Writing

Furry on the Outside by Cashew Lou

Summary: A simple player's fantasy.

Dedication:


My humble thanks to the following players for allowing me to use their characters in this story, listed below alphabetically by character name:

	Bel Inconnu		RF Heynis
	Berios			Jamal Hannah
	BigBlueFox		Karsten Auchter	
	Huskee			Bob Drake
	Jedd			Al Jones
	T'Chall			Dave Wilson
	Woulfe			Chris Tom

Connecting to furry.org...

Connected, waiting for response from FurryMUCK...

"Come on, come on..."

When the issue at hand was logging onto FurryMuck, Cashew Lou's player did not possess patience as a virtue. To save the writer hundreds of keystrokes and countless migraines, we shall from this point forward refer to Lou's player as Marty--for that is his name, and changing it to protect the innocent would truly be an exercise in futility.

Welcome to FurryMUCK...

"Finally!" he exclaimed, blowing the hair out of his eyes for the thousandth time that day. He reached for a hairbrush, checked his watchfor list, and started typing...

Cashew Lou awakened, and in a motion that was more reflex than anything else, reached behind him and snatched his toque from his headboard. From the toque he pulled his Hunter green scarf, and with a flourish, wrapped it around his neck, draping it over his furry white chest. He pulled the snow-white toque firmly onto his head, making sure the bright red Canadian maple leaf faced forward. Sure, he could have cut slits into it to allow his ears to poke through, but that would defeat the purpose of a toque, now wouldn't it? His ears would still be cold!

Anyway...

Now fully attired, Lou swung his legs over the edge of the bed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He slid open a panel on the headboard and pulled out a half-full oilcan of Foster's lager. He took a long swig of the lukewarm, mostly flat beer.

"Breakfast of champions, eh!" he muttered to himself, grinning. He stifled a small belch and placed the distinctive blue can back in the compartment of the headboard. There was still some left-no sense wasting it!

Thus prepared, the shaggy grey wolf padded his way out of the room, to see who was out and about.

His first stop was Jedd's place; this was nearly always Lou's first stop, since Jedd's was directly outside Lou's door. Hmmm, he thought. Nobody here, not even any sleepers.

A similar scenario awaited him at his next stop. He wandered into Annwn, the home of his fellow wolf, Bel Inconnu. Bel was there, but he was fast asleep. This wasn't much of a surprise to Lou; Bel's player was a graduate student who always seemed in a frantic scramble to finish his Master's degree. As a result, Bel was rarely awake. Lou gently scritched Bel between his scarlet-tipped ears and then padded out quietly, leaving his friend's slumber undisturbed.

He quickly stepped through Jedd's again, the hub of Lou's known Furry universe. Much like ancient Rome, most roads led here. Lou breezed through swiftly, momentarily noting the place was still empty. No matter; he was just passing through this time--he had a pretty good idea where the action was. On to the Doghouse!

Marty leaned back from his keyboard for a moment, limbering up his fingers. Entering the Doghouse this time of day--early evening, Furry time--always called for some quick typing. He typed "D" and hit the enter key.

The second he entered, Cashew Lou was inundated by a friendly assault of hugs. He returned the kindness to every fur in the room--in no certain order, Jedd, Huskee, BigBlueFox, Berios and T'Chall were all there.

Muttering under his breath, Lou's player noticed just a little too late that he had typed "hgu T'Chall" instead of "hug T'Chall." He hit enter a split second before he could correct it, and his computer screen admonished him with "Huh? (Type "help" for help.)" Apparently user-friendly in this case meant smart-alecky as well. He chuckled at the irony--he could type T'Chall's name with no problem, but then he'd screw up a simple word like "hug." Ah, well; it had happened a thousand times before, and most certainly would happen again. He shook his head, hair falling into his eyes once again, and typed the command correctly.

"Well, you've got to sort through a lot of rocks before you find a diamond, Jedd."

Huskee's comment made it clear to Lou that he had jumped in on the middle of a conversation already in progress--a fairly common occurrence on Furry. He slowly released his embrace with T'Chall and asked, "So what's the topic of discussion tonight?"

BigBlueFox, well suited to the name in his one hundred foot-tall form, turned to Lou and said, "Jedd has been sorting out artists applying to SCFA."

Berios smiled. "And he's been turning most of them down...."

Jedd hopped over to Berios and poked him.

"Not all of them...I don't set all the standards, you know." Jedd shrugged.

"Well," Lou said, rubbing the back of his neck with his paw, "it's probably easier to recognize those standards when you're a good artist...."

T'Chall nodded in agreement.

"And some of the best artists are in this room."

Jedd ran towards Lou and jumped into his arms, Lou deftly catching him in midair. Jedd gave him a snug as only a pine marten can. "You know," Jedd said, "turning artists away is the hardest thing I have to do sometimes."

Huskee nodded, scratching his belly. "But if you don't, SCFA will become like a lot of the other furry artist networks...."

"How's that?" T'Chall asked.

Huskee sighed and rolled his eyes. "Nothing but stick figures and anime wannabes."

Lou shuddered at the thought. "No, thanks!"

"Besides that, Jedd," Berios said, "were there any promising prospects?"

BigBlueFox began bouncing excitedly. Berios' question to Jedd went unnoticed, unfortunately; a one hundred foot-tall fox (a blue one, yet) bouncing with excitement can tend to distract one's attention. "Hey, Jedd--I almost forgot! Give Lou the thing!"

"Hey, yeah--the thing!" Huskee and T'Chall exclaimed, almost in unison.

"Thing...?" Lou said, blinking. He turned to Berios. "What thing?"

"Don't look at me," Berios shrugged. "First I've heard of it."

Lou looked around the room, scanning the faces of his friends. Huskee, BigBlueFox and T'Chall looked at him with goofy grins. Berios shook his head and shrugged again. Lou looked down at Jedd, still cradled in his arms. "All right, Jedd, let's see 'the thing.'"

Jedd put his paws together and brought them up to his eye level. Even though they were empty, he peeked into his paws as if they concealed something of immeasurable value. He snickered and peeked into them again.

Lou craned his head down for a closer look.

"Hey, now!" Jedd said, playfully closing his paws tightly. He swiveled his head around and his gaze met Huskee's. "Do you think he's ready...?"

"Is anyone ever ready for anything?" was Huskee's cryptic answer. "Give him the thing, Jedd."

All the other furs were now surrounding Lou and Jedd, crowding in a tight circle. All save one, that is; BigBlueFox scooped up the entire group in his paws and placed them on his chest.

Jedd opened his paws. "Ta daaah!"

There was nothing there. Everyone else exhaled, their bodies relaxing at the sight of Jedd's anticlimactic revelation.

