"What is that?" Brice asked as he wandered over. He hadn't even changed out of his pressed civilian clothes yet. "Did you two raid an attic?"
"My partner got auction fever. He won out over three other maniacs for this." Roy grinned and swung his hand over the box of unidentifiable dusty, rusty items. "All this for ten bucks."
Brice leaned over Roy's shoulder. "Gage, you overpaid."
"Oh, shut up." John glared. "Hey...what's this?" he handed it to Roy.
"I have no idea-- for the fourteenth time. But this looks like something Buck Rogers would have. The rest of that stuff looks like it hasn't seen daylight since the turn of the century." Roy took the metallic, rounded object and wiped the dust away with a cloth. The metal gleamed with an odd iridescence. "Here's a button," he pointed out, holding it out to Johnny again.
"It's not attached to anything..." John said, reaching for the blue button.
"May I see that?" Brice blurted, reaching for the object, too. He'd caught a glimpse of what appeared to be circuitry, through what he'd first thought to be chrome.
They were reaching at the same time and all three fingers hit the button together.
The rest of the crew yelped as a thunderclap of imploding air rattled the cups on the table. Where the paramedics had crouched, nothing remained except the tattered cardboard box, and a couple of dusty handprints on the floor.
Brice groaned eloquently as he sat up.
"Oh, man!" Johnny sat up and rubbed his head. "What happened?"
Brice stared at him, then back over his shoulder. "If you're Gage...then who's that?"
"That's.... Johnny.... too!" Roy stammered, his eyes going wide.
The doppelganger had much shorter hair. He was working with something hidden in his lap....then he lifted a syringe and injected himself in the arm.
"Hey!! I'm no junkie!" Johnny yelped, stepping closer to the figure.
He didn't answer. But he lay a black case on the table and got up, stretching.
"I don't think you're a junkie here either, Gage," Brice whispered. "That looks like a diabetic's case."
"Oh, man.... I hope this isn't the future!" Gage approached the case, and found he couldn't pick it up. His attention was diverted by a woman's laugh of arousal.
"Yeah, this is John's house, all right," Roy quipped with a grin....then Chris ran through the house.
"Jenny!" he bellowed. "Daddy John said we're to go outside and play! I'll push you on the swings!" It was three PM. He should have been at school.
Gage and Desoto looked at each other. "Daddy John?" Roy mouthed. His partner shrugged-- then blanched. As soon as the screen door slammed behind Jen, the double and Joanne appeared-- kissing their way a bit blindly towards the stairs.
"Oh, good Lord!" Brice gasped, eyes huge.
That was a mild reaction compared to the ones Johnny and Roy were having, as they watched the apparitions shed clothing all the way up the stairs.
"Pally..." John finally said, his voice tight. "I swear to you...I would never..."
"I don't like this place..." Roy mumbled, looking completely stunned. He turned. "Where's that thing...?!"
"I don't have it," Brice said, looking at them....looking anything but perfect at the moment!
Johnny glanced dazedly around-- at anywhere but the clothing draped stairway. "Uh... here! Here it is!" He grabbed up the device. It glowed now, and gave off an electrical purr.
A clock appeared on it... a surprisingly modern one. It had a string of numbers, reading "48:29:--" with the last numbers counting down rapidly.
"Forty eight minutes until what?" Brice wondered, then winced at a particularly embarrassing sound that wafted down to them.
The clock changed to :48:28...' John let out a groan. "Are you sure those are minutes?" "I'm hoping they are..." "I don't think I could take forty-eight hours of this," Roy muttered, glaring up at the ceiling-- and the source of creaking bedsprings.
"Roy..." John whispered. "It looks like hours to me."
"Push the button."
There was a whoosh, like when oxygen is sucked up by a flashover, then, a cool breeze played around the trio. Birds sang loudly.
"Maybe it wasn't either."
"Well, whatever it was, we certainly aren't where we were before." Brice looked around at the limitless horizon, the rolling , thigh-high grass all around them.
"Thank God," the two chorused.
A sound like rumbling thunder approached. The ground under their feet trembled.
John's eyes suddenly grew wide. "Scatter!" he cried. "To the right!"
The large herd of ponies roared past, driven by five whooping, laughing boys riding barebacked.
Then Brice shocked John and Roy both. He growled, "What the hell was that?? Those...children! Herding horses by themselves! Where are their parents? Why were they bareback!"
"They're fine, Brice!" Johnny laughed. "We always rode horses bareback... and rode herd as soon as we could ride." He pointed towards the receding dust cloud. "I vote we see where they were going. This kinda looks like Lame Deer... maybe we can figure out how to get home."
"Lame Deer? Montana?" Craig frowned. "You mean we're on the Cheyenne Reservation?"
"Looks kinda like home," Johnny shrugged. "And those kids looked Cheyenne-- they were wearing breech-clothes rather than jeans, though, so I dunno for sure..."
Then one of the horses came galloping back. Atop it was a breechcloth clad blonde boy, his hair in twin braids kissing his shoulder-blades. "Yatahey!" he called. *Where are you....* Then his jaw dropped as he stared at the three in open shock.
"Chris?!" Roy breathed, staring back in as much shock.
"Follow"! he cried in English, wheeling the horse around and pounding toward camp, screaming *DAD! WOLF! WILLOW! GOLDENSKY!* at the top of his lungs.
"Okay..." Brice said, frozen to the spot. "I am officially confused..."
"Join the party!" Johnny gulped. "He saw us! They didn't see us, before-- and he's calling for reinforcements!"
"Is that what those words mean? What did he say?" Roy asked.
"He's calling for his father, and some people named Wolf, Willow and Goldensky... "
The pony came thundering back. Two men rode with him. They stopped a far distance and the boy pointed. They could see the one on his right was tall, bronzed and long-haired. The other .... seemed to be covered with fine yellow hair!
The boy hung back, but the two men urged their horses closer. It didn't escape the trio's notice that both men carried bows.
*Maheoo...* The raven-haired one whispered, mahogany eyes widening. *Burns was right....they're us!*
Johnny was the only one privy to that byplay. *We're as confused as you are.* He held his hands out, palms up.
*What do you think, brother?* He asked, looking at the blonde furred one. *Bring them and let Willow and the elders sort it out?*
*Yes, but talk first.* The furred being peered at the visitors, and his lips curled away from fangs in wry amusement. *Odd way of talking to self!*
"Holy cow," Roy gasped. "That's my voice!"
"You're a werewolf!" Brice gasped.
"Cougar!" the furred one corrected with a tinge of pride, kneeing his horse closer. "Why you here?"
"We...we don't know!" Roy said. "We.....found a button and pushed it and... and...."
"A button?" Wolf swung off his horse, and strode up to the trio. "What kind of button?"
"Just...a button!" Brice said. "With a timer of sorts."
Wolf reached for the object that Johnny had his fingers closed around tightly. He glanced at Cougar. "Maybe this is some sort of control for the Eater?"
"Nothing swallowed us up....we were just....there. Where is here?" Johnny asked.
"It' s not Earth," Brice said, frowning at the sky. "Not unless we've grown another sun."
"Good question," Cougar laughed. "We lost, too. Good lost, though. Not sun, that moon. Two at night, one in day. Reflects like second sun."
"My lord, " Roy gasped, "what happened to your voice?"
"Changed. When rest changed." Cougar shrugged. "Better than it was. Say what I want, now."
"And *Beauty* doesn't mind a bit," Wolf quipped, nudging him.
"Who's...." Roy stumbled over the unfamiliar name. "Is that Joanne?"
The men looked at each other, then roared with laughter. "Not hardly!" Wolf spluttered.
Roy's face fell. Two places in a row.... "......where is she?"
Cougar shrugged. "With Traveler. He husband now."
"She hate me, Beauty, this life. Threw her away. Traveler picked her up."
"You threw your wife away?" Roy bellowed. "How could you?"
Cougar pointed a clawed finger at him. "You not live with this woman like this. She hate me, hate this life. She happy with Traveler."
He sighed. "What happened to me -- you--- oh shoot, this is confusing..."
Cougar leaned his elbows on his knees as he bent towards his double intently. In his telegraphic way, he told Roy everything from the "snatch" to that day.
Roy sagged to the ground, stunned.
"What about me?" Johnny asked softly. His attention was caught by a blond woman hurrying towards them, the fringes of her dress blowing in the freshening breeze.
Wolf was off his horse and had her in his arms in a moment. He kissed her and spun her, before smiling at them. "This is my wife...Goldensky!"
The woman had eyes only for Brice, however. An odd expression on her face. "Craig Brice-- I never dreamed I would ever see you face to face..."
"Have we met?" he asked, frowning.
"Oh yes, we know each other intimately." An odd little smile quirked her full lips. She glanced up at her husband. "Should we tell him?"
"Let's." He grinned wickedly.
She turned back to Brice, stepped close, her hands clasped in front of her softly. "I'm you, Craig."
He paled lighter than his corn-silk hair. ".....you're...what?"
"I'm you. I was Craig Brice, before I was--- transformed here. Now, I'm Goldensky. I'm married to Wolf, and we have a son, a daughter, and another child on the way."
"And...you're...happy?" he pointed at Wolf, eyebrows climbing. "Being...married?...to Gage?"
"Ecstatically," she smiled, taking Wolf's hand in hers. She tossed her pale braids. "A word of advice for you, Craig--- loosen up, smile-- and find a woman."
His face closed up. "You have gone insane."
The trio in buckskins all softly laughed. "No, but I can see how all this is hard to swallow," Wolf retorted. "Believe me, she's telling the truth. I held her-- you-- while the transformation happened. I watched the bones literally melt and reform under your skin-- watched a woman emerge from what was a man."
"And wasted no time, obviously," Craig snarled.
He found himself on the grass, looking up at an enraged man that was far more a formidable warrior than a former paramedic. "You have no idea what it was like-- what happened to us," Wolf growled.
"Then enlighten me, Gage," he snarled. "This entire situation is utterly incomprehensible to me!"
