Chapter Twenty-Three

When Devin and Gadget finally excused themselves from the Justins' abode, it was growing late in the afternoon. Both of them were feeling the need for some sunlight again, to wash out the heavy feeling of stone, draperies, and re-circulated air. They burst out into the open, stretching and breathing deeply.

"That," growled Gadget, "was exhausting."

I hope I earn the right to hear you say that in a happier tone of voice someday, Devin smiled, but for now just agreed with her. "Yep. They ought to hand out scorecards. You really should talk with the Justins when there's not so much trouble in the Valley. I hear there were a few days in August last year that were almost sane."

Gadget sat down on a smooth flat stone (obviously others had found it comfortable, as the passage of many tails had worn it shiny), trying to wrap her mind around the tumult of events and personalities Justin and Elizabeth had filled her in on. "Everyone here wants something from someone, or wants to do something for someone--or more likely to someone," she groused.

Devin whistled through his teeth, staking out a spot beside her. "How is that different from anywhere else?"

"It's not," she said firmly. "It's like a little bit of everywhere else, packed in a pressure cooker."

Devin grinned. "So why don't we let off some steam?" There were places in Thorn Valley that weren't anywhere near a cave, grotto, or overhang--Devin didn't want to get into the habit of scuttling around underground all day taking care of business, though it was too easy to do in these parts.

Gadget sighed with relief. "Sounds like a plan to me. I don't think I could stand meeting one more Thorn Valley bigwig today."

"I'm with you on that, Gadge. If we tried to visit Arthur at this hour, he'd probably try to feed us dinner." Devin brushed his whiskers as if he had something unpleasant caught in them. "Trust me, you don't want that."

"You sound awfully serious, Dev," she cocked her head, eyes sparkling. "His cooking's really that bad?"

"Indigestible. You'd probably need my medical services."

Gadget raised an eyebrow. "Who says I don't need them?" she asked with a chuckle full of mischief. Devin regarded her with a pleasant shock, and while he was working his mouth trying to come up with an answer, she leaned over and gave him a swift peck on the cheek.

"You're a tease, you know," Devin breathed, rubbing his cheek in wonder.

"Of course, you silly rat. What else is a girl going to do for fun around here?"

Devin almost spoke his mind. Out of respect, and a more-than-medical concern for her emotional stability, he bit his tongue. Yes, that would be very good, but not good for her yet. He went with his second answer instead. "Done much sailing, Gadge?"

"Not enough," she smiled.

***

A knock on the door of the ramshackle lakeside cabin let the weary Boatkeeper know he had company. Not for the first time, he thought better of letting Arthur talk him into building his home right into the pier--when he finally retired, he decided, it would be to someplace dry.

He couldn't think who it could be at the door. The last fishing boat had signed in half an hour before, and as far as he knew there weren't any 'pleasure-boaters' out on the lake. That was a good thing in his estimation, as there had been some trouble with a doctor who'd come (as the Boatkeeper called it) "up from the Institute" for a skim on the lake. One of the fishing-boat crews had retrieved the boat, tied up on a distant stretch of shore, but neither fur nor pawprint of the doctor had been seen since. Everyone gets a little stir-crazy down in the Valley now and then, was the Boatkeeper's theory, I just wish it wouldn't happen on my watch.

If he'd had any idea what Devin was going to ask for, and the way things would go, the Boatkeeper probably would have pretended he was out. As it was, he opened the door kindly enough, as his visitors set their well-stocked wicker baskets down and waved in welcome. "Hello, Roger!" Devin cheerfully hailed him.

Roger remembered him, all right--Devin had saved his right foot-paw, the one nearly torn off by a stray loop of rigging line. Roger didn't much relish the idea of having a peg-leg, or answering to the name "Jolly Roger" more than he already did, so he harbored a healthy gratitude and respect for the young doctor. He just had an odd way of showing it.

"Dev Packard! Come alongside and report, you son-of-a-cheese-thief!"

Gadget narrowed her eyes. Devin held up two pawpads. "Actually, both of them were cheese thieves--" he started, but Roger stepped forward and pounded him roughly on the shoulder.

"Don't mind me, miss," Roger turned to Gadget, "I talk to everyone that way, as long as they'll put up with it."

"I wouldn't put up with it for very long," she said primly, though not without a trace of amusement.

"'Course not, you're a lady," Roger noted. He was a great one for picking up the obvious. That same clear-eyed tendency to see the truth at first glance told him something else about his pair of visitors--they had each other wound up tight enough to be unpredictable. Just don't let them sink any of my boats or cause a scandal in one, he fretted. "So, what brings you up to the Plateau? I suppose you'll be wanting to borrow a raft and have yourselves a nice evening picnic out on my lake, eh?"

Devin cut his eyes at Gadget, who was about to nod in agreement with Roger but suddenly wasn't sure. "I had something a little more…invigorating in mind."

I bet you did, Roger sighed to himself.

***

In the middle of their earlier watery escapade--that morning's unexpected dunk in the waterfall pool down in the Valley--Gadget had called Devin a water-rat. She was surprisingly close to the truth.

Before Devin had grown into his first set of whiskers, his parents' dubious occupation introduced him to a dozen different illegal uses of water. Now, of course, water is not exactly a controlled substance, but the stuff the Perilous Packards were smuggling was certainly contraband. They rafted across the Rio Grande, dodging the border patrol with untold shipments of purloined Mexican queso fresco. They zigzagged across the Great Lakes, running mozzarella for the furry branch of the Cosa Nostra. It was a dangerous life, but Devin was too young to know. He just had fun being on the move, never knowing he was on the run.

