While Neal was heading off to talk to the council, Weaver had been organizing the troops for another minor invasion. Their little caravan of PTVs went through a tunnel in the hills that separated the spaceport from the city before taking a long and winding route through a portion of Amistad and finally heading down what looked like a country road with a forest to either side. After passing a few small communities, the PTVs were switched to manual drive and turned up a private lane. A large turn-around had space for twice as many vehicles as they had brought, but the house didn’t look nearly large enough to have the extra space for them to not crowd out the inhabitants.
"Don’t look up, but we’re being watched," Zhanch murmured as they disembarked.
It took Weaver only a moment to spot the spy. The roof of the home had been heavily bermed, allowing several bushes and clumps of tall grasses to come right up to the edge. An almost purely black cub nose didn’t quite blend in with the greens and yellows around it. Once she could see the one, another, better-camouflaged noses became apparent.
While the roof was higher than the Rakshani could easily reach, it wasn’t by much. Kestrel grinned and reached down as she whispered something to Darkstreak. The cub wrapped hir lower limbs and tail around Kestrel’s forearm and was lifted so that shi was soon almost nose to nose to the dark nosed cub on the roof.
"Can we come in? Or do we have to ring the bell first?" Darkstreak asked.
"Who are you?" the dark-nosed one inquired.
"Darkstreak, daughter of Calmmeadow and Mike. Neal’s my grandpa."
"Grump-pa," the other corrected.
"Mum says to call him grump-pa so he won’t be," the dark nose explained.
"Won’t be a what?" Darkstreak wondered.
"So …" Kestrel said, interrupting their discussion, "May we come in?"
"Go around the side so we don’t wake up Grandma Passion," the cub suggested.
"Which way?" Darkstreak asked, as the cub hadn’t given any indication of direction.
"I’ll show you," the dark nose replied as it rose to reveal a chakat cub, hir entire body pitch black and that shi looked to be five or six years old. Looking down at Kestrel, shi asked Darkstreak, "Is she safe to climb?"
"Only if you promise not to dig your claws in," Kestrel assured hir. "May I ask who will be doing the climbing?"
"Shi’s Night, I’m Day," replied a pale golden muzzle that had stayed better hidden. "We’re twins," shi added.
Night dropped easily from the roof, only tapping Kestrel’s shoulder and thick tail on the way down. Leading them to the right of the house, shi opened a gate that let them into the backyard and down. From this side they could see that the house was built on the edge of a fairly steep hill, the portion they’d seen from the front being the top and apparently smallest of the many levels. Other cubs from the house paralleled them from above, ramps and steps giving them easy access to each of the other levels. While the upper two levels were topped with grasses and bushes, the next one down had been made into a large deck with taur pads and chairs under a large awning. Night led them onto the deck, where several teen and adult chakats seemed to be just stirring from a nap.
"Mum! Grump-pa’s new family!" Night semi-quietly proclaimed as shi ran up to a dark leopard-spotted chakat.
Giving hir cub a hug, shi then turned to their guests. "I am Darkwalker, daughter of Passion and Wildflower."
Weaver had been at the head of the Folly invasion. She gave Darkwalker a greeting hug as she answered, "And I’m Weaver, one of Neal’s mates. I understand you’re about to have a couple new little sisters in a few days …"
"Next Fourthday," Darkwalker agreed. "Will you be staying that long? And where’s Neal?"
"Your sire took him off for council business, but not before making him promise we would be here a least one of your ‘weeks’," Bonita advised hir. "Do be warned, your ‘grump-pa’ has seven mates with him."
"Eight," Zhanch corrected, "Tess informed me that Whitetail’s comm badge was already in the council building. Ten to one says she’s joining us."
"No bet," Dessa replied as still more chakats flowed out of the house to surround their guests.
Tess interrupted them at that point. "Cindy? Neal’s calling; it seems your father was waiting for you to reach Chakona."
More than one set of ears went down and guarded at Cindy’s growl. She shook her head and muttered, "I don’t want him here … Tess? Tell Neal twenty and I’ll need that package we put together. Oh, and I want a jumpsuit in Folly blue, please."
"Why the jumpsuit? What you’re wearing looks fine," Alex wondered aloud as Cindy dropped the colorful halter and skirt she’d been wearing.
"Neal is wearing his usual blue and black, she wants to look the part of his crew," Zhanch suggested.
"I am crew," Cindy proclaimed, "and part of a real family, as my excuse for a father is going to find out!"
"Tess?" Bonita asked as Cindy changed, "Could you pipe their comm badge feeds to us? I’d like to hear what’s happening."
"We’ve got a portable viewer we could set up out here," Darkwalker offered, Night and Day disappearing inside at hir nod. In minutes it was wheeled out and set up. Through Shadowcrest’s comm badge they watched as the Rakshani marines marched in, only to scowl down at Neal.
Bonita hooted with laughter. "Look at those two! Whitetail’s ready to burst out laughing and Derikk’s stone face isn’t holding up too well either …"
"A bad mistake on somebody’s part," Dessa agreed, "Neal’s having way too much fun with this."
They all watched as Dunes saw the first of hir traps fall to pieces, and Derikk’s request to join the Foster House. All the Rakshani seemed surprised when Neal called Derikk ‘brother’.
Weaver gave Zhanch a sideways look as they watched Cindy walk into the council chamber. "What surprised you guys just now?" she asked.
Zhanch frowned slightly before answering, "Hmmm … Let’s just say that as a Rakshan ‘Head of House’, Neal just made Derikk more than a mere addition to the family."
"Good or bad?" Suzan asked.
"If he’s worthy of it, very good," Zhanch admitted.
"And the way Whitetail’s treating him I’d say she thinks she made a good choice," Bonita added.
