Tales of the Folly
By Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse
Chapter 12

Weaver sat in the modified ‘captain’s chair’ of the Folly, wondering how Neal made it look so easy. She was still discovering all the little details that went into running a freighter, and right now she was worried that she might have bitten off a little more than she could chew.

"Relax mom," her daughter told her from the navigation station, Holly’s budding powers letting her know just how ‘ill at ease’ her mother really was.

"She’s right," Longsock said from behind her. "Neal has taught them their posts well enough that all he does is tell them what he wants to happen and they know what to do." Not seeing his mate relax any, he added, "And it’s not like you don’t have Tess for backup."

"I know," Weaver finally admitted, "but it’s not the same when yours is the final say."

"This one’s what Neal would call ‘a walk in the park’," Tess assured her. "All we have to do is trade out one cargo pod with another. Neal confirmed the inventory before he left, and we’re just getting back an empty."

"Which you will scan before we take it," Quickdash said with a grin. "After all, we don’t want any stowaways."

"Nor any other surprises," Screamingwind added. "Mom’s told me about gravity mines and other methods of disabling and capturing ships."

There was no other traffic as they approached the station. Weaver had the teens use both Echo and Foxtrot, one to retrieve the empty as the other placed the replacement pod in the station’s now vacant port. A few pleasantries with the station and they were on their way, one down, more to go.

With Lighttouch away on Gwendolyn, mental training was put on hold, but that didn’t mean hys trainees were getting off easy. Both hy and Neal had left them plenty of chores and training material to work through in their absence. And of course there were other possible distractions.

Tauna had requested a holosuite for the day to practice her hunting skills; she didn’t want to be too out of practice when she returned from Chakona with Vanessa. As she hadn’t specified the terrain nor the beasts, she spent the first few hours learning the lay of this new land and where and what her potential targets might be. The area looked a bit overgrazed so some culling would probably be in order to help rebalance the land. Deer and wild boar tracks were plentiful, as were rabbit and squirrel. Deciding on bigger game, Tauna began following the tracks of a small herd of deer. Half an hour’s travel brought her in sight of the herd. A good-sized buck with eight does and three fawns made up the herd, but what caught Tauna’s eye was how badly one of the does was limping. Tauna moved slowly downwind of the little herd as she strung her bow and prepared to take down the lame doe. She was about to loose her arrow when the herd scattered, the buck thrashing wildly as blood poured from an arrow wound on his shoulder.

A coppery chakat was coming out of the bushes near the buck; shi was trying to aim another arrow at the wildly moving beast. Tauna muttered a curse before moving closer as well. She waited for the buck to rear up on his hind legs facing her before she fired her arrow into his heart. As the buck dropped, she turned on the chakat. "Just what the hell did you think you were doing?" she demanded, her voice harsher than expected in the heat of the moment.

"Tess told me you were hunting," shi said, a little surprised at Tauna’s anger.

"There’s a difference between hunting and just firing away at targets, Song," Tauna replied, still annoyed at the chakat.

"He shifted just as I fired."

"That wasn’t the problem," Tauna informed hir. "He was the last one you’d want to kill."

"I don’t understand," Windsong admitted, the surprise and confusion obvious in hir voice and expression.

"He was the only buck in this herd," Tauna explained, "so you just insured that there would be no more fawns from the does until they find another male."

"Then which one were you going to kill?" Windsong wondered.

"There was a lame doe; taking her down would have helped speed up the herd and given the others more to eat." Indicating the ground around them she added, "This field’s being overgrazed, but we don’t want to kill off the whole herd because other animals depend on them for food."

"Can ‘we’ try again?" Windsong asked hopefully as shi looked at the mess shi’d made.

"One of the nice things about holosuites are the instant resets," Tauna agreed with the beginnings of a smile. "Tess? Back us up fifteen minutes after we get back into hiding."

"Can do," Tess agreed as the buck and his blood disappeared from the ground.

"May I ask why my killing the buck upset you so much?" Windsong asked as they made their way back to where shi had fired hir shot.

"Sorry about that, but it’s just that I’m a trained forester," Tauna explained. "I was taking this test seriously, and the idea that we might have lost the entire herd to a foolish mistake hurt more than it should have."

Windsong nodded. "Like when I’m trying to hit a target, you were in the ‘zone’ and playing it for real. Tess, could you let the simulation run as if the deer can’t hear us? That way Tauna can explain things to me without having to stop or rewind the scene."

"Low talking is now safe," Tess informed them. "However, stepping on a twig will be heard by the herd."

"Thanks, Tess," Tauna acknowledged. "Now watch as they come into view," she told Windsong, "the fawns are staying close to their mothers, and the one with the limp is bringing up the rear. That’s the one I would take, this herd needs to be thinned if this area is going to be able to support them when winter comes."

"But there’s plenty of grass for them," Windsong objected.

"There may be plenty now," Tauna agreed, "but they will be working down what’s here, and there won’t be enough left when winter comes and buries everything in snow. Even culling one may not be enough, but I don’t want to change too much too fast."

"Since I flubbed my shot…" Windsong started as the lame one moved into range and gestured to Tauna to take over.

"No, Song, you go ahead and take the shot," Tauna said getting her own arrow ready. "Just remember, you don’t want her suffering any longer than needed, so a heart shot is preferred. I’ll stand ready if she needs a second shot."

The copper chakat nodded and slowly drew the arrow back and took aim. This time Windsong's arrow cut deeply between the ribs and the doe dropped with hardly a sound. The other deer fled a few steps in confusion before running out of sight as Tauna and Windsong stepped out from their cover. Windsong had just pulled hir arrow free of the doe when a growl came from the other side of the downed deer. A cougar snarled again as she hurried to the doe, trying to chase the chakat and foxtaur away from their kill.

Windsong stared at the huge cat for a moment before shi started notching hir bloody arrow, only to stop as Tauna touched hir shoulder. "Shoot only if she tries to attack us," the foxtaur vixen suggested.

"Don’t tell me you give away your kills," shi half teased while watching the large cat carefully.

"Normally no," Tauna agreed. "But if you look at where she came out of the trees, you’ll see why I’m inclined to let her keep the deer."

One by one, three little muzzles poked around two of the trees. They looked old enough to be weaned, but still much too young to fend for themselves. They now waited and watched to see if they would be eating today or not.

"Back away slowly," Tauna advised. "She has what she wants, so she should be willing to let us go as long as she doesn’t see us as a threat to her or her cubs."

"So if we hadn’t culled her, there’s a chance momma here would have," Windsong murmured as they backed away from the cougar, who now was standing with her forepaws on the doe, watching their every move.

"As a forester, I’m always looking for balance. In this case we weren’t really needed here, were we Tess?"