Devin and his parents once had a close brush with Bernard and Bianca that would have embarrassed both Rescue Aid and the Packards, had they realized--it was in one of the quieter periods (the Packards hadn't put any unfortunate law enforcement types in Rescue Aid hospitals for a while). The Perilous Packards were ferrying what Monty Python called "the harder stuff" (Cheddar, Gouda, and such) in a little leaf-boat down on the bayou. Their occasional partner in crime, who rented himself out as an outboard motor, was a near-tireless dragonfly named Evinrude. Thanks to Devin's fond memory of the irrepressible little fellow, he understood a little bit more of why Gadget missed her housefly friend Zipper.

While Devin had obviously turned from his parents' thieving ways (his current cargo was a picnic lunch and a pretty lady), the love of fast boats never left him. That's why at first glance, his latest ride seemed woefully out of character--it didn't seem to have a motor at all.

***

Gadget was thoroughly mystified. She was no stranger to the art of building boats--from sleek racing craft to hydrofoils, she'd launched many a vessel. The one they were on now resembled a satellite dish with an off-center antenna, but that "antenna" looked more like a miniature construction crane. What caught her eye first, however, was the upside-down periscope mounted behind the steering wheel.

"This is one hell of a weird boat you got here, Dev," she shook her head in near-admiration at its wacky construction. Devin sat beside her in an inexplicably complicated seat--like her own, it had a snug (but currently unworn) harness that vaguely disturbed her. Gadget was all for doodads and gizmos, but straps and leather weren't exactly her thing.

"All will come clear in time," Devin hinted, with no intention of letting her off the hook yet. He just put his oar back in the water for another stroke, and she followed suit. "First, I'd just like that nice quiet picnic dinner with you."

"Timothy certainly made a fuss about giving up the picnic baskets and food," Gadget sighed, putting her oar away in its place by her seat. "Somehow, though, I think it was an act."

"Mmm-hmm," Devin agreed. "He was looking at us pretty funny and winking at Tina so often I almost asked him if he had something in his eye."

Gadget nodded and laughed, a welcome sound to Devin's heart. "You're right, Dev. Timmy can be a grump sometimes, but I really think he means us well."

"You know," Devin started, "he even thought…" Devin trailed off, thinking better of his words.

"Thought what?" Gadget's ears perked up. Devin waved her off politely, hoping she'd let it drop for now. "No, really, it's all right. What did the little grouch think about us?"

Devin sighed. She won't let it go. Just be gentle. "Don't be mad at him, please. I already told him he was way off-center. He thought I was the father of your baby." He grimaced, expecting her to blow up.

Gadget's eyes went wide, but she shook her head good-naturedly. She laid a calming paw behind his ear and looked him in the eye. "Devin, really. I don't mind. I'd be honored."

Devin grinned to beat all. "You just made my day, Gadge." This time she made the move, leaping up to pin him against his seat and throwing her arms around him. She tickled his nose playfully with her whiskers, and kissed him full on the lips before he could say anything else. His own arms found their way comfortably around her back.

"Where did that come from?" Devin asked happily. She took his paw and guided it to rest on her blue workshirt, right over her heart.

"From here," she said. "Because--because I love you." I have so wanted to say that, the thought flashed.

Devin thought that he might melt and run down into a puddle in the bottom of the boat. "It's a good strong heart," he told her, his voice cracking a little as he felt her life pulsing wildly under his paw. "And I love its owner. It's beating a little fast right now, but a good kiss will do that."

"It's been doing that ever since I got into this rustbucket with you, silly! This is the first chance I've had to be really alone with you, with no one waiting for us to get back. No Runner, no Timmy and Tina, just you and me."

The lake was still and silent. They were as close to the middle of the lake as they could get, and not so much as a single other watercraft disturbed the glassy waters. "I'm glad to have you all to myself, Gadget. Coming out here alone with me took a lot of trust."

Gadget looked at him as if he'd just sprouted a pair of antennae. "Trust? Devin, I'd trust you with my life. You've already helped me put so much of it back together."

"I'm just trying to be gentle, Gadget. Honest, and gentle."

"That's why I trust you," she said softly. She shut her eyes and appeared to be thinking very hard.

Devin cocked his head. "What--"

"--shh," she put a paw to his lips, and then seemed to make up her mind. She nodded in answer to an unspoken question and took his paw away from its place on her chest.

"Okay, I'm curious," Devin started again, but fell silent. Gadget reached behind her back, and he heard the zipper of her worksuit come undone partway. She shrugged the top of the suit down, and it hung loosely around her strong, sleek shoulders.

Artwork by Keith Elder

Devin's jaw dropped in awe as she drew herself closer and gently took the stethoscope from around his neck. As she carefully folded it and laid it aside, he found his voice. "G-gadget, you don’t have to do that--" Dear God, I want her so bad, but I don't want to hurt her!

This time she took both of his paws in hers, moving them toward her shoulders. He ran his paws deeply through her soft fur as she pulled them downward, taking the worksuit along as they went. "I know I don't have to," she reassured him breathlessly, "but I want to, so very much." She attacked the buckle of his belt with the same determination she'd shown with her new set of tools at her workshop, and Devin found himself helping her eagerly.

The buckle was no match for the combined skills of a master mechanic and a skilled doctor. It yielded quickly, and before Devin could think or talk his way out of something they both deserved, he found himself suddenly enveloped in a sensation of indescribable sweetness.

As it might be expected, they made a few waves.


Button images by Keith Elder