They watched Cindy stand up to her father. Windsong had been concentrating so hard on Shadowcrest and Firestorm that hir first warning that shi had been spotted by anyone else was the cubs nailing hir tail with the stingers they’d secretly brought with them. Shi mock-growled at them as Neal and Cindy proceeded to box her father into a corner.
There were snickers from the Folly group when Charles jumped at the offer of money for Cindy. At the confused looks from their hosts, Weaver explained, "Her father thinks he’s getting most of her assets, when in truth he’s getting very little."
"He sure looks happy with it," Darkwalker pointed out.
"There are a few things are working against him," Weaver replied. "First, he hasn’t had access to those accounts or their amounts since Cindy and the others snuck aboard Folly. Second, while we were on Earth, Neal helped Cindy get in touch with a couple of lawyers. With their help most of the funds were transferred to accounts her father doesn’t know about. Third and what would probably irk him the most if he ever finds out, is that Cindy is worth several times what she was before the trip started, and he’s just publicly disowned her …"
"I take it Neal’s been paying his new ‘crew’ well," Darkwalker suggested.
"That and we picked up a ‘gift’ that Neal shared," Weaver admitted.
"Good!" Darkwalker exclaimed, "Then you guys can pick up the tab when we go out to dinner."
Hir mate, Hawkeye snorted. "When has Neal not picked up the tab?"
"There was that one time we twisted his arm almost out of its socket," another chakat reminisced.
"Doesn’t count, Freefall," Darkwalker told hir, "he paid more than enough on that trip to counter anything we did."
"He is the one with credits to burn," Dessa commented.
"Not always," Freefall disagreed. "He may be flush with credits now, but he sometimes puts too much into those colonies of his and has little to spare until he’s done a run or three."
"I’ve heard he came back so broke one time that all he had to sell was antimatter," Hawkeye commented with a smirk.
"You should take better care of your grump-pa," Kestrel playfully suggested.
"It’s hard to do sometimes," Darkwalker replied with a frown. "He won’t tell you when there’s a problem, and he’s proof against most methods of prying the information out of him."
"So I have noticed," Lighttouch commented. "But I have been in his mind, and there are reasons he lets very few into his innermost thoughts and dreams."
"What rights did you have to pry into him?" Freefall half-snarled at the skunktaur.
It was Weaver who answered hir. "It was shortly after the attack on the New Kiev spaceport. We were all shocked at how hard Neal could fight to protect those he considered ‘his’. Star Fleet asked Lighttouch to read Neal’s mental state … From the way they treated him afterwards I think they weren’t quite sure what to do with him."
"No one ever is," Darkwalker agreed. "I’ve heard my parents arguing between themselves and with others on what should be done with him after some of the stunts he’s pulled."
"Why haven’t they?" Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.
Darkwalker snorted. "You said it yourself. He pulls things like New Kiev often enough that his other little stunts pale by comparison … So ‘Fleet and the others give him plenty of rope, but so far he hasn’t quite hung himself with it."
"He has tried a couple times though," Freefall added. "His second method and keeping his cards close to his chest has made him look bad a few times."
Their discussion of Neal ceased as they watched Firestorm tear open Dunes’s top. Hir letting the council know that there was sour milk to be found soon had them howling. Moments later Windsong held up hir hand for quiet as shi tapped hir comm badge. "Tess, I think Shady would like a new top for Dunes."
"That bitch," Darkwalker muttered. "Shi still thinks the world is not only flat, but the sun and stars revolve around hir. Hey, Tess? Put that on the top!"
"An’ not ta mess with grump-pa no mo!" one of the smaller local cubs called out.
"Can do, and with a Folly twist," Tess agreed.
They watched as Dunes pulled on the new top, laughing when Tess dropped the color range so they could see the words through the pattern.
"That’s still too good for hir," Darkwalker complained as the laugher died down.
"Now, now," Hawkeye chilled hir mate, "Neal’s been known to give some people a second chance …"
Darkwalker’s ears folded back in embarrassment and shi refused to meet anyone’s eyes.
"I smell a story," Calmmeadow commented as shi watched their interaction.
"My mate once thought that hir grandfather was an overbearing pompous ass," Hawkeye fondly recalled.
"He can be," Weaver admitted with a grin.
Hawkeye gave her a wink as shi continued, "I first met Darkwalker on a little transfer station orbiting Carson Six. Shi was trying to trade labor for transportation back to Chakona. The problem was that shi wasn’t very skilled at any of the types of labor the passing ships might have been hiring for. Over a meal I learned that shi’d jumped ship on hir grandfather, seems the bum had expected hir to actually earn hir keep while shi was on his ship." Darkwalker looked like shi was getting ready to bolt, so Hawkeye wrapped hir in a hug and gave hir a long lick-kiss before continuing. "I managed to convince a ship that they really wanted two chakats, even though only one of us had any real ship handling credentials. It ran a loop of ten stops and would get us halfway to Chakona. While I sat watches, Walker worked long shifts as a galley’s mate. It took hir a week to admit that ‘grandpa’ hadn’t been working hir anywhere near as hard as they had hir working in that galley." Shi was silent for a moment, just hugging hir mate to hir as they remembered their first months together. "We left that ship as companions, maybe halfway to mates. And then the fickle finger of fate played this funny little trick on us. Walker had yet to tell me the name of hir grandfather or his ship, so I didn’t know not to post our names and qualifications to a ship named ‘Folly’ of all things. I received an almost immediate response and a suggestion that a representative of the ship would be happy to meet me at my convenience. The human they sent out to meet me was polite enough, but he seemed more interested in my partner and me than he was about how we could serve onboard his ship. He finally told me that Folly had just been to Chakona, and wouldn’t be going back that way for a few years. As he got up, he slid a credit chit to me and commented that another freighter named Maverick would be in port in two days and that the chit would cover getting us both to Chakona."
"And you didn’t know why he was doing it?" Calmmeadow asked.