"Thanks, Jedd, but I've already got one of those!" Lou chuckled.

Jedd closed his eyes, concentrated for a moment, and produced the thing from thin air! All the furs regarded it in respectful silence.

"Okay, I'll bite..."Lou began.

Jedd errfed and jumped in shock, not wanting to be bitten.

"That is to say," Lou started again, rolling his eyes, "I'll be the one to ask the obvious. What is it?"

Berios picked the thing from Jedd's paw and examined it. "It looks like a marble to me." He returned the thing to Jedd. "No big deal."

Huskee nodded. "It would appear that way, wouldn't it?"

T'Chall picked the thing up and held it right in front of Lou's eyes. "That's exactly what it looks like, isn't it?" he said with a mischievous grin, returning the marble to Jedd.

BigBlueFox's body quaked beneath them as he laughed. "No big deal at all!"

Lou set Jedd down at his feet. He then turned and extended his right paw to Berios. "Glad to meetcha--shall we carpool to the Clueless Anonymous meeting?"

The big polar wolf chuckled, shook Lou's paw, and hugged him.

Jedd held the marble out in his paw. "It's yours if you want it."

Lou regarded the marble, his eyebrows lowered in slight confusion. "So is this marble to imply I have a few missing...?"

Huskee chuckled. "I think I speak for all present by pleading the fifth on that."

Lou shot Huskee a quick glance--although he smiled as he did so. "Okay, fair enough. But seriously, what's with the marble?"

"It's magic, to make a long story short," Jedd replied, and all the other furs--save Berios--nodded at his statement. "Although I'm not so sure you want it." He grinned.

Berios' eyes lit up as if something profound had just dawned on him. "Okay...I think I've heard something about that marble." He nodded, too, then paused and shook his head in negation. "I'm not too sure that you really want it either, Lou."

Being told how much he shouldn't want it of course made him want it all the more. Lou reached down and plucked the marble from Jedd's paw. He held it up to the light, studying the swirling patterns in its interior. "So what kind of magic? What's it do?"

T'Chall mumbled something like, "reality check," and just stood there, smiling.

"What was that?"

"Oh, nothing really, Lou. I think you'll enjoy it."

Huskee and BigBlueFox looked as though they weren't really sure they agreed with this, but they remained silent.

"All right," Jedd said, "it's easy enough to make work. Just grip it firmly in your paw...."

Lou did so.

All the furs staggered to regain their balance when BigBlueFox's body shifted beneath them. "Umm, Jedd, maybe this should be done on the floor, don't you think?"

Jedd rolled his eyes at his own absentmindedness. "Of course! Thanks for reminding me. If you would do the honors, BBF..."

BigBlueFox once again gathered the furs into his paws and deposited them safely on the floor. Lou's eyes squeezed shut as he concentrated on the potential magic in his paw. "Now what, Jedd? Do I chant? Draw a circle on the floor? Light candles? What?"

Jedd, seeing Lou's eyes were closed, looked at all the other furs surrounding him, his eyes silently asking them a question. Although there was some hesitation, they all eventually nodded. Jedd returned their nods and turned to Lou again.

"There's nothing fancy to it. Just have your player type a simple command, that's it...."

"And that would be what?"

Jedd let out a small sigh. "Okay, here it is. Type gohome, slash, gohome, all as one word, with no spaces."

As if by hidden signal, as soon as Jedd finished speaking, all the smaller furs took two paces back from Cashew Lou.

Marty typed the command and hit the enter key. The lag timer on his screen counted to four seconds and then stopped. Nothing appeared on his screen to indicate that the command had actually done anything; then again, no error message had popped up, either. He leaned back in his chair and sighed, sweeping a tuft of hair out of his eyes.

Lou's eyes opened, and he saw that nothing had changed. He laughed and opened his paw, rolling the marble back and forth. "Okay, guys, really funny, hardy har har...."

All the other furs gasped, their eyes widening in horror. "Don't drop the marble!" Jedd yelled with a sense of extreme urgency. "Not NOW!"

Lou blinked as if he had been slapped, and his paw wrapped back around the marble.

Barely audible crackling sounds began to fill the Doghouse.

Marty's computer screen starting glowing a sickly radium green. Instinctively, he raised his right arm to shield his eyes; a smart move, as the glow intensified and paled to a blinding white. The light pulsed from his screen with the intensity of a thousand photocopier bulbs, casting his silhouette diffusely on the bookcases behind him. He braced himself for whatever was to happen next, his heart triphammering in his chest.

Lou's body seemed to be surrounded by a swirling firestorm of electricity. A cacophony of noise swelled, assaulting the walls and the inhabitants of the Doghouse with what sounded like popcorn being popped at the 200-decibel level. The wolf's tense body was stiff as a telephone pole, and he was scared half to death.

For a miniscule period of time, impossible to measure with modern instruments, both Cashew Lou and his player, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

It took Lou a few moments to gather up the courage to open his eyes; when he finally did, he found himself seated in a green high backed chair in front of a computer screen. The chair was still warm, having been occupied by another body just seconds before. He shifted around in the chair, taking in his surroundings. Bookcases, animation art and posters of wolves filled every available inch of space in the room. A nametag taped to the cramped and crowded computer desk heralded its owner's name--Marty Gartin.

Lou's lower jaw dropped open.

Lou's player, too, returned to consciousness at more or less the same instant. He shook his head, as if to clear it; he felt disoriented and light-headed, as if he had been drugged. He had landed on his back on a hard floor, and his tailbone sang a song of pain to him. As his bleary eyes cleared, they widened at what they saw. He had an audience observing him from above--a red fox, a chubby Siberian Husky, a towering white wolf and what appeared to be a weasel of some sort. His muddled and disjointed mind did not recognize the friends he had known for quite a while, and it immediately decided it was dreaming.

His gaze continued to scan the room, and it happened upon (for how could it NOT?) a one hundred foot-tall blue fox.

Marty uttered a choked whimpering sound at this incredible sight, and his eyes rolled back into his head. He slumped into a prostrate unconscious heap.

Although Lou was flabbergasted, he was having a much easier time dealing with his new surroundings than his player was. After all, Lou had the advantage of having lived in the more surreal environment of FurryMuck. He turned in the chair, surveying the room around him. So this is Real Life! He thought. He swiveled about, nodding. Yup. This is Real Life.

"Now what?" He said, to no one in particular.

Although the exposure to a completely new plane of existence had its charm, something in the back of his mind told him the visit should only be a temporary one. He tucked the marble into the front fold of his toque and turned to the keyboard, hoping to ask Jedd what the duration of his stay should be, and how we was to return.

