"Your task for today is cub-sitting Star and Stormy," Neal had told hir at breakfast. Blackrose now frowned at the pair. They had kept hir inside all morning; going through and helping their ‘cousins’ play with all the toys in the large toy box they had discovered on one of the lower levels. At least they were willing to go outside after their afternoon nap. Shi now followed a ways behind them as they explored one of the numerous paths made in the semi-wild backyard.
Following the multiple scent trails, cub and kit soon found the same massive tree Blackrose had climbed a few days before. Looking up, Blackrose saw other cubs and teens on the various platforms – none of whom shi recognized from Passion and Wildflower’s brood.
A basket lying on the ground was yanked up by its rope just before Starblazer could reach it.
"You don’t belong up here if you can’t climb!" a voice growled from one of the high platforms, the others up the tree taunting the cub and kit.
Starblazer pouted at the taunts, but Firestorm was scowling. Shi climbed a little ways up the tree before turning hir head and waving hir tail at Starblazer. The slightly larger kit grabbed the offered tail and the smaller cub started quickly pulling her up the tree.
Those above were not pleased to see their harassment so easily thwarted. "No cubs allowed!" one of them yelled down as shi and several others began throwing down the walnut sized seeds which were the fruit of the tree.
Firestorm was already over ten meters up the tree when the nuts started raining down on them. Starblazer’s extra weight meant shi had needed to use all six limbs to hang on or climb, so shi could only protect hir face by hunching down and turning it away. Starblazer was a little better off, being able to hide her head behind the kitten’s rump.
"That’s ENOUGH! The next one to throw something at those two gets GUTTED!" Blackrose’s snarling roar boomed through the area, the anger radiating off hir clear even to those not sensitive to emotions.
"You can’t do that," one of the chakats in the tree protested, but hir retort sounded weak as the chakat youth below was radiating a barely controlled mayhem suggesting that just maybe shi could.
"Try me," Blackrose snarled back – hir feelings plain as shi started moving forward. "If it was my father, he would just skin you alive – and then ensure you stayed alive to suffer!" shi promised as shi approached the base of the tree.
No more nuts were coming down, but the damage had already been done. Firestorm’s momentum was gone, and with the strain of just hanging on with more than hir own weight pulling on hir tail Firestorm found shi could no longer climb up – nor could shi safely release hir grip to try to climb back down. Shi had hunched down to almost hug the tree when the nuts had starting falling, and shi now found shi couldn’t straighten back up. Shi whined hir distress to Starblazer who looked back and down to confirm they were too far up to simply jump back down.
Still radiating hir anger, Blackrose quickly scaled the tree to just behind the now stranded cub and kit. Digging hir handpaws and hind legs in securely, shi reached up for Starblazer. "I’ve got you, Star," shi gently told her, "Let go of Stormy’s tail so shi can climb."
With the kit now hanging onto hir neck, Blackrose moved up so shi could give Firestorm’s rump a small nudge to get hir back into a better position to finish hir climb. "Just a little more," shi encouraged the cub, "you’re almost there."
The chakats in the tree weren’t waiting around to see what the still fuming Blackrose might decide to do with them; they were quickly scurrying down the far side of the large tree. By the time Blackie gently set Starblazer on the first of the platforms, they were the only three on the tree.
That quickly changed though, as half a dozen chakats rushed up the path from Passion’s home before sprinting up the tree.
"I see you ran into the local riffraff," the teenaged chakat named Silverflash said as shi joined them on the first platform. While putting up with a hug from the larger chakat, Blackrose saw Night and Day heading still higher with some of their older sisters.
"I thought chakats were supposed to be nice," Blackrose complained as still more chakats joined them.
"Like any other species, you will find all types. With chakats, most will be nice because they don’t want to feel you feeling bad. Sadly there are ‘bad’ ones, and you just met some of them. They seem to ‘like’ to feel others upset or in distress. If we’d known you were coming out to the tree, we would have come with you – not that it looks like you needed our help. Like most bullies, they fear those that might actually stand up to them."
"They shredded the rope on the basket so a heavy load would break it!" Day called down.
"We’ll bring a fresh cord the next time we come out," Silverflash called back. "Want me to carry Star while you help Stormy?" shi asked Blackrose.
"I think we can manage," Blackrose assured hir as Starblazer got up on her hind legs to give Blackrose a lick-kiss before again wrapping her arms around hir neck.
Rested from the short break, Firestorm had no trouble climbing, and shi quickly headed for the top platform. Blackrose was right behind hir with Starblazer.
The winds were more noticeable in the upper limbs and Starblazer held firmly to Firestorm as the two went to the edge of the platform to look around.
Blackrose also stepped to the edge to check on things. Shi had noticed Night and Day watching from the corners and Night had just called down to Silverflash that the bullies were hiding just to the north. Blackrose looked in the indicated direction and glared down at the ones shi could see under the nearby trees.
Day laughed before saying, "They just went running! I think they could sense that Blackie’s still mad at them."
"That’s how we knew you had run into them," Silverflash called up to Blackrose. "We could sense you from the house. You felt like you were in full ‘defending your cubs’ mode. Only a fool or someone with a death wish would put cubs at risk with a chakat guardian in range."
"Their mum lets them do it," Night complained.
"Blackie must have scared them good," Day reported a couple minutes later. "I just saw them at the top of that other hill; their mom’s with them this time."
"Tell Grandma Wildflower," Silverflash replied. "Time to fight fire with fire."
"Nope!" said a new voice. Darkstreak and Spitfire joined them and Darkstreak continued, "Grump-pa Neal’s waiting for them at the bottom of the tree!"
Silverflash snickered. "Then it’s merely a fire against an antimatter reaction – shi’s toast!"
The chakat that now led the ones Blackrose had chased from the tree was of medium build with a dark brown coat, hir hair done up in a fancy looking beehive. Shi stopped briefly in surprise when shi saw the human waiting for them at the foot of the tree, his arms were crossed and he was already frowning in their direction.
Shi continued towards him until they were only a few meters apart before snarling, "What’s this I hear that you were threatening my cubs?"
"I didn’t," Neal replied easily. "Though I would have had I been the one present when your little idiots were throwing things at my cubs."
"Just a little harmless fun," shi protested. "It’s not like anyone was hurt."
"So you’re saying they’d like it if they were the ones on the receiving end?" Neal inquired with a smile. "Tess?" he said just before a shower of tree nuts began raining down on the crowd of younger chakats behind hir.
"Stop it! Stop that at once!" the brown chakat demanded as hir cubs tried to run for cover, the raining nuts following them wherever they ran.
"Why?" Neal asked as the nut storm tapered off. "It’s just a little harmless fun, and it’s not like anyone is getting hurt," he said, using hir own words against hir.
"I’m calling the authorities!" shi snarled as shi reached for hir comm unit.
"Go for it," Neal replied with another easy grin.
Whether it was a slow day at the office or whether they were already in the neighborhood, two chakats and a male fox morph wearing the uniforms of the local police were there in ten minutes. What didn’t please the brown chakat was that Wildflower was leading them.
"Busy telling them what they should think?" shi bitched at Wildflower.
"Well, hello again, Shir Butterscotch," one of the police chakats replied with a frown.
"Not at all," the fox replied for Wildflower. "As we are on hir land, shi should be aware of what’s happening on it."
"This is public land!" Butterscotch protested.
"Only up to a point," he countered. "Even unused, this is part of the parcel of land assigned to hir family, and shi can therefore be held responsible for what happens on it."
"Up to a point," Neal injected. "Adults are responsible for their own actions as well as that of their kids."
"Then you’re responsible for your beast threatening to ‘gut’ my kids!" Butterscotch sneered at Neal.
"Only after your little idiots put the cub and kit shi was watching in harm’s way," Neal countered.
"They were never in any real danger," Butterscotch scoffed.
"Shall I drop some of yours tail first from ten meters up and see how well they land?" Neal asked with a glare.
"How did they get that high up the tree?" Wildflower asked, "Star doesn’t have the claws for climbing."
"It seems Stormy didn’t let that stop them, but shi needed all six limbs to climb with Star hanging onto hir tail. Which worked so well hir little demons had to pelt them with nuts to keep them from getting any higher," Neal explained, Tess having told him what had happened earlier.
"I don’t know why everyone is getting so worked up about a few nuts, cubs will be cubs," Butterscotch huffed.
"Perhaps because you and your cubs seem to have had a strong disregard for the safety and feelings of others – on multiple occurrences?" the officer that had named Butterscotch retorted. "Nine times out of ten we’re coming out this way because of you or yours …"
"I hadn’t realized shi’d been causing that much trouble," Wildflower commented.
"Shi and hir pack know just how far they can go before they get into official trouble for their actions," the officer commented as shi glared at the chakat in question.
"So – you believe that if no one was hurt then ‘fun is fun’?" Neal asked. When Butterscotch just shrugged, he grinned evilly. "Night! Name something you think is ‘fun to do’," he called up at the tree.
"Kerplunk!" Night, Day and Silverflash called down together.
"So be it!" Neal replied. "Tess, if you would, please?"
The cheers from the tree cut off abruptly as they were beamed away.
"And since my kids think ‘kerplunking’ is fun, by your own logic, yours should too," Neal added with a dangerous look at Butterscotch. "Tess?" he said again just before hir kids started disappearing. "And what’s fun for the cubs should be great fun for their parents!" he said just before he and Butterscotch disappeared as well.
Wildflower started laughing as the officers started looking around. "You’re looking the wrong direction!" shi chuckled, "Look up."
"Up?" the fox asked in confusion as the three looked up.
"They’ll be a little hard to see, as they’ll start out at about five thousand meters and free fall from there," shi told them. "Recovery depends on what Neal has set, but normally it’s just over five hundred. My group sometimes wear wind suits and parachutes to extend their air time, but this will be a quick one."
One chakat officer looked concerned, but the fox and the other chakat were starting to grin. "I can sense them," the first one said, "blind fear from Butterscotch and hir kids, excitement from the others."
The fox chuckled, "A proper punishment then, having them fear what others find fun."
"WOOW!" came multiple cries from the tree as the first to drop were returned.
It was screams of fear and crying that followed when the next group appeared, more than one of them not even noticing that their ‘ride’ was over.
Neal next reappeared with his legs and arms spread before easily returning to a normal standing position, his red hair blown back and his eyes watering a little were the only signs that he’d just been dropping out of the sky.
Butterscotch’s landing was not as controlled. Shi was screaming hir lungs out, while curled in an almost fetal position, hir tail firmly between hir legs. What they could see of hir hair was in total disarray.
Neal looked up the tree as shouts of "Again!" were called down. "If you go again, then they have to go again too," he said as he indicated the still whimpering bullies.
"All the better!" Silverflash laughed. "Payback’s a bitch!"
"Now, now," Wildflower chided up at hir. "No reason to insult any female canines."
"You know what I mean!" Silverflash called back. "They were long overdue for some karma adjustments."
Two of the teen bullies had recovered from their fright enough to try to make a run for it.
"Get your tails back here or you fall again!" Neal called out to them.
They had just disappeared over the hill when the sound of transporters told of their failure to escape.
"Hey, no fair!" Night complained.