"You did save the cougar having to chase it down and drag the meal back to her cubs," Tess pointed out. "There was also a chance that one of the fawns might have been her target, it all depended on the moment."

"All I know is that I need to learn more about balance before I shoot at anything other than targets," Windsong admitted just as a soft rumble was heard from inside hir.  Shi gave an embarrassed smile before adding, "My stomachs are telling me we probably missed the main meal, but I’m game for trying to sneak something out of Stew’s kitchen if you are."

"Safer to steal that deer back from the cougar," Tauna chuckled, "but I’m game. Tess, end simulation please."

As the field and forest vanished around them, the two smiled at each other and headed towards the exit. Windsong snickered, "Tell you what, if Stew catches us, let me do the distracting while you grab enough to fill both our bellies. Right now I’m hungry enough to eat that simulated buck, raw with fur and all."

Tauna chuckled then looked back at Windsong before asking; "I’m curious – you hesitated for a moment when the cougar came out. That could have gotten you injured or killed you know, and why didn’t you try to ‘calm’ her? I thought chakats were good at empathy, and Clouds know the stories I’ve heard and the couple times I’ve felt your ‘loose cannon’ telepathy."

"I know, and the answer’s the same for both. My first response was to try and touch her mind and convince the cougar not to attack us."

"And?" Tauna asked.

"There wasn’t anything there for me to touch! I’d forgotten we were in a simulation, so there was no living mind for me to touch, feel, or ‘push’. That was also why I didn’t sense her before or during the attack." Windsong’s voice quieted and paused with a curious expression on hir face as they walked towards the exit.

Tauna smiled as she teased the other "Okay, I can’t resist; a half credit for your thoughts?"

Windsong shook hir head and laughed. "Sorry again, it’s just that for a moment, while I was staring into the cougar’s eyes, I couldn’t help but think that I could have been looking at myself in some alternate reality."

"Okay, now I know that you’re running on empty. Let’s go run the gauntlet of Stew’s Kitchen before you start getting really strange."

The next two stations the Folly visited were easily taken care of, but the one after that provided a break from the routine.

"That’s not our order," a male voice from the station stated once Echo was en route with the pod.

"This is the supply request your station broadcast and that the Folly had agreed to supply, at the offered price," Weaver replied, a little confused. All the other orders had been correct, and the station hadn’t contacted Folly to request any changes.

"We won’t accept the order without these items," the station stated, sending a list of over two hundred additional carriers of supplies.

"There will be an additional charge of…" Weaver started to say before she was cut off.

"No! That and the pod for the original price!" the voice growled.

Screamingwind held up her hand to get Weaver’s attention. Once the outgoing comm was muted, she said, "They’re playing a very old trick on you. You either lose time and credits giving them what they want, or you lose even more credits in the loss of the entire sale. Most ships have to fold as losing a few large sales can pull you under."

"But this isn’t ‘most ships’," Mike said with a chuckle. "With your permission, I’ll play some ‘hardball’ as Neal calls it."

At Weaver’s nod, Mike keyed up a private line to Echo. "Graysocks, Cindy? These guys are playing games with us. Reverse power and come to a stop. While I’m not reading any weapons, please keep the pod between you and the station just in case." As the shuttle pivoted its load and slowed, he reopened the comm line with the station. "I understand you’re wanting more than what was in your original supply request, is that correct?"

"Who’s this?" demanded the station.

"Night shift supervisor, Mike Hampton. And you are?"

"Tom Banks, station procurement agent."

"Well, tell me Tommy, how many ships have actually fallen for your little scam?"

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Tom replied, sounding offended.

"Getting a cargo ship all the way out here, only to find the deal’s off if they don’t sweeten the pot for you. A little ‘shake down’ as my father calls it. As giving in to that sort of thing would set a bad precedent, I won’t be giving you anything extra. The order, as you posted it and for the price you offered to pay, take it or leave it."

"Get me your captain!" Tom snarled.

"My captain is indisposed, and you’ve already annoyed our first mate. You’re stuck with me, so is it a deal, or no deal?"

"I told you to get me your captain!" Tom was now bellowing.

"And his orders were for me to obey his first officer," Mike replied, still in good humor. "As Folly pays my wages and not you, I’ll be abiding by their orders and not yours. Oh, and be advised that I’ll be warning any and all ships that Folly does business with of your manner of ‘procurement’."

"You can’t do that! That’s libel!"

"It’s not libel if it’s true, and the way you’ve treated us so far says it is."

"That’s blackmail!" Tom shouted.

"No, it isn’t that either," Mike assured him. "I’ll be sending out that warning whether you take this order or not." After a full minute with no additional response from the station, Mike activated the comm again. "Bring it home Echo, this station appears to have been a waste of our time and fuel."

"Echo copies, returning now," Cindy replied as they started maneuvering the pod back towards the Folly.

The station remained silent as Echo reconnected to pod to the Folly. As Echo was moved back to its storage bay between the spheres, Mike said, "Seems not only did they never plan to play fairly with whoever brought out their load, they don’t think they need it badly enough to pay for the order." Turning to Weaver he added, "Do I send it just to Neal’s friends?"

Weaver frowned. "No, send it as a warning to all ports that Folly deals with, and include a recording of this aborted transaction. Add a recommendation that anyone thinking of dealing with them get paid in advance."

They were just about to jump to warp when a new comm call came in.

"Hey Neal! Is that offer still open?" a feline sounding voice asked.

With a raised eyebrow at Weaver, Mike replied, "Who is this please?"

"You’re not Neal," the voice said, sounding confused.

"No," Mike admitted. "I’m just part of his crew. Why?"

"Can I speak to Neal?"

"I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. Why do you need Neal?"

"Well, he kinda promised me a ride out of here if things turned to shit, and well … things turned."

"Tess?" Mike asked after muting the comm.

"This station has been going downhill for a while now. The voiceprint is a match for a feline named Jackie Chun, and Neal did offer her a ride if she needed one," Tess told them.

"Sounds like she thinks she needs one," Mike said. He waited for Weaver to nod approval before he reopened the channel. "Very well, Ms. Chun, how much time will it take for you to have your bags packed and ready to go?"

"Now!" came the almost frantic reply. "I had to bypass their security systems just to get this call out! They’ll be trying to force my door in the next minute or two."

"Keep your comm open if you can," Mike advised her. "Tess? Have a Zulu double back and get her."

Folly maintained her course but did not go to warp as the Zulu turned back to the station. There were several comm calls from the station demanding to know what the small vessel wanted; they grew more frantic when they detected it using its transporter. The Zulu was almost back to the Folly when one more communication came from the station. It was nothing more than a long string of profanity with someone in the background shouting something about a biohazard. The Zulu transported its cargo to an airlock before resuming its normally assigned position.

