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Chapter 7: A Brave Little Croat

It's 09:30, time for Shadow and me to go over to the clinic and help out for two hours with the morning's flow of injured refugees. It's been tough, but my language skill is now good enough that I can sign or speak to any of the First Division people and generally understand and be understood. I've also learned their style of time reckoning. And as I suspected, the standard computer setup shows a clock, which formerly I didn't have the knowledge to recognize. And my family's setup also includes a clock for places. Angela's doesn't. We've dropped the Shqip; instead we, including Shadow, are speaking simple Chinese as much as we know how, simple stuff like ``Ying3 dze dzao3'', meaning ``Good morning, Shadow''.

Today is a big day: the werewolves are coming to visit. Their work on the factories was delayed a week due to resistance and counterattacks in the area. Of course I'll treat them the same as Tiger and Simba and Shadow, but it's a little disconcerting to contemplate a family of legendary monsters stuffed into our small tent for five nights. They'll be taking the transport flight which will arrive around 15:00, before Simba and Tiger return, so Shadow and I will meet them and get them settled.

Me (and Shadow): Hu4 she4 Stevens dzao3.

Lt. Stevens: Gerbil, Ying3 dze dzao3.

Shadow: We saw a truck landing. They'll be in here soon. We'll get washed up.

Lieutenant Stevens is the triage nurse in the clinic, the one who decides who gets treated by Shadow, who gets to see a real doctor, and who gets to die in the waiting room. And she's the one who placates angry clients who don't agree with her decisions --- with a fist, in one incident where a particularly obnoxious Serb didn't intend to take orders from a gray-haired woman. She's as big as Tiger, though she'd be at a disadvantage in a hypothetical fight, lacking claws and having merely human strength and endurance.

Here they come. They're all walking, which helps. In the lead is one First Division soldier holding a bloody bandage to his arm and dripping blood from his elbow. (I'm a little uncomfortable saying ``our'' soldier in this context.) One of our jobs will be to wipe up the blood. Following, and accompanied by two uninjured and armed soldiers, are four Albanians grousing at each other in Shqip. The one in front is limping badly enough that he probably should have been carried, but I expect he refused. I think the bare footprints he leaves aren't entirely from stepping in the soldier's blood. The next two have burned patches on their clothing, and I can't see what's wrong with the last one. The accompanying soldiers, well trained, have put their patients in order by seriousness. Lt. Stevens takes about ten seconds with the wounded soldier, and Shadow leads him inside to a procedure room. I join the Albanians.

Lt. Stevens (in Shqip): May I see your identity card please?

Villager: My what?

I silently hold up mine. He glares, but extracts his new card from his pocket, leaning for support on Lt. Stevens' desk.

Lt. Stevens: And what kind of injury do you have?

Villager: The damned coward wouldn't stand and fight!

Lt. Stevens has one unfortunate quality: she expects her questions to be answered with no irrelevant crap. I smoothly cut in.

Me: I think I know the move you're talking about: you end up on your butt or your face. Did you twist your ankle when you went down? Or your knee?

Villager: My knee, damn it.

Me: Show Lt. Stevens how much it bends before you have to force it.

Phrasing is important here. Last time I worked, two days ago, I learned that Lt. Stevens could accidentally shame a jackass Illyrian into adding to his injury. The patient demonstrates. The knee will go straight, but can only bend a little.

Lt. Stevens: Yes, that needs to be looked at. Dr. Demeti will see you when he's done with the bullet wound. Gerbil, would you show him to a procedure room?

Me: Yes, ma'am. Come this way.

I explain to the Albanian that bullet wounds take a while to fix, so he'll have to be (uncharacteristically) patient, but that Dr. Demeti was born in Albania and speaks excellent Shqip. Tiger warned me that I should be very cautious with my joints, lest I injure them, until they were properly stretched, and I can feel even after just two and a half weeks that I can stand a lot more abuse in combat practice. I pass on to the villager that if he's told to do particular exercises he should really do them since I find them effective in strengthening my joints.

Returning to the waiting room I find chaos: a gaggle of fleabitten Croats has descended on us. I've seen these types of wounds before: in my own village, on corpses. Here's a hand burned to charcoal. There's a hideous side of a face. A woman, accompanied by a young girl about Shadow's size, is carried on a cloth between poles by two soldiers; she's groaning and holding her stomach. Behind those are four or five others with burn marks on them. The Albanians are making comments, fortunately in Shqip, not in Croat jabber.

Me: Best to stay on this side of the room and ignore the others. When you're injured you're at a disadvantage if a fight starts, and there are armed soldiers who appear if there's trouble, who aren't gentle.

Villager: And how do you know all this, boy?

Me: I've been spending quite a lot of time here, making sure the Albanians know what's going on and get proper treatment. And I can see what's going to happen: they're going to have to cut that guy's hand off, and do something about the other one's face, and the woman, and it's all going to take time. Try to be patient.

Villager: Sure.

I check with Lt. Stevens.

Me (not in Shqip): Would you like me to get the Albanian guy out of the procedure room?

Lt. Stevens: Right; put that one, the one with the facial burns, in his place. And make up an ice pack to put on the Albanian's knee. You remember how to do that?

Me: Yes, ma'am. If you don't mind, I'll get the Albanian out here and put down a blanket for him to lay on, then take the Croat in.

She turns back to her singed Croat and I take that as agreement. The soldier who was shot is walking out. He's still holding his arm but his sleeve has been cut off and the bandage is much more effective at staunching the bleeding. That was fast work; probably Dr. Demeti could hear the commotion in the waiting room. Shadow is bringing in the person who's going to be minus his hand. I proceed to the procedure room.

Me: We have a problem; Dr. Demeti isn't going to be able to handle your knee for a while. He has to cut off a guy's hand and then, well, I don't know what he's going to do about this other guy's face. I think you're going to be a lot more comfortable laying down in the waiting room and talking to the people from your village, than stuck here sitting on the table and waiting for a couple of hours, listening to them using a saw on that hand.

Villager: You mean I've been sitting here all this time for nothing?

I'd like to tell him how long I waited with the worm in my liver, but I limit myself to nodding my head. A groan from next door winds up to a tense shriek. The villager decides my advice, slightly embellished, is well taken. I help him limp back out, on the way snagging a blanket from the pile. Once I have him installed at his fellows' feet, then I steel myself to approach the ghastly Croat on the other side. I can cuss in Croatian, but that's about it, so I use hand motions to get him moving to the procedure room. Thankfully leaving the sight of him, I roll up some ice in a towel and take it out to the Albanian, who complains that the ice is too cold and the pressure hurts his knee. Too bad, wimp. I have to admit, the Croats are bearing their injuries very toughly.

Shadow is helping with the surgery. Our job, my job, would now be to give water to the patients waiting. I fill a pitcher and grab a stack of paper cups. The Albanians drink, with teasing comments to the guy on the floor about spilling. Only one of the Croat men takes my water, and that with ill grace. The girl starts to pour her cup down the injured woman's throat, but I wave her off. I take the cup and drip a few drops on the woman's lips, as I was instructed on my first day. She licks them off and I let the girl repeat the procedure. I offer some water to Lt. Stevens, who declines, then down a cup myself.

I sneak another look at the woman on the floor. Her face looks gray. On my first raid one of our guys got hit, and looked like that in the pre-dawn light. He was dead by the time we got back to the village. Now there's something interesting: the two worst-injured Croats were hardly bleeding at all, and neither are the other Croat men, nor the Albanians. The woman and the soldier, on the other hand, are thoroughly smeared with blood. The difference is in the weapons: the First Division have plasma rifles, which kill with burning symbols (I wouldn't be surprised), whereas Illyrians have real bullets. And Croats have an interesting way of choosing targets. I notice that the woman has been positioned in a corner near Lt. Stevens, and the Croat men have all turned their chairs with their backs to her: the better to keep an eye on the Albanians, but it's surely not to protect the woman, for they're completely ignoring her. I didn't like Croats before, and I like them less now. But on my first day I was pointedly instructed, first by Tiger, then by Lt. Stevens, and finally by Dr. Demeti, that I was a First Division person first and an Albanian second, and though my greatest usefulness would be in speaking Shqip to Albanians, I was responsible to treat everyone courteously and equally. And I've tried to live up to those instructions.

Shadow's out at last. He's looking shaken.

Shadow: Jeez, that was gross! Dr. Demeti was just talking with the guy about where he wanted his hand chopped off. I saw an amputation before, but I don't know, this one was just bad. And that face! He's putting a skin graft on the guy now, and it all looked like so much undercooked meat. I'm tough, but I really had to use my toughness to stay in there. Dr. Demeti finally noticed, and sent me out.

Me: It was bad enough just taking the guy into the procedure room. See the woman in the corner? Could you take a look at her? She looks bad and I'm worried about her.

The Croat girl stands between Shadow and the woman, but I come up and put my arm around Shadow, who isn't looking pleased, and handsign that he should be allowed access. Lt. Stevens is keeping an eye on this interaction, as well as on the Albanians and Croat men eyeing each other across the room.

Shadow: She looks like she's in shock, and she's worse than when they brought her in here. Lt. Stevens, what are we going to do for her?

Lt. Stevens: I asked her daughter, but they're not religious. If they were, I'd have a priest called.

Me: Just let her croak laying on the floor?

Lt. Stevens: At a real hospital, before the collapse, I'd give her about a twenty percent chance of pulling through. Here, we'd just give her no peace while she died. Even if Dr. Demeti weren't overloaded with the two serious cases I'd advise him to just leave her alone, and I think he'd agree. You two are getting to learn about the third group in triage.

I look at Shadow, and Shadow looks at me. Lt. Stevens reminds me in a way of Tiger. It's obvious that we ought to be doing more for the woman, but sometimes what's obvious isn't right, and it takes a tough person to turn away from jackass behavior.

Me: Do you know what happened to her? She wasn't hit by a plasma rifle.

Lt. Stevens: You're right. I'm sure it was friendly fire, but none of the men would admit to knowing. You'll be interested to know that where she's holding her belly is an exit wound: she was shot in the back through the liver. There's at least one other wound. She's bleeding to death out of that liver, and in the unlikely event that we could stick that back together, her guts are leaking all over. She's had it. I'm sorry for the little girl; she's so brave.

Me: Right. Did you see how she stood up to Shadow? Look, I'm a little worried about having all these Croats and the Albanians looking at each other for a long time. Can Shadow handle some of them, and get them out of here?

Lt. Stevens: That's not a bad idea, actually. Shadow, can you tell when the burn is too bad for you to be messing with?

Shadow: I think so, ma'am.

Me: Let's do the Albanians first, then the Croats. Less chance of a blowup, and both groups know the Albanians were here first.

Lt. Stevens: OK. The one on the end first. He just needs a Band-Aid and he has the worst attitude. Gerbil, stick with Shadow and help them to take him seriously.