"Not a clue," Hawkeye admitted. "When I tried to ask, he just smiled and left. When I went back to our room to tell Walker, shi seemed to flip out on me – I’d never seen hir act so strange! While shi demanded I describe the human to hir, shi was banging codes into the room’s comm system. Shi finally just held down the accept key while yelling ‘Pick it up, Tess! I know you’re monitoring!’ That was my first introduction to Tess, but it would be a few days before I found out she was a ship’s AI. It seemed that just as I’d been told, they were heading the wrong way and it would be at least two years, possibly three, before they’d be back. Walker had me gather our gear and we all but ran for the docking ports, but because Folly wasn’t docked we had to wait for one of the shuttles. The same human met us when the shuttle docked." Hawkeye gave the now much calmer Darkwalker another lick-kiss. "Shi begged him for a second chance, and he warned hir there would be no place to jump off if shi changed hir mind yet again."
"Out to his colonies?" Dusk asked. At Hawkeye’s nod shi asked, "Did he keep you two busy?"
"Busy enough, but not too busy," Darkwalker admitted before grinning. "We did come home with those two," shi added as shi gave a little wave at Day and Night.
"Yeah, Granny Passion says we’re Grump-pa’s fault!" Night happily exclaimed.
"My folks were a little perturbed that they had to wait so long to welcome my mate and cubs," Darkwalker quietly admitted.
"They said we were worth the wait," Day quietly informed them as the cubs joined in their parents’ hug.
While listening to Hawkeye’s story, Weaver and the others had also been watching the viewer. Dunes no longer being a problem was duly noted, but the speed at which the chakats were ‘processed’ and back on their paws surprised them all.
Picking up on their feelings, Freefall asked, "You haven’t seen his ‘process’ in action, have you?"
"Several times," Weaver corrected. "It’s just that it seems to be getting faster each time, both the process as well as the recovery time."
"Maybe someone’s still tweaking the system," Dessa suggested.
"Or some-ones," Zhanch countered. "From what Neal’s let slip, all the major changes only started happening after we left Raksha."
"What would change because of Raksha?" Freefall asked.
There were more than a few smirks from the Folly group when Bonita said, "Let’s just say Folly became a bit more spirited at that point."
"Sounds like a tale in that," Freefall suggested, sounding hopeful.
"We’ll let you ask Neal," Zhanch told them with a grin, "it’s always more interesting to see what he comes up with."
Neal’s POV (personally owned vehicle) left the council building with everyone that it had left Gwendolyn with, as well as Cindy and Neal’s newest pair of ‘keepers’. Kiwi had been more than a little surprised that shi and Cieila had also been invited to the councilor’s home.
"I tapped you for a couple reasons," Cieila was telling hir as the POV carried them out of town. "Part of it was because I felt you could be trusted with my councilor and hir secrets, the other was because I know you won’t be able to see the rest of your family as much as you would like."
"In other words they’re kidnapping you to brat-sit the little ones when the adults have better things to do," Neal chuckled from the driver’s seat.
"Is not!" Cieila protested in an almost childlike manner.
"What was the first thing Passion had you do when Wildflower brought you home?" Neal countered.
"That was to see if their cubs liked me," Cieila tried to explain.
"Did they hang around?" Neal asked with a growing grin.
"They were in their room on the lower level …"
"… making more brats for you to brat sit!" Neal finished for hir.
"It’s not like that," Wildflower insisted to Kiwi.
"Yeah, it is," Neal riposted. "You’re chakats, you can’t stand to see someone lonely, so you’re adopting poor little Kiwi."
"Much as you adopted us," Shadowcrest pointed out.
"Not at all," Neal countered. "You kids were in way over your heads. Kiwi’s not some lost cub with no means of support."
"Don’t listen to him," Wildflower told Kiwi. "While we welcome you to spend time with us, it’s not a requirement of your post."
"Run, little kitten, run. You don’t know what you’re getting into!" Neal laughed. "Do you want me to drop you off before we reach ‘the point of no return’?"
Kiwi took a moment to mentally gauge each of the others. Neal … shi couldn’t seem to get a read shi really trusted off of him. Cieila and Wildflowers felt hopeful about something. Shadowcrest and Cindy seemed to find the whole thing rather humorous, while Firestorm was watching hir with an unconcealed glee. The two Rakshani had been watching the discussion with mild amusement, it was these shi turned to and asked, "What about you two? You should be in the dark as much as I am."
Whitetail and Derikk shared a look before she said; "I spent a few months with Neal and his family before joining Derikk on the Pegasus, so I’ve had a taste of the insanity he brings with him."
Derikk smiled at hir. "Like you, I am new to this family and its ways. My mate seems to think I’ll survive dealing with them, and I have learned to trust her. Trust those you trust," he suggested.
Leaning back against the upper torso rest, shi raised an eyebrow at Neal. "You’re not going to frighten me out of your vehicle, Captain," shi told him.
"Nor out of my home, I hope?" Wildflower asked.
Kiwi just smiled as the POV turned off the road and into a private drive. Wildflower led them to the front door and into a large lounge that turned out to cover most of what was the top level of hir home.
Cieila then led the others to a long hallway down one side. One wall was covered with small locker like doors. Opening one, shi placed hir weapon, top, and hip pouch in it before keying it locked. Shi waved hir partner to the next one saying, "While the older cubs know what not to touch, there’s no need to tempt fate with the younger ones."
Down one level and further back opened onto the next level’s roof where they were all ambushed by cubs, many more than the handful Kiwi had seen on the Folly. It was a quiet ambush; the cubs were keeping it quieter than shi thought was normal. "Granny Passion’s asleep," one of them told hir.
"Not for long," said another, "where’s Grump-pa Neal?"