Almost everyone had gone to see their newest passenger; Mike following after he’d had Tess take them to warp.

He joined the others at the inner airlock doors, the Zulu having left their guest sitting on the deck, surrounded by her belongings. As she hadn’t had time to pack, the Zulu had transported the contents of her drawers to her lap and the second seat in the Zulu for the ride over. As Calmmeadow helped the Siamese cat up, Dusk started helping pick some of the things off the deck.

"Tess is bringing us a couple of containers for your possessions," Weaver informed her. "I’m Weaver, Neal’s second in command."

"Where is Neal?" Jackie asked.

"Out on a search and rescue mission," Calmmeadow told her. "He left us to do some of the ‘easy’ deliveries."

"Though he seems to have left us with a couple surprises, too," Weaver told the cat. "I’m afraid he didn’t leave me any instructions of what to do with you," she added as one of Tess’s remotes delivered a set of containers for the items still scattered about the airlock.

"Where are you bound?" Graysocks asked as she helped Jackie stuff the containers with her belongings.

"Anywhere," Jackie replied. "I was starting to think Hell would be a step up from there."

"What happened?" Graysocks asked.

"Just what everyone warned me would," Jackie admitted with a small growl. "There was a change of management several years back. They started by getting rid of some of the crew that had been there the longest and bringing in their friends to replace them. After that, the rest of us started having problems with getting paid … or getting messages out." She looked at each of them before continuing, "Thank you for stopping for me, I was starting to think I’d waited too long to escape."

"Why didn’t Neal pick you up the last time he was there?" Weaver wondered.

"I was still thinking things couldn’t get any worse," Jackie admitted.

"Our next major stop is Chakona," Weaver told her as the now-filled containers were placed on Tess’s remote, which then headed towards the living quarters without being asked.

"That’ll do nicely," Jackie replied before hesitating for a moment. "When Neal offered the ride, we never did get into payments…."

"Well, Jackie, Neal seems to like putting hitchhikers to work," Weaver told her with a grin. "What talents might you possess to help you earn your keep?"

"Or stave off boredom," Alex suggested as he and Cindy joined them.

"Anything. I’m trained in life support so anything from keeping the air clean to unplugging stopped pipes and drains."

Mike spoke up, asking, "The last transmission from the station wasn’t very pleasant. Know anything about it?"

Jackie shook her head. "No, I was talking to you, I found myself beamed out, then buried under my possessions before being dumped in here."

"Tess?" Mike asked.

"After I had collected Ms. Chun and her things, I lost access control of the Zulu for five point six seconds."

"Do you have a record of what happened during that time?" Weaver asked.

Tess was silent for a moment before replying, "Yes. It seems all the one-way valves between her room and the station’s first stage waste processing plant were reversed and the contents of the plant were forced into the room under pressure. When the station personal forced the door to her rooms they would have gotten back what they’d been flushing."

"Oh … shit …" Cindy half-muttered, trying not to snicker.

"That too," Mike added dryly. "Tess, make a note for Neal about this, I don’t want him getting blind-sided the next time he’s out this way."

"But I didn’t …" Jackie started to say.

Weaver waved off her concern. "We know it wasn’t you. We have our own imps and pranksters onboard. It seems one of them took an interest in how the station was treating you."

"Well," said a voice behind them, "if she likes playing with food, I’m getting where I could use a full-time galley wench or scullery maid."

Jackie laughed at Suzan in her ‘lick the cook’ apron that was showing the swell of the rabbit’s pregnant belly. "If it involves playing with real food, then I’m your girl!" she promised.

"Well, before I get to test drive you in the kitchen, this ship has another test you have to pass first," Suzan told her. "Cubs! Teens! Take this sacrificial lamb to the main holosuite! Good luck kitten," she added as the cubs started leading Jackie away.

Having passed her ‘cub exams’ Jackie found herself manning the hotplate the next morning for breakfast while Tauna and Windsong brought her up to speed on what was expected of guests on the Folly. Along with chores were alternate types of entertainment. While there were now plenty of holosuites for doing whatever you wanted, there were several ‘group’ activities that had caught on. Windsong headed sing-a-longs as well as story telling for the cubs. Tauna’s ceramics and pottery had really taken off with the cubs (and some of the older ‘cubs’), making and painting their own works of art, enough so that they were now using one of the larger holosuites, both to work on their art as well as display it in a ‘gallery’. As a little something she considered partial ‘payment’ for her ride, Tauna was also working her way through Folly’s crew, a figurine of each and every one of them.

The next station delivery on their list proved to contain yet another pair of distractions. The first was an older Folly style comm badge; the second was a ship that caught the eyes and fascination of the engineering trio.

The old Rakshani medical frigate looked like it belonged in a salvage yard, but as salvage or scrap was debatable. Its original twin warp engine setup had been changed to a strange-looking four-engine array, and they in turn appeared to have been mostly destroyed by some type of failure. The remains of the ship were docked next to a small, long-range Star Fleet shuttle.

"A hard drop-out of warp can’t do that type of damage," Holly protested as they had Tess scan the wreck. "Besides, those engines aren’t even positioned to bring up a proper warp field!"

"They got here somehow," Screamingwind pointed out. "If any of the engineering crew survived, we may get to ask them."

"Did Weaver okay station leave?" Quickdash asked, hir eyes still glued to the readouts.

"Yes. Since we’re not leaving them any pods, we have to wait for them to be unloaded. Mike said we should be here at least six hours," Holly said as she saved the data to her PADD.

"Then let’s go before something changes," Quickdash agreed as shi shut down the scanner. "Don’t forget your phasers, preset to medium stun."

While the engineers made preparations to see what they could find out about the strange ship, Tess was signaling the comm badge she’d located.

The comm badge vibrated a few times, and then started beeping quietly when there was no response. As the badge had not been locked, Tess opened a channel to it. Slow, heavy breathing suggested that her party was asleep. Tess debated a moment before selecting the William Tell Overture. The breathing became erratic after a minute, but it was still another full minute before the heavy breather choked himself to wakefulness.

"Tess?" asked a very tired and confused male voice.

"Hello, Doug. Sorry to wake you, but we'll be leaving in a few hours and I thought you’d like to say ‘hello’."

"Just the parties I was looking for. Put Dad on," Doug requested as he tried to clear the cobwebs from his head.

"He’s unavailable," Tess informed him.

"You woke me up, you can wake him up too," he groused as he started to roll over.

"He may be awake, but he isn't here," Tess replied, only to hear a thud and a groan.

A little more awake now, Doug slowly picked himself off the floor. "What do you mean he's not there? Where is he?"

