Little Something that spoke to my heart and my soul in a way few other things have, and which helped me to clear up a few things in my own mind.
This, then, is my attempt at a thank you. Thanks, dear. Your kindred spirit remains afire.
The character of Aslaug is copyright © Joan Jacobsen.
The characters of Tigermark and TL are © Tigermark.
The character of Aramis Dagaz is © Araims Dagaz.
The characters of Joe Latrans and Annie Latrans are © The Silver Coyote.
Characters are not to be used without prior written permission of their authors.
No part of this story may be reproduced or placed on any web site without the written permission of the author.
This story is copyright © The Silver Coyote, 2005.
He awoke in familiarly comfortable surroundings. That same warm, white light that had enveloped them all on the heath still permeated everything, but it was now subdued, not the garish, all-encompassing glare he remembered. In spite of the light's presence he had slept well. He had no idea for how long, and didn't care. For the first time in many, many days he felt relaxed and almost at peace, not only calm of body but relatively untroubled of spirit as well.
He smiled at that. He was rarely calm and untroubled, and the Boss was always getting after him about that.
He took a deep breath and drank in the scents of sage, juniper, and yucca. As his conscious shook itself off and lurched into what passed for it's normal operating condition the coyote became more aware of his surroundings. He was lying in soft grass beneath an enormous Cottonwood tree. The ground was warm, the air temperature felt as if it were near eighty degrees. Through the boughs of the tree overhead he could see blue sky.
Joe Latrans sat up and in the process became aware of two facts almost simultaneously. First, he was alone. Second, the bloody, painful wounds that he remembered being inflicted upon him in that last thunderous, grisly battle were gone. Like so many others before, the latest batch had been ministered to while he slept. He sighed… So many. Too many to remember.
The coyote marveled at the lack of stiffness that usually accompanied old wounds as he raised his paws before his face to look at them. This action interrupted his reflective, slightly melancholy train of thought as he paused to ponder his wearing apparel. Gone were the tunics and leggings from the place he had just left, thank God. Joe paused to smile ruefully. Thanks, Boss, he said silently as his gaze moved down his torso. In place of the period outerwear from his last mission Joe wore a leather vest over a bright red, long sleeve, button-down cotton shirt with an open collar and sleeves rolled to the elbows. Below this was a pair of classic Levi 501s, the legs of which covered the upper parts of a pair of Fry's square-toed boots. A western-style black leather hat hung on a small sagebrush bush within arms reach. Joe exhaled happily. Latrans Normal.
He sat indian-style with his boots beneath him, tail wrapped around his right side and bare forearms resting on knees as he surveyed his surroundings. His lone cottonwood tree erupted from a plain of high desert chaparral that stretched away into the distance towards high, snow-capped mountains. Very familiar mountains. Jess called them the "Montañas Del Oro", the mountains of gold. They reminded Joe very much of the eastern Sierra. This, of course, put him in a different, happily reflective mood as memories of he and his lovely bride playing together in those high passes ricocheted inside his head briefly. But even as that bit of pleasure wrapped itself warmly around the center of his brain, it also brought forth the one bit of uncertainty and worry he had left.
He put these thoughts away for the moment as his ears rotated slightly. He turned his head to glance back over either shoulder. Behind him, to his right, he saw dust rising in the distance. Somefur was approaching…
# # #
The first thing she remembered that wasn't part of her death on the battlefield was a soft, low voice in her ear. It sounded familiar…
"Aslaug… can you hear me?"
It wasn't worried or hurried, she mused, just curious. She felt pressure on her left paw, and after a few moments realized that it was being held by another's paws. The awareness of the other paw's presence prompted the shieldmaiden to open her eyes. She drew a sharp breath in shock.
The red vixen met the shieldmaiden's stare with a calm, neutral gaze. She wore a blue silk outer robe, tied at the waist with a broad sash of some heavy, white fabric. A short sword, a dirk of some sort, was at her side in a scabbard. Her attire did little to disguise her elegant figure. Her blond hair fell in soft curls to her shoulders. Her light blue eyes twinkled.
