Spring Fever - a Tiny Toons Fanfic by Brithound

All characters except Jaggi Di Speckle and Hal Fenix are © Warner Brothers, used without permission.

The wind ripped through the tattered sails as the pirate ship sailed on across storm-tossed, shark-infested waters. The only survivors of the raid stood at the end of the gangplank, precariously balanced over a swarming circle of Great White man-eating sharks and Great Pastel toon-eating barracudas. The Pirate Captain, a short and volatile human with bristling red hair crammed under his black tricorn hat, stood on the deck with a cutlass and flintlock pistol stuck in his belt and a forty-pounder iron cannon pointed down the gangplank.

"Right, varmints - time to hop it," he leered, then swept off his hat and held it under his arm in a poetic pose. "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

The blue bunny looked down the muzzle of the cannon critically. "You know, Captain Sam, you're going to look silly when you fire that and miss."

"Miss? Captain Sam never misses! Ah could part your hare at a mile with this." He snatched up a burning taper. "Now say your prayers."

The pink bunny pulled out a tape measure and a plumb-bob and lined them up against the cannon. "Hate to say it, Captain, but you are going to miss. And in front of all your crew. The angles are all wrong" she tsked, shaking her head.

"Oh? And what do two helpings of hasenpfeffer know about it?" Captain Sam glared. "Ah'm Captain Sam the terror of the seven seas and ... any other seas ya gots!"

"Trust us, Captain. You've got to get more range. For the proper elevation. Back ... back .. back ... That's it." The blue bunny watched as Sam grabbed the cannon's hauling rope and pulled it across the deck, grumbling.

"Now hows about it?" Sam stood up, squinting along the barrel.

"That's good. That's more like the Terror of the Oceans!" The pink bunny enthused. "But a toony little bit further and ... oh my, it'd be just terrible." She shook her head sorrowfully. "We wouldn't stand a chance."

"All right, now you've riled me!" Sam yelled, giving the haul loop an extra hard tug. "No quarter offered nor given, varmints!" Unfortunately he was now standing on the gangplank on the other side of the ship - when the weight of the cannon bent it down and ran him over like a frog under a steamroller on its way down to the waves. A flat toon shape with red whiskers followed it, picked up in the sea breeze and fluttering down like an autumn leaf. There was a loud snapping sound as of dozens of hungry jaws.

The bunnies slapped their paws together, standing in perfect symmetry for the camera. As one they chorused - "He's all washed up. And that's a wrap."

From around the ship, the enthusiastic clapping of a score of onlookers broke out. The backdrop was rolled up to reveal a very soaked Pirate half-way down the maw of a Great Pastel barracuda, which he was hammering with the cannonball held as if it was a bowling ball. "Back to props department, ya washed-up critter!"

A tall, grey and white furred rabbit looked on with a clipboard, on which he had been taking copious notes. "Got to give them full marks. They ain't been playing hooky all this time. Together there ain't much that they can't do."

Yosemite Sam snorted through his dripping red whiskers, as he kicked the fish loose and towelled off. "Them varmints is getting' just too smart for their britches - them as wears any. Been trying all year to mark 'em down. Try as I might, rabbit, I can't."

Bugs grinned, munching an expensive rare-breed Cuban carrot. "Eeh, what did I tell ya, Doc? The more ya puts 'em to the grindstone the sharper they gets."

The desperado cast Babs and Buster a sour look as the bunnies skipped down the gangplank paw in paw to the now dry studio floor. "Waal, that bunch will be out of our hair fer good come this July. And then … and then …"

"And then you'll miss 'em too?" Bugs queried, his ears cocked.

Sam sniffed. "Miss 'em nuthin'. And then - ah'm a-going out to paint the town red. Fer a week!"

Babs and Buster Bunny (no relation) watched as the Pirate Galleon was wheeled away back to the props department. "So, Buster, that's Combined Gag Action 701all finished with. That's the last of that class." Babs gave a manic grin. "First year Action Gag class 101 - remember that?"

"How could I forget?" Buster bowed elegantly. "Historical drama, knights and castles. It called for an elegant, refined leading lady ... and there you were."

Babs' ears twitched. "Getting knocked into the moat whenever you turned round with your lance, Sir "Classic-spin-around-with-plank-gag". Twice."

"And the fair and gentle knight Sir Buster ... had the drawbridge let down thrice upon his noble head. Such a tender damsel and so very quick with that lever." Buster raised an eyebrow. "Damsel in distress? Distressing damsel … yes!"

"Well ... Ok, Blue-bruise, honours even. But if we get to do that scene again after we graduate - this time you wear the hooped dress and silly wimple!"

"And my sweet and tender damsel shall wear the knight's chain mail pants of rusty iron links next to her sweet fur ... and sit astraddle a horse for six hours instead of me." Buster said. "Incidentally - have you ever ridden a bicycle with a carrot-grater for a saddle?"

"Ouch." Babs shivered. "No wonder folk spent half the time at war. There was a lot of friction in the hare."

They followed their class out to the break room, where everyone was looking with glee at the new empty slot in their timetables. Buster waved, spotting the green duck and white-feathered loon. "Hiya, Pluckster! Hiya Shirley! So, what are you going to do next week with your free time?"

Plucky Duck seemed to swell visibly. "I," he declared "shall spend it devotedly with the most handsome fowl in the forest."

Babs gave Buster a nudge in the ribs. "Grade D in Scriptwriting. It's, "beautiful" for girls, not "handsome.""

The green duck looked annoyed. "My egg was stamped Grade A, Babs. I shall spend the time in contemplation ... of the sixth level of Astro Blaster." He pulled a games console out of one of his white vest's pockets.

Shirley McLoon looked at him and sighed. "And this is my boyfriend, for want of a better word."

"Fowlmouth had some better words, but they keep bleeping them out on film," Buster suggested.

Plucky turned to the pale loon and bowed, though whether ironically or not was hard to tell. "Shirley," he announced melodramatically "I know I've not always lived up to your expectations. But this is - a token of my esteem, from me, to you." With a flourish he rummaged in another pocket and handed over a neatly wrapped present, a cube about six inches across.

Shirley raised an eyebrow. "Not like you, Plucky. Are you like, three months late or nine early with the New Year resolutions?"

"Oh, my heart bleeds. Cruelly wronged again," Plucky struck a dramatic pose. "In all the long hours of the night - when I'm not there with you - this can keep you company. Use it and think of me."

Shirley's aura crackled. "This had better not be something mondo disgusting."

"As if I would! Open it and see." The green duck looked on in anticipation.

Babs looked on in equal interest. Seeing Plucky giving gifts was slightly commoner than Montana Max doing so, but not much. "If it's a booby-trap and it takes you out shall I pound him for you?" She asked brightly.

"Why wait?" Shirley muttered. She tentatively pulled the tape off and unwrapped the package. There were a dozen DVDs in there. "If it's like, whale song or wind chimes then, nice, Plucky." Her expression fell as she looked at the first one - and darkened as she shuffled the deck of discs to the last one.

"Yes." The green drake beamed. "My finest series - all starring me as Hudson Duck, crime-fighter and private eye extraordinary! Twenty-six hours of classic drama including rare out-takes and blooper reels!" He entirely failed to notice the danger sign of Shirley's mood ring rapidly changing colour.

The sound made by a DVD case being crammed down Plucky's bill was not quite "bloop" but it was close. "Plucky!" Shirley stood up, her aura crackling like a thunderstorm around a mountaintop "Of all the … conceited, ego-maniacal ducks you are the worst!" She stormed out, her white tail-feathers hiked up in disgust.

"What did I do? What did I do?" Plucky spat out the plastic case, looking disconsolate. "I'd have brought her chocolates - but don't you think she's putting weight on already? I told her so just last week."

"Try it next time," Buster suggested. "Without the advice. Shirley only eats Fair Trade organic chocolate made from free-range cocoa pods."

"Humanely picked by spiritually aware native farmers in touch with the plants' natural forces and feelings." Babs added.

Plucky frowned, scratching his head. "Maybe the Hudson Duck wasn't the right approach. Yeah! I've spliced real footage and CG into that wrestling match so it looks like I beat Triangle Man and Universe Man that time. That'd impress her more."

Buster looked on, thoughtfully. "Plucky's bill. A tube of crazy glue. Sweet, sweet silence. There's an idea somewhere in there, it's just coming together…"

"Or … my starring role as Bat-duck. That's more like it! The shadow that quacks in the night!" Plucky enthused.

Babs sighed, turning to Buster. "To be or not to be? If I mallet him flat, will that be more putting him out of his misery, or ours?"

"Trouble is, Plucky … well, put it this way. On Astro Blaster you can put in cheat codes and jump up three levels. With Shirley - you can't." Buster pulled out two carrots from his ready supply, handed one to Babs and munched the other nonchalantly. "The surgeon general has declared the attempt is harmful to the health."

"Easy for you to say, Mister Smooth blue," Plucky glared at him. "You get support from your girl - I get nothing but grief." His eyes fell to the dripping DVD case. "Eww. She just had to ruin the one where I get to fight Evil Congressman."