A sinewy hand closed around his wrist, jerked him to his feet and close to the bronzed, painted face. "Just what exactly do you want to know, Brice?"
"Where civilized people are!"
"This is it, Brice. This is the civilization on this planet. The white men were burned off of it. If this doesn't suit you, I suggest you push the button on that gizmo and go back to Carson!"
He paled again and all the hate seemed to just drain off of it. "The white men...were...what?"
"Burned out.. some sort of neutron weapon."
"But then...how did...." he pointed at Sky and Cougar. "Theyíre still here!"
"I don't know-- the sky lizards seemed to want to see how their experiment turned out... they left us all alone."
"But...you're alone on this world."
"No, we're not! We're in the middle of a big clan, part of a big band, that's a portion of a huge nation! Come with us, see how we live!"
He turned to look at his fellow travelers." Well?"
"Hey, this I gotta see!" Johnny enthused. Roy looked a bit less enthusiastic, but nodded. "We're here. Let's meet our family."
Craig walked up to Goldensky. "You seem so content..."
"I am. I wish there was some way to convince you of that." She reached out tentatively and curled her slender fingers around his hand.
Suddenly they both jerked and cried out.
"What happened?" Wolf and Johnny both yelped at the same time.
They just stared at each other, wide-eyed.
Wolf and Johnny brushed shoulders as they hurried toward the stunned pair. They leaped apart as if both had been zapped. "What the heck was that?!" Johnny blurted, rubbing his tingling shoulder.
"I...I don't...." Wolf stared at him, shock in his features.
"I can feel that!" Johnny pointed to the fresh sun-dance wound on Wolf's chest. "I can feel that like it's me that's cut!"
Craig's hand went to his stomach. "Something's....rolling..."
"The baby-- the baby's tumbling..." Sky sounded like her lips were numb with shock.
"No...I ate something...disagreeing with me... that's all! It has to be all!"
"Then tell me--- he's pushing against your fourth left rib right... now... and now he's just kicked the heck out of your left kidney."
Craig's eyes were huge as he stared at her, his face paling rapidly.
Johnny's hands closed around Brice's arms. Wolf felt the warmth, the damp cotton of Brice's shirt.
"No...this can't be happening..." Craig whimpered, clinging to John for support in staying upright.
Wolf cradled his wife. "Is it time for him to meet his father?"
"Not yet, I don't think."
Cougar and Roy stared at them, then at each other. "I think it best if we don't touch."
"I stay far away!"
Craig breathed a sigh of relief at that prediction. Then he cried out and grabbed at his lower abdomen as sky toppled soundlessly to the ground.
"Of course..." she ground out, "..I could be wrong..."
"Woman!" Wolf growled affectionately, as he scooped her up. Cougar took her from his arms long enough for Wolf to mount his horse, then handed her back. Wolf took off at a gallop for the camp.
Craig sank to his knees. "........oooooh man......" Sweat popped out on his brow. "Women do this more than once!" He groaned.
Johnny and Roy looked at each other helplessly. "What do you do for a man in labor?" Roy asked. Johnny shrugged.
"Just shut up and get me to that damned camp!" Craig ground out. Then he looked at Cougar. "And YOU STOP LAUGHING!"
That just made the furred man laugh harder, until he had to cling to his lanky little horse's mane for support. "Maheoo laugh, too, I bet!"
"Who's that?" Craig gasped, leaning on John.
"God." Johnny's lip twitched, despite his concern.
"Oh...." he whimpered. "How are we gonna get to camp? Only two horses!"
Cougar was already controlling himself enough to be efficiently stripping the leaves and branches from a pair of stout saplings. He lashed it to his pony, and used thongs and a blanket to make a "stretcher" between them. "Travois. Ride in style."
"Oooh lovel...AAAAIII!" he doubled again.
Cougar pointed with his blade at Roy before sheathing the flint tool. "You and him ride. I run. We not touch."
Roy nodded and got up behind John.
Cougar made certain Craig was securely tied to the travois. He took the reins of the reddish horse, and spoke a few affectionate sounding words to the animal, before taking off at an animalistic, ground-devouring lope that had the horse trotting briskly.
"My word!" Roy gasped as he saw the limping man coming toward them. "Brackettís here too?"
"Willow, here. He healer better than ever at Rampart," Cougar elucidated, raising his voice to be heard over the latest of Craig's "labor" pains.
*Maheoo, Cougar, what?* Willow's eyes flicked from Cougar to Roy and John. He could not see Craig.
"Don't know yet, why they here. Craig feeling Sky's birth-pain... "
"Craig?" he limped around the travois.
"Hello, Doctor Brackett," he managed through tense teeth before another spasm had him writhing and trying not to yell.
"Willow," he said tightly. "My name is Willow." He said it in Cheyenne then. "That is my name."
Craig nodded, and Willow looked up at the horseback paramedics. "Well, how far is he dilated?" his teeth flashed in his bronzed face.
That set Cougar off again.
"It's ...Not...funny!" Craig ground out.
"I'm sure it's not. " He reached out automatically to connect with his "patient." "And it shouldn't last much longer. She's having Braxton-Hicks."
"Br...Br...I'm in so much pain because of false labour?"
"Makes you have a whole new respect for the other gender, doesn't it?" Willow turned to the others. "What about you? Are you sharing nervous systems as well?"
John nodded, Roy shook his head.
"Sky and Whimper touch, Wolf and skinny Wolf touch, Roy and Cougar see and not touch!"
"Whimper?" Craig snapped, sitting up too fast.
"Since you here, you whimper and bitch like little child," Cougar's broad shoulders lifted again in a teasing shrug.
*He just doesn't understand,* John chided in Cheyenne. *Give him time! It's for him, for Roy too!*
*Adjust now, easier than adjust later, Skinny Wolf,* Cougar shot back good-naturedly, as he unlashed his cargo. As soon as he was freed, Craig grabbed the hairy man's arm and pulled himself to his feet. He swayed, hunched over himself.
*Otter is my tribal name,* John said with a sigh.
*Good name. You sunny natured like Otter, always."
He smiled. *They need names too...I don't think Whimper suits Craig.*
*What suits?* Cougar asked, stepping prudently aside as Johnny and Roy slid off the horse to support Craig.
*StoutHeart*, John said -- startling Cougar. *He's been a good friend through this ordeal.*
Cougar blew through his nose. *You know him better. Call him that.*
*What for Roy, do you think?*
"Sees well. He saw not to touch, fast."
*SeesWell...* He smiled. *That fits*
*Let's get StoutHeart to lodge before he loses guts on Willow.*
In the Lodge, they were left alone for a few minutes. John crouched beside his friends. "We've been renamed for our stay here."
"What am I called, Cries Like a Girl?" Craig gritted.
*StoutHeart*, John said, then repeated it in English.
"I have a feeling that furry fellow had nothing to do with that name."
"Nope. Roy you're" And another word in Cheyenne. "That means SeesWell."
"That's complimentary. Wonder why I got tagged with that?"
"Cougar said it's cause you see things clearly."
Craig suddenly unfolded on the furs. "It's over!" He sat up, wiping his sweaty brow on his shirt shoulder. "She's actually hungry!"
"Then let's get you some food!"
"But I'm not...." his stomach vetoed that statement by growling loudly.
"Yes you are," Roy chided gently.
That night, Craig couldn't sleep. He was outside when John came out to find him. "Here you are! What's wrong?"
"Found out how deep the link goes."
"You did? How?" At Craig's look, John blushed down to his toes. "Yeah... same for me."
He sighed and jammed his hands into his pockets. "It was a most... unsettling... experience."
"I'm sorry, Craig."
"For what? Not your fault no woman in their right mind wants me."
"Well, geez, Craig, you just need to loosen up a little, smile and let them know you're interested in more than their IQ and productivity!"
"*Goldensky*" he said, surprising John by his mastery of her name, "said the same thing..... I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't something wrong with me."
"Well, not so much wrong as just-- off-putting. You're a bit.... formal and distant.... you know."
He sighed and shifted position so he could look at the dark figure better. "It is the only way I know how to be."
"Listen, all you have to do is smile, and let people know you aren't lookin' down your nose at them. Heck, you'll have to do better in the female department than me! I can get em, but I can't keep em. At least, not in our world."
"And in others...you kept Roy's wife...and a version of me."
"Yeah, well, what does that say? I can steal em, or have em made for me-- but I can't just attract one the normal way." A slightly sour tone crept into John's whisper.
"Sounds like you and I have more in common than we realised....John."
"Yeah, well, imagine that."
"You too wanna knock it off sometime before dawn?" Roy grumbled sleepily from his pallet a few feet away.
"Sorry...Roy," Craig said, smiling gently as he had to force himself to use the first name.
Roy lifted his head, blinked... then decided it wasn't worth wasting sleep pursuing. He lay back down and pulled the fur over his head. He'd never realized an Indian camp was so noisy-- and for so far into the night.
Craig sighed and went back inside, lying down and trying to get some sleep.
The noise of morning woke all of them before they'd really gotten fully back to sound, dreamless sleep.
A giggly boy bounced onto John's stomach. *Wake up!*
Johnny caught the little trampoliner before he could have his innards rearranged again. *Who're you?* he grinned into the shining little brown face.
*LaughsMuch!* he beamed. *Son of Wolf!*
*Well, LaughsMuch, I'm Otter, your father's... brother.*
*I know, he told me to wake you and StoutHeart! SeesMuch is already out there, talking to Willow and River!*
*Why don't you go wake up StoutHeart while I pull my leggin's on, then," Johnny requested, lifting the toddler from his belly.
*Okay!* he straddled the blonde and tapped his face. *Wake up, StoutHeart! Wake up!*
Craig blinked awake, startled, then smiled at the eager child and spoke his only word of Cheyenne. "Ah-koh!"
*Ah-koh! I'm LaughsMuch, son of Wolf! SeesMuch wants you!*
Craig caught only the names, but nodded, sitting up and then flicking the furs back into order as he stood.
He turned -- and realised something. "...John?.....my glasses are gone!"