"So, you recognize me."
The equine nodded, laying still, staring.
The vixen held a paw out to her left, and Asluag followed the gesture to see the second fur in the room with her. This was the one holding her paw, and she recognized him immediately. The sejdmager stood out in any crowd with those red marks around his eye. A simple feline at first glance, he had turned out to be quite skilled with a blade and had some interesting notions about his faith. The shieldmaiden snorted, smiling in recognition.
The feline nodded, smiling warmly, his tail flicking briefly behind him. The pressure on her paw increased momentarily.
"We were worried about you."
"Freja, and I. And the Boss."
The equine returned her gaze to the vixen. Confusion colored her expression. How in the name of Odin could the goddess of love and war be in the same place with this Christian? She shook her head in exasperation, and that brought her up short. She raised her paws to her face, and then ran them slowly down her torso.
"Have been tended to," Freja finished for her. "You are whole… complete."
Aslaug ran a paw across her forehead briefly and sat up slowly. She marveled at the complete lack of pain, stiffness, or any other indication of wounds. She looked at herself carefully. Her armor was gone, her clothing was readily visible. The last time she had seen her tunic and leggings they had been shredded, drenched with her own blood. Now they were not only clean, they looked new.
The vixen laid a paw gently on the shoulder of the much larger equine. "All in time, my dear Aslaug." She smiled warmly. "You have many questions, I know, and they will be answered, in time."
Aramis Dagaz cleared his throat. Aslaug turned her gaze towards him.
"You look like you could do with a bit of breakfast, my dear."
Aslaug pondered this for a moment as she turned her attention back to Freja. The vixen responded by leaning forward slowly as her paw slid down Aslaug's arm to her elbow. Their lips met briefly, but in the short kiss a small charge of energy passed between the two Nordic femmes. When the vixen stood up they were both smiling.
"Welcome to Valhalla, dear."
Aslaug felt calm, at rest. A strange emotion flickered in the corners of her mind. With a start she realized that she was happy. The sweet, pure happiness that comes of peace of mind, when the soul rests from it's struggles and toil.
"Am I… dead?"
Aramis chuckled briefly, gaining her attention once again.
"Sort of," he smiled. "But then again, not really. No more so than Freja is, or I am." The tabby looked as if he were about to launch into a detailed explanation of some sort, but as he lifted a finger to begin speaking an odd sort of sound filled the room. The feline laughed.
"I think you really need that breakfast!"
Aslaug couldn't help grinning herself. Her stomach was betraying her. She had no way of knowing, of course, that the healing processes employed by the staff here left their patients quite hungry, and that their hunger was proportional to the amount of attention each of them had required. Aslaug realized that she was famished. A teasing glint came to her eye.
"What are you going to do, kitty, employ your sejd to whip something up for us?"
Aramis feigned insult. "Of course not!" he cried with mock anger. "There is no magic here. Everything we do here we do with our own paws, or it doesn't get done." He held a paw out to her. "Come, Freja and I will show you."
Aslaug looked at the two of them as the vixen also extended a paw.
"How is it," she asked aloud in wonder, "that the two of you know each other? Each of you represents a concept that is foreign and distasteful to the other!"
Aramis sighed while the vixen made a sound in her throat that sounded a bit like a purr as she smiled.
"The world is a very small place, my love," the vixen said to the shieldmaiden. At the equine's questioning look she elaborated. "All that we were certain of in our homeland is… so narrow. There is a much larger existence, a much warmer life, if only we will let go of what we've been taught and embrace what actually is." Here she motioned once again to the feline standing on the other side of the bed from her. "Aramis here has been learning much about this recently, as have your other friends." That purring sound again as the vixen leaned closer, lowering her voice. "I think this one's the best student, so far."
"It's complicated at first," Aramis chimed in. "What Freja says is true of all of us. None of us have all the answers, none of us can see all that is." The feline winked. "Some of us don't even know all the questions, my dear. But all of the pieces we have will fit, if you work with them. Your faith, mine," here he grinned as he tossed a paw towards empty air above him, "theirs… they all have at their core similar concepts." The tabby touched each digit of a paw as he ticked items off. "Love, honor, duty, loyalty, compassion. Noble traits that have universal appeal to all species in all times. Each of us may express those characteristics with a different form of faith, but the concepts are the same. They are universal."