Babs sat down next to the steamed duck. "Take a hint, Plucky. As long as she's into her New Age thing, she's always going to prefer Tibetan chants and whale-song to watching you drop-kick people. Anyway, you miss. So, what are you going to do?"

Plucky considered for a few seconds. "Convince her that whole New Age thing is "Like, SO last year or some junk"? Maybe then she'd take up supporting pro wrestling or monster truck derby like any normal person."

There was the sound of a toon mallet in action as Babs used the permission Shirley had lent her. "Adjust vertical hold …" Plucky gasped as he staggered and fell "Picture looking... squashed."

"Wasn't that a bit harsh?" Buster queried, an eyebrow raised.

Babs struck one of Plucky's favourite Dramatic poses. "How we ac-tors, we suffer for our art," she declaimed, before reverting to normal. "But why should we suffer for his?"

In the corner of the room, half a dozen toons looked on. Some were making notes. One of them, a dark-skinned toon human, pressed her throat microphone. "And this is K-ACME's reporter Mary Melody on her usual beat. Babs and Buster have, along with Plucky and Shirley, scooped the top marks in class for the fifteenth week in a row. Yes, even Plucky although he's not always happy with the scripts he gets. Into every life a little rain must fall - but in his case it's usually safes and anvils. And who'd have thought there were so many grand pianos in decaying orbits? Mary Melody, a mile deep in her rut as the one and only toon reporter, signing off. Not that she'll ever be the first to make any news. Memo to myself, edit that bit out."

"Earth life is unfair," a strange being nodded next to her. While Mary was attractively dark complexioned, this figure had a skin, or possibly event horizon, that light fell straight into, revealing no detail at all. A classical Roman-style helmet and a bronze skirt looking oddly like an armoured tutu made up most of her outfit. "I have appeared in one hundred percent of scripts requiring a Martian. And no others."

"You are a Martian, Marcia," Mary looked at her friend. "I know it's type-casting but you're the most ... qualified. Putting a TV aerial on top of Dizzy Devil didn't look right. He only ate it."

There came a sigh. "On occasions I can sympathise with my half-Uncle. He kept trying to destroy the Earth, you know."

"Ehhh. did he ever manage it?" A buzzard with an early Beatles mop haircut looked at the Martian sleepily.

"No, Concord, he never did." Marcia Martian did not elaborate.

"Oh. Never did. Nope nope nope..." The buzzard shrugged, and waddled off.

"You're right. It is unfair. He's listed as Concord Condor. Everyone knows he's only a common buzzard, but nobody's had the heart to tell him. And putting him in the Comic Genius Class was just cruel." Mary watched the retreating figure.

"Has he noticed?" Marcia asked, her eyes blinking. They were the only feature that showed up under Earth style lighting.

"No. I don't think he has. Which doesn't make it any better." Mary crossed her arms in irritation. "Marcia - what sort of plots would you want to star in if you could?"

The small alien struck a pose which was instantly recognisable on classic Martian drama but utterly indescribable on Earth (and caused three animators and a storyboarder to quit their jobs in despair.) "I would be the lead in a classic Canal Epic! Every male-equivalent wooing me with drops and drops of the finest water!"

The humanmaid winced slightly. "You were right the first time." She looked around at her friends - Barky Marky, Lightning Rodriguez, Chewcudda the bull and Banjo the Opossum - some folk said Banjo had only been allowed in to make up a State quota of ethnic marsupials. None of them ever appeared in the Looniversity's main features except as bit players. Even Byron Basset had once had his own script, despite having no voice and a physique rivalled by many failed soufflés. "Life is unfair. But consider the alternative!"

"My Civilisation did not endure ten million years of decay just so I could be defeated twice a term by Plucky Duck with a stage prop disintegrator," Marcia's expression might have been downcast had she had one. She looked out of the window where Babs, Shirley and Fifi were heading out to party after school. "In class - the rewards of the few outweigh the needs of the many."

"It's not as if they take centre stage just for the sake of it - except Plucky," Mary conceded. "Just that Babs … she's only got one gear, and that's full ahead."

An alien shape pondered alien thoughts. "Analogy. Professor Road Runner has never been observed at a steady jog."

Mary nodded. "Toony is as toony does," she quoted "some of us work hard to get there and some are just... naturally drawn that way." She smiled. "I'm glad I decided to stick with it and not transfer out. I'd have missed some good friends here." Her heart began to pound as she recalled what she had talked over with her parents for the past month and finally planned for the weekend. And one friend in particular

It was three days later and Saturday morning; Babs was demolishing her first weenie-burger of the day when on the bench next to her she felt Shirley's feathers fluff out in alarm. She looked around expecting to see perhaps the Perfecto crowd obnoxiously "slumming it" or, heavens forbid - Elmyra. But there was only Mary Melody arriving, the humanmaid arm in arm with her boyfriend Jaggi Di Speckle. The toon zebra had arrived as a transfer student that year from the high-tech academy of Digitalis Academy, and the couple had hit it off from the start.

"What's up, Shirley?" Babs' own ears were up as she craned her neck to peer at whatever must be behind the pair. "Some "vast disturbance in the Force" outside?"

Shirley slumped back in her seat with eyes glazed; her organic tofu wrap coming unwrapped as it fell to the table unregarded. "I cannot be-lieve it. Like, remember Film Observation 101, Babs? You tell me."

The pink bunny frowned for a moment; Professor Wile-E Coyote's detailed film analysis class had been a pain in the tail for someone better suited to wild action than in-depth introspection. Acting like a Shojo Anime star and standing watching the rain with the cameras rolling for a minute was not her style at all; in that time she would have been itching to pull half a dozen gags. But she had still passed with a "B+" and put her memory of the class to good use.

Mary Melody was dressed in one of her usual inline skating outfits, white Lycra knee-lengths and a white cotton top; she was busy taking off her elbow and knee protectors as Babs watched her from under lowered eyelids. Her boyfriend Jaggi was dressed smartly in a khaki bush shirt and shorts; at Digitalis the toons there specialised in courses in Action Adventure and the zebra had kept the style. His bold stripes gleamed in high contrast, and his Rollerball-surplus skates were battered but ran like new.

There was nothing obvious to be seen. Buster and Plucky waved to the pair and went back to their conversation. But Babs noticed the look Mary flashed her friend, and how when they made eye contact her hips unconsciously moved closer to him.

The pink bunny felt her ears glowing. "No." She whispered to the loon. "I can't believe it. Mary? Of all of us? The sensible one?"

Shirley nodded. "Like, here's a riddle. When is a humanmaid not a humanmaid - any more? If you could see how their auras are still hugging each other - Babs, you'd know."

Babs shook her head, amazed. Where auras were concerned the loon had never been wrong yet. But there was a first time for everything. "Mary told me she was going home to study last night - her parents are in. And she doesn't lie, not ever. She'll be the first ever media star who can put that on her resume." The humanmaid lived on the other side of Acme Acres in a spacious apartment; her parents were busy medical professionals and were rarely home.

Shirley snorted. "Study? Oh, you bet. Think like, first-year Toon basics - "squash and stretch," Babs-o. She must have been practicing that, major style!"

Babs almost choked on her weenie-burger. She still couldn't believe it.

It seemed a long half hour before Babs spotted Mary heading towards the powder-room. Babs' eyes met Shirley's, and the two rose and followed her. In a few more minutes the three were alone and grooming in front of the big, brightly lit mirror over the sinks.

"Is that a new ribbon, Mary?" Babs asked innocently, smoothing out the pair near her own ear-tips. "Something about you looks - different today. Don't you think so, Shirley?"

"Yeah, for sure," the loon agreed, smoothing her already impeccable blonde head-feathers (in their natural state they would have stood up like a peacock's feathers or a punk Mohican; it was a constant labour keeping them curled in a neat front quiff). "I'm picking up some vibes. Some happy, happy vibes around here."

A regular human of Mary's complexion might blush and nobody would notice - but she was a toon, and the blush appeared externally as a bright pink glow. Babs and Shirley pulled out sunglasses and admired the view. "Umm, I don't know where to begin…" she stammered, while the blush became dazzling. Her friends looked up at the ceiling, enjoying the show.

Babs snorted. "Cut to the chase, girl. How did it finish? Then you can do the rest in flashbacks."

It was a definitely sober pair that walked up the hill towards Babs' burrow, both unusually quiet. Babs had been almost grateful for once that Buster had extra practice with the football team. They needed time to think.

"They say, like, truth is stranger than fiction or some junk," Shirley shook her head wonderingly. "Jaggi's a Mondo nice guy - but who could have guessed Mary's folks … approve of him THAT much? She asked them before she asked him! Wierdsville."

"Going all the way with their permission when they're even in the house - that's so honest it's downright sneaky," Babs agreed. "I'd say - where's the fun in that? But…. Wow. I know she said she didn't want Coal Black as a mentor - but I never thought she'd be taking advice off Red Hot Riding Hood."

