02 Chains of Snow

On the living level, they were limited to three small windows she'd had placed in barely warm, not actually heated locations where there had been inconvenient cracks unsuitable for use as exits because they were too small for that. She'd traded a winter's worth of seasoned moose meat jerky and their cured hides to a local stone mason to cut out those three places into round areas where insulated porthole windows salvaged from a ship and found in a junkyard had been installed. The original hinges had been left off, only the round frame with the glass had been used, so they didn't open. She got a lot of things done for trades like that, same way she got her cabins built, she got the materials, then offered dried meat, winter hides, pelts or smoked fish in sufficient amounts to make it worth the builders' or craftmans' effort and skill. She'd brought thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys to police, fire, sheriff and ranger stations for people who had to work the holidays, too. She didn't bring the go-withs, as she called them, but she did bring nicely baked birds. This was stuff they didn't know about yet and this season wasn't one where anyone was moving. What she had done, though, was send over both the frozen birds and her recipes before Matt brought her Roy and John, so it was sorta taken care of.

Time passed slowly, at first...even inside the safety of the cave everyone seemed braced and tense, eyes on the west where the show was expected to come from. And, eventually what looked like a solid, stone wall of white blew in and engulfed the area. The two men watching as it got closer, then there was nothing more to see but endless whirls of snow.

A small sound from the girl had Roy's arm sliding around her shoulders and pulling her against his side. "Easy, there. It's just snow." He told her and began to lead her back into the living area of the caves, back into the warmth and what was rapidly becoming home to the two men as well. Johnny ran his fingers through her hair, softly reassuring her in his own way.

"You have videos, video games, text books, workbooks, board games, crafts and projects: Plenty of things to do. And you aren't alone this time."

"It's going to be fine." Roy nodded. "I can deal with boring, if boring is also safe."

"I've got the pool, it takes three days to fill but it's heated water." She reminded them. "It's bigger than it looks., I spent most of the First winter chiseling it out and then the second one making sure it didn't leak. It's lined with cement and tile...plenty big enough for swimming, and one end is good for lounging, but it's too shallow for diving."

"Okay, even without diving, an heated indoor pool is a big plus." John told her. "And swimming is good exercise, it can keep your body fit."

Roy nodded, then added, "There's water polo or other games we can play in a swimming pool, too. We'll be fine." He told her as they got into the heated living room and he closed the rubber lined door to seal the heat in and the cold out as they entered.

It was still fairly early so she put breakfast together...one of the cool, but not cold areas had hens lots of straw and covered bins of chicken feed. She had no roosters in the cave chicken-house, just hens...just so she had fresh eggs daily. John got the side of bacon down from it's shelf...just one of several and the only one she'd cut into so far, and took a large chunk from it, before putting it back. While he put it back, Roy started slicing the big piece Gage had cut off into thin strips for frying and Azure started cracking hominy corn into small pieces which were then put into a large mortar and ground into grits for cooking. She also dropped a few good sized pieces of rock salt, minus the rocks bit, into smaller mortar for John to grind into powder for cooking and table use.

They worked together companionably, in no real rush ond got the meal together. It was easy-going and relaxed, the tenseness seemed to have dissolved now that the first blizzard had actually begun and they sat at the kitchen table eating, but also talking quietly.

It was just hours after she'd had them walk back into her life and as she stood at her makeshift sink, washing supper dishes, she didn't understand why she still wanted to cry. It didn't make sense, she wasn't sad, or lonely or scared or anything. As she dried the last plate and put it away, she went looking for John. She started sniffling the second she saw him and his head shot up at the sound.

"I don't know why, not sad or hurt. I just can't stop...there's gotta be something wrong." She bawled and he just gathered her up in a hug.

"It's okay, we were expecting it. It's going to take a long time to get all those backed up emotions out of your system. You might be crying at the drop of a hat for a while, sometimes it does work that way. You're not ill or anything like that. Come on, get up here and let me help get those out of your system. Okay, yeah. That's it, just let me hold you for a bit." He told he softly, getting his arms around her and tightening them. "There we go, yeah, let it out, sweetheart, just it go."

He looked up at DeSoto as the other man poked his head into the living area a while later, by that time the girl was quiet, though the tear-streaks could still be plainly seen...and was laying on the couch, her head on his lap and a blanket around her, dozing while he watched a Lost in Space vhs, running his fingers through her hair soothingly.

"She's okay, she's just fine. She didn't understand why she started crying while doing dishes, and then couldn't stop." John smiled a little sadly down at the dozing girl. "Wanted me to fix it, she thought there was something wrong with her. I actually had to tell her she wasn't sick or anything."