"Out on a search and rescue mission."

"Without you? Surely you didn't let him just take off in Charlie or Delta."

"No, he took Gwendolyn," Tess told him.

"Who or what is a Gwendolyn?"

"You've been away a while," Tess quietly said. "Gwendolyn is Neal’s newest ship. Have you been in contact with any of your siblings?"

"Nope, just got back from a long mission out in the middle of nowhere*… Why?"
              *(See ‘The Three Ships’ by Daniel Davis)

"Then you’re in for a few surprises," Tess warned him. "Get dressed, I don't think you'll want to miss this."

"Alright, alright, give me a minute," Doug said as he fumbled for his shorts.

It was then that Tess heard a second voice mutter sleepily.

"Bring your friend if you dare," Tess added as she dropped the connection, the engineering trio seeming to have reached their goal.

The trio’s target – or targets in this case, were easy to spot. They were sitting in the station’s main dining area, uneaten meals in front of them as they argued over a list they were going over. The list was of things Folly was offering for sale over and above what had already been sold to the station. While not really hungry, the kids each ordered a snack and sat nearby to eavesdrop.

"They’ve got Ester Mark 3’s, and after what happened to the Mark 2’s…" said a skunktaur in female mode.

Hys counterpart was also a skunktaur, but in male mode. "First, they’re only offering three and we need four; second, we don’t know if a larger field would have made any difference; and third, we can’t afford what they’re asking for them. Never mind replacing the AFU…"

The other sighed, interrupting hym, "We can’t really afford to get towed back to Chakona, and our funds won’t last forever sitting here. What do you suggest? That we give up?"

Hys companion grinned, "No, I don’t want to give up on this any more than you do. Tell you what, let’s send a message back to them telling them what we’re looking for. They may have a few things that they didn’t bother to list for sale."

"We’ve got a mess of Ester Mark 2s and 3s, as well as several Ackins models," Quickdash commented from the next table. At the skunktaurs’ startled looks shi added, "We don’t show everything we have because Dad uses them for his own projects."

"Are you saying you may be able to sell us what we need?" the male mode skunktaur asked, trying to not sound too hopeful.

"I’m saying we may be able to work out a deal," Quickdash corrected. "Part of that deal will be just what you were trying to do. There’s no way you got anywhere using them as standard warp engines in that configuration."

The male mode skunktaur started to snap off a rejoinder when hys companion touched hys arm. "Don’t say it," hy warned. Looking back to the other table, hy said, "Hydro was about to ask what cubs would know about warp engine configurations, however I sense that you might know more than would be expected. I am Terra, House Redpaw, and I’m what you’d call a telepath. My cohort in trouble is House Blackpaw which is astral-projection."

"Good," Holly said, "we have a beginner astral-projectionist on board. Perhaps you can give hir some pointers."

"So you’ll give us a lift?" Hydro asked.

"Let’s hear what you have to ‘trade’," Screamingwind suggested as they joined Hydro and Terra at their table.

Now fully awake and wondering just what the hell was going on, Doug had quickly dressed. Getting his tired friend up was a different story; Chakat Digs in Dirt was in no mind nor mood to get up. Not that Doug really blamed hir; they had only docked their small shuttle a few short hours ago. Digs had not been sleeping well of late, and Doug was starting to wonder if it had more to do with the lack of chakat companionship than it did with the cramped shuttle. He had been relieved to find the station had boasted no fewer than six chakats, as well as a pair of visiting skunktaurs. Digs had started to act more relaxed almost as soon as they had docked, and he was sure shi was asleep before shi actually hit the oversized bed. He was struggling now to get hir up for the fourth time when the door announcer went off. Letting Digs again curl up into a semi-ball, he went to answer the door.

"I’m a little busy right now..." he started to say, until he got an eyeful of what was blocking the doorway. The two chakats grinned at his confused look. It didn't help that he'd never seen either of them before, nor the fact that they were each wearing what looked like a different style of Folly comm badge.

From his five foot ten height, the Siamese colored cat found himself having to look up as the larger chakat said, "Hello, big brother. Tess told us you were having problems getting your roommate to rise and shine."

"Tess talks too much," Doug said as he allowed the chakats to enter. "You have me at a disadvantage," he added as the chakats stepped up to Digs’ bed.

"Sometimes," Windsong agreed as shi and Shadowcrest mentally examined the sleeping chakat. "I’m Chakat Windsong, daughter of Silverpelt and Fireglow, and not one of your new sisters. Though this mountain of fur is, say hello to Shadowcrest. What happened to hir? It feels like shi let hirself get way too in need."

Doug nodded, "I thought that’s what was happening, but Digs kept insisting that shi was fine. I should probably warn you, shi’s been treated for a drug dependency to some stuff that shi used to use to help suppress hir needs during heat and rut."

"Which would have made hir even more sensitive to heat and rut without the drugs," Shadowcrest commented as shi gently placed hir hand on Digs’ shoulder. "That and it also seems to have made hir much more susceptible to missing other empathic minds for extended periods. Why would anyone do something like this to themselves?"

Doug sighed. "From what I’ve learned, shi thought it got in the way of hir work."

"Sounds like someone we know," Windsong commented as shi physically and mentally watched Shadowcrest carefully determine Digs’ state. "Though his tricks are all mental."

After a minute Shadowcrest said, "Shi seems stable enough, just exhausted." Turning to Doug, shi asked, "Are the two of you joining us on Folly?"

Doug cocked his head before replying, "Are you two going to explain how Folly’s here, but Neal isn’t?"

Gently rolling Digs over, Shadowcrest said, "In a nutshell? One of our passengers was from a ship that had gone missing. Neal thought he had a lead and went looking. His last message said he’d found something and would be delayed rejoining us."

"And just how did Folly end up with passengers and I’m assuming a crew? Dad’s been traveling solo for quite a while now."

"I understand someone thought Neal was lonely, and he didn’t discover two carriers worth of furs before it was too late to take them home," Windsong said with a grin. "I heard that’s how he ended up with your bunch, too. He didn’t know you were there until it was too late, and by the time he could unload you, you had bonded."

"Something like that," Doug admitted.

"So try to not act so surprised that he did it again," Shadowcrest laughed softly, as to not disturb Digs. "Help me get hir up on my back, I think it will be easiest if I just carry hir to the shuttle."

Doug found himself following the chakats out of the room. Shadowcrest walked slowly and carefully, trying to not let Digs shift too much on hir wide back. Digs had been placed straddling Shadowcrest’s back, hir arms held around hir upper torso and hir head resting on hir shoulder. Windsong had put on Digs’ saddlebags to leave hir arms free in case Shadowcrest needed help with hir passenger, leaving Doug to carry his own kit and bringing up the rear. They only had one near incident; Digs’ rump had started to slide to one side, but Shadowcrest had quickly brought it back in line with hir tail.