"Yeah! We want to go back up too!" Day agreed.
"Maybe later," Neal told them. "We first have to teach these bullies some manners."
"Just drop them!" Night called down.
"No, Night," Wildflower advised hir, "you don’t really want to wish death on anyone."
"I can ‘undo’ many things, but death isn’t one of them," Neal told them. "Besides, if they’re dead we won’t be able to teach them to be nicer to others."
The two runners returned at that point. This time they weren’t only windblown, cold and scared, they were both also soaking wet.
"Looks like Tess found them a cloud to fall through," Neal commented. "That can be even scarier as you can’t see how far down that hard ground might be."
"You can’t do this to us!" Butterscotch blurted out as shi tried and failed to regain hir feet with any dignity.
"No more than you and yours can do it to others," Wildflower told hir. "Before you try crying that Neal put you in any ‘real’ danger, you should know that he and Tess have been doing that longer than you’ve been alive – and they have yet to lose anyone they didn’t intend to."
"Y-you say that like he has let people fall to their deaths!" Butterscotch said in shock.
"Only when they were trying to kill others," Neal assured hir, though it seemed to have the opposite effect.
"H-he needs to be locked up – along with the black one that threatened to harm my cubs!" shi demanded of the officers that were just watching things happen.
"Hmmm," Neal said with a smile at hir. "Star Fleet has already had a skunktaur read me and they failed to find a good enough reason to lock me up – though a civilian court might see things differently," he admitted. "And Blackie was protecting those under hir care when shi ‘threatened’ your riffraff. Though I would be careful on wanting to get the law involved, as your actions could have you sharing a cell with us."
"I’ve done nothing wrong!" shi protested.
"Cruelty to others for the fun of it?" Wildflower commented. "If Neal and Blackrose are read by a skunktaur to reveal their true motivations, they can request the same be done to you and your troublemakers. Can you risk the authorities finding out your true motives and intentions?"
The fox officer wasn’t bothering to hide his grin. "What we’re seeing of hir attitude about risking others is enough to make us reexamine all the prior complaints about hir – even if Wildflower doesn’t press charges."
Wildflower snickered. "I’m merely a member of the Chakat Council, what shi and hirs are now facing is far more dangerous. Neal and his family were the ones hir cubs threatened, they have the choice."
Neal looked up at Blackrose and asked, "Do any of them seem salvageable to you?"
"Some of them, maybe," Blackrose muttered, still glaring at some of the ones shi’d seen throwing the nuts at Firestorm and Starblazer.
Neal looked over at Butterscotch and hir group and said, "We won’t be pressing official charges, which leaves you with three options. You can either confess your sins and go with these nice officers, or you can agree to seek counseling and correct your ways."
"You said three choices," Butterscotch pointed out.
"You really don’t want to consider that third option," Neal informed hir with a smile that made hir back up a step. "It involves you and yours continuing in your current ways. That would leave me with a clear conscience to let Blackrose and the others have ‘fun’ with you. Since you’ll never know when we’re in town, it could make for a lot of suspense in wondering if you really got away with something."
"You can’t threaten us like that!"
"Ah, but it’s not a threat, it’s more of a promise," Neal corrected hir. "Stop taking pleasure in bothering others and I will have nothing to do. It’s a bit of that ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Did you guys like being hit by the nuts?" he asked of the cubs and youths behind Butterscotch. At their headshakes he asked, "Then why did you throw those nuts at my cub and kit?"
"I didn’t throw any," one of the older ones protested.
"Really?" Neal said, "You didn’t encourage the attack or help gather more nuts for the others to throw?"
Hir answer was to scowl at him.
"So, you thought it was ok," Neal pointed out. "So, since my kids think kerplunks and other things are ‘fun’, then you shouldn’t be opposed to them surprising you with their fun."
Looking very worried, one of the younger chakats asked, "Only when we’re outside?"
"Why should I limit them to just when you’re expecting it?" Neal replied.
"You can’t let him do this," Butterscotch protested to the officers.
"Unless he actually does something, we have no authority to do anything about him," the fox replied. "You and yours have threatened others often enough that you can’t use that reasoning without condemning yourself," he added with a grin.
"Stormy and Star have decided on their punishment for the nuts," Blackrose called down.
"Really?" Neal called back, "As friendly as those two are, I’m surprised."
"They like butterscotch the food," Blackrose told them. "So, that will be the punishment. Each of them will eat – or wear – their stomachs’ capacity in butterscotch, and then they will be allowed to climb up here and say they’re sorry. Tess?"
In front of Butterscotch and each of hir cubs appeared a container of the sticky stuff.
"You can’t make me eat this!" a teen yelled as shi kicked hir container over, the butterscotch turning muddy with the dirt it was soaking into.
"You’re right, we can’t make you eat it," Blackrose agreed as the mess disappeared. "But that wasn’t your only option," shi added as a solid sheet of the now dirty butterscotch appeared over the teen’s head and body before dropping and coating hir in the sticky stuff.
"Eat it or wear it! Your call!" Blackrose told them all again as the teen struggled to get the muddy sticky mess off hir face and out of hir eyes.
"You can’t let him get away with this!" Butterscotch complained to the officers.
"We didn’t see ‘him’ doing anything," the fox laughed. "And since your excuse is always ‘cubs will be cubs’, I suggest you decide if you want that on the inside or the outside," he chuckled.
"Get this crap off of me!" the teen was screaming. The others were seeing what shi couldn’t; every handful shi pulled off hirself and threw away just plopped back on hir with whatever dirt or sticks it had gathered when it landed.
"Better hurry up and eat it if you’re gonna," Blackrose called down. "These two are well on their way to spoiling their dinners for tonight. Anyone not having started when they get done will be wearing it. And before anyone whines that there’s too much, the computer scanned each of you and gave you just enough to fill both your stomachs."
Looking over at the screaming and now very filthy teen, several of them started eating. This got others motivated and soon most of them were trying to ensure they wouldn’t be wearing it.
One youth of about ten took hir container and moved a little away from the others. Laying one arm over hir eyes, shi placed hir other hand over hir muzzle as shi said, "Hit me." Moments later shi was covered in hir butterscotch. With hir muzzle and eyes the only un-butterscotched parts of hir body, shi walked over to and carefully began to scale the tree.
Reaching the upper level, the first thing shi saw was Blackrose glaring down at hir. "I’m sorry," shi quietly mumbled.
"I’m not the one you need to tell," Blackrose told hir as shi stepped back.
"I’m sorry," the youth said again, this time to the cub and kit behind their guardian, who had stopped playing in their snacks to watch hir. "It won’t happen again," shi promised before shi started carefully backing down, hir climb up having left some slippery spots on the side of the tree.
"Shi means it," one of the chakat officers quietly commented to the others. "Shi just learned that hir mother can’t protect them from others ‘getting even’ for their misdeeds."
"What about that one?" the fox asked of the covered teen that had stopped trying to throw the goop away, and was now just sitting there breathing heavily after hir ‘exercise’.
"Shi’s just mad that shi couldn’t get away with it," shi replied. "Like hir ‘role model’, anything wrong is someone else’s problem or fault."
Said ‘role model’ had decided that Blackrose was serious and was also eating hir punishment. Seeing one of hir sticky cubs heading for the house, Butterscotch swallowed hir latest mouthful before yelling, "Don’t you dare go in the house like that!"
The youth turned to look scornfully at hir mother before turning back to head for the house, wondering if they had any cleaners that would break down the butterscotch without also removing hir fur or skin.
Once shi was over a rise and out of sight from the others, a voice called out to hir.
"You are sorry," it said.
Stopping and looking over that way, the youth spotted Wildflower’s Darkwalker and Freefall on a side path.
"Yeah," shi admitted, waiting to see if there was still more punishment to come for the things shi and hir siblings had done in the past.
"Well," Darkwalker said. "If you’re really going to stop hurting others then we can help you get cleaned up. Which one are you anyway?"
"Hazelwood," shi softly said.
"Come along then Hazel," Freefall gently told hir. Looking over at Darkwalker, shi asked, "What do you think? Soapy tub and comb it out of hir fur?"
"A good start," Darkwalker agreed, "though we should check with Tess to see if there’s something that’ll make the job easier."
Hazelwood took a step back. "A Tess did this to me!"
"True," Darkwalker agreed, "and she did give you a nice even coating."
"She’s good at both making and cleaning up messes," Freefall assured hir. "Let’s go around this way, no reason to let the others think they might be able to get out of their punishment."
The washtub that sat at the side of the house looked like it could easily hold two adult chakats, four if they were getting friendly. Green sudsy looking foam already filled it to rim. Hazelwood eyed it dubiously, but climbed in without complaint. Hir fears were somewhat lessened when the other two showed no hesitation in getting the green foam on themselves.
"Hey, Tess, what’s the best way to do this?" Freefall seemed to ask the air.
"Fastest would be to comb the foam through hir fur. Easiest on hir would be to let it soak in for five minutes or so, comb away the loose stuff and soak again," a voice seem to say from the house.
"How are the others doing?" Darkwalker asked as shi had Hazelwood settle deeper into the tub.
"Other than that sticky mudcat, the rest are busy eating their punishment," Tess told them. "From the looks of them, I don’t expect we’ll get any more real apologies from the rest of the group."
"You won’t," Hazelwood mumbled with hir eyes closed and green foam all over hir. "Mum’s taught us we can do whatever we want."
"Must be a fun place to go home to, knowing you – and they – can do whatever they want," Freefall commented as shi tried pressing a comb into the goo on the youth’s back.
"Not really," Hazelwood confessed. "If somebody wants something you have, they can take it – or break it … We get in a lot of fights."
"I can believe it," Darkwalker muttered as shi worked hir comb down Hazelwood’s flank. "What are you going to do now that you’re not going to be being a little shit to others?"
"Find another place to hide my stuff," the youth said as shi felt the comb making progress. "Is the butterscotch coming out?"
"The top bit anyway," Freefall told hir. "We’ll scrape the loose stuff and then re-foam you to get the next layer."
The two adults worked on the youth for the next ten minutes or so, altering soaks with combing as the butterscotch began to break up. They were just about done when Blackrose showed up with Firestorm and Starblazer in tow.
"No!" Blackrose called out – just before cub and kit hit the tub, splashing the others with the green foam.
Darkwalker and Freefall each grabbed one of them and gently tossed them back out, Darkwalker muttering, "Not playtime," at them.
Blackrose found a garden hose nearby and began rinsing the green foam off them. "Can’t get you two to behave for five minutes," shi grumbled.
After shaking themselves mostly dry, kit and cub waited to one side as Hazelwood was given one more good combing before shi was helped from the tub and rinsed off. Once Hazelwood had shaken hirself dry, Firestorm went over and grabbed hir by the tail as Starblazer did the same to Blackrose. Cub and kit then each tapped their comm badges twice and pointed up in the air. Seconds later all four of them were transported away.
"What the hell?" Darkwalker said just before Tess’s voice replied, "I’ve got them."
"What are they up to?" Freefall asked.
"Don’t know yet," Tess admitted, "though they seem to be leading them somewhere …"
Hazelwood and Blackrose were wondering the same thing as they chased the other two up and down the passageways. They finally cornered them in a large and empty room.