Shi hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, the twins had been restless and kept hir up most of the night. Shi had slept most of the afternoon away, having felt the others in the house get excited about something, but not enough to wake hir. There had just been another spike of happy and shi was just snuggling back into the pillows when a hand settled gently onto hir swollen lower torso. Shi mmmed in pleasure as shi fully sensed him, a smile growing wider on hir muzzle as shi realized that his guard was down and he was more open than usual. He must have sensed something from hir in return, as the next image shi sensed was that of hir own rump, the words ‘WIDE LOAD’ trimmed neatly into hir fur. Passion was built like a puma, with green eyes and a dark cream-colored pelt with white on hir currently swollen underbelly. Shi now rolled over so shi could properly stretch hir backs before trying a mock glare at him before it shifted into a silly grin. Shi chuckled as shi murmured, "Don’t you dare let the cubs see that last thought of yours."
Neal chuckled. "Why not? You’d look cute with a trim."
Passion carefully got up so shi could give him a proper hug. "How long can you stay?"
"Long enough," he assured hir. "Care to join us?"
"I’ve heard that there’s quite an us this time," shi commented as shi grabbed a brush to quickly fix hir bad case of ‘pillow hair’ and face.
Neal picked up a larger brush to sweep down hir rumpled flanks as he admitted, "A few, plus I hope you don’t mind a couple more guests."
"I haven’t sensed any annoyance from Wildflower."
"Ah, but shi may not have met them all yet," Neal warned hir.
Shi stopped brushing hir hair as shi closed hir eyes to better concentrate. "My twins have reduced my sensitivity a bit," shi murmured before hir eyes opened in surprise. "Doug's here!"
"And he seems to have made a new friend as well," Neal agreed as they headed for the door.
With their Grandma Passion up, the cubs didn’t see any reason to be quiet when they cheerfully mobbed Neal. He would have fallen over backwards from the assault, but for a couple of teen chakats that had hugged him from behind. While the youngest cubs had no idea why this human needed to be buried in fur, they took their leads from their older siblings with enthusiasm.
While most of those from Folly were laughing as Neal seemed to disappear under a living multicolored blanket of fur, there was one that was not amused. Others started turning to the feelings of a distressed cub as Firestorm fought hir way through the packed furs towards Neal. Zhanch happened to be closest and placed her arm in the cub’s path, only to get clawed by the kitten as shi raced by.
Zhanch caught hir tail as it flashed past and lifted Firestorm before shi could claw anyone else. "What’s wrong, Stormy?" she asked the upset cub. "They’re just happy to see him."
"Fear? Jealousy? Somebody does not like big surprises," Shadowcrest commented as shi reached out to take Firestorm from the Rakshani. As shi sent calmness, love and support at the cub shi said, "Shi’s actually thinks these other cubs are competing with hir for Neal’s love."
Feeling hir distress, the other cubs had quickly cleared a path to Neal, who reached out to help Shadowcrest hold hir. "Silly kitten," Neal quietly murmured. "You’ve never had a problem with your other sisters mobbing me." Firestorm’s response was to turn and wrap all seven of hir limbs possessively around Neal’s arm as shi turned to try to stare down all the other cubs.
"Perhaps because shi’s never had quite so many new and eager cubs to compete with," Shadowcrest suggested as shi continued to try to calm the kitten. "Let’s try it again, just a little slower," shi suggested as shi waved Day and Night over.
Each cub gave Firestorm a hug before giving their grump-pa one as more cubs lined up. This went on until one of the teens approached the pair for hir hug. Silverflash gave Neal his hug first and then turned to Firestorm. Having been one of those watching when Dunes lost hir top, shi grinned down at the cub. "So … we don’t rate a ‘milk check’?" shi asked with an exaggerated pout. Loosening hir grip on Neal, Firestorm allowed hirself to be lifted away by the silvery furred chakat. Silverflash only had milk water, but shi projected hir love at the kitten. As Firestorm started to pull away, shi found another teen waiting and another milk check in the offering. While most of the older chakats were carrying milk water, several of them were nursing and provided the much richer chakat milk. It was a very full and sleepy chakat kitten that was finally slipped onto a bed of taur pads to sleep off hir meal.
While Neal and Firestorm had been at the head of the impromptu welcoming line, the others had not been left out and now that shi was up, Passion was taking a very good look at each of hir new siblings – and hir father’s new mates and co-mates. Shi wasn’t surprised to see the same curious looks mirrored in their eyes and thoughts as they got to know each other. Doug’s look at hir from across the room seemed to say, ‘Yeah, I don’t believe it either’ as he shook his head. Shi just gave him a shrug and a grin as shi turned to give one of the much taller Rakshani a hug.
Not quite hiding in a corner, Passion spied a very pregnant looking rabbit doe who grinned and waved hir over.
Sharing a hug, Suzan said, "You must be the Passion I keep hearing about."
"And you must be the Rabbit Stew that’s keeping my father so well fed," shi quipped back as shi gave the rabbit a gentle rub over her swollen belly. "How long did it take you to discover he was a meat and potatoes type guy?"
"About a week," Suzan admitted, "but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on him!"
"Two of my sisters could open gourmet restaurants if they chose to, but plain, simple and good are all Dad is normally interested in. Oh, do be warned the mate of my midwife also considers himself a chef," shi said with a grin.
"He any good?" Suzan asked with a grin.
"Actually he is – but don’t you dare tell him I said so!" Passion laughed.
"So as to not let his head swell overmuch?" Suzan laughed, "Your secret is safe with me."
"He’s not a bad sort, it’s just a little silly to be kicked out of my own kitchen when he’s here."
"Oh, so to stay in your good graces I shouldn’t try to kick you out of your own kitchen?" Suzan asked with a chuckle.
"We’d appreciate it," Passion replied with a grin.