No matter what he did, Lou couldn't get a response from the computer. He hit every key, first individually, then in countless combinations-he even tried hitting them all at once. Not having a computer himself, he was pretty much at a loss as to what to do. He tried scooting the mouse around, which of course did nothing. He sat back and let out a sigh of resignation.

As he drummed his pawfingers on the mouse pad, trying to reason what to do next, his player's address book caught his eye. He thumbed through it, an idea brewing in his mind.

Lou knew for a fact that Bel Inconnu's player lived in the same town as his. Sure enough, there was the address, listed under the H's. He jotted down the address on a post-it note and tucked it in his toque, next to the marble. He pawed through the local phone directory, tearing the city map out of it neatly. Map in paw, he found his way out of the room, up the basement stairs and out the back door. His lupine instincts helped him quickly get his bearings in this strange place, and he headed in a southeasterly direction.

Little did the unsuspecting citizens of Ames, Iowa realize that a furry was in their midst. A good many of them would soon find out exactly what it was like.

Out of consideration for Lou's player, BigBlueFox morphed himself into his six-foot form; none of the furs wanted for the mind-scrambled hyooman to regain consciousness, only to pass out again from way too much visual input. They all gathered around him--Jedd hopped onto his chest; Huskee knelt and placed a paw on his forehead; T'Chall fanned him.

Marty finally came to, his eyes slowly focusing on the black fox paw waving in his face. As he blinked, trying to clear his head, Jedd leaned in, nose to nose with the groggy player.

"Hi there!" he said, a big ol' pine marteny grin on his face.

"Um...hi," Marty said, staring into Jedd's eyes. "You're Jedd, right?" He propped himself up on one elbow, indicating each individual fur as he spoke. "And you're T'Chall...Huskee...Berios...and BigBlueFox, although not quite so big now."

The furs nodded and smiled as he identified them.

"And your being here can only mean one of two things: one, I'm dreaming..."

T'Chall reached down and pinched his side.

"Ow!"

Huskee chuckled. "You're not dreaming."

"Okay, strike theory number one. That means I'm in Furry, even though that, so far as I used to know, is impossible." He picked up Jedd, placing him on the ground, and stood up. "And that raises about a zillion questions...."

"Forget the questions," BigBlueFox said, "enjoy your visit!"

T'Chall said, "Well, the questions could be part of his visit...."

Berios walked up to him, offering an oil can of Foster's. "Have a beer!"

Marty took the oversized can from the polar wolf, not sure whether to open it or not. "I dunno...I have work in the morning. I try to stay clear-headed during the week...."

"Look at it this way," Berios said, putting a hand on the player's shoulder. "You've just been transported to a parallel dimension. That warrants having a beer. I know if that was to happen to me, I'd have one in a hurry." Producing another, apparently from nowhere, Berios opened his own beer and took a swig.

Staring down dumbly at the beer can in his hand, Marty muttered, "I dunno...what with work in the morning, and all..." He sniffed for a moment, his nose wrinkling. "Why does it smell like feet in here...?"

Huskee, enjoying a beer of his own, chimed in. "That would be my sock collection." He indicated it with a wave of his paw. Sure enough, there was a scattered pile of socks, next to a makeshift bed of tattered blankets. There were dress socks, sport socks, socks of nearly every color and description, socks in various states of disintegration, a few of them tied in knots.

As he scanned the sock pile, Marty nodded. "So, the question I have in mind right now is probably one of those I should forget, like BBF said...?"

"Probably." Huskee shrugged. "I'm into socks. It's a canine thing." His stared into space, with a dreamlike glazed look in his eyes.

During this conversation, Jedd had taken several paces back. With a glint in his eye, he charged toward the unsuspecting human. About three feet away from him, Jedd leaped.

Marty dropped his can of beer as Jedd bounced off his stomach, falling to the ground with a thump. Jedd looked up at him, shaking his head. "Huh! Hyoomans!"

"What? What'd I do?" The player reached down and patted Jedd's head. "Are you all right?"

"He's fine," T'Chall said, shaking his head and laughing. "But I'm pretty sure he thought you were going to catch him. Lou always does."

Jedd backed up again. "That's right, I'm fine. Just be ready this time!" He charged once more, and as he jumped, Marty caught Jedd easily, pulling the fur in close to his body. Jedd smiled and snugged his human friend. "There! Much better!"

As if on cue, all the other furs closed in. T'Chall padded over and wrapped his arms around Lou's player, cuddling himself tightly against Marty and Jedd. Huskee and BigBlueFox approached from either side, joining the warm hug. Berios approached from behind, lightly scritching the player's head with his big paw. As they wrapped him in warmth, Berios' scritching making his body tingle, Marty all of a sudden couldn't have cared less that he had to work in the morning. One thought nagged at the back of his mind, though: T'Chall had mentioned Lou earlier--just where was he?

The first thing Lou noticed once he was outdoors was the absolute onslaught of smells that invaded his sensitive nostrils. Since there were far fewer vehicles on Furry, the bitter scent generated by internal combustion engines was the first to catch his attention. He couldn't put a name to it, but he knew he didn't care for it much. Beneath the chemical smell, he detected far more pleasant aromas--a whiff of a fellow canine here, a hint of pine there--even the snow blanketing the ground had a sharp, clean smell to it.

He padded eastward down 24th Street, heading for Grand Avenue, one of Ames' busiest thoroughfares. He strolled at a leisurely pace, his paws clasped behind him, taking in all the sights, sounds and smells he possibly could--although at the same time, he was essentially oblivious to everything going in around him.

Needless to say, a six foot, five inch anthropomorphic wolf walking down the sidewalk in a peaceful Iowa town attracted no small amount of attention. Tires screeched as distracted drivers scrambled to avoid collisions; curious residents pressed their noses to their living room windows, their startled gasps fogging the panes of glass. As Lou turned the corner, heading south down Grand Avenue, a patron of the 24th and Grand Kwik Shop stood with his mouth agape as 90 Octane Unleaded gushed out of his car's overfull gas tank, spattering and destroying his new pennyloafers.

Several blocks later, Lou was still totally unaware of the stares and double takes aimed in his direction as he passed. Reality was about to hit home, though, as a woman walking her dog turned from 14th Street onto Grand, suddenly finding herself face to muzzle with the (unbeknownst to her) friendly Canadian wolf.

Lou, studying the map of Ames as he walked, was momentarily distracted by the sound of a barking dog. Looking up, he saw the woman, about fifteen feet away. The color drained from her face as his gaze met hers. Frozen in place, she was obviously scared half to death. Lou turned to look behind him, to see what could possibly be inspiring such a reaction. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary there, he spun to face the woman again. Her eyes widened once more--it then dawned on Lou that she was scared of him!