"Now what?" Blackrose asked as the little two were giggling almost uncontrollably. Hir eyes widened when Starblazer held her hand up and a small chocolate cream pie suddenly appeared.
Taking careful aim, the kit threw it at Blackrose, who was so surprised to see the pie grow to full size that shi didn’t even try to block or dodge it.
Hazelwood had hir muzzle wide open in astonishment when Firestorm plastered hir with one as well.
Cub and kit waited while the youths got most of the pie off their faces.
"How’d they do that?" Hazelwood wanted to know.
"No idea," Blackrose told hir, "it’s my first time in here."
"I thought you knew everything!"
"Nope, I was just adopted into the family a couple days ago," Blackrose admitted.
"Where are we?" Hazelwood asked; sounding a little scared now.
"I think we’re in Neal’s ship, I think I heard someone call her ‘Folly’."
"You mean like in making a mistake?"
"So far," Blackrose slowly said, "the ‘folly’ in the name seems to be in others not knowing what Folly can do or get away with. Tess? Am I right?"
"Neal chose the name Folly because others called his current ship design folly. As you are learning, Folly can mean different things to different people," Tess told them.
"Where did they get those pies?" Blackrose asked.
"Perhaps they’ll show you," Tess cheerfully told them before going silent.
"Why do I think them ‘showing’ means more pie up my nose?" Blackrose muttered.
"Better than tree nuts on my head," Hazelwood pointed out as they watched the two younger ones grin up at them.
Starblazer slowly brought one hand up and a pie appeared just as it came level. She grinned up at them and tried to take a bite out of the pie – only to have it disappear! She leveled her other hand and another pie appeared. This one she offered to Firestorm, who eagerly took a bite. She made to throw it, but Firestorm easily dodged it. Pointing at Blackrose, she leveled her hand again.
"Shit …" Blackrose softly said, staring at the full sized pie that had appeared in hir hand – just as Hazelwood nailed hir from the side! "You!" shi growled as shi fired hir pie back at hir attacker.
Soon there was frantic but friendly four-way pie fight with everybody getting well covered in the chocolate cream filling.
At a lull in the pie tossing Hazelwood looked around in wonder. "My mom would be having a screaming fit if shi saw this mess," shi said as shi noticed they had actually managed to get some of the pie filling on the high ceiling.
"Those two don’t seem to be too concerned about it," Blackrose pointed out. "So I think we’ll survive whatever Neal does to us for making a mess."
A giggle made them both quickly turn to see if they were about to be attacked again, but Starblazer was making her way to another set of doors with Firestorm close behind. Pushing the doors open, they led the youths into yet another room.
"Wow," was all Hazelwood could say to the large swimming pool dominating the vast room.
The little foxtaur was already at one of the showers, helping Firestorm get the majority of the pie filling out of hir fur and Blackrose stepped into the next one. By the time shi had all the loose stuff off, kit and cub were splashing in a little kiddy pool with a fountain in the middle.
Seeing that Hazelwood had also almost finished with hir shower, Blackrose said, "I think we’d better ensure those two get clean, or the others might smell the chocolate and ask questions we may not want to answer."
They were almost done cleaning up the little two when one of the other sets of doors opened. Cindy entered, already in the process of pulling her top off over her head.
"Do a good job on those two!" she called over at them before hanging up her top and skirt and diving into the deep end of the pool.
"You knew what we were doing?" Blackrose asked when she surfaced.
"The mess room uses just a little power, hard to miss it on the bridge readouts," Cindy replied. "What? You didn’t really think those pies were magically appearing out of thin air – did you?"
"Are we in trouble for making a mess?" Hazelwood asked.
"Na. Same system that delivers the pies also cleans it up," she assured them. "Don’t forget to get yourselves cleaned up; we have less than a half hour before dinner downside."
With Firestorm and Starblazer’s ‘help’ they did get cleaned up, but they were almost late due to the drying process. Starblazer waited until Firestorm was on one of the drying pads before touching hir tail. The youths watched in amazement as a halo of spray seemed to run up the cub’s tail before slowly covering hir whole body, only to disappear. Cub and kit reversed positions and Starblazer was then dried. Thinking that the touch was needed, Hazelwood and Blackrose took turns tapping the other’s tail with Cindy snickering quietly from the pool.
"Whoa!" Hazelwood exclaimed as the ‘dryer’ removed the water from hir fur. "I want one of these!"
Blackrose had hir mouth open to reply – only to let out a shriek as what appeared to be a water balloon of cold water splashed across hir backs. Spinning, shi didn’t have time warn Hazelwood before another balloon splashed hir as well.
"You missed a spot!" Cindy laughed as she grabbed another balloon from a bucket that hadn’t been there earlier. Seeing that there was still time to play, Firestorm and Starblazer ran back to the kiddy pool.
"Damn it, now we have to get us and them dry again," Blackrose muttered.
"Which can take all of ten seconds," Cindy said. "Just ask for the quick dry instead of the tickler."
"Why didn’t you tell me?" Blackrose asked, getting a little peeved.
"One, you didn’t ask," Cindy pointed out. "Second, as I think this is your first time in here, there wasn’t an earlier time to tell you. Besides, it looked like the little ones wanted to teach you themselves."
"Why does Blackie say shi was adopted and doesn’t know any of this stuff?" Hazelwood wanted to know.
"Well, shi was just adopted a few days ago, and this is hir first time seeing some of Folly’s tricks," Cindy explained.
"You mean like the ‘kerplunk’?"
"And the mess room, and the quick clean/dry," Cindy agreed. "We still have a lot to show hir."
"Why would you adopt hir – didn’t hir parents say something about it?"
"No memories, no family, no home," Blackrose muttered.
Not having anything shi could say to that, Hazelwood give Blackrose a tight hug. "Wish I could get adopted," shi quietly whispered to hir.
Pulling herself up and over the edge of the pool, Cindy headed to one of the drying pads. "Quick dry, Tess," she said as she looked over at the wading pool. "Now, brats!" she called out and Starblazer pulled Firestorm out of the water and they ran for another pad.
Adjusting her top, Cindy said, "I think I can safely invite you to dinner, but some of Passion’s family may still hold grudges."
"I’ll take their grudges to what’s probably going on at home right now," Hazelwood assured her. "Why did you call them brats?"
"First, be warned that ‘brat’ isn’t normally a derogatory word on Folly. In fact, the captain calling them something other than brat can mean they’re actually in trouble," Cindy explained.
"So, if he calls me a brat?" Blackrose asked.
"Then you’re fitting into this crazy family," Cindy assured hir as they headed down a corridor.
"Hey! This is where we came in at," Hazelwood exclaimed as they entered a new room.
"Primary transporters, secondary hull," Cindy agreed. "Five to beam down, Tess."
"Can do," Tess’s voice said just before they found themselves on the path leading to the large deck above the third level of Passion’s home. The deck itself was quite crowded with people gathered around several grills that had been brought out. Kit and cub charged up the path, the others following a little more leisurely.
Silverflash wasn’t the only one there that was eying Hazelwood curiously. "I’ve heard that you’re changing your ways," shi commented.
"Yeah," Hazelwood said, half waiting to be told to leave.
"I have a feeling we’re going to be talking about that in the days to come," Freefall said as shi stepped forward. "Right now though, come with me."
Freefall led the youth into the house, up to the top level, and over to the lockers. Keying a locker open, shi said, "Put your hand there, and punch in a four digit code."
Doing as shi was told, Hazelwood asked, "What’s this for?"
"A better place to hide your ‘good stuff’," Freefall told hir. "Only you or one of our adults can get in this locker now."
"Wow," shi whispered as shi closed and then keyed open hir locker. Closing it again, shi deliberately mis-keyed it to a buzzer going off.
"Ok, we’ve got that sorted, time for dinner!" Freefall told hir as they headed back down.
"Why give me a locker?" Hazelwood asked as they joined the others.
"Mum says you’re from a broken family," Night told hir.
"And that you’d need time to learn to trust others," Day added.
"That learning of trust will be going both ways," Trapper warned hir. "We’re hoping you will be worthy of our trust too."
"You’re the cop," Hazelwood said.
"Private Investigator," Trapper corrected hir with a grin. "That means I can get into more stuff."
"Won’t Butterscotch miss you?" Freefall asked.
"Na, one of my sisters was gone for a week before Mom found out shi’d run away from home," Hazelwood told hir.
"Wonder how long it’d take them to miss me," Blackrose commented.
"In minutes and seconds?" Cindy asked with a laugh. "First you’d have to ditch that comm badge in such a way that Tess doesn’t put out the alarm."
Carefully releasing hir badge, Blackrose then pinned it on Hazelwood. "There, Tess is now following the wrong chakat," shi proclaimed.
"Except the mass and body rhythms do not match the recorded badge holder," the comm badge reported. "Try again, Blackrose," Tess teased.
"So I get no time to myself?" Blackrose demanded as shi recovered hir badge.
Cindy smiled. "Tess, what were Shady and Song doing two hours ago?"
"Access denied, no reason provided for privacy breach," Tess replied.
"In other words," Cindy told Blackrose, "if you’ve requested privacy, Tess has the information, but she won’t release it without a very good reason. She most likely will know what you’re doing so she can determine whether she should disturb you."
"But if Neal asked?" Blackrose countered.
"She may not tell him either!" Cindy laughed. "I’ve heard her tell him something had already been dealt with when he was trying to figure out what and why something had happened."
"Though you letting Tess tell what she knows can prove you weren’t somewhere when something happened," Weaver said from where she had just picked up Starblazer. "Hmmm, you are far too clean after a long day – did you two get messy again?" she asked her kit.
Hazelwood was surprised when the kit cheerfully nodded, not attempting to deny it.
"Did you and Stormy have fun?" Weaver asked.
In answer Starblazer jumped out of her mother’s arms to run over and hug first Blackrose, and then Hazelwood.
"And making new friends," Weaver said with an approving nod.
"How about you, Blackie?" Neal asked from behind them.
"How do you mean?" shi countered.
"Was cub and kit sitting too onerous a task for you? Was protecting them something you’d rather not have to do in the future? And was possibly finding a diamond in the rough worth the trouble it took to locate it?" Neal asked hir with a growing grin.
"No, babysitting them wasn’t too burdensome, and I have no problem defending them. What do you mean by the last?" shi asked.
Looking at Hazelwood, he said, "Yesterday, any one in this household would have told you this is an enemy that can’t be trusted, and shi would hurt you if shi could. Yet after you proved to hir that not all families are like hirs, shi stands before us hoping to be accepted by that very same house." Looking over at Blackrose, he added, "Had those two not tried to climb that tree, and had you not defended them, Hazelwood would not have learned anything today."
"So you’re saying the – my throwing nuts was a good thing?" Hazelwood asked looking confused.
"For you it was," Neal agreed. "Had you not, you may have learned your lesson the hard way."
"Like having somebody like Blackie gut ya," Night told the older youth.
"Or Tess not catching you at the end of the kerplunk," Day added.
"I promise to not give you any more reasons to want to ‘get even’ with me," Hazelwood promised. "One question though, do you guys really like falling?"
"Skydiving isn’t for everyone, but yes, many of us enjoy it," Silverflash admitted.