Another odd sound escaped the equine's mid-section.
Aramis smiled, shaking his head slowly. "I feel that your are somewhat… distracted?" His eyes twinkled. "Y'know, a mutual friend of ours has the perfect expression for this situation."
"Mutual friend?" both the vixen and equine asked.
"You might remember him, Aslaug. He was wearing blueberries when you first met him."
The shieldmaiden grinned. "Oh. Him."
"I believe he would say," Aramis said as he struck a self-important pose, arms akimbo, "Nuts. Lets eat!"
# # #
"Stop being so formal, Tigermark. Dad's not here…"
The big feline sighed in exasperation. "Look, Chris, I'm sorry if I'm being a stick in the mud about this, but I'm having a little trouble buying in to this concept."
The tiger / snow leopard hybrid paced back and forth in the office. He was still wearing the same gear he had been wearing on their mission, blood and mud and all. The room was warmly illuminated with that same white light that had been his last observation on the world they had left earlier. It did nothing to calm his nerves.
A stylishly attired lion sat behind the desk in the room, staring impassively at the other feline as he moved about the room.
"What's the problem?"
"What's the problem?" Tigermark rumbled. He stared at the lion for a moment. The calm smile that met his frustrated glance unnerved him a bit.
"What?" Chris smiled. "Somebody upset the tiger's applecart?"
"It's not funny!" The tiger stood before the desk and looked down at his friend in mild frustration. He couldn't be angry at this fur. He was, after all, the Boss' son. But even if he wouldn't have been, he was hard not to like.
Tigermark sat down in a chair facing the desk. "Look Chris," he began. "We've worked for your dad for years. All those years we were comfortable in our conviction that we had it right, that we knew the real deal. We thought we were well rooted in our faith, unshakable, firm in our conviction."
"And so you are," the lion replied, still smiling.
"But now you're telling us that it's all wrong, that what we know isn't the way it really is!"
"Not true," the lion countered calmly. "What I told you is that what you know, what worked for you on your world, isn't the same exact process my father and I have employed on all worlds. What worked on your earth two thousand years ago may not necessarily be the best choice for all other worlds, Tiger." Chris smiled. "Children are different, my friend, you know that. Your little ones are unique individuals, even though they came from the same parents. So it is with His children. And as you may not employ the exact same tools in raising each of your children, so He does not choose to employ the exact same methods in raising His."
"But…" the white tiger paused, uncertain how to verbalize his concerns. He shook his head slowly. "She's not a Christian, Chris."
The lion grinned widely. "Neither was I, as I recall."
"That's not funny either," Tigermark groused, trying to stifle a small smile of his own. After a moment his serious expression returned. "Look, I know that this last mission was as much for our education as it was anything else. Each of us came away from it with a wider appreciation for how things that seem similar can be completely different. We understand how evil can disguise itself in the very concepts we promote, how furs of faith can actually do the work of the Evil One. And I…"
"This mission," the lion interrupted quietly, "was all about the three of you. There was no other purpose."
Tigermark came up short. "Say that again?"
"This mission was for you, and Aramis, and Joe. And Aslaug, but the decision to bring her aboard was made after the mission started."
Tigermark looked bewildered, and the frustration left him as his voice turned soft. "For us?"
The lion nodded, his grin fading finally.
"As you said, for years you have served us, Tiger. You grew and matured in our service, and have since helped Joe and Aramis on their way." Chris folded his paws together on the desktop. "You brought the others aboard once you and we were convinced of their suitability and qualifications. Yet you needed to grow as much as they do. Your heart is strong for Him, but the scope of your knowledge and conviction is too narrow, Tiger. Your collective suitability, the three of you, was measured against the tenets of Christianity as you understood them. We have…"
"As I understood them?"
