Chapter One

Every year around Midsummer, something strange happened around Acme Acres. The crash of anvils and pianos falling on toons faded away from the Western side of the city - and though it was harder to pinpoint on the map, gossip columnists found it harder to fill their pages without character assassinations and complex scams traceable to the far side of town.

Acme Looniversity and Perfecto Prep had no formal truce in May and June - but it was nearing final exam time for both and nobody had time or energy to spend on anything but furious preparation. Or, almost nobody...

"She loves me - she loves me lots. She loves me - she loves me lots..." Plucky Duck grinned at the sight of the final petal in his feather-hand as he approached Shirley McLoon's house. An instant later his expression turned to wide-eyed panic as he realised he had demolished the expensive bouquet he had been bringing over for his loon fiancée. His eyes darted around the landscape and a crafty expression attached itself to his beak. "Methinks a little rapid improvisation is in order."

"Like Hi, Plucky." A minute later Shirley opened the door just before he was about to knock, as usual. Although she was well turned-out as ever, her feathers had lost some of the glossy outdoor vitality she had built up in the sun and fresh air of Spring Break. "Shouldn't you be home studying?"

Plucky knelt and presented her with a fresh bouquet. "How can I think of dumb film gags and dusty scripts when the loon of my life is so near to me?"

Shirley took the flowers, and sighed. From their aura she could tell they had been picked from her own garden. "Happy thoughts, Plucky. Eight out of ten for sincerity." She had sworn not to read her friends' minds uninvited, but since finally accepting Plucky as her fiancé his was the exception - and besides, it was usually a very thin volume to read. "You'd better come in. I've been working since sunrise - my Aura tells me she needs to like, harmonise my energy flows." Her powder-blue astral body separated from her physical form and looked at the green mallard hungrily.

"Eeep..." Plucky turned a paler green. "I had to ask."

Shirley smiled, pulling him in and shutting the door firmly. "We're all alone today," she whispered seductively. "Mother's gone clear across the country, all week, to consult the forbidden archives at the MiskaToonic University or some junk. It's just us - you and me, and You and Me."

The mallard winced as his astral form was dragged out of his body into the embrace of Shirley's astral shape, and the two left in a direction exceedingly difficult to storyboard without the use of higher dimensional inks. "I swear I'll never get used to that!"

"Now, Plucky, what were you coming to talk about?" An hour later, the two waterfowl were sharing a beanbag and a pot of herbal tea in Shirley's inner sanctum. "I predict Babs and Mary are like dropping by this evening fer sure - tomorrow we're going to the Acme Giga-Mall to look at dresses for Babs. White, expensive dresses." Shirley's eyes misted over slightly.

"Babs, check. Mary, check. Has anyone seen Fifi lately? I haven't." Plucky's voice was more serious than usual.

Shirley considered. "She was in study hall Monday morning getting some books - I don't, like, see everyone every day now." Since returning from Spring Break the final-year Looniversity scholars had blank class timetables - generally with the word STUDY written over them in large letters as a reminder.

"I've not seen her in two weeks. Not a scent of her on the breeze. We should go over and check. I hope she's just, "studying" with Rhubella." Plucky's eyes crossed slightly at that thought. "As long as she's all right."

Shirley stroked his tail-feathers, the twinned rose quartz crystal she wore in place of an engagement ring catching the evening sunlight streaming in through the attic window. "Plucky? You know, your ego's astrally tied to your aura. When they're both off elsewhere - the duck that's left behind, is the Plucky Duck I like." She smiled, raising an eyebrow. "My aura's bringing him back from the third plane of existence in ten minutes, just before I prophesy Babs and Mary get here. But until then..."

In the incense-scented room the sound of beaks clicking in a kiss was not loud, but it went on for a very long time.

"And it's Babs! The one and only Miss Babs Bunny - no longer Ms because I'm going to be a Mrs!" A blur of pink and white energy swept up the stairs as Babs kept her appointment to the second.

At the door behind her a powerfully-built but pretty African-American toon sighed wearily. "Shirley - she's been like that all the way over. It was like trying to ride herd on a lightning bolt. Can't you... earth her charge to a water pipe or something?"

Shirley gave a snort of amusement, but shook her head. "I'm mondo forbidden from tampering with natural disasters," she explained. "Balance of Nature, you know? I can't stop earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons or bunnies in love."