"Like, wow." Shirley's eyes bulged in an aftershock as she recalled Mary's hesitant account. Half the shock was that the Melody family approved of a non-human toon for their one and only daughter - not that mixed dates were uncommon as such at Acme Loo. Professor Le Pew's long-standing and long-suffering feline girlfriend Penelope had over the years been won over by the romantic skunk to the extent of willingly having white back stripes bleached on her black fur, and a diet rich in limburger and garlic had skewed her sense of smell to the extent that she rarely noticed the stink any more. But at least Penelope now looked something like a skunk.

Shirley stopped, and pressed two wing-fingers to her forehead. "I'm getting a premonition…" she announced. Her Aura materialised with a projector and screen sculpted from the finest ectoplasm. On the screen was Mary at the beach that coming summer - generally she had no need of suntan lotion, especially the thick white Acme Brand Million Factor that was "guaranteed resistant to a supernova - or double your money back!" Mary using stripes of it as body paint to make herself a matching two-tone couple with Jaggi lying on the beach towel next to her though - that was another matter.

"Wow." Babs looked appreciatively at the image. "Would she think of that? Would she do it? Well, she might. She's full of surprises today." She did a quick double-take at her unplanned double entendre, and grinned. "I can't believe even I said that."

"Mondo surprises," Shirley agreed. "Kinda like hearing Dizzy went on a vegan detox diet, you know? It's hard to take it all in."

"As Mary said to Jaggi … last night" Babs quipped.

"Babs! Like, easy on the mondo off-colour jokes. A toon can get struck monochrome. "

"Sorreeee…."

As the news seeped out to even the least perceptive toon, Mary and Jaggi became a seven-day wonder. Then the novelty faded - for their friends if not for them. Babs, Fifi and Shirley each had long private talks after class with Mary, and returned with mixtures of expressions. Wondering and shocked were certainly in the mix, but pensive was the main ingredient - and calculating was not far behind.

Monday:

The sun shone brightly down as classes broke for lunch break. Babs had heard a rumour that due to a computing error the cafeteria was selling food with real ingredients in it. She sat down next to Buster, her ears drooping as the rumour evaporated. Something that went "splut." fell heavily onto her plate. "Looks like they had props left over from yet another re-make of "The Blob"", she sighed.

"Naww - "Swamp Thing" - I recognise the radioactive pollutant," Plucky looked at her dish. "What else have they got?"

"Scrambled eggs." Babs said flatly.

"Ewww..." Plucky and Shirley chorused. Shirley looked at the green duck's back unseen by him and smiled, blushing shyly.

Plucky waddled off to sit with Buster, leaving the girls together.

A pink bunny stirred a spoonful of extra-roast instant coffee into her extra-sweet dessert, slapping a stray saucer over the bowl before the toon food hopped out of its dish and escaped. She sighed. "You know, considering we can beat any toon on the running track except Little Beeper, Buster's awfully ... slow at some things."

Fifi's eyes twinkled. "'Zere is always ze Big Bad Wolf, in Acme forest. They say 'e is... not so slow with a girl. You could wear ze Red Riding Hood?"

"Wolves," Babs looked at Shirley, pulling one eyelid down derisively like the Anime transfer student who had joined them one year. She shook her head determinedly. "Not for Mrs. Bunny's Number One daughter! I've been waiting long enough for Blue-boy, I'm not quitting on him now. It took two years for him to even start going steady with me!"

Babs spin-changed into a tweed-clad grey-furred "academic" looking toon rabbit with a pipe in one paw and a microphone in the other; she spoke in a Dick van Dyke English accent that would have been funnier than she intended to anyone who knew the real thing. "Guinness Book of Records here. We have exhaustively researched three centuries of archives - Babs Bunny has, indeed, the cutest toes in history." She changed back again. "And I know Buster appreciates them. But …"

"Well after all, you've been with Buster all along. You're bunnies - you could have had relations or some junk at any time. Most folk expected it." Shirley knew that invasively reading minds was automatic bad Karma, but the glow between Mary and Jaggi was probably causing forest fire and missile launch detection satellites to lock their cameras on Acme Acres. Plucky and the rest of the male toons were utterly unaware of such things, as per usual.

Babs felt annoyed. "Could have? "Could have", "Would Have" and "Should Have" never won an Oscar or an Emmy between them and they never will," she snapped.

Shirley sniffed, her gaze following the pair out. "I can read it in her aura, Mary accepts that she won't either. She's happy enough in what she does, she doesn't, like, need the world at her feet. But, you only get those trophies for films - right now she's got an audience of one she cares about and she's not acting."

"They don't shoot those kinds of films around here," Babs' quip was out before could stop it. She clapped a pink paw over her mouth, horrified.

Shirley's plumage bristled. "You know, like, it's a good thing I know you don't mean that, Barbara Anne Bunny - and that Mary didn't hear you. If you'd have been Plucky coming out with a line like that …"

"Crispy Duck. I know. I'm sorry." For a second her ears dipped. "I don't know what's come over me." Her eyes widened again. "Re-take! Cut! I just don't know what's got into me all of a sudden. Awwk! That's worse! Medic! Scriptwriter!"

Shirley clucked sympathetically as her friend began hitting herself over the head with a pink toon mallet. It was going to be one of those days.

Tuesday:

The Amazing Three did not spend their days reassuring each other they were the Pack Leaders, the most popular girls in the Looniversity. That would only have gained them points in Social Status Assertiveness (a.k.a. snobbery) Class at Perfecto Prep - and besides, they had never felt the need to. "When you know you've got a diamond - you don't need to keep testing it" was a saying that sprang to Babs' sugar-rich and caffeinated mind. Unfortunately she recalled it was actually one of Plucky's lines, from a few terms before - and a few milliseconds before an annoyed Shirley had fried the "Number One Action Hero" duck's tail-feathers with a psychic bolt.

Nevertheless, two sets of ears were down as they looked out over the sports ground, and Shirley's aura seemed subdued. Mary and Jaggi were both on inline skates, performing a high-speed "pas de deux" that traced an intricate love-knot of tracks in the dust.

Three sets of eyes watched them from the shade of a blossoming apple tree. Babs voiced what was in all their minds. "It's not as if they're doing anything they weren't last week."

"Like, right now," Shirley nodded. "They've been a team all semester. Like you and Buster have for a lot longer as a comedy team. Since the start here when we were all three heads high."

The pink bunny winced slightly at that memory - at least she no longer looked quite like a squeaky-toy. Bank robbery and the years at Acme Loo were both liable to get a toon a long stretch and indeed she had stretched in all the right places. "And you and Plucky as a team. Well, he thinks so."

Shirley gave a delicate shiver. "You had to remind me!" She paused. "Sometimes I think there might be, you know, a half-decent duck somewhere in there. Buried under an ego twice the size of New Jersey and twice as toxic."

"New Jersey? Babs asked, an eyebrow raised. "I thought it was Cleveland."

"Negatory, Babs. Cleveland had a mondo eco-cleanup. Too many weird Swamp Monsters coming out of Lake Eerie," Shirley said.

"And you and Hamton, you've been sweet for the longest time," Babs prompted Fifi, who was lying with her cheek-ruffs in her paws with a dreamy expression. Hamton had been nearer two heads high in the beginning.

"Le sigh," Fifi agreed dreamily. "'Amton, 'e is such the gentleman pig. I 'ave to make all ze moves. Else I would be older than Madame Slappy, before 'e would have kissed me. Now, that is being one thing - and what happens when I see le skunk-hunk is anothair, my heart goes boom!"

"Which is what we expected to do first." Babs' ears drooped. "Sure, Mary's our friend. I'm happy for her, really! But - leading-lady material?"

"She's someone's leading lady now, fer sure," Shirley said, her eyes fixed on the scene below where Jaggi was hoisting the humanmaid - no, a human lady now, she mentally corrected - in his arms while still managing a reverse spin manoeuvre on skates. It was too late in the course for anyone to change classes, but she had seen Mary in the Looniversity library with a book on "Dramatic Romance for Romantic Dramas."

"Certainment." Fifi's luxurious tail waved languidly. "Who would 'ave though it? Years ago, back in our very first Summer Vacation, though - that might 'ave been me and Johnny Pew."

"Like, a bigger heel you couldn't find in all the Acme Mall shoe stores," Shirley snapped. Her friend nodded sadly, acknowledging the fact.

"But still. That day I would 'ave given 'im anything - everything! Le sigh" A pair of ears drooped.

"Bad plan, Fifi. He'd have dropped you after like a used tissue." Shirley's feathers bristled. "That skunk's like, a million negatory points on the steady boyfriend scale."

A calculating look passed over the skunkette's features. "I was not expecting 'im to carry me in 'is limo to Hollywood and make a Leading Lady of me just for 'zat. Fifi la gold-digger? Nevair! 'Zere are attractive men a girl wants to someday marry, oui - and attractive ones she does not. But still. Ooh la la!"