"Yes." Chris studied his companion carefully before continuing. "Tiger, your faith is secure and solid, and I like that. You are as firmly connected to Dad and I as a fur can get and still be walking the earth. Yet that is precisely your stumbling block now. Your faith is rooted in your history, your memory, your field of view. There is a larger arena at paw, my friend." Chris stood and walked slowly around the desk.
"This is as difficult to explain as it is for a fur stuck in your dimension to understand, my friend. But try to follow me through with this before your questions, OK?"
Tigermark nodded as the lion sat against the front of the desk opposite him.
"What is the number one precept of our faith?" Chris asked quietly.
"The Great Commandment is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength," Tigermark replied confidently.
"And what is the key concept in that Great Commandment?"
"The Lord our God, of course."
Chris sighed slightly, fixing his green eyes on the tiger before him. "What is the second?"
Again, without hesitation, Tigermark answered " Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
The lion extended a paw and placed it on the shoulder of the tiger before him. "I ask you again, old friend. What is the key?"
Tigermark stared into those green eyes for a brief time. "Love," he finally answered simply.
The lion's smile was wide. "Precisely!" He stood up and began to walk back around the desk.
"Let's examine this a bit, shall we?" He sat down, facing the tiger yet again. "You're a smart kitty, Tiger, I'll spare you the build-up. You know that Dad's the top dog, and that none can come to him except through me, right?"
"Remember your Exodus?"
An eyebrow arched in question.
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me," Chris stated flatly.
Tigermark looked uncertain, not because of his knowledge but because of the turn in conversation. "Chapter twenty, verse three," he said with a trace of hesitation.
"Right. Now… think about the wording. No other gods before me. What does that mean?"
"No one shall worship any god except Him."
"Not quite." Chris smiled again at his friend's obvious confusion. "More truly it means that no one shall worship lesser gods after coming to know of Him. The One God. The true God of everything." The lion became serious. "There are a multitude of lesser deities that help us achieve our ultimate goals, Tiger. Some call them gods. Some call them angels. Some call them prophets. They are all here by His design. They could be considered… stepping stones, I suppose."
The tiger still looked confused.
"Who built this?" Chris asked suddenly.
Chris waved his paws at the room around him. "This!" A trace of annoyance flickered across his muzzle as he saw that the tiger wasn't following. "You know… In the beginning…"
"He did, of course."
"Doesn't it make sense that His creation would include the deities known as Odin and Freja?"
Tigermark's eyes widened. He nodded slowly.
"Do not be troubled by Aslaug's choice of deity. She worships her gods for the same reason you worship yours. And truth be known, it's all part of the grand design." Chris sat back in his chair and clasped his paws behind his head. The tiger relaxed a bit and sat back himself. He recognized the expression on his friend's face.
"Look at it this way," the lion began. "You are sick. You are running a fever and have bad nasal congestion. You go to a doctor and he diagnoses you with the flu. Are you surprised?"
A shake of the head in the negative.
"The doctor tells you to drink lots of fluids, get some rest, and sends you home with a prescription for an anti-biotic to fight the infection in your head. As you leave, your meet your equine friend outside. She is bleeding from a laceration on her leg. Do you recommend she drink lots of fluids and get some rest?"
"Will the antibiotic help her?"
"Are you getting this?"
The tiger nodded slowly. "Different faiths for different circumstances."
"Yes!" the lion exclaimed happily. "The key is love, Tiger. And also compassion, and grace, and tenderness. All of them good things about all sentient beings everywhere and everywhen that make them function as benevolent members of a greater society, as the children of God. It is not necessary that they know Him in order for Him to love them. What matters to Him, what is required before the rest can take place, is the common denominator. Love."
Chris chose a different track, leaning forward again, rolling with his idea. "In your home world there are many different belief systems. Islam. Buddhism. Judaism. Hinduism. Christianity. All have markedly different styles with markedly different… ah, spokesfurs, if you will. But underneath all the diatribe and verbosity is the common denominator. Peace. Love. Harmony. Call it what you will, it's that visceral feeling that binds us all together, that makes us feel connected, gives us value, identifies us as worthy of His love."