"Pity." Mary Melody took the stairs one at a time, not in bounds of five like a certain bunny. "We passed Plucky on the way - he'd been here?"

"Oh, fer sure," Shirley ushered her friends into her jasmine-scented sanctum. "Sometimes I think his next incarnation won't be some diseased rutabaga after all. Then he does something totally stupid and I change my mind. But not for long."

Babs was standing posed as an angelic statue, the evening sunlight illuminating her face in a wash of gold.

Mary cast her a glance, and smiled. "Don't worry, Shirley, we've been studying all day. She's been spin-changing till it triggered national tornado alerts. We've rehearsed comic and straight gags all afternoon. She even changed species so I could work on "Hound-teasing tricks" for Professor Leghorn's exam papers."

"And the wonderful and talented MISS Babs Bunny has MISSed no chance to put her skills to every test - so her MISSion to get top marks won't..."

"Like, flunk, as in miss?" Shirley grinned. All three snickered. Suddenly the loon's expression became serious. "Have you heard from Fifi? I've not. Plucky hasn't. We're like, worried."

Babs considered. "We worked together a whole week on gag duos just after Spring Break. But that's three weeks ago now. I've hardly been anywhere, not even twice to Weenie-Burger. I've not met a lot of the class at all."

"Me neither," Mary admitted. "I'm studying at home, or with Jaggi."

Babs grinned mischievously. "Squash and stretch, Toon basics for you. For him - still not taught him everything he needs to know?"

"Everything improves with practice," Mary said with mock dignity. "I may not be in the market for a white wedding dress - but there are compensations."

"And I'm sure he compensates you as in major-scale," Shirley steered the discussion back on track. "But like, Fifi? You've not seen her either? We should go and like totally check up."

"You're right." Babs blushed. It was rare to see the pink bunny looking embarrassed. "Being busy is no excuse."

"I hadn't wanted to disturb her. She's studying, and then there's her and Rhubella." Mary blinked. "At least - I assumed."

"Tomorrow!" Babs declared "Saturday morning. Before I go to the giga-mall and shop for the most beautiful pure white dress ever made - we'll go to the junkyard and shop for a white and purple skunkette!"

Just at that moment, the toon in question was deep in the film vaults of Acme Looniversity, quite unaware of her friends' concern or even the passing of time. She had been there all afternoon.

"Le sigh." Fifi sat alone in the dark, her cheek-fur propped on her hands as the sixth Pepe Le Pew film of the evening ran through the projectors. She felt her tail twitch in a reflex action at the sight of the young and handsome skunk and his dashing pursuit of lucky females - generally Penelope Pussycat. Fifi's ears went down somewhat at Miss Penelope's preoccupation with getting off-camera and preferably upwind. Some folk had no appreciation of the finer things in life.

"Le sigh, encore." The film finished and left Fifi in the quiet darkness, with only the dim safety lights of the screening room around her. "Zo many years I ave done ze same. But nevair ze success. Until..."

Fifi thought hard. Professor Le Pew's pursuit had been successful in the end – three years earlier he had married Penelope, whose fur was now willingly dyed skunk-striped. Just to really confuse anyone studying toon genetics, just changing her external pattern had proven to make far deeper changes. Starting in the Autumn, Mrs. Penelope Le Pew was going on maternity leave despite her being born a different species to her husband. How their litter would turn out remained to be seen.

"'Zere ees no special one for moi to pursue. Or I would 'ave chased zem forevair. Babs and Bustair, Shirley and Plucky 'zey all 'ave one of 'zeir own kind."

A cold chill ran down Fifi's luxuriant tail. Sitting alone in the darkness she had a revelation of a fundamental law of comedy that had never been told her in five years of Acme Looniversity classes.

"Naturellement, things only work when 'zey are funny. But zhere ees more to eet zan zat..." She whispered to herself in the silence. There was a real thought there, and she tried her utmost to pin it down and read its shape. Pepe Le Pew had finally caught his feline bride only to discover her willingly dyeing skunk stripes on her fur, which had been hilarious in its own right. Fifi had at last found someone willing to fall into her arms (rather than out of the nearest window to escape). Had that been the "skunk-hunk" her hormones were hard-wired to chase, that would not have been comic.