As they reached the docking area, Doug said, "I’ll need to bring our shuttle along."

"No problem," Shadowcrest said. "With Gwendolyn gone, bays four and eight are available. Or, if it’s small enough we can tuck it into a bay with one of the other shuttles."

"Four! We need bay eight!" a voice from behind them called out.

Turning, Doug found himself staring at another group coming from one of the other corridors. The comparison continued, as the oldest ones in the group looked as confused as he felt. A pair of adult skunktaurs were being led by a teenage Caitian, and foxtaur and chakat youths, the chakat being the one that had spoken.

"And what would you three be needing with a bay?" Shadowcrest asked, turning carefully with hir load.

"Because we can use the holo system to help repair the ship these guys busted up," Holly replied. "Unless your friends broke their ship, too?" she half asked, sounding almost hopeful to Doug’s ears.

"Did you get Weaver’s approval?" Shadowcrest asked.

"You should talk!" Quickdash quickly responded. "I don’t remember you asking Neal for approval before dragging Stew onboard! Do your new friends know you’re only twelve?" shi demanded, hoping to distract hir from the other issue.

Shadowcrest just grinned. "The cat behind us just happens to be Doug Foster, one of Neal’s first set of brats, and my passenger is a friend of his. Now, what’s your excuse?"

The twins were silent for a moment, trying to come up with a suitable response. Screamingwind spoke first. "They had a little misadventure with their ship. We were hoping to offer them a ride and some repair work in exchange for data on the drive system they were experimenting with."

"‘Their ‘ship’ being the one out there that looked like it had already been half-fed to a shredder?" Windsong asked, having wondered why the station had a piece of scrap tied to it.

"It uses a type of warp, but it’s not warp," Holly tried to explain.

"This ought to be fun to watch," Windsong chuckled. "Tess, ask the others if they want to buy tickets to the explaining of this mess to Weaver."

"Weaver wants to know how much the tickets are, something about buying one for Longsock," Tess replied.

"You weren’t suppose to tell her," Holly moaned.

"Timeout," Doug didn’t quite demand as he stepped in between them. "Who’s Longsock? Or Weaver for that matter?"

Mike was just coming from the corridor leading to the docking bays and surprised Doug by answering his question. "Weaver is Folly’s first officer, and with Neal elsewhere she’s in command. Longsock is one of her mates. My name’s Mike by the way, just another of your ‘new’ younger siblings." Turning to the trio and their skunktaur followers, he chuckled. "The way you three left told us you were up to something, and you know how the ‘powers that be’ love to know when things are about to get ‘interesting’. Don’t worry," he added with a grin. "Weaver has already agreed that we can at least give your new friends a lift back to Chakona. As far as fixing their wreck, anything major will have to wait for Neal’s return and approval."

Doug was about to ask another question when Digs murmured in hir sleep. Instead, he followed Mike and the others to the shuttle docking area.

As the station was still unloading the first pod, Mike let the engineers use Echo to ferry the badly damaged ‘Fractals’ over to the Folly, while Doug followed in his smaller ‘Fleet shuttle.

The Folly’s eight bays made an octagon around the connection between the two spheres. Four of them were quite large, the other four much smaller. The smaller ones held Neal’s shuttles, while two of the large bays held Charlie and Delta in opposing bays. While Neal had always claimed it was for balance, Doug had often wondered if the staggering was more to protect at least one of each type of vessel in the event the Folly was attacked or damaged.

He watched as the ‘kids’ parked their new project in bay eight before docking Echo at one of the second sphere’s docking ports to offload their passengers. Doug then circled Folly to park his own shuttle in bay four.

Once aboard, he found things were indeed different from his last visit to Folly. A handful of cubs were the first to greet him after docking his shuttle. They were leading him to a room just as Shadowcrest and Windsong were leaving the neighboring one. Doug looked into the room they’d just left; Digs was curled up in the middle of the oversized bed. He set his bags next to hirs before giving hir head a gentle stroke and then turning to the cubs. "I don’t want hir to wake up alone and in a strange place. Would one of you like to stay with hir for me?"

The cubs ‘debated’ among themselves until Shadowcrest said, "No need to fight over hir. You can all help keep hir company … quietly!" shi quickly added as they gleefully charged into the room.

Doug followed Windsong and Shadowcrest into the lounge to meet Weaver, Longsock, and even more of his ‘new’ siblings.

After enough greeting hugs to make him wonder if this was such a good idea, Doug found himself the center of attention.

"So what are you doing out in the boondocks, carting around an overtired chakat?" Weaver asked as Jackie and Suzan rolled in snack carts.

"So what is Folly doing out here with all of you and not Neal?" he countered.

"It’s a long story," she warned.

"I appear to have the time," Doug said with a grin. "I was already told that he’s out on a search and rescue, but there seems to be a lot more going on."

"Well," Weaver said, "it all started when Neal was loading cargo from Bright Hope …"

Digs in Dirt woke slowly, feeling that shi was in that half-asleep state that always felt so good. Shi shifted slightly to hug Doug, only to have it feel like he had split into two. Another wiggle on hir back brought hir awake in a rush. Shi was surrounded by four little chakat cubs, all of which started climbing all over hir, each wanting a hug.

"You’re not suppose to wake hir up!" a fifth and older dark gray cougar patterned cub admonished from the doorway.

"Shi just woke up!" the small red and black tiger striped cub behind hir retorted.

Looking around, Digs was fairly sure that this wasn’t the room shi’d fallen asleep in with Doug. "Where am I?" shi asked, not sure shi’d get a useful answer from the cubs.

"You on Folly!" the one still hugging hir said. "The big cat told us we can sleep with you."

"And where is Doug?" Digs wondered.

"We’ll take you to him!" the cub at the door promised.

Finding hir bags next to Doug’s by the bed, Digs dug out a top to wear before letting the cubs drag hir out of the room. A short trip through the corridors had them in a galley where shi found Doug enjoying a meal with over a dozen other furs. Shi was led over to a taur pad already beside him before the cubs dispersed to find their own meals.

Doug noted hir questioning look, and gave hir a small grin. "We’ve been shanghaied, Digs. Seems Folly found us, but for the first time in recorded history my father’s not on board."

"Where does that leave us?" Digs asked.

"As guests," a foxtaur vixen told hir. "I’m Weaver, and we’ll introduce the rest of the group once you’ve had something to eat. Doug’s told us a little about you two, most of which was covered by ‘top secret – ask something else’."

"Some of it has been," Digs admitted. "Though with the hints Doug’s been giving me, I want to have a little ‘chat’ with his ‘dad’."