Tigermark sat forward as well.
"Dad doesn't care how we come to him, as long as we make the effort, make the trip. If some of us need to employ the use of others to help us get there, others like Freja, or Bhudda, or Usen, then that is well and good." Chris stared into his friend's eyes. "Even the likes of Geronimo, on your home world, came to know me through the love of one he referred to as Usen. That was his god, his one god, who taught him about love and compassion and respect for others." The lion smiled. "Sound familiar?"
"As Aslaug fought with honor and dignity out of love for her brethren," Chris continued, "so have you and Aramis and Joe fought out of love for and in defense of your brethren. The fact that Aslaug worships different gods than you doesn't mean anything except that His plan for her and her kind has been different than the plan he has for you and your friends, so far. She is at a different level than you three. Not higher or lower, not better or worse, just… different."
Chris paused, watching the gears turn slowly but smoothly behind the tiger's blue eyes. Tigermark was silent for several minutes, scratching his chin unconsciously while he pondered this. Eventually he looked up to his friend.
"I think I understand. He created other 'gods' for other furs in order to help develop in them the traits he values above all others."
"And what matters most to Him is that we love each other at least as much as we love Him."
"If you even know Him, yes." A flash of realization suddenly flitted across the tiger's visage. "We have misunderstood much of what He sent to us through the prophets, and through you as well, haven't we?"
Chris nodded again. "It's not your fault. You went with what you had, given the context of the times and the dimensional awareness you are limited to. Only now, as you begin to realize the scope and extent of His true creation, do you begin to appreciate that Christians on Earth are not His only interest. He loves all of you, every single fur, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu… whatever. You are all His children, His creation. But your Earth is a very small part of what is. Now that you've been back and forth in time a few times, and been around to different star systems a couple of times, you're beginning to get it even more."
Tigermark stared at the lion.
"You've taken your first steps out of your own front yard, Tigermark."
The white tiger was pensive for several more minutes. After a time his look ceased to be troubled and became plainly curious.
"So why is she here with us, Chris?"
The lion smiled, relaxing back into his chair. "Let me tell you a story…"
# # #
"This is what I'm talkin' about!" Joe exulted.
The familiar shape and feel of the pistol felt reassuring in his paw. Even here, it pleased and comforted him. He deftly ejected the clip and slid it into his right front pants pocket. He then operated the slide mechanism to eject the unspent round in the chamber. Placing the pistol on the wooden workbench before him, he bent over and retrieved the unexpended round from the floor where it had landed.
Jess smiled as the coyote straightened up. Part husky, part wolf, his bright yellow eyes lent him the aura of one to be feared. Yet as soon as Jess opened his mouth to speak, any fear that any fur might feel would be immediately, permanently dispelled. Jess was a teacher, a lover of furkind, a friend.
"I know you don't care for these trips into medieval times, Joe. You are certainly the techno-geek amongst our soldiers, and I want tot thank you for your patience and perseverance."
Joe grinned self-consciously as he examined the round. It was a 175-grain silver-tipped hollow point for his nine-millimeter Beretta 92SBE. The law-enforcement issue sidearm had been his constant companion for more years than he cared to admit.
The husky-wolf picked up a knife from the bench next to the open pistol and turned it over carefully in his paws.
"Aw, they're OK," the coyote replied as he looked up into his companion's eyes. "I know I grumble some, but I guess as long as I'm learning something as I get along it's all good."
Jess smiled as he carefully handed the knife, a foot-long all-black tanto with an edge of brightly ground and polished steel, to his student. Joe took it from him and silently slid it into a sheath at his left hip, snapping a small strap to securely hold it in place.
"What did you learn, then?"
Joe considered all that happened to him, and to his friends, during their mission to Aslaug's time. It was hard to verbalize the lessons, to put into words the expanding knowledge he had acquired and put into practice. He was still a hot-head, still the most verbally caustic and impulsive of the three, but as each mission went down he was getting better and better at being more like his fellow warriors, less and less like a short-fused stick of dynamite. He was learning to better control his emotions and to take the time to consider all his options before reacting. Tigermark and Aramis had been an immense help in this regard, patiently helping him when he needed the help, and leaving him alone when he just needed to process everything.