Johnny turned to the obvious suspect. *Laughs Much, have you seen the shiny things StoutHeart wears on his face?*
"No...you don't understand! I don't need them anymore!"
"That's strange!" John frowned.
"But true..." He finished and walked outside, heading across the camp.
Craig blinked when he saw the blonde woman sitting scraping hide. "...Miss McCall?"
River's head snapped up and swung instinctively towards the unfamiliar voice addressing her by such an unlikely name. "Who's there?!" She dropped her scraper and came to her feet, almost tangling with the hem of her dress.
"Oh my heavens.....she's blind!" Craig gasped, leaning against John for support.
"Of course I am, so tell me who you are!" she snapped in her best "head nurse" voice.
"Craig, Ma'am...Craig Brice."
For one of the few times in her life, Dix actually felt her jaw drop. "C..Craig?! But how... Sky! Did something happen to change you back from Sky?!"
"No....no, Sky is still Sky. I'm....from....elsewhere."
Dix's shocked expression changed to her broad smile. "Well, welcome, then. I'd say this is all quite a jolt to your belief system."
"More than you know.Ē He idly stroked the soft leather. "Are you happy here, Miss McCall?"
"If I wasn't, I wouldn't be here, Craig," she told him gently, and reached toward his warmth to brush the back of his hand. "I had a chance to go back, but I'm happier here, especially since I'm blind. I'd be a... burden... there, but here, I have work to do, and a man that thinks I personally had something to do with making the sky blue..."
Craig's stomach growled loudly then. Ignoring it, he began to ask a question -- but froze when he saw Willow walking between identical twin women, each of whom kissed him tenderly in turn.
"Are you as hungry as you sound?" River laughed.
"Well..." he chuckled, a sound she'd never heard before.
"Sit down against the backrest there, I'll bring something out to you."
"NoÖ I couldn't..."
"Sit! And tell your silent partner to sit, too!"
"Yes, Ma'am," he said in a small voice, sitting with an audible THUMP.
John blinked. "How'd you know I was here?"
"I can smell you, and hear you shuffling around and breathing.... Wolf?"
"No, Dix.....Otter. AKA just plain John. And Craig is StoutHeart."
"What do you think of all this, Otter?" she asked from inside the lodge as she dipped out two bowls of the thick stew she'd cooked a bit earlier.
"I love it. It's like...Paradise..." He smiled, then looked at Craig. "But I feel bad for StoutHeart and SeesMuch."
"I'm guessing SeesMuch is Roy?" she stepped back out, handed them the bowls and spoons, then reached for the water-skin and cups.
"Yeah. Cougar says he sees things quickly, so..." John shrugged.
"Well, if you aren't happy here, the Eater will show up fairly soon to take you back. It did for Joe."
"We didnít come by the Eater," Craig said.
River's fingers halted in their deft retying of the water-skin's thong. "Then how?"
They told her, tripping over their words to do it.
She sat silent through the tangled recitation, then softly said, "Have you tried pushing the button again?"
"Yes....that's how we left that one world." They both shivered.
"So, better this than what you may be dropped into next?" Willow asked, joining the group with his wives. "River, how's that cough this morning?"
"Much better, thanks." She smiled. "How are the bookends?"
Willow laughed and hugged both women to him teasingly. "Fine-- and making me crazy as usual. When these babies are added to the mix, I may have to start joining Cougar on his jaunts!"
"Which one is your wife, Doctor Brackett?" Craig asked.
River made an odd noise, and Willow's face went still, but his eyes glittered with wicked amusement. "Both of them, Craig."
SPLORT! Craig's mouthful of stew shot nearly into River's lap.
Johnny almost choked on his. "Both of them?"
One of the lithe young women sprang to his side and pounded him on the back vigorously.
Craig opened his mouth to say something, then groaned in pain, a hand flying to his back.
"Yes, both. This is Pine Basket, and that's Cedar Smoke, about to knock the breath out of Johnny." He laughingly called something to the girl, and she giggled and came back to his side, grinning at the two newcomers.
Craig got shakily to his feet. ".......uuhm...Doct...W-Willow?"
"I..... I think......Sky may be....may be..." Suddenly he fell to his knees, grabbing his lower back and lower abdomen, crying out in agony. A female scream of agony sounded simultaneously from the lodge.
"I see. Johnny, take him on down there. Since distance doesn't seem to weaken this, he may as well be where I can keep an eye on them both. " he turned to his wives, and in clipped tones gave commands. Cedar hurried off towards their lodge, and Pine towards Wolf's.
LaughsMuch came tearing out of the lodge. *Momma in pain!* he cried. *Daddy's in the river -- I'll call him!*
Willow scooped up the small boy on the fly and redirected him. *No, go get Cougar. He'll get your Daddy. You stay with Beauty!*
*Okay!* And off he ran.
John blinked. "What did he mean, Wolf is in the river?"
*Wolf's in the river,* Willow growled, pushing open the door flap. *Bring him in, but don't stare at the woman, it's not... polite.* Cedar already had Sky on the birthing pad at the central pole, with her hair tied back. *Lay Craig on the furs over there.* Willow indicate with a jerk of his head.
John did, blocking Craig's view of his alter with his own body. *What do I do for him?* he cried.
*Hold his hand, I suppose,* Willow rumbled. *She's gonna be doing the real work.* He turned his attention to Sky. After briefly assessing the situation, he told her, *The baby's turned sideways-- that's why it's hurting so much. We'll have to persuade him to stand on his head and consent to be born.*
Craig nodded at the words, though he didn't really understand them. Sky did, and he got the gist of it. "John..." he whispered. "Repugnant as the idea sounds....you may have to ... hold my hand..."
John grinned down at him. "Don't worry, Craig, I won't tell anyone you were forced to act like a normal human in tremendous pain."
"Why you --- " it ended in a gasp of pain and a long hiss of agony as his hand flailed, looking for support.
John grabbed it, and held tight as Craig squirmed on the furs. Across the lodge, Sky groaned and panted, as her attendants pushed the recalcitrant fetus, coercing it into inverting.
Then Craig got an idea. Closing his eyes and grasping John's hand tight -- he some of the childbirth pangs into himself! He ended up throwing up from agony, nearly convulsing as the full force full labor pains hit his body.
Sky was retching from the beginning of second-stage labor, but as soon as she was able, she called out, "Stop! I need to feel them, to help me know when to push!"
A long moment of hesitation, then Craig moaned and gave some back to her. Just enough to let her know when to push. Not enough for her to suffer. Craig seemed determined to do all the suffering!
Sky ducked her head and bore down with the next contraction-- then glanced toward her alter in surprise. "You're still taking most of it!"
Craig didn't answer, he didn't even open his eyes. But a smile was on his sweaty face despite his body shuddering with unimaginable agony.
*If all men could feel the birth pangs, the people would die out in one generation!* Cedar declared with a frown and a small chuckle. *Otter, there's a tea on the fire. Give him six sips of it.*
John nodded and did so. Craig shuddered and refused it after four.
Cedar started to force the issue, but Sky made a guttural sound and drew her attention back. Willow chuckled. *Good! Now he's turned! I believe this one is as stubborn as Blue Jay!*
Craig let out a sigh of relief....then his body tightened involuntarily as Sky bore down.
The process of birth went smoothly after that, though it was Craig who cried out, rather than Sky, when Willow sliced through the perineum to prevent the infant's large head from tearing her.
And when it was all over, Craig took the pain of the re-sewing. Then the pale, sweat-soaked man sagged into unconsciousness, his surprisingly selfless act draining him utterly.
Sky leaned on her elbow and looked at him. "Poor man-- to go through all this, and not have the reward at the end...." She lowered herself again, exhausted by the work, even without the pain, and kissed her new son.
John smiled. "He's beautiful."
"He's yours, I suppose, in a strange way," she laughed. "When you get back to your rightful place, you should consider finding a good woman. You make beautiful babies..." Her eyes drifted shut.
"If we get back to our rightful place," John sighed.
"I think you will. But, to do it, I think you'll have to get the courage to push that button again." Willow commented, from where he was washing his hands. He nodded to Craig. "But give him a couple of days to recuperate."
"What just happened here?" John whispered, looking at Craig. "What was that about taking most of it?"
"The pain. He took her pain, through the link."
"What?" John stared wide-eyed at Craig. "but...why?"
Willow shrugged. "I don't know, but the man has guts, I'll grant him that."
"And all I saw was a coward hiding behind rules."
"Well, that's all I saw, too, if it's any comfort. And maybe that's all there was, before he was forced to deal with this. "
"And now.....he's changed."
"Yes, he seems to have."
"For the better."
"Maybe.... we'll see after he wakes up..."
Which happened eight hours later.
Craig got stiffly to his feet and tried to exit the lodge without waking everyone up.
He sat by the river, moaning, sore all over.
A smooth black head broke the surface, then disappeared. Craig peered at the ripples, then jerked backwards as Wolf rose up from the shallows in front of him.
Wolf dispatched the large struggling trout by whacking it briskly against a rock, then tossed it onto the shore beside Craig. "Lunch, stuffed with herbs and wild onions," he grinned.
"I'm surprised... you didn't drown!" He sighed, too weary and in pain to argue.
"Nope, not a possibility for me any more. I can breathe water, now. Thanks to the scientific inquiry of the sky lizards." Wolf cocked his head. "Hmm... you may find that you have similar interests with them."
"What do you mean?" He blinked. "Breathe water? Holy cow!Ē
Wolf laughed. "Yeah, that was my first reaction, too." He pulled himself onto the bank. "Hey, thank you for what you did for Sky."
"What do you mean me and the sky lizards have something in common?"
"Sorry, a cheap shot, I guess...."
"Tell me, Wolf."
"It's just that.... well, Brice, the way you've always operated, I figured you'd have more in common with a bunch of reptilian genius biologists than us Stone-age folks."
He sighed and lowered his head.
"LIke I said, a cheap shot. I'm sorry."
He smiled tightly. "So what's it like...under there?"