That assignment isn't easy, either for me or for Shadow. Albanian number one doesn't want Shadow to touch him. I finally let him know that my experience is with sheep, but if he doesn't mind a little sheep medicine I'll do the job. He actually accepts. Even I can wash a small wound and put on a Band-Aid. A soldier lounges in the door, summoned by Lt. Stevens, and I direct my ram to him. He doesn't want to leave his friends, but I tell him he's all done here and there's no point in watching the Croats, and the soldier (who must understand some Shqip) comes over to lend his authority. Aah, one jackass down, two to go, or seven, if you count the Croats as people.

The next Albanian took a near miss, and there's a hole burned through his shirt at the shoulder, and underneath the skin is all red and blistery. He decides to take off the shirt painfully rather than to have Shadow cut off the sleeve; he probably would have been shocked to see what Shadow would have used to cut it. And smarter than the other one, he declines the offer of sheep doctoring. Shadow washes the burned area gently, pats it dry, then covers it with a loose bandage taped at the edges, and that's that for him, after I translate Shadow's instructions how to recognize if a popped blister were to get infected.

We've gotten rid of the third Albanian, working around the guy on the floor, and two Croats when the girl tries to get my attention. She looks worried, and resigned. This time she doesn't block Shadow from getting close to her mother.

Shadow, in a small voice: I think she died.

Lt. Stevens: Let me check. (Then some kind-sounding words in Croatian.)

The girl looks down, but surprisingly doesn't cry. Then she looks up at Shadow and me.

Me: What happens now?

Lt. Stevens: I'll call someone over from the morgue to take away the body, and the girl will go to refugee processing. I assume that her village is still operational, so they'll send her back there.

Me: I don't like that. If someone else's kid begged to get into an Albanian family, they'd be nasty to her, make her do all the garbage work, and I imagine Croats would be worse.

Lt. Stevens: Why do you think they'd be worse?

Me: Because they're Croats. If I were her, I wouldn't want to go back to the people who shot her mother like that. The kid is brave and tough. When Tiger captured me she said she wanted people who would fit in her family and who would benefit from her and Simba's style of training. I think the girl would, and I think Tiger should have a chance at her.

Shadow: What?! You can't do that, just take someone into the family like that!

Lt. Stevens: I think Shadow's right, Gerbil.

Me: Why not? Shadow first, and is it you don't like her, or something else?

Shadow: You don't ever push Tiger or Simba around, making them do something they didn't decide themselves. I thought you had that figured out, Gerbil.

Me: I'm not pushing them around. I said Tiger should have a chance at her. If she's tossed in the garbage and stuck in some Croat family, what's going to happen? I tell Tiger, there was this brave little Croat girl this morning, and she goes, oh how interesting, and that's the end of it. I'm a First Division person and I want something better for Illyria, even this fleabitten Croat girl, and I'm willing to do some work, and take some risk of Tiger or Simba cussing me out, to put her in front of Tiger and let Tiger say yes or no. If Tiger refuses, the girl can still go back to her village and dump someone's chamberpot.

Shadow: I still don't like it.

Me: Are you worried Tiger will be angry, or that she'll say yes?

Shadow: Come on! She'll... You've hardly talked about any of the issues. It's... Aww, damn! Tiger and Simba are going to be fluttering around her like their little darling, and I know you worked out great, but she's... She's a human girl!

Lt. Stevens: And what's that supposed to mean?

Me: That if she's given some training she could grow up to be like Lt. Stevens.

Shadow: I'm... sorry. I'm selfish. And I'm thinking that everyone will be like some people I used to know.

Lt. Stevens: Apology accepted. Look, every time any of us yelps she gets more and more worried. I'm still not convinced about your plan, Gerbil, but we ought to let her know what we're discussing.

Me: Yes... No! Not in Croat speech. I don't like the idea of talking about it in front of the Croat men. They're already looking dangerous.

Lt. Stevens: I can handle them.

Me: Better not to need to. Here's a plan. Call the people to take away the body. Shadow and I will get our plan together, privately. Tell the girl that we'll take her to refugee processing. We'll then convince the refugee person, who will tell the girl. Hmm, should Shadow come back to finish up with the three Croats with burns? They don't like me; I'm not helping Shadow, being with him.

Lt. Stevens: You have to actually take her to refugee processing.

Me: I guess with an Albanian you have to think about that, don't you?

Lt. Stevens: Right. Shadow, your work shift is over, but with the skin graft dragging on like this, your help with those refugees would really be appreciated.

Shadow: OK, I'll do that. Gerbil, I've decided. I'm going to be a First Division person. We're a team, bringing the girl to Tiger, and if Tiger says it's OK the girl can join our team. But neither of us speak Serbo-Croatian, and she's nervous about me. How about I stay here and treat the burns, then catch up with you at refugee processing?

Me (imitating Tiger): I'm proud of you, Shadow. You get a hug in your account. I don't want the Croats and the Albanian to see me hug you; they wouldn't understand.

Lt. Stevens: I've called the morgue, and I'll tell the girl now.

Me: Ask her what her name is. We can't just call her ``the girl''.

The conversation is not short.

Lt. Stevens: Her name is Katica, and she doesn't want to leave the body.

Me: So we'll tag along with the morgue guy.

Lt. Stevens: Refugee processing.

Me: Morgue, then refugee processing. Promise. You'd better explain to her that she'll see where the body ends up, then we'll leave.

The girl, Katica, apparently needs it explained that she can't sit in the morgue all day, but eventually she seems to accept the plan. Here's a team who are going to carry the body. And the one in the lead is a werewolf!

Soldier (in their language, to Lt. Stevens): I'm Wallace. Are these the family?

Lt. Stevens: The girl is. Here's the toe tag for the body. Do either of you speak Serbo-Croatian?

Wallace: No, Greek's my schtick, and Sam knows some Shqip.

Lt. Stevens: Wonderful. Gerbil, if you have serious trouble you and Katica can come back here. Together, understand? I'll tell her the same thing.

We're on our way, and I'm a lot happier to not be watched hostilely by the three remaining Croats. Wallace and Sam carry the body between poles, Katica keeps up with their quick pace, and I bring up the rear. Wallace looks like... a person who I need to establish teamwork with, despite what he looks like. I've seen a number of that kind of, well, I'd better say that kind of person, but I haven't talked with Tiger or Simba about whether the werewolves are some kind of failed attempt to make monsters like the lion people. Wallace's skin looks like the Croat's former hand. Let's just keep our mind off any more analogies. And maybe keep it off where we're going too, or where we're just arriving at. Katica either hasn't thought who else lives here, or is very brave.

As Katica watches, Wallace puts the body on a kind of narrow sliding bed, and from the flow of cold air I can tell that the cabinet it slid out of is a refrigerator. He copies the woman's name onto a tag that goes at the end of the bed, and ties the toe tag on, of course, her toe. Then he slides the bed into the refrigerator. His job is over and we should leave now. But I've been thinking.

Me: Wallace, I wouldn't have felt right unless I were there when my family was buried. I'll bet Katica feels the same way, and that's why she doesn't want to get separated from that body. What's going to be done about the burial?

Wallace: This afternoon I'll take them back to their villages and plant them.

Me: About when?

Wallace: It depends on how many bodies come in, but probably about fourteen thirty today.

Meaning Shadow and I will have to split up: I accompany Katica while Shadow greets the werewolves and takes them to our tent. Treating guests right is important, and if I did that my father would be really pissed. Well, I already decided I'd risk that.

Me: OK, we'll be back here at fourteen fifteen.

Wallace: Whoa, not so fast, big boy. This isn't your usual genteel funeral. Sometimes we get shot at. It's no place for either of you.

Me: I've been shot at by Croats before. So has she. Did you get a look at the wounds on her mother? They missed Katica.

Wallace: It's definitely against regulations, and there's also not enough room in the cab of the truck.

I have to match Katica's courage.

Me: I suppose we could ride in back with the bodies.

Wallace: Shit, man, you're serious about this. Come on. Let's talk to the Lieutenant, before he runs off to lunch. He'll probably say no. Sam, if there's a call come and get me.

We migrate to a nearby office.

Lt. Ortiz: Are you willing to help bury all the bodies, not just Katica's mother?

Me: Yes, I guess. I know how you people do it.

Lt. Ortiz: How?

Me: I was the only one left alive from my village. I had to help out with the grave markers and getting families sorted out.

Lt. Ortiz: Oh. I'm sorry about that. There are three seat belts. Gerbil could take Sam's place.

Me: Thank you, sir. There's a little detail: could I borrow some soldiers' clothes? I think the Croats and whatever other types wouldn't like an Albanian burying one of their bodies.

Lt. Ortiz: Good point. But you wouldn't get insignia, understand? Or a rifle.

Me: Agreed.

Lt. Ortiz: OK. Could I see your identity card, please? I'll mail you a requisition which you can give to the quartermaster.

Me: Thank you, sir. Would the quartermaster be able to show me what to do with it?

Lt. Ortiz: I expect so.

Me: Good, sir. I've promised to take Katica to refugee processing next. Do you know where that is?

Lt. Ortiz: Room thirty, down the hall to the left, and turn right at the end.

Me: Thank you, sir, and thank you, Wallace.

I get out there, leading Katica, who is growing less sure of herself with every step. Out of the corner of her eye she catches me peeking at her and she straightens up, confident, ready to take on Albanians and furry monsters from Hell. I know that move; I do it enough myself. Like right now: am I blundering into jackass territory, messing with someone's life and with my family without Tiger or Simba's permission? Here's room thirty, and I'd better straighten my own spine and bring my tail erect.

Lady soldier: So there you are! We've been expecting you. What took you so long?

Me: The lieutenant in charge of the morgue had to decide about Katica attending the burial of her mother.

Soldier: You seem to be making a lot of plans.

Me: Yes, ma'am. This Croat girl is very brave, and it seemed the right thing to do, to work out the burial arrangements before losing the body. I don't speak Croat talk and she hasn't been told the result. Can you talk to her?

Soldier: As a matter of fact I can, which is one reason why I'm handling this myself. I'm Sergeant Heather Sokol.

Me: Pleased to meet you. I'm Gerbil, and she's Katica.

Sgt. Sokol: Yes, I know. (And she greets Katica quite a bit more warmly.)

Me: Did you tell her about the burial? Perhaps you could translate for me, and then you'll know too. And when Tiger captured me, when she talked to Shadow or Simba she did that in handsigns, with voice in my language, so I could participate.

Sgt. Sokol: Hmm. You understand that I'm responsible for refugees and displaced persons, not you. Right?

Me: Yes, ma'am.

Sgt. Sokol: And what you said about deciding about Katica attending the burial of her mother left out one very important person. Right?

Me: Yes, ma'am. But the lieutenant could have refused. I felt it safest to bring it up with him first, rather than have the body disappear on us when we were over here.

Sgt. Sokol: Hmm. Suppose you toss out something for me to translate, like Katica's going to do this or that. What do you think I'll do?

Me: What's best for Katica, and you'll have something for me later so I don't forget who's responsible for refugees.

Sgt. Sokol: A well-oiled response. And what got you going about the burial anyway? We don't normally do that, and I'm surprised Lt. Ortiz allowed it.