Joe reached for the Beretta and carefully inspected the ejector as he continued to ponder the question that had been put to him. He didn't understand all the ramifications yet, but he knew that he'd been right to question everything about their last mission. Something hadn't felt right about that setup right from the beginning, and the more they'd got involved the less and less it had felt like they were there to assist others. The shock of watching Tigermark almost come apart over the terror his crucifix had induced in a small wolf pup had convinced him. The mission had been for them, the three of them. They were the evil that needed to be corrected. Something about their hearts wasn't quite where the Boss wanted them to be, and Aslaug and her dimension had merely been the tools employed to get the three of them back on track.
Finishing his visual inspection, Joe fingered the ejector closed and fished in his pocket for the clip. He glanced at Jess as he removed it and slid the clip carefully into the butt of his pistol. He was careful to not chamber a round, set the safety on, and slid the Beretta into a custom shoulder holster beneath his leather vest. Sighing a bit, he looked more carefully at Jess' eyes, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
"I learned that while I dearly love blueberries, they don't have much use as a shampoo or conditioner."
The husky-wolf laughed. "Do tell!"
"What was that all about, anyway?"
"It was Dad's idea…"
"Yep. He thought it might set the tone of the mission for you, get your guard up a bit right out of the gate." Jess giggled a bit. "It didn't seem to have quite that effect…"
Joe laughed quietly. "I was mad as Hell about that at first…"
"Joe, your language," Jess interrupted.
The coyote's smile did not diminish, and neither did his teacher's. "Sorry Jess."
They both grew quiet as Joe continued to ponder. He still wasn't sure what it was all about, what exact lessons he was supposed to have learned. He had the idea that it all had to do with him keeping an open mind and avoiding the "club" mentality of accepting furs as being a certain way just because of the labels others used to describe them. One fur's Christian, it had turned out, was another fur's devil. It wasn't about names, or belonging, it was about behavior. It was about honor and integrity and the valuation of furry life, regardless of belief systems, individual preferences, or appearances. The Boss loved them all, and so should he. The Boss would let them know when there was inescapable, irrevocable evil to be dealt with, let the amigos know when they had a warrior's job to do. Unless and until He did that, Joe's job was to love them all, apparently, and raise his pups to think likewise.
Getting to know Aslaug had been a real eye-opener for him. Her life, her furs, her country… He shook his head. Some things were hard to wrap a paw around right away. He didn't understand it all, the nuances hadn't sunk in completely. She had been a teacher as well as an objective, something to defend as much as learn from, somefur to enjoy while simultaneously being perplexed by. He felt a bond with her, something similar to what he felt with Tigermark and Aramis, but not exactly like that, either. She was roughcut, solid but at the same time unpredictable, a real…
Those yellow eyes were staring at him.
Jess smiled patiently. "We heard you, Joe."
"What did I say?"
The warrior considered this as he reached for the last tool on the bench, a well-used but perfectly maintained Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle. As with the Beretta, he carefully checked to make sure that the chamber was empty and that the clip was full, turned the safety on, and then returned it to the workbench.
"She's too good a fur to give up that easily."
Jess eyed Joe carefully for a moment. "She's more than that, my friend, you knew it then and you know it now."
Joe nodded in affirmation.
"She's here now because of your opinion of her. She was not part of the plan, originally. Dad needed some persuading." Jess assumed a reassuring expression as Joe's became worried. "He's with it a hundred percent now. He sees the value in her that you saw." The husky-wolf's expression became thoughtful. "She'll need some training, and some time to get to know us. There's a lot of bad programming to be undone. Not unlike what the three amigos had to go through, but I think we can be a little more open with her. Her preconceptions are based largely on names. Once we get her to accept that our Christians are nothing like hers, we should be ninety percent to the goal."
A question formed in the coyote's eyes. "What is the goal?"