Derikk waited until things had calmed down a little before trying to have a quiet word with Neal. He waited until they had walked out to the deck before saying, "I know you are new to Rakshan ways and new to heading a Rakshani House, so I did not take seriously your use of the term ‘brother’ earlier."
"Why not?" Neal countered with a small grin. "You didn’t think I knew I was giving you more than a little power in my tiny House?" at Derikk’s headshake, Neal smiled. "This ‘House’ business is going to get complicated, even more so once we start out to the colonies. I need a second in command on the House side that I can trust and depend on … Are you telling me you’re not that Rakshani?"
Derikk frowned. "You have no way to know me well enough to decide on something this important."
"What I do know is this," Neal quietly pointed out. "Whitetail thinks she picked a mate that won’t be jealous of her having more than one. From what I’ve seen of your reactions I think she’s right. Your Admiral Kline also thinks highly of you as well, both from the reports he sent as well as him putting you in this position. Your records suggest you’ve completed most of your training and might some day be asked to run a House of your own."
Derikk’s frown deepened. "I am not sure I am ready for such a task," he admitted.
"But, are you up to backseat driving a House?" Neal asked. "Say giving said Head useful advice and suggestions?"
Derikk slowly nodded. "As long as you realize that my voice is not one of experience."
"I can live with that," Neal agreed. "Any other concerns before we rejoin the others?"
"Whitetail has warned me that she intends to ‘trip you into bed’ tonight."
Neal chuckled. "It should be interesting to see how the others decide who’s going to be ‘tripping’ you."
Derikk groaned. "Don’t remind me. They were all eying me like I was the catch of the day."
"You are," Neal agreed with a laugh as they headed back inside. He didn’t bother mentioning that his Rakshani mates hadn’t been the only ones he’d seen eying the lone Rakshani male. Nor did he mention Tess telling him of more than one request of the leaves of the Rakshan kharlass shrub, a popular Rakshan aphrodisiac for their males.
Later that evening, after receiving a rather interesting message …
Neal waited outside the door of whose button he’d just pressed, soft tones of the announcer were faintly heard from where he stood holding Firestorm. The door opened to reveal Chakat Darkbrow. Shi smiled as shi said, "Welcome, Captain," before ushering him in.
The door opened directly into a great room, one much larger than the main lounge onboard the Folly, and it seemed to be packed to near overflowing with furs. While chakats were in the vast majority, there were the occasional biped and a number of skunktaurs scattered here and there. Dewblossom and Mountainwind were towards the front, well surrounded by Dewblossom’s family and friends.
Looking the group over, Neal chided Dewblossom. "Now, just what did you mean by ‘if I want you, I need to come down here and get you’?"
Neal sensed Dewblossom flushing slightly as shi said, "A few of my cubs seem to think that they have something to say about my leaving with you." The growl of agreement was a low but forceful.
Looking again at the large group, Neal told them, "Well, we don’t really have the time for me to argue my point with each and every one of you, so pick your representative."
"What’s ah representative?" a five or six year old cub towards the front of the group asked.
"A representative is someone that speaks for the others," Neal told hir quietly. "I just happen to represent a group that’s planning a new colony that has offered Dewblossom a position. That means I speak for them."
"Softshout," Dewblossom softly said. When the cub turned to hir shi grinned. "You know what we were talking about. Why don’t you represent us?"
"Me?" Softshout asked in surprise, hir eyes wide.
"Works for me," Neal said as he set Firestorm down before doubling up a taur pad to sit on. Grinning at the still astonished cub, he asked, "So, why don’t you and the others want me to run off with Dewblossom? I wasn’t planning on being too rough on hir," he said as he watched Stormy ‘check out’ one of the adult chakats.
"You have to take all of us, not just them," Softshout told him, remembering the main disagreement the older furs had been having.
"I intend to take as many as I can," Neal allowed, "just not all of you on this trip."
"Why not?" Softshout asked, pouting a little.
"Well, for one thing, neither I nor the colony is prepared for over a hundred extra furs right now. For another, I doubt that most of you could get ready on such short notice," Neal pointed out as Stormy headed for another chakat, and yet another ‘milk check’.
"Then why do you want Granny?" Softshout asked looking confused.
"Because I want to send hir to the new colony to help get it ready for the rest of you."
"But why Granny?" shi insisted.
"Because shi’s done it before," Neal told hir with a chuckle. "Who do you think helped get Chakona ready for you?"
"Granny did?" shi asked, looking back at Dewblossom in wonder.
"Shi sure did! Shi had some help, but shi helped a lot too," Neal assured hir. "So, if shi wants to go, will you and the rest of your family let Dewblossom play on a new world again?"
"Can’t shi stay a little longer now that shi can play with us?" Softshout didn’t quite whine.
"Shi can stay a little over a week, but then the ship I need hir on leaves, and shi has to be on it to go to the colony," Neal advised hir as he watched a red pawed skunktaur in hys male phase pull Stormy off hir latest milk check. They locked eyes for a moment before Stormy reached forward for a hug.
"But I want to go, too," Softshout pouted.
"Well … there just might be a little something they’ll be needing you to do when you finally do join them at the new colony," Neal suggested as if he had a secret he was keeping from hir.
"What?" shi demanded, forgetting hir pout.
"Only if you promise not to tell," Neal countered.
Softshout climbed into Neal’s lap and he whispered something too softly for the others to hear. He almost got the cub’s ear in his eye when Softshout’s head whipped around so shi could stare wide-eyed and open muzzled at Dewblossom and hir new mate. Turning back to Neal, the others heard hir whisper, "Really?"
Neal smiled as he pulled hir in for a cuddle. "Let’s just say the odds are very good. Remember to keep it a secret – saying something about it can change the odds of it happening."
"I promise," Softshout assured him as shi moved back to the pad shi’d been on, a wide grin now splitting hir muzzle.
"So, can I steal them away?" Neal asked.