Wolf's grin was broad. "It's fantastic! Like.... well, when you swim underwater, but without the pressure knowing you have to surface in a few seconds. I love it.... it's a world within a world."
Brice smiled. "Wow."
"And the hunting's good, even for a one-eyed man."
His head snapped up again. "A one-eyed....!"
"Yeah, one lick on the head too many. Willow says it'll come back eventually, but I'm not holding my breath." He winced. "No pun intended."
He whistled. "You're full of surprises, Wolf."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Wolf grinned. "Hey, while you're up there, mind cleaning that fish?"
He looked at the fish, then sighed. "I...donít know how."
Wolf chuckled. "It's not hard. Just slit the belly with your knife, and pull out the guts."
"What do I do with them?" he asked, reaching for the knife he'd been given.
"Sky's got enough glue made up right now, so just toss em over into the bushes for Brother Coyote."
He nodded and wolf was treated to a surprise --- when not writing, Craig was left-handed!
"I didn't know you were a leftie!"
"Hm?" Then he looked at his hand. "Oh. Yeah."
"Ambidextrous...you write with your right." Wolf nodded towards the fish. "I'm gonna try to catch a few more, for you and Roy and John."
"Thanks." he stood and winced as his muscles protested.
"Go to the sweat lodge, and sit in there a while, that'll loosen you up," Wolf suggested before he submerged once more.
"Like that helps," Craig sighed and moved back toward camp. "What's a sweat lodge?"
"It's a sauna. For religious purification or simply for baking the kinks out," River volunteered, stepping out of a stand of willows where she'd been gathering whips for baskets.
He smiled at her. "Thanks, Miss McCall."
"Don't mention it, but please, call me *River*. I almost forget who Miss McCall is. Follow me, I'll take you to the men's sweat-lodge."
"The blind of body leading the blind of heart," Craig whispered as he fell in step.
"I don't think you're as clueless as you imagine yourself," she said almost as softly.
"I'd lay odds you're wrong."
"Listen, you take a good sweat, then come find me. We need to have a long talk."
"Yes, Miss Mc-- Riv....my god, is that Jennifer DeSoto hanging on that young man's arm?"
"Yes, that's her husband."
"Husb---- But she's only.... barely a teenager!" he gasped, from looking at the girl.
"Yes, that's her husband, Searcher."
"He can't be any older than she! And those women Willow says are his wives..."
"Are women, according to these folk's morals. And they are his wives. They were given to him, at the time of his vision quest, by their father. He wasn't any happier about the idea then, than you are!"
"I have a lot to learn," he sighed, pausing at the entrance to the sweat lodge. "Thank you."
"We all did, when we first arrived here. It's a good life, Craig, if you accept it on this society's terms."
"I'll find you when I'm done, Mi....River."
"I won't be hard to find. Just ask anyone for *River.* They'll point you in the right direction."
"Thank you." And he walked inside.
"Craig!" she called from outside.
"Take your clothes off first, down to your skivvies!"
He came back out, chuckling. He obeyed, laying them in a pile. "Done."
"Ok... Looks like someone's already in there, they'll keep the steam up for you."
"How did you know?" he asked. "You.... you heard the steam, didnít you?"
"Yes, and smelled the hot cedar and sweetgrass. Go ahead, you're moving like you're 92!"
He moved into the lodge --- and cried out from the onslaught of heat.
*Close the flap!* someone called out from the clouds of thick steam.
"I donít understand what you're saying!" he called back, closing the flap.
*Thank you!* the speaker told him, and more water hissed onto the hot rocks.
He groped along the walls, searching for a bench.
A hand reached out and companionably yanked him to the floor, in front of a willow backrest.
*If you keep standing, you'll faint,* the older man told him kindly.
He just looked at the man.
The elder chuckled, realizing Craig didn't understand a word he was saying. He handed him a bone sweat scraper, after demonstrating its use.
Craig smiled and began to use it. "Thank you."
*You're welcome,* the old man told him, assuming that he'd been thanked.
"Craig," he said, holding out his hand.
*Hunts At Night,* the old man looked at Craig's hand a moment, then remembered what he'd seen the strangers doing. He took it and shook.
He nodded. He repeated the words, tangling only once.
He smiled. Then he frowned, remembering the long word John had used earlier. *StoutHeart* he said, touching his chest.
*StoutHeart! A good name, and better than 'Craig.'*
"Hey!" he laughed, accepting the good-natured tease he heard in the voice. "Craig is my name!"
The old man pointed at him and winked. *StoutHeart!*
He nodded. *StoutHeart.*
*Good!* Hunts-at-night leaned forward and renewed the steam. *This heat feels good on old bones, and young ones that have had a hard time. Wonder why you're aching?*
He frowned, then closed his eyes and leaned against the wall
A few moments later, Hunts prodded him again.
He opened his eyes.
He handed him a handful of herbs, and mimed rubbing them over his body.
He smiled and accepted them, doing as was mimed.
When he saw the young man had covered himself with the herbs, the old man took them back, and motioned towards the door. *Now, enough for you. Go out, cool off and wash in the river.*
He frowned again, then pointed to the river.
Hunts nodded emphatically.
He nodded and went o the river, washing off.
Hands grabbed him and yanked him under.
He came up, spluttering and totally shocked. "What the hell----!"
Wolf burst out of the water right beside him, laughing uproariously.
Craig glared at him. "You... you....you!"
"Mighty hunter, fearsome fisherman, supplier of your dinner?" Wolf supplied puckishly, dropping an enormous bass into Craig's arms.
Craig threw it back at him. "Overgrown teenager is more like it!" he teased.
Wolf caught the flipping fish before it regained its freedom. "You should try it sometime, it's fun." He turned and efficiently whacked the fish against a convenient rock.
"What's fun? Fishing?"
"Well , that too-- but I meant acting like an overgrown teenager."
Craig just looked at him. "Why would I want to do that?"
Wolf sighed. "Forget it, man. Hey, did the sweat loosen you up?"
"Some. Still hurts though. I've got a talking date."
"Yeah. So I'll talk to you later?"
"Sure. Come by about sunset and I'll fry these." He swung his hand towards the stringer of fish on the shore.
He nodded. He pulled on his clothing and went to find River.
"Well, you seemed to find your way here easily enough, " she commented with a smile, as her fingers deftly wove a basket.
He chuckled. "How do you do that!"
"Good ears, and a good nose. You don't smell like anyone else in the camp, and your boots sound different than moccasins or bare feet."
He chuckled and sat down. "What did you want to talk about?"
"Oh... whatever's on your mind. Mostly, about why you think you can't open up."
"What?" he gasped.
She stopped in her weaving. "Why, don't you think you can behave in a way that will attract normal human companionship?"
he sighed. "No."
"And why is that?"
"I was ... beaten, River. Repeatedly."
"Oh, no! Oh, Craig, I'm so sorry!" Her hand reached out in his direction.
"See, I was...smart....and that wasn't the way to be at home." He sighed. "So I was beaten for being a show-off, for being normal, for being anything but perfect."
"That's a terrible thing to do to a child," she said very softly, her fingers closing around his.
He sighed. "That's just the way it was. So I closed off. And avoided the beatings at home --- only to get them at school."
"And to grow up to beat up on yourself. You donít have to carry that on, now, you know. You're adult, you make your own decisions now."
"I'm so afraid..."
"Being hurt again."
"Could it possibly hurt worse than what you're already enduring?"
"And what would that be, wise lady?" he snapped, but there was no anger there. Fear only.
"My point exactly," she replied cryptically, gesturing with her little knife. She turned her "sight" towards splitting some of the thicker willow wands. "If you weren't in a lot of pain, now, you wouldn't feel the need to strike out defensively like that."
He sighed. "You're right...but what can I do? This is all I know!"
"Listen, maybe that's why you're here. Because here, m'dear, you know nothing. Just like me, when I came. Craig, these are the most loving, accepting people ever created. The only behaviors they punish are untruthfulness and betrayal-- things that threaten us all. Here, please dare to set aside your fears and act as you want."
"But...Gage is here!" he whispered.
"So what? He's going to have to make adjustments, just like you! Besides," she continued. "I think he'd welcome seeing the real Craig Brice for a change."
"I'll...think about it."
"Think hard about it."
He nodded. "I will."
Craig grunted in discomfort and sat up. He was feverish, and his chest ached maddeningly.
John sat up. "Craig? What's wrong?" He touched him and hissed. "Roy, wake up!"
Roy sat up and rubbed his eyes. "What's wrong?"
"Craig's burning up!"
"Chest aches, too," he mumbled.
Across the lodge, Sky groaned. Wolf sat up and bent over his wife. He touched her forehead. "You're hot. Are you freshening?"
She nodded with a smile. "I am."
He kissed her. "You always feed our babies so well." He slid out of the furs and wet some soft hide in the water she'd left heating by the fire. He wrung out the excess and laid it over her chest. "Want the baby yet?"
"Not yet. Give me another few minutes."
"I cant figure it out!" John hissed to Roy. "He was fine when we went to bed!"
Wolf looked across the large lodge. "Anything wrong?"
John met his alter's eyes. "Craig's running a fever!"
Wordlessly, Wolf wet more doeskin and brought it across the lodge. His lip quivered in the effort to suppress his grin. "Your milk's coming in-- and better you than me, m'friend."
"What?" all three displaced men cried in unison.
He arranged the comforting compress over Craig's chest. "The link. Sky's milk's coming in this morning. She gives as much as a Jersey, but she always runs a fever and aches like crazy for a couple of hours."
John just stared. "But .... he has no lactose glands!"
"Oh, but he does," Roy corrected. "Testosterone keeps them turned off, but give a man enough prolactin and he'd be able to nurse a child."
John stared at Craig wide-eyed.
Craig sat up and pushed aside the hot deerskin, as comforting as it felt. "This is ridiculous!! I refuse to grow breasts!" His protest ended with a yelp from a sudden pain that transmitted through the link. He peered through to dimness to the reclining figure on the other side of the lodge. "Good heavens, does everything about childbirth and rearing hurt?!" Sky grinned at him, knowing he'd felt the new baby latch on and demand his milk.