He opened his muzzle, preparing to explain that he meant no harm, when he noticed her dog, a little wisp of a thing, snarling and barking at the end of its leash. A fellow canine, reacting to him in this manner, was just a little too much for him. His heart sank as he realized that he obviously didn't belong here. He hung his head and shuffled on, giving the woman and her dog a wide berth.

Bad soon turned to worse. He dragged his hindpaws, the map in his paw flapping in the breeze. Paying little attention to where he was going, he crossed 13th Street against the light. A burgundy pickup with the right of way barreled down 13th Street, its driver honking and gesturing wildly. Lou slowly looked up to see the truck closing in on him.

In a brief moment of confusion and panic, Lou transformed, and the mayhem began in earnest.

For the first time in a long time, Marty felt completely relaxed, melting at the sensation of the warm embrace. He closed his eyes and smiled, murmuring in a low voice, "Mmmm...I could stay here forever."

All the furs surrounding him murred softly in agreement.

He opened his eyes. "No, really, I mean it. Not just the hug, although this is really nice. Really, really, unbelievably nice, about the nicest sensation I think I've felt...well, ever. But I mean more than just this. I'm talking lock, stock and barrel here. Chucking the whole 'reality' thing and settling in here. Whaddaya think...?"

"It's not the first time we've heard something like that, is it?" BigBlueFox asked his fellow furs.

Huskee nodded. "Some are hesitant to leave, that's for sure..."

"Kicking and screaming, they go!" BigBlueFox added. "But they do go, that's the rule."

Berios considered this. "But do some, well...react not so well to coming here?"

"Oh, yeah," T'Chall said, scritching Jedd's head as he snuggled up to Lou's player. "Some kick and scream trying to get out of here."

"Well, since that's 'the rule,' as you say, when do I have to leave?" Marty looked down at Jedd. He wasn't sure why, but something told him Jedd was the fur with the answers in this case. Heaven knows he had had the answers in the past! "Not that I'm in any hurry, you understand."

Jedd shrugged. "That's pretty much up to Lou, and when he wants to come back."

"No offense, Marty," T'Chall said, nuzzling the player's neck, "but I miss Lou already."

A shocked look of realization swept across Marty's face, and he staggered backward. The other furs loosened their embrace, backing up a bit, and Berios caught Lou's player as his knees buckled. Jedd hopped from the human's arms to the ground. In an almost breathless whisper, Marty said, "You mean he's...?"

Jedd cleared his throat and started to explain the marble.

The driver of the burgundy pickup, in the wrong place at the wrong time, stared in slack-jawed amazement as he watched the anthropomorphic wolf directly in front of him (an incredible sight in its own right) simply disappear.

Well, no, that wasn't entirely the case. The space previously occupied by the wolf was now empty, but a whole lot of space in the surrounding area was now quite full. He stomped on the brakes and leaned forward, craning his neck so he could look up through the windshield.

Towering almost directly above the pickup truck was Cashew Lou, now one hundred feet tall--at the moment, practically the tallest object in the entire city of Ames. Lou had seen what appeared to be an oncoming fatal injury; his knee-jerk reaction had been to grow--and fast.

Just before the pickup driver hyperventilated and collapsed to his right into the passenger side of the truck cab, his gibbering mind registered one thought: His clothing grew, too! That scarf has got to be fifty feet long! Then his circuits, having had enough, mercifully shut him down.

Lou stepped out of the way of traffic as best he could; however, his doing so made little difference. The fair citizens of Ames are funny that way: Plunk a one hundred-foot carnivore into their midst, and they just fall apart. Silly humans!

He once again considered explaining himself, and to express that he meant no harm. It didn't take long to deduce that since it didn't work at his normal size, it sure as heck wasn't going to work when he was huge. Why was he making such a mess of this? Just when did a harmless stroll turn into a disaster? One thing was certain: He didn't belong here. As this thought hit home, the downhearted wolf would have given his tail for a friendly face. He sighed, resolving to make things right as soon as possible.

He discovered one advantage of his current size: He could cover one heck of a lot of ground a whole lot more quickly. Lou made his way down Grand Avenue toward the east side of town. Bel Inconnu's player was in the shower, having no clue what was headed his way.

The following day's Ames Tribune reported that the thirty-eight-car pileup at the corner of 13th and Grand was the largest in Ames' history. Luckily, there were no serious injuries.

"...so all he needs is the marble and the same command you used to switch things around the first time." There was a moment of silence after Jedd finished his explanation. He pulled a pawful of PineCone Bites (tm) from thin air and ate one.

Marty nodded, a lot of things falling into place in his mind. "What if Lou were to lose the marble?" He glanced around the room, noticing a hint of apprehension in the air. None of the furs would look him in the eye; they either became suddenly interested in a spot on the wall, or they bowed their heads. "Well?" he asked again. "What would happen?"

T'Chall turned his head, meeting the human's gaze. "He won't lose the marble."

"Well, just supposing...?"

Jedd shook his head. "It's not going to happen, so let's not even think about it."

Berios stroked his chin with his paw, mulling the question over. "I'm guessing it can't be anything good."

No one said anything.

Marty decided it was in his best interest to drop the subject, as it was obviously making everyone in the room uncomfortable. "Think I'll go to Lou's room," he said, finally.

"I'll come with you," T'Chall said.

As the two of them left the doghouse, Marty whispered to T'Chall, "What was that all about?"

"I'm not sure exactly how it works," T'Chall said, in a hushed tone, "but I have a feeling you'd get your wish, about wanting to stay here. Forever."

"Well, that's no so horrible..."

The two of them came to the door to Lou's place. T'Chall turned the knob and swung it open. "You may think that now, but it would probably knock things out of balance. Things would be out of whack here and in your reality. That's the best way I can put it. But don't worry--like Jedd said, it's best not to think about it. Lou's a good fur--I'm sure there won't be any problems." He gestured toward the room's interior with his paw. "After you."

Marty knew the place was big beforehand--after all, he helped put it together--but man alive! You could land the Concorde in here! He walked across the deep Hunter green shag carpet, thinking to himself how wonderful it would feel against his bare feet. He stopped for a moment and hastily removed his tennis shoes and socks. He noted with a little disgust that one of the socks had a hole in it. Oh well, a little something for Huskee's collection. He stood again, scrunching his toes into the carpet.

It felt better than he had imagined.

He crossed the vast expanse of carpet, scanning the impressive collection of furry art on the walls. As he reached Lou's writing desk on the far side of the room, he felt a blush rise to his cheeks. Lou had a framed picture of him on the desk, right next to his thesaurus.