"It’s not scary when you know what’s happening!" Night insisted.
"Maybe we’ll get a chance to show hir," Freefall suggested, "but for now, it’s time to eat."
Getting in line next to Blackrose, Neal quietly commented, "Have you remembered something of your past?"
"No. Why?" shi countered.
"Well, I heard that you told them your father would ‘skin them alive’. I didn’t know if you’d remember your sire, or if you thought I’d skin them," he explained.
"I – don’t know," Blackrose confessed.
"Heat of the moment then," Neal agreed, leaving hir with more to think about.
Hazelwood quickly found hirself with a heavily loaded plate before being herded with the rest of the young ones to a corner out of the way to eat it.
Blackrose snickered as shi joined the others. "Bet this is better than what your mom and sisters are eating tonight."
"Stomach aches all around," Hazelwood agreed.
"Other than the ‘mud cat’!" Night exclaimed.
"They’re not going to believe I got that stuff off by myself," Hazelwood commented, looking worried.
"You looked like you thought we were going to dye you green in that tub," Freefall said from where shi sat with Darkwalker. "Want a temporary dye to make it look like we tricked you with a bad butterscotch remover?"
"You would do that for me?" Hazelwood asked in surprise.
"Sure," Freefall said with a laugh. "Friends facilitate friends fooling foes."
"Of course they’ll start getting on you when they see you’re being nice to others," Darkwalker pointed out.
"I’ll just point out that even Mom is afraid of Neal," shi replied. "Maybe I can even convert some of the others."
"Good luck with that," Darkwalker told hir, "you’re going to need it."
After dinner Hazelwood borrowed one of the bathrooms and poured the dye into the tub before adding a couple inches of water. Shi then climbed in and rolled in the shallow water a few times before standing and reaching for a brush. Shi brushed the green water across hir fur as if shi were trying to scrape off a sticky mess, leaving various levels and shades of green across hir body. A quick rinse removed any loose dye as shi carefully cleaned the rest of the dye from the tub. Shi came out of the fur dryer feeling clean and dry – but looking a green mess.
Hazelwood didn’t really mind some of Passion’s family laughing when shi came out of the bathroom, but shi did like several of the older ones nodding in approval.
"They’ll think they got the better bargain, but that will wash out after a couple good showers," Freefall told hir.
"Thanks. Hmmm, got any of that foam with green dye in it?" Hazelwood asked with a grin.
"For your sticky sister?" Darkwalker laughed. "I’m sure Tess could whip us up some."
"I’ll have it ready when you’re ready to leave," Blackrose’s comm badge replied. "Just be cautious with it as this foam will dye you as well."
"Thank you, Tess. I’ll be careful."
"Going home already?" a voice asked as Hazelwood left Passion’s home.
Shi turned to find Holly and Quickdash waiting for hir.
"Might as well," shi admitted, "Before someone grabs my stuff."
"We heard about that," Holly said. "Want some help recovering your stuff?"
"How?" Hazel countered.
Taking off her comm badge, Holly handed it to hir. "If you’re still acting like an evil little chakat for them, you might have ‘nicked’ this when you also stole that green foam cleaner. You can tell Tess what’s yours and she can beam it back to Passion’s house when she grabs the ‘thief’."
"Only take what’s really yours," Quickdash suggested. "That way your mom won’t have a leg to stand on if she decides to call the cops again."
"Thank you," shi quietly said. "I don’t know why you guys are helping so much."
"We’ve been in trouble too, we know how important a little help can be," Holly replied. "Your ‘bug-out’ word is Tina. Say it and Tess will grab you and whatever you’ve pointed out."
"If someone grabs that comm badge, they’ll get yanked too," Quickdash added. "So don’t panic, just break away from them and Tess’ll handle it."
Comm badge proudly displayed as a trophy, foam canister in hir hands, Hazelwood set off for home. Someone had left a mess on the steps and railing, the mud-cat having entered despite hir mother’s protests.
There was a bitch/blame fest going on in the main room, half hir sisters trying to decide who to blame for them all getting punished. Several called out when they saw hir green form trudge past, but shi ignored them and followed the sticky trail to the lower level and the mud cat’s room. Pushing the door open without bothering to knock, Hazelwood ducked under the book thrown by the occupant.
Tossing the canister at the bed, shi growled, "You can be sticky – or green like me!" Shi didn’t wait for a response; shi just closed the door and headed for the room shi shared with two others. Finding it deserted, shi quickly went around the room touching certain items. "Mine, mine, mine but they trashed it so they can keep it …" Finishing in hir room, Hazelwood next went down to the laundry room and separated hir things from the others.
"That’s it," shi quietly told Tess.
"Nothing else?" Tess’s voice inquired.
"Well, the PADD I use, but that’s in the main room with the others," Hazelwood admitted.
"Go get it," Tess advised hir. "Don’t forget that I can yank you out of there if needed."
"Ok," shi agreed as shi headed back to the main room.
Shi was unsurprised at the names and general laugher at hir new color, only growling back, ‘At least I’m not sticky or sick to my stomach!’ as shi found and picked up hir PADD. Turning back, shi found hir way out blocked by several of hir sisters.
"Where’d ya get that?" one demanded as shi spotted the comm badge.
"Stole it ‘n’ some foamy stuff to get that sticky crap off me," shi replied. "Out of my way," shi commanded as shi tried to get around them.
Several of them grabbed hir as one of the older ones made a grab for the badge. "Wonder what this’ll sell for," shi smirked before it beeped at hir.
"Comm Badge 1167 activated, state pass-code," it requested.
"Tina!" Hazelwood cried out.
"Improper pass-code by an unauthorized voiceprint," it cheerfully told them, "Stolen property protocol activated."
"What th-?" was as far as any of them got before all those touching the badge or Hazelwood were beamed away.
"MOM!" screamed one of those left behind.
Hazelwood and the hanger-ons found themselves in a clearing surrounded by heavy forest. They had little time to realize where they might be before a beam came out of the trees and giving the badge holder a sharp sting on hir rump.
Eyes wide open in sudden understanding; Hazelwood quickly broke away from the others and ran into the heavy brush. One of hir sisters gave chase, but found hir way blocked shortly after entering the forest proper as the trees seemed to close in on the path.
Following some almost random flashes of light, Hazelwood soon found hirself at a set of doors in the forest leading to a normal looking ship’s corridor where Blackrose was waiting for hir.
"Having fun?" shi asked with a grin.
"Some," Hazelwood admitted. "What’ll happen to them?"
"An hour or so of stinger tag, then Tess’ll dump them a couple at a time into the trees around your house."
"So it’ll take them longer to miss me?"
"That too. Some of your sisters freaked when you guys disappeared, so your mom called the cops."
"Did I get you guys in trouble?"
"Nope," Blackrose snickered, "Seems Tess called the cops first about one of our comm badges being stolen from Passion’s house – and then being detected and recovered along with some hoodlums from a house nearby. When your mom called, shi was told that shi could either accept Folly punishment – or face the official charges of theft."
"What’d shi say?"
"They’re still in there getting stung," Blackrose pointed out. "Want to give me a hand? I’m still ‘cub sitting’; though those two should be about done in."
"They’ve had a busy day," Hazelwood agreed. "Any chance I can sleep here tonight?"
"Don’t see why not, though won’t your mother pitch a fit?"
Hazelwood shrugged. "If shi tries, your dad can say they figured out who took the comm badge and that green foam cleaner," shi suggested.
"So they’ll think you’re still as bad as they are," Blackrose agreed as shi lead hir to another door. Inside were several consoles; most were occupied by the teens and youths Hazelwood had seen at dinner.
"Your sister sure is slow on the uptake," one of them complained, "Shi still hasn’t let go of that comm badge."
"You’re shooting them from here?" Hazelwood asked in surprise.
"We can," Blackrose admitted, "but mostly they’re just herding them around."
Starblazer and Firestorm were at one of the stations, but they weren’t aiming stingers at chakat targets, instead they were making what they thought were pretty patterns using the trees and bushes available. In the holosuite one tree disappeared just as someone started to climb it – while a runner suddenly found hir path blocked by a thorn bush that hadn’t been there just a moment ago.
Not everyone was attacking or confusing those in the main holosuite. Lighttouch appeared to be deep in thought as hy sat at one station, occasionally creating a hollow tree or a cave for them to hide in. "Are we having fun yet?" hy asked of one chakat youth that hy had given time to rest. Hy listened to the reply as well as the feelings behind them before saying, "Then I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree," as hy touched a key and their hiding place disappeared. Highlighting three others, hy said, "Tess? Send these three home, running them any more won’t do anything but further exhaust them."
"Can do," Tess cheerfully replied. "Think they learned anything?"
"Only that they have to be more careful of the types of trouble they get into," hy replied. "With their attitudes, I’m surprised Hazelwood was willing to risk that we wouldn’t treat hir more poorly …"
The youth in question snorted lightly before looking at Blackrose. "You are the reason I knew this family wouldn’t treat me like mine would. We could feel that you really did care about those two – and that you were ready to protect them, no matter how many of us there were."
Blackrose shrugged as shi said, "They were my responsibility, I had to."
"Not really," Lighttouch gently chided hir. "You knew that you could simply stand back and call for help – but you took the more direct approach."
Silverflash looked up from hir console and said, "I don’t think that’s Blackie’s way. I don’t think shi knows how to ask another to do something shi’s been tasked with."
"Calling for help isn’t shirking one’s duties," Lighttouch ventured.
"I don’t think shi thought shi needed any help," Silverflash countered. "What I felt from hir was a righteous anger, but shi was keeping hir head as shi tried to decide which opponent was the leader, and if taking them down would cause the rest to run."
"If you were winning against Treesap the rest of us would run, shi can beat the rest of us," Hazelwood told them.
"And your family doesn’t believe in working together, so no strength in numbers," Lighttouch commented. "Even in the holosuite, they are running apart, and not together."
"Everybody’s on their own," Blackrose muttered with a shudder. "No one you can depend on or trust to guard your back."
"Something that runs against your character," Lighttouch told hir, "We still don’t know anything about your past, but you like working with others and you appear to put your team’s safety before your own."
"Well, I’m glad you ‘caught’ me," Hazelwood admitted. "I’d be fighting with my sisters right now."
"Ha!" Silverflash suddenly cried out, "Seems Neal’s grown impatient with them, he just went in there."
"His echo anyway," Lighttouch corrected. "No reason to risk injury to them or him."
"What’s an echo do?" Blackrose wondered as they watched ‘Neal’ move himself towards the expected path of one of the running cubs.
"He’s in another holosuite," Silverflash explained. "He can set how much he can interact with them. He can be a ghost they can’t see, or one they can see but not touch – but he can touch them if he wants to."
"Neat," Hazelwood commented as ‘Neal’ caught his first cub.
While the cub had reached out to claw at him, ‘Neal’ had avoided it – only to whip his arm around to catch the still running cub by the back of the neck and force hir to the ground. Hir reaching back only caused his grip to tighten as he spoke quietly to hir. Releasing his grip on the cub, ‘Neal’ stood as shi disappeared from the holosuite. Looking in the direction the watchers were watching him from, ‘Neal’ gave them a slight bow before moving to intercept the next runner.