John pushed him back down and replaced the hot deerskin. "You need this."
"Oh for crying out loud!" he grumbled, but complied.
"You'll start feeling better, right about...." The relief was evident in Sky's voice as well, as her milk let down and began to flow. "Now."
John smiled as Craig's whole body sagged in relief. "Feel better?"
"Yes!" He then rose onto his elbow and glanced over at Sky again. "That's an incredible sensation!"
"Yes, it is." She smiled. "There's nothing quite like it."
"And disconcerting as hell, from here," he laughed, then lay back on the furs and closed his eyes. "Ok, whatever I'm supposed to learn here, can I please just skip to the test and get it over with?" he requested of deity.
John chuckled and lay beside his friend. Roy had already dropped back off to sleep. "What makes you think it's a test?"
"I don't know-- it's just that it's all such an improbable, impossible situation. I can't bring myself to think that it's happening by random chance."
"I don't know about you but I've got no sleep in me. Wanna go for a walk?"
"Sure." Craig rose a bit gingerly from the furs. He was sore in places he'd never even thought about having, before.
They walked in silence, then John whispered. "What does it feel like?"
"What does what feel like?"
Craig snorted a laugh. "I lived it, and you can't even say it!" He reached out and whapped Johnny on the shoulder, then leaned against a tree. "Weirdest sensation I've ever had in my life. When I woke up, I was feverish and achy. My chest felt like it was swollen to twice its size. When she started to nurse-- my gosh, I can almost believe that baby has teeth! But then, there was this weird tingling...." He turned to face Johnny, his face flushed but serious. "I could feel the milk flowing out.... feel that baby nursing. It was... one of the most incredible sensations I've ever had in my life."
John smiled. "It sounds absolutely beautiful."
"It is.... if I ever marry...." then he shook his head and laughed. "If I ever marry, I hope it's my wife that experiences the joys of breastfeeding!"
John laughed with him, then wiped his eyes. "I agree with you there, buddy!"
"I want to go back, John. I don't belong here, and I don't think I ever would. I like electricity and flush toilets, even with all the negatives that go along with having them."
"I like it here....but it's not my world. I'm too lazy to chop wood and he's a damn better father than I ever will be. I'm ready to go too."
"Wonder if Roy would be agreeable to pushing the button again?"
"Letís go wake him." He blinked. "Wow...just noticed...you're out of your shell!"
Craig blinked, then laughed softly. "And nothing's swooped down to eat me, after all."
"And you're not a bad guy."
"Thank you. "
John lay a hand on his shoulder. "Matter of fact....I'd be glad to be your friend."
Craig laid a hand on John's arm. "Thank you," he said again, very softly. "That means more than I can tell you."
He smiled. "Let's go wake the bear."
"Now, we'll probably both get eaten!" Craig chuckled, picturing a grouchy Roy Desoto rising from the furs.
John laughed. "Let's go."
"You wake the bear--" Craig waffled, as they paused in front of the lodge in the predawn quietness.
John knelt down. "Hey, Roy?"
Roy's reddened blue eyes reluctantly slid open. "What now?"
"We need to talk. Now."
With a rumbling grumble that sounded remarkably like his alter, Desoto dragged himself from under the warmth of the furs and out into the grey light of predawn.
"We want to go."
"Well, heck, go.. you know where. Do you require an audience?"
"No, Gourdhead!" John laughed. "GO! Push the button time!"
"Oh...." Roy yawned, and ducked back inside. He re-emerged with the alien device cradled gingerly in his hand. "Let's go outside the camp before we try this."
They nodded and trekked out there.
"Hang onto each other." Roy cradled the object in his palm, and with more than a little trepidation-- depressed the large, glowing button.
A second later, they were gone.
The nothingness resolved into a broad green lawn and massive oak trees. A century old white farm house with broad porches sat behind them, and beyond a field, traffic hummed on a two-lane highway. "Well, at least you'll have indoor plumbing here," Johnny quipped, turning around and around to survey the scene.
"It's pretty!" Roy said. "It looks like we're in the Midwest."
"Possibly," Craig agreed. "I suppose the thing to do would be to go knock on the door and find out who we are, here."
Roy smiled. "I'll do it. You two need to rest."
"Sounds good to me..." Johnny dropped onto the velvet grass under one of the trees and fell almost instantly asleep. Brice joined him against the trunk.
Roy knocked on the door, smartly. He was smiling.
He bounced on the balls of his feet as he heard a woman's voice sing out, "Coming!"
The door lock rattled, and the panel swung open. A dark haired woman stared, going pale with shock. "R..R...oy?!"
"Yes....you have me at a disadvantage, Miss...uhm...."
"Roy, Pally, it's me.... Johnny..." she said softly.
He gasped and took a step backward. "Junior?" he gasped so loud he woke the sleepers.
They came hurrying towards the porch as she nodded, oblivious to anyone but Roy. "Now you understand why I had to leave-- why I couldn't contact you personally before."
"Roy, this isn't some kind of drag...." she winced at the word. "I'm really female, now. Right down to the chromosomes."
Roy's head snapped around -- to Johnny, who was walking forward, jaw dropped and eyes huge.
Julie's eyes went wide, as well, as she watched him step up onto the porch. She turned into the house, shrieked "JIM!! JIM!!!"
"Ma'am...I assure you," Craig said rapidly, "It is not what you think..."
"Oh, I'm certain neither of us know quite what to think, right now....." drawled a male voice, as Jim stepped into view behind Julie and caught sight of their inexplicable visitors.
Craig gasped and took a step backward.
He tucked the pistol he held back into a holster slung from his shoulder. "Come on in, this is something I want to hear."
They walked in and looked around, whistling.
"Roy, I can understand... but Johnny... and Craig..." Jim scratched his heavy beard in bewilderment.
"Good night!" Craig gasped. "What have you done to yourself?"
"I've finally decided to be myself, Craig-- a course of action I highly recommend for you!" Jim slipped the holster from his shoulder and laid it back in the small compartment under the stairs.
"Armed?" Craig gasped.
"Just in case... a family friend decides to drop in. You understand?"
He shook his head, eyes huge.
"Ah, well, maybe you don't. It's obvious we arenít the same people, despite appearances. We couldn't exist at the same time in the same place... according to current physics, anyway. It's early, have you all eaten?"
They shook their heads, and John's stomach growled noisily.
Julie giggled and patted his shoulder. "If it's any comfort, I still have a hollow leg, myself. Come on into the kitchen, I'll fix some breakfast. The coffee's already brewed."
John followed her. "Lovely place."
"Thank you, we think so too. It's an old family farm. We're the first non-family members to own it since Ohio was signed into statehood."
'Ohio...we're in Ohio?"
She paused from her cracking of eggs. "You don't know where we are?"
He shook his head.
Jim put a mug of strong black coffee into his hands and steered him towards the table. "Sit. This story I want to hear from the beginning."
Between the three of them, they told it.
Jim crumbled a hot biscuit, then meditatively drizzled honey over it. "You're leaping between time lines."
"So it would seem," Craig said.
"Time lines?" Roy parroted blankly. "Yeah, what does that mean?" Johnny seconded, around a bite of eggs.
They explained about how even if one thing was changed, life would have turned out differently. "Like if you were diabetic," Craig said gently to John.
"This line must have diverged somewhere back before my-- our--- birth, Craig, " Jim mused, as he ate his honeyed biscuit. "Apparently, our backgrounds are quite divergent. Tell me about your parents."
"Tom and Lauren Brice. Salt of the Earth. Good pe--" Then he sighed. "No, that's the lie." He told of his abusive past.
"I'm sorry that you had to endure that. My parents weren't abusive.... but...." Jim gave a brief account of his background. "Craig Brice was an alias, for me. Taken from a distant ancestor."
Craig whistled. "Mercy day!"
"Exactly, so now you know the reason for the pistol." He turned to Johnny. "Ok, now, have you and Julie had a chance to compare notes?"
John shook his head, grinning. "Been too fascinated by this!"
Julie smiled. "Well, I can top it. You see, I wasn't born Julie Gage.... I was... well, transformed from John Gage to Julie."
"Until a year ago, roughly, I was John Roderick Gage. A firefighter/paramedic with the Los Angeles County FD-- and my partner was Roy Desoto. Until, you got laid up with a broken leg, Roy, and I got partnered with Craig Brice."
Julie went on to tell about the transformation, and their flight from Carson. "We wound up here, I wanted to settle in Ohio-- despite Jim's protests--" she grinned fondly at him. Then, the smile faded. "I've been writing Roy all along, but even since we've had a settled address, he's not tried to contact me." She sighed. "I wish we could get this settled between us."
"And you thought I was him," Roy nodded.
"Yes, I thought he--" she stopped, blinking.
Jim's arm went around her shoulder. "He still might, someday, love. You've been writing to Jo. She'll convince him, I'm sure of it."
"Want me to call him?" Roy asked.
"Would you? It might help!"
He picked up the phone and dialed long distance.
"H'llo?" a sleepy voice answered. California time, it was very early in the morning.
"Wake up," Roy said with a grin.
"Who's this?" his voice demanded.
"Who does it sound like?"
"Look, it's too early for games."
"No game, Roy."
"WHO is this?" his alter demanded. "Tell me or I'm hanging up and upluggin' the phone."
"I'm Roy DeSoto. I'm you."
"Very funny." Click.
He dialed again.
"Okay. Have it your way. I think the way you've treated John and Craig is repugnant."
"What they're doing is repugnant. I know that flies in the face of "social correctness," but I've never pretended to be fashionable."
"Even if one is female?"
"Wearing a dress doesn't make a man female anymore than hanging a horse-collar around my neck would make me the old grey mare."
"I've examined her. She is fully female."
"I never knew Johnny had the bucks for that kind of surgery. He was always mooching lunch money off me or one of the other guys. His ship must have come in... or he was holding out."
"They ran because of the transformation."