He had to back up a ways from the desk to take in all of Lou's other framed photograph--bolted to the wall above the desk was an immense portrait of John Steinbeck, twenty feet high by sixteen feet wide. He recognized the photo from a compilation of Steinbeck's work he had, the author wearing his characteristic half-scowl, half-grin expression.

T'Chall strolled across the room to join him. He stood at Marty's side, leaning back and studying the portrait with him. "Lou says having the greatest writer who ever lived looking down on him like that inspires him to do his best."

Still staring at the portrait, Marty said, "I agree that he's an inspiration, but I'd be afraid I'd wake up in the middle of the night and be sacred witless!"

T'Chall laughed and gave Lou's player a hug. Still laughing, he sputtered, "Just between you and me, I've had that happen! But you get used to it."

Entranced by the huge image, Marty wasn't so sure. He loved Steinbeck's writing, but he thought having that much Steinbeck staring down at him would be daunting, at the very least. Yeeeeeeeesh!

Marty shuddered at the thought and walked over to Lou's bookcases. There were several shelves full of animation reference books, much like his own setup back home. He noticed with some amusement, and no small amount of envy, that Lou had several invaluable out-of-print tomes that his player had been unable to track down. He pulled one from its shelf and scanned its contents. It was a study of Tex Avery's work at MGM, in English--Marty had been unable to find anything but a French edition. He walked over to the bed, book in hand, and began reading the introduction, understanding it fully for the first time.

T'Chall pulled a book from the shelf, too, this one from the Steinbeck section. He padded over to the bed and sat next to Lou's player. The mischievous fox had a sly smile on his face. "If you like that, you'll love this!" He traded books with Lou's player, setting the Avery study aside.

Marty felt the rough texture of the book's surface. It looked as though it had weathered several years without the benefit of a paper jacket, if it had had one at all. Down its spine, it read, "Steinbeck East of Eden." He chuckled. "Only one, huh? I've got four copies of this one."

"You don't say!" T'Chall grinned and opened the book's front cover.

Marty gasped. The sucker was signed! He ran his fingers, very carefully, over the ink that flowed from a pen once held by the great John Steinbeck. His throat made a little whimpering sound as he did so. He closed the book and hugged it to his chest.

"Needless to say," T'Chall said, "that's his pride and joy."

Reluctantly handing the book back to T'Chall, Marty said, "Here, you'd better put it back. I'd feel horrible if something happened to it while it was in my hands."

"I knew you'd enjoy seeing it, though." He padded back to the bookshelves, carefully returning the precious tome to its place of honor, first in the row of the Steinbeck novels. He then turned, his ears twitching slightly. "I think we're about to have a visitor."

Marty's less perceptive human ears took a few seconds to detect anything out of the ordinary, but then there it was: a muted thumping sound, slowly getting louder. The south wall seemed to shudder almost imperceptibly; the doorknob jiggled, making a small metallic rattling sound. Marty got up off the bed and took a few steps toward the door. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the entire south wall begin to open outward.

T'Chall's tail wagged happily, and he waved, looking way up above him. "Hiya, Woulfe!"

Cashew Lou thundered through east Ames, doing his best to navigate using side streets where he would create less panic. He winced at the sound of wailing sirens behind him; not because their high-pitched whine his lupine ears, but because it hurt to know he had created the chaos that made the sirens necessary. He glanced above him repeatedly, feeling certain that attack helicopters would soon be dispatched to bring him down, just like in some grainy old black and white RKO horror movie.

As he approached the apartment complex where Bel Inconnu's player lived, Lou started shrinking to normal size. Two blocks later, he was six foot five again and considerably less conspicuous. His pace slowed and his shoulders slumped as he surveyed the cluster of gray buildings, each one identical to the other. He reached into the fold of his toque and pulled out the post-it note--checking to be sure the marble was still there--and sighed when he saw the address contained no building number. This could take forever! he thought, groaning.

He steeled his resolve and began the search.

Meanwhile, Bel Inconnu's player, whom we shall call RF since that is his name, yaddah yaddah yaddah, had finished his shower and was reading a complex socio-linguistics assignment. He scratched his head, wishing for an excuse to ditch the whole thing for a while. The Red Hot Chili Peppers screamed something about musical aeroplanes from his stereo.

Even though he had just that moment been wishing for an escape, he grumbled when there was a knock at the door. It seemed to him nearly all the people he knew dropped in without any forward notice and stayed and stayed and stayed--and like it or not, he did need to study.

RF walked to the door and peeked through the eyehole. All he could see was a brown eye, distorted slightly by the fisheye lens, staring back at him. He stood back and crossed his arms. "What do you want, and exactly why should I care?"

Expecting a sarcastic response, RF was somewhat taken aback when a soft, almost meek, voice replied, "Please. I need your help."

RF barely got the door open before Lou squeezed himself through, immediately slamming and deadbolting it behind him. He faced Bel's player, grabbing his hands, his eyes pleading. "Please tell me your computer is working!"

RF, who adamantly refused to be fazed by anything the world had to present to him, took it totally in stride that an anthropomorphic wolf was standing in his entryway. "First thing's first," he said, "you must be Cashew Lou. I recognize you from your description."

Lou nodded, nervously wringing his paws.

"Okay, next thing, or things, I should say: I won't ask how you got here--that doesn't matter now. What I will ask is how I can help. I would also ask if you brought one of those famous hugs of yours."

Lou smiled, relieved to finally find a human who wasn't mortified by his existence. He wrapped his arms around RF and hugged him tightly. "Let's just say I now know how curiosity killed the cat, right? I need to get back to Furry, and fast."

Feeling Lou's body trembling against his, RF patted the shaggy wolf's back, trying to comfort him. "Well, whatever's happened, I'm sure it can be undone. I have a feeling we can't do it here, though...."

Slowly releasing RF from his embrace, Lou cocked his head to one side. "Why's that?"

"Just a guess, but you're wanting me to log on as you, right?"

Lou nodded, his right paw fiddling with the fringe of his scarf.

RF shook his head. "Can't do it. I don't know Marty's login password. Do you?"

Disappointed in himself yet again, Lou looked down at the floor. "I don't even have an idea," he murmured.

RF snapped his fingers and nodded, his eyes brightening. He began to put on his coat. "We may not need it, after all. It'll be programmed into MudSock."

"MudSock...?"

"Yeah. It's...well, I can't really explain it, but it helps a lot when you log on to FurryMuck. If we go to his computer, we won't need his password--it'll enter automatically. Besides, even if I did know his password, this electronic paperweight of mine can't handle MudSock."