"You might find one good for both," Babs allowed herself a rare moment of introspection. She had been briefly shocked and jealous in turn, before telling herself Mary was hardly to blame for being first at the post. She had never thought of it as a contest but still Babs had expected to win, unless of course some unscrupulous "skunk-hunk" had dragged a willing Fifi back to his motel room which was something she would not have much envied her friend for. "Not that it'll make any real difference to us. I mean, will it? So who's in a hurry all of a sudden?"

Shirley looked up, meditating on the tree above them. A white petal of apple blossom spiralled down and landed on her yellow-gold bill. The loon's eyes crossed as she focussed on it. "As in, it's our last year here and everything? One more Spring break, then Game Over, girls! Game over! Final exams or some junk then Big Wide World time!"

"Hollywood. Stardom." Babs' eyes were dreamy.

"Le greasy Hollywood ten-percent agents with zair feelthy casting-couches and zair "we'll call you, babe"…" Fifi responded. "imagine zat as a first time for a girl. Quelle horreur!"

"Ewwww…" came as a triple chorus. A pale feathered fowl turned a sick shade of green and two sets of ears went right down at the idea, as from the knoll the Amazing Three watched Mary and Jaggi finish their synchronised routine then skate off, hand in hoof.

Babs sighed. "I hope they don't regret it."

Shirley caught another falling blossom in her feathered hand, and meditated on fleeting things. "It's karma, Babs. Things begin and, like, end. No way around it, this Summer we're all leaving, and it's not for a Summer vacation. Not any more."

"Some 'zey are leaving togethair …" Fifi nodded "and some zey will be left all alone."

For a second a cloud seemed to cross the sun. Apple blossom fell from the trees in a slow, steady rain. Shirley looked up at the white blossoms, contemplating. Nature ran in cycles, and by the time the fruit came around, she and her friends would be scattered to the four winds like the autumn leaves.

Babs set her shoulders determinedly. "I hope Mary's picked the right one. Well, too late now! I shouldn't be jealous of someone making a mistake."

"And 'oo would zat be?" Fifi asked brightly, still gazing towards where the new couple had vanished to.

For once in her life, Barbara Anne Bunny had nothing to say.

Wednesday:

Class had finished, and Babs and Buster were walking home through the green fields towards Babs' burrow. Buster stopped at one of the convenient tree stumps and hopped up to sit on it, patting the spare place next to him. Babs obligingly hopped up to join him.

"You've been kinda quiet this week, Babsie." Buster said, spotting the pink bunny's distant expression. "Homework getting you down?"

"Homework." Babs' gaze obligingly snapped back to present time and company. "Final projects coming up in the next few weeks - we won't see much more of classes next semester, only exams." She spin-changed into a stage Russian costume with ragged overcoat and fur hat, and broke into a chorus of "The Volga Boatmen's Song", while straining on a cable that could have hauled up the Titanic. She rapidly changed back - wondering if Buster noticed her skirt was now an inch shorter.

He did. "Umm, Babs …" he pointed down, looking slightly embarrassed.

She flashed him a smile. "Why, I do declare! You just can't trust that laundry. They'll shrink eighteen-inch Acme battleship plate." She made no move to adjust it. "Do you like my hem-line up - or down?" She had often spin-changed into far more seductive outfits, but this was her chosen yellow top and lavender skirt. What changed here was her primal form - and she felt her tail twitching. On impulse she kissed Buster long and hard, feeling his heart hammering against her.

The blue-and-white buck gave a deep and happy sigh as she released him, and melted into a pool of liquid. Like a sand-castle sculptor, Babs kneaded him back into shape in a few seconds. She gave the dazed rabbit a quick peck on the nose, not enough to liquefy him again. "Thank you, Blue boy. That's for - never taking me for granted." Smiling, the pair hopped off the stump and Buster escorted her chastely home.

Ten minutes later, Babs was alone in her mostly pink bedroom chatting on the phone to her distant friend Harriet.

"… And he'd have scored points for that one even in Professor Daffy's class in Wild Takes, I mean it!" The self-styled Queen of Comedy concluded, a pleased expression on her face as she recounted her day's adventures. "Now, that was Funny." Suddenly her ears went rigid as she fully realised what had been urgently nagging in the back of her mind since the weekend. "Got to go, Harriet! I'll call back later." She put the phone down and threw herself back on her bed, hands folded on the pillow behind her head. She suddenly had a lot to think about.

"Laugh, clown, laugh" was a phrase Babs knew they used in the Dramatic Irony classes. She also knew why; Clowns had to laugh while they had the chance as something was guaranteed to be coming their way. A tricky horizontal spin-change saw a brown furred and white lab-coated bunny sitting up in bed, official NASA clipboard in paw. "Ze anvil mit your name on hass completed ze second Jupiter slingshot und iss heading back to Earth impact." She pronounced solemnly, then melodiously sang." If ze anvils go up, who cares vhere they come down? Dat's not my Department, says Werner Von Braun-Bunny", before resuming her normal form.

Comedy was food and drink to her. More, it was oxygen and air pressure and chocolate and all the second-by-second needs of survival. Unconsummated romance like hers was comic, at least to the audience, she had to admit. "Like Professor Coyote could only eat that Road-Runner once... then what? Two careers over." She loved to see Buster so overwhelmed by her coquetry that his toon form dissolved in confusion to primordial paint. It would be a sad day if he ever became immune to her that way.

"Now, that was funny," she repeated to herself. Mary Melody had never been in the running for Comedy Queen, and her Action-type zebra majored in the Acme classes in Dramatic Irony for Ironic Dramas. "Buster and me, like that… I've hoped that'll be a lot of things. Face it girl, "funny" isn't one of them." She paused, wriggling her clean white toes. "At least I think so." Another thought struck her playfully. "He might have to go back to wearing pants for awhile, after that. For a week. What am I saying. Just a week? With me, a month!" She laughed wildly at the thought.

As a glance outside Babs' bedroom at her many young siblings would have confirmed, young toons of both sexes started off with all their anatomy visible - generally by the time they were out of diapers most species could "conceal" and manage without pants as Buster, Plucky and many other non-human toons did. There were many toon jokes about honeymoon hotels having in-house tailors who could run off at short notice a pair of pants or a long skirt for room service to deliver urgently and discreetly though - for some guests they would be definitely needed for awhile until their bodies re-adjusted.

"Not me, though," Babs declared with supreme self-assurance. "Couldn't happen. No way. Not possibly." She picked up the phone and re-dialled Harriet. Her friend had sounded strange, as if she had been bursting to tell her something and trying to get a word in edgeways. Talking to Babs often had folk subconsciously wondering where her "pause" button was.

Five minutes later a stunned bunny was locked rigid with the phone pressed to her ear. "Harriet? You did WHAT?" Babs suddenly had even more to think about.

Thursday:

"Ah, mais c'est tres naturelle," Fifi enthused, the romantic skunkette looked up at the trees that were loud with courting birdsong. "Eet is Spring! All Nature is in love again."

"My friend Harriet. Pinch me if I'm sounding clichéd this week but - I can't believe she did that." Babs was looking bemused. "You've never met her, have you?

"Mais non. Your friend, who went to a different college. A hound, ees she not?" Fifi's gaze wandered to a pair of circling butterflies.

"Harriet Harrier. If she was a poodle or a fox I could imagine it. They're like that. At least by stereotype." Babs took a deep breath. "I didn't even know she had a special boyfriend. Sure, she's mentioned his name, but …"

Fifi looked at her best friend under half-lidded eyes. "Jealous? Or - worried zat … when you phone her next time you might be … interrupting something, n'est pas?"

Babs' hand clapped to her mouth in shock. She had genuinely never thought of that.

Friday:

"That Plucky. We should have an Acme Unreliability team, you know? Then he could be captain," Shirley fumed. "Might be top of the class for once. He was going to meet me here for lunch yesterday, we've an Action Drama project to work on for Professor Yosemite Sam."

Babs' ears went down, and her eyes widened as she remembered. "Shirley … I know why he wasn't here. He was sharing a picnic outside with Maria. You know, from the Dramatic Romance class." Babs was generally the last to tell tales, but it was hardly as if Plucky and Maria had been trying to keep any secrets. They had been sitting out in clear view on the lawn beside the Looniversity; from a distance at least Maria seemed to be actually laughing at one of Plucky's jokes.

Shirley's beak dropped open in shock to hit the floor with a loud clang; a move that would have scored her well in the "wild takes" class. "Her? Like, gag me with a spoon!"

Suddenly Babs' paw obligingly held a large cafeteria serving ladle. She offered it to her friend, but Shirley shook her head angrily.

"I can totally not believe it!" The loon's feathers bristled. "Maria Mandarin? Her mother's family owns a logging corporation and her father personally owns and runs a whole sweatshop military-industrial complex? Mondo bad Karma, Babs, a definitive spiritual smog bank around her. She makes Pittsburgh smell like a lotus blossom!"

