Chapter 4 - The Perfect(o) Storm All characters © Warner Brothers except Jaggi De Speckle and Col. Fenix

Hans von Haflinger relaxed at the side of his private pool in Perfecto Prep University. The tall grey equine had stayed in Acme Acres over the Spring Break, working on an elaborate insider trading scheme that should make him more money than Roderick Rat was spending on his whole Galapagos safari.

Hans yawned. He had a finger, or more accurately a hoof, in every pie in Perfecto. He was on all the profitable sporting teams, and organised recruiting and training the "Sports scholars" - generally hulking wolves and bears who were brought in to add brutal weight to the Perfecto teams. The turnover rate was quite large; one after another they were always found to be "in breach of contract" and replaced by someone as brawny and hungrier to do the job without question. Intelligence was not a desired qualification; the last thing Perfecto needed was someone that size realising how expendable they really were.

Suddenly a light began to flash on his screen. "Danforth!" He made the link as he recognised the sender. "What do you want? And what will you pay for it?"

Within twenty minutes Danforth's plans began to take form like patches of treacherous black ice silently freezing on a pavement on a frosty night. Hans and the three available "Sports scholars" were on an air-conditioned coach heading towards Acme Acres' small airport, where a chartered aircraft was available to take them to the coast. With modern technology, the "Perfecto Storm" went global inside a minute as it briefly colonised Toon Tech computers in Outer Baltistan, sneaked back across to California and started waving alarm flags in Government computers there.

Perfecto character assassination programs did not charge ahead with the wasteful energy of a quarterback. They were more like a skilled sumo wrestler – the world was full of powerful, blundering forces already available to use without squandering your own resources. A sidestep, a misdirection and a small but well-planned trip were all that it took to bring them crashing down – and woe betide anything trapped underneath.

The day's woodland picnic had been voted a success by most of the Acme toons, and indeed the sight of sand whipping along the beaches as they returned that way confirmed it.

"There goes Sandy Castle and the Abominable Emery Board," Babs quipped quietly as a pair of the other hotel guests staggered into the reception, their wet fur plastered with windblown beach sand. "But hey! Today every beach snack contains twice the minerals of yesterday, free!"

Fifi giggled. Then her expression changed, and she tapped Babs with her tail as soon as they were alone in the corridor. "Babs. May I … borrow Bustair again tonight?"

Babs' ears drooped. "Be my guest," her voice was flat. "A romantic walk in the woods and the most special meal I could make weren't enough to - rouse his interest. At least, not his interest in me. If he's really got one. You might be luckier." She gave a small smile. "I hope you have fun. Somebody should."

Fifi hugged the pink bunny. "Babs! Thank you! Be sure I will…"

"Return the goods undamaged, like before? That's good of you." Babs looked into her eyes. "Fifi. I don't know if I should keep worrying about that. I'm starting to think Buster only ever wants me as a - comic partner." Her ears twitched. "I know I always said I'd only ever date my own species but … I wonder if Vinnie the deer is doing anything this week?"

"Babs! 'Old on to Bustair! 'E is ze one for you." Fifi's eyes were wide in alarm.

Babs squeezed the skunkette back. "Try telling him that. You're the one he's going to be holding onto."

Buster was relaxing on his bed when there came a knock on the door. To be honest there was nowhere else in the room to relax - there was hardly enough room on the floor to unroll a sleeping bag, and not for the first time he contemplated the difference between a one-star and a zero-star hotel. "Come in! It's not locked!"

His ears went up at the sight of Fifi standing in the doorway. In one paw she held a covered dish.

"'Allo, Bustair," her voice was low. "I'ave, come to repay ze complement. I 'ave brought ze carrot-cheesecake tonight."

Buster's ears went up. "The way to a buck's heart … is through his stomach." His head cocked to one side. "You're not with Rhubella tonight?"

Fifi giggled. "Ah. Ruby she is, 'ow you say, worn to ze frazzle aftair ze walk and - everything today. I left 'er sleeping with ze smile. She was, affected by ze meal." She locked eyes on Buster as she closed and locked the door. "Ze special meal Babs invented just for you? Ze special oyster mushrooms with ze ginger and ginseng?" She knocked lightly on Buster's blue head. "'Allo? Anyone at 'ome in zhere?"

"Oyster mushrooms. So that was Babs' big idea. Ow." Buster sat down heavily. "Now I get it."

Fifi shook her head sadly. "Bustair, Concord Condor 'e would 'ave found ze answer by now. Did ze fresh passion-fruit for dessert not give vous le clue?" She sat down on the bed and served up the carrot cheesecake. The buck and the skunkette sat and shared their supper in the narrow room.

"What a Spring Break." Buster said wryly. "This really isn't going to plan."

"Were you going to, play ze Romeo on ze balcony tonight, eef I 'ad not called?" Fifi looked Buster up and down. "Babs, she ees expecting you every night. Ze door is open."

The buck avoided her eyes. "I know. It creaks in the wind. I've thought about it every night."

Fifi kissed him, putting the empty plates out of the way under the bed. Her bare purple-furred paw stroked Buster's gloved one and sensuously peeled off the toon glove, as she purred at the sight of his blue-furred hand. She pressed Buster's bare hand to her hair ribbon, and gave a shiver of delight as he untied it. Fifi shook her head-fur free and pressed close to the buck, suddenly with a look of concern on her face. "You should do eet, not just theenk eet. Eet is Babs you should be with," she said. "Bustair! You will be breaking 'er 'eart. I know 'ow zat feels. Do not do eet to 'er. Please?" She relaxed on the narrow bed, patting the space next to her. "Aftair this break is ovair - eef you do not stop running from Babs, I theenk she will stop chasing."

Buster winced, lying close to the purple and white skunkette, his own white frontal fur touching hers. "I know. I've only got one last chance at this with Babs; I've been thinking about it for years, just how to make it perfect."

Fifi raised an ear. "Eet is a long way from 'zat right now. Babs she is alone, waiting for you. Go to 'er! Do not mind me - I 'ave Rhubella." She cocked her head on one side. "Nevair did I think of such an affair – always les "skunk-hunks" for moi, 'Amton aside. But Ruby and moi, we were two lonely toons. Babs she is anothair."

Buster looked her in the eyes, his blue ears down. "I'll tell you why I haven't. There's something I need to get for Babs to make it perfect – and she deserves perfect. I planned and saved all year for this. I hoped it'd be ready before now." He whispered quietly in her ear for half a minute. "Now do you see?"

Fifi smiled as she digested the information along with the cheesecake. "Oh? Well, 'zat is something. I am glad to 'ear it. Babs she was asking if I know Vinnie Deer well. 'E is an 'andsome toon, certainment. Babs she says she nevair dates outside 'er species, but Deer hunks and rabbits, 'zey are both Bucks, and ze girls are Does. Maybe she ees thinking of what to do next if you let 'er down."

"I'd deserve it," Buster admitted.

Fifi relaxed. "Bustair, 'zat is a load off my mind." Her eyes widened, and she giggled. "Eet makes some things bettair - knowing you are ze, 'scarce resources' - I will be 'appy to see you with Babs. But till then - for 'zis last night, I still 'ave Babs' permission." She purred happily, taking Buster's un-gloved blue paws in her purple ones as she looked into the buck's eyes. "And now, Bustair?"

"What Fifi wants, Fifi gets." Buster agreed.

The fourth day dawned bright and cheerful, with clear skies and a lack of whirlwinds whipping along the beach making Mitzi jealously watch Dizzy Devil's reaction. Babs woke up in a bad mood, the wind having carried the unmistakable odour of skunkette musk out of Fifi's open window and along to Babs' open balcony door.

She looked at herself in the mirror as she put in her contact lenses, checking her natural brown eyes had not turned green with jealousy yet. "I ought to play Fifi at poker this week. Unlucky in love, lucky at cards they say. With my luck with Buster I could break every bank in Vegas!" She held up her long pink ears, but the tips drooped sadly as soon as she let them go. This whole thing was my idea, putting Buster and Fifi together. At least someone's having fun this trip, she told herself. Whatever next? The way things are going on this trip I'll end up dating Shirley! She managed to giggle at that idea. That was one way for Plucky to escape that even the desperate mallard had probably not thought of. Shirley's a good friend... but... nahh… Her tail twitched. Stranger things had happened as Fifi and Rhubella proved – and it would just serve Buster right.

Tying her ear ribbons, she bounced down the stairs trying to recapture her usual good humour. That lasted till she reached the breakfast table and saw Fifi kissing Buster a good morning farewell.

"So!" Babs forced a cheery grin, which convinced nobody. "What are we all doing today?"

"We're hiring another sailing boat, this afternoon," Mary Melody promptly replied. "It should be good! The weather forecast's perfect."

"Aaah, there's the new Da-gum film premier showing down the coast," Fowlmouth waved a promotional leaflet. "Titanic Three – Revenge of the Iceberg." He slipped into Announcer voice mode. "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the Da-gum Arctic Water…"

"Titanic Three!" Plucky's eyes went heart-shaped. "Shirley! It's the 'Don't Miss' film of the year! We Have to go!"

Shirley sniffed. "Get crucial, Plucky. You can see that any night at the Acme Acres Gigaplex next week. We are on a romantic Spring Break … aren't we?" Her eyes flashed dangerously.