"Ze law of conservation of Comedy..." she whispered to herself. Professor Coyote had let slip that for years he had been chasing down that elusive law in his Summer research at the National Pie Accelerator complex under Akron, Ow-Hi-Oww where custard pies were boosted to almost the speed of light and the fundamental particles of humour studied in their collision. The hints that had emerged of the ongoing project were that comedic energy could never be created or destroyed, only transformed into another gag form.

Fifi's tail went rigid as she felt the implications sink in. "Eet weel not be a mattair of good luck or ze trying 'arder ... to find an 'andsome Skunk-Hunk, eet would break ze laws of ze Toon Physics. It can nevair 'appen for moi." She shivered. "Nevair. No mattair what I do." As she put her fears into words, the Fundamental Fun Principle took shape. For a few seconds she buried her face in her hands.

Then she smiled. "I weel 'ave ze last laugh, regardless. I 'ave ze compensation - ze tender lover for Fifi, even if she does not study ze comedy!"

Several miles away, an imposing building reared menacingly to challenge the normally stormy skies around its spires and high walls. Had anyone asked an Acme Loo student why Perfecto Prep was usually lashed by horror film styled special effects as weather, they would probably just shrug and suggest "It's a Toon thing." This might have made more sense if Perfecto studied toon gags and special effects, which it did not. Some days it saw its fair share of drama, but nobody scored points for that in class.

"Rhubella, please … it's been a month. I've said I'm sorry - won't you take me back?" In one of the senior class rooms an expensively dressed rat was currently wearing out his knee fur against the genuine Persian carpet. Not Iranian, naturally.

"Oh, ignore him, Rhubella," came a voice from the doorway. "It's easy. I generally do."

Rhubella Rat smiled as she beckoned to her friend. "Margot! Roderick's practicing his new favourite position." She gestured to the kneeling rat.

"So I see. Is it your favourite view? He doesn't really harmonise with that carpet. One of them ought to go." Margot Mallard was dressed in the top part of a precisely tailored business skirt-suit (sans skirt) commissioned from the finest tailor in Connecticut. Nowhere in Acme Acres remotely met her standards.

Rhubella sniffed disdainfully. "Get up, Roderick. Or stay there, I don't care. You can go hang by your ears from a washing-line, the answer will still be no. We're through."

"Roderick and Rhubella Rat… no relations." Margot smirked. "Has a certain ring to it. Which is something I'm sure Roddy-kins won't be giving you."

"Not from him." Rhubella felt her heart leap within her. "But I have hopes - I'll soon be wearing one from someone I care about."

"It was just one holiday with Margot - and that wasn't my idea - it was in the luck of the cards," Roderick pleaded. "Besides, we didn't … do anything. Be fair."

Both female toons snorted. "Sorry Roddy, but I tell her - everything. All the details. Bad and - indifferent," Margot hissed. "It's not just safari you're lousy at, laser sights or no."

Rhubella turned her gaze on the kneeling rat. "Be fair? That's like saying you're not really a crook if you don't rob banks every day. Go jump in the Dip pool, Roderick. I said we're through. I've found someone better."

A dejected rat slunk out, leaving Margot and Rhubella in the elegantly furnished room. Rhubella sighed, relaxing on the designer sofa.

"Roddy's a pest - and that's me, a rat saying it. I'm worn out enough with studying. It's all I do any more."

"An investment that pays big dividends, though" Margot preened her feathers and sat next to her. "You do know, Danforth and Roderick are spending half their time trying to crack your master plan?"

A mischievous smile came to Rhubella's narrow muzzle. "I know. I also know "someone" stole nine hours processing on the Sandia Labs' supercomputers last week on that job and I'm inclined to tip them off who it was."

Margot raised an eyebrow. "But seriously - you didn't mind me taking your place with him on that Spring Break safari in the Galapagos Islands?"

Rhubella cast the mallard a curious gaze. "I found someone better because I missed that trip. As for Roddy - if you managed to have fun, I'm glad for you. If he was partying with another girl, me and him are through no matter who it was. What about you and Danforth?"

Margot contemplated her already impeccable finger-feathers. "Danny-boy is impossibly jealous, and that's just the way I like to see him. You cut him down to size very neatly, pretending to fall in love with that Acme Loo-ser! And a girl too! You couldn't have pushed Danny-boy's buttons any better if I'd sold you his owner's manual." She laughed.