The thoughtful expression deepened on Jess' face. "Eventually, Joe, she'll become one of you."
Joe wanted to be surprised, but for some reason he wasn't. Happy? Yes. Surprised? Not hardly. When she had made the jump with them he knew it wasn't an accident or oversight. She had accompanied them for one reason, and one reason only. The Boss wanted it so.
"One of us, eh?" Joe grinned slightly, the tips of his fangs briefly visible. "The fourth amigo?"
Jess chuckled. "Not according to Dad."
"No. He seems to think that there will be a subset of the amigos comprised of you and she."
The surprise was evident on the coyote's face, and the grin disappeared from his muzzle. "I'm not a teacher, Jess. Hell, I barely understand this crap myself sometimes…"
"Sorry, but it's true! I can't instruct her, Jess. I'm still steep on the learning curve myself. Tiger and Aramis are always having to pull me out of some metaphorical or spiritual mud hole! How the Hell am I going to get any other fur up to speed? There's a million miles between me and her, and I have no idea how to bridge that gulf."
Jess smiled patiently, like Joe had seen Annie smile at one of their small pups when they had needed to have something explained to them in small, easily digestible words and concepts.
"Well, I admit that you might have to tone down your fursonal interaction skills a bit…"
"I'm sorry, Jess, but I think it's a mistake to expect me to train Aslaug to…"
"You're not going to teach her."
As Tigermark had earlier, Joe now came up short, blinking, his mouth slightly open. "Say that again?"
"You're not going to teach her. Aramis is."
"Aramis!" Joe thought about this for a minute. A smile crept across his face. He could see the logic in it, mixed with the humorous streak the Boss was well known for. He stroked his chin as a sly look crossed his face. "Aramis…" He chuckled. "I'm not sure which of them is going to be the teacher and which of them is going to be taught."
"Neither are we," Jess said, joining him in a brief chuckle. "But don't sell yourself short, Joe. You may not have the refined delivery and the panache of a true teacher, but make no mistake. When you talk, furs listen."
Now Joe laughed out loud. Sputtering, he added "Whether they want to or not!"
As their laugher died Joe remembered something. A subset.
"Why does the Boss want Aslaug and I to be set apart from the amigos?"
"Not set apart at all, Joe. He was teasing about that. He just realizes that you and Aslaug are sort of kindred spirits. You're both a bit outspoken, prone to jump first and ask questions later, and you both tend to… how do they say it in California? 'Kick ass and take names?'"
Joe grinned, feigning offense. "Jess! Your language!"
"Yeah, yeah…" The husky-wolf smiled warmly. "He even has a name for you."
"Yep. He wants to call you the Scruffy Squad."
Joe laughed so hard he had to lay a paw against the workbench to keep from falling over.
# # #
The tabby was dressed in off-white robes with a dark gray over-cloak. He was unarmed save for a katana at his side.
The tiger was still adorned in his garb from the last mission, but the clothing had now been cleaned and repaired. He wore no weapons that were visible.
The coyote was dressed as before, except the AK-47 was now muzzle down on his back, hanging by it's strap over his right shoulder.
They approached each other out of darkness, stepping into a pool of warm white light. As they neared each other, each extended his right paw. They were fully illuminated as their paws touched, each smiling happily as they looked into each other's eyes. The tiger spoke for them.
"Father, we thank you for the successful completion of our latest mission and for the opportunity to become closer to the hearts of You and your Son. We shall study all that we have learned and strive to apply it as you would have us do so."
The coyote and the tabby nodded in agreement.
"We vow to do whatever is required to help Aslaug become one of us, one of your warriors. We pledge to help You and your Son accomplish your goals in her, to make what you will of her to the betterment of all worlds."
More nodding, and a "Yes!" or two muttered under breath.
"And on a personal note, Father, I want to thank You for the care, camaraderie, and love of my friends Joe and Aramis. I would be less than I am without them, and You, Father."
Smiles from the silent furs.
"Lastly, Father, it is with happy hearts and unburdened souls that we go our separate ways now. We love You and dedicate our lives and spirits to Your cause. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, amen."