Me: Katica refused to be separated from her mother's body. I put myself in her place. Tiger let me put grave markers where my parents' bodies were, and let me help put my baby sister in the trench. I felt bad, but it would have been a whole lot worse if she'd just tied me up and thrown me in the truck, like I expected her to. It was like saying goodbye to my family. She told me to do that.

Sgt. Sokol: Tiger, warm and fuzzy? That's not how I think of her.

Me: The Illyrian jackasses, like our headman, see a very different side of her than I do. She and Simba, and Shadow too, are the fiercest people I've ever met, but they're kind too. They're very Albanian. I'm trying to learn from them.

Sgt. Sokol: So you're the Albanian boy who they adopted. You're very lucky, you know. So what's the deal with the burial?

Me (in handsigns): Katica's mother and several other bodies will be taken to their villages and buried. The people who are going have to be at the morgue at fourteen fifteen.

Sgt. Sokol (by voice): That's it?

Me: Yes, ma'am.

Sgt. Sokol: And is Katica going to be one of them?

Me: Perhaps you should talk with Katica about that. I can't speak Croat talk. She's the one who wanted to stick with the body.

Sgt. Sokol: I think I'll take your advice, boy.

And she talks quite a while with Katica, who looks nervous and intimidated. I put on my assured and confident face, and I think she sees and remembers to do it herself. A young man knows how to maneuver around fierce adults to get what he wants.

Sgt. Sokol: OK, she has my permission to go. Now Lt. Stevens mentioned something about a plan that I should discuss with you. It's lunch time. How about you two come with me to the mess hall, and you can tell me over lunch.

Me: Thank you, ma'am. But I should wash my hands first, and Katica probably needs to be shown how to do that, and also when Shadow is done at the clinic he'll look for us here, so we should leave word where we've gone.

Sgt. Sokol: Jack, you're here through lunch, right? Tell Shadow we're in the mess hall. Come on, Gerbil, the washroom is right around here.

We end up getting something like what my mother might cook for dinner, except with more vegetables. I don't want to look like a country bumpkin or a Croatian pig, so I take what Sgt. Sokol does, varying it within each category so it's not so obvious I'm imitating. She chooses for Katica, and she pays for all of us: 1.2 fangs, about what I earned at the clinic today. There are actual tables and chairs, and I hang back until Sgt. Sokol and Katica have picked places, and I sit next to Katica, because I remember that Shadow makes her nervous. I think I make her nervous too, and no wonder.

Me: Sgt. Sokol, could you explain something to Katica? With her I'm a First Division person first, and an Albanian second. I'm not going to treat her like Albanians usually treat Croats. And the same for Shadow: he's nice; he's not a devil monster, even if he does have claws and mouth daggers.

Sgt. Sokol, after telling Katica: I don't think she trusts you a whole lot.

Me: I felt the same way about Tiger after she captured me, but I treated her with respect and she did the same, and we got through the day.

I'm a little surprised that Sgt. Sokol translates that (I think) for Katica.

Sgt. Sokol, around a bite of her meat: So what's this plan we're supposed to discuss?

Me: (Gulp.) Tiger told me she's looking for orphans who are tough, brave and smart, and who could benefit from the style of training that she and Simba could give them. I saw how Katica handled the death of her mother, and we all think she qualifies. I think Tiger should be given the chance to look her over. If she joins a Croat family first, Tiger wouldn't have that chance.

Sgt. Sokol: And?

Me: Putting orphans with other Illyrian families isn't such a wonderful thing for the orphans. My family would have made her do all the dirty work, dumping the chamberpot and cooking and washing all the clothes, and teased her all the time and beaten her. I'm sure Croats would be worse. They do perverted things to prisoners, you know, and I'll bet it's the same for orphans.

Sgt. Sokol: You would have been interested to have heard a conversation I had about two weeks ago with a Montenegrin refugee, about Albanians. Now tell me, where do you come into your plan?

Me: If Tiger takes Katica into our family, she, Shadow and I will work as a team.

Sgt. Sokol: Somewhere behind those brown eyes I can see you thinking, Gerbil is going to do this, and Gerbil is going to do that.

Me: Gerbil is going to try to get you to think what's best for Katica, and what's going to get Tiger to say, thank you for bringing me a kid I can work with, not losing her.

Sgt. Sokol: Hmm. So what if Tiger says no?

Me: Depending on what Tiger decides, we'd bring Katica back to you, or let her stay with us tonight and bring her back in the morning.

Sgt. Sokol: And how is Katica going to feel?

Me: She's going to have to be brave. You should explain to her that I'm only guessing that Tiger will take her. Oh, hi, Shadow. This is Sgt. Sokol, and I've just told her about the plan. You can share my food.

Sgt. Sokol: Hello, Shadow. We haven't met. Come on and I'll get you something.

Oh, crap, I had the momentum going and now I'll have to start all over. Katica keeps an eye on me while stuffing down her throat a rather large portion of food for such a small girl. Well, she's not that small, about Shadow's size, just a lot smaller than me. I guess she doesn't know where her next meal is coming from, and she'd better make the most of this luxurious one. I try to appear serene and nonthreatening, and to not stare at her while not ignoring her either. The way she's eyeing me, I think I'm not succeeding.

Sgt. Sokol: OK, Gerbil, you're going to try to get me to think what's best for Katica. Let's see what she thinks is best for her.

There follows a rather long conversation in Croat jabber. I look at Shadow and he looks at me, as he eats. Tiger would be translating in handsigns, but I think it prudent not to remind Sgt. Sokol of that. I'd better finish my meal as well, because if this works I'm going to need the fuel.

Sgt. Sokol: She really is a brave little girl. She's going to go for it. Now understand, I'm not ``giving'' her to anyone, particularly not to you two. You're to keep her with you, that means as close as you are now, until Tiger or Simba takes responsibility for her, either to keep her with your family or to bring her back here. You don't tell her to sit somewhere alone and then run off to play. Got that?

Me: Yes, ma'am. But Shadow and I are going to have to split up. Shadow, Katica and I have to go with the morgue crew to bury her mother, starting at fourteen fifteen.

Shadow: Awww. They wanted to meet you. And I can't carry all their stuff.

Me: Sgt. Sokol, we have guests flying in today at fifteen hundred, and Shadow will have to meet them alone.

Sgt. Sokol: Can you handle that, Shadow?

Shadow: Of course. But we'd planned to be together. I guess it's going to be like in the clinic: I do what I'm best at, and so do you, and sometimes, like today, we have to work separately.

Sgt. Sokol: Good. Now, Gerbil, you very carefully denied making plans for what you were going to do with Katica. Let's talk about that now.

Me: First, does she understand that Tiger and Simba are lion people? Not human?

Sgt. Sokol: Yes. She agreed with you, by the way, that devil monsters one of whom had made a fairly good impression were perhaps a better chance for her than a family back in her village.

Me: They shot her mother in the back. I assume her father isn't around any more either. They might try to finish off the family.

Sgt. Sokol: Come on.

Shadow: The First Division doesn't use physical bullets. The mother had an exit wound right here. She was hit several times, and we don't think it was an accident, from the way the other wounded Croats were acting toward her.

Sgt. Sokol: I'm glad you eventually told me about this.

Me: A reason to go toward Tiger is more convincing than a reason to go away from her village.

Sgt. Sokol: I like to be kept informed. Next?

Me: She should know that the guests are a family of werewolves, and it's going to be pretty crowded in our tent for a few days.

Sgt. Sokol: You're scaring her off, not attracting her.

Me: I have to be honest with her. If I don't tell her, it will be obvious pretty quick when they use their claws to cut something, or open their pockets, and then she might scream and run off, and she'll always wonder what else I didn't tell her. Tiger was absolutely honest with me, and that was important, and I've learned to be a lot more honest here than I ever was in my village.

Sgt. Sokol: OK, here goes. (She tells Katica, who doesn't look comforted. I appear serene. Sgt. Sokol finally reports:) She'll take a chance on the werewolves. And you're not the only one who's thought about being shot in the back.

Me: OK, then, what does Katica have to do before the burial? Let's go through what Tiger did when I was captured. Medical exam, and that's important because she probably needs worm medicine. A sleeping mat and computer and stuff, and clothes. But there's no way we could pay for that. If Tiger takes her then we'll get that and she'll pay. A shower with lice soap; of course she's full of lice. Then language lessons. There's no way we can finish all that in, well, is it after thirteen hundred by now? And I have to borrow some soldier's clothes, but Shadow, you could work alone with Katica while I'm doing that. OK? Shadow, Sgt. Sokol, which parts do you think we should leave out?

Sgt. Sokol: Why do you think she's full of worms and lice?

Me: Because she's a Croat, of course.

Sgt. Sokol: And all Croats have worms and lice, right?

Me: Right. Everyone knows they're dirty. And fleabitten too. Do you think lice soap will kill fleas?

Sgt. Sokol: What do you think about this, Shadow?

Shadow: In the clinic I see a lot of Illyrians, and I don't root through their hair, but I can see the eggs fairly frequently. I don't keep count by group. Also, Gerbil had both lice and worms when he came to us, and she should at least be checked. She probably knows; I've heard that lice make you itch, and some kinds of worms should be visible in the caca. Let's ask her.

Sgt. Sokol: That's not exactly what I was asking about. ``Because she's a Croat, of course. Right, everyone knows that.''


Shadow: Oh. Well, Gerbil, um, you know, it's kind of best to go by the person rather than the group. You look in her hair, not say everyone knows all Croats have lice.

Me: Sgt. Sokol, was that what you were trying to get at? Well, um, I can sort of see what you're saying, but I have a lot of experience, and I'm sure you do too, and how many Croats have you seen that didn't have lice? I don't mean to be disrespectful but I don't want to lie either.

Sgt. Sokol: You mentioned mutual respect. I think you aren't showing enough respect to Katica, and you'd better change your attitude if she's going to be joining your family. I hope you're not going to try to stick her with the dirty jobs like emptying chamberpots.

My face goes red under the fur and I can't meet anyone's eyes. I am truly an Albanian jackass. Should I even be... Come on, get off the coward track! Bend over and take it like an Albanian man. But that's the whole point, wasn't it, that here's a part of my Albanian training which is wrong? I'm going to take it like a First Division warrior, male or female, with or without claws.

Me: I was wrong. Would you tell Katica, please, that if I'm not showing proper respect that she should speak up? We'll get the words onto her word list as soon as she has one.

Sgt. Sokol looks at me, surprised, then does as I asked. Now Katica is the surprised one.

Sgt. Sokol: She accepts your apology. And I do have experience with Croats, and I treat them, and their lice, firmly but with respect. Albanians generally have lice too; I'm sure you're aware. I have several variations on this speech all prepared, because the issue has come up with just about every trainee who's come into my department. And another thing for you to think about, later in the afternoon: how did you know that Croats have lice? Count the number of Croats whose hair you've looked in, and compare it with the number of times kids in your village talked about Croats. OK? Now that we have the mutual respect issue nailed down --- I like that way of phrasing it --- I'm going to go back to your first question. You're going to want to take a shower after the burial, so hold the lice soap until then. Go over to the clinic and see if Katica can get in, but let Lt. Stevens know when you have to leave, and if the time runs out, split. I don't know what you're going to do about language lessons; I can't help you there.