Lou looked up. "I don't think I can go out there again. I'm not sure I'll exactly be all that popular, you know?"

Although he had no idea what had transpired outside, RF could easily visualize how most people would have reacted to Lou. "I could disguise you, maybe...."

"Wait a minute!" Lou climbed onto a table standing to the right of the door. He stood, folding his arms across his chest. He looked down and winked.

He wasn't the easiest human to impress, but RF watched in wonder as Lou shrunk himself, dwindling down to four inches in height in less than a minute's time. The human picked up the tiny wolf and gently placed him in his breast pocket. "Are you okay in there?"

"Just fine, eh!" Lou squeaked.

That problem solved, the two of them went outside to RF's car, on their way to solve yet another.

Neither of them had noticed that as Lou was shrinking, his toque was, too; the marble had retained its size and fallen out, quietly dropping to the carpet and rolling out of sight.

To his credit, Marty had adjusted enough to the FurryMuck environment to not pass out this time. Standing, looming, towering in front of him was the largest, shaggiest wolf he had ever seen or hoped to see. His gaze reached up, up and up again; it was literally impossible to take the gigantic, muscular black wolf in all at once. In his mind, Marty fervently hoped the mountainous wolf wasn't hungry.

T'Chall, his tail still wagging enthusiastically, ran over and hugged Woulfe's ankle--at least the part of Woulfe's ankle his outstretched arms could take in. "How are you, Woulfe? Long time, no see!"

Woulfe sat on the floor, T'Chall still clinging to his ankle. "Thought I'd stop in and say heyas to Cashew. Is he around?" The friendly giant reached down and extended a mighty paw to T'Chall, who hopped into it. Woulfe's arm swung upward, placing T'Chall on his broad chest. The happy fox burrowed into the thick chest fur, disappearing from sight.

Relieved to see that T'Chall had not become an hors d'oeuvre, Marty was able to find his breath. "Nine hundred feet of wolf is a heck of a lot more impressive in person than just a description of it on a computer screen!"

Woulfe smiled. "At least you didn't run screaming from the room. A lot of furs have that reaction, before I can even tell 'em I wont hurt 'em." He scratched his head, as in thought. "Come to think of it, no human's ever stood his ground in front of me this long." He reached down and extended a paw finger. "Hi. I'm Woulfe."

Unsure as to exactly what he should do, Marty hugged the huge paw finger. He held on for dear life as Woulfe lifted him high into the air, depositing the tiny human on his chest, directly in front of his muzzle--a muzzle that could swallow an entire neighborhood without having to chew first. The thick fur was incredibly warm and soft beneath Marty's feet; the carpet was nothing compared to this. "We don't see too many humans around here," Woulfe said, his big black nose sniffing.

From deep within Woulfe's chest fur came T'Chall muffled voice. "This is Marty, Woulfe. He's Lou's player. He's one of the few and far-between good humans."

"Player, huh? On the muck? That's odd." He sniffed again. "You smell like a good guy, anyway. How'd you get here? Where's Cashew?"

Marty opened his mouth to speak, thought twice about it, and closed it again. "I have no idea where to begin, and I only know half of the story."

T'Chall's head popped up through Woulfe's fur. He looked at Woulfe and explained, "Jedd helped Lou pull the old switcheroo."

Woulfe nodded. "The Cashew Lou switcheroo." He chuckled. As Woulfe's massive body shook beneath him, Marty pinwheeled his arms for balance. He overbalanced anyway, and fell back into a sitting position. Woulfe's paw finger reached down and rubbed his back. "One of these days, I've gotta get me one of those marbles." He gently pushed Lou's player into a prone position, flexing his tremendous chest as he did so. "Dig on in, if you'd like."

T'Chall grinned. "Oh, yeah, do! It's fun!" The fox's head disappeared into the thick lupine pelage once again.

Marty rolled onto his stomach, using his hands to part the dense fur. The forest of black fur was several feet deep, and as he dug down, the pleasant scent of Woulfe's musk surrounded him. He finally reached the giant's skin, and spreading his arms wide, he scritched vigorously and deeply. Woulfe murred in response, the deep bass of his voice rumbling through his chest. Marty hugged himself tightly to his giant friend, listening to his happy murring and the beating of his big heart. Buried as he was beneath a blanket of black wolf fur, Marty felt a sheen of sweat covering his body.

(The author would like to respectfully request that his readers abstain from using, however tempting they might be, any references to Martin Sheen.)

Woulfe's paw stroked through his chest fur, rubbing his human and vulpine friends, covering them with warmth and comfort. Marty could feel the euphoric, lightheaded sensation of sleep coming on, a wide smile of contentment on his face. He was about to find out as it is in real life, so it is on the muck: You can almost never get a good nap in when your body is ready for one.

Huskee walked in the door at just that moment. He couldn't walk much farther, since the majority of open space in the place was currently filled with Woulfe. "Hey, Woulfe," Huskee said with a wave. "T'Chall and Marty wouldn't be in there somewhere, would they?"

T'Chall made his way through the thick fur over to the nearly dozing human. "Hey. Hey!"

Marty snapped wide-awake with a quick jerk. "What? What?!"

"I think Huskee wants to talk to us."

Marty made his way to the surface of Woulfe's chest fur, his hair all tousled and fluffed. "Hey, Husk, come join us! Plenty of room!"

Huskee reached behind his back, first with one paw, then with the other, trying in vain to scratch an unreachable itch. He arched his back and growled in pleasure as Woulfe obliged him with a giant claw. "Ahhhhhhhh--that hit the spot. Thanks, Woulfe!" He turned his attention to Marty and T'Chall. "Actually, you two need to join me. We're pretty sure Lou's ready to come back. We're getting some action from his player's...um...your computer."

Both T'Chall and Marty sighed resignedly, nodding.

"I should head out, anyway, "Woulfe said, plucking his two friends from his fur and lowering them to the floor. As he stood, he continued, "my player's about ready to fall asleep at his keyboard." Woulfe stood, his hulking ninety-story frame once gain rising above them in all its macro fur glory. "Let Lou know I stopped by." With a wave, the friendliest giant wolf on the muck opened the south wall and stepped out, closing it behind him.

Marty ran his fingers through his hair, trying to neaten it a little bit. It didn't help much. "Let's go, guys!" Huskee said. The three of them walked out the door, making their way through Jedd's place and into the Doghouse.

Once he had gotten to Marty's computer, and Lou had returned to his normal size, RF made short work of rebooting the whole system and logging back on to FurryMuck. Just as he had predicted, Marty's password to log on was already in the MudSock program. No problem there.

RF addressed the furs in the Doghouse. "Lou is here, and Marty's there. Time for a trade, don't you think?" he typed.