"She was female before they ran."
"Listen. It's..." there was the soft rasp of metal against wood, and the soft chime of a tilted alarm clock. "4:45 am. My brain's workin' about half-speed here--- obviously, since I should have yanked the cord out of the wall after I hung up on you the first time. Humor me, go slow and start at the beginning.
He told the story in a condensed version.
A long silence came from the other end. "I really want to believe what you're telling me is true... but...."
"It's.... so.... impossible."
Roy motioned for Julie. "Say that again, Roy?" he asked, putting the phone to her ear.
"I want to believe that what you're telling me is true. But it's so impossible. Like something out of a twilight zone episode."
"That's what you said when we found that haunted house, Pally," Julie said with a small smile.
Roy smiled at Jim. "Maybe she can get through to him."
"Used t'be, yeah."
Lying in bed, Roy clutched the receiver with a slick palm. He felt his hands begin to shake. "Look, Junior... if there was one thing everyone agreed on about you , it's that you were as honest as they come. Please, tell me the truth. What happened to you?"
She took a deep breath...and told the story again.
"I'm sorry..." he said in a soft, thick whisper when she finished.
"I am too.....we didn't have a choice..."
"I can understand how you didn't think you did. Johnny, I'm sorry I wasn't there for you... and havenít been, since."
She began to cry. "Itís Julie."
"Joh...Julie. Can you forgive me?"
"You're too late." She smiled. "I already have."
"Thank you.... " he whispered. "I... I want to see you, J..Julie.. to get things straight, face to face...."
"I live in Ohio."
"I have some off time coming up. Could Jo and I... come out and see you?"
Julie sniffled. "Roy...I thought you'd hate me..
"No, I never did... I just... couldn't accept the life I thought you were living. But I never hated you. I never could hate you."
"No....no we are not living that life...we never were!"
"I understand that, now."
"Me too. Listen, we have some vacation time coming up next month. I'd love to come out and see you, if that'll work for you..."
"Yes! Yes that will work great!"
"Ok, great. I'll let you know as soon as the dates are sure-- probably sometime next week."
"My phone number is..." she recited it. "Got it?"
Roy read it back.
"Great! I love you, Roy.....brother."
"I love you too, Julie... sister." Roy's smile was audible.
"Call...call me after shift?""
"Sure. I'll do that."
"I'll be home at ...." She frowned, doing calculation. "Jim, what's 7 AM California time translate to?"
"We're four hours ahead," he prompted.
"I'll be home at noon your time."
"Ok, I'll call you then."
"Later, Junior," Roy chuckled.
She hung up and smiled at Jim, tears falling. "He's coming!"
"Oh, love, that's fantastic!" he took her into his arms.
John hit Craig's arm and motioned toward the door with his head, hoping to sneak out.
Craig gave a small nod, and slipped out. Roy followed.
"Push it, Roy," John whispered.
Roy nodded and pushed the button once more.
They found themselves in the DeSoto's house again.
"Oh, please, let me be home!" Roy breathed, turning to look around at the familiar surroundings.
It looked like his house....his young daughter was playing in the living room.....Chris was nowhere to be seen, as the clock read 2 -- and the travelers were once more invisible, immaterial.
"Jenny!" Roy called joyfully, stepping towards his daughter.
She didn't respond other than to shiver as his hand went through her.
"Oh, no.... she can't hear or see me," he groaned, dropping onto the sofa, his face dark with despair.
John and Craig each hugged him.
"Thanks." He sighed, and stood up. "Well, let's wander around and see what's going on in this world."
Joanne was in the kitchen, singing softly.
Kel Brackett stepped into the house through the back door. He was in a t-shirt and jeans, and grass clippings clung to him. He slid his arms around Jo and kissed the back of her neck.
She shivered. "Mmmm......that's nice! You smell like spring!"
"Why, thank you, love!" he laughed. "I was afraid I only smelled like sweat. That rain really made the grass jump up."
"If Jenny wasn't up, I'd help you shower..." she said smiling sensuously.
"Mmm.... well, she does go to bed at 8:30," he chuckled throatily.
"Mmmm can't wait..."
"Me either...." then he broke away with a sigh. "But right now, the shrubs are calling me. Do you still have any iced tea in the fridge?"
"Always. We going over to John's later?"
"Sure. Hey, think we might talk him and Joy into letting the kids sleep over?" he wiggled his eyebrows.
She chuckled. "I think we can do that, Mister Brackett!" She kissed him again. "Oh, the paperwork cleared today. You can start adoption proceedings for Jen later this month."
"The papers for Chris haven't come yet?"
"Chris refuses them. He wants to hold onto DeSoto."
"I can understand that. At least he accepts me now."
Roy looked at his fellow eavesdroppers in anguish. "What's going on here? Am I dead in this world?"
"I don't...know..." Jon whispered.
A quick rap on the back door interrupted the parallel discussions. "Hey! It's me!" a female voice called brightly.
"Come on in, Joy!" Joanne laughed.
Craig elbowed John. "Get ready to meet your wife!"
"What?" John asked.
"Dr. Brackett said, 'Joy and John'. I assume you're the John in question..."
"I guess so..."
A woman no one had seen before walked in. "Mmm smells good!"
"I know... she' won't let me taste test it, though. I guess we'll both have to wait till tonight," Kel grinned. "What's Johnny up to, today?"
"Same as always, six foot one."
"Very funny," he grimaced. "Being female hasn't improved your delivery." All three looked at each other, and broke out with a chorused, laughing "Chili today, hot tamale!"
John and Craig's eyes snapped to Roy.
Roy was an interesting shade of putty grey. "Oh, no, please, no. Not that!"
Joanne hugged her softly. "So...how is motherhood treating you?"
"Not very well," Joy's face twisted. "Who ever called this morning sickness was an optimist."
"Poor baby...Kel, can you help her out?"
"Time's the safest prescription. I think you only have a week or so until you enter your fourth month, right?"
"Right," John said as he entered the house. "And she's supposed to be resting, not being over here. *What did I tell you about sneaking out?*"
Jenny came running into the kitchen, then, and stopped so suddenly, she skidded on the tile. "Daddy!" she shrieked, pointing at an empty spot with a mixture of fear and joy on her face.
They froze. Roy knelt down. "Yes, sugar...it's me."
Her eyes wide, she crept closer, and stretched out her hand. "Daddy! You're not dead!"
"Joanne..." Joy whimpered.
"No, sugar, I'm not dead." Roy smiled and closed his fingers over the girl's.
"Jenny, Jenny, sweetheart, your daddy's not here," Joanne said softly, taking the child into her arms.
"Jenny.....Aunt J-Joy...love her like you love me, okay?" Roy stood up.
"Daddy! Don't go!" Jenny wailed, tears spilling down her cheeks as she struggled in her mother's arms.
Roy chewed his lip before saying "I have to, baby...I just came back to tell you I love you."
"I love you too, Daddy, and I miss you!" she sobbed.
"I miss you too baby girl! If it helps....Joy is a lot like me. Look at her and see me if it helps."
"I will, Daddy. I love Aunt Joy, too. Daddy..."
"Will you come back again sometime?"
"I don't know, baby. I'll try. But if I never do, please remember I love you."
"I love you too, Daddy, forever and ever--" and she brought her hand to her mouth and blew him a kiss.
He leaned down and kissed her gently. "Bye bye, Jenny." And he concentrated on not being here.
He knew he had 'faded out' when Jenny began to cry.
Behind him, Craig evoked deity softly, and pushed the button.
"WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED TO YOU THREE?" Chet yelped, smacking the device out of Craig's hand as if it were a venomous creature.
John grabbed it back. "Look!" He showed them. "Coordinates...and labels! We can go back if we want to!"
Craig scrambled to his feet, "No way!" he blurted.
"What?" the firemen gasped.
Craig's eyes were wide, as he ignored the shocked crewmen and focused on his fellow time-skippers. "You two do what you want, but I'm happy to stay here for the rest of my life!"
"The only place I'd want to go back to is the Indian one," John said.
"I've had enough of being a hit-man, a ghost, and a woman!"
John smiled. "Let's go back to the Indian one -- occasionally."
Roy eyed the device suspiciously. "Not me, Junior. What if the batteries go dead or something? I'm with Craig. I like THIS timeline best, thank you."
"All right." He held it out. Craig, would you do the honors then?"
Craig jerked his hands back. "Oh no, I'm not touching that thing. Heck, what if she's going to have another kid or something? I don't ever want to go through anything like that again!"
John laughed. "Roy?" he held it to Roy.
"Junior... I think the best place for that thing is the bottom of the Pacific! Just thinking about Jenny..." He swallowed hard.
He nodded and pocketed it. "Then that's where we'll put it. Come on."
"Johnny, just be very sure you don't push the button by mistake!" Craig cautioned him, as he followed at a prudent distance.
"I won't! I'm not gonna sit down!" he laughed. John lay the button on the dash of the Rover. "Hop in, Craig," he said to the stunned surprise of the firemen. "Roy, we'll meet you there!"
"We're still on duty!" Roy blurted.
"We...are?" John froze and looked at Craig. "We are?"
"Yes, according to the clock, and the reactions of the rest of the crew, we've only been gone about five minutes, their time!
Slowly John got out of the Rover. "On...duty...wow."
"Apparently, we "disappeared," then reappeared almost before they had time to recover from the shock..."
John shook. "We're still on duty," he looked at Craig.
"Yes," he said with heavy emphasis, and opened John's car door. "I suggest we go back inside and at least try to behave normally."
"Okay...." He left the button on the dash.
"Think that's safe out here?" Roy asked uneasily
"Think it's safe in the station?" John asked.
"Well, now that you mention it.... " He glanced back at the Rover. "Lock the doors, anyway."
Without really thinking about it, John flipped the keys to Craig. "You do it... we'll meet you inside. You got anything planned for today?"
"Wanna hang around?" John didn't notice the firemen's jaws slam wide open at that question.
Craig, however, did. He drew a deep breath. "No, but... when you get off duty, come by."