Shadow: I can set up a separate directory for her on my machine, and if Tiger keeps her we can copy the whole thing over. Do you suppose you could tell her, because it might be hard for her to understand what we're trying to get her to do. And a few simple words, like, well, let's see, ``come with me'' and maybe ``let me at the computer''.

Me: And tell her about the lice soap: she has to keep her eyes tightly closed. Katica, look at me. (She does look, and I demonstrate. Sgt. Sokol provides voiceover, then simplifies Shadow's lesson request to ``come'' and ``give''.)

Sgt. Sokol: Well, I guess that's it. Put your dishes in the tub over there. I'd like to know how this comes out. Shadow, I'll send you mail, and whichever way it goes with Tiger, please reply and let me know.

Shadow: Sure, Sgt. Sokol. Katica, come.

Katica comes, and we get out of there. I hope that was the hardest part. To keep my nerve up I'd kept my mind off what I've volunteered to do in an hour or so. But Katica's going to go through with it, and I can scarcely be less brave than a little Croat girl, can I? Oops. A little girl who with any luck (for her) is going to be a mutually respected member of my team.

At the clinic Dr. Demeti is trying to make time to eat lunch. In exchange for examining Katica I offer to get it for him, and he's nice enough to give me some coins and to tell me what he wants. When I deliver the food he reports that Katica in fact has a few lice and plenty of worms, and she has a new bottle of ivermectin pills. Shadow signs that she should put it in his bag, which has been sitting next to mine and those of the other staff members. She's reluctant until Dr. Demeti speaks gently to her. I hope she doesn't have the problem I did, and I'll watch her closely tomorrow for gut problems. Now here's a question: who's going to pay? I think I'd better leave that issue to ask Tiger or Simba.

We have half an hour for language practice, but the clinic waiting room is for patients, not us. However, there's a low wall beside the main entrance, shaded by the building's roof, that we can sit on. Several trucks and fighting flyers are parked on the grass. Oops; it's not time quite yet for language practice. Someone very important has absolutely no idea what I'm getting her, and him, into.

Me: Shadow, before we start Katica on language lessons, would you make a quick report to Tiger and Simba? We got Katica away from Sgt. Sokol, so I think it's time to notify them.

Shadow: What do I say?

Me: You're always good with reports. Tell them that Katica was very brave about the death of her mother, and in working with us, and she seems smart and tough. Don't say we think she ought to be in the family; say we think Tiger ought to have a chance to meet her. We don't want to annoy Tiger by seeming to push her around. You'd better tell her we have permission from Sgt. Sokol, and that I'm going with her to bury her mother. Meanwhile I'd better get my clothes. I'm afraid time will run out. Tell Tiger that.

Shadow: Sure, Gerbil.

Katica watches Shadow; of course she can't read any of the words. I do feel the time passing. I go back to the clinic, snag my bag, and report to the quartermaster. He's rather surprised at my request, and similarly surprised at being asked to help me show him the requisition, but he was patient before and he's patient this time. The idea is that I have to not just show but give the requisition to him, by mailing it to him, less than an armspan distant, without damaging it. That takes two tries, and it's fortunate, though very non-Albanian, that I can give it to him and yet still have it in my mailbox. How strange: Shadow and Angela and I could talk to Selen even though he was in some other camp, as if he were right with us, and Angela has shown us pictures of Manitoba, which is on the other side of the Earth, but giving the requisition to the quartermaster who's looking right at it is a struggle.

Oops. I'd better finish what I'm doing, then try to get my butt out of hot water.

OK, I'm issued pants, a shirt, a bulletproof vest, a helmet, socks and combat boots. A black belt buckle is considered unnecessary, and of course I don't get any insignia to sew on the shirt. I put them all on right there to make sure they fit; and I've never had such magnificent boots and I need to have the quartermaster show me how to tie them. But the socks, once I'm shown how to roll them to get them on, are so neat, not like the rags we wrap around our feet inside sheepskin boots in winter. Man, the vest makes you hot! Too bad I'll have to give it all back. I'd like to show this stuff to Angela... Perhaps it would be a very good idea to show it to Angela. After thanking the quartermaster politely I stuff my own clothes and the computer back in the bag, and return to Shadow and Katica. We have fifteen minutes left.

Shadow: Hey, you look cool in that uniform, just like a real soldier!

Me: I guess; I can't see myself. But remember we were supposed to meet Angela for lunch after clinic work?

Shadow: Jeez!

Me: Let's invite her over here to chew us out. She can meet Katica, and see my clothes, and maybe those will help dampen the fire. How about you send her urgent mail and I'll start NetBoard.

Shadow: She's going to be really mad.

Me: The longer we delay, the madder she'll be. Be honest with her; apologize for forgetting her. OK?

Shadow: OK. Katica, give.

He retrieves his computer from Katica's lap where she was doing a language lesson, and I get mine going. Evidently Angela was studying, or drawing a picture of me with a dagger through my heart, for she gets on session right away.

Angela: So, floor mops, where did you two get off to leaving me to sit around here on my butt?

Me: I'm so sorry, Angela; I'm definitely a jackass. A young Croat girl and her mother were in the clinic. The mother died. I thought the girl handled it really well, and that Tiger might want to give her a place in the family. There were also four Albanians and seven other Croats, and Shadow stayed late to help treat them. Then it took a lot of running around so the girl wasn't sent right back to her village where she probably would have been murdered. I'm sorry, we were thinking about all that and we forgot about an important team member. Would you like to come over and see the soldier's uniform I've been lent, and meet the girl?

Angela: What I'd like to do is go home where I have a comfortable place to sit, alone, and eat one of my favorite snacks.

Shadow: Awww. Come on, Gerbil looks totally cool! You can't miss it; he has to give the clothes back when he's done. And Katica is so smart; I'm sure Tiger will take her. I was wrong, what I thought about her in the beginning.

Angela: Let's get something straight. If you're supposed to meet me and you're going to be late, tell me! Send mail. Like Shadow just did, but preferably not two hours after.

Me: I'm sorry, Angela. That's a good idea, about the mail. We'll all do that, if we can't get away. OK? Do come over, because the flight leaves in about ten minutes and Katica and I had better be on it. We're in front of the big building.

Angela: Where are you going?

Me: To bury Katica's mother. I type slow. You come quick, OK?

Angela: OK. Don't think you're forgiven, though, floor mops. I just want to see how idiotic you look. Session off.

Shadow gets Katica started again on her lesson, and I get myself nervous. I don't like bodies; nobody does; and it was all very heroic for me to open my mouth about helping, but probably not very prudent, ghostwise. Angela is on her way here and is going to have some very pointed criticisms for me. And Tiger and Simba are probably going to explain to me, very politely, in front of the werewolves, that they'd prefer to decide who should be considered for membership in the family. Well, one of my nervousnesses is about to become reality.

Angela: Hi there, Greater Floor Mop. Come on, stand up and let me see you. Actually it's pretty snazzy, like a real soldier. Put on the helmet. Ooh, mean and vicious as they come! I'm glad shiptars don't really have that kind of equipment.

I see Katica's eyes open hearing the cuss word, the Croat word for Albanian. She speaks to Angela.

Angela (in spoken signs): Oh, you must be Katica. Sorry, I don't speak Hrvatska.

Me: I see you've started learning it. They deliberately say Shqipëtar wrong. It must mean something in their language.

Angela: I had to do something to keep myself occupied. I learned some more cuss words, in other languages. Want to hear them?

Me: It might confuse Katica. I'm really sorry, Angela. We just concentrated on what was in front of us, and forgot what wasn't. We should have sent a message to you.

Angela: Right. Now when do you have to run off and have fun with body parts?

Shadow: Right about now, Gerbil. You and Katica had better run. Katica, give.

Me: Here, Angela; could you drop my bag off at our tent? Remember, you're invited to dinner with the werewolves.

Angela: Wouldn't miss it, particularly with the young one sniffing around my impressionable young man. Be careful. Don't get shot. Dodge the ghosts.

Me: I'll sure try. Katica, come.

I'm good on trails and I'm able to get back to the morgue. Wallace and Sam have the clients lined up on the floor. There is a subtle miasma in the air. Katica stands at her mother's feet and looks sorrowfully down. I put my hand briefly on her shoulder.

Wallace: We were making bets whether you'd show up.

Me: Katica wants to see her mother properly buried.

Wallace: Well, we'd better get the truck loaded if that's to happen. This first guy goes to Krrabë in Albania. You're Albanian, right? Know anyone from Krrabë?

Me: No; the villages don't mix much.

Wallace: You lift his feet. We're putting him on the stretcher. Ready, up!

I'm sure this is Wallace's way of testing me, and it's not a trivial test either. I force myself to grab the cold bare feet without delay. Using the cloth between poles we take each of the five corpses outside to the assigned truck, carefully keeping the prewritten grave markers with the proper bodies. They go in reverse order and each is from a different ethnic group: Albanian, Macedonian, Serb, Croat and Montenegrin. We have no Bosnian, Slovene or Herzegovinan. Katica sticks with her mother. I'm roasting in my helmet and vest, dripping sweat inside, and I notice that Wallace is wearing neither. However, not knowing the procedure I'm reluctant to take them off. Wallace undoubtedly is aware of my internal situation and is quietly laughing.

Wallace: All right, now, let's get this show on the road. Katica, you want to sit in the middle?

She follows his finger point. I climb in and help her with the seatbelt, then fasten mine. And we're off; Wallace flies the truck with flair. I sit on my fear of falling, as Katica grabs the seat much as I did that last time. I put my hand on Katica's leg to comfort her, but the look she gives me indicates that wasn't the best move. So I keep my hands to myself and let her manage her own fears.

Wallace: Coming up on Krzhanja. When we're on the ground you just let me do the talking, OK?

We land with a jolt next to an existing row of four graves. All three of us get out and at last Wallace puts on his helmet and vest. Wallace and I remove body number one, onto the cloth and poles. By this time a grim-faced Montenegrin headman and a weeping widow have joined us. The man points. Wallace sprinkles white power from a jar indicating the corners of the grave, and the occupant is placed to the side. Wallace shoos Katica and me over by the body, and moves the truck so the digging attachment can reach the spot. It digs fast; its big bucket looks like a devil monster with three snaggle fangs. Done! The grave is neat and rectangular, better than a man would have done in a tenth the time.

Now it's my turn again: Wallace slides the carrying poles through loops at the ends of three strips of cloth, and spins his pole to wrap the cloth around it. I do the same on the other side. Then we set the body on, lift, and lower it into the grave by unwinding the cloth. I imagine Wallace is waiting for me to get the procedure confused so he can blame me for dropping the body, but it's pretty simple if I keep my eyes open. We take out the poles and Wallace pulls the cloth strips out. Then the digging attachment pushes the dirt back in. Wallace sticks the grave marker into the soft earth, and we're done. Wallace told me to let him do the talking, but he's said not a word, not surprising since he said he doesn't know Croat talk. As far as I can tell, which isn't far like Sgt. Sokol said, Montenegrins talk like Croats and Serbs, though some of the cuss words (the category I'm most expert in) are different.