Jedd responded almost immediately, the lag notwithstanding. "All you have to do is type 'gohome, slash, gohome,' all as one word. No, no, wait, don't do that yet--Lou needs to be in front of the compute-r-have him do it. And make sure he's holding on to the marble."

RF stood, turning the computer chair over to Lou. As Lou sat, his paw reached into the front fold of his toque. All of a sudden the Canadian wolf did not feel well at all.

"What do you mean, he lost it?"

These were the first words T'Chall, Huskee and Marty heard as they entered the Doghouse. Jedd did not look pleased. "You've got to find it!" The marten paced the floor, deep in thought. "He's got to find it," he muttered.

"What happens if I get stuck here?" Marty asked. He felt as though all the eyes in the room were on him, and felt a pang of guilt for no good reason. "Look, I didn't really mean stuck here, I...I...." He trailed off.

BigBlueFox interjected, "It's never happened before, so we have no idea. No fur has ever lost the marble before."

Berios walked over and stood in front of the pacing marten. "Jedd, I think I have an idea."

Jedd was still thinking out loud, in a low voice. "We've got to assume the marble is gone forever--we don't have time to have them retrace their steps. Maybe we could...? No..." Distracted in thought, he walked directly into the polar wolf's legs. "Oop!" Jedd said, surprised.

"As I was saying," Berios said, bending down. He whispered at length into Jedd's ear. Jedd's eyes brightened briefly, then his expression clouded to one of concern.

"I don't know..." he said.

Berios stood again. "I'm not so sure we may have a choice."

Jedd nodded, and turned to holler at Lou at the keyboard. "Hold on a minute! We may have a plan!" Turning to Berios, he said, "it's your show now. Would you care to enlighten the others?"

"Well, simply put, we can open a door between here and RL, for a few seconds. It'll take the help of all of our players to pull this off." He glanced at Marty. "Present human company excluded, of course."

"How long will we be able to keep it open?" Huskee asked.

"However long the lag lasts. At last count, that was about three seconds."

Marty crossed his arms, shaking his head. "That's not nearly long enough. Is it?"

"That's the tricky part," Jedd said quietly.

"What's that?"

"Well," Berios explained, "we'll have to prop the door open with something, something sizable."

"A chair, maybe?" BigBlueFox suggested.

"Bigger."

"How about a sofa?" Marty asked, not really sure where to find one if it was needed.

"Not quite big enough." He looked at BigBlueFox. "Something really big--something big enough to keep the door open and to withstand the transfer of energy. And it would be better to have it be a someone, rather than a something. A fur can react to any problems that could arise. Furniture can't." His gaze remained locked on BigBlueFox.

"I see," BigBlueFox said, realizing the task at hand. "What do you need me to do?"

Jedd, who had been conferring with his player, chimed in. "You should be aware there is some risk involved, BBF. Possibly some serious risk."

Berios nodded gravely. "You may not come back."

"Well, like you said, we don't have a choice, do we?"

T'Chall could hold his silence no longer. He stepped in front of BigBlueFox, waving his arms. "Okay, hold on. I'll do it."

"Ha!" Huskee laughed, almost instantly embarrassed at his outburst. "I'm sorry, T'Chall. With all due respect, though, you're...um...a little small for the job."

T'Chall padded over to Huskee and hugged him. "No apology necessary, Huskee, you know that. Besides, this sly fox just might have a trick or two up his sleeve...." He said with a wink. "That is, if I wore sleeves.

"Besides, all of you are artists. I'm not. The muck needs your talents."

Everyone in the room looked at T'Chall and said in unison, "What?!"

"What does that have to do with anything?" Jedd asked, his hands on his hips.

"It's not like that makes you expendable, T'Chall," Huskee noted sternly. "Don't ever think that!"

"Okay, okay, point well taken," T'Chall said, glancing at nothing in particular on the floor. He started pacing around the room, and as he spoke, his gaze found the concerned eyes of his fellow furs. "Maybe that whole artist thing was a slip of the tongue. And I don't feel expendable, really, I've made a lot of close and dear friends here."

T'Chall padded over to Lou's player and put his paws on his shoulders. "Let's put it this way, then," he said, looking him straight in the eye with a smile, "I've got a lot more invested in this guy--and Lou."

Marty hugged T'Chall, completely at a loss for words. He tried to choke back his tears, and did a pretty poor job of it. He let them come, and T'Chall caressed and patted his back as he did so.

The other furs watched respectfully, occasionally shifting their weight from one hindpaw to the other, fidgeting slightly. All of them knew an important undertaking was about to take place, and needed to take place soon; yet none of them wanted to be the one to interrupt the close emotional exchange taking place between their vulpine and human friends.

As they hugged, T'Chall nuzzled Marty's neck, whispering to him, "Whatever it is I have to do, I'm proud to do it for you and my wolfy."

Marty sniffed and nodded, fresh tears running down his cheeks. He tried to say something, but his voice had abandoned him for the moment. He uttered a dry guttural croak. Giving up on speech for the time being, he nodded again.

At long last, Berios cleared his throat. "As much as I hate to ruin the moment, we really should get moving on this."

As they ended their embrace, T'Chall kissed his human friend lightly on the cheek. "You take care of wolfy for me, just in case..."

Marty stopped him short, shaking his head, pressing a finger to T'Chall's muzzle. He had finally found his voice again. "Don't even say it, 'cause nothing's gonna happen to you." He folded T'Chall's right paw into his hands. "And I know you'll take better care of him than I ever could." His hands pressed against the fox's paw briefly, then released it.

T'Chall took five paces back and placed his paws on his hips. He closed his eyes as transparent waves of distortion, like those created by heat over a highway on a hot August afternoon, shimmered around his body. The waves shifted from vertical to horizontal, swirling in a clockwise direction, tiny flecks of light winking and glittering within the vortex.

This fox did indeed have a trick or two, sleeves or no sleeves. T'Chall was growing!

The spinning of the vortex slowed, the lights within it blinking out one by one. As the waves dissipated, T'Chall's body came into clear focus once again, with one major difference: the handsome red fox was now one hundred ten feet tall. He opened his eyes and looked down at his friends. "Let's get this door opened, Jedd."

Jedd went from fur to fur, whispering commands. The furs, in turn, hollered to their players. Keyboards the world over clacked away in unison, opening an interdimensional door.

Cashew Lou, with RF peering over his shoulder, sat at his player's keyboard, feeling helpless. "Am I supposed to be doing something?" he asked.

RF shrugged. "I have no idea. Maybe you should ask Jedd...."

Just then, a blinding beam of light engulfed the both of them.