"I want to protest letting an adult browbeat a cub on such an important decision," a skunktaur named Bluestar complained.
Darkbrow grinned at hir grandmother before replying. "First of all, I didn’t see any browbeating, but we may have a secret to tickle out of a cub," shi said giving Softshout a wink. "And second, this really wasn’t a debate, because Dewblossom has already given Neal hir answer. Have you changed your mind, Grandmother?" shi asked.
"No, we intend to see this new world. And with any luck we’ll have picked out a nice spot for our new home by the time the rest of you join us," Dewblossom said before turning back to Neal. "Softshout’s ‘secret’ wouldn’t have anything to do with us both producing milk would it?"
"About ten percent of the females and herms come out of the process in ‘milk mode’," Neal admitted, ignoring the question. "The Time Bandit leaves in eleven days, will you be on her?"
Dewblossom smiled as shi nodded. "We’ll be there."
Darkbrow laughed at Bluestar’s scowl. "Did you really think you, me, or anyone else in this room could stop Dewblossom once shi’s decided on something? We couldn’t bend hir will when shi was old and feeble; I don’t see it getting any easier now."
"We could hold this one captive," suggested a chakat that held the overfilled and now very sleepy Firestorm.
"No, Eveningstar," Mountainwind said with a grin. "If he could do this to me as a favor to a friend, what might he do to someone threatening his cub?"
"It was just a thought," Eveningstar replied with a smile as shi made hir way to Neal. "You do know I was joking, right?"
Neal nodded as he accepted the sleepy kitten. "Stormy wasn’t reacting to your ‘threat’, so there’s no reason for me to." With Firestorm draped over one arm, Neal reached into his pocket with the other and then tossed two small objects at Mountainwind. "Your comm badges," he said before turning towards the door.
Darkbrow opened the door for him. "Come again," shi suggested.
"And bring that cub!" a voice called from within the group. "The poor dear didn’t get a chance to sample more than a few of us!" Neal left to the sounds of laughter, something that would come in handy on the long trip out.
Settling Firestorm into one of the POV’s seats, Neal chuckled at the sleeping kitten. "Two big meals in one day. You’re either going to grow up or round very fast, little one," he murmured as he got them moving.
Neal’s POV turned into Passion’s driveway for the second time that day, only to find most of the household was already out and gathered around a smaller PTV. Seeing him drive in, Weaver walked over to him and took the sleeping Firestorm. "We seem to have a little mystery," she informed him as she led him to the PTV. Inside lay a sleeping chakat cub of about six or seven. The first strange thing was the commotion around hir wasn’t waking hir up. The next was the Folly comm badge pinned to hir upper torso.
"Tess? Who is that badge assigned to?" Neal asked.
"I show it assigned," Tess admitted, "but there’s no name associated with it."
"This was half under hir," Freefall said as shi handed Neal what looked like an old style flight-boarding pass.
It stated ‘One Ticket to Ride’, Folly was named as the carrier, but there was no ending destination listed, nor was the owner of the ticket named. Neal snorted softly when he saw the issuing agent was one T Traveler. "Tess, any messages from Traveler or the others?" he asked.
"No, boss. Though they have been using my comms and transporters for something."
"Did they say why?" Neal wondered.
"No, and I’m learning not to ask," Tess replied.
"Who paid for the PTV?" Weaver asked, not seeing a credit chit in the vehicle.
"It seems I did, electronically, but I have no record of doing so," Tess confessed.
"Ask our demented spirits if anyone is missing a cub," Neal suggested.
The purring voice that answered sounded female, but it didn’t belong to Tess, "You said as family I didn’t have to ask to ride. Has that changed?"
"No," Neal admitted.
"And as others have demonstrated, family can invite guests," she continued.
"True," Neal allowed, "but my main concern is that this cub’s parents will be looking for hir."
"This one has no parents or family to look out for hir, Captain. Shi will need your protection and love at this point. Any more, you and shi will learn at the proper time."
"Does shi have a name?" Neal wondered out loud, but there was no reply.
More than a couple of the local chakats were now glaring at Neal, but it was Night that proclaimed, "Granny Wildflower, Grump-pa Neal’s keeping secrets again!"
"So he is," shi agreed, though shi didn’t seem quite as outraged as some of the others. "Someone bring that cub inside, and we’ll see if we can’t wring the truth out of your grump-pa."
The third level held the home’s ‘great room’ and that’s where everyone gathered. The mystery cub was placed on a couple of taur pads; Lighttouch and Passion settling to either side of hir to better assess the still unconscious cub.
"Spill it, Neal, what do you know about hir?" Darkwalker demanded before everyone was fully settled.
"Nothing as yet," Neal calmly replied, ignoring the anger in hir voice.
Wildflower held up hir hand to abort hir daughter’s next outburst. "Why don’t we start with what you do know," shi suggested. "Is that really a Folly comm badge?"
"Tess says it is," Neal admitted.
"That ‘ticket’ said issued by ‘T Traveler’. Who might that be?"
Neal rubbed the back of his neck as he muttered, "That will take a little explaining …"
"We have all night," Wildflower pointed out with a small grin. "Out with it."
" ‘The Traveler’ is what the Rakshani named one of their deities that is rumored to travel from star to star, catching rides on different starships. She’s currently haunting my Folly."
"Bullshit!" Darkwalker complained, getting to hir feet.
"Third method," Shadowcrest countered from where shi sat with Windsong. "I’ve spoken with her a few times."
"I don’t believe you! You’re just trying to cover for him," Darkwalker growled.
"That’s enough, Walker," hir mate told hir, in a tone that suggested shi wasn’t kidding.