Plucky's head bowed. "Yes, Shirl." His tail-feathers drooped.

Mary Melody and Mitzi looked on, the humans' expressions hard to read without whiskers or flexible ears.

"Shirley – can't you cut him some slack?" Mitzi offered. She had changed out of her beach mini-skirt costume and wore a long, comfortable-looking robe.

The loon raised her beak contemptuously. "If Plucky gets any slacker, his tail feathers would like fall out."

Mary started to say something, then shook her head. She whispered something to Jaggi that Babs' long ears heard as "What's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose." – though to Babs' puzzlement the only waterfowl around were Plucky and Shirley.

Breakfast was an uncomfortable time; Babs and Shirley positively radiated bad feeling. The Acme toons ate rapidly and scattered out to the beach before either loon or bunny rearranged the landscape. Had the weather matched the mood on the beach, the studios could have filmed the Titanic sequel there and not paid a penny for special effects.

A few hours of sun and sandcastles put most toons in a better humour. "Lunchtime!" Sweetie yelled, trotting over from one of the fast food stalls carrying a family-sized box of fried chicken. The box was about the size of the pink canary, and the weight of cooked poultry matched her own.

Shirley's tail feathers splayed out in disgust. "You're going to eat that? You're a canary not a vulture. Mondo gross!"

"A gross? Naw – not that many - I only got only a dozen pieces. Want one?" Sweetie bit into a drumstick with evident enjoyment, and offered the loon another deep-fried avian leg. "Relax – it's nobody we know." Her eyes narrowed. "Pity. There's that booby at Perfecto … I'd pay cordon bleu prices for him, fricasseed." She contemplated, a smile on her beak. "They do chicken-fried steak - why not steak-fried chicken? Or tuna-fried booby?"

Shirley turned a delicate shade of green, and her aura made retching motions. "Uncool, Sweetie. That is like, just so grody!"

"Disney ducks sit down to eat roast turkey at Thanksgiving – and they even put it out on film." The pink canary snickered. "Just think. They're meant to be the cute ones around here." She proffered the box of Unlucky Fried Chicken to her friends.

Calamity happily accepted a crisp, deep-fried chicken leg and bit into the tender meat. Booby would presumably be like albatross; sea-bird flavoured his sign read. Classical comedic cuisine. These days, you get wafers with it.

Fifi and Rhubella accepted a drumstick apiece and the two omnivores sat back and fed each other, Rhubella offering the meat to Fifi and visa versa. Sweetie stuck her tongue out, ducking the stream of toon red hearts that floated away from the couple. "Sappy," she grumbled, but kept one beady avian eye on them.

Up at the hotel looking over the beach, Hans von Haflinger signed over his charges to Danforth. "There you go, Danny-boy," the equine grinned "they're all yours to look after, your expense, your responsibility. But they're still contracted to Perfecto - we need them fit and well for the team next week. Get them lost or damaged and you break it, you bought it! And I don't do discounts. Sign here." He proffered a contract.

Danforth spent five minutes reading the single page then ten more thinking over the legalese. At last he nodded curtly and signed it. "You'll stay around and watch the fun? I've got those Toons so stitched up it's just not funny – and they don't even know it yet." He handed over the payment, strictly cash on the nail as always.

"Not me, Danny-boy. Every time you go against Acme they've made duck hash out of you. You're on your own!" Hans' tail flicked up in contempt; Perfecto Prep taught the value of saving one's own skin, preferably by sacrificing some other Toon for it. "Now - I'll see you in class or at Kappa Omega frat no doubt." With that he was off, heading straight back to the airport. Perfecto's Principal Miss Hazel also taught her customers not to stand around in harm's way gloating at a plot. Perfecto graduates with their own Secret Lair made certain the captured Secret Agent was really shot on the spot or eaten by the sharks, not just left tied in the pit with the waters rising and only their completely harmless wristwatch or belt buckle available to use.

Danforth rubbed his feather-fingers together gleefully as he checked on the hacked link to a beach camera that the Acme party were still sunning themselves. "Right, toons. You're here as backup. I've turned a world of hurt loose on the Acme crowd – but there's no guarantee all of it will stick." He pulled out a bag with an array of cameras in it, and distributed them. "I want pictures of what happens to them, for the Perfecto Paragon news-sheet. Roderick will be gnawing his tail off with envy when he comes back and sees it! So – we're going to be watching the show and if there's anyone left standing at the end of it –" his webbed foot made as if to grind something into the dust "you make sure – they don't stay that way." He grinned, waving his camera. "And when you're busy getting mallet-happy - that's my turn to get snap-happy."

Down on the marina, Rhubella and Fifi were strolling paw in paw when Fifi felt the rat's body tense up. "Ruby?" Her ear cocked up. "What ees wrong?"

"Don't look now," Rhubella gritted, her bare tail twitching "We have company behind. Clue – who goes around in packs wearing bright yellow chemical suits in this climate?"

"Can eet be - DEVO?" Fifi clapped her paws together in delight. She span around, and her face fell. "Helas! Eet is ze County Hazard people again, to make ze difficulties for moi. If zey chase us in zis sunshine zey will cook in les couture chemical – I know, I wore one for my 'Amton. We can out-run zem!"

"Hate to mention it but – look ahead." Rhubella pointed to a distant line of yellow figures, holding a line a quarter of a mile ahead. "It's hundred foot cliffs here – no way to get off the beach strip. We're trapped."

"Not zo fast! We 'ave the ocean 'ere. And we 'ave friends zhere." Fifi pointed out to one of the dinghies a little way offshore. "Zat is ze boat Mary and Jaggy rented today – I would know zat black and white sail anywhere."

Rhubella's paw dived into her pocket and pulled out her phone. "You know their number? We could use a lift!"

Fifi dialled Mary Melody's number as she and Rhubella rapidly walked out to the marina; running would be far too conspicuous. "Allo? Mary - we 'ave ze problems. Can you be ze lifeboat for us? Thank you! We will be at the outer dock in two minutes." She heaved a sigh of relief and passed the phone back to Rhubella. "Eet will break ze trail, crossing ze water. And 'zose skunk-prejudiced toons zey can try tracking us to Tijuana."

By the time the sailing boat had tacked into shore, Fifi and Rhubella were waiting for it at the outermost dock. Turning round, Rhubella winced. "Just in time. There's a tide of yellow coming through the marina gates -they're hot on our trail."

"My trail, cherie," Fifi's tail drooped sadly. "I am ze one zey want."

"Our trail." Rhubella hugged her fiercely. She looked around, there were several parties of official-looking toons in suits waiting on the jetty, but they paid no heed to the rat and skunkette. "And thinking about our trail - the wind's shifted. They're tracking us by air-scent now, not having to pick it off the ground." Only two hundred yards away thirty yellow-suited figures were advancing confidently along the dockside.

"Mary! Jaggy!" Fifi waved happily as the boat pulled up, Mary throwing a line to the shore where Fifi secured it to a bollard. "Eet is tres bon to see you! We 'ave ze problem again with ze authorities."

"Them again? Well, they don't have jurisdiction at sea," Mary stepped ashore, Jaggi following. "Jump in - it's a squeeze but we'll all fit in. We can take you a mile or two down the coast, that should throw them off."

Just then the six human toons in grey suits stepped forwards. "Mary Melody? Jaggi Di Speckle? We're from the local Authorities. We've had reports about you two lovebirds. Could you step this way please?"

"Reports? What about? I have my sailing license, so does Jaggi," Mary asked, puzzled.

The leader pulled out a sheaf of printouts. "We're from Juvenile hall. "

Mary blinked. "You're a few years too late. Look, here's my ID with my date of birth and everything - and Jaggi's a year older."

"And that's another report we have. Fake IDs! Grab them, boys!"

Jaggi held his hooves up protestingly. "No need to get rough. I'm sure we can sort all this out at the office." Mary nodded, stepping to his side.

Just at that moment the first yellow-suited pollution hunter stepped onto the dock - and spotted Fifi. He pointed, and waved the rest of the squad forwards.

"Cast off! We'll look after the boat, Mary!" Rhubella scrambled into the fifteen-foot dinghy, Fifi vaulting in after her. "There's nothing else we can do!"

"But …" Fifi looked on in anguish. "We nevair desert a friend! Nevair!"

"You can't fight City Hall without a lawyer. Scent blasting them won't help anyone. And the goons in yellow are armoured against that anyway," Rhubella shoved the boat clear of the dock just in time. "We're not deserting them - we're making a tactical withdrawal. We know where they're being taken - but if we don't get clear ourselves - we can't help them. Can we?"

Fifi gritted her teeth. She sighed. "Ruby - I 'ate to say it - you are right. One good thing - you say you 'ave sailed before? You can sail zees ship?"

Rhubella blushed. "I've sailed across the Caribbean, yes. But - it was a proper yacht with a crew doing the work." She looked up at the flapping sail. "I used to watch them sometimes though. I mean, how hard can it be?"