"Poor kid, and it's a long way from over. She may be fifteen, but most of her development stopped when our plane went down. She's still stuck at thirteen for a lot of things. So, we'll see more of it, I think." DeSoto made a face as he admitted this, but he finally shrugged and nodded, joining them on the couch. "It is what it is. We'll need to see if we can get her caught up a bit, developmentally, is all."

He lifted one of her bare feet and gently started to rub it as he turned his attention to the movie. He heard her sigh in her sleep, then both men felt her go completely limp, utterly relaxed.

They looked at each other for a moment, grinning when they heard a soft snore, then turned their attention back to the television.

She woke to a cheerless day, half asleep and moving on automatic. She was sure it'd just been another dream to break her heart. The gentle touch of a big hand cupping her skull and a quiet, caring voice blew that idea out of the water.

"You're real..." Her voice was a mere breath of sound, as her head came up, startled and she stared at Roy. "It wasn't just another dream."

"No, it wasn't. Come here, kidlet...that's it," Roy pulled her to her feet, drew her into his arms and hugged her tightly. "I'm right here." He couldn't believe how hard she was holding onto him. He had literally had people hanging onto nothing more than his hand and a scrap of shredding material or the extreme edge of something while dangling in mid-air, which had not had a grip like Azure did right now. Nor had they shaken like this afterward.

A moment later something like an internal dam burst in that girl, these were not the quiet, semi polite tears of the day before, oh no...these were drawn from the gut, deep and raw...and ugly. This was a teenager who damned well knew she was neither dreaming or alone.

The half-choked 'father', a moment later nearly had him crying, too. He just held her that little bit tighter in response. "I'm right here, Azure. I've got you, babygirl."

John was in there a moment later and got him and the hysterical teen onto one of her couches. With the sort of hold she had on his partner at the moment, he didn't even think of trying to get her to turn lose.

"What happened?"

"She thought she'd dreamed us, that we weren't real...that she was still alone when she got up, I think, from what she said. I could see she was starting to shatter when I came into the kitchen. So, I let her know she wasn't dreaming, got my arms around her...and, the rest you see."

"Poor kid." John murmured.

"She called me 'father'. And I answered to it...I will continue to answer to it, too. That's most of what she needs from me, right there."

"Yeah. We knew that." John nodded. "You okay with it?"

"Yeah. I'm definitely okay with it. We'll have to wait and see if it helps. See if you can sort through those piles of text books and find something suitable for thirteen to sixteen year old. Need to begin as I mean to go on, though, and get her into something constructive rather than just time consumping. Homework and home study will fill a lot of empty hours."

"It did seem like she was waiting for someone to tell her what she should do."

"She was. Winters alone, she turned her hand to anything to make her forget to think. She knows both of us well enough to know how we feel about not-thinking."

"True." John nodded. "Schoolwork, organize some of those crafts she has piled in the smaller caves, see if we can find something we can enjoy together. Maybe table games or something for the evenings."

"Sounds good, I think I'll be a while settling Azure this time, though. I don't really think she believed we were real, yesterday. This isn't a good time to stop with rocking, she needs the contact.

"She woke me up, last night. Not on purpose...she was standing there listening. To the echoes on the stone walls, I think, when we breathed. Roy, she's...a lot more...almost, shatterfried.\."

"Fragile, yeah. I noticed."

By two days before thanksgiving day, she was a lot more stable, a whole lot more, actually. On that morning, woke first and took stock of what she had set aside for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, and began thawing a large turkey and a mid-sized snow-goose gander. One of the things so much time by herself had taught her was cooking. She had a lot of things already made, frozen and stored, so she just took a wooden crate down to the frozen caves and loaded it with stuff to thaw. The 'go-withs' just needed to be reheated. A few were uncooked, frozen fruit pies, too.

Roy got up, mostly awakened by his nose, as breakfast announced itself but also the smell of some other things. By the time he got out there, John was looking over what was going to be the day's lunch and dinner...and the larger things she had thawing on one of the odd upright protrusions of flat-topped rocks. Below those were small cracks in the floor and it was here that the drips from the thawing food was clearly draining.

"That duck is huge." Roy said.

"Snow goose, a medium-sized one." Gage corrected. "A lot of pre-made stuff, too."

"I had a while with a lot of boring, cold months and nothing to do but learn to cook or chip out the bed of the pool. It's not a real Thanksgiving dinner without turkey, and I can make sandwiches out of both birds for a couple weeks. But I like goose better." She said diffidently. "I have frozen ducks, but if Roy wants one this time, John'll need to finish it...I'll cook it, but I'm sorta busy. I'll remember for Christmas, though."

"Field dressed and frozen?"

"Yeah, and stuffed with a buckskin roll, then wrapped in more, cuz it avoids freezer burn better."

"Yeah, it would." John patted her shoulder. "Which crates...or cave, for that matter?"

"No, it's okay, there's plenty of food out."

"You sure?"