"She seems a nice enough girl for all that," Babs mused. The light green feathered duck had transferred to Acme Looniversity two semesters ago, but never overlapped with any of her friends' classes. "A quiet kinda girl, no wild moves. She could have gone to Perfecto if she'd wanted, she's rich enough. Can't help what her family does, can she?" Babs had once spent a morning with her mind swapped with her own mother courtesy of one of Calamity's malfunctioning inventions, and had come out of the experience severely shaken but more sympathetic. "We talked last week. She asked me all about Plucky. I gave her the full, true story. Didn't leave any of it out."

"Like, hideous. And she's not run away screaming to hide in some chemical swamp in Siberia?" Shirley raised an eyebrow incredulously.

Babs frowned. "Didn't seem to bother her. She did ask me not to tell him about her money. You know Plucky. That's all he'd see in her." She paused. "Well, not all. She has got quite a nice figure." Exactly why some avians turned that mammalian shape despite hatching from eggs was something she had asked Miss Granny, the school nurse and repository of much folk wisdom - like most such questions however complex, the answer was "it's a Toon Thing." It was something Shirley was definitely lacking, and although her black and white adult Loon plumage pattern had grown in the year before, her silhouette had stayed depressingly the same. It was a sore point with her.

The loon's aura seethed, crackling like a power transformer in a rainstorm. She could imagine it very well. Aside from Montana Max, Plucky held the record for detecting the sound of a dropped coin at over a hundred yards. The idea of a cute AND wealthy waterfowl girl remotely interested in him would have Plucky immediately laying siege to her - regardless of how much siege equipment was likely to be lying around the family home to use on him if she objected. Despite her usual irritation with the green drake, Shirley felt a chill running down her nine Charkas as she contemplated life without him. That might happen if Maria was brain-dead enough to fall for Plucky even after hearing the true facts about him. Unlikely things were happening that Spring, after all. "Plucky. He's going to need re-naming, "Plucked" for that."

"It's not like you ever do a lot to encourage him." Babs paused. "Anyway, Plucky's not the only avian guy around here. There's Fowlmouth and there's umm, Concord Condor?" Her ears drooped, considering the options. "Oh. I see what you mean. But it's a big continent out there."

Shirley was a strict vegetarian. Nevertheless, two plucked oven-roast birds slowly turned, dripping sizzling duck fat impaled on sharp steel spits in the rotisserie of her imagination. One had a scorched dark green feather or two still remaining; the other smaller carcass had a few surviving feathers of lighter Mandarin green.

"Maybe Maria just wants to play you fair for him?" Babs' violet eyes were studied lakes of innocence. She had practiced in the mirror. "You know, you with everything you've got - against just her, she's got no psychic power and her money's not mentioned. Just maybe … once in awhile Plucky might prefer a girl who's not so quick with the "Massive Retaliation Strike" every time he opens his beak the wrong way." Which is most of the time, she admitted to herself.

The loon's pupils shrank to dots and her feathers bristled; the air shimmered around her with an electric blue glow. Her mood ring flashed through red to yellow, white, and arc-light blue-white, before the plastic furniture in the hallway began to fluoresce from hard ultra-violet light. In a few seconds toons in the hallway were treated to X-ray views of each other's bones and construction lines.

Babs did a rapid take and dived out of the corridor and under the nearest desk - they were the guaranteed thermonuclear assault-proof models the Looniversity had brought off the set after filming finished for the "Duck and Cover" film in the 1950's. Under the desk Babs read a faded sticker: "Guaranteed proof against a 1 MegaToon airburst at 1 mile range. If this product fails to satisfy, your next reincarnation may phone this number for replacement or refund…" The rest of the sticker had faded to illegibility.

The corridor suddenly stood out in brilliant light and black shadow as Shirley's aura short-circuited and reduced the loon to a puddle of violently glowing green glass on the floor. Emerging, Babs added a beaker of water that sizzled in a violet glow as Shirley reconstituted. She faced the camera knowingly as the dazed waterfowl staggered off.

"Sometimes I just can't help myself."

Saturday:

When Babs' telephone rang at six in the morning on a weekend her usual reaction involved a large mallet - fortunately Toon phone contracts had an automatic free replacement scheme for that very eventuality. But something stopped her this time. Premonitions were more in Shirley's line - and as if on cue, she recognised her friend's voice. Something was very wrong; the loon was almost sobbing.

"Shirley? Where are you? I'll be right over." Babs knew she was going to get a scolding from her mother for burrowing straight out from inside the house, but this was an emergency.

The sun was rising over the wetlands to the South of Acme Acres as ten seconds later Babs emerged from the tunnel, shaking off stray soil - in her haste she had not even spin changed into the "Miner, forty-niner" outfit she generally used for digging. She spotted Shirley sitting by a tree at the edge of the swamp, the loon's beak propped in her feather-hands and her eyes fixed on the ground in misery.

Before she could speak, Shirley put a wing-finger to her bill and pointed over towards the water's edge. There was a freshly built bower in there - neatly woven from reeds, and despite its temporary nature obviously the work of more than one set of hands. One part was built in a much clumsier technique, for a start.

Babs opened her mouth to speak. But then her ears went right up, as from the direction of the nest came a raucous snoring - a very familiar one that usually started when she watched TV with Shirley and Plucky, half a minute after the girls outvoted him and switched channels to watch something they wanted to see.

"Plucky?" Babs was so shocked that her "take" reflexes blew a fuse and failed to work: she simply sat down heavily next to the loon. A tear was in Shirley's eye. "What did he DO to you? If he's hurt you I'll..."

Shirley laid a wing on her shoulder softly, and looked into Babs' trembling face. "Like, take the key out of the firing console, Babs. That isn't the problem." A small smile crept to her beak. "That wasn't a problem ... at all."

"Then what's wrong? Talk to me, Shirley." Babs' eyes were locked on the loon's.

"Babs." Shirley's look was hollow, desolate. "My Aura. It's not ... it's not there any more. It's gone."

Ingrained reflexes died hard, but Babs managed to suppress the quip of "Shirley you can't be serious?" that came instantly to mind. "Are you sure?"

Shirley nodded. "It's like part of me died, or went blind. The whole spirit world - I can't see it, can't feel it ... like someone cut it off at the switch. It's been there all around me since the day I hatched." She ran a feather-finger through her blonde head quiff, now somewhat rumpled. From many a sleep-over Babs knew Shirley usually had to sleep with her head-feathers in curlers; there were no facilities in a nesting bower in the swamp. The loon ran her reddish ribbon through her hands, looking down at it. "Well - that's like a real drag. I'm down to like, lowest common denominator-ville."

Babs grimaced. "I've seen Warrior Maiden films - some lose their magic powers when they stopped being, umm, maidens..." She blinked as the scale of Shirley's loss hit her. No more astral plane travel for Shirley - no more psychic firepower on tap, levitating or tuning into the Infinite. The Infinite had been her life - and her loss was infinite. The pink bunny shuddered, imagining becoming allergic to humour, never able to use it again. Her loon friend was grounded now, flightless, almost defenceless, and one way or another Babs knew who was to blame. Her eyes flashed red behind her contact lenses. "I'm still going to kill him!"

Shirley was in front on her in a single frame, feathers bristling. "Not MY boyfriend, you don't." Her expression softened. "He looks cute asleep, you know? Like, I've seen it often enough but never really noticed."

Babs nodded, deflating. "What are you going to do?" Shirley had lost her aura, her better half. She hoped Plucky was up to the task of now becoming her better half. He was more usually a vulgar fraction.

Shirley looked over towards the nest. She shrugged, an embarrassed look on her bill. "I'm going to wait till green and handsome wakes up. He wanted me ... now he'll see just what he's got."

Babs hugged her friend close. "Call me when you want to talk. Do you need anything?"

Shirley considered. "Can you find me a wheelbarrow?"

Babs blinked. "Umm, yes. I think. What do you want that for?"

Although no blue-white aura discharge flashed across the loon's features any more, her expression seemed not to need it. "I don't. But by the time I've finished his "wake-up call" - I'll need it for him."

A thoughtful Babs walked back to her burrow the slow way, arriving back in time for her usual breakfast of caffeine-soaked sugar-frosted chocolate. She lightly sprinkled grated carrot over the bowl, always careful of her diet, then called Buster as she ate. Ten minutes later he was knocking on her door, Mrs. Bunny letting him in. With a half-dozen large litters to manage, one more lepine was hardly going to crowd the place much more.

"Shirley's lost her Aura?" The shock literally rocked Buster back on his heels when he heard the news. "How?"

"Umm... she thinks she has. But I'm not so sure it's exactly lost forever. I think "Mis-laid" might be more like it." Babs cocked her head to one side as they sat by the ring of flowers outside the burrow a few minutes later. "You know Plucky, leave anything good lying around and see if you can find it again."

Blue ears went up. "You mean...?"

"Me? Mean? You wound me, Buster." Babs flashed a smile. "Shirley's not thinking too clearly right now, or she'd remember what she told me last year. Her Mother said ... some experiences change a Toon, all the way through. Her psychic powers took a nap on her honeymoon - something about realigning the energy flows? They came back different after awhile. Think ... chrysalis, butterfly."