Rhubella did not laugh. She had told Margot the plain truth about her and Fifi - if her friend refused to believe it that was up to her. It was the same with her "master plan" to get to the top of the class - everyone else was falling over each others' conspiracies and triple-crosses as the senior year cheated and backstabbed their way towards graduation.

She had not meant to fall in love. Rhubella knew it was changing her from the insides out; fortunately she could still behave like a case-hardened Perfecto Senior with her classmates and hopefully for long enough to graduate. Unlike them she was rising through the grades quietly, like a bubble rising from the depths rather than a crayfish snapping and trampling its way towards the top of a heap. She had dropped enigmatic hints of her own sinister plan, and the fact that nobody had discovered a scrap of it so far had focussed their efforts to find it. In the meantime she had spent her time working and studying. All her time.

Rhubella blushed. "Tomorrow - I've got to go into Acme Acres. And not by limo. Something less conspicuous."

Margot winked, and tapped the side of her beak. "Say no more! I can spot intrigue dug in behind a bush, a thousand yards down-range through a fog bank. So, your big plan moves along?"

"Oh yes," Rhubella nodded, her eyes wide. "I hope it does!"

Fifi LaFume awoke that Saturday morning as usual, alone on the back seat of the rusting Cadillac. She sighed, stroking the worn Naugahyde seat cover. "Zo many nights, vous et moi…" She shrugged, smiling. The ageing car had sheltered her all her days at Acme Looniversity, but in a matter of weeks she would be saying farewell to both.

Suddenly a noise from outside had her ears pricking up; someone was approaching through the scrap-yard. She glanced down in a reflex, checking the truck tyre iron was within reach before she wound the window down.

"Ruby!" Her tail twitched at the sight of the rodent girl; she had the door open and her arms around Rhubella in four film frames. "You 'ave come back to moi!" Her scent began to build visibly.

"Oof!" Rhubella felt her breath squeezed from her body." I missed you too. I wanted so much to see you – but I've been studying non-stop."

"Moi aussi. But – eet iz ze weekend, time for ze relaxation, non?" Fifi's luxurious tail enwrapped Rhubella, pulling her close on the seat still warm from her night's rest.

"You really are pleased to see me. I just couldn't get away from Perfecto." Rhubella's tail swished on the smooth seat.

"Zat place." Fifi's ears went down. "Ze only surprise is you 'ave not, 'ow you say, bumped each other off by now."

"Well, there WAS that incident last year with the tactical Dip warhead someone smuggled in from Eastern Europe..." Rhubella recalled.

The skunkette shivered. "One month more and you will be free of all zat. Aftair - 'ave you ze plans?"

Rhubella smiled. She relaxed on the warm back seat, enjoying the feel of Fifi's tail wrapped around her. "Nothing that doesn't involve you." She kissed the purple and white girl lovingly.

Fifi gave an almost feline purr, leaning happily into the kiss. Her scent increased.

Just at that moment came a hail from outside. "Fifi? Anybunny home?"

Fifi glanced at the wing mirrors; she had glued on extra mirrors from other abandoned cars to cover all directions. "Eh! Eet eez like ze Acme Acres busses - ze wait for ages then three come togethair. I'ave been alone four days and now Babs and ze gang zey come to visit?" She gave Rhubella a quick smooch and opened the door. "Babs! Shirley! Mary! Ze instant party, non?"

Babs grinned at the sight of the pair on the back seat, and the visible cloud of skunkette scent hanging in the air. "You should have one of those redneck bumper stickers, Feef – "If this car's a'rockin, don't come a knockin". It's your birthday next week, I know - shall I get you one?"

Fifi blushed. "You 'ave come to join ze party?"

"Naah - we wouldn't all fit on that seat." Babs cocked her head critically. "We're on the way to the Acme Giga-Mall; want to come along?"

"Mais oui! I 'ave been putting ze nose to ze grindstone all ze week and living on ze dry textbooks. A leetle time to digest all zat learning will be fine. Eh, Ruby?"

Rhubella smiled. "Hanging out at a mall with the Acme crowd? At Perfecto they'd say that's SO beneath my dignity. With Fifi though - oh, yes!"

Twenty minutes later the five toons stepped off the bus at the Acme Acres Giga-Mall.

"I feel mondo greed vibes ... crass commercialisation totally running wild. Ewwww..." Shirley muttered, flicking her wing-fingers as if to throw mud off them.