He repeated this with each cub and youth until only the teen still holding the Folly comm badge was left.
Upon seeing him, shi screamed as shi charged him, hir intent to slam him into the tree a few feet behind him obvious to those watching. More that one breath caught in the observation room when ‘Neal’ didn’t try to escape – and another when the teen passed through his echo to crash into the tree without him ‘padding’ hir impact.
"Not the brightest of the bunch, are you?" ‘Neal’ commented as the dazed chakat tried to get back on hir feet. "Many things start in the home, so if you can’t even be nice to your own sisters, then I know you won’t be nice to others," he said as shi turned to snarl at him, hir claws out as shi tensed to pounce again. "And a slow learner," he added as shi jumped at him again.
The next few minutes went in a rush of jumps and dodges, Neal swatting hir occasionally to show that he could connect when he wanted to. "You still have something that doesn’t belong to you," he reminded hir when shi paused for a moment to catch hir breath. Hir reply was to let out a roar and leap at him again.
This time ‘Neal’ didn’t move, he just raised his arm as if trying to protect his head. This time shi didn’t go through him either. It was more like shi’d hit a brick wall, one that didn’t give an inch from hir slamming into it.
"I think we’ll need one of your medical bots, Tess," ‘Neal’ said, "I know I heard hir break at least one bone, and shi chipped a couple fangs that I can see."
"Mom’s going to scream bloody murder about that," Hazelwood told them, sounding scared.
"Shi can try," Neal’s voice replied, "but everything done in the holosuite tonight has been recorded. They will show that several of your sisters tried to attack me before I ever laid a hand on them. The others appeared to be lashing out to improve their chances of escape, but this one demonstrated shi was intent on a kill."
"Treesap doesn’t run, shi only fights harder," Hazelwood said.
"Too bad shi ran into something harder than hir hard head," Silverflash murmured as shi ran a scan. "Wow, shi broke both fore-legs when shi tried to gut him, broken lower jaw when shi tried to bite his arm off, broken ribs in both torsos from the failed body block."
"And at least a dozen teeth," Neal added as he picked up the comm badge Treesap had only dropped when shi knocked hirself out.
Shaking his head as he flipped the badge and his echo seemed to step through into the room with them, Neal muttered, "What the hell did shi think shi was doing? I’d already proven shi couldn’t attack me – or so I thought …"
"You were battling hir belief that shi could get away with anything," Lighttouch told him. "Other than hir mother, shi couldn’t admit that there might be anyone stronger or more powerful."
"Or shi’d have to fear them," Hazelwood admitted as a gurney and several small robots came up to Treesap. "Shi and Mom taught us we can’t depend on anyone else."
"But?" Neal asked, thinking he’d heard a qualifier in hir words.
"But Blackie proved that the little ones could depend on hir – and that shi could depend on you."
"Blackie’s still working out that second half, but give hir time," Neal said. "Like you with us, shi’s still finding hir comfort level when dealing with me."
"How much effort do you want me to put into repairs?" Tess asked as she wheeled away the limp form.
"Just cap the teeth, no reason to let them get infected; splint the breaks, we won’t return hir until the bones knitters have got hir bones back up to at least three quarters."
"Unless they force the issue?" Tess asked.
"Of course," Neal agreed, "if they want hir back sooner they can have hir. Please ensure that you make a full recording of the holosuite and what you do in sickbay, just in case we need them for evidence. Lighttouch, your reads of everyone’s mental state may also come in handy."
"Aye, boss," Tess confirmed.
"I was making notes on each of you throughout the event," Lighttouch assured him.
"Good enough then," Neal said. Looking at cub and kit he added, "Those two are almost done for the day; why don’t you take them to get a midnight snack and then put them to bed?"
"Ok," Blackrose agreed as shi picked up Firestorm and Hazelwood did the same with Starblazer.
Soon the two were digging into a pair of small banana splits; Hazelwood was surprised to find a much larger one placed in front of hir.
Blackrose snickered at hir expression. "What? You didn’t think I was going to make you sit there and watch them eat – did you?" shi asked as shi got a fourth one for hirself.
Frowning shi replied, "At my house, Mom telling us to feed the little ones doesn’t mean we have permission to eat …"
"Then it’s a good thing we aren’t at your mom’s house," Blackrose chuckled as shi dug into hir own dessert.
"But I’ll still have to go home …" Hazelwood muttered.
They ate in silence for a few minutes before Blackrose said, "We can talk to Passion in the morning. If you really want to change, I have a funny feeling shi and Neal will find a way. Oh, and Neal gave me this to return to you," shi added as shi offered hir a comm badge.
"Keyed to you, Shir Hazelwood," Tess’s voice told them.
Snack done, it was time for fang cleaning and one last potty break before bedtime. Tess transported them all down and into Passion’s ‘cub room’. Several of the house cubs were already asleep and cub and kit joined the pile. Unused to sleeping with others, Blackrose and Hazelwood each picked a corner.
The new environment had them both waking up a couple times. Once they found themselves wrapped together at the edge of the furry cub pile. The next time they were well into the pile.
A little later Hazelwood woke to Blackrose whimpering in hir sleep. Not sure what to do, shi simply hugged to hir a little tighter. After a few minutes shi felt someone come closer to them.
Kneeling, Neal reached over Hazelwood to gently place his hand on Blackrose’s shoulder. "Rest, little one. Every one is safe, all are accounted for. You can stand down now, I have the watch," he softly whispered to hir.
"What’s wrong with hir?" Hazelwood whispered, "Shi seemed happy when shi was awake."
"We don’t know," Neal admitted. "Shi only has memories for the few days shi’s been with us, though it seems some of hir past slips through in hir dreams. From what little we’ve pieced together, shi used to belong to a very tight knit family or group, one which supported each other through some hard times."
"Can you help hir?"
"We’re going to do what we can, but for now your touch seems to be helping. I’ll let you get back to sleep."
Mere minutes later Blackrose woke up and got up looking around in confusion. "Where are they?" shi wondered.
"Who?" Hazelwood asked.
"Star and Stormy. They were in here when I laid down."
"They should be around here somewhere, it’s not like they can get out without getting caught," Hazelwood reminded hir.
"I have to be sure," Blackrose said as shi got up.
Cub and kit weren’t to be found anywhere in the cub area, or in the group sleeping room. They were passing through the kitchen when Hazelwood said, "I think we’re doing this the hard way."
"What do you mean?"
"Tess knows where every comm badge is, and we know those two have comm badges …"
Tapping hir own comm badge, Blackrose whispered, "Where are they Tess?"
"Master bedroom," Tess quietly replied, "They’re cuddled up with the newborns."
"Are you sure we should …" Hazelwood started, but Blackrose was already heading that way.
Quietly they snuck through the house and down to the master bedroom. Most of the room was in shadows, but Blackrose silently crept around the room to where several pillows made up the ‘walls’ to the crib. Inside the missing cub and kit surrounded the two as yet unnamed newborns; all four were sound asleep. Shi nodded to hirself before moving to one of the cushions and laying down where shi could check on the crib by just opening hir eyes. Hazelwood picked another pad, and they were soon both asleep.
Despite being on one of the lower levels, one wall was made of windows opening out to the hillside, and they let in the early morning sunlight. These though were not what woke the youths from their slumber …
Hazelwood was awakened by someone playing with hir tail. Shi was about to flick it hard to get whomever to leave it alone, but shi suddenly remembered where shi was and froze hir tail just in time. Shi carefully turned to find one of the newborns trying to eat the tip of hir tail. Looking around, shi saw the other newborn was cuddling with Blackrose.
"What do I do?" shi whispered.
"Well," said a voice from the bed. Passion smiled at hir as shi continued, "you could bring hir over here; shi’s probably just hungry."
Carefully disengaging the tiny kitten from hir tail, shi carried hir over to hir mother. "Am I in trouble?" shi asked.
"For letting hir chew on your tail? I don’t think so," Passion assured hir.
"And not for caring enough for others that you had to check on them," Wildflower added as Blackrose brought the other one over to hir.
"Blackrose was worried about Star and Stormy."
"Would any of your sisters have cared if they were missing?" Passion inquired.
"Only if our mom had told them to," shi admitted.
"That doesn’t seem to be your way anymore …" shi suggested.
"Someone caring about me, I want that too," Hazelwood murmured.
Wildflower chuckled, "As a particularly annoying human was telling me the first day he got here ‘It’s all on the wheel, it all comes around’. In order for others to care about you, you have to be able to care about others."
Passion nodded, "And you seem to be off to a good start, several of our cubs have given their approval of you, including our newest."
Still in the low walled ‘crib’, cub and kit giggled at Hazelwood’s confused look before darting for the door, Blackrose grunting in minor annoyance as shi jumped up and charged off after them.
"Go on," Passion told hir, "We’ll be up in a bit."
"Huh," Wildflower half snickered, as Hazelwood left the room. "Diamonds in the rough indeed," shi muttered.
"You think?" Passion asked.
"Blackrose doesn’t want to be dependent on Neal or anyone else, yet shi’s stoutly devoted to that cub and kit …"
"And Hazel sees that and wants it too," Passion finished. "We need to find a way to pry hir away from what shi has to put up with at home."
"Hmmm. I don’t like stretching my council muscles for personal reasons, but this is to help hir and not us … let me talk to a couple of people." Reaching for the nightstand, Wildflower tapped the comm badge sitting on it. "Tess? Just how much did you record of yesterday’s activities?"
"I have the comm recordings of Blackrose and the little ones when this started, Freefall had hirs on when they cleaned hir up – the only time we can’t see hir is when shi’s wearing the badge at home – but we can hear hir and see how their family dynamics work."
"Bundle it up for me, please. I want a couple of friends to see it before I ask for their help."
"Going to try claiming bad parenting?" Passion wondered.
"And a hostile living environment – and that Hazel now wants to change."
"However much you can get, I’ll back you up."
"Even with our two newest kittens?"
"Perhaps shi can help with them as well," Passion suggested.
"Shi is off to a good start," Wildflower agreed.
Breakfast was soon past and while a few of the household had to head off to work, most were enjoying a day off.
"Homework," Silverflash called out as the last of the cubs put their dirty dishes in the washer.
While there was some good-natured grumbling, the cubs of the house each went and got their PADDs before plopping down almost anywhere to start doing their daily lessons. Those from the Folly also grabbed their PADDs for lessons or chores of their own.
Before sitting down with Quickdash and Screamingwind, Holly handed Blackrose a PADD of hir own. "Tess will adjust your training as she learns your levels," she told hir.
Seeing everybody else busy, Hazelwood went and got hir PADD and sat down with the others. When it failed to activate, shi tapped it on the floor a couple times – and then a couple more times a little harder when it stayed stubbornly dead. A couple hard ‘taps’ finally activated the PADD, but now shi found hirself the center of attention. "I’m sorry," shi meekly said, "sometimes I have to hit it to get it to come on …"
"May I see it?" Quickdash asked.
Hazelwood looked over at Blackrose for support before handing hir PADD to the younger chakat.
"Damn, data port’s busted, it’s a wonder you can even charge this thing," shi muttered as shi examined it.