"Yeah." Roy nodded, "I can do my specialty for breakfast. Gotta be some hot dogs around here...what Azure?"

"Um, I didn't make any hot-dogs, I was busy butchering hogs and steers for real meat and I didn't know you'd be coming. I have lots of different kinds of sausages, real meat ones, even long ones, but not hot-dogs. And I'm pretty sure I used all the gut sleeves, so even if I'd saved all the oddments, which I didn't, we'd have no way to form them."


"Roy...do you know what parts are used for making hot dogs?" John asked him. "Because it sounds like she does and just didn't want to do that."

"I drop the stuff I don't use and don't want to use, along with bones, heads and scraps of hide I don't want, on a clifftop above and behind a buzzard roost." Was all she said. "Johnny, explain it to him when I'm not working with food, please? I don't want my belly rolling when I'm trying to cook."

John just laughed. "Okay."

"John...what's wrong with hot dogs?"

Gage just smiled, "Let's go check the portholes and I'll tell you about it."

When they came back in, Roy looked a little greenish and she handed him a box of white mint tic tacs. He huffed a little but took them. "Okay, I'll eat later."

"Thought you might. John?"

"He was going into interrogation mode. You know how he gets."

"I'll season him some beaten eggs and potato wedges, put them in a couple of bowls and he can make them later." She sighed. "But I was going to make a breakfast cobbler." She looked over at Roy a little disappointment on her face. "Maybe for lunch?"

"That works."

Around ten, she got started on the breakfast cobbler, it was basically several different kinds of scrambled eggs...cheesy, seasoned, lightly salted or with salsa, on a bed of bacon and ham, on another bed of cooked grits, covered by bacony-home-fries on one side and hashbrowns on the other, then those were covered in hot, buttered pancakes. All the layers were cooked before going into the pan, covered and warmed together, there was butter and warm syrup in bowls on the table as well. It was ready by noon.

"Oh wow, this is huge."

"It's also packed. Man, that smells good."

They almost inhaled it, so she was glad she'd filled a good sized bowl with all the food she thought she needed. She wasn't completely sure it was safe to stick a hand in there. "So, that's what happens when you don't eat breakfast when you should."

"Point." Roy smiled, waving a bit of bacon at her. "Worth it." He told her.

"He's right, this," John told her, "Is damned good."

"Okay." There were things she didn't mention, just ducking her head a little and letting it go. "It was the first time in years she'd eaten with anyone. She was used to making one big meal in the morning, then nibbling or picking at it through the day. A Breakfast Cobbler would have taken her five or six days to eat. Of course, she'd have been buried in time consuming projects, too, trying desperately not to think or remember. This year...was already different. Better.

The only two natural vantage points inside the mountain that viewed conditions outdoors, from a decent distance were a pair of large, thick, natural crystal sections of wall, native to the caves. They were not perfectly clear, like panes of glass would be, but from one or two spots on them, you could see for a good ways. Other than those two, though, they were limited to the porthole windows.

One you had to climb up a lot of ladders to get to, the other you climbed down a lot of ladders that the local fire people had put in...steel fire escape types, to get to or you took a winding tour through other caves to reach both, but that last method took hours. Both were located well above the valley floor and were unlikely to be easily buried, especially the upper one.

Yet, once a week or so, the natural windows needed to be viewed so they'd usually used the cave tour...because, disliking the ladders, she flat refused them...and it was good exercise. It was weeks before they got to see more than a wall of white blowing past either of the crystal walls, and then only because one system was replacing another so the wall of blowing snow was more of a curtain falling snow and distance again had at least some meaning, not much, though.

But it was still snow, adding to the already deep snowpack, and while it had begun in late November, it was well into mid-January before the last blizzard in the repeating series of systems finally blew itself out. It was several days later, when daily sun finally freed the communications towers of their burden of snow and John could use the landline again. With the return of Azure's internet they got images from the mountains surrounding southern California and all points north. Los Angeles itself was buried in several feet of snow, which had both men staring in shock.

Apple Valley was unrecognizable: The hills were flattened fields of white, with pockets here and there where someone's farm or an isolated house stood, heated buildings and fanatically applied Ice Melt applications having created little areas clear of snow or ice. Orchard City itself was mostly clear, but the orchards and fields, the pastures, the forests...all of these were under twenty and thirty feet of drifted snow which had then had the winds blow the tops off of and render them into something that looked a lot like pictures they'd seen of the arctic ice-sheet.

"Thing is, it's really not all that cold outside during the day, night still freezes solid, but the days are fairly warm." She said quietly.

"She's right, it's easily in the mid to upper fifties. It's going to melt pretty fast and the beaver won't be out of hibernation for a few more months." John said slowly.

"The lower crystal plate is half-buried." Roy told him, "I used the stairs this morning."