A skunkette shook her head. "Eet ees as 'Amton and Sweetie told me. Le "Kon-Ducky" boat trip all ovair again. We weel probably end up in Hawaii or ze Aleutians…"

Babs had spotted a clothes boutique at the end of the resort the previous day, that she and Shirley had set their hearts on. After lunch, they had made a bee-line for it and made the local economy very happy. Marcia had tagged along, marvelling at the hideously alien habits of Earth toons.

"Aaah. What to wear, what to wear?" Babs looked at a display of elegant gowns. "One like this, will be my new look." She ran her fingers through her ears, stroking her ribbons. "These are cute - but I've been wearing them too long. After graduation - a clean break. How about you, Shirley?"

"Fer sure, Babs," The look looked down at her long, elegant legs. "But today - a new ribbon for me. A green one of vegetable dyed bamboo fabric, like mondo eco-friendly." They made their purchases and headed out. Half a dozen armed avians were awaiting them on the street.

"You're, ah, all under arrest." The tall buzzard grabbed Shirley, while two more seized Babs and Marcia. "You're charged with, um, charges, OK?"

"Hey, we paid for all this!" Babs waved a credit card receipt. She cocked her head to one side as she looked at the half dozen uniformed toons. "They're using the military as store detectives? Tough town."

Shirley's plumage bristled. She focused her will. "We are not the toons you're looking for."

"Ayup, you are. You're coming with us."

Shirley focussed her mind on the trooper's. Her eyes went wide. It was like trying to argue with Concord Condor - there was nothing in there to grasp. "You're official? I saw that military recruiting poster said, like, "Be all you can be," but I didn't know they let just Anybody in!"

The buzzard drew himself up. "The Colonel, he'll want to see you, ah, yup. He don't reckon we're so bad. He said, we've an IQ so high we can't even count that far."

There was a brief silence.

"It sounds like," Babs mused "Your colonel took a comedy class or two at Acme Loo."

"Ayup. He's eddi-cated," the buzzard nodded. "You toons are, um, busted."

"All this time trying to get Buster … and this is how it happens," Babs sighed. "Oh! I thought you said "Buster'd."

It seemed to be quite untrue that the Government always used unmarked black vans; the one Babs and Shirley were driven off in was bright orange and clearly marked "Careful! Mutant Balloon animals in Transit!" In California it attracted no attention whatsoever. In ten minutes they discovered just how secure the cells were as the door closed behind them.

"Well, I don't think anyone managed to follow us." Babs frowned as the guards left them. "That leaves us to get ourselves out of here. How about the door?" She spin-changed into Wonder Babs, and suddenly grinned. "How about a 'Super Babs Bunny kick' to take that apart?"

Shirley concentrated her talent at the door and suddenly flinched back as if she had touched a hot stove. "Babs! It's backed with tubes full of pressurised liquid … some kind of solvent mix. I can't read it but I'm getting like ultimate dark, heavy vibes off it. Don't try and break that door! It'll blow into the room!"

"Booby-trapped? With Dip?" A set of pink ears went rigid, then drooped. "Now, isn't that – inconvenient. At least the boys weren't caught. Buster's hard to stop and Plucky …" Babs' ears drooped briefly, but then perked up. "Well, he'll do something. Or make a good diversion trying to. If he wears that Ninja outfit he's the most conspicuous target in town."

Shirley sighed, looking at the cell. Even the areas not charged with Dip were lined with earthed metal mesh, thick lead plate and rune engraved rowan-and-elder wood laminate making it impervious to high-energy and high-magick attacks both. In California there were evidently enough high powered New Age styled criminals to make it worthwhile building special cells for; Shirley's powers could hardly dent the walls. "You think he's, like, going to get us out?"

"Sure! Plucky's probably phoning Hamton right now to sell all his DVDs and games consoles and try and raise cash for our bail…" Babs slowly ground to a halt as her optimism tank ran dry. "Or not, knowing Plucky. Oh well. Why don't I just say, "This is another fine mess we've got us into."

Shirley's levitation seemed to run out of energy to match her bunny friend; she sank down to the steel bench like a hovercraft with the engines running down. "It's not you. This is all the fault of me and my bum Karma, Babs. I shouldn't have done it."

"Done what?" Babs' ears crossed quizzically.

"Mother told me, never to look at my own future. Trying to change what you see there always comes out wrong. Sixteen real futures I looked at, last month. Fourteen of them had two happy ducks in them, Plucky and Maria. She's his species exacto-mundo, Babs - and she's more like what he really wants in a girl. Believe me, I know what's in his head." The loon shivered slightly; despite being immaterial her aura always felt like it needed a wash in the mornings now. "If she'd been around at Acme Loo from the start …"

"You could have been stuck with Fowlmouth all this time. Look on the bright side," Babs suggested.

Shirley shook her head. "Plucky always asked why I couldn't predict for him next week's horse race winners or lottery numbers. It doesn't work like that. I could show him a number but is it from, the timeline we're in? I shouldn't have tried to change what I saw. The sixteenth future was almost over and gone, I'd been like chasing it off every time I zapped Plucky's tail when he got fresher than I wanted."

"Um. But you've been on-and-off with him for ages. That ought to count for something," Babs' nose twitched.

"Maybe it did a year ago. It'd still have been harmonious, I could have changed my mind back then – but I'd already gone so far away from it I had to force everything back on track. Like building a levee where the river wanted to flow. My aura lost a few shades of pure that day." Shirley sighed.

"Well, it worked. He's yours now, whether he likes it or not," Babs shrugged. She looked at Shirley closely. "Shirley? You're having second thoughts about it? Hey, that's allowed! It's not like you married him already." For so many years it had been Plucky who had been the pushy one while Shirley more or less tolerated him and slapped him down when he went an atom's distance past the line she set. It had been funny at first to see them swap places, Babs admitted, but control of a cowed and terrified drake was no foundation to build a life together. A tamed and broken Plucky was not what she guessed Shirley wanted.

Shirley shook her head. "Babs. You know Plucky. I know Plucky. He's greedy, selfish, egotistical and cowardly. He's got the spiritual sensitivity of industrial waste. Do I really want to sit on eggs someday from a drake like that? Hoping they don't turn out like him? That's no way to be." Her slender frame drooped. "And – I want him to be happy too. I saw that for him and Maria together, in all those futures. Those futures were real and I stopped it happening. I wanted what they had and, like, took it all away from them. Bad, bad karma."

"Gee, I suppose you did." Babs' ears went down remembering the previous evening's meeting with Plucky in the hotel corridor. "Umm - Plucky, he did say he's feeling a bit, overwhelmed by it all. Oh well, better than under-whelmed. I suppose."

"Mother says, if you love them then, like, let them go. If it's real they'll be back. If not - you were like fooling yourself major style anyway." Shirley sat up straight, bracing her shoulders. "When we get out of this -" she took a deep breath "I'll let Plucky go. If he wants to go."

Babs' ears went down. "He's a fool if he does." Pink ears dipped further as she measured Plucky up for the fool's outfit and knew how well it fitted. "He'll never find another girl like you."

Shirley sparked a burst of psychic energy between her finger-feathers as she had often toasted green tail-feathers with. "That's exactly what I think he's hoping."

Although the male toons had been very happy to escape yet another wander round clothing shops, they had stayed close enough to see what had happened to Babs, Shirley and Marcia - though too far away to get to them in time.

"Those weren't the cops," Plucky hissed, straining to hold Buster back. "That badge is listed in my big Who's Who of Conspiracy Theories. They're Unit 4 Plus Two, an Abnormal Forces unit. Specialists in Utterly Unclassifiable Threats. So top-secret they only have one chapter in the books."

Abnormal forces. Don't you mean 'Special Forces?' Calamity asked, a grey ear raised quizzically.

"I know what I mean. Channel Nine tried to do an expose on them last year. They found … absolutely nothing! What does that tell you about the kinds of power and support they must have for that kind of cover-up?" The drake's feathers were shivering. "The book said - "Don't ask them where they go. Don't ask them what they do. Don't ask them how they do it. They just might take you along and show you.""

"Maybe that's who they were. But I recognised those three big bruisers across the street who were watching with cameras. They weren't Press either - they're from Perfecto. Remember that last ice-hockey game?" Buster's ears went up. "Wayne and Clint - the other one I don't know his name – he's the one who hit you into the back of the net, slice and dice."

"Oh yeah. Now I know how a hockey puck feels." Plucky winced. "What's the Perfecto heavy mob doing here?"

"How does "revenge" sound?" Buster raised an ear quizzically. "I bet it sounds good to them. Think, Danforth. He was there too. Think, Perfecto never lose - they say."

They're not tourists. Why would they turn up with cameras unless they knew there was something about to happen? Calamity queried. They must have had something to do with it.

Buster grinned. "So, Danforth thinks it's round two, and he's in the lead. I say it's round three. We can't take on City Hall. Unit 4 Plus 2 are out of our league. But Danforth we can handle. There's only one six-star hotel we've seen around here - I bet that's where we'll find him!"

It took ten minutes to get back up the hill to where Rhubella had been staying. Fortunately, although Rhubella had handed in her own pass key when she left, she had "forgotten" about the one Fifi had got from Danforth.

"That looks like the place." Buster spotted an unmarked door in a corner of the building furthest from the main foyer. "Fifi said there was a private entrance. Guess the folk here pay for privacy."

