Annie and Kat were up to something. Something that involved the rustling of plastic shopping bags annoyingly close to the corner where Reynardine was trying to take a nap. He grumbled at the disturbance and stretched his front legs, then his hind legs, then arched his back and yawned. Appropriate waking-up procedure completed, he was more or less alert and ready to eavesdrop.
The Queslett girls didn’t have a kitchen this year, so Annie and Kat were apparently sneaking bags of supplies out of the dormitory, clanking slightly in spite of their efforts at stealth and trailing the occasional puff of escaping white powder. It smelled like baking flour.
He followed curiously as Kat led Annie through the winding halls, into a poorly hidden hallway (“NO ENTRANCE HERE,” a sign announced, “DO NOT PULL SECRET LEVER”) and then to a sleek elevator which transported the three of them so smoothly even Reynardine couldn’t detect any motion from the time the doors closed until they reopened onto a floor he’d never seen before.
“Wait till you see this place, Annie!” Kat said, bouncing out of the elevator. “It’s massive!” Annie’s enthusiasm was less boisterous, but she had a smile on her face as she followed. Reynardine, stuck by both circumstance and Annie’s prior command in his wolflike form, turned his head to inspect their surroundings for potential threats -- a rather more difficult prospect than usual, with the Cone of Shame currently restricting his peripheral vision -- and loped after them.
“That’s okay, don’t wait for me or anything,” he grumbled to himself. He swung his head back and forth with an eye (and a nose) out for trouble as he followed the girls’ path, his claws clacking loudly on the stone floor. Light and warmth and girlish giggles were already spilling out of the doorway up ahead, the opening tall and broad enough for a mountain giant.
A massive contraption dominated one wall of the room. It had pipes crawling crookedly up the wall, disappearing into the ceiling; it had buttons and gauges and dials and gaskets. Parts of it obviously continued beneath the floor, and one chimney even clung to the wall in an uneven path, like ivy, to ultimately poke out through a hole cut in the window. The behemoth was made mostly of purplish metal, with some glass and iron here and there, and it gave the overall impression of a modernized potbellied stove suffering from an explosive mutation.
On a long table nearby, Kat and Annie were laying out the contents of the bags they’d brought. Baking pans, a roll of parchment paper, a cooling rack, a serrated knife, a small sack of cornmeal, and all sorts of other ingredients and baking supplies were lined up on the metal surface. A store-bought paper sack of flour had been partially opened -- Reynardine had noticed a few puffs of flour escaping the bag earlier, after all -- and a smudge of it currently decorated Annie’s cheek, turning her sometimes maddeningly remote expression into an object of humor. It was like someone sticking a clown nose on the Mona Lisa.
Reynardine laughed at her.
“What is so funny?” Annie asked, and of course the question sounded sincere rather than defensive. That just made him laugh harder.
“You -- you -- ha! -- flour on your face!” he gasped. Reynardine still forgot how difficult it could be to stop laughing once you’d started; he hadn’t had all that much practice before. Maybe he could understand his cousin Coyote a little better now.
Kat’s eyes flicked over to Annie’s face, but instead of laughing she rounded on Reynardine. “She doesn’t look anywhere near as silly as you do with that lampshade around your neck, dogbreath.”
Reynardine stopped laughing. “That’s not even my fault! One of those damn bird-things bit my ear, and the scab itches!” He narrowed his eyes at her. “You didn’t reprogram it to do that, did you? What’s the matter, am I taking up too much of your girlfriend’s time?”
Kat blushed and said, “Shut up, you!” but Annie just ignored them in favor of continuing to unpack the bags. She left the smudge of flour where it was, and both Kat and Reynardine caught each other looking at it throughout the day and grinning.
The first batch was baked, cooled, and sliced well enough, but it ended up burnt before the timer indicated it was time to take it out of the mad scientist’s oven for the second time. Even though they had enough ingredients to start over, Kat was upset. “I don’t understand! This is just CHEMISTRY, I should be GOOD at it.”
Annie poked at one of the readouts, which was embedded in a pipe that appeared to loop right back into the body of the weird stove. “I don’t even understand how you can tell what temperature this is set for. Couldn’t we just use your oven at home?”
“Uhhhmmmm, not exactly.” Kat sheepishly brandished a bottle of spirits from the cooking supplies. “My mom doesn’t know about the Pernod. Robby got it for me.”
“Why are you making alcoholic cookies you have to bake twice, anyway?” Reynardine asked.
“They are biscotti,” Annie informed him. “Gamma told me that something in absinthe soothes Zimmy, but she doesn’t like to be drunk. And it hasn’t rained more than a drizzle since October, so Kat thought these might give her some relief.”
“Besides, cookies! Who’s going to turn those down, anyway, am I right?” Kat chimed in.
Reynardine, who was wiser than just about anybody would give him credit for, already knew the answer to that, of course. “You’re right,” he agreed.
The outrageously complex oven had been mastered, the biscotti had been cooled and packed into a tin, Reynardine had managed to steal the remaining Pernod and stash it away for himself, and all three beings were covered in substantially more flour than Annie’s earlier smudge. Luckily, the flour didn’t show up against Reynardine’s white coat or the cursed white cone around his head, so he was able to pretend his remaining dignity was intact.
“We forgot to bring cleaning supplies,” Kat said, biting her lip.
“Oh. Do you think the robots might be willing to help us out?” Annie suggested.
Reynardine snorted. “They will if young Katerina asks them to.”
“You think? Because there are always a few bots around between here and Chester, so I could ask them, but I’d hate to leave a mess...” Kat’s voice trailed off and a wrinkle appeared between her eyebrows.
“Reynardine is right,” Annie said. “You should ask them. Let’s take these to Gamma and Zimmy now, and we’ll come back later with towels and things if we need to.”
Reynardine sat by the door as the girls gathered up their bags. He waited for them to pass by, assuming he’d be on his own again to follow, or not, with no notice from them one way or the other. But even Reynardine the Great couldn’t be right all the time: Katerina rested her free hand on his back, briefly, fluffing the fur there with her fingers before walking out the door. Antimony paused before following and gave him a smaller but more sincere version of Surma’s smile. “Zimmy’s probably forgotten all about the science fair by now,” she said.
He let his arched eyebrow provide his deeply skeptical response.
“Well, okay, probably not. But I think you should come with us to give her the biscotti anyway. You helped,” she said, and left.
“Hmph,” he said to the empty room. The monstrous oven must have made the room hotter than he’d thought, because Reynardine noticed a distinct sensation of spreading warmth.
Of course, that didn’t explain why the warmth stayed with him as they went to deliver absinthe cookies to the abomination and her Polish girlfriend, but to be honest, he was feeling too good to think about it very hard.