"It sounds like they’re pretty hard on their toys over there," Silverflash reminded hir, "and on each other it seems …"
"Hmmm," Quickdash muttered, "Tess, do we have any of these in stock?"
"What do you intend?" Tess countered.
"Leave the old case so they won’t think it’s worth the bother – and slip in a new rig so shi doesn’t have to pound on it to get it started."
"While I have that model, I also have a heavy duty one that should fit that case," Tess told hir.
"The heavy duty one, please," Quickdash agreed.
"Wait! I – I can’t pay for it …" Hazelwood said in a small voice.
"No one’s asking you to," Cindy told hir. "Your schooling’s important enough that we won’t force you to try to make do with a broken PADD. And I’m sure Quickdash will try to move your lessons over to the new one too."
"Easier to move the memory crystals to another reader, this one is covered in crud," Quickdash said as shi handed the memory modules to Holly.
Holly wrinkled her muzzle at the odor coming from the modules. "Smells like somebody peed on them," she said as she left to wipe them off.
"They might have," Hazelwood confessed. "I tried to clean them up …"
"What we’re going to put together for you will be watertight," Quickdash assured hir. "While you won’t have to beat on it to get it going, we can add that as a turn on mechanism to make them think it’s still the same piece of junk."
"Thank you," Hazelwood said as Holly came back with the much cleaner modules.
"Do we really want to put these back in?" she asked as Quickdash popped them into the modified PADD.
"Na, I just wanted to get the data off them," shi told her. "I thought we’d max out the internal storage and put higher density crystals in the external – and add a password protect on the open/eject so only Hazel can get at them."
"The old ones were pretty stuck in there, so the others shouldn’t be surprised they can’t get them out," Holly agreed. "Hazel, why don’t you use that console over there and pick out what additional stuff you’d like us to load on this thing," she suggested.
Several of the other youths went over with hir and started making ‘suggestions’. Along with training and school lessons, they added some of their own games, music and shows to the list.
"Wait! That’s too much!" Hazelwood protested at one point.
"Na, we’re not even to five percent with all of that," Quickdash assured hir.
"And that’s just on the first crystal," Holly told hir, "We were going to load all six internal slots."
Hazelwood stood there mutely as the others stuffed hir new PADD with everything they could think of, half praying they’d soon run out things to add.
With a look of smugness, Quickdash handed Hazelwood hir PADD. Hazelwood thought it might have felt a little heavier, but it still looked the same, the panels scuffed and scratched by the scuffles it had survived, the blank display showing the crazing where it too had suffered. But now it toggled on at a touch, hir last page was mostly readable through the crazing. "Thanks," shi told them.
"Oh, don’t thank us just yet," Holly suggested as she stepped forward to press a special key combination into the unit. The page remained, but the crazing on the screen disappeared. "We copied the damage and made it the default ‘off’ screen," she explained as Hazelwood stared at the now perfectly clear display in amazement.
"And if you would tell it to send to port forty-two?" Quickdash suggested.
Hazelwood did as shi was told, only to see the main view screen in the room light up with hir homework on it.
"So you can share what you’re seeing with others – if you want to," Holly added with a grin, "You just have to know the devices’ code."
"And we can use it for schooling," Silverflash pointed out. "Which we all need to get back to," shi added with a grin.
Hazelwood dropped the external view, but found it very hard to get into the lesson. While it did still look like hir old PADD, it wasn’t acting like it, and it was distracting hir. Looking over at Blackrose, shi saw the almost pure black youth was totally engrossed in whatever was on hir PADD, sometimes grinning or frowning as shi keyed in answers.
Shi wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on the dark chakat; Silverflash was also keeping a physical and emotional eye on hir.
And from another room, Neal was checking as well …
‘From just the general questions I’m throwing at hir, shi might actually know more about guns than you do,’ his PADD read as Tess gave him a data dump of the questions she’d been giving Blackrose. ‘While I’m still zoning in on hir, I’d guess a well educated full adult with either heavy military or hunting experience.’
‘Any typecasting info yet?’ he sent back.
‘Male biased from the tests so far, but whether ‘he’ was human or fur before, I just can’t tell at this point,’ she admitted.
‘Shi seems to be very loyal to those shi chooses …’
‘So I’ve noticed … I’m glad Stormy and Star like hir too.’
‘Shi doesn’t fully trust you … yet.’
‘Yet,’ Neal agreed. ‘Give hir time.’
‘Not everyone learns to trust you …’
"True …" he quietly murmured before switching to other things that needed his attention.
"Your mother is looking for you," Passion quietly told Hazelwood as the cubs were finishing a snack.
"Do I have to go?" shi bleakly asked.
"I’m afraid so. While we do have a bit of pull in the community, we can’t take you away from your family without due process …"
"Can I come back?"
"We would be happy to have you any time," Passion assured hir.
The walk ‘home’ took far too short a time for hir, and shi hesitated before pushing the door open.
Treesap was in one corner, shredding the carpet in long powerful strokes. In another were most of hir sisters, looking anywhere between scared and pissed. Seated in the middle was hir mother and a hyena morph shi had never seen before.
"About time," hir mother growled before turning to the hyena. "This is Hazelwood. Ask hir your questions," shi told him.
"I understand you had a little run through a fake forest …" the hyena half asked.
Not sure who he was or where the questions were leading, Hazelwood just nodded.
"Were you injured in your running around? Attacked? Chased?" he asked, seemingly to get a little more annoyed each time shi shook hir head no. "Who dyed you green?" he demanded.
"I did," shi admitted.
"It was in the stuff that shi found to get that crap off hir," complained hir very green sister.
"Well, I’m going to need more than this to make a case against this Neal Foster and his kids," the hyena told Butterscotch.
"How can you say that after what he did to Treesap?" hir mother demanded.
"Who you say we can’t have read to confirm hir story," he reminded hir. "The fact that you demand that none of you be read will make it very difficult for me to create a case that a judge will hear."
"What more proof would you need that they attacked Treesap?" hir mother demanded again.
"They didn’t attack hir, shi attacked Neal," Hazelwood quietly said.
"Shut up you –" hir mother started screaming – only to be cut off by the hyena.
"No!" he shouted hir down. "I need to hear what shi heard and saw! Retainer or not, I won’t be taking your case if you try to hide any information that might be used against you." Turning back to Hazelwood, he said a little quieter, "Now, what did you see after you were beamed out of this house?"
"They had a skunktaur reading us as they chased us around with the stingers. They found it strange that even the little cubs thought it was all somebody else’s fault and not their own that they were being punished."
"The others all said that the human from before grabbed them?" the hyena suggested.
"Yeah, he pinned them down and said something to them before they were sent home," Hazelwood admitted.
"But not Treesap?"
"No, shi still had the comm badge shi took from me … shi wasn’t allowed to leave until shi returned it …"
"So they beat it out of hir?" Butterscotch demanded.
"Maybe I can show you," Hazelwood told them as shi got up and walked over to the entertainment center. Pulling the comm badge out of hir carry bag, shi tapped it. "Tess?"
"How can I help you, Shir Hazelwood?" Tess replied.
"I want to show them how Treesap was hurt," shi explained.
"That file wasn’t locked from your access, so I can send it to you … to the viewer nearest you?"
They watched Treesap come around a tree and spot Neal. Hir intent was plain as they watched hir try and then fail to maim or kill Neal, each time shi seemed a little more desperate to beat him. Neal saying "You still have something that doesn’t belong to you." seemed to enrage hir even more, and there was more than one gasp of surprise when shi didn’t go through Neal the next time. Even more damning was Tess adding in what the others had said after Treesap was unconscious. They were shown the medical scans and what repairs had been made on the injured chakat before shi was sent back.
They all sat in silence for a minute before the hyena shut down a recording device he had been using and began to prepare to leave. Frowning at Butterscotch he said, "In light of that video, there’s no way I can help you."
"They made that up!" Treesap protested.
"And if we have a mind reader in your head, will they see your claims – or the screen?" he shot back. When Treesap just growled he shook his head. "I guess the biggest surprise to me is that a room full of chakats thought they could lie about something this big …" Looking back over at Hazelwood he asked, "Why do you still have that comm badge?"
"Shir Passion thinks shi can trust me," shi quietly mumbled.
"Can shi?" he quietly asked.
"I want hir to be able to," shi admitted.
Looking at the rest of the room, he said, "Good luck, you’re going to need it."
"Is that thing recording us now?" hir green sister demanded.
"Most likely," Hazelwood admitted. "Unless I ask for privacy."
"Shut it off! Now!" hir mother demanded.
"No," shi said, surprising hir mother by standing up to hir. "I want them to see how I’m being treated here."
"You won’t help them spy on us in our own house!" hir mother screamed.
"Then I’ll leave," shi quietly said. "I spent the night there. They’re nice to each other, the little ones get help when they need it – not just harassment by the older ones …"
"They kept your PADD!" the other green cat laughed.
"I left it there!" shi countered, "I can leave it sitting out in the open and they won’t try to break it – or piss on it!" shi added, glaring at one of hir younger sisters.
"FINE! Just get out of here!" Butterscotch growled.
"Thank you," Hazelwood said as shi turned to the door. As shi closed the door behind hir, shi added, "I hope that means you won’t fight it if they offer to adopt me." The latch had just clicked when shi heard something hit the door hard from the other side.
"You were recording, right?" shi asked as shi hurried away from what used to be hir home.
"Still am," Tess confessed, "as they have yet to turn off that entertainment system …"
"What hit the door?" shi asked with a half smile.
"Your mom’s PADD, which didn’t survive the impact."
"Shi’ll just say it was my fault …"
"And they finally noticed the entertainment system – the green mudcat just tore the wires out of the wall. All good data to show others on home life in the Butterscotch house."
"Who would you send it to?"
"Before your mother contacted that lawyer, shi took Treesap to the clinic to be scanned as proof shi’d been hurt as you guys heal fast and the wounds wouldn’t last long."
"So, the clinic now has scans of what appears to be an abused teen chakat with a very angry mother – who did not also want to have a police report filed …"
"So they think shi did it?"
"Maybe not," Tess admitted, "but they do know shi’s covering something up – which could make hir an accessory to whatever happened to Treesap."
"You know something you’re not telling me."
"Well … I managed to place a tag on those scans so I could try to track them through their computer networks. A complete set went to a very interesting little group. Since then, that group has requested the last five years of any police report involving your family."
"Child Protective Services. They have a very small office here as most chakats wouldn’t put up with the things that would require their services."
"What will they do?"
"I don’t know. Part of it might depend on how much information they have."
"Can you give them more information?"
"I could, but we won’t know if that will help or harm your case."
"Do it. Mom ordering me out of the house has to be a good thing for me."
"And a bad indication on hir fitness as a mother," Tess agreed. "Checking with the boss, he just gave his approval."
"Including everything that happened to me."
"Star was half standing when they started up that tree, her comm badge even caught you throwing a couple of those nuts."
"I’m sorry I did that …"
"It worked out, and they have forgiven you."
"Only because you did finally see that you might be doing wrong, and you were willing to change your ways," Lighttouch told hir from where hy had been lounging around a bend in the path.
"You were spying on me?"
"I was watching to ensure you were able to leave again – if that was your wish."