"As Doug just said, Neal’s not here right now," Weaver told hir, "but the rest of us would love to sit in on your quizzing him. We get to learn more about him every time he bumps into his past."

"It’s not always pleasant," Doug commented.

"We know," Weaver admitted. "We met some of your siblings along the way." A little quieter she added, "We also ran into a group that wanted to kill us and take Folly. We got a glimpse of just what he will do to protect his own."

Digs looked around at all the somber expressions before muttering, "I take it he goes too far?"

"Depends on who you ask," Doug replied, having seen how the topic was bothering the others. "From the outside or after the fact it might look like overkill, but in the thick of it, I haven’t seen anyone else step up with a better idea."

"But you still resent him for that," Shadowcrest stated, feeling the conflicting emotions coming from the cat.

Doug gave hir a sour look before saying, "For a long time I did. I don’t think I do anymore, but some things can take a long time to unlearn."

‘It’s okay," Shadowcrest replied, "I screwed up and tried to force Desertwind to accept him."

Doug was unable to hold back a bark of laughter. "I bet that was a hell of a show!"

Digs on the other hand looked concerned. "You tried to force someone to like him?" shi asked, not quite believing hir ears.

Windsong moved in to comfort Shadowcrest. Hugging hir upset friend shi said, "Lighten up on hir, shi was just trying to help."

"And I know my sister can be as stubborn as my dad. Part mule, the both of them," Doug commented. "If you were pushing ideas at Windy, I assume you’re a telepath. What’s your rating?"

Windsong chuckled. "We’re still trying to find out. Our skunktaur instructor is with Neal, but hy thinks Shady’s at least a strong T4, possibly much higher."

A skunktaur in female mode chuckled. "From what I have already felt from your engineers, I think your Quickdash already meets the requirements for T4, and shi hasn’t hit puberty yet," Terra commented.

"Don’t remind me," Weaver mock groaned. "Shi and Holly are getting where they know what I am going to say before I do."

Grinning at her mother, Holly piped up, "We knew you were going to say that!"

"No we didn’t," Quickdash fired back, also grinning.

Weaver stuck her tongue out at them. "Just wait until your father gets home," she threatened.

The other skunktaur looked interested at that. "What would their father do?" Hydro wondered out loud.

"Burn their tails off," Windsong replied with a slight blush at the memory. "He doesn’t have much of a ‘T’ rating, but he can project a thought strong enough to make someone reading him feel what he wants them to feel."

"You should know," Cindy laughed. At the curious looks from their guests, she added, "The blushing copper cat over there has been both burned and lit on fire by Neal. Tell us Song, which did you find more embarrassing?"

Windsong’s blush only got stronger before shi hid hir face and shi mumbled something into Shadowcrest’s chest fur. Noticing that all their new guests were eyeing them with open speculation, Shadowcrest ‘pushed’ a moment’s worth of the feelings shi’d felt from Windsong that evening in Earth orbit.

Terra chuckled as hy asked, "Did he really broadcast it that strongly?"

Cindy was the one who replied, "Lighttouch told us Neal has very little power, so what we had felt was Song receiving the feeling from Neal and then re-broadcasting it for the rest of us. I think what really embarrassed hir was when hir parents on the ground and neighboring ships picked up hir broadcast."

"And it was Dad’s fault?" Doug asked. "I don’t remember him pulling that on us."

Shadowcrest smiled. "Lighttouch thinks a couple of things are combining to give Neal more sensitivity and power. One is all the time he’s spent around and trying to outfox other sensitive minds, the other is named Firestorm. Shi’s a chakat cub that bonded with him when he rescued hir, part of that kill or be killed we were talking around."

Doug nodded. "Tess? Would you build up a synopsis of what all I’ve missed? I think it would be easier on everyone if I just did a little reading."

"You sure you won’t want a little moral support?" Shadowcrest asked.

"Thanks, but no. If he’s done something so severe that he can shock me, then I don’t think you guys would be sitting here calmly talking about him. Tess? Does he have anything ‘blocked’?

"No, Doug, all current records are in the clear," Tess replied.

"So he does hide things from the kids," Weaver commented.

Doug chuckled. "Perhaps not quite the way you think. He most often hides pieces that won’t make any sense by themselves, only to unhide them once all the pieces are in place. There’s another cargo ship out there named Maverick that he served on board many years before my group. From their ship’s log, the Captain’s daughter was kidnapped while they were on a fairly sleazy station. Seems Dad went hunting as a slaver looking for a new furry pet." Looking around, he noticed he was only shocking those that hadn’t been there long; the others seemed to realize that Neal would do whatever he thought needed doing. He added, "The log showed that when some of the crew caught up with him, he had rescued not one but four, and had taken one of the slavers as well."

"I didn’t remember seeing anything about it," Weaver admitted.

"That was ‘BT’ – Before Tess, so not in her records," Doug told her. "I only found out because of some digging I did after a side comment by one of their crew suggested Maverick had a longer history with Dad than I did."

"This sounds like some of my digs," Digs-in-Dirt commented. "The more you find, the more questions you end up with."

Weaver was looking thoughtful. "I wonder what we would find if we asked each of the ships in Neal’s little group for their records of him? And the stations he trades with?"

Doug grinned. "Good luck with that. Most of those ships and stations owe Neal, they won’t betray him…. Though… maybe if you hit them all at once – and they all know you’re asking the others – you might just get them curious enough to consider it."

"We may need help from his first set of brats," Suzan said smiling at Doug. "Some of those ships and stations are ’Fleet and ’Corps run. I wonder what juicy tidbits they may have tucked away."

"Shady?" Windsong asked, disturbing their conversation. Shadowcrest didn’t appear to even be breathing; hir eyes had a glassy stare to them as if shi was seeing something the rest of them could not.

Holly and Quickdash also approached their big sister. Close, but not touching hir, Quickdash murmured, "Wow, shi’s in deep." Shi turned as shi felt Terra reaching out to Shadowcrest mentally. "Don’t! Give hir a minute," shi asked.

Terra honored the request, asking, "Have you seen hir like this before?"

Holly nodded. "Yes, though normally not this long. I know you were told about hir getting overloaded right after shi was processed. Well, shi seems to have a bit of Neal in there with hir, shi gets flashes of his memories with the right stimulus."

At that point Shadowcrest drew a shuddering breath before dropping to hir mat shivering.

Windsong, Quickdash, and Holly each laid a paw on hir, pushing calm. After a minute Shadowcrest’s breathing steadied and shi got back up. Looking at each of them in turn, shi seemed hesitant when shi said, "Perhaps we should just allow that Neal has had a checkered past and let it go at that."

"You found some more of his memories," Quickdash suggested.