What about security cameras? Calamity queried. Then the coyote blushed slightly as he thought it through. Oh. Of course. They want privacy so no security cameras here. Which works for us.

"Right!" Buster tried the pass key, and grinned when the door opened silently. "And now – let's see just what incriminating evidence Danforth left lying around. They always do."

Five minutes later they knew they were in the right room, spotting a "DD" monogrammed silk dressing gown hanging up in the wardrobe. Calamity Coyote versus any electronic lock was a very unequal contest; the young tech genius's ears went right up as he pointed at a laptop left on the bedside table. A few more minutes saw to the password and Perfecto's finest encryption system.

"Look! Danforth's still got the plan open," Buster pointed at the screen and scanned what was on it. "So that's how he did it all."

Calamity's eyebrows rose, impressed as he examined the programs. Letting the Authorities do their dirty work. And sending in the "hockey team" to mop up anyone who got away? The coyote frowned. Still, they're still out there and outweigh us 10 to one!

Buster brightened up. "So who's going to challenge them to free-style wrestle anyway? My mentor Bugs always told me, "ya uses what ya gots". We've got our speed and our smarts. Plus everything they've been teaching us at Acme Loo, all this time. We'll use all of that." He suddenly grinned. "And now it's our turn to play - Buster Bunny style." He turned to Calamity. "Do you still have your unlimited ACME charge account?"

The coyote nodded vigorously, a credit card appearing in his paw from somewhere not easily defined. His sign read Paid up till end of term!

"Meep Meep!" Little Beeper commented.

"Right." Buster beckoned Little Beeper over. "So, here's what we're going to do …"

Down on the main strip, the Perfecto team were on the road between the Acme toons and their hotel. Sooner or later they would have to come back that way and Danforth would be waiting.

"It's just those three left now," Danforth rubbed his wing-fingers together gleefully. "That duck split from them - he's no sort of threat. I'll handle him myself. Wayne! Clint! You know what to do. Stay in sight of the main three speed merchants. As soon as nobody's around - hammer time." He turned to Chuck. "Are you still keeping an eye on them?"

The hulking bear scratched his head in bafflement, putting down the binoculars. "Dey had a safe on a trolley at de end of de road, boss - I'se watching dem when dey started heading dis way. Dey turned sorta blue and off-focus - cain't see dem no more…" There had been the distant sound of a bunny spooling up to full power but that had faded, oddly enough as the Acme crowd began to accelerate.

Danforth opened his bill. Although Perfecto taught no Toon Physics courses, he had been on the receiving end of the Acme crowd before. And then there was no time left.

"Gangway!" On its inertia-proofed Acme "super trolley" the four-tonne Acme safe was foreshortened by a foot and its light so far blue-shifted as to be invisible head on with Buster, Calamity and Little Beeper behind it, pushing at full speed. "OK toons – let's put this on full boost!"

"Beep Beep!" Little Beeper commented wittily. Buster grinned.

"That's telling' em!" Buster put his shoulder to the safe.

They could call you "Booster Bunny", read Calamity's sign, barely visible in a welter of speed-lines as Buster ramped up to full after-bunner. The coyote's calculations were perfect as always - as the safe and the three hulking Perfecto toons suddenly came together as the world's highest energy bowling alley. Letting the safe run on, they screeched to an instant halt in a style that would have made Professor Wile-E proud of his Toon Physics class.

"Strike!" Buster watched as Clint, Wayne and Chuck departed on new orbits round the sun. He looked down - being smaller, rather than being knocked for an astronomical home run Danforth had been run down by the trolley and was currently doing an impression of roadkill duck that had Calamity drooling at the sight.

"Beep, beep!" The young road runner looked down, a grin on his beak as he prepared another witty salvo at the duck's expense.

"You said it! One flat-packed duck - some reassembly required." Buster spin-changed into a chef complete with industrial-scale spatula. He looked down at the squashed fowl, whose eyes were blinking up at the Acme toons. "And now - it's confession time. Or does Calamity get Chinese style pressed duck for dinner?"

A mile up the beach road, a brightly painted helicopter clearly labelled "Traffic watch" touched down, attracting no attention whatsoever. Its passenger was officially meant to ride in a totally black-painted model without insignia, but had found they were far more conspicuous. He stepped out, ducking under the rotors and spotted his troop awaiting him. Four of them were buzzards, and the fifth was a large but sleepy-looking hound.

"Colonel Fenix? We've got the suspects, ah, all secured," the nearest buzzard saluted. "They're in, ah, secure holding." The party walked towards the compound that was clearly labelled "Coastline party favours Incorporated" and just to save confusion had another sign saying "NOT a Government Front! Honest!"

A tall golden-feathered avian looked around at his staff with a tired smile as he walked in and shut the door behind them. He resembled an eagle slightly, though his tail-feathers were showier without quite having the extravagant spread of a peacock. In the dim light a golden haze somehow seemed to cling to him. He took off his cap and flicked it behind him: the hat travelled twenty feet and landed neatly on its proper peg. Being urgently recalled from long-overdue leave was something he could have done without, but his boss Major-General Snafu had been most insistent. As adult Toons aged no faster than the rocks, just by staying in the military long enough any Private Third-Class could rise to power in the Pentagon by sheer seniority.

"Let's look at this," Colonel Hal Fenix spread his tail-feathers comfortably around the chair. "Hmm. Emergency alert message in from USACEURMAID." The agency had no other name, and the only toons who had ever known what it stood for had retired long ago forgetting to pass the information on. "Aiding and abetting an Illegal Space Alien. Generic Conspiracy Felony. Aiding a known Threat to the Planet." He frowned. "That's a lot of major crime for toons who won't be legally buying a beer till next year. Does this look odd to you, Corporal Kaolin?"

"Uh, the Martian is listed as fifty-two Martian years, sir," Corporal Kaolin pointed to one of the attached files. "Boosts the average?"

"If this is genuine I should have felt it in the Farce," Fenix stared at the file. "I should have scented it. When I can't - either I'm losing my touch or something really stinks."

"Private Montmorill was there. They didn't resist, Sir," Kaolin puzzled "Funny. I didn't think they'd come quietly. We all were issued with earplugs just in case."

"Let's take a look at these dangerous criminals." Colonel Fenix said, standing up again. With a snap of his fingers the hat levitated away from the peg and returned to his head where it sat neatly. "This, I have to see."

"According to the books, I should be able to call my Ambassador." Marcia Martian sat slumped on the bench in the cell. "Unfortunately I AM the only Martian on Earth - so I am the ambassador too." She blinked. "Does your telephone work in here?"

"I tried it. The room's shielded and we can't get a signal out," Babs' ears went up a notch as a thought came to her "Shirley? Can't you send your aura out and see what's going on? It's being stuck in here not knowing that's driving me nuts."

"It's plain no-good-ville," Shirley stared at the walls of the holding room. "Whoever built this was mondo pro at channelling psychic forces into matter. I thought my aura wasn't affected by material things at all. But I can't even see through this."

In response, her powder-blue aura banged on the wall - only to wince and rub her knuckles. Just then, the aura's glowing eyes went wide in shocked surprise as if she had heard something - she rapidly retreated from the wall. Shirley blinked, communing for a second. "Whoa! Heads up Babsie! Something's heading our way. Something like major!"

A brightly glowing feathered hand materialised through the wall like a toon walking through a waterfall. It was followed by the rest of a tall toon avian - not an eagle, but something Babs had never seen before. She heard Shirley gasp in astonishment.

"What is it, Shirley?" Babs looked around the room. The glowing avian shape was as tall as Foghorn Leghorn and far more athletically built; it - no, definitely he, she corrected, - stood motionless for a minute just inside the room, looking around at its occupants with a keen interest. Shirley looked as distracted as if she was trying to juggle glass and hold a thrilling telephone conversation at the same time. The loon's aura had manifested a pair of designer sunglasses, and was looking up at the newcomer's own brilliantly glowing astral form with a coy expression.

"When I said, something like Major, Babs … I wasn't far out. He's a Colonel. He knocked at my shields politely - but he could have been through them like they were a wet paper bag if he meant to," Shirley sat back, looking dazed. She cast an annoyed glance at her aura, who was preening powder-blue etheric feathers and looking at the new arrival as Fifi usually did at the sight of a handsome skunk male. "Cool it, girl! I mean it! Serious!"

"What is he? I've never seen a toon like that before," Babs's ears were right up.

The door to the cell opened silently and the solid avian walked in to stand beside his astral form, the toon wearing most of a uniform. "Colonel Fenix by name and Phoenix by nature, Ma'm," he sketched a bow. "I'd like to know what you're doing here."

"You'd like to know? But your crowd arrested us!" Babs' ears went right down.

The phoenix gave an acknowledging nod. "Yes, Ma'm, that we did. And yes, we ought to know why. We received information on you that makes no sense at all. Despite the first reports, I've checked and Miss Martian is here quite legally and has even signed a pledge not to destroy Earth."

Shirley cast Babs an embarrassed look. "He is NOT what I expected. He could have read me like the menu at Weenie Burger whether I liked it or not. He asked kinda polite, and I showed him direct."