"It was; thank you."
"While shi wasn’t ‘assigned’ the duty this time, Blackrose is keeping an eye on the little ones."
"How’d it go?" Blackrose asked when Hazelwood joined them inside. The older cubs were using soft blocks to build things the smaller ones would then jump up to knock over.
"Mom was trying to get a lawyer to gets you guys in trouble, but he told hir he wouldn’t do it …"
"And shi let you come back to Passion’s house?"
"Shi kicked me out of the house when I wouldn’t tell Tess to stop watching through the comm badge."
"Heh, so the way Neal and Tess use these badges works in our favor."
"Tess said that some cub protection service might be looking into what happened."
"If they ask us, I’m pretty sure Passion will put in a good word for you. In the meantime, catch the little ones next time they zoom past, it’s about time to feed them and put them down for a nap."
Hazelwood happily spent the rest of the day with Blackrose and the cubs. Hir peace of mind was shattered shortly before dinner when shi sensed hir mother heading their way in a rage.
Others had felt hir as well, and Wildflower was waiting for hir at the front door.
"What was the meaning of sending those people to my house?" Butterscotch demanded when the door was opened.
"What people might those be?" Wildflower asked coolly, "I am sure there are several groups that should be taking an interest in you and yours."
"The damn cub protection service! As if you didn’t know!"
"Tess, has anyone here contacted that service?"
"No one from your location," Tess replied, "but you might ask Shir Butterscotch if shi has done anything that might have brought hirself to their notice …"
"What the hell does that mean?" Butterscotch demanded.
"Well, something like taking a badly injured youth or teen to a clinic to be scanned and then not having any treatment done might look suspicious, especially if no police reports were filed about whatever had happened to hir. I do know that our recording of the incident has been viewed several times since it was filed with the police …"
"Why would you have given that to the cops?"
"To cover our tails of course! You have a history of lying, Shir Butterscotch, and Captain Foster has a history of not letting liars get away with it," Tess stated. "You’ll find that the strongest weapons we have to use against you are your own words and actions."
With a snarl of rage, Butterscotch turned and fled down the walk.
"Shi didn’t ask for Hazel back," Passion noted from behind hir mate.
"No, shi didn’t," Wildflower agreed as shi turned to go back inside. "I think things are looking up," shi added with a smile.
The next morning the protective services were back, this time with the police and warrants covering everyone in the Butterscotch household – only Treesap and the green dyed teen managing to escape being taken in for evaluations.
Tess’s monitoring of the different nets had given the Passion household plenty of advanced warning of what was happening, so it was an alert and already fed Hazelwood that stood by the front door as Wildflower opened it for the waiting officers.
"We’re here for – " one started, only to have Wildflower cut hir off.
"Hazelwood, yes I know. I am Councilor Wildflower and I will be accompanying hir. As hir mother kicked hir out of their home just last night, my lifemate and I are applying for custody of the youth."
"That won’t be necessary," the officer tried to protest.
"I won’t interfere with your investigations, but I am going to ensure that this youth doesn’t suffer from any additional abuse," Wildflower countered. "Shall we go?" shi suggested, stepping forward and forcing the other two to give ground, Hazelwood following close behind.
"Shi’ll be fine," Weaver told the frowning Blackrose as they watched the others leave.
"Shi better be," the dark youth muttered just before Firestorm pounced hir tail. "BRAT!" shi exclaimed as shi gave chase of the now giggling kitten.
Weaver smiled as they disappeared around a corner; it seemed even the little ones weren’t going to let Blackrose worry too much about hir new friend.
Wildflower returned just before the evening meal with Hazelwood still in tow. Everyone allowed them to eat in peace before questioning them after dinner.
"I hadn’t really considered how useful Neal’s comm badges are," Wildflowers admitted as shi made hirself comfortable on a taur pad.
Hazelwood grinned. "Especially when the cops realized everything they did or said to us was being saved!"
"It did put a crimp in their style," Wildflower agreed. "One of them even tried to take Hazel’s when shi refused to turn it off," shi told them with a matching grin.
"And I did my ‘possible hostile attack on one of our cubs!’ and transported them away," Tess said from the room speakers.
"They were much more polite after that," Hazelwood told them.
"They should have known better," Tess replied, "I know for a fact that both of them had seen the recordings of what happened when Treesap grabbed your badge last time."
"I never did hear what happened in the time it took for you two to return …" Wildflower hinted.
"We ended up in Neal’s office," Hazelwood told them. "He sent me to go find Stew for a snack while he ‘talked’ to the officer. Shi looked like shi was ready to pee hirself when Neal called me back."
"So I’d noticed. What did you say to hir?" shi asked, looking over at Neal.
"I just asked what shi thought shi was going to do differently than if shi was sure shi wouldn’t be caught. When shi tried to claim ‘nothing’, I pointed out a third party’s recording could actually be beneficial in proving ‘nothing’ did happen – but if anything else was tried to traumatize that cub they would find out what besides rescues we were capable of …"
"You threatened hir?" Wildflower half asked with a laugh, "I was wondering why they flip-flopped so quickly."
It was Tess that answered hir, "As I said, they know what we’ve already done to those we care for. I think they were working under the assumption that Hazelwood was outside rather than inside that sphere of protection."
"Well, rather then bother us more, they spent the rest of the day helping us fast-track the adoption paperwork. It was especially helpful that they had Butterscotch in another part of the building, it seems shi signed away hir rights to Hazelwood without putting up a fight," Wildflower told them.
"Possibly because shi may lose even more of them at the rate things are going," Tess added.
"Spying again, Tess?" Weaver asked.
"Several of the ‘fathers’ contacted didn’t even know they had sired a cub by Butterscotch. It seems shi masked hir heat scent and lied to them to get them to mate with hir."
"Ouch," Passion muttered, "bad for hir, but it helps our case. How far did the paperwork go?"
"All the way to ‘done’, Love. Hazelwood is now officially our ‘brat’."
"Really, all ours?" Passion asked with a grin, "Then come here my little brat!" shi laughed.
Hazelwood reached Passion first for a tight hug – which turned into a mass hug as all the others joined in.
The next morning Hazelwood eagerly started the first day of the rest of hir life. Shi helped some of the little ones get breakfast before diving into hir own. A rainy morning made a good excuse for getting hir schoolwork done early, shi plopped down next to Blackrose who was frowning at hir PADD.
"What’s wrong?" shi asked.
"I should know this junk – but I don’t," shi muttered back.
"Let me see," shi asked, and Blackrose handed Hazelwood hir PADD.
"What is this stuff?" Hazelwood finally asked in confusion. "I don’t understand any of this – and I’m bigger than you are!"
Tess chimed their comm badges before say, "These tests are to see what you know about the different subjects, Blackrose. They are not to make you look ignorant, but to show what you have already learned."
"So? Where do I rate?" Blackrose demanded.
"You’re not done with the assessment," Tess pointed out, "But so far I would guess that you are well past primary school with a couple years of college or trade type schooling."
"Specialties?" Blackrose asked as Hazelwood stared at hir in amazement.
"To be determined," Tess admitted, "But your current scores would have ‘Fleet eager to offer you a position – once you’re old enough."
"I’m gonna pounce the hell out of you if you keep staring at me like that!" Blackrose told the still staring larger youth.
"Sorry," Hazelwood muttered turning away. "Who are you?" shi said very quietly.
"I’m the one that was going to claw my way up that tree and take out any threat to the cubs under my care," Blackrose flatly told hir. A little quieter shi added, "and I’m still the one that thinks you were worth finding."
"Well, if you’re such a ‘brain’, maybe you can help me with this problem," Hazelwood said as shi held out hir own PADD.
After lunch the sun came out and the younger ones were allowed to play outside. While only a few days old, the newborns were far from immobile and were allowed to explore the decks – with careful supervision of course.
Firestorm and Starblazer were helping play with the newborns on the second planted roof level, so Blackrose and Hazelwood were both keeping an eye on them. At the sounds of rumbling tummies, Blackrose went in for snacks as Hazelwood headed to the deck level to recover the ball that Firestorm had missed.
Hazelwood looked up in surprise at what sounded like Firestorm and Starblazer growling. At the edge of the roof was hir sister, Treesap, with a newborn dangling by their tail in each hand.
"I’ll teach you to tear up our family!" shi shouted down at hir, "Your new friends won’t get these two back until they let go of Mom and the others!" Shi then bound for the side with the ramp leading to the ground, the kittens crying their distress. Shi was slowed momentarily by Starblazer trying to take a bite out of one of hir hind legs and Firestorm sinking hir teeth into hir tail. A kick dislodged the foxtaur kit and doing a ‘crack the whip’ with hir tail threw the cub into a nearby bush – but much softer than Treesap had intended as the cub had dug in, and said tail was now minus more than a little fur towards its end.
The delay hadn’t been enough to let Hazelwood reach hir sister, and shi now ran along the deck’s edge as hir sister ran on the descending ground below. The path Treesap was running on ran beside the house until the lowest level, where it then went straight out and into the ‘backyard’. Hazelwood never hesitated, but flung hirself over the edge of the deck when shi reached it.
Treesap turned towards the path behind hir as shi felt Hazelwood’s anger quickly approaching – only to see Blackrose just coming around the far corner. Hir confusion only lasted a moment, but in that moment Hazelwood’s full weight slammed onto hir lower torso, the youth’s hand and handpaws’ claws slashing into their much larger antagonist.
There had been a bolt of pain when shi landed on hir much larger sister, but Hazelwood hardly noticed it as shi slashed again and again at Treesap. Shi was shouting something, but shi couldn’t hear hirself over the blood pounding in hir ears.
An eternity later shi felt hands grasping hir limbs, trying to pull hir off Treesap. Shi fought them, but they were too strong for hir, pulling hir away and keeping hir from moving. There were sounds as well, but they barely penetrated hir consciousness as shi continued to struggle.
Someone then grabbed hir head in their hands, claws felt but not quite breaking the skin. "We got them! They’re safe!" a voice was shouting into hir ears – a voice shi had heard snarling before.
"Blackie?" shi half whimpered before going limp.
"We’ve got the cubs, and I’ve got you," Blackrose quietly said as shi gave the bloodied youth a careful hug.
Hazelwood woke to find hirself strapped to a hospital bed, tubes pushing up into hir left mid-limb. On pads around hir were Passion, Blackrose, and the newborns.
"What happened?" shi whispered.
"You broke your right rear leg and hurt your back from your fall," Passion told hir, "It would have been much worse if you had missed your sister and hit the ground."
"Why didn’t you just call for help?" Blackrose demanded.
"Why didn’t you?" Passion countered, "You went after a whole tree full of them as I recall."
"Do as I say, not as I do," Blackrose muttered.
"Well, as you know, it’s kind of hard to not just react when your kittens are being threatened."
"But they’re not hir kittens," Blackrose protested.
"Aren’t they?" Passion countered with a smile at Hazelwood.
In another wing of the hospital, Butterscotch had just been led to another room. Treesap lay there unconscious, most of the fur missing from hir head and upper torso, as well as having lost both ears and one eye. Between bandages and the healing units, it was hard to tell what – much less who was in the bed.