"What's the address?"
Craig rattled it off.
John smiled. "Got it. See you in 12 hours." He hugged Craig in a brotherly manner.
Craig flushed, but didn't pull away. He hurried to his car and left for home. He needed some time to decompress and mull over the weird events of the last... what? Minutes? Days? He had a feeling there were no terms for the temporal adventures they'd had.
John and Roy went back to work, deflecting the questions.
Cap, however, was not to be deterred. Three men had vanished and reappeared before his eyes. That was something he had to find out about.
Finally he called John and Roy into his office. "You wanted to see us, Cap?" John asked.
"Yes, shut the door and sit down."
Roy shut the door and they both sat down
"Now, I want a straight answer about what happened to you three today."
"It's not important, it's over."
"You disappeared into thin air for over five minutes, while you were on duty no less. I deem that important!"
"Actually...we were gone for a lot longer." John smiled.
"Okaaaay... Tell me about it." Cap leaned back and obviously made himself comfortable.
They told him. Everything. It took over two hours.
It would have taken longer, but the klaxons interrupted. the fire was a bad one. Fortunately, there were only two wounded, and they were minor.
Cap, apparently, had heard enough. He was silent, all the way back from the fire. The first chance he had to speak to his paramedics alone, again, he asked softly. "Are you going to use that thing again?"
"Nope," John said, with a grin. "Though I would like to revisit the Indians."
"I'd suggest destroying the thing. Who knows where you may get stranded if it's accidentally triggered!"
"That's what we're going to do the minute we go off-duty."
Cap rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "How?"
"Throw it into the ocean."
"Good idea. Do it far enough offshore it won't wash back in."
John looked at Roy. "You think Craig can get his hands on a boat?"
"Who knows, call him."
"Can I use your phone, Cap?"
"Be my guest."
John dialed a number he found in the rolodex. "Hey, Craig, it's me."
"Hello, John. Is something wrong?"
"We were wondering if you could get your hands on a boat. Cap suggested we dump the Button far enough offshore so it won't wash back in."
"Excellent idea. I have a friend that has a boat we can use."
"Yeah?" John's grin was audible. "Great! We're off in ..." He looked toward Roy who held up eight fingers "Eight hours." He whistled. "Shoot, it's nearly lights out!"
"Have a quiet night. I'll contact my friend and call you in the morning at shift change."
"All right, we'll wait here for your call. And see you shortly after. Night, *StoutHeart*."
*Sleep well, Otter,* he shot back without a second's hesitation.
John smiled and hung up the phone. "He'll call us right after shift change."
"Good. It won't be soon enough for me." Roy looked uneasily towards the Rover. "That thing gives me the creeps!"
"Me too," John smiled.
When they re-entered the station, it was to meet the curious gazes of their crewmates. "Well?" Mike demanded.
"Well, soon as shift changes, Craig's gonna call and we're gonna rent a boat," John said. "We're going to destroy that thing."
"Sounds like the best plan." "Now, how come you two and Brice are so tight, all of a sudden?"
John just looked at Chet. "Excuse me?"
"I was wonderin', what happened to make you two so chummy with Mr. Tight-ass all of a sudden?"
John suddenly picked Chet up and slammed him into the side of the engine. "You watch your mouth, Kelley!" he snapped. "You don't know a thing about what makes him tick, so don't you dare go makin' assumptions!"
"Gage!" Hank barked. "Cool it, now!"
John stepped back, hands raised. "I'm sorry, Cap, it's just..." he ran his hands through his hair. "Hell, if we'd been through half of what he's been through...any one of usíd be like that too, if we weren't driven totally insane!"
"Geez, I'm sorry, Gage," Chet huffed, clearly not sorry. He shook his uniform back into place, and decided it was best to vacate the room.
John moved to follow, but Roy grabbed his arm. *Roy, I'm not gonna slam him around again -- I just wanna try to make him understand!*
Mike's eyes widened and he took a step backward at the unfamiliar tongue.
*Don't waste your breath,* Roy shot back dryly. Mike's eyes went even wider.
John sighed and gave Roy a quick, brotherly hug before he disentangled himself. *I have to at least try.* And he went after Chet.
"What language is that?" Mike asked softly.
Roy didn't turn around. "Cheyenne."
"You were gone long enough to learn the language?"
Roy nodded, still not turning around. "It was either learn it or be left out of...everything. So we immersed ourselves and learned it quickly."
"I don't want to get my teeth knocked out, too, but I was wondering myself. What defrosted Brice?"
Roy turned and smiled slightly. "Us. We quit looking at him as Iceman and started treating him as a human being. When we landed in Cheyenne World, he found himself.... surrounded...by caring. That thawed him FAST."
"Looks like he found he liked human contact," Mike commented softly, beginning to polish the engine.
Roy picked up a rag. "More like he needed it and was too scared to admit it even to himself."
"His father beat him?"
"And his mother," Roy said softly. "And withheld all emotional contact if he wasn't totally perfect."
Mike shook his head. "It's a wonder he's not roaming the country killing red-haired women, or something."
"John and I -- when we've been able to -- are helping him deal with his past. We're... well, we're showing him what being a family is supposed to be like. I guess by now we're....three brothers."
"That's good. He couldn't have gone much longer without snapping, I think." Mike turned his full attention to a smear on the paint.
"Okay, spill it."
"How come you're so interested. How come you know we got to him in time."
Mike shrugged. "I see things. People tend to forget I exist." He grinned. "One of the perks of being quiet."
Roy grinned and put the rag down after polishing the Crown's mirrors. "I'm gonna go see if my hotheaded *little brother* has killed Kelley yet."
"No such luck," Mike grinned.
"Yeah? And how would you know that?" he grinned.
Mike just smiled, and went back to his wax job.
"Someday I'll figure you out, Michael Stoker," Roy laughed.
Mike shook his head. Not if he could help it!
John walked into the dorm. "Look, man...I'm sorry."
Chet glared at him.
"I shouldn't have slapped you around like that. I just got mad."
Chet gave him a long look, then grumbled. "Guess I had it coming, just on general principle."
John chuckled and sat down. "Yeah....but still." He sighed. "So what's been up with you?"
"From fifteen minutes ago? Not much, other than getting my teeth rattled."
"Fifteen..." He sighed and closed his eyes as he leaned against the wall. "Chet....for us, it's been at least two months."
"Two months?" Chet goggled, then curiosity lit his blue eyes. "Tell me about it!"
"Not much to tell. Bounced through dimensions."
"Oh, yeah, right Gage. Like that's a part of everyone's boring weekend at home. Spill, man!"
"Well.....at first it was cool, seeing other versions of ourselves."
"Like what? Did you ever manage to get a chick?" Chet couldn't resist the jibe.
"Three different ones that I saw, matter of fact."
"Oh? What were they like?"
"One was blonde, small, sweet. Another was blonde and feisty, but just as sweet."
"Always figured you'd go for the brunettes," Chet grinned, getting into the conversation. "With women like that, why'd ya even want to come back?"
His face fell. "......cause this is my home."
Chet sobered. "You don't look real happy about the choice, m'friend."
"I wanted to stay in Cheyenne World. But this is where my *brothers* belong, so here we came."
Chet examined his nails casually. "You know, you said that thingy had labels and coordinates on it now. You don't have to take Roy and Brice with you."
"I can't leave them."
"They wouldn't have to know. Look, you said you all were gone at least two months-- while you were gone less than five minutes, here. You could go back and live most of your life in Cheyenne world... on your off days! They'd never miss ya!"
He stood up. "I am not going to leave them! Either we all go or no one goes!"
"Hey, hey, hey, simmer down! It was just a thought, that's all!" Chet raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Still, if I had some doe-eyed Indian maiden waiting for me..."
"She's not Indian," he said in a whisper. "She's white."
"Whatever keeps you warm at night. Listen, if I had any woman waitin' on me, I'd jump at the chance to be with her. What have you got to go home to, here?"
He suddenly smiled at Chet. "Two brothers who love me."
"It's your life, man," Chet shrugged. "Not what I'd do, but heck, different strokes..."
"Besides, she's not my wife. She's my doppelgangerís."
Chet's grin returned. "So, you didn't get the chick, after all."
"My Other did."
"Your Other? What do you mean by that?"
He blew his cheeks out, then tried to explain. "Every dimension, we met...us. Another John Gage, another Roy DeSoto, another Craig Brice. And my Other -- the other John Gage -- was the one who got the women."
"Wonder what the differences were? Why they were Others, instead of you just steppin' into their shoes. I mean, they were you, right?"
"Mostly." He sighed. "One was diabetic. One was ..." He broke off, his lips twitching. No way Chet would understand about Julie!
"Was what?" Chet pressed, sensing something juicy.
"......married to a man." He grinned. Let Chet chew on that!
"Gross! I can see why you didn't want to go back to that world. Yeech. Never thought you had that streak in ya, Gage."
John looked at him and laughed. "And they were as straight as you are, Chester B!" With that he stood to go.
Chet just watched him leave, his mouth hanging a bit. Then, he remembered that extra key to the Rover, he'd made surreptitiously, a few months previously. *Oh, Chester B, the places you'll go!*
He grinned at Roy. *He's curious.* He stretched. *Nearly Sleep Time.*
John smiled and slid into his bed. "Tomorrow," he told his station-mates. "The button goes tomorrow."
"And not a moment too soon, to suit me!" Roy mumbled, and wadded his pillow contentedly. Buffalo robes were fine, but he still preferred innersprings and feather pillows.
John smiled and lay his right arm over his eyes.
Chet waited till the familiar sounds of sleep filled the dorm. He knew each man's sleeping noises by heart. He slipped out and headed for the lot, a contraband key hot in his hand.
He eased the door open that led from the dayroom to the parking lot, closed it silently, then made a bee-line for the Rover, glowing blue-white under the streetlights.
The Button was visible on the dash. Innocuous.
He turned the key in the lock. The door-lock button popped up noisily, and the Rover's driver's door creaked open.
It seemed to call him like a beacon.