"No, I got to live through one of his nightmares," Shadowcrest countered. Shi shivered again before continuing, "In it Neal’s on trial. Any crime you can think of, he’s done it at one time or another. His nightmare doesn’t consider that he may have been fighting for his life or the lives of others, just that he committed the crimes."

"You are afraid digging up the past will hurt him," Terra stated, still feeling the chakat’s unease.

Shadowcrest slowly nodded. "A mind can only take so much before it goes crazy. Neal has been pushed there and beyond a few times… When he feels like he’s losing it, he runs, more to protect those he cares for than for his own good."

Doug said into the silence, "Let me guess – his last ‘fear of losing it’ attack was about forty years ago."

Shadowcrest turned to look him in the eye and Doug shivered at something he felt in those eyes. Now he actually believed that there might be a piece of Neal in there. Hir eyes softened as shi got hirself fully under control. Shaking hir head shi gave him a small smile. "He was feeling ‘off’, but he didn’t completely lose it that time," shi told him. "He had just gotten his ‘brats’ out of the nest and he felt the strong need for a ‘walkabout’."

"He was feeling the walls close in?" Doug asked.

Shadowcrest gave him a small smile before singing:

"I'm a cosmopolitan sophisticate
Of culture and intelligence
The culmination of technology
And civilized experience

But I'm carrying the weight of all the useless junk
A modern man accumulates
I'm a statistic in a system
That a civil servant dominates

And all that means is that I'm running on ice
Caught in the vise so strong
I'm slipping and sliding, cause I'm running on ice
Where did my life go wrong?"

          (from Billy Joel’s Running on Ice)

Digs snickered at the look Doug wore when Shadowcrest stopped singing. "It seems you are like your father as well – you like to get away from others."

"So why am I carting you around?" Doug wondered.

"Perhaps for the same reason Neal is carting us around," Weaver answered. "No man, or fur, is an island."

"Or perhaps they’re both gluttons for punishment," Cindy said with a chuckle.

Doug saw Shadowcrest open and then close hir mouth without saying a word. He half nodded, there was punishment and then there was punishment. Some that was done to you, some you accepted as being deserved, some you took for others, and some that was self-inflicted. With a small smile, he moved the discussion to safer topics, like his father now having almost enough mates to keep him out of trouble. He noted the coppery colored Windsong gently lean against the much larger Shadowcrest before squeezing hir hand and whispering something into a gray ear.

While Hydro and Terra found themselves spending most of their time with Folly's engineers, Windsong also found time to use their knowledge of their skunktaur abilities to learn more of hir own powers. Terra added another point of view on telepathy and helped fill some of the gaps Lighttouch had not fully covered before hy left with Neal. On the other paw, Hydro gave hir a major boost in hir astral-projection abilities. As Hydro had a much more playful attitude, this carried over to hys methods of training.

Weaver walked into one of the smaller lounges just as Shadowcrest lifted a small ball out of a bucket and bounced it off the floor and at Windsong, who moved just far enough to catch it in hir mouth. Weaver was about to suggest that they not give the cubs any ideas when, without spitting out the first ball, Windsong caught a second. "Windsong!" she exclaimed.

Having not noticed her come in, both Shadowcrest and Windsong jumped, and over a dozen of the little balls seemed to fall from somewhere within Windsong's torso.

Looking carefully at both of them, Weaver dryly commented, "I take it only one of you is really here."

Shadowcrest looked over to where Windsong's illusion wasn't holding together as well as it had been. "Hydro and Terra are with hir, adding their support, and we were trying to see how many of hir abilities shi could maintain at one time. Shi's easily distracted at this point."

"So I see," Weaver agreed with a grin at the balls still rolling around, "but please don't let the little ones see you eating things we tell them not to put in their mouths!"

"Tess was going to warn us if any of them were heading our way," Windsong mentally said, "I just forgot to have her warn me of anyone ‘else’."

"I take it you can't ‘throw’ your voice?" Weaver asked.

"In theory shi could," Shadowcrest said, "but it takes a lot of work to vibrate the air just right."

"Sooo rueee," an almost ghostly voice whispered from behind Weaver as Windsong's image disappeared completely.

At Weaver's raised eyebrow, Shadowcrest smiled as shi added, "And shi's still practicing on hir aim."

"And how was shi hiding all these balls?" Weaver asked as she picked up one that had stopped by her foot.

"Shi was maintaining a ‘bowl’ shaped field to contain them once shi ‘swallowed’ them," Shadowcrest explained. "My changing the angle of each ball was to make hir work harder at keeping everything in sync, though shi still has a long way to go on hir telekinesis."

"Still, shi’s already come a long way from Nova’s bowl of fruit," Weaver pointed out.

"It always helps to have someone with the ability show you the ropes. With luck shi will find someone to help with hir telekinesis," Hydro sent as hy appeared before her. When Weaver tossed her ball at hym, Hydro made to swat it, but it went right through hys hand. "I don't have hir telekinesis," hy reminded her with a grin.

"I thought you didn’t have hir telepathy either," Weaver remarked with a raised eyebrow.

"As I’m still in contact with Terra, hy’s relaying each of our thoughts to the other," Hydro explained as hy disappeared.

"Neat trick," Weaver admitted to Shadowcrest. "You know Song and Hydro are going to get blamed for any non-holosuite ‘ghost’ sightings we have around the ship."

Shadowcrest grinned in agreement. "And Windsong can be anything you thought you saw, heard, or felt. And shi’s getting better with practice."

A soft mental chuckle echoed in their minds as Windsong reformed hir body and smiled at both of them. "In a way, I could cheat a little by doing this..." The image's mouth moved in time with hir mental comment before shi shrugged sadly.  "But it's not the same as actually speaking as even a non-telepath would soon realize there was no true sound to match the voice they’re hearing.  But I’m going to keep working on it."

It was late into Folly’s ‘night’, but Digs in Dirt was still up and still researching hir latest ‘find’. While most archeological digs required getting one’s paws dirty, shi was still immaculate several days into this ‘dig’, for this time it was data shi was mining.

Tess routinely gathered the local news and information at each port she visited, information that was then locked as ‘read only’ and not changed by any ‘updates’ that might have come later. This was giving Digs not only the original word of events, but what had later been changed with hints of why. Shi was so engrossed in the records that Tess had amassed during a dispute between the Federation and the Faleshkarti over a newly discovered habitable planet, that when hunger struck, shi had simply carried hir PADD to the dining room. Reading while shi ate, Digs completely missed the byplay between the rabbit and cat in the kitchen. Fortunately for hir, being a guest that hadn’t yet been told the ‘rules’ of the dining area, shi was allowed to miss having hir snack ‘spiced up’.