At Darkwalker’s look of surprise, Hawkeye moved over to hir mate and wrapped hir in a tight hug. "I know you think he’s lying, but I think you’re wrong in this case. None of those from Folly ‘feels’ like they think this is a joke. And before you say I don’t know him, I’m the one with the advantage here. Neal hasn’t teased me since my birth; he’s not my ‘grump-pa’. To me he’s just a human that loves my mate enough to put up with hir bad attitude." Pushing Darkwalker back to a seated position before shi joined hir Hawkeye murmured, "Hear them out before he decides it would be easier to just leave us in the dark."
Weaver snickered. "What neither of them said was that she’s not the only deity catching a ride this time." Looking at those that had watched the council session remotely, she added, "We warned you that Folly had gotten a bit more spirited since Raksha."
"So you’re claiming a deity from Raksha stole this cub?" Darkwalker retorted.
"No," Weaver said. "She is claiming that she is the reason the cub will be coming with us."
Wildflower frowned. "What else can you tell us about the deities?"
"Only to be careful what you wish for," Suzan replied as she gave her well-rounded belly a gentle rub. "Rakshan tales say they can be quite the tricksters."
"So what do we do with the cub?" Hawkeye wondered.
"We all heard whomever it was say shi is for Neal to protect and love before we can learn anything else," Freefall pointed out. "So you all know what that means …"
"Grump-pa’s cub sitting tonight!" Night and Day proclaimed together.
Darkstreak had crawled on top of Lighttouch’s lower torso to better look over the sleeping cub. "Shi’s pretty," shi said, looking down at the other cub. About the same size as Darkstreak, this one’s fur was so black it was almost blue, with scarcely noticeable little rosettes that almost matched the rest of hir fur. "That spot looks like one of the flowers I saw outside," shi said as shi pointed at the cub’s right fore-shoulder.
"So it does," Passion agreed, "a black rose … I wonder if Blackrose might be hir name?"
"Hey boss," Tess whispered in Neal’s ear, "a ‘Blackrose Foster’ was just added to my database. That name was also just keyed to hir comm badge." Neal nodded slightly at the new information.
While the others had been talking, Lighttouch had been gently probing at the edges of the mystery cub’s mind. Hy shook hys head as hy became fully conscious of hys surroundings again. Looking over at Neal, hy remarked, "Hir mind seems to be in a state of flux, even more so than the Rakshani after they were processed."
"But the process has always reset those processed to early adulthood," Shadowcrest rebuked hym. "It took the Rakshani back and me forward."
"However it came about, this cub’s mind is in an almost total state of disarray. Any deeper prying on my part may well do more harm than good. I suggest we let hir sleep until shi wakes on hir own."
"Sorry, Whitetail," Neal said with a half grin.
Whitetail chuckled back at him. "This doesn’t get you away from me, it just limits what we might be doing," she assured him. "Though we could ‘borrow’ a private room for a little while before the cubs get to bury us alive," she suggested with a grin.
Passion wasn’t the only one of those that laughed as Whitetail made her moves on Neal. "Go ahead you two," shi said. "I’ll keep an eye on hir while the two of you get reacquainted."
It was in the early morning hours that Neal wandered into the kitchen, hitting the controls to just bring a dim light to the room. A quick search showed that he had almost remembered where this household kept things, and he was soon filling a pot with water. A sound behind him let him know his wasn’t the only stomach thinking it was snack time.
Passion smiled when shi saw Neal had beaten hir to the kitchen. "What are you thinking of?" shi asked.
"A little oatmeal," Neal replied. "Care to join me?"
"Sure," shi agreed. "How’s our mystery cub doing?"
"Still out like a light," Neal replied as he added a good deal more water before moving the pot to a hot plate. Several handfuls of raw oats were thrown in before Neal started hunting for something.
"Third shelf," Passion said. "That is if you’re looking for the dried fruit."
While Neal hunted for what he wanted, Passion felt someone grasp the end of hir tail. Shi smiled and turned to Firestorm, who was just petting the tail shi held with a hopeful look at hir newest big sister. The tail in question flicked itself out of the cub’s paws only to wrap around the cub’s torso before lifting hir into the air. The tail then gently dropped Firestorm into Passion’s arms for a hug, which the cub cheerfully turned into a milk check.
Neal grinned at the byplay as he stirred in a little sugar and cinnamon before dropping in a handful of apple and cherry bits.
While the oats cooked, Passion quietly said, "Some of the kids want to go out to the colonies this time."
"I’ve tapped Dewblossom to help manage one of the new planets, and it seems that more than a few of hir family will be joining hir," Neal replied.
"Will they be safe?" shi asked, hugging Firestorm to hir a little harder.
With the pot now boiling, Neal stirred as he said, "Define ‘safe’." When shi didn’t reply he added, "Remember, you’re asking someone that spends most of his time riding a barely controlled matter-antimatter reaction."
"But it’s a new planet …" shi insisted.
"Now we need to define new," Neal said with a small smile. "Chakats haven’t been on this planet a hundred and fifty years yet, barely an eye blink in the cosmic scale of things. There are still new things being found here on Chakona, and not all of them have been ‘safe’. In the time since Chakona was colonized there have improvements in detecting dangers, but that still can’t make anything or anyplace totally ‘safe’. You can’t protect them all of their lives. And trying to child-proof the world can make us neglect the far more important task of world-proofing the child."
"I worry," shi whispered.
"So do I," Neal quietly admitted, his thoughts growing darker, "but the only way not to worry is not to … "
"Not to?" shi asked.
"Not to explore, not to find things care about, not to care about the things you might find …"
Both chakats were watching him now; Firestorm was shivering with the mood shi felt from him. Passion was concerned too, but shi at least had seen him like this before. "Can you not care?"
"Sometimes … for a while …" he admitted, "but it can be hard on the body and soul …"
"That’s why you go on your ‘walkabouts’," shi softly accused.