He reached out, closed his fingers around the curious object. It seemed to vibrate in his hand with an almost living resonance. It was cooler than it should be, in the heat of the night.
There they were. Co-ordinates. Labels.
"But these are all Gage worlds..." he mumbled, examining the device. "Wonder what's happening in the Kelly dimension?" He gave the knurled rings around the central buttons a few random twists.
The button flared to life.
He bobbled in surprise, nearly dropping the device, then recovered. The instrument warmed, and seemed to almost purr in his palm. With a tentative index finger, he stroked the satiny surface of the button and...
With a whoosh and a slight POP! the Rover was empty.
Chet immediately rethought the wisdom of his actions, when he saw himself surrounded by a ring of horses and knights in full armor, lances all pointed at him.
"Hello, sirs," he said softly, and he hoped, harmlessly.
"Hey, anyone seen Chet?" John asked as he came out of the dorm.
"He was here last night," Marco commented, and reached out and touched his friend's bunk. "The bed's cold."
John's eyes snapped to Roy. *He was awful curious about the button...*
Roy snarled a very nasty word in Cheyenne, something he'd picked up from Cougar. "That button! I wish we'd never seen that cursed thing!" He barreled out to the parking lot.
The Rover's door was wide open. The dash was empty. John cursed in Cheyenne, pounding the hood.
"And there's no way to know where he went, or IF he'll find his way back." Roy grimaced. "Knowing Chet, he'll probably break the damned thing, or lose it."
"Well....at least we donít need that boat." He sighed. "I'll call Craig."
"Then, I guess we'll wait around here, to see if Chet shows back up?"
"Why should we?" John asked. "He won't come back."
"How do you know that? We came back in less than five minutes-- and we don't know how long he's been gone."
He looked at Roy. "Trust me. He was all hot to get out of here."
"Curious as heck. Wanted to see what women were out there."
"Oh for Peteís sake!" Roy rolled his eyes. "Well, where ever he is, I hope he's got a darned harem, the little idiot!"
John grinned. "Serve him right!"
At that moment, Johnny was knocked backwards by the force of suddenly displaced air. Air displaced by a very dirty, disheveled, wild-eyed Chester B. Kelly.
"Well, look who's back!" John chuckled.
"Take it! Take it!" Chet shoved the gizmo at Johnny. "I never want to see that place again as long as I live!"
"Where'd you go?" John asked.
"I was an Irish patriot-- which means I was considered a criminal and lower than a snail! I spent the whole time trying to keep from getting hanged... or worse!"
John blinked...then laughed. "Guess now you know, huh?"
"Yeah. So much for the romantic tales m'granny told us. Sheesh, those guys had to live like animals!"
"Yeah?" Now John was intrigued.
"Yeah." Kelly ran his fingers through his shoulder-length, matted curls. "Brother, forgive me for ever raggin' you about being Native. Heck, I should have realized that the Indians and the Irish were both races that had been run nearly off the face of the earth."
"Yeah. You should have..." His eyes widened and he lifted Chet's hair. "Uuuh....how long were you there?"
"Two freakin' years, man!"
"oh wow." He looked at Roy. "Longer than we were."
"And in one place! I kept pushing the darn button, and nothing would happen!"
"What?" they gasped.
"Yeah! Every chance I got, I pushed that darned thing, and it'd just go "AAAANNGGGHHHTTT!" He made a harsh, electronic sound.
"What happened? How'd you get home?"
He flushed, then straightened his shoulders and looked them both square in the eyes. "Spent three days fasting and praying on my knees in a cathedral, then, pushed the darn thing one last time. I vowed either I'd go back, or live and die for Eire."
"And you came home."
"Yeah. I came home." He started to shake.
Instantly John and Roy's arms went around him.
He cringed back. "Oh, don't touch me! I stink-- " He flushed again. "And I have fleas and lice."
"Then go shower."
"Gladly!! I've dreamed of hot showers!" and he bolted for the station.
*Wow...he's got one hell of a brogue now...* John whispered.
"And he was right about the fleas," Roy commented wryly, scratching a red welt on his arm. "Hope there wasn't a plague outbreak around that time.
*Let's get antibiotic shots just in case.*
"Yeah, and he'll need them too, and probably need to be wormed, as well." Roy shook his head. "After we dump that infernal button."
"You got it."
Johnny then grinned a bit wickedly, and reentered the station.
"What?" Roy followed, grinning in spite of himself.
Johnny just sailed on past the crew and into the locker room. He leaned up against the counter beside the showers. "Hey, Kelly?"
"You want me to cut your hair? If you've got cooties... showering's not gonna get rid of them."
"Oooh.....yeah. thanks." He reconsidered quickly. "Uh.... maybe you just better get me some de-louser from Rampart."
Roy chuckled. "I'll do it."
"Thanks, Roy... and guys?"
"Yeah?" they chorused.
"Um... if'ye don' mind, I'd like ta go w'ye... ta dump that thing in the sea."
"After we get your living hitchhikers off, yes."
"Absolutely. I got s'used to them, I didn't realize how many boarders I was carryin' around till I got back to civilization."
They told Craig to meet them at Rampart. There, they watched as Dix took care of Chet and his ... horde. John smiled and turned. "Yatahey," he greeted their younger heart's-brother as Craig walked in.
*Ah-koh... what are we doing here?"
"Chet's getting de-loused, and we're getting antibiotic shots."
Craig's eyebrows disappeared beneath blonde hair. "That begs an explanation!"
"Can give it to you in four words. He pushed the Button."
A broad, knowing grin split Craig's face. "Where'd he go?"
"Medieval England, by the sound of it. Brace yourself when you see him --- he's got long hair and is clean-shaven."
"That should be an interesting combination," he chuckled, and made himself comfortable. He didn't have to wait long. A damp, but once again sanitary, Kelly emerged from the hospital's locker room.
Craig saw it and nodded. "You were a fighter, weren't you, Kelly?"
Chet nodded solemnly, his eyes briefly haunted. Then, his elfin nature reasserted itself. "It wasn't all bad, though. For the first time in my life, I was considered a tall man!"
Craig smiled. "I could tell. The three of us lived as warriors in Cheyenne World. It left a permanent bear on our stances. Your experiences have as well."
Kelly knotted his hair at his neck with the automatic movements of long habit. "Let's get rid o' that accursed thing-- then, I'm going to find a barber."
Craig grinned then. "Why? It suits you, I think. Long hair just suits some men better. My *brother* here -- he's one of them." he elbowed John with more affection than Chet had ever seen the man demonstrate!
Chet grinned widely, revealing a chipped front tooth. "I think the Department would frown on the wooly look. You'll see, when this mop dries."
"What happened to your tooth?"
"Close encounter with a shillelagh."
The trio looked at each other, confused. Finally, John asked, "What's a shill--" he went on to give perfect pronunciation.
"A cudgel." He blinked, then added, "A club... a long one."
"Oh Maheoo!" came from three throats as three faces paled. "Are you going to be okay?" Roy finished.
"I better be, it happened near two years ago!"
All three got embarrassed smiles. "Sorry," Craig said. "We forget the time displacement effect."
"What I don't understand," Chet mused in his now thick accent, "Is why I was there two years... and you were only gone two months."
"And we bounced from place to place," Craig said as he led the way to the sedan. "While you stayed in one for the entire two years."
Chet scratched his head, "Well, I did twist the rings a bit, before I pressed the button."
"And we just pressed the button." They nodded suddenly.
"I had the idea I didn't want to go to one of your worlds." He snorted. "I'd rather have been w' the Cheyenne, I think. I'd have had to fight and murder a lot less.
"It was war, Chet," Roy said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "It's not murder in war."
"Aye-- but when y'see the light o' life go outta the eyes of a man y've just planted a battleaxe in..."
Wordlessly, all three hugged their fellow traveler.
He straightened his newly broad shoulders. "Let's get rid of that jumanji before it inflicts on anyone else!"
"Jumanji?" Craig started the car.
"I'd a'thought o' all of us, ye'd have read that book as a bairn."
They all shook their heads.
Chet regaled them, like a true Irish storyteller, all the way to the bay with the tale of the game that sucked its young players into a jungle world of life and death
"There it is," Craig said, pointing and smiling at the now irony that showed itself.
The sloop's name was the "Erin".
Chet blinked, then laughed. "Erin go braugh!"
Craig smiled at them. "And free we'll be indeed," he said, glaring at the button.
"Just don't push the thing by accident! I don't wanna end up where Chet did!" Johnny cautioned as he stepped aboard.
They cast off -- and sailed out almost to the border of Californian waters. *Otter, throw it overboard!* Craig called, the sibilant language coming easily to his lips now.
*Sink forever!* Johnny told the object, and cocked his arm. Just as it left his grasp, his thumb depressed the button unintentionally.
It rained fishes in Ireland that day.
*It's over...* Craig seemed to sag in relief. *Thank Maheoo, it's finally over!*
"I hope so, by all the saints..." Chet leaned on the rail, as if he could see the object sinking into the depths. The breeze tugged his hair loose from the careless knot until it spread around his face like a dark red mane.
*Hold on!* John said, turning to h him. *Say something, Chet!*
"What do y'mean, say what?"
John blinked. *You understood us!* He pointed at him and turned to the blondes. *He understood us and we're speaking Cheyenne!*
Roy nodded. *He's not speaking English either. Gaelic?*
Chet nodded, blue eyes wide. "I d'realize ye could understand what i was sayin', I was talkin' to m'self like."
They also switched to English. "Could our minds have been affected by the Button?" John asked. "I mean....we all went through it.."
"Anything is possible, I suppose... considering." Craig swung his hand towards the ocean.
"Ready to go in?" Craig asked.
"Yes!" chorused from the other three. None of them were exactly comfortable even this close to the resting place of the button.
Craig turned the sloop and they headed for shore as fast as he could sail.
The four were unaware their sloop's anchor had snagged a piece of seaweed as the ship had turned.
They were also unaware that the piece of seaweed had wrapped itself around The Button.
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