"That means that where the porch is, is under at least fifteen feet of snow. Considering how much Wind was blowing Air around, I'm glad the lockout doors have rubber seals since the basement is probably full too." She looked up at Roy. "It's going to be a while longer before we can get out."

John nodded when she said this. "A few weeks, at least."

"Better call Matt and check in after lunch." DeSoto told him. "I'll get her set up with her lessons in the kitchen. She's doing algebra with you, right?""

"Yeah. Almost ready to start trig. She's been doing really good since she started treating it less like higher math and more like a form of a puzzle. Should ace her SATs."

"Well, that's good, so she and I will work on something else. As for the rest...we're still well stocked, the generators are doing fine and we just topped off their fuel, we've a year or more of food, fuel and wood and we're secure." Roy nodded. "It's just waiting, now."

"That hasn't changed since these systems first got augured." Azure chuckled. "But the drought is not going to be a factor this summer, at least."

"No, no drought isn't: Flood maybe, but not drought." Roy drawled.

"The ground is still parched under the snow and snow melts from the underside...slowly." John told him, "So, the ground has time to absorb it as it melts, it will further sink into the ground over night when the top refreezes...but the ground is warmer than the air so the underside will keep melting...and the ground will suck it up like a sponge would. The remainder will go downhill into the beaver ponds and by the time we'd have to worry about it overflowing or causing other issues, those should be awake."

"Besides, I've got flat-bottomed johnboats, a good half dozen and Johnson outboards."

"True. I was rather glad to see those." Roy chuckled, fluffing her hair. Roy wondered if missing John was why she had so many things named Johnson or the boats named john, but he didn't ask.

"Let's get back, I'm getting hungry." She prodded.

"We just ate." Johnny pointed out.

"It's a two hour walk back and it'll be lunchtime by the time we get there...so, I'm claiming to be hungry in advance, daddy." She told Gage.. "Specially since I cut up yams into fries and dipped them in honey and brown sugar to 'air cure' for frying later, then left liver out to thaw for dinner plus there's a big venison pot roast to get started for supper cuz Father was tired of fish.."

He grinned, "Love your logic." he told her, taking her shoulder in his hand and heading back the way they'd come. She was so much more sure of them than she had been, but both of them rather dreaded her reaction to the eventual reemergence into the world that would follow the melting snow. Neither thought she was going to do at all well. The insecure, scared teen had tended to be volatile, when she was younger, at best.

After so much melt, it took a good long time for them to get further than the measly hundred yard or so from her cave-mouth without getting stuck knee deep in cold mud. "People used to laugh at me, for always buying or canning so much food. For getting so much fuel and firewood, for hunting so much, for stockpiling so much. For wasting trades or money." She told them about a week or so before they were pretty sure the ground was going to be dry enough. "What I'm trying not to think about is the people who were not as well stocked as they needed to be. There will be a lot of bodies, I think. Mostly starved, maybe some froze an' startin' to thaw."

She shivered, having voiced something they'd been avoiding talking about.

"Maybe you should stay home."

"Nuh uh, last time I did that, you two went 'poof'. I'd like to keep my parents this time."

Roy sighed and ran one hand down her back, John simply took her hand, and squeezed it gently. This was a very different girl than they'd known before the plane wreck, there had been a lot of emotional healing to do and she had a lot of scars.

Since finding the child again, she'd become at once more confident and less mature, at the same time. Her rough, husky voice had settled into a range more normal for her age with use and she'd happily settled down to weeks of video games, long talks, board games, working in the many piles of text books she'd collected under supervision so her education caught up to where they thought it should be.

And Roy rocked her, in an old rocking chair she had, right before bedtime, every night. He knew she was old for it, old to need it, but he also knew she did need it. He told John once about halfway through the storms, that he thought she'd outgrow it in a year or so, but for now, she still needed the closeness.

John understood that: She had been caught, once or twice with a look on her face that said she still didn't quite believe they were really there and would be still be there where she could touch a shoulder or an arm. It was like the way she took naps on the couch when he was playing video games or watching something on her player...with herself placed within touching distance. Sometimes he'd wake in the middle of the night and realize she still came in the night to stand near their bed-caves, just listening to them breathe.

There was a very good reason they all walked to the crystal walls together, too. The one time the two men had left her to go check the panes individually, they'd come back to a panicked, weeping teen. That one had taken both of them to calm.

She had eventually gotten to the point where she whined at them once in a while, or disagreed, though they'd yet to have anything either man would have called a real argument. Despite the progress, they both had strong reservations about her probable behavior in public or off the cuff reactions to strangers.

With the introduction of the difficult subject, the two men had to make very specific plans and laid down strict rules about what she should or absolutely should not do, when, not if they found deceased people. Neither man was messing around with it and made sure she understood that. They kept tone and manners gentle, taking care not to scare her, but were still quite firm. She was to stick close.