Buster looked worried. "I hope so, Babs. I'd hate her to lose her powers just for Plucky's sake. I only hope he can make it up to her somehow."

Babs smiled. "Oh. That reminds me. Do you have a wheelbarrow we could borrow?"

Weekends at Acme Looniversity in term time were usually times to relax, when the students headed out to the park or into the town centre to work on their part-time jobs. Babs and Buster headed out to the malt shop.

"Extract of malt. Fifty different flavours." Buster looked at the list, impressed. "One of these days they may sell ice-cream or sodas or something to go with it."

"Why spoil a good thing?" Babs ordered a quart of smoked Bavarian malt, her tail twitching in anticipation as the treacle-like liquid slowly filled the glass. "Hi, Mary! How's the job going?"

Mary Melody had worked in half a dozen places in Acme Acres; there were usually plenty of vacancies as the other toons went for jobs with more comic potential such as firework stores or testing equipment for the ACME Corporation. "It's a living. Better than the cameos I used to get. It's the only Slow Food place in town." She waited while the two malt pourers oozed into their tall glasses.

"Mmm-hmm." Babs had the glass turned upside down, waiting for the malt to start flowing. Pouring was the only way to drink it; if she licked it it would become a "malt likker" and the place was not licensed for that.

"Are Plucky and Shirley coming in this morning? They're usually in here by now." Mary asked.

Babs would have choked on her malt if any of it had yet reached her. "Umm ... I've got some news about that. Shirley said ... it was OK to tell you." She whispered urgently in Mary's ear for a minute.

Mary Melody blinked, the dark complexioned human turning a sickly ashen grey. "He made her lose her powers like that?"

Babs gave a wry smile. "I don't think it was his idea. I mean, who knew?"

"Yeah. Forward planning from Plucky that actually worked? He's innocent - of that anyway," Buster said.

Mary sat down heavily. "Is it permanent?" She looked ill. "If it is … he's hurt her worse than if he'd splashed her with dip. He's ruined her forever." Not only was the banned ultra-solvent the only way of utterly destroying toons, but even minor splashes caused injuries that would never heal no matter how they spin-changed or rested off camera. "Like Furball's ear. He was only lucky it was just his ear that got a permanent hole in it."

Babs' ears went down. "Shirley's home with her Mother, giving her the news. After all, who else knows about auras?"

"They sure don't print repair manuals," Buster looked at the pink and white doe, his face troubled. "Babs."

"Yes, Buster?"

"I don't Ever want to hurt you like that. Or even risk it."

"Eeeh … if I ever grew an aura like that, it'd just get in the way. You and me - three's a crowd." Babs shrugged. "It'd be handy to have someone I could always send out for carrot pizza, though." She cast Buster a wry smile. "Want to walk me to Shirley's house? Girl talk. She may need it."

"Ahh, those strange mysteries. Of which no mere male can understand. We, who have not the emotional depth of a soup bowl at the cheapest Chinese restaurant in town ..." Buster declaimed, covering his eyes with one paw. "Babs, I'd take you anywhere."

Babs snickered. "Underline it in the script, Blue-boy. One day I'll get back to you about that."

Shirley's house was in the hills to the East of Acme Acres properly, bordering on the forest. Oddly enough it appeared to be at least a century older than any other structure in the region, a classic American Gothic wooden house with upper floor veranda and belfry-like attic tower that would have looked more at home in a forbidden valley in the New England backwoods. Shirley and her mother lived there in one continuous séance; Babs could smell the incense from fifty yards away.

"This is as close as I go," Buster announced. "There's loony and there's ... the McLoon family."

"Hmmmph." But Babs smiled. "Thanks for walking me over, Buster. I'll see you tomorrow."

Walking up to the front stoop, Babs noticed something. The house had always seemed to buzz with unseen energies; dream-catchers fluttered even when there was no wind and the geometric arrays of crystals glowed like the pilot's console of a Space Shuttle.

As ever, Mrs. McLoon was at the door long before Babs was within reach of the doorbell. "Barbara Anne," she cast her a worried smile. "Shirley's up in her room. I think she needs company."

Babs nodded, thanking her. Few people could call her by her full name without risking a bunny's wrath, but Mrs. McLoon had an obsession with True Names. There were large unpleasant-looking books on the shelves elaborately secured with rune-embossed silver chains that were full of them. Most of the True Names had a lot more letters in them than "Babs" and none of their owners had adorable toes.

"Shirley? It's me, Babs," The bunny knocked on the attic door. Shirley loved to look out at the stars from all the four roof windows, calculating her horoscope. In her case it included not only the classical astrological planets but all the asteroids and minor objects out past Pluto including the great circling aura of ice-shrouded grand pianos in the far darkness, the Steinway Cloud.

"Babs? Like, come in." The voice seemed unnaturally quiet, and somehow out of balance. Like a set of stereo speakers when one's broken, Babs realised in alarm.

Inside was a familiar enough sight, Shirley sitting in the chalked circle in the centre of the drapery-hung attic room, surrounded by smouldering joss sticks. But today there were differences. All the crystals around her were lying inert, as if they were no more than shards of broken glass picked off the road - and rather than levitating, the loon was sitting solidly on the wooden floor.

She rose, rubbing her tail feathers ruefully. "This floor is mondo hard - and cold, you know?" She cast Babs a wry smile. "That's something else I've learned today." She gestured towards a bean-bag. "The Loon has landed, Babs. I've fallen and I can't get up."

Babs flopped down in some comfort, accepting the proffered glass of herbal tea. "Shirley ... nothing works? You can't channel a spirit guide or something to ask about it?"

Shirley's bill drooped. "Channel? Babs, you cut the cable at the power station with an axe and see how many channels your TV gets."

"Ow." Babs hesitated. She sipped at her tea, her ears dipping slightly as she noticed an utter lack of caffeine in it. "I was going to ask how you were apart from that but..."

"Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" Shirley quoted from her Dark Humour class. "I'm going to need some mondo extra pursuit and evasion classes from Professor Bugs and Professor Fudd, even if I have to take them in the holidays. Next time it's Duck Season ... without those and with no powers, against a hunter I'm just poultry on the shelf."

"Ow with an ironclad five-year Disney contract," Babs shivered. "We graduate in July - what are you going to do? Your whole show was based on ..."

"What I've not got any more?" Shirley gave an embarrassed grin. She picked up a stage top hat and props. "I've got a first-year stage magic book out of the Looniversity library, I've been practicing." She spread a fan of cards, offering them to the bunny. "Pick a card - any card. Or - rubber balloon animals for the kiddies?"

Despite what she had said earlier, Babs picked up the phone to call Buster as soon as she reached home and fought her way through a multiple scrum of siblings. Fortunately the pressure was off her these days now her next youngest batch of brothers and sisters were old enough to start taking charge of the rest. Mortimer was heading in to start classes at Acme that September. At least, she thought wryly, whatever happens - there will still be a Bunny in comedy class, even if it's not me any more…

"Buster - come on over. Better - meet me at the Clampett Memorial above the lake." The toon obelisk was a favourite picnic spot of theirs on a Summer day, and it was a clear Spring evening with hours of light left. "Shirley's in a mess. But her Mother didn't seem too worried."

Ten minutes later, she was back with her buck looking out over the wetlands. An hour with the loon had upset Babs more than it seemed to have Shirley, who was gritting her beak and resolutely looking forward - not that there seemed much left for her to look forward to.

"... The only good thing is - can you believe it, Plucky seems to be taking it seriously," she finished. "Shirley said he's been sending her flowers, paying all the right sort of attention for a change."

"Flowers? From Plucky? Spot the guilty conscience. I bet he picked them in Acme park" Buster's eyebrow rose in disbelief. "Funeral lilies for her aura, maybe?" Had Plucky abandoned Shirley, he would probably have needed a wreath himself. Toons were notoriously hard to "rub out" without Dip but there was a first time for everything; Buster would not be the only one of Shirley's friends who would have spent hours of justifiable fun trying.

"Hush, you." Babs pressed next to him. "We thought he could be romantic if he tried. That's why Shirley put up with him all this time. We were right. He was coming over to see her again when I left."

"So, Shirley's got something out of it. But what a cost!" Buster struck a martial pose. "One more victory like that and we're finished!" He quoted from Ironic Drama class. "Well, I know she said she was going to make the best of things. No point in paying for your cake and not eating it."

"Duck cake?" Babs queried. "Must have been that sequel to "Duck Soup" the Marx Brothers never made."

"It's not much of a trade, her powers for Plucky," Buster admitted. "But better than no Plucky and no powers. I suppose."

"If nothing else, she ties a mean balloon giraffe," Babs agreed sadly.

Just then the horizon to the West lit up, a brilliant dome of rainbow light rising to the skies while the Toons around Acme Acres scrambled for a desk to hide under as the shock wave rattled windows and blew blossom off the trees. The light faded to reveal Babs and Buster sitting companionably together, wearing 3-D glasses and sharing a tub of cinema popcorn as they watched the light show. A billowing cloud of steam rose from the direction of the swamp.