Digs was so immersed in hir reading that shi never returned to the lounge, but remained lying on a taur pad in the dining room, the others quietly getting what they wanted and then leaving hir to hir reading. The slight shifting of the ship as it dropped from warp and then resumed a few minutes later also went unnoticed by the brown chakat.

The door to the corridor opened yet again, but this time shi was not allowed to ignore it, as a cub shi hadn’t seen before got between hir and hir reading. Shi was getting ready to gently push the cub out of hir way when shi discovered said cub had been working on the fasteners to hir top. They both looked up when a voice admonished "You’re supposed to ask for permission first, Stormy."

A female Rakshani laughed at the human that had spoken before saying, "Stormy knows what shi wants and when shi wants it, Neal."

"Hope springs eternal, Dessa," Neal replied before turning back to Digs. "Sorry about that, but my daughter loves giving ‘milk checks’ to new herms and females."

"No worse than the teens around here dragging me away from my research for what they claim is ‘therapeutic’ sex," Digs complained.

"I wasn’t aware they needed therapy, sex or otherwise," Neal commented. "By the way, I’m Neal Foster."

"Chakat Digs in Dirt, daughter of Chakats Summer Moon and Tailcatcher."

"Professor Digs-in-Dirt, I thought I’d heard somewhere," Neal commented with a smile.

Shi frowned up at him as shi said, "Just Digs, unless you want me calling you Captain the whole time I’m here."

"Just Digs it is," Neal agreed with a grin. "And what’s this about therapy?"

Digs was saved from answering for a moment when Stormy finished hir milk check and gave hir a hug and a lick-kiss across hir muzzle. As the cub climbed off hir to find other entertainment, shi looked back at Neal. "Your son insisted on telling them about a condition I’m recovering from."

Neal looked quizzically at the chakat before him before asking, "Are you telling me they forced themselves on you?"

"No," shi admitted, "but they keep offering to ‘help’, and it’s disrupting my research."

"Which is what got hir in trouble in the first place," Tess told them. "Shir Digs in Dirt’s work comes before hir body’s needs. Doug has warned us of what to expect and we do what we can to keep hir out of trouble."

"I can manage myself just fine, thank you!" Digs snapped.

"No, you can’t," Tess replied. "You are two days away from your female peak and already you’ve been trying to go back to using drugs to counter your body’s needs."

Digs’s jaw dropped. "How’d you know?" shi whimpered.

"Because she sees all and knows all – and only tells others what’s needed," Shadowcrest said from the door as shi and Windsong came in. "Tess detected the drugs you got past Doug and we had her replace them with placebos. You will not fall back into abusing yourself, Digs, not on this ship anyway."

Neal didn’t say anything as Shadowcrest and Windsong sandwiched the older chakat between them, lending hir their support whether shi wanted it or not. Digs tried to read hir PADD, but after a moment shi surrendered and leaned into their support.

As Shadowcrest placed the PADD to the side, Neal finally said, "Sorry, Digs, no one’s allowed to suffer alone if others can help. To be honest, I’d be ashamed of my kids if it were otherwise."

"Say goodnight, Digs," Windsong suggested as they got up.

"Goodnight Digs," Digs muttered as shi allowed hirself to be led towards Windsong’s room.

Neal smiled as they left. "Who’s where, Tess?" he asked once the door had closed.

"Your bunny needs you the most," Tess replied. "Suzan’s starting to fear she’s getting too round for you to be interested in her."

Neal snorted softly. "She don’t know me so good, do she? Just more of her to love."

‘She’s in the cub room tonight," Tess warned.

"And I’ll join her there after I have a snack," Neal agreed. "It was an eventful trip, but it’s good to be home."

As he ate, Tess updated him on some of the things that had transpired while he had seen to the Sharp Claw. When she got to the skunktaurs and their little experiment, Neal had asked for a PADD containing what data she had so far. Half an hour later, Tess had to remind him he was suppose to be sleeping with Suzan and the cubs.

Neal was able to sneak into the cubs’ room and clean up in the bathroom without waking any of them, or so he thought. When he came out, Suzan was still asleep on her side, surrounded by wide-eyed cubs who moved to let him squeeze in between them, which of course woke Suzan.

"Welcome home," she whispered. "You didn’t give us quite enough time to destroy Folly."

Neal softly chuckled. "She’s survived my first set of brats and all I’ve put her through, so you guys didn’t stand a chance." Giving her swollen tummy a gentle caress, he added, "A little birdie told me you’re afraid of how big you’re getting."

He felt her give a shiver before saying, "I’m getting where I need more and more help in the kitchen. I’m not carrying my weight anymore."

"Idiot rabbit," Neal softly muttered as he tightened his hug on her. "You may still think you and Weaver’s little ‘trick’ in front of Boyce and family forced me to accept you, but you’re wrong. You are a part of this family until you decide you can’t stand me and mine any more. As to that expanding belly of yours, I agreed to be the mate of a cheerful bunny – not a skinny thing that thinks her looks and cooking were my only interests in her," he said before looking over her head where another pair of eyes watched in the near darkness. "Darkstreak, if you or any of your sisters feel Stew going hungry, you are to tell me." Looking back to Suzan he added, "The punishment will be you eating a whole banana split with Moonglow ice-cream."

"You wouldn’t force me to eat myself sick," she countered.

"You’re right, I wouldn’t," Neal admitted. "But the ice-cream’s a tastier treat than what I will force feed you if I do catch you going hungry." At her raised eyebrow he said, "We have crates of concentrated emergency taur ration bars. A mere four-ounce bar contains over six thousand calories. One bar and some water can keep an active taur or Rakshani going all day. So… you going to eat like a good little bunny?" he teased.

"I’m going to want to lose a bit of this after the twins are born," she insisted.

"That will be then, this is now," Neal countered. "And we both know you can balance your hunger against your calorie input, so behave."

"Yes, dear," she meekly replied before snuggling her head against his chest.

Neal waited a few minutes for her to fall back to sleep before carefully reaching for the PADD he had brought in with him. He thought he heard a half giggle from a kitten, but he could see no eyes glowing back at him in the dim light.


Continued in Chapter 13.

Copyright © 2005-2009 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.

Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr and some of his family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr.

Skunktaurs are copyright Bob Reijns.

The Quange were created by Roy D. Pounds II.

Windsong, Fireglow and Mythril/Myth are copyright Gregg Anderson, and used with his permission.

Tauna Shadowback is copyright Chakat Scirocco and used with her permission.

Chakat Digs-in-Dirt is copyright Daniel Davis and is used with his permission.

(If I’ve managed to step on anyone else’s toes (paws, claws or tails), let me know and I’ll either give you credit or change my ‘tale’)


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