The headman is comforting the widow. We pile into the truck and get out of there.

Wallace: Hang onto your hats: next stop is Brinje.

I'm tempted to take that admonition literally; Wallace's removed helmet rolls around behind his seat. Katica recognized the name of her village; she's looking downcast and depressed. I poke her gently and when she looks up I sit straight and confident, with my tail up. She imitates me on the outside, no matter how bad she's feeling inside. Good. It takes about a quarter hour until Wallace makes what I assume is his trademark landing. We get out and set Katica's mother to the right of the truck near the other graves, leaving room for the truck to dig. But this burial isn't going like in Montenegro: we're met by the village chief and four henchmen with rifles, one of whom I recognize from the clinic this morning. And I think he recognizes me.

Me (quietly): Careful, Wallace. There are rifles that we don't see.

Wallace (edging closer to the truck): Some that they don't see.

The headman spouts Croat jabber but the handsigns are clear: they want the body put back in the truck. The guy from this morning says something including ``shiptar''. My blood is boiling but I remember: I'm Tiger's representative, and First Division people don't freak out; they accomplish their objective. Is it cowardice to retreat? A real Albanian jackass would scream with rage at the insult and start shooting. But what are we trying to accomplish? A decent burial for Katica's mother. Elsewhere. These loutish Croats would probably desecrate the grave.

Katica hasn't had my training and experience, though. She puts her hands on her hips and spits a stream of invective that I wish I could learn. But it's infuriating the men, particularly the expletive ``ustasha''. I put my hand on her shoulder and jerk my thumb at the truck, receiving a lips-peeled snarl for my trouble. I pick up the mother's feet and Wallace also decides that's the prudent course. We stow the body with less than the desired dignity and are about to get in the truck. But Katica, the jackass, is still telling off the men of her village and they're advancing to give her a punishment she'll never forget.

Me: Katica, come!

And I step between Katica and the headman. I give Katica a shove without looking, hoping to get her moving. She resists, then yields. I'm eyeball to eyeball with the headman as I edge backward, carefully staying on my foundation rather than running in cowardly panic. I'm in.

Headman: Shiptar!

I slam the door and Wallace pops us skyward. Too bad I didn't catch the headman's fingers.

Wallace: Shee-it, man, that was close! The little girl sure told 'em off good, didn't she?

Me: Yeah. Katica, I wish you could understand me. You're going to get a lecture this evening from Tiger or Simba about holding your temper and accomplishing your goals. Wallace, what are we going to do now? Where are we going to bury her?

Wallace: That's a real good question, kid.

It looks like the young man will have to take the initiative here, while we hover high over the Croat village. But I don't have the experience to know what to do.

Me: We might sneak off in the hills and bury her there. Or we could pick some other village, but Katica would have to beg them to let her mother go there, and I don't think that's a good idea, and we couldn't explain to Katica what to do anyway. Did you bring your computer? We could set up NetBoard with audio and try to find someone to ask.

Wallace: I don't know about this NetBoard, but that's a real good idea about passing the buck. Hold on a minute. Gravedigger One to base, come in. Come in, base. Would you patch me through to Lt. Ortiz? Hey, Lieutenant, we've got a problem here at Brinje. The little girl's mother, they wouldn't let us bury her, ran us off at gunpoint. So what do we do with the body?

Lt. Ortiz: Take her to another village, maybe?

Me: I think they'd be really suspicious, and since we don't know Croat talk, Katica would have to do all the talking, and we couldn't explain that to her. Hey, I know a village that would take her, but it's Albanian, not Croat. Mine. But still, how do we explain this to Katica?

Lt. Ortiz: How do you know you could talk your people into taking the body?

Me: I'm the only one alive from my village. The ghosts won't object. I don't really believe in ghosts.

Lt. Ortiz: In daytime... Katica might not like it, though. Look, hang on while I get Meade on the horn.

There are ambiguous sounds from the other end, then Lt. Meade is introduced. He jabbers with Katica for a minute. She looks at me. I try to look friendly and helpful, the opposite of a shiptar. She talks some more with the lieutenant about ``ustasha''.

Lt. Meade: Bad scene there. I mentioned finding an isolated field and burying her mother there, but the girl thought that would be too uncivilized. She thinks the Albanian village would be better than trying to get cemetery space with other Croats.

Wallace: Thanks, Lieutenant; that's what we'll do. Over and out.

In Divci the Serb body is buried, and the Macedonian's village is Arbinovo, and the villagers in both aren't happy that one of their people is dead, but they manage to avoid taking it out on us. We're in the air again, heading southwest, if I've judged the Sun right.

Wallace: OK, kid, next stop is Albania. What's your village?

Me: I lived in Nikç.

Wallace: Nikç, Nikç, where is it? It doesn't come up. Maybe I messed up the spelling. There it is, bastard! I missed the little goodie at the end. Now where is it on the map? OK, it's closer than Krrabë; we'll go there first. Hang on.

I'm already hanging on. I wish I could work the map while Wallace concentrated on swooping and twisting, but I don't know enough to do that even on the simulator. Katica looks grim and I wonder if she's thinking about the upcoming burial on normally hostile territory, or about the flying. Probably both. I'm not going to get tangled up in my thoughts. Katica is on my team and I'm going to do what I think is right, and Katica's mother's ghost is just going to have to deal with my parents' ghosts, which I denied believing in for bravado. Better than dealing with ustashas who are very much alive and who, being Croats, would probably dig her up again and let the dogs eat her. Oops, that's not a First Division thought. ...And who, being such sweet individuals, would most likely leave her for the dogs. Here we are at last, I guess. I never saw my village from the air, even on that awful day since I sat on the left side of the truck. It looks like a pile of garbage. We set down at the end of the grave trench.

Me: OK, Katica, let's do this for real. (She doesn't understand me but appreciates my tone, I think.)

Wallace and I take out the orphan body. She wasn't that old, was she? But she's obviously been through a lot, ending in treachery from her own people. At least we Albanians don't do that. Well, in my almost seventeen years, and in my one village, nobody was treacherous like that. I'm learning foreign ways; I'm learning the First Division style of thinking. My parents ought to be proud, but wouldn't be.

Wallace has the hole dug out, and it's time for us to use the cloth strips to put the body in it. Katica joins me to help hold the pole. Smart, that she's picked up the procedure by watching, even though her strength really doesn't contribute much. But I don't shoo her away; I know how I felt... Was it only two weeks ago? Two and a half, but it seems like a year. There, she's in and we have the cloths out from under the body. Katica starts pushing dirt into the grave with her bare hands. She's weeping silently. Wallace is uncharacteristically silent too, but he gets into the truck and starts using the digging machine on the end of the pile opposite Katica. I take the grave marker from the back of the truck.

Me: Katica, come.

She's too close to the machine's bucket for my comfort, and evidently prudence wins over loyalty, for she obeys me. I give her the marker as Wallace finishes filling the grave. Katica pushes it into the soft earth over her mother's head. And it's done. I use the sleeve of my soldier's shirt to wipe the tears from Katica's cheeks. My mother did that for me, or to me, when I was little. Then I hated it, acknowledging my weakness, but I think it would be different for girls, and evidently I'm right, for Katica doesn't fight my touch.

I'm feeling weepy too, but not where others could see.

Me: Wallace, would you mind if I looked at my family's graves?

Wallace: OK, kid, but don't take too long. We have another customer in back.

My baby sister is right about... here. I think this is the one. I've been learning the sounds that go with the letters and I can read the grave marker. But I haven't come to terms with the horrible way she died --- probably I never will. Goodbye. You were so cute and I'll never know you grown up.

Now I again walk, not run, past the pile of rubble that was Bashkim's house, where my brother may or may not be hidden, and I turn down our alley, past the zigzag. Nothing has changed except for a weed poking up from among the fallen bricks of our house. There are the grave markers I put up. Katica takes my hand, and pats it with her other hand, as girls do. I put my arm around her. We walk back to the truck.

Wallace: OK, kids, let's get this show on the road. Fasten your seat belts 'cause you're going to need 'em. Krrabë, here we come!

Krrabë is over the mountains to the southeast. I know it, not by name but as a place about a day and a half march away that's judged tough to raid, and not profitable enough to make the risk worthwhile. We land in our usual fashion, klunk.

Me: Since I know Shqip, how about I try to be polite to them. OK?

Wallace: The less you say, the better it works out, but if we need to talk them out of something, go ahead and talk.

The headman, the widow and three children around Katica's age come out to attend the burial. They're all curious to see Katica, but none of them take any kind of initiative to find out what she's doing here.

Me: I'm sorry your person got killed. Where would you like him buried? About here?

Headman: Yeah. What's an Albanian doing working for the foreign bastards?

Me: I was captured. They put me to work burying bodies.

Headman: After you ran?

Me: Actually I tried to put my knife through one of their head people. They appreciate that kind of thing.

Headman: Hmph. So what's with the girl?

Me: We buried her mother.

Headman: So they murder women and children, do they?

Me: Not her. The girl's mother got in the way of her own people's bullet.

Headman: And what happens to her now?

Me: A family has been found who will take care of her. Excuse me, I have to help lower your person into the grave.

Whew! As few lies as I dared. With my parents I already learned to tell as much of the truth as possible, but it was always tough, even though they wouldn't kill me if I answered wrong. The grave is filled and the widow is weeping more. I give the grave marker to her, and she sets it in place similar to the others.

Me: I hope we can meet more happily in the future. Good day, now.

And Katica and I pile into the truck, and Wallace throws it into the air, toward home. Where ``home'' does not mean Nikç.

Wallace: So what were you chattering with the headman about back there?

Me: He wanted to know what an Albanian was doing working for the First Division.

Wallace: So what did you tell him?

Me: That I was captured and put to work burying bodies.

Wallace: Not exactly the truth.

Me: Most of it is. I only lied in implying that this was my regular job.

Wallace: Hmph.

I'm glad Wallace is tired from the long day and doesn't seem in the mood to chatter more. I'm particularly glad that he's keeping his eyes on what's in front of us as we hurtle through the sky. And not digging into tender spots in my loyalty issues. The Sun is in our eyes as we fly. But at last we seem to be getting lower. Yes, there are the First Division's tents in the distance, and getting precipitously closer. Thump! The truck's feet must be buried in the grass after that landing.

Wallace: OK, kids, here we are.

Me: Thanks, Wallace. Do we have to check in with Lt. Ortiz or something?

Wallace: Nah, I'll report to him. You did good out there. You want I should put in a word with the Lieutenant about a regular job?

Me: No, thanks. I'm working at the clinic already. See you, Wallace. Katica, come.

Now what? Check in with Tiger immediately? Or showers first? Hmm. Or should I send mail to my team, including Tiger and Simba, but physically go and wash? Initiative is what Tiger and Simba want from me, but the least initiative possible when it cuts into their own authority. No, that puts the wrong slant on it. I should give them their chance at the situation at the earliest possible moment. But I'll suggest that we turn right around and wash ourselves and our clothes.