"Saves time. I can tell Miss Loon cannot lie, even if she wanted to. I can also see that she's innocent of the charges. Which means someone else is guilty of fooling us, and we don't like that a bit." Hal Fenix raised an eyebrow. "When we find out who - that's where my talents come in. Although I don't have to give anyone the third degree - unless it's a dull afternoon and I feel like it. - I can always get the truth out of a toon." He gave a most unmilitary wink. "Ladies - we could carry on this discussion somewhere a little more comfortable."

On the roof of the secret government compound, a figure dressed in a somewhat ill-fitting Ninja outfit picked his way across the tangle of aerials and ventilation outlets. Large webbed feet were not exactly perfect for stealthy climbing, and despite its owner hating the hard work of flying, he had made the effort to glide in from the top of a nearby building for an economy air-drop. He had responded to a sudden intuition as to where Shirley was - despite everything, the idea of her being in trouble bothered Plucky more than he liked to say. His ego still smarted as he recalled Buster and the rest had not argued or tried to dissuade him when he had dramatically announced he had to leave them on a secret mission of his own. Still, why share the glory?

"Hmm. The Big Secret book of Ninjitsu had a chapter on this," a recognisable voice muttered to itself. "Make the rope fast with that knot - or is it this one? Eeenie-meenie-miny-mo, catch a Samurai by his toe…" Plucky opened a rain cowl to reveal the traditional ventilator shaft, and made the rope fast to a radio aerial. He experimentally put his weight on the rope, as he prepared to lower himself down the shaft.

There was a sudden zipping sound of fast-moving rope as the knot came undone. A second later there was no longer any sign of a Ninja assault in progress. But from the steel shaft echoed a plaintive cry of "Plucky go down da hoooooole …."

By a staggering coincidence, Plucky fell through the ventilator grill in a classic "slice and dice" take - right into an office where Babs, Shirley and Marcia were sitting with large mugs of military-issue coffee, talking animatedly with Colonel Fenix.

"Well, isn't that convenient!" Babs' ears went right up, as she and Shirley rebuilt the blocks into an approximate duck shape. "How did you find us, Plucky?"

"How else? Brilliant detective work! Years of training as Bat-Duck pays off!" Plucky struck a pose.

Shirley gave a serene smile. "And his aura and mine are linked, Babs. It's just a matter of pulling him up by the astral anchor cable. As soon as we got out of the shielded room I thought it'd like, save time to bring him over."

"Sheesh! You just love bursting other toons' balloons, don't you? Still - Plucky is here to rescue you!" The green drake swelled in a dramatic pose.

"Plucky … we're rescued. The door's open," Babs pointed out. "And if we weren't - what would you do about it?" As if on cue, a dozen armed buzzards surrounded Plucky. "Don't worry guys - he's totally harmless."

"Well, thank you, Babs." Plucky glowered. "If I need a publicist I'll know who not to ask. I never get the respect I deserve around here."

"Actually, you get exactly that …" Marcia Martian put in quietly. A masked mallard glared at her.

"Mister Duck. Pleased to meet you." Hal Fenix raised an eyebrow, looking down at the mallard in the rather ragged ninja outfit. "Your friends have been telling me so much about you."

Babs, Shirley and Marcia snickered in triplicate.

"Plucky, this is Colonel Fenix. Someone set his team on us - and they usually handle major-style uncool spirits, invading aliens and like, massively grody stuff." Her aura nodded vigorously, eyes sparkling.

Plucky looked up at the phoenix, his feathers bristling. "Yeah? All I've seen is a flock of trailer-park rejects and one stuffed shirt. You don't look so hot to me."

"We aren't in the Hollywood movie business," Hal Fenix raised an eyebrow. "The monsters we handle aren't just special effects. I can tell you that we normally deal with things Toon was not meant to Know. If you could see what we've seen…"

"Like, you could tell him but you'd have to erase him down to the model sheet?" Shirley snickered.

The phoenix nodded. "Why do you think most of my troopers are … simple types? They don't understand what they see, which often helps a lot. The first team I had were regular troops. Some of them went mad twice."

"Dizzy Devil's not someone who could lose any more sanity, no matter what," Babs mused.

"There's no such thing as real monsters," Plucky scoffed. "Anyway - I've watched all the Eddie Cougar movies after midnight. I've seen cute purple dinosaurs on the daytime channels. Nothing scares me, pal."

Hal looked round at Shirley. "Miss Loon? Should I show him?"

Shirley gave a wicked grin. "Well okay but nothing like too mondo mind-shattering."

"Hardly has any to spare, and that's a fact," Babs commented dryly.

"Hmmph. I can take it. Bring 'em on, your spooks and bogeymen." Plucky squared up his shoulders. "I spent two weeks on a plastic back seat sitting next to Hamton's Uncle Stinky. I eat the Mystery Meat at Acme Loo's cafeteria!"

Hal Fenix briefly concentrated, and in a mind to mind flashback showed Plucky five seconds of that which had walked alive in Anaheim the week before.

"Mama." Plucky turned rigid; his body transformed to stone then crumbled into dust.

Shirley tsked, shaking her head as she reconstituted the toon with a bottle of humanely harvested natural spring water. "One of these days, Plucky Duck, you'll learn to believe in psychic forces." She turned around to see her aura passing a note to the golden phoenix's aura, and scuffling her immaterial webbed foot bashfully. "Will you quit that, girl?"

Her aura cast her material form a disgusted look. Pointing at Plucky, she materialised a scoreboard reading ".001" - and pointing to the brightly glowing phoenix aura she switched the numbers to "10.0". An enthusiastic "plus" sign appeared next to it.

"One second," Colonel Fenix flashed the loon's aura a smile. "We have some interested parties arriving. Anyone you know, Miss Loon? They're thinking about you." His aura pointed off towards the beach.

Shirley concentrated. "Babs! It's the rest of the crowd - Buster and Mary and the rest." She winced, her beak puckering as if she had unexpectedly bitten into a rotten fruit. "And one other. Mondo bad vibrations coming from over there."

"If you'd like to follow me?" Hal Fenix led the toons outside to the main road.

In a minute the party came into view round the corner - including Danforth Drake securely held in the Acme "Happy Hunting Grounds" toon net carried on a pole between Mary Melody and Jaggi Di Speckle in true "Tropical Hunter" style. They halted on seeing the troops of Unit 4 Plus Two, but at Babs' cheerful wave came over with their captive. Introductions were brief and to the point.

"Mary? Jaggi? You're back?" Babs said. "Fifi phoned and said you'd been arrested too."

"We spotted them getting out of an official-looking van. Some very embarrassed-looking officials were in the back." Buster grinned.

"Oh, Hi, Babs." Mary Melody waved. "It was all a misunderstanding. Someone had told them we were travelling under fake IDs. They checked out. And it was a good thing I had this with me, too. It cleared a lot of confusion." She unfolded a sealed legal document from her pocket and proudly displayed it.

Plucky craned his neck to look over the human woman's shoulder. His eyes bulged. "You've both got Parental Consent to marry. Legal in both your birth states and Acme Acres too. You actually carry that around with you? And … you all had it notarised back in Acme Acres?"

"And they could check on that, and they did. You should have seen the look on their faces." Mary gave a somewhat smug smile as she squeezed Jaggi's hoof affectionately. "We're not planning to need it for a year or two – maybe quite a few years down the line. But it's best to have everything ready. Just in case."

"There are things you can handle with first aid and survival kits," Jaggi patted the large pouches on his belt that he always carried "and things you can't."

"Meep meep?" Little Beeper asked, his head cocked to one side curiously.

"Umm, actually, yes." Both Mary and Jaggi radiated toon blushes. The road runner's language was naturally understood by all toons just as well as Tarzan's own dialect where "Ungawa!" had as many meanings when talking to jungle animals as circumstances required.

Buster handed over the laptop, and gestured to the avian whose beak was securely shut with duct tape. "This is the one you want, Colonel. Here's what he did - and how. He's been tapping into everyone just to spite us."

While the phoenix physically looked at the screen, Hal's aura sauntered over to the captive drake. It grabbed Danforth and started to pull something out of him - a sickly yellowish-green ghost shape. It took a close look at the figure and twisted it like a wet rag, wringing it out. Extracting data from Danforth's psyche had much in common to extracting juice from oranges, and left the donor in similar shape afterwards.

Plucky shuddered. "That hurts. Believe me. I know."

"He deserves it, believe us." Shirley nodded towards her aura, who was watching the Phoenix's performance enraptured as if he was a world-class gymnast performing a flawless routine.

"Does she mean Plucky or Danforth?" Buster whispered to Babs.

"Eeeh… there's one of those questions that Toon was not meant to know the answer," Babs whispered back.

"This is all rather irregular," Colonel Fenix raised an eyebrow as his aura returned with whatever information it had prised out. "We don't appreciate toons hacking Government systems. I can do this through official channels and spend a month on a tonne of paperwork fighting Mr. Drake's lawyers. Not very eco-friendly, using all that paper. And why should lawyers profit from it? Or I can put it down to a computer glitch and walk away, leaving Mr. Drake helpless in the middle of the crowd he's set up for a fall. I wouldn't even officially see what his fate was - though I'm sure it'll be suitably hideous. As far as I'm concerned none of this will have happened." He winked. "You'd be amazed at the things I see that never happened. Sometimes the days are just full of them."