"Amen," the coyote and tabby chorused.
They stared at each other for a moment as a gentle breeze wafted among them, gently ruffling their fur. Each of them closed their eyes briefly, holding their breaths, as a warm, affectionate voice rumbled quietly.
"Go in peace, my sons. You have served me well."
Three sets of eyes opened as the breeze died away. They dropped their paws.
Aramis moved to his right and hugged Joe. The hug was returned enthusiastically by the larger fur, and they each slapped each other's backs, mindful of weapons. As they parted Aramis smiled.
"I'd ask where you're bound for, Joe, but I think I know."
The coyote grinned. "O.C., my dear kitty, I'm going home." His tail wagged in spite of himself. "There's a young vixen waiting there for me, you know." Joe laid a paw on the tabby's shoulder. "And you, my friend, where are you bound for?"
"Oh, I'm staying right here. Aslaug and Freja and I have a lot of talking to do yet. There's a lot to learn, for each of us. Dominic is going to be with us after a while."
"Dominic?" the coyote and the tiger asked simultaneously.
Aramis giggled, turning to the tiger. "Joe knows him as Jess. You call him Chris. I call him Dom."
The tiger nodded, smiling. "He is all things to all furs, is He not?"
The tabby and the tiger embraced, and more back slapping ensued.
"And you, my friend,' Aramis asked. "What of you?"
Tigermark grinned, a faraway look coming to his eyes as his thoughts focused on a particularly attractive lynx he knew.
"I know that look," Joe exclaimed. "It's called the TL stare. I've seen it now and then."
"And it's no different than that look that comes to your eyes every time you think of Annie."
"So I'm headed home to Kentucky, my friends. To my lady love and my tinx."
Aramis took a step back. "I shall bid you gentlefurs a fond farewell, then. I have things to do that demand my attention, and must set about my tasks." The tabby snapped to attention and saluted smartly, causing the coyote and tiger to do likewise. As he lowered his paw to his side he smiled. "Please give my best to your respective families for me."
"When shall we meet again?" Tigermark asked. "Any ideas?"
"Dom will let us know."
The tiger nodded as Aramis took another step back and faded into the darkness beyond the light.
"Good bye, Aramis! Good luck!"
" Catch you later, Aramis! Tell Aslaug I said hello!"
The coyote and the tiger eyed each other.
"Scruffy Squad, eh?"
The tiger burst out laughing. Joe patiently waited him out, idly thumbing the strap of the automatic rifle over his shoulder. Presently Tigermark regained his speech.
"It was His idea, Joe, I swear!"
"Uh-huh…" the coyote replied, smiling. "I'll bet." He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around the tiger, slapping his back enthusiastically. The hug was returned with equal energy. When they separated Joe kept a paw on Tigermark's left shoulder.
"Thanks, Tiger. For everything."
"De nada, amigo," the tiger smiled. "Any time."
"If you find the opportunity, Annie and I would love to get together with you and TL sometime soon."
Tigermark groaned comically. "Remember what happened last time we all got together?"
Joe chuckled. "Yeah, you and I said maybe twenty words the entire evening. All night long it was 'Joe did this silly thing' and 'Tigermark did that silly thing'. It felt like all we did the entire evening was try to salvage our virtue."
Tigermark's expression grew sly. "At least we managed to create some new memories later in the evening."
"Copy that." Joe drew a breath. "Anything special awaiting you?"
The tiger shook his head. "Business as usual. You?"
The coyote grimaced slightly, tugging the strap again. "Ah, the IPF has some new gig going on. I guess I'll have to get my paws dirty some more."
Tigermark's expression grew serious. "Keep the faith, brother. Call for air support if you need any."
Joe dropped his paw as the tiger's rose to meet it in a firm pawshake. Their eyes met and locked.
"Take care, my friend. God bless."
# # #
Aslaug and Aramis watched from a distance as the coyote turned away from the tiger. The white light seemed to grow brighter as the coyote stepped away, and his form faded into the glare. They saw the tiger smile.