And here we are at our tent, not far from the main building. I draw myself up in a proud and confident posture, making sure Katica sees me, and as she's done before, she imitates me. Tails up, we enter. Everyone including Angela is here, sitting or standing, and the place is packed. Evidently the werewolves have a variant of the spicy scent of lion people. The older female werewolf has very dark skin like Wallace, and so does the young one, whose picture I hadn't seen. The male's brown is not so dark. And like true wolves, they don't believe in wearing clothes. I'd better not get distracted as a young jackass very much would like to do. And they're sitting on their own light blue mats in Shadow's and my places, so what happened to my stuff? I'd better not get distracted by thoughts of territory either, dealing with dangerous guests when an important objective is elsewhere, standing beside me.

Me: Good afternoon, Tiger and Simba, and our guests. I'm Gerbil. This is Katica, the girl we thought you might want to meet, Tiger and Simba. But we're dirty from our work this afternoon, and I suggest that we wash ourselves properly, before real introductions.

Tiger (in signs and Croatian, after translating what I said for Katica): That's a good idea. Katica, I'm Tiger, the person you've come to see, and this is my mate Simba. I'm female and he's male; you can't tell that by looking at lion people. Now you'll find, you've probably already seen that that a lot of our ways differ from what Croats do, but I understand that you've had a very rough day and I don't want to push you when it's not necessary. You're going to our latrine now to wash, and someone will have to do your hair for you, with lice soap. Clearly Gerbil plans on doing that for you, but would you prefer that someone else among us help you wash your hair?

Katica (translated by Tiger): Um, well, ma'am, I really don't like to take my clothes off around other people.

Tiger: Many Terrans feel like that, but here the latrine is shared. Other people will be going in and out, many of them washing after the day's work.

Katica: Someone who gets beaten, would you think she was a bad girl?

Tiger: No. I'd ask why she was beaten, and judge from that. I also have much more effective ways to punish kittens and young men. You can ask Shadow and Gerbil how Simba and I handle them. They thought you could learn from us. You and we will have to decide if they were right. But later.

Me: Katica, my parents beat me often. But I don't think I'm bad, and neither do Tiger and Simba.

Katica: Were you beaten like this?

And she pulls her shirt over her head and turns around. Everyone gasps. Her back is like a decorated cloth turned diagonally, some scars recent and red, and some old and crossed by many others.

Tiger: The person who did this to you, is he (or she) still in your village?

Katica: No, he's dead.

Tiger: I'm going to hold my temper until I've heard all the facts, but my temper definitely needs holding. Did people say because you were beaten like that, therefore you must have been very bad?

Katica: I was bad first, and then beaten.

Tiger: That's the correct order. So what was the bad behavior?

Katica: I said ``no''. A lot.

Tiger: And why not say ``yes''?

Katica: Because it wasn't right, what he was saying.

Tiger: Hmm. I'll tell you my style. When I captured Gerbil he was upset that I put him to work preparing food, because in his village that was done only by women. I told him, if you want to eat it you'd better help cook it. When he saw that everyone did part of the job he joined in, but if he hadn't, I would have let him starve until he got the idea. I wouldn't have beaten him into submission, I would have shown him the correct behavior, teamwork, until he understood how we operate here and until he joined the team. And then he would have eaten, with the team, not sullenly to avoid another beating. See how I operate? I'd like to talk with you more about that, but we have to get you washed, so let's change the topic a little. Which is worse, angering your supervisor so he beats you, or saying he's right when you think he's not?

Katica: Telling lies. People should be brave. You have to be brave to tell the truth. I tried to be brave. He said I was stupid and wasn't worth feeding because I couldn't learn anything.

Tiger: Was he right about that? Can you learn?

Katica: Well... Yes, I learned your words *klama and *dunda and *sisti and a few others. I learned how to put a body into a grave, so I could help with my mother.

Tiger: I'm glad to hear that you can learn, and I'm glad to hear, and see, that you're brave. You have to be really brave to stand up to that kind of beating, when the person is pushing you to do what's wrong. I suggest you take this conclusion: leave your shirt off, and wear your stripes with pride. There are other lessons you'll need, but those can come later. The offer is still open: you may pick someone other than Gerbil to help you wash, if you want.

Katica: No, I'll go with Gerbil.

Tiger: OK. Here's what you do, Gerbil. Take the scrub brush and get that mud off your boots, and Shadow, when he's gone would you sweep it out where they're standing? No, Gerbil, your job is elsewhere; let Shadow do it. Take your own clothes; Shadow will give them to you, and your soap, and take the laundry soap, here.

Me: Just give me the whole bag, Shadow. Thanks.

(Aha! I seem to have acquired a storage box like Shadow has, for my soap, toothbrush and stuff, and my bag was next to it.)

Tiger: Are the helmet and the vest reasonably clean and undamaged?

Me: Yes, Tiger.

Tiger: Then after cleaning the boots take everything back to the quartermaster. We have washing machines for the uniforms. Buy a bottle of lice soap for Katica, and her own squeeze bottle of body soap, and a steel comb. You pay, but tell us how much and we'll pay you back. Wash yourselves, and both of you, wash your clothes. Then come back here. Don't rush, but don't dawdle either; we'll wait for you before frying the dinner. Katica, any questions?

Katica: Do you want me to wash Gerbil's clothes?

Tiger: No. He should not ask, and if he does you should refuse. He washes his; you wash yours. You young people should act as a team, but that includes not burdening other team members with work you should do for yourselves.

Katica: OK. Um, goodbye, Tiger.

Out the tent flap we go. I smile and give Katica a thumb up. I thought she was a good one, and evidently Tiger thinks so too. No, Tiger may have acted like she had taken Katica, but she didn't actually say it; she said that she and Katica would have to decide in the future. With most adults that would be just a condescention, but I'm sure Katica could refuse, if she had anyplace to go, and Tiger would just say goodbye. Like Tiger did when she gave me back my knife: she truly didn't know if she'd next see me alive or dead. Well, what will happen will happen, and my job now involves scrubbing. Outside the latrine there's a water machine and an artificial stone basin for very dirty objects. I take off my boots (and the neat socks, now smelly) and I scrub the mud off the bottoms. I give Katica the brush and she takes the hint, and takes a turn in the stone basin, much needed by her feet.

Now onward to the quartermaster, who seems satisfied with the condition of the clothes and equipment that I'm returning. And of course I change into my own clothes, not to wander through the main building in my underpants, with its sergeants and lieutenants. I wonder why Tiger specifically told me to bring my own clothes, because she doesn't seem to care about them. In fact, one time when I had just finished washing them I was in the middle of changing into the clean underpants and she dragged me off to slice vegetables. I decided to sit on my natural shyness and see what would happen if I did as she said. Neither Tiger nor Simba seemed to notice that I was naked, though Shadow was giggling. When my own discipline threatened to slip I politely excused myself, between eggplants, and quickly finished dressing. And from what I saw back in our tent, Tiger and Simba haven't noticed that the werewolves aren't dressed either.

The two kinds of soap and the comb cost 0.78 fangs, which is a lot for me. I wonder if I've been less than careful in my own use of soap. And off we go to use it.


Sgt. Sokol (this time in both signs and Croat talk): So did the burial go OK?

Me: Not really. (Katica answers also.)

There's a spirited exchange between Sgt. Sokol and Katica from which I'm excluded, including the words ``ustasha'' and ``shiptar''. Also ``Tiger''. Sgt. Sokol gives me an appraising look. There's more discussion, and Katica turns around to show her scars.

Sgt. Sokol: Wearing her stripes with pride, eh? That's good advice. And maybe you're learning, Albanian, what it means to be in the First Division. Thank you for making space for Katica's mother. Go on, have your shower; I won't keep you. But remember, I'd like to know the final result.

Me: Yes, ma'am. See you.

Finally we make it to the latrine. I decide to wash first to show Katica the procedure. Clothes off, and into the washtub; she looks suspiciously at a boy and his father who are drying themselves, but then imitates me and peels her skirt. I start the water machine, standing to the side so freezing or steaming water won't hit me, and I set the temperature. She's smart: she does exactly as I did. Or maybe the water machines in her village still work. Usually I do top to bottom, washing my hair first, but this time I start at neck level. She has trouble to reach her back. Normally I just let the water rinse it, but I remember Tiger washed mine the first time, so I do it for Katica. The scars feel funny under my hand. She then handsigns pointing downward, and I get my back washed too. By watching, she picks up the technique Tiger showed me for washing my butt without sticking my hand where it shouldn't go, and I'm glad I'm spared a run-in with her worm eggs, for I'm not sure I fully understand First Division cleanliness, and I do understand the hazard of botching it. I guess girls are naturally cleaner than boys.

Now on to the hair washing. I set Katica's body soap and lice soap to the side, and demonstrate on myself, heading her off once (through eyes carefully kept soap-free for the purpose) when she tries to imitate. Then I reinforce the idea of keeping her eyes tightly shut. And we're on our way. It feels gross when the metal comb breaks the louse eggs, but Katica has a lot less than I did; it feels kind of like on my second day, not the first. And Katica has much fewer tangles in her hair; I only have to cut two or three with the claw for that purpose on the comb. Girls definitely fuss with their hair more than boys do. OK, at last we're done and I hope free of both soap and lice. And fleas. I actually didn't notice any fleas on Katica's head or body, though they would be hard to see through the soap.

The rest of the steps go smoothly: drying ourselves, washing our clothes, and drying those. Katica continues to wear her stripes with pride. I just washed my clothes yesterday, but I think I've figured out why Tiger got on my case: as a lesson to Katica, that she's not going to be alone scrubbing, as she probably was in her family. I wish Tiger could have picked a different lesson, because washing clothes takes a lot of time.

Young boy: Golly, what's wrong with your back?

Me: Her father beat her too much. Katica doesn't know our language yet so she doesn't know what you said.

This exchange puzzles Katica, but I give her a thumb up, and she puts on her confident face, which (having been in her situation) I'm sure is covering very unconfident thoughts. OK, everything's dry, and on us; we get out of the latrine and return to our tent to start dinner. I lift the tent flap for Katica.

Tiger (in handsigns, plus Croat talk): Aah, there you are. We were getting hungry. Katica, you want to watch how we do this? First, wash your hands; I'll show you how. We've already done so. Quin, you'll fry the noodles?

The stove has two red glowing symbols of heat which can be controlled separately. I recognize the small bottle of hot pepper sauce, and I believe Tiger checks with Katica whether she's willing to eat that. The dish of noodles, onions, eggplants and tomatoes comes out deliciously spicy, and Shadow has chopped up a big piece of cheese for us humans to stir into it; the lions and werewolves take a little also for the flavor and texture. I'm surprised to see the mother werewolf urge her daughter to have more cheese. My mother made good noodles but she couldn't cut them as finely or evenly as these are. As at lunch, Katica prudently takes and stuffs in everything offered. She's not picky; at that age I would have balked at so much onions; and one small and two large furry cat creatures, a family of naked non-furry werewolves, a shiptar and his young lady friend don't seem to have dampened her appetite or fazed her simulation of confidence. Hmm, it looks like the delayed introductions are about to start, between bites.