"Sorry. That's from me." Babs grinned. "There's a perfect dress in there somewhere and I want it! Greedy for that? Guilty, guilty, guilty! Wonderful bridal dress, you won't escape Babs the Huntress!" She spin-changed to an Indiana Jones outdoor outfit, except instead of a whip she had a string of charge cards she snapped.

"Are you not in ... ze market, Shirley?" Fifi raised an eyebrow.

The loon sniffed." Well, fer sure, I could. Me and Plucky, we're getting major scale in-tune, even harmonious, sometimes. But I'm not like totally sold on the big retro "Promise to love, cherish and obey". So mondo heavy on the "obey". A spiritual blank cheque like that is so last-century."

As they walked into the great air-conditioned palace of purchasing, Mary Melody looked up at the distant roof. "I'm planning a long engagement myself, with Jaggi. If it's five years - we're both all right with that."

Just then the lift arrived and the five friends stepped in. Babs' eyes were wide as she read the directory screen. "Fifth floor - there's that new oriental bridal boutique, "Wedding peach." I've heard about that place." She could have spin-changed into any outfit she could imagine, but this was different. "It's just the place for me. When you think about it, I suppose I am peach-coloured ..."

Fortunately, the Japanese anime bridal wear franchise was quite used to toons with demanding tastes who insisted on trying out every style in the place.

"Eet ees a good thing Bustair is not 'ere," Fifi commented as Babs vanished into the changing-room for the twenty-third time.

"Why? Because it's bad luck for him to see the dress before the big day?" Rhubella was staring dreamily at row of display models - the "tail outside the dress" look was definitely back in, she noted with relief.

"Not only 'zat - by now 'e would be so dazed zat Babs she could appear in ze 1977 retro punk polythene bag dress and Bustair would nod 'is 'ead eef Babs asked if 'e liked it!"

Rhubella swished her naked tail, and smiled. Suddenly she took a deep breath. "Fifi. What colour would a purple and white skunkette bride look best in?"

Fifi's eyes went wide in a Wild Take that would have won bonus points in the Looniversity exams. She looked deep into Rhubella's eyes, feeling her heart pounding. "Ees zis ... a proposal?"

Rhubella kissed her broad pink nose. "Yes, Fifi. I don't care which of us wears the dress - or both. Fifi LaFume, will you marry me?"

"YES!" Fifi flung herself into Rhubella's arms and hugged with a force that Elmyra would have envied. "Oh, oui, oui, oui!" Toon heart shapes rose from the couple like bubbles from a bubble machine.

"Whoa!" Babs stepped out of the changing room, now back in her usual lilac skirt and yellow top. Her ears went right up at the sight. "Did I ... miss something?"

"It's a totally harmonious meeting of minds - and the rest." Shirley nodded approvingly. "So, are you going to like name the big day? If you want, I can check when the stars are favourable."

Rhubella blinked, still held tight in Fifi's arms. "After we graduate," she gasped, struggling for breath. "Apart from that - we'll let you know."

Mary clapped her hands together delightedly. "Another July wedding maybe? While everyone's still here? That'd be so great."

Babs grinned. "If you make it a week or so after Buster and me - we'd love to be there. Before that - we'll be on our Bunnymoon. With "Do Not Disturb" signs on the door. Big, glow-in-the dark signs."

"We'll let you know." Rhubella kissed her skunkette again. Suddenly her ears went up. "It's a good thing we're at the Giga-Mall already... is there a good place here for engagement rings?"

Lunchtime saw Babs having made a "definite maybe" decision on a white lace and taffeta bridal gown with a veil held up on an almost medieval styled wimple to clear her long ears.

"I can't believe you two chose rings in forty minutes flat!" Babs forgot her carrot salad for a minute to stare blissfully at the matching plain silver engagement rings Fifi and Rhubella wore as they walked paw in paw towards the food court. "Everyone will think it's a shotgun wedding!"

Fifi giggled. "Less is more, as zey say. Eet is ze partnair who counts more than ze whole Acme Bridal wear catalogue."

Rhubella pressed her coffee-bean nose to Fifi's broad pink one. She squeezed the purple furred paw in her own brown-furred hand. "A shotgun wedding? That sounds all right to me. Which one of us has the, umm, little surprise on the way ... and how do we manage it?"