Shi stared in horror at the remains of hir daughter for several minutes before shi realized there was someone else in the room with them.
"I was here to ensure shi didn’t die," Neal told hir. "You trained all your cubs to know that they can only depend on themselves – that no one else will ever raise a hand to help or protect them. It took five strong adults to pull Hazel off Treesap; all because Hazel knew shi didn’t dare give Treesap a chance to fight back. You should be proud that they both took your teachings so much to heart, it’s sometimes a kill or be killed world out there, and Hazel passed the test hir sister threw at hir."
He quietly walked out of the room as Butterscotch crumbled to the floor and burst out crying.
A fox vixen in a nurse’s outfit was entering Hazelwood’s room just as Neal was getting there.
"Visiting hours are over, I want all of you out of here – there was only supposed to be one visitor at a time to begin with!" she exclaimed.
"The patient needs the love of hir family more than shi needs isolation," Neal said from behind her.
"No, I want all of you out of here now!" she demanded.
"Shi’s worried enough as it is without us abandoning hir," Passion pointed out.
"As a nurse, you should know that chakats need more than just physical healing," Neal added.
"I’m getting the head nurse!" she threatened.
"You do that," Neal said with a smile. As the door closed behind the nurse, he turned to Passion. "Do you call Wildflower – or do I exert some of my ‘pull’?"
"Let’s see what the head nurse says before we pull out the big guns," Passion suggested as the kittens cuddled with Hazelwood.
The head nurse turned out to be a skunktaur, a red pawed skunktaur in male mode. Hy looked at each of them in turn. "Trouble," hy muttered at Neal; "Passionate," hy said at Passion; "Defiant," was Blackrose. "And Fearful – but of me and what I might do; not at any of them," hy finished with Hazelwood. Shi pulled the kittens closer to hir as hy continued staring at hir.
Hy finally nodded as hy said, "You were the one that was protecting your little sisters." Turning to leave, hy added, "I’ll have a couple more beds brought in for the rest of you."
"I’ll let you guys stay with hir," Neal said. "I need to head back and see how the loads are coming."
Blackrose was scowling as the door closed behind Neal. "Why did he leave? Tess can tell him everything he wants to know."
Passion smiled at hir as shi said, "He left to give the staff less of a reason to kick all of us out of here. Besides, it was he go to hir, or Firestorm would soon be coming for him."
"I’m sorry I’m causing so much trouble," Hazelwood tearfully said.
"Don’t you ever be sorry for saving our kittens!" Passion didn’t quite snap at hir. To hir look of surprise and hurt, Passion got up and gently hugged hir and the kittens. "Families protect themselves from outside threats. We will never reject you for helping protect us."
Blackrose joined the hug and that was how the orderlies found them when they brought in a pair of beds. "No smothering the patient!" one cheerfully said they came in. "Shi’s supposed to leave in better condition than when shi arrived!"
"While shi is limited to a liquid dinner, we can bring in some food for the rest of you," the other offered.
"Thank you, but we’re having something delivered," Passion told them.
"We are?" Blackrose asked once the orderlies were gone.
"You’re forgetting who you’re dealing with," Passion grinned.
"Neal," Hazelwood guessed.
"Trouble," Blackrose countered, remembering what the skunktaur had said.
"To those that get in his way? Yes. But to those he cares about …" Passion reminded hir.
Blackrose’s comm badge chimed as Tess reported, "Stew has just made it past the nurses’ station, the meals were approved and allowed to be delivered."
What Tess hadn’t told them was of a little surprise, which stayed on the hidden bottom shelf of the cart until the door closed with the rabbit doe inside. Firestorm and Starblazer leaped out to give each of them a hug as Suzan started uncovering plates.
Hazelwood looked forlorn at the meals being spread out before hir. Suzan took note of it and presented a large mug to hir. "Your doctor okayed this," she told hir with a grin. The rules had been liquids only, so she had blended the bananas into the large shake. Smaller shakes were for cub and kit, while Passion was the kittens’ dinner.
Cub, kit and bunny returned to Passion’s home a little while later. They found Neal in one of the little nooks that allowed for quiet study.
"Any problems?" he asked as Stew gave him a kiss.
"Not a one," she replied, "They’d just had a shift change and those at the desk had been ‘warned’ that Hazel would be having company for the night. They didn’t even blink when Stormy’s tail slipped out from under the cover."
"How did Blackrose seem to you?"
"Ok – why?"
"Shi was beating hirself up earlier for having left them alone at the wrong time."
"It wasn’t hir fault!"
"Of course it wasn’t, but shi wasn’t seeing it that way. Treesap waited until they were both occupied before starting hir attack – and it was cub and kit that were the first to retaliate. Star got a couple bruises and Stormy a few scratches from that bush, but we were lucky they weren’t hurt worse."
"You can’t tell it from the way they were climbing all over Blackie and Hazel," Suzan told him. "I heard you sat with Treesap for a while …"
"Shi lost a lost of fur – and blood. I was just making sure shi’d live."
"Why? Shi’s a danger to anyone near hir."
"For Hazel. I wasn’t about to have hir killing Treesap hanging over hir head."
"So you’ll help a foe if it helps a friend …"
"Sure, I’ll even help a friend keep their word," he reminded her.
"So you will," she agreed, "I’m going to want a cuddle tonight."
"All I do is work, work, work," Neal complained to cub and kit as she punched him and they giggled.
Hazel was released the next evening. Before shi left the hospital, shi insisted on seeing Treesap. While shi had wanted to see hir sister alone, the skunktaur from the day before accompanied hir.
"I did that to hir," shi said in a small voice.
"Not all of it," the skunktaur corrected hir with a sharp voice. "There’s a deep bite on hir leg that your teeth couldn’t have made, and the last two feet of hir tail was skinned off by claws much smaller than yours. You can’t take credit for those, and the fact that after being hurt that badly shi was still trying to take the kittens proves that shi would have stopped at nothing." Turning and placing hymself nose-to-nose with the youth, hy didn’t quite snarl, "If shi had gotten to a position where shi thought others couldn’t stop hir, shi would have hurt those kittens to get hir way!"
"Will shi be all right?" shi meekly asked.
Hy frowned before standing back up and looking over at Treesap. "It will take a while for hir physical injuries to heal. It will take even longer for the mental scars to close, and there’s no way to tell what type of person shi will be afterward. I’ve been in hir mind, and this last week has shaken hir to hir roots." Hy was quiet for a moment before adding, "You may have saved hir life you know, if you hadn’t been there and already covered in hir blood, it might have been one of the adults that would have been attacking hir – with more power and skill than you possess."
"Blackie would have been there next," shi guessed.
"The one that was in your room? While shi may be a little smaller than you, I sensed a will and power that I would not want aimed against anything I care for," hy admitted.
"Shi cares for others!" shi protested.
"Very strongly," hy agreed. "You have some remarkable friends, Shir Hazelwood, friends that are waiting to take you home."
Looking one last time at hir older sister, shi nodded and turned to go.
Hazelwood was welcomed home by each and every member of the house – some of the smaller ones needing reminding to be gentle with their still quite sore big sister. Suzan shooed the others away long enough to get hir fed before shi found hirself in the middle of a furry pile.
While Neal had also given hir a hug, he hung back and watched the others. Passion joined him after the cubs were mostly asleep.
"Penny for your thoughts?" shi suggested.
Neal was quiet for a minute before saying, "The way Star and Stormy go after Blackie, I think shi’s stuck as our cub and kit keeper."
"Shi doesn’t seem to mind," Passion pointed out, "And your cub keeper was kind enough to pick one out for us as well."
Neal smiled. "Who’d have guessed that shi could do a one-eighty like that?"
"Who’d have guessed your Blackrose would show hir the power of caring?" shi countered.
"Shi’s a good kid," Neal agreed.
"Shi’s still not sure shi trusts you."
"Trust takes time, some longer than others," he pointed out.
"I remember when I was little, that gruff human that tried to get us to work together – but we wouldn’t … you gave us each enough money on a card to last us a year, and let us go …"
"As I’d told the older ones, I wasn’t going to keep you against your will – but I also wasn’t going to let them run right over me."
"We were too young to be on our own, even the teens were borderline seeing to themselves – much less a bunch of children. Getting us fed that night was easy enough, but finding a place to stay without an adult in the group just wasn’t possible. We ended up sleeping in a park."
"Good thing the weather was nice."
"It rained damn you!" shi growled with a grin. "The teens had a long talk and then herded us back to the spaceport."
"And a bedraggled group you were – and after less than a day …"
"And you took us back."
"Yeah, I did at that," he admitted. "First task was getting you guys to work together to get things done."
"I think you did a pretty good job."
"Me too," said Wildflower from behind them.
"And now you have yet another to convince."
"Deities’ will or not, I’m not going to force hir. I’ll have Tess set up an allowance you can draw on if shi decides to stay with you, shi and Hazel seemed to be getting pretty close."
"Allowance my tail," Passion muttered at him. "If it gets that tight we’ll just scramble the eggs …"
"Mash the potatoes and water down the soup," Wildflower laughed, "Not that I see that ever being a problem with this group."
Neal hung his head in mock defeat before saying, "I’ll keep you updated on the colony push. Those wanting to come may want to take a few classes on roughing it on a strange planet."
"I thought I heard Tess telling Trapper the local university is getting the raw data from the colonies and planning classes around them," Wildflower commented.
"The better to prepare those wanting to go," Neal agreed.
"Don’t look now, but there’s a pregnant bunny glaring at you from one of the private rooms," Passion snickered.
"Yes, dear, coming now, dear," Neal said as he headed in her direction.
"This has been one of his more interesting visits," Wildflower idly commented.
"Yes, it has," Passion agreed, "though we can’t really blame all the excitement on him."
"Sure we can!" Wildflower laughed, "And I’d bet Hazelwood would be right there at the front of the line to thank him for causing such a commotion."
"Hmmm, Neal, or the company he keeps? Supposedly those deities delivered Blackrose to us, not Neal. And any of ours watching Star and Stormy would have steered them away from Butterscotch’s little pack."
"And Hazel still wouldn’t know that such caring could be hirs … whoever we blame, a very nice visit."
"Agreed, love. Why don’t we ‘cub sit’ tonight?"
"Silverflash is watching the kittens."
"You get them and I’ll get us a snack before we join the others," Passion suggested.
As the two adults headed in different directions, emerald green eyes opened from where they had been hiding in a darkened nook. Blackrose frowned as shi looked into the cubs’ room. Hir time was almost up and shi still hadn’t been able to decide. Passion and Wildflower had no reservations with keeping hir, but Traveler thought shi should go with Neal and Weaver … shi idly eyed the cub pile until shi realized someone was watching hir back. Something in Firestorm’s eyes unsettled hir for a moment. Blackrose blinked and it was just Firestorm giving hir a silly little grin. Shrugging it off, shi went to join the edge of the cub pile, Firestorm and Starblazer both demanding a hug and lick-kiss before shi was allowed to settle down.
Cub Keeper copyright © 2010-2012 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard (Goldfur) Doove and used with his permission.
Blackrose belongs to Chuck (Nicolai) Percy
Return to the Forest Tales main page.
Return to the Chakat's DenTM main page.