"What?" Plucky pointed at Danforth "You're not going to arrest him?"

The Phoenix idly polished his already impeccable finger-feathers. "Officially - if he's out of my jurisdiction inside the next minute I can't do anything." He broadcast a thought to Shirley, who brightened up considerably and whispered to Babs and Buster. "Corporal Kaolin - un-tape and release the prisoner."

"About time too. I'll sue if … awwkk!" Danforth's voice suddenly Doppler-shifted as in a perfectly synchronised move Babs and Buster ran forwards, swung with millisecond timing and planted a full-power stereo Toon kick on his tail-feathers.

"Whoo! That'd clear the top of the Acme Bowl," Plucky marvelled as the drake soared towards orbit in free ballistic flight.

Rhubella watched open-mouthed as the figure headed for space, air friction scorching his feathers and leaving a smoky trail through the atmosphere. "That's got to hurt."

Beside her, Babs spin-changed into a conservatively white-shirted NASA engineer complete with horn-rimmed spectacles, pocket protector and wearing a bulky headphone set. She spoke with a slight crackle as if through an old public address system.

"DAN 1 has cleared the launch tower … now rising 4 miles high and 10 miles downrange…" she intoned in a deadpan voice. "Approaching maximum air loading at the speed of sound… oh! Oh! DAN 1 has exceeded structural limits! DAN 1 has broken up in the atmosphere! Oh, the humanity!"

"Duckmanity?" Buster queried, looking at the cluster of glowing streaks heading out over the ocean.

Rhubella gulped. "He … he's … gone? Forever?"

"Nah. A toon? A toon with a health plan like I bet he's got?" Buster shook his head. "No such luck. They'd only need to find a few feathers to put him together. He'll be back. Same as the rest after an orbit or two."

"Chilly up there, but toasty on the way down," Babs's ears went up in appreciation.

Colonel Fenix grinned. "I neither confirm nor deny I've reached my week's ration of toons permanently rubbed out. Let's say I'm glad that one won't count." He looked around the Acme group. "My work here is done, I think. There's a haunted water-tower on a Burbank film lot we're getting some very unusual reports about. Should I send in a highly skilled team of psychic sleuths to subtly investigate or just dust off and nuke the place from orbit? It's the only way to be sure, or so they say. What to do, what to do …"

"Well, isn't that the eternal question," Babs sympathised.

Colonel Fenix touched his cap respectfully. "And now, it really is time to go. Apologies for disturbing you and your friends, ma'm. Enjoy your holiday!" He turned to Shirley. "I'm pleased to meet you, Miss Loon. We could always use talented toons in our business - if the film career doesn't work out."

Shirley's aura looked up at the phoenix's golden astral form appealingly. The loon's better half stuck out her thumb like a hitch-hiker, posing to reveal a shapely leg. Shirley's demanding yoga exercises and years of cheerleading practice had left her legs extremely well toned and far from the "rubber-hose" shape they once had; her astral form mirrored her physical one exactly.

"If she was a dog I'd say 'heel'", Shirley muttered to Babs. "And I'd feel like one, too. Why should I stop her if she wants to go with him? She deserves to be happy. I mean, astrally speaking, Hal compared to Plucky …"

"Golden Olympic champ against green champion couch potato?" Babs looked on, impressed despite herself. "No bets on that one."

Plucky waddled up to the phoenix, looking up furious and unafraid. "Hands off my girl, pal! You only want her for her mind."

"Oh?" The phoenix's eyes twinkled. "And how do you work that out? Though we always need talent, and Miss Loon is certainly a lady of rare talent."

"Should be a better match for Plucky than we thought," Babs whispered, snickering. "Well, he's rarely talented. Very rarely."

"I know how these things work. Drafting her into your team. Cloak and dagger work and black helicopters! Sending her out on missions, risking her life." Plucky's feathers bristled. "I won't have my girl getting hurt."

Colonel Hal Fenix laughed. "We don't recruit like that. Toons come to us when they decide to. Some work alongside us without formally joining the unit. Can you imagine Miss Loon of all people in uniform? "Mondo uncool", I think she'd say." He bowed slightly as he addressed Shirley. "But if you ever wanted to put your talent to better use than providing your own special effects on screen - we could certainly make it worth your while. Even working part time between films."

"You can't buy Shirley," Plucky scoffed. "Montana Max couldn't."

"Oh, not with money," Hal Fenix nodded. "I wouldn't even try. Miss Loon - we often confiscate fascinating artefacts from folk who put them to bad use. Spell books. Grimoires. Some items you won't find in the Acme catalogue. Better used by trustworthy toons in a good cause than put in the big warehouse and filed away forever with the rest. If you're interested in helping defend this Dimension - I'm sure you a mystic of your talents can find us again should you wish to. Till then, farewell."

Shirley's aura waved, seeming to droop like a deflating balloon as the phoenix departed with his troops. The powder-blue figure whispered angrily and urgently into her material body's ear. Her glowing tail-feathers twitched.

Shirley snorted. "Like, get real, girl. He's not our species, even." She cast a glance towards Plucky. "Yeah, I know, so neither is he. And that never stopped us before. I know what you mean, but …" Her eyes suddenly went wide as a thought struck her. "Plucky! Did you just stand up for me against a toon who could physically take you apart feather by feather? Could make you disappear like last year's snow? Could do things to your mind you don't even have words for?"

"Yeah," Plucky's bill jutted out defiantly. "I made my mind up. If it's for you, Shirley - I'd do anything."

The loon's aura looked at him appraisingly, her ethereal head cocked to one side. She shrugged, and with a strange smile walked back into her material body. United, the loon and drake hugged lovingly.

"That's so sweet," Babs whispered into Buster's ear.

"And she didn't even have to use a cattle-prod on him this time!" Sweetie clucked, disappointed. "That's no fun. Sappy stuff."

The rest of the day passed without incident. Fifi and Rhubella had been carried miles out to sea before managing to tack back to the marina, but had phoned in as alive and well. Dizzy, Concord and the rest of the toons turned up with a fascinating story of being pursued half way across the State by the IRS, the FBI and the Shriners, that had finished in a toon battle over jurisdiction with all three groups swapping paperwork and realising they had been fooled. Dizzy still wore a Shriners' fez that had been gifted in apology.

"Well, that was good timing. We'll see you back!" Mary Melody finished tightening the laces of her skates as she and Jaggi prepared to leave as they had scheduled. "It'll take us two days to skate home - the scenic route." The pair carried small packs including an ultra-light camping kit; Shirley had promised to take charge of all their heavier kit and get it back to Acme Acres.

Jaggi wore an odd hybrid of crash helmet and broad-brimmed, Pulp Action Hero hat. He touched the brim respectfully. "It's going to be country roads and trails all the way back to Acme Acres - no fun skating down the highway. We're in no hurry now, the two of us." He bent down to adjust his skates to check the off-road mode, the tyres ballooning out.

"If there was a Gag-lev train track like the Japanese run between Mega-Tokyo and Giga-Tokyo, that could get us back in twenty minutes," Mary pulled down the heads-up K-ACME teleprompter display from her skating helmet visor. "Trouble is, it only runs when it's funny." She set up the teleprompter to feed her the route maps, and waved cheerfully. Her face was still zebra-striped with white sunscreen, giving her an oddly camouflaged look.

"See you back!" Buster called as the two skated off together hand in hoof. The pair of two-toned toons were soon lost to view behind the palm trees of the next bend.

"Meep Meep!" Little Beeper summed up the mood pithily.

"Fer sure. I don't need to be, like, Nostradamus grade to predict their future away ahead," Shirley raised an eyebrow. "Striped toon foals. Lots of them."

"But for now there's fewer of us …" Babs' ears drooped for a few seconds. "One more night of Spring Break to go!"

Sheltering the marina was a breakwater that was usually busy with tourist fishermen, but at sunset there were few folk around. Babs was there with Fifi, Rhubella and Shirley at the end of the breakwater looking out over the ocean as the sun went down; Plucky had vanished back towards the main strip in quest of some snacks.

"He still believes if he can find a hot-dog vendor just about to close up, he can get everything half price, you know?" Shirley said, spotting a green figure at the shore end of the marina. "He doesn't give up … it's one good thing about him." She paused. "There are others. But I had to dowse to find them."

"I'm glad you can love him for his faults and all," Babs marvelled. "So much to love!"

The loon gave a wry smile. "Plucky is Plucky. Not a bunch of grade scores. He's, who he is."

"Ah, oui! And, in one or two of 'ees films, Plucky 'e was… tres effective. Le Toxic Revenger… not so bad, certainment." Fifi admitted.

"Not that we'd better, like, ever tell him that," Shirley whispered. The other two snickered. "Don't want to spoil him." She waved and gagged slightly at the sight of Sweetie trotting up carrying a grilled seagull she had been roasting on the beach.

Fifi's ears drooped slightly. "Shirley," she asked "Rhubella et moi ... I was thinking - 'ave I .. spoiled 'er?"

"I don't feel any worse," Rhubella squeezed Fifi's paw. "I've had a wonderful holiday. But my idea of - going back to Perfecto and boasting to everyone how Danforth was … inferior to a Skunk from Acme …" She frowned. "Well, it's true. It'd do his reputation no end of hurt, and I'd get good marks for that from Miss Hazel the Principal. But I don't feel like saying it just to squash him any more."