What appeared to be a small square of blue light appeared in the Doghouse, directly in front of T'Chall. It expanded in all directions with a sound similar to the tines of a fork being scraped against a dinner plate. Marty gritted his teeth at the sound, watching the panel of light grow to nearly five hundred feet in height, the blue light fading to reveal a solid mahogany door.

Huh! he thought. It's literally a door!

The door slowly opened with the scraping sound of rusty steel hinges. Everyone in the Doghouse watched in wonder as it revealed a crystal clear view of Marty's bedroom, where Lou and RF were staring back, their faces plastered with identical looks of awe.

The door was already beginning to swing shut. T'Chall blocked the entrance with his gigantic body, spreading his arms and pressing his paws against the jambs on either side of him.

Marty quickly walked from fur to fur, hugging his friends one last time: Berios, the powerful polar wolf; the kind and carefree BigBlueFox; the snuggly and resourceful Jedd; and the portly, fun-loving Huskee. He embraced them all, sniffing and dabbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his sweatshirt.

He stood beneath T'Chall's towering body and addressed the whole room. "I'll miss you guys--take good care of Lou for me." The furs all nodded, sniffing a little themselves.

Marty walked over to T'Chall's ankle and hugged it tightly; he could feel the gigantic fox's body trembling with effort. He looked up to T'Chall, his eyes streaming tears. "Thank you foxy," was all he could manage. T'Chall swung his huge white-tipped tail down, brushing it gently against Marty's body. He gave it a quick squeeze, snuffling in the fox's scent.

Cashew Lou's player turned and crossed the threshold, leaving the realm of FurryMuck.

What greeted him in so-called 'reality,' however, was just as incredible, for he found himself standing nose-to-muzzle with what he had previously considered a figment of his imagination. He felt a little faint; it had been a pretty full day!

Cashew Lou extended his shaggy arms to his player.

Marty's legs buckled; he fell into Lou's arms, emotionally spent. He pressed his face to Lou's chest, his body wracked with sobs.

"Hey, now," Lou said, patting his player's back and resting his chin on the top of his head. "Things aren't so bad."

RF, suddenly feeling like a fifth wheel, tiptoed out of the room and closed the door. The small door, that is!

Marty tried to gather himself, his breath hitching as he did so. He rubbed his right cheek against Lou's chest fur. "Your being real--all the furs being real--changes everything. I don't even know where to start..."

Lou took his player's chin in his paw and turned his face upward. "I'm afraid there isn't much time. I don't want anything to happen to T'Chall."

As he gazed into Lou's deep brown eyes, Marty shook his head. "No, of course not. But there's so much I want to say to you, to ask you...."

"We'll have to start and end with this, at least for now," Lou said, "I've always been part of you, and you are part of me. We're in separate bodies, in separate dimensions, but we share the same heart. Ask just about any fur, or any player. They'll tell you it's true." He glanced toward the doorway. "Poor foxy--I've really got to go now."

Marty nodded, his eyes growing misty yet again.

Cashew Lou gave his player one last warm hug, giving him a tender wolfkiss on the cheek. "Take care of yourself. Without you, I'm nothing, eh!" He removed his scarf and draped it over Marty's shoulders.

As Lou turned to leave, his player ran his hand over the scarf, feeling its texture. Its REAL texture. He smiled at his lupine friend. "I feel the same way about you, Lou. You take care, too--and take care of T'Chall as well. He's pretty special, too."

Lou nodded. "He sure is." With a wave and a gentle look of friendship and good will, the Canadian wolf strolled through the doorway into his own reality. The groan of hinges followed soon afterward, and Marty knew his future contact with FurryMuck would be through the computer screen and the creative eye of his imagination. Still, he had seen more than most players....

The immense mahogany door closed, reducing itself to a tiny square of light within a matter of seconds. Moments after that, it was gone forever. On the smaller door to Marty's bedroom came a soft knocking. "Marty? Everything okay?"

Marty walked over to the bed and sat down. "Yeah, you can come in, RF. It's all over."

The door opened a few inches and RF peeked in. Seeing things were pretty much back to normal, he opened the door the rest of the way and walked into the room, scanning all around as he entered. "Okay, I see that it's over. Exactly WHAT is over, I have no idea."

"Well, you were with Lou, so you know more than I do, from this side, anyway." He stopped and sniffed the scarf, rich with Lou's scent. "Here's what I know..."

Three and a half hours later, RF went home, his head spinning. He was nearly a week late turning in his socio-linguistics report.

Lou padded back into the Doghouse, under the archway created by T'Chall's legs. He reached out and caressed the giant fox's ankle, feeling his friend's tremors of exertion. He took a few more paces and turned around, looking up into T'Chall's strained face. "I'm back now, foxy, it's over. You can let go now."

T'Chall stepped out of the doorway, panting heavily, his chest heaving. Looking down, he said, "if you guys wouldn't mind, you might want to step back...." He staggered forward, his legs wobbling.

All the furs gave him room as he half-sat, half-stumbled onto the floor of the Doghouse. He blinked groggily, as if having trouble bringing his surroundings into focus. He coughed weakly; the cough had a scratchy whistling quality to it his friends did not like at all. It didn't sound terminal, but it didn't sound good, either.

T'Chall let out a short groan and collapsed onto his back, unconscious.

The furs in the Doghouse barely paid attention to the immense mahogany door as it started to screech shut on its ancient hinges. The base of the door nudged T'Chall's tail, and Lou noticed with a gasp that a serous injury was imminent unless he acted quickly.

Lou rushed over and brushed T'Chall's bushy tail out of harm's way. He glimpsed through the door and saw the questioning and concerned look on his player's face. He tried to give him a reassuring smile; considering the circumstances, he wasn't sure just how effective it was.

Just as the door closed, and everyone's attention was on T'Chall, Lou's player slid something under the door. Seconds later, the five hundred foot-high portal slammed shut, shaking the walls of the Doghouse. Its appearance wavered and rippled, and moments later it was gone, leaving it its stead the faint odor of ozone.

Lou scrambled onto T'Chall's chest, kneeling and stroking his muzzle. He was breathing, anyway--Lou could feel the warm breeze of his exhalations--so that was something, at least. The other furs gathered around, patting T'Chall's prone body, remaining reverently silent. Waves of heat radiated from the huge fox's body, enveloping the smaller furs. Each of them in his own way tried to comprehend the unimaginable effort their friend must have gone through to be laid low like this.

"Oh, foxy," Lou sniffed, "if I hadn't lost that marble, none of this would have happened to you. I'm so sorry, lover, I'm so sorry!" Lou


© 1998 Cashew Lou
All characters' copyrights are held by their players.


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