"I’ve watched too many friends – and foes, die over the years. After a while it can be too much to bear …" Giving them a little shrug as he removed the now cooked oats from the heat, Neal added, "Sorry, I’m only human."
Passion gave a small snort before releasing Firestorm. "I think we’ll keep you, human flaws and all, right, Stormy?" shi said as Firestorm insisted on a cuddle before shi’d let him dish out the oatmeal.
A quiet mew had them all turn to the doorway. Brilliant emerald green eyes peered back at them before their mystery cub carefully stepped into the room. Hir nose flared as shi sniffed the aroma in the air; hir eyes flickering about as shi carefully watched all of them.
"Well, it looks like someone has good timing," Neal commented as he turned to get three bowls. He heard a small stomach growl as he dropped a small dollop in his own bowl, before splitting the rest of the oatmeal between the other two.
"Is that going to be enough for you?" Passion asked, eying how little Neal had put in the first bowl.
"I just needed something to tide my stomach over until breakfast. On the other hand, you’re eating for three, and if our friend here was processed, shi’s probably running on empty … Besides, it’s not like I don’t know how to make more if I’m still hungry," Neal added with a chuckle as he pushed the two full bowls across the table.
While Firestorm begged a taste from Passion, their mystery cub had ignored the offered spoon to wolf down the oatmeal, despite it still being a bit on the warm side. Shi didn’t look up again until shi had licked the bowl clean, and that was to look for more. Hir ears dropped when shi found the other three staring at hir with differing degrees of amusement and astonishment.
"Maybe I should make up another pot," Neal suggested with a smile. "We don’t want hir gnawing anyone’s arm off in hunger."
"You have less fur to get through," Passion reminded him with a snicker.
"All the more reason for me to make sure shi’s had hir fill," Neal agreed. As he refilled the pot with water he asked, "May I ask your name, little one?"
Now watching Neal very carefully, the cub started to slowly back away from the table – only to run afoul of Passion’s tail.
"You don’t need to tell us if you don’t wish to," Passion told hir. At a spike of apprehension from the cub shi added, "We’ll help you, even if you can’t remember." One of Neal’s eyebrows shot up at the last, but he said nothing, letting his daughter calm and comfort the cub.
While they waited for more oats to cook, Firestorm insisted on a cuddle from their mysterious visitor. The dark cub was reluctant at first, but finally gave in.
"Shi’s not used to being around others?" Passion half asked in surprise.
"Tauna told us her friend Vanessa was to be converted from a human female to a chakat. Seems there’s a chakat doctor named Oceanwalker that knows how to move humans across the furry barrier. It’s possible my deity friends have been playing a little god themselves."
"Do you trust them?" Passion wondered.
"Yes, for the most part," Neal admitted. "Traveler has had plenty of opportunities to cause trouble, but she hasn’t – well, nothing major anyway. Little things, that’s another story."
"What ‘little things’?" Passion asked as shi slowly moved to wrap the mystery cub in a hug. As shi did with Firestorm, the cub only gave in grudgingly. "Almost as bad as you sometimes," shi told Neal.
"Either afraid that it’s false hope, or that it won’t last," Neal replied. Having to wait on the pot for a minute, he stepped over to where Passion still held the cub. Kneeling to better match their heights, he carefully watched the cub watch him. "Who are you? … What were you?" he quietly asked. "I see apprehension in there along with your defiance, little one. A good mixture for someone that’s not sure what’s going on or who to trust." Moving back before standing up to return to the oatmeal, he added, "Whatever you were, you’re a chakat now, kiddo, and for most that includes a strong sense of empathy, which means it’s not hard for you to detect bullshit when it’s pushed under your nose … let your senses roam, little one, learn what and who you can and can’t trust."
"I seem to remember you telling me that when I was about hir age," Passion said as the cub relaxed a little into hir hug. "You told us to make up our minds as to whether to trust you or not, stay or get off your ship." Hugging the cub a little tighter, shi whispered to hir, "We all decided to stay."
"And what a pain in my tailless ass you were at times," Neal pretended to grouse before adding, "But all in all, I think it was worth it."
"And we thought you were worth it," Passion replied as Neal dished out a big second helping for the cub. "None of us realized how much growing up you had forced us into until we could compare it to those outside. I was shocked at how ‘overqualified’ I was for some things, and yet so very under-qualified for others."
"The dangers of only having one teacher," Neal agreed, "You soon learned that there were more points of view than the ones you were taught."
"Well, you didn’t do too bad of a job getting us ready to leave the nest," Passion chuckled. "Though some of us were a little deficient in the social skills."
"Maybe I should have sent the lot of you to a finishing school," Neal suggested with a grin as he again refilled the cub’s bowl.
While a little slower this time, the cub still polished off the bowl down to licking it clean. Having also had a little from the second batch, Neal chuckled and offered to fill hir bowl again. Proof that they had finally found hir limits came when the cub pushed the bowl away with less than half of the oatmeal remaining.
"Bedtime, little one," Passion told hir before heading for hir room.
"Cubs’ room is this way," Neal added as he headed the other direction.
The cub just sat there for a moment before Firestorm ran back over to tug hir tail in the direction Neal had taken. A quick flick freed hir tail, but shi did follow Firestorm. Once in the cubs’ room, shi picked an empty corner to settle in as shi watched Neal lay next to the furry group in the middle of the room, Firestorm demanding a hug from him before shi burrowed into the furry pile.
Continued in Chapter 16.
Copyright © 2005-2012 Allen Fesler Redbear1158 (at) either gmail or hotmail dot 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.
Chakat Blackrose is copyright Chuck (Nicolai) Percy
Chakat Blackstar, hir ships and crews copyright Alex Wiegerling.
Captain Suzanna Cortez, Panzer, and the rest of the Rendezvous crew copyright SoulBlade.
The Holy Christian Kingdom of North America, and the Amazonia war are copyright John Plunkett
(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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