"Ruby - 'zis one last time we will all forgive you all ze Perfecto nonsense. 'E deserves it!" Fifi snorted. "I 'ope zey never found all the duck pieces."

Shirley raised an eyebrow. "If you want I can, look at your auras? You'll have to give me, like, consent."

The rat and skunkette nodded seriously, still holding paws. Shirley breathed deeply, the loon closing her eyes as she slipped into a trance. Her aura manifested itself in a toon nurse's outfit, peering into both heads with a flashlight for a minute before diving back into Shirley's body.

Shirley snapped back to consciousness. "I've mondo good news … and bad news. Fifi - you're fine, your heart's healing. It was major bad before. Deep cracks everywhere, and spreading. Rhubella's been good for you, girl, but if there's some "skunk-hunk" out there you like and can catch - go for it! She's not spoiled anything that way."

Fifi smiled. "If he and Ruby want … we can, 'ow you say, share and share alike." Her tail swished in excitement.

"And the bad news?" Rhubella gripped Fifi's paw tighter.

Shirley gave an embarrassed grin. "You've been like spoiled for Perfecto massive style, Rhubella. I predict the next time anyone asks if you want to cut cards for status … if they get away with their ears and tail still on they'll be lucky. For Roderick and Danforth and all that junk you are … ruined. For life." She paused. "You know you can do better, and I predict you will."

"Oh great. I'm doomed." Rhubella's tail drooped. "Graduating from Perfecto – you have to cheat and back-stab your way through the finals - that's the way it's set up. There's not as many graduate places as there are students, someone is guaranteed to lose. The more fiendish the way you win, the better the score. Betray your best allies for the top marks - and I can't do it any more. It's just not in me." She looked into Fifi's eyes. "But – I don't mind so much now."

"Cherie - you 'ave a back seat to share with moi - whatever 'appens." Fifi kissed her. The two held each other close. Rhubella ran her paw through the wondrous expanse of Fifi's tail.

Sweetie sniffed. "Aww, you two. Get a room."

Fifi smiled at her. "We 'ave ze room. If Ruby she is thrown out of Perfecto she will need it, maybe, yes?"

"Hey!" Babs' eyes went wide. "How about this for an idea. What if you did something really sneaky – and didn't cheat? They wouldn't expect that, would they?"

The rat-girl blinked, considering the radical idea. "Expect? They wouldn't believe it in a thousand years. They'd look for my plan. They'd go nuts trying to find it … they just couldn't believe there wasn't one!" Her tail twitched, a slow smile spreading over her features. "I can bet Danforth he won't find the Master Plan."

Babs gave a fiendish grin. "Go for it!"

Just then Plucky arrived empty- winged. Evidently there had been a shortage of desperate food vendors willing to dump their wares and prices. "Did I miss anything?"

There was a quintuple chorus. "Naaaahhhh….."

The last morning dawned damp, and the bus had its windscreen wipers wipers running all the way to Acme Acres where the weather cleared remarkably. One after another the toons were dropped off, till only five were left. Little Beeper's eloquent comment "Meep Meep!" had summed the mood up perfectly.

"So, that was, like, our final Spring Break … well, it was mondo fun!" Shirley stepped down off the bus, waving to Pete Puma and checking he had Mary Melody's luggage ready to drop off. "At least - for most of us."

"Oh woe! Oh woe is me," Babs stood by the roadside a hundred yards from her burrow as the bus drove off. She spin-changed into a peasant dress with a red hooded cloak, and struck a tragic pose. "Our break is all over and nothing to show for it. There's nothing else for it - I shall wander helplessly through the dark depths of Acme Forest and surrender to the Big Bad Wolf my poor unwanted bunny body. Cute toes and all."

Shirley held up a "9.5" score card. Fifi gave it a "9.2", Plucky a "5.0" and Buster's "10" had a hastily added minus sign on the front of it. Babs tossed her head, contemptuously. "The blue judge is disqualified for personal involvement ... or lack of it all week. Fast moves, from Mister 'We crack up all the censors.' So what was there to censor anyway?"

Shirley shrugged. "You'll be too busy for much of that now. It's going to be hard work in class from now on." Her aura gave a brief crackle of lightning and manifested as a great bat-winged shape that wrapped around Plucky. "And that means I'll need recharging. A lot of recharging. Like, Plucky, I hope you had a … relaxing time. That's over now. Now it's … hard … work."

Plucky gave an embarrassed grin. The two waterfowl hugged. Babs' ears went right up as she saw Plucky's pale green aura step out of his solid feathers and embrace Shirley's own powder-blue astral form. Evidently his spirit body had been doing the equivalent of intensive bodybuilding.

"Ah, Plucky, 'e weel nevair be cruel to ze battery jumper leads again," Fifi smiled. She had kissed Rhubella farewell as the bus stopped in central Acme Acres where she could get a taxi home. Oddly, Calamity Coyote had insisted on stopping there too, claiming he had something urgent to collect in town. "And I 'ave 'ad ze holiday romance with ze difference!"

"No "Skunk-Hunk" this time round, eh?" Babs nudged her. "Fifi, you know that's never turned out well for you when you DO spot one. Even a real one, not just some toon with painted stripes."

Fifi shrugged. "Eet is, you say, ze "'ard-wired" in moi. One day 'zere will be one who will not run away but towards moi." Her tail swished. "But, ze romance ees - ze romance wherevair it comes from. Vive l'amour!"

Sunset found the two bunnies (still no relation) sitting back to back on a grassy knoll looking at the tower of the Looniversity as the warm Spring evening lengthened and the shadows crept out over the Acme Looniversity campus. Tomorrow they would be back in class. Buster was not one to repeat gossip, but he had news of two of their classmates that Babs would want to hear. Or so he thought.

"Babs. It looks like Spring Fever's claimed another pair of us. The strangest things are happening this year."

Babs raised an eyebrow. "How strange? Barky Marky and Lightning Rodriguez have eloped?"

"Eh … not THAT strange, even if it is California," Buster shuffled a paw in embarrassment. "Calamity and Marcia. Officially."

"Marcia Martian and Calamity Coyote are a couple now?" Babs clapped a paw against her pink forehead, eyes goggling. "Oy oy oy! Buster - her body ink chemistry's Vanadium based. If he wasn't a toon Calamity'd go into toxic shock every time he kissed her."

Buster cocked his head to one side, considering the matter. "With a snout shaped like his, I'm not sure he can exactly kiss anybody… slobber maybe."

Babs snorted. "That's the least of his problems." Marcia was officially listed as a girl, but from what she had confided in Babs once, Martian family life was more complex - Babs tried to remember whether the number of genders on Mars was eleven and a half or eleven and three-quarters. Martian TV dramas ran for decades; they usually involved tricky detective work as to who was currently in what form, and instead of having simple romantic triangles the plots required shapes normally needing higher dimensional mathematics to resolve. "I'd have thought only Gogo Dodo might show an interest in Marcia - considering he's dated a fire hydrant and a parking meter. They're far more "the girl next door" than Marcia will ever be."

"Umm - exotic?" Buster asked.

Babs suppressed a giggle. "Buster. I've seen that girl in the shower and believe me, a pine tree and Calamity would be more "compatible". When she was sick last year they had to treat her for potato blight, not flu. She's built like nothing on earth."

"Who knew?" Both bunnies chorused automatically.

A cunning look came over Babs' face. "I was wondering what they were doing trading those diagrams. I bet it took even them a week to figure something that'd work for them both." She had tried hard to work out exactly what some of the coyote's latest vaguely biological-looking mechanisms were meant for - when asked Calamity's sign-boards came out spelt in Martian with bits censored out. "I saw one of those diagrams - I thought it looked like the parts of an oil refinery. It was someone's working parts, all right."

"And that's Calamity for you. Looks like Weird Science includes Biology." Buster suddenly locked rigid at the sight before him. Babs had spin-changed into a parody of a 1950's space suit, complete with skimpy metal foil bikini, goldfish-bowl helmet (with holes for her ears) and a TV aerial on top.

Babs fluttered her eyelids. "Do you like my aerial … up, or down?" She bent forward to kiss the blue buck - and discovered the limitations of goldfish-bowl space helmets. There was a loud bump.

"Now that," Buster admitted, rubbing his nose "was Comedy."

Babs spin-changed back to her regular outfit and repeated the manoeuvre with more success minus the helmet. Buster gasped - and melted into a puddle again.

"No, THAT was comedy." Babs pulled an industrial-sized cocktail shaker from somewhere not clearly defined, scooped up Buster's genetic material, and poured him out into his usual shape, though looking somewhat dizzy. "Mmm. My favourite rabbit dish. Shaken a little - and stirred."

Buster returned her kiss, and with a happy sigh Babs melted in turn.

We'll try to make sure this doesn't happen to us both at once, she reminded herself before reconstituting. "Amoebas in Love" though - hmm, it makes an original film title, at that

Suddenly Babs' ears wilted like week-old lettuce as she ticked off a mental list. Mary. Harriet. Shirley. Fifi. Rhubella. Marcia, even! "Buster, how did this happen?" Babs was more shocked than tearful or annoyed, as she looked into Buster's eyes. "Or should I say how could this possibly fail to happen? The break was the perfect time for us. We'll never have another like it. I'd have bet my ribbons on us getting together. I waited every night for you with my balcony door open."