"Well, what do you know?" Buster took off his shades. "Isn't that good timing? Talking of powers..."

"They're baaaccckkk..." Babs quoted from the film "Poltergeese", a delicious smile on her face.

Buster nodded appreciatively, consulting his wristwatch as Babs leaned her cheek against his shoulder. "You know what else? About Plucky making it up to her? I'm thinking that would be starting ... right about now."

It was lunch break mid-week when a dishevelled green duck slid out of the shadows of the male Toons' locker room as Buster arrived from baseball practice.

"Buster old pal, old buddy ... you've got to help me!" Plucky's feathers were sticking out at odd angles, and his voice was on the edge of panic." I don't know what to do! This is the only place on Earth I'm safe."

Buster held his nose at the unwashed scent. "Plucky - were you born in a swamp?" He paused. "Skip that question. Let's guess, you're between bouts for the re-match wrestling Triangle Man? Sorry - can't help you there."

"No. Worse. Shirley." The duck's eyes crossed.

Buster looked him over critically. "Can't help you there either, Plucky. What have you got to complain about? The girl of all your dreams, she's all yours."

"Dreams? Nightmares! It's like ... suddenly she's turned into a monster! She just won't let me go!" The mallard's eyes looked around wildly. "I can't even hide... her Aura can spot me clear across the continent now. Believe me, I've tried, she can get me anywhere. Bottom levels of abandoned gold mines. Submarines under the Arctic ice cap. Disney stores! Even Sylvester only wanted to eat Tweetie the once when he caught him."

"Pluck-eeeee..." Buster leaned against the wall, nonchalantly munching a carrot in the pose he had often seen on his mentor Bugs." If there's a Monster around here, Doctor Pluckenstein, blame its creator. There's a mirror you can see him in, right by the showers. And they're serving lunch out there so eat hearty, keep your strength up. You need all of those, and badly - get my drift?"

"A fine friend you turned out to be," Plucky grumbled. He poked Buster in the chest. "You know the difference between you and the mall cop at Acme Giga Mall?"

"About three hundred pounds of fat and a bad haircut?" Buster hazarded a guess.

"The mall cop gets paid to say "You break that thing, you bought it." With you, it's just for pure laughs." But he took Buster's advice.

A few minutes later Buster joined Babs and most of the others in the cafeteria. For a change they were serving a fairly decent fresh salad; he heaped his tray high and sat next to the Amazing Three as usual. The loon was chatting happily. There was no sign of any great change in her, either in her outfit or expression; far from becoming a monster Buster thought she looked if anything more serene. Her powder-blue Aura was definitely brighter, and shared the same contented glow.

"Shirley! I think Plucky should be here soon. He just couldn't stop talking about you." Buster exchanged glances with Babs. "Well, it's true."

"Like, good news, Buster!" The loon's eyes were bright. "I've been having a long chat with him. He nearly convinced me that express air ticket to Greenland I detected in his pocket was really for my birthday present."

"Greenland?" Buster blinked. "Why would it be Greenland? Do you have relations there?"

Shirley relaxed, and somehow her aura flexed as if stretching a new part of her abilities. "I haven't yet. But the way I'm tapping power - by next solstice I could be having "relations" with Plucky on the moon!"

Babs and Fifi snickered, the skunkette segueing it into a romantic sigh.

"Ah, so beautiful. Young love." Fifi's tail swished. "And 'ere 'e is, the lucky lovair!"

Plucky had indeed showered and groomed his plumage considerably; he bowed to the assembled toons with a fair show of dignity. Piling his plate high with energy-rich seeds and vitamin-fresh vegetables, he sat down opposite Shirley. "What have I missed?" He bowed and kissed Shirley's wingtip; her mood ring began to glow a pleased salmon pink.

"Plucky being polite," Buster mused. "Invest in ice skate factories, Hell has frozen over."

Just then, Shirley's aura detached and looked down the corridor with a highly annoyed expression. Another class had obviously just finished, as along with a dozen other toons a pretty light-green duck entered. Maria was a slender waterfowl with a great mass of smooth blonde head-feathers that extended halfway down her back. Her eyes lit up at the sight of Plucky.

"It's a nice day to eat outside on the lawn, Plucky," Shirley suggested. "Would you want to, join me or some junk?"

Plucky hesitated, as he too spotted Maria Mandarin. He took a deep breath, calculating rather more than his potential profits and survival chances for once. Something seemed to change in his eyes as they met the loon's. "Sure, Shirley." Picking up their plates, the pair walked out holding each other's wing-tips.

"Well, there's a sight for sore eyes," Babs said. "Buster, is it just me or has this place got Spring Fever all of a sudden? Shirley, of all people." The Girl Least Likely To". Or was that Mary?" She looked down meditatively. "While I, who have the Cutest toes..."

"Sometimes you need to imagine losing something to know what you've got," suggested Buster. "And sometimes you know it's "use it or lose it" time." He blushed. "Meaning Plucky."

From Maria Mandarin's expression she was thinking the same thing. The pale green fowl was carrying a stack of freshly rented DVDs, the top one garishly proclaiming "100 biggest and best Monster Truck crashes!" She had needed little more than a timid enquiry and a smile to discover from the Acme Mall video rentals what their best customer most liked to see. That and "Cheerleader Wardrobe Malfunctions", of course.

"Always the bridesmaid, never the bride…" Babs sang sweetly, her eyes locked in Buster's direction. "They said these here were lucky rabbit's feet. If I don't get lucky can I get a refund?"

Buster gave an embarrassed cough, looking out of the window to where Shirley was kissing Plucky with an enthusiasm he would have bet serious money against the week before. "Seems Shirley's making up for lost time - three hot meals a day and fresh Duck's on the menu. Maybe her aura likes dining on ego." His imagination flashed on her wall an image of a tar-pit like lake which the loon's floating powder-blue astral form was draining through a pipeline to a distant refinery. The aura was looking at the falling oil level with interest as if to see what would be revealed.

Babs' ears were up in surprise. "Fresh duck - he generally gets pretty fresh, all right. And she used to be such a vegan. My friend Shirley the Loon, Olympic class vamp and energy vampire. Poor, poor Plucky. Oh my. How sad." She struck a tragic pose.

"Poor, poor, Pluckster. My heart bleeds too. All these years and he got exactly what he asked for." Buster was trying hard to keep a straight face.

"Just like his character in that "Raiders of the Lost Icebox" cameo from Action Adventure class." Babs' nose twitched mischievously. "It was covered in warning symbols and wrapped with silver chains and religious charms. Anybody else would have had the sense to stay wayyyy clear. But he just HAD to open that box."

"Babs! You'll go monochrome!"

"Sorree..."

The final weeks of the semester went by rapidly as the toons worked hard in their classes. After Spring Break everyone knew how hard they would be worked for exams. All the usual sports and trips would be off - with a sigh Buster packed his baseball bat and glove away in his locker at the end of the day. "That's the last match on our timetable done - the bat and ball stay here till we're clearing out in July ready to go."

Babs sniffed melodramatically. "The old baseball diamond will be out there alone in the wind and rain. Asking when its prince shall return. Quoth the bunny, "nevermore"."

"Aah, we'll get a game or two between revising. I hear Perfecto Prep don't work this hard at final exams," Plucky watched as Buster solemnly closed the locker door as if entombing a part of his old life. "All work and no play, makes Plucky a dull drake."

"So that's what did it …?" Buster asked nonchalantly. "Hard work? Never would have guessed."

"We'll get a game if we have to cut some study time. There's ways to get around it," Plucky gave a conspiratorial wink.

"We're not at Perfecto, Plucky. There, they say "if you're cheating and get away with it - it's not cheating""," Buster reminded the duck. "Most of them will be hard wired for data when they take their tests. Or bribing the staff. Or having mind-readers prompting them from a mile away. We don't have that sort of special-effects budget."

Plucky snorted. "Some of us have it built in." He felt his feathers beginning to bristle as if with static, and turned round with his eyes wide. "Uh-oh. Hi, Shirley." Suddenly his eyes lit up. "We were thinking - when it's exam time - you could channel the spirit of some super-genius into my head!"

"As if there was room in there," Babs winked. She caught the loon's expression, and stepped well clear. "Oooh, I think Shirley wants to ... talk to you." She smiled. The new Shirley had definitely seized the initiative, and was holding on to the (admittedly minor) prize of Plucky Duck with effectively both the carrot and the stick. Not that she needs to use a stick on him, with her psychic blasts, Babs thought gleefully and for herself - she's got something maybe two percent better than a carrot now...

Shirley was not in Babs' league in Spin Change technique; she generally managed a similar effect with her aura doubling as a light show and slide projector. It manifested visibly in the form of a cute devil-duck somehow overlaying her features. "Like, I hope you've not been skipping your organic vitamins and minerals, Plucky," she intoned in an almost purring voice. "My horoscope says the stars are right at last to open my ninth Charka. And that's going to need orgone energy - a LOT of orgone energy. When that's done - I'll be in tune with the next astral level." She ran a finger along the underside of Plucky's beak. "There's some of Mother's advanced oriental books I've been looking through. Some of the rituals … they take two. I was a High Priestess of Ishtar in one of my past lives, you know?"