Obviously male lighter brown werewolf (in signs and Croat): With all the confusion we never got properly introduced. Gerbil and Katica, my name is Quin. I'm the local expert on organic manufacturing, and I'll be working on the textile mill in Gostivar, in Macedonia. And this is my mate Valeria.

Valeria (obviously female and dark brown): I'm the expert in physical manufacturing. This is our orphan, Cricket.

Cricket (also female, dark brown and smiling): I'm the expert in picking pockets and stealing hearts. (Valeria translates for Katica.)

Me: I'm glad to meet you all. Have you met Angela, my teammate? (I'm keeping an eye on Angela's reaction.)

Valeria: Yes, we have. Tiger mentioned how the three of you have built your teamwork. Cricket and her Jelani have been working in the same area.

Angela (putting her arm around my shoulders): This teammate is so sweet. And Shadow, reach over here for a hug. I'll bet your Jelani wishes he could be here with you.

Simba: With the composition of the group changing, it's going to be a challenge for all of you to make a new pattern of overlapping teams. What I hope to see is, the existing relations will continue and strengthen, while the new people's relations are added to those.

Cricket: Yes, Simba.

In other words, it's up to all of us, and specifically to me, to make sure that Simba's vision is brought to reality. I put my arm around Angela and look at her meaningfully. I think she understands, and she should have learned that I'm not my brother: I won't be taking Cricket up on her subtle offer. The problem will be how to include Cricket in our team without igniting Angela's jealousy. Perhaps if I emphasize the incompatibilities between me and Cricket, that will mollify Angela.

Me: Cricket, I've seen a number of people around here with very dark skin like yours. Is that common for werewolves?

Cricket: I don't know. Valeria, how common is black skin on Thor?

Valeria: Quite. It's a handsome color, and of course everyone knows our colony's history and our debt to Wilma and Willie Ragland, and I made it known to all my siblings and kittens that I show this color in memory of them. I imagine almost every 'uomi on Thor has been black at one time or another.

Me: I think I'm missing something. Sometimes you're one color and sometimes another?

Valeria: Right, and similarly for the fur. You can't be a proper werewolf without fur, can you?

Me: I guess not. So, Cricket, you chose the dark skin to follow your, well, what's the right word? I haven't thought that through for myself either. Substitute mother, would that be appropriate?

Cricket: Silly! Look at my fingers; what do you see?

Me: Um, fingers, brown on top and white on the bottom.

Cricket: You're missing it. Look again.

Valeria's hands are in plain sight, I think deliberately. And while Valeria also has the brown and white pattern, there's a difference. What is it? Shadow is giggling and trying to silence it, but Angela hasn't figured out the puzzle either. Aha!

Me: Fingernails! You have fingernails but Valeria doesn't.

Valeria: And have you been watching my mouth carefully as I speak? Smile, Cricket.

Me: You have small mouth daggers and Cricket has teeth like mine. Is that it: Cricket isn't a werewolf?

Cricket: You got it. I wish I were; I wish I had fangs and particularly the claws. Fingernails are a monkey's idea of claws.

Me: Are you like a lion person, but maybe they made your kind before they made the werewolves?

Evidently that was not such a smart deduction. Cricket is frowning, Valeria and Quin are smirking, Simba is holding back a laugh like when I asked about magically knowing about ivermectin, Shadow is openly giggling, and Tiger is rolling her eyes heavenward. Only Angela hasn't yet decided on her reaction.

Valeria: He asked you, Cricket, so you explain it.

Cricket: My ``kind'', as you put it, is your ancestor. Those who couldn't hold onto good territories in Africa were pushed to the edges, and some of them survived to make it into Europe and Asia, losing their color somewhere along the way. That's your kind. Simba made the 'uomi, as well as the Otter People and the Jaguar People, on Thor. After the treachery of the heptapi, Tiger and Simba and Wilma and Willie were the only ones left in the epsilon Eridani system, and they were responsible for it. So they made a colony, and they made colonists to put in it.

Angela: We made cupcakes, Gerbil. I'll bet you never had those, and neither has Katica. Here, have one. Pull the paper off the sides. (Tiger translates.)

Thanks, Angela, for bailing me out of a spot where I was tying myself tighter every time I opened my mouth. Actually I have had cakes kind of like this; my mother would cook it in an actual cup rather than a paper one reinforced with thread. But these are good, with nuts and bits of some kind of dry fruit. Katica watches how I get the paper off, then devours hers with obvious pleasure.

Tiger: They came out good. Thanks, Angela and Shadow. Now, if we're all done, I'd like to make some after-dinner work assignments. Angela and Cricket, would you please take the lead in cleaning up. I'm going to work with Katica, and I think Gerbil and Shadow deserve a debriefing from Simba.

After passing my plate to Angela I scoot back on my mat to make room for Simba and Shadow.

Simba: What we saw, floor mops, was well done. But I'm curious about what we didn't see. You mostly took the lead in this, didn't you, Gerbil?

Me: Yes, Simba.

Simba: Then how about you run quickly through what happened?

Me: OK. We were working the morning shift in the clinic. The first group to come in was some Albanians and one First Division soldier. Soon after, a big bunch of Croats was brought in, including Katica and her mother, who had been shot in the back with bullets. I felt Katica was being very brave about it, and she seemed to understand what was happening, and she took the initiative to make sure her mother was buried properly. I felt Tiger should have a chance with her. Shadow and I discussed it. I convinced Lt. Stevens and Sgt. Sokol in refugee processing, and I convinced Lt. Ortiz to let us participate in burying the body. Sgt. Sokol gave Katica a few words to get started, and Shadow worked with her about twenty minutes on the language program, but there were five bodies to be buried and it took most of the afternoon.

Simba: And at what point did you notify us?

Me: After we got Katica away from Sgt. Sokol.

Simba: Why then?

Me: There would have been no point in notifying you that we didn't have Katica. It was our thought that you would want to keep control of what happened in the family, so we should notify you first thing.

Simba: How thoughtful. Seriously, you judged correctly, except for one point: there was a good reason to notify us even if you weren't sure your plan was working, because we might have seen your message and decided to lean on Sgt. Sokol, before something happened that took Katica out of our reach irrevocably. Don't underestimate the usefulness of allies, even allies who you might be ambivalent about, wanting to be independent from them. And if we had turned you down...

Me: I was already taking a risk; I might as well shear the whole sheep.

Simba: The metaphor, I assume it's Albanian, sounds appropriate. Tiger, Tiger, Gerbil says that Katica's mother was shot in the back with bullets, and I have this funny feeling it was no accident. Could you try to dig out of Katica why it happened?

Tiger: She already told me. She's actually Bosnian. She and her mother were captured in a raid and the mother was forced to marry someone. Someone who beat both of them regularly. The mother was blamed when the husband was killed in a raid on or by Bosnians; it's unclear which.

Simba: Nasty. OK, Gerbil, I assume the burial was not as routine as you make it sound.

Me: The Croats ran us off at gunpoint. By the way, Katica needs a lesson in when being Illyrian brave is jackass behavior. She told them off good, and I wish I could learn some of those words, but if she'd just shut up and gotten right in the truck, I think it would have been safer. I was nose to nose with that ustasha headman, backing into the truck.

Simba: I'm glad to see you made it in. A retreat like that is hard.

Me: You're telling me! The combat basics you and Tiger have been working on with me fit in with some stuff I learned in my village, stuff that brave jackasses would be ashamed to learn. But this coward versus jackass distinction isn't what you want to talk about. After we got out of there, Wallace called in to Lt. Ortiz and someone who could speak Croatian with Katica, and we decided to bury the body at Nikç. You remember, my village.

Simba: I do remember, and I'm remembering how hard it was for you when you first came to us, balancing loyalty to your parents and village with the obvious need to fit into our family and our culture. I do want to make sure you aren't tying yourself in knots inside, trying to move beyond your village loyalty group too quickly.

Me: I would have felt a whole lot worse if we hadn't been able to bury Katica's mother properly. I would have felt I was letting down someone on my team.

Simba: Remember we talked about being careful about the commitments you make? You can be proud of the way you backed up Katica, and I don't want to detract from that, but do remember that at the time you didn't know if your teamwork with Katica would be more than temporary. We still haven't heard on that.

Me: I knew I might lose. I helped her anyway. That seems to be the First Division way.

Simba: That's a good way of putting it, Gerbil. Was there anything else I should be told? Anything else interesting?

Me: Interesting? Well, Wallace flies like a berserker.

Simba: Who's that, the gravedigger? Some people's idea of prudence differs from ours. We, I mean Simba and Tiger, can't fight every battle. With any luck you won't fly with him again, or be walking under his vehicle.

Me: Splat! It was an adventure, and I got to see a whole lot of places I never would have otherwise, and I got to see that most other Illyrians aren't jackasses all the time. Just some of the time.

Simba: Right, it's important to treat them with respect. So, Shadow, how did it go with you?

Shadow: Well, I didn't do much. I had to remind myself to act like a First Division person; that Katica needed a family and we could do well with her.

Simba: Right; that lesson is hard and it took me and Tiger a long time to instinctively think beyond ourselves. You're making good progress. Don't think ill of yourselves, either of you, if you have selfish thoughts sometimes that you later decide you should give up. And there's another lesson too: you aren't to give your entire self to your group or your mission. You need to practice balancing your needs with the group's needs, and that doesn't mean all one way or all the other.

Shadow: Like with Angela...

Me: We have to be careful to say things nicely, so they aren't misunderstood.

Angela: Things like what?

Me: Did you hear what Simba told Shadow? Without the first part of the lesson, the second part could come out wrong. We shouldn't drive the sheep down a one-person path.

Simba: Not an American metaphor, but it sound like good advice. Angela, what's happening with Katica?

Angela: Well, she and Tiger have been talking. I don't know what they're saying. They're practically going in your ear; you probably heard everything. So what are you and Gerbil saying about me behind my back?

Shadow looks mortified.

Me: The lesson was that a person needs things, and other teammates should remember that and when the person sees to his own needs they should go along. There has to be a balance between self and group. Shadow was pointing out that in our team, each of us has put out a lot for the group, but I think we're pretty good at telling each other what we want. Don't you think so?

Angela: Like me, you mean. And like yourself. (She tilts her head and eyebrows meaningfully towards Cricket, who can see and not like the head tilt but not the eyebrows.)

Me: Simba, I think I have a teamwork problem here. Could we work more on needs balance later?

Simba: Sure, Gerbil. But you and Angela won't mind, will you, if I keep an eye on your team-building efforts? After all, it'll practically be going right into my ear.

Angela shoots him a poisonous look. In truth, I also wish he'd get lost, but it's not going to happen, so I'd better be brave and face the embarrassing lesson to come. Why doesn't Angela think like I do, and show her best and most accomodating side?

Me: Cricket, you're in on this too. You made that crack, calling yourself the ``thief of hearts''. How do you think Angela felt about that? (Angela's glance makes the question easy to answer.)

Cricket: Do I care?

Me: You should. You're going to be packed in this tent for five days and if you put yourself outside the team you're going to be miserable. Right?

Cricket: Since when does a boy talk to a girl like that?