Buster stroked a drooping pink ear affectionately. "Babs. I'd wait forever for you. You know that. You don't have to go rushing into things till you're sure,"

"Hello? Earth to Buster. Are you receiving me? I have been waiting like forever, that is the problem. I don't want to wait any more. I didn't want to wait this long. "Rushing" would have been our first semester at Looniversity. Tomorrow it's our last. There's glaciers could give your "rushing" a head start and get there first. And hotter." Now Babs was looking annoyed. Vinnie Deer's number was already in her phone, though she had not dialled it yet.

Buster adjusted his collar, a cloud of live steam escaping. "Besides, it's not like you're the only one who's been saving themselves for the right moment."

"Are you listening, Blue-boy? I am not a happy bunny here, Buster. You know why? The only ones left are me, Sweetie and Elmyra - and I don't want to even start thinking about that." Babs' ears shivered. "They might beat me to it at this rate!" Being listed in that company was not a comfortable position for the leader of the Amazing Three; Sweetie had a personality that Shirley claimed had served a dozen incarnations as a rattlesnake, and Elmyra was spoken of in fear and loathing at least as far as Marcia Martian's homeworld. Even Elmyra and Montana Max were a couple in theory, if only because she was the only one who wanted anything to do with him irrespective of his fortune. For any other girl ... once they knew him, there simply would not be enough money in the world let alone in his vaults.

Buster hugged her, softly.

"Me and my adorable toes. I might as well wear army boots. Even that Margot Mallard's been there, done that... and that ... and that ... I wouldn't boast about it but she does. She's got phone camera pics, even. And shows them off." Babs looked down at the floor. There were ugly rumours of the Perfecto Prep's "Bad Girl" duck's tastes, mostly spread by Margot herself. Rodney and Danforth were certainly depraved enough to oblige her.

"I know I've got a friend who's mature enough to know her own mind. One I've been falling in love with for a long time now." Buster said, stroking her drooping pink ear.

Babs' eyes flashed wide in anger. "Who? I'll kill her! If it's that overblown bunch of balloons Julie Bruin I'll flatten..." she broke off, spotting that Buster was gazing only at her. "Oops. Heh. Sorry. And thank you."

"Babs. When did you ever worry about following anyone else?" Buster tried to reason with her. "You've got plans you're happy with. They're yours. Stick to them."

Babs turned and kissed him again, feeling her tail twitching. "I had plans. But they took two. No plan survives contact with the enemy." She gave a wan smile. "Thanks, Buster. I suppose knowing you're always here for me means I don't have to grab my chances, like Fifi." She sighed. "I suppose it was someone else's turn to be in the limelight. I never really thought about it. I just assumed I'd be the first."

"And you can be again." Buster looked into the downcast lilac eyes. "I'm sorry I made you wait - and I couldn't even tell you why. I paid Calamity Coyote all my free cash for the term, but he came up with something. I hope you like it."

Pink ears twitched. "Calamity got his time machine working at last? We can go back to the start of the break and … uh, uh. Bad move, Blue ears. I tried out his prototype teleporter, remember? Teleported home to the kitchen just in time for Mom to drop the day's vegetables right there on the spot." She shivered. It had taken a month to stop smelling of onions or mentally hearing carrots scream when she bit them, and she still had urges on a sunny day to stand outside and photosynthesise.

Buster smiled. "If you'd accept - this. I want you to be first again, and for something better." Suddenly in his paw was a small box. He offered it to her. "Better late than never?"

Babs' pupils went wide till they overlapped Anime style in a figure-of-eight, then shrank to pinhole size. "Buster … is this …?" Her mouth opened and closed, silently as Buster nodded. She opened the padded velvet box with unsteady paws.

Inside was a silver ring, with a small stone sparkling brilliantly. Babs picked it up, her ears trembling. "An engagement ring. And … is that a diamond? A lilac diamond? But ... there's no such thing!"

"There wasn't, last week." Buster looked deep into her gaze. "It's the only one on Earth. I had Calamity synthesise it to match your eyes. Will you wear it for me, Barbara Anne Bunny?"

Babs Bunny, mistress of mirth and the snappy one-liner, gave a small unintelligible squeak. But she nodded vigorously, her eyes wide. Buster knelt and slid the ring on her pink finger.

Buster kissed his fiancée, still kneeling at her adorable toes. "It wasn't ready in time or I'd have offered it to you on the very first day of the break. You don't know how much I wanted to. And every day and night since."

Babs found her voice at last, with a gasp. "It's lovely. But ... Buster! You could have proposed to me with the ring off a can of carrot soda and I'd have said yes!"

"You'd have malleted me flat!" Buster's eyes went wide.

Babs' grin was surprisingly feral for a bunny as she considered for a second. "Oh, well. So I would. But, then I'd still have said yes." She smiled, and whispered into his ear. "Rabbit Season?"

"Rabbit season," Buster whispered back.

Epilogue

Mrs. Barbara Anne Bunny awoke and looked up at the dawn light coming in through the windows of the bridal suite, and sighed a contented sigh. "Babs and Buster Bunny ... related. By marriage." Her heart thudded visibly under the sheets. Blue and pink fur mingled on them now; it was a sight she had been looking forward to for a very long time. She turned round to see the handsome blue and white buck lying beside her, still fast asleep.

The exam preparations had taken every waking hour since they returned from Spring Break and she had needed every minute apart from that just to sleep - even so, she had amazed herself by waiting till her wedding night rather than dragging Buster off and insisting on giving him a "dress rehearsal" or fifty. Once she had actually gone shopping with Fifi and Shirley and chosen a white wedding dress, waiting a little longer to wear it honestly had started to seem worthwhile.

Babs and Buster had graduated top of their class, winning the Looniversity's highest award of "Summa cum loony" and invited everyone to their wedding right there on the spot. Plucky had yelled and tantrumed the place down in a fine emulation of his mentor Daffy at having only scraped a bare Pass; he might have raised still more of a fuss had not his (surprisingly egg-heavy) loon fiancée turned the psychic equivalent of ten thousand volts through him to universal applause. Evidently they had agreed the one scoring the lowest marks was to stay at home and sit on the nest and Shirley had graduated the third highest in the class, even beating Hamton by one mark. Plucky and Concord Condor had scored level, and the buzzard had not even tried to cheat.

"Mmmm... well, at last I made an honest buck - and Buster made an honest doe of me. Who knew?" She stretched, running her fingers through her fur. On the bedside table were her violet contact lenses; they were entirely cosmetic and she would keep them off for the Bunnymoon. There would be a new-look Babs launching soon, ready to take Hollywood by storm that might or might not have the brown eyes she was born with. As befitted a film star with an established career, although she and Buster were married she had insisted on keeping her maiden name. Buster had raised no objections. It's a good thing it's Bunny anyway, she laughed to herself. How convenient!

In a mischievous mood, she stealthily drew off the sheet and took a look at Buster wearing only the wedding ring whose twin she wore; his toon gloves and best tuxedo were scattered on the floor where Babs had torn them off eight hours ago. Her ears went down a little. Well, it's not as if Fifi or Calamity had to add to their wardrobe even for a day or two, she told herself, or Plucky or Shirley either ... though birds don't often get that problem anyway. She shrugged, smiling as she turned and looked at her pink-and-white reflection in the mirror. Her ribbon-less ears crossed as she looked down.

"Buster Bunny!" As an alarm clock it would have woken half the county. "What have you DONE to me?" She rapidly flipped through three random spin-changes - but spin changes always reverted to her basic shape and that stayed unchanged – or rather radically changed since the night before. Her usual lavender miniskirt was suddenly embarrassingly inadequate, and apart from the white wedding gown now hanging in the wardrobe she had brought nothing else with her but ten changes of her usual four-piece costume of skirt, shirt and ribbons. She had not yet decided on her new look; after all it was only a week since their graduation. They had wanted to be sure all their friends would still be there to see them married.

Buster opened an eye, taking in the sight. He stood and kissed his bunny bride on her trembling pink nose tip. "Good morning, Babs. Forgotten so soon, Mrs Babs "Me on top! Me on top!" Bunny?"

"But ... but .. but .. but ..." Babs' alarm faded to be replaced by a sly smile. "Okay, Blue-boy. I asked for that. But one line about Babs and "Bust-her" and you'll see whether or not I brought my mallet on honeymoon. Clue, three letters, starts with a 'Y.'"

"What, me worry?" Buster rummaged in his suitcase and held out an item that had been neatly folded at the bottom. "Looks like I won't be needing these for myself after all." He bowed, presenting the gift like a courtier to his queen. "May as well start as we mean to go on, Babs - in this marriage I don't mind if it's you who wear the pants."

"Buster!" Babs hesitated, but in a few seconds first she, then Buster broke up into gales of laughter, hugging each other tight and rolling on the bed helplessly. At last they subsided, relaxing paw in paw. Suddenly, both spoke together.

"Now, That's Comedy."

The End.