In the green mallard's whirling brain a diagram appeared of an Acme 1-Megatoon "Handy-dandy Landscape Re-arranger" as the catalogue coyly termed it, with nine Plutoonium segments poised around the core ready to slam together. In his mind the ninth segment slammed into place completing the critical mass. Somehow the expendable tamping device seemed to be made of green duck.

Shirley moved smoothly to his side, playfully enfolding the green drake in her wing like the trademark cloak swirling around a vampire's victim. "Duck season," she whispered seductively. Her Aura stepped in from the other side, cutting off his escape route.

"Mama." The duck's voice came as a squeak; pinball-type "Tilt" signs appeared in his eyes and he keeled over in a dead faint, his whole body locked rigid.

Shirley took advantage of a passing chain hoist and winched him off. She sat cross-legged, concentrated on her mantra "Ohm what a loon I ammmm" and smoothly levitated off the floor. "So long, Babs!" She paused. "It's double dating these days. Me and him, his aura and mine."

"Plucky has an aura? Who knew?" Long pink ears went up in surprise.

Shirley sniffed. "Everything alive has an aura, Babs. Pondweed has an aura. If his was half the size of his ego you could see it from the moon." She looked down with a surprisingly affectionate gaze at the drake. "He's kinda buried upside down in his own ego - the higher Charkas are buried deep. The only one in reach so far is his basal Charka - earthly desires." She shrugged. "Hey! The rest are down there somewhere. If I keep digging I'll find them for us." She paused. "Hopefully it'll be in, like, this incarnation."

"Those attaining cosmic Oneness, may proceed to Two-ness." Babs spin-changed into a mystic outfit complete with bed of (rubber) nails.

"That kinda thing. Got to go, my star chart says Venus and Jupiter have a hot conjunction tonight and we can't be late!" With a rattle of chain hoists, Plucky and Shirley departed towards the wetlands of Acme Acres, Shirley floating rather higher than she had the week before. If the previous nights had been anything to go by, some more of that swamp was about to evaporate in a psychic aura-lashed column of steam. She paused by the door. "Don't worry, Babs - if it's Duck Season today - one day it'll be rabbit season." Her aura waved, conjuring up a swirling Mandala pattern.

"Well, what do you know?" Babs spin-changed back and winked at Buster. "It takes two to Tantric."

The food court at Acme Mall was a cut above weenie-burger, in that on occasion its food contained real ingredients. The Amazing Three often met up there to discuss private matters. Buster was discreet enough but anything Plucky overheard might as well be relayed over the mall's speakers. And K-ACME radio.

Mary Melody joined the bunny, skunkette and loon with her meal - it was embarrassing for someone who hated type-casting, that she actually loved corn bread, ham hock and grits. She had left her skates off and was wearing a white blouse and cargo pants - unlike toons who saw more of the spotlights she had no trademarked "look" and hardly had two outfits the same in her wardrobe. "And now it's the last week of semester," She sat and scanned her timetable. "Last time we'll be having a real holiday. We'd better make the most of it." She kissed Jaggi shyly. "I plan to. I've got a new beach outfit and some ideas." Of all the toons, the human had changed most since their early days at the Looniversity - her figure had filled out considerably though she was well toned and very athletic.

"Le sigh," Fifi cast a wistful expression at the couple. "I also 'ave ze plans, with 'Amton. 'E will 'ave a certain question to ask me, I think." She wriggled joyously, her eyes changing into heart symbols.

Babs grinned. "Go for it, Feef! A romantic Spring Break is the perfect time to propose. And Buster and I …" she sighed, her white cotton tuft of tail twitching "I am expecting a certain proposition too. Or even two." Her eyes crossed. "I don't know when or where it'll happen - it'll be something improvised and glorious with perfect timing! After that - carrots will forever be just something to eat. "

"True Babs Bunny style. Some of us have to plan ahead." Mary squeezed Jaggi's hand. A sensible girl with determined ideas and a sensible family, she had talked everything through with her parents beforehand. Her first nights with Jaggi had been spent in her own bedroom; her mother had wanted to be sure all went well for her only

daughter and for the first weeks had insisted they only met intimately at home.

Shirley nodded. "Good luck, Babsie. I'm sure Buster's just waiting for the right moment. Like, how could he not?"

"Oh yes." Babs's tail wriggled. "Sure, I've loved him playing hard-to get. He's so cute when he's flustered. But that was the big gag all through Reel One, girls. It's now Reel two - when we get real." Her ears dipped slightly. Getting serious and staying funny at the same time was rather like juggling while playing the piano - deep down she knew neither performance was likely to be improved by the other. But the impossible was fairly routine for a final-year Acme Looniversity student, let alone for the Queen of Comedy herself.

Fifi's eyes were distant. "Bonne chance. 'Amton, 'e ees the type to wait for ze wedding, aftair we graduate. Eh, and eet will be so." Her tail flicked seductively. "I weel be saving up ... all ze energy. All for mon petit kosher cochon!" She pulled from the depths of her tail-fur a small silver ring, and showed it for the girls' eyes only. "'Eet was my mothair's. On some romantic cliff-top or beach sunset - this I will offer to 'Amton."

"And all the rest, I'll bet," Babs snickered.

Fifi smiled, swishing her luxuriant tail. "I 'ave been laying in ze tomato juice. Feh! I cannot stand zat. For 'Amton I will be scenting like ze rose garden."

"He's sure to say yes. You can start planning the wedding, Fifi. The week after we graduate would be good." Mary clapped her hands in glee. "A July wedding! Everybody'll be there! Even if we will all be heading out job hunting soon after." Only Elmyra and Little Sneezer of their class were staying on till next year. Ironically, Elmyra had already received several job offers from the crueller and more ruthless groups of international bounty-hunters. The toon human girl had a pet cemetery in her back yard that rivalled many military ones in size, and her gleeful death-cuddle had only got more powerful with years of practice.

Fifi gave an animal purr. "Ah, oui! 'Zat long, I can wait. But no longair. I am consumed with ze passion!" She jumped into a Type 9 "Freleng Frizzle" Wild Take, flames erupting and consuming her before she reconstituted, smiling wistfully.

"Seems like there's going to be a lot of energy heading for the coast this holiday," Mary nodded. "I wouldn't be amazed if a few things got broken on the way."

"Mary! You're getting nearly as bad, I mean as good as me!" Babs' ears were right up. "Heh."

Mary blinked, mentally repeating her line to herself. She suddenly blushed, the effect manifesting inches outside her body. "I was thinking," she said severely "of things like hotels and beaches."

"Sorree..."

A Friday came that all of Babs' and Busters' class had known would one day arrive - though it had always seemed comfortably far over the horizon. It was five to three and the class had handed in their Props 701 assignment - the last regular one of the last regular term. The Looniversity's somewhat battered collection of Acme gag products had been used in many cruel and unusual ways, and were back in the store room.

"Eeeh, listen up, class," Professor Bugs cast a glance at the cuckoo clock on the wall. "Next term you've only the exams and getting ready for 'em - no new classes. So if ya spent ya last years playin' hooky then that's too bad, it's too late now. We ain't going to teach you no more, see - after the break you gets to show us what you've learned." He pulled out an imported Paraguayan gourmet carrot and munched it idly. "For some of youse, that shouldn't take up much of our time."

A visible cloud of gloom enveloped some of the class, notably Plucky and Fowlmouth.

"Birdbrains," Sweetie Pie snickered, though her ventriloquism made it appear to come from the light-bulb.

Professor Bugs ignored it, adding to the two fowls' foul moods. "So you'se gots the week of break before that. It's the last break you gets with Acme Loo to come home to after - so make the most of it - class dismissed!" He grinned.

Gogo Dodo manifested as a cuckoo clock on the wall above him. "Cuckoo! Cuckoo! If you don't have fun this trip you must be Cuckoo!"

Visible smouldering lines filled the air as Fifi cast a scorching look at Hamton, and Babs at Buster. Plucky nervously reached in his desk for a bottle of extra-strength Vitamin pills as Shirley's aura floated towards him with a hungry look. The powder-blue aura stroked him, then reached into his body and grabbed something within - the corner emerged of something like a green translucent duck shadow.

"Like cool it, girl," Shirley scolded her aura gently. "Not in class. You'll get plenty of that later." With a disappointed air, the glowing figure released Plucky's own aura that snapped back into his feathered body like a released elastic band. Plucky twitched painfully as if he had grabbed a live wire.

"It's the break, all right," the green drake whispered to Hamton, as he tried to hide in his desk a NASA application form to be the first Toon duck to head out solo to Alpha Centauri suspended in freeze-frame. "Only thing is - what gets broken first?"

Coming next: Chapter Two - "The Break is on, the Brakes are off"