Me: When the young man has built up a team here and isn't going to just throw it away for a few dick squirts. Come on! You have your own young man, and your teamwork with him ought to be a whole lot more important to you than getting my cream smeared all over you.

Cricket: I'm used to getting what I want. I don't give up easily.

Me: The people in my village were used to getting what they wanted too, until they met Tiger. That's why I'm an orphan. I think you're underestimating how important it is to work with us as a team, not to try to steal me from Angela.

Simba: May I stick my nose in here a moment? Tenacity is good, within limits. In your case, when you saw a promising wallet, you didn't let it go until it was clearly out of reach. But that was decided in five minutes at most. Here you have a young man and young lady who you have to live with for several days. Suppose you succeeded; how would it go for you then?

Cricket: My mother didn't hassle me about my boyfriends.

No, Simba, you may not stick your nose into my business! But I wasn't getting very far with Cricket, was I? She's acting like a jackass, and I think I'd better not imitate her, however much I dislike other people getting their noses into my relation with Angela. Tiger's about to open her yap. Quick enough, everyone will be jumping in. Gaah! I keep my mouth shut.

Tiger: Katica wonders what all the commotion is about. Cricket, would you explain it for her, please?

Cricket: Well, I want... Gerbil is... Umm... Aww, just forget it, OK? Just forget the whole stupid thing.

Angela: Aah. Teamwork, Cricket?

Cricket: I suppose.

Angela: But there's a little detail. Being an honorary werewolf, Cricket gets to show herself at her best. Tiger and Simba, how would you react if I did the same? If I dressed like Cricket?

Tiger: As you may or may not have noticed, we furry creatures don't wear clothes, and we don't care what you wear either, so long as your body or your clothes are neat and clean. However, what you do with Gerbil does matter to us. Any sexual challenges by you or by him will be dealt with promptly and effectively. That would also bother Shadow and Katica, your team members, as well as Cricket, also to become a team member. Gerbil is now irrelevant to her sexually and vice versa, so it doesn't matter that she's showing her stuff, but you and Gerbil do matter to each other. Keep it discreet, please. You've done a good job so far, right? Think about the advantages and disadvantages that a change brings you.

Angela: Hmm. Yes, Tiger.

I'm relieved to see that Angela isn't taking her shirt off. I'm having quite enough trouble as it is keeping my own reactions under control and Angela would not have helped me. Cricket is irrelevant? I'd call that wishful thinking on Tiger's part; I have to remind myself about every five seconds that I'm not going to respond to Cricket's obvious attractions. Nor to Valeria's. I can smell clearly the sweat from my arms and I hope the various sharp-clawed adults don't take that alone as a sexual challenge.

Me: Valeria and Quin, if you're going to be working in Illyrian factories tomorrow, what, um, I mean, how will you be dressed?

Valeria: In clothes. In a uniform. We know we have to adapt to local customs, as much as is necessary to get the job done. But on our own territory, well, my attitude is, accept me as I am, or shove it up your arse.

If Simba lashes out at Valeria for that attitude, might his claws slash me as well?

Valeria: Jeez, I can read you like a book! My father isn't going to climb over you to attack me, after working closely with me and knowing how I feel for a hundred and thirty five years. That's Thor years.

Me: Your father? But you're a werewolf, not a lion!

Valeria: True enough, but for the Thor colony the adults, I know I'm adult too but I don't intend to sink into fossilhood for a good long while! The mission crew felt it was inappropriate to have only lions on Thor, and neither Wilma nor Tiger could deal with a human baby, nor could Simba in the genetic engineering, so they made us 'uomi instead. Werewolves, to you. Plus the otters, jaguars and newly created lions.

Me: This is rather complicated. And what about Quin?

Quin: Definitely complicated. Each of us, the first generation, has an independent copy of each gene for which variants were available, so if you're thinking about incest, that's not a problem. The males and females were raised separately, again to avoid incest problems.

Valeria: You should read about our history on Thor. It's very interesting. I'll mail you the URL of the book, unless your parents have given it to you already.

Me: Um, thank you.

Valeria: Read you like a book. What would hold you back from reading it? I'm not taking offense; I'm trying to help in your training.

Me: Well, there's really a lot about First Division life that I don't know and that people like Shadow learned long ago. I don't want to cut into my lesson time.

Valeria: All work and no play makes Valeria a dull girl, so Tiger told me long ago. I liked forging hot iron! As well as learning theory. But it's important to have a variety of interests, and you'll burn yourself out if you spend twenty four hours a day staring at your computer, learning language and math, like Simba and Tiger told us you do. Your teammate here wouldn't like it, for example, and you also need to set a good example for your new person, Katica.

Me: I do try to balance my activities there. (Angela smirks; Cricket glowers.) Actually we haven't heard whether Katica is joining us or not.

Tiger: On the contrary, we seem to have reached a conclusion on that: Katica has chosen to join our family. Let's all welcome her, but not too overwhelmingly, please.

Shadow, jumping up: Yay! Katica, hug?

She seems to have no reluctance any more to hug Shadow. She follows protocol order from there, hugging in turn Tiger, Simba, me and Angela. She's a little more reluctant, but gets her nerve up and does Cricket next, then Valeria and finally Quin. It helps that they're sitting, I think.

Shadow: This is great! I'd better tell Sgt. Sokol. Tiger, we promised her that we'd tell her how it worked out.

Tiger: Right; she'd want a report. Go do it.

Shadow: Katica, watch. Tiger, should we go over now and get a computer for Katica?

Tiger: I think not; it's late. I'll send in a requisition to the quartermaster and you and Gerbil can pick it up tomorrow, and I'll tell him to give you root access, like with Gerbil, except I have a feeling you'll need to log in for Katica at first, and set a password for her. Don't forget it!

Shadow: I won't.

Simba: Remember, she needs her own mat and blanket and sheet. Katica, if we squeeze together there will be enough room for you to sleep next to us. Will that be OK? (She nods her head.)

Tiger: We'll take care not to kick you during the night, Shadow. And since there's so little space, you and Katica may sit on our mats tomorrow. But stay at the foot end, please; don't track dirt where we put our heads.

Valeria: I think, Quin, that we should roll up our mats during the day so the kittens will have more room.

Shadow: You could do that too, Tiger, and Katica can share my mat during the day.

Tiger: OK, that's settled. I think it's been a long day for all of us, and particularly for Katica, so how about we clean up and go to bed?

Me: I'll roll up my mat so it doesn't block the door. I told Katica that it would be crowded in here, and I was right.

Valeria (as we troop to the latrine): Tiger, you remember I was talking to you about my ability in Shqip? I'm still not too confident that I've learned enough. Could I borrow Gerbil tomorrow to help translate in Koplik?

Tiger: I think you speak well enough, but I have no objection. Gerbil, what do you think?

I think a lot of things. Obviously I'm proud to be chosen to help in an important job, and one that builds up Albania, not killing a bunch of people. But it's not all good. Angela and Cricket are going to be left alone together to fight, or worse, to scare Katica, and only Shadow will be between them. And I missed the rendezvous in the hills with Angela today, and I'll miss it again tomorrow. To some extent that's pure selfishness, but team sex helps us be a team in the rest of our life, and it's particularly important now to keep reinforcing our teamwork. And I'm a country bumpkin and have a very lot of lessons which will have to be skipped tomorrow. But a First Division person would... would ask for help when he needs it.

Me: It's important to help Valeria, but it's also important for me to do my lessons. Which do you think is more important?

Tiger: I'm very glad you're being conscientious in sticking to our agreement. Like I said, I don't think Valeria really needs you that much, but I also think you're going to learn a lot following her around. It may be boring but keep your eyes open. You'll miss your language and math lessons, but you'll be doing different ones, in organization and how to handle people.

Me: OK. Angela, you're going to be over here tomorrow, right, helping with Katica? And Cricket, so are you. Should I go to Koplik tomorrow? When I come back am I going to find a stronger team or a mess?

Angela: If anyone's going to be a jackass it had better not be me again; is that what you're saying? Well, Cricket, I'm going to do my best. What do you say?

Cricket: Well... I guess, well... I'll try to do the team thing too. For Katica.

Me: Thank you, Cricket, very much. Both of you, if you have any problems listen to Shadow. He's very good with people. OK, Valeria, I'll go with you tomorrow.

Valeria: Thank you, Gerbil, and I'll point out things you might find useful to learn.

Angela: Well, good night, all. I'll try to get over here early tomorrow and see you off. And Cricket, we'll have fun. We won't fight. Bye.

Quin: She's a pretty sharp girl.

Cricket: I hear you, I hear you.

After using the toilet we of course have to wash our hands; and Katica acts as if the ritual is totally natural. I can tell that Cricket thinks more like I do on that topic, but like me minimizes conflicts over unimportant matters. Saving her energy for something important like my dick. I'd call the agreement between Angela and Cricket a truce, not a resolution, and I'll have to continue to keep a lid on their and my feelings. It's been a long day and I'll be glad to get to bed. Katica yawns broadly, and Shadow yawns broader; she giggles rather than being horrified. She's awfully brave, to let herself loosen up like that in a den of monsters. Or maybe she's made a judgment how we behave and how we'll probably treat her, not going by what we are as a shiptar would.

Having returned to our tent, we get busy hugging. Eight people, each one hugs seven, how many hugs? I'll put myself to sleep with that math. But I'd better see to it that Cricket and I don't hug (that's one hug, not two, off the sum), and I'm also afraid that if I hugged naked Valeria it would turn into a sexual challenge, and if I hugged naked Quin I'd have feelings I really don't want to look at right now; and the two adult werewolves cooperate by not walking across Tiger and Simba's mats to get at me. But it's odd to see Tiger and Simba hug them so warmly, much like they hug Shadow. In an Albanian family adult offspring have a lot of conflict with their parents, with the parents trying to control and the junior ones trying to be adults. The werewolves sit on their heels to hug Katica and Shadow, who might hug standing lions but not a standing human imitation, and Cricket, having finished her hugs with Tiger and Simba, similarly gets lower for the young ones. She observes things.

We wrap up and Tiger puts out the light. What's it like having lions for real parents, not just, well, whatever their relation is to me? What's it like to look so nakedly human yet be so different inside? What's it going to be like; do they screw like people; and how will Simba react? Well, after a hundred and thirty five Thor years, however long that is, they and Simba must have the sexual challenge issue figured out, but I'm awfully curious about the other question and I don't feel comfortable asking them. Maybe Shadow will know, but I'd better not involve Cricket even though I'm sure she could tell me in detail. Tomorrow I'd better stay on my best behavior, and resist the boredom I've been warned of and the jackass behavior that causes in young people, so I'll be proud of me and Tiger and Simba will be proud of me.

Each person hugs seven, so, adding eight times, it comes to fifty six. But I'm counting each hug twice, on two ends, and what do I do now? Well, I can add half as many times, four times, giving, let's see, twenty eight hugs. Plus itself, that's fifty six; I did it right! I feel I'm missing something, but it's an achievement to apply my math to a real life problem and actually succeed. Maybe I'm going to make it in this place after all. I wish my parents could be proud of me.

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