"We weel try," Fifi said firmly. "We are Toons, Ruby - ze impossible eet ees just a script-change away."

"Oh yes, like Sweety and that Jurassic Park velociraptor she's dating." Babs imitated the pink canary's voice to perfection. "Poor little innocent birdie ... gonna be dragged off to his nest and get an egg the size of a watermelon off him!" She gave Sweety's trademarked wicked chuckle.

Mary Melody applauded. "I know she's a Toon but she's not the size of a watermelon herself. That's going to be ... difficult..."

"At Acme Loo the difficult we do at once, the impossible we just have to rehearse for," Babs grinned, her ears right up." And that pair are in full dress-rehearsals. Or is it undress rehearsals?" She pondered briefly. "Not that they wear much to start with ..."

"Encouraging, non?" Fifi relaxed at the table, Rhubella reaching back to smooth her huge striped tail through the seat's tail hole. "Out "dorm-mothair" Penelope LePew, she eez ze pussycat by birth – but aftair ze fur dyeing she and Professor Pepe weel 'ave ze family. I am, 'ow you say, jealous." She squeezed Rhubella's hand.

Rhubella smiled back, ordering an extra-large chocolate malt and two straws. "I can't do much about my tail. But … your teacher's not the only one who could dye a white stripe down her back."

"Mon Dieu…" Fifi's eyes went wide as she imagined the sight. "For moi – you would do zat?"

"You'd look like a long-tailed chipmunk," Shirley commented. "But if it gets your charkas energised … go for it!"

Babs looked on as Acme Acres' newest engaged couple shared their malt with a straw apiece, noses almost touching as they gazed into each others' eyes. She sighed wistfully." You know, what with Sweetie and Mr. Retro Scaly, I'm the only girl in class still shopping for a white dress." Her cotton-tail twitched. "Hmm. White's nice. But yellow would look good too …"

"You're forgetting Elmyra…" Mary Melody pointed out. This was not amazing. Most people usually tried to forget the red-wigged terror.

A general shudder swept across the room as if a cold wind had frozen the food court.

"Please…" Babs' ears went right down "not when I'm eating! There's an idea that'd put me right off my carrot cheesecake."

Mary raised an eyebrow. "I'm just saying. There's only two male toons in Acme forest she's never caught in her traps – Mean Gene Wolverine and the Big Bad Wolf… they have been known to play to lose. If she ever hauls them back to play house with … she might get more than she bargained for."

Babs' eyes crossed. "You know…" she said slowly "that's not the worst idea I ever heard. It'd serve her right. Binky Bunny's dating the wolverine right now … she can have a battle of wits over him with Elmyra."

"Zat should be ze short battle," Fifi observed. "With zo leetle ammunition on both sides."

Babs' ears went right down like wilted pink leaves. "But that'd really make me the last in the white-dress market. I'll go down in history as the slowest bunny on record! A disgrace to bunnydom! Woe is me!" She struck a tragic pose.

"Elmyra. She's the red-headed human toon?" Rhubella had heard tales of the Terror of Acme Acres even at Perfecto.

Mary Melody winced. "It's a wig. It's a genetic thing – she's really got as much hair as Sweety's dinosaur date. Even her eyebrows are painted on. We share a changing-room with her for the basketball team, we know."

Just then, Fifi's nose twitched at a scent she was hard-wired to respond to. Over by the tills, two tall and handsome male skunks were buying lunch. By their accents they seemed to be French-Canadian.

Rhubella followed her gaze. She smiled. "Invite them over, Fifi?"

Fifi La Fume looked at Rhubella and down at her engagement ring. "Non … surely not…" She whispered, her eyes wide.

"This sort of thing is going to happen, sooner or later." Rhubella looked into Fifi's eyes. "I'll have to learn to deal with it. Say what you like about Perfecto, they teach us to be realists." She cleared a space free of shopping bags; the food court was crowded and the newcomers were looking for a place to sit. Rhubella caught their attention and patted the seat invitingly.

"Eh, Mesdames – may we?" The taller of the two looked at the cleared space.

Babs, Mary and Shirley held their breaths, and not because of skunk scent. Fifi nodded graciously, her heart pounding. "Mais oui. Certainment."

They sat, and there followed a rapid-fire exchange in French for a minute,

"They're René and his younger brother Jacques, from Quebec, they're new in town and here for a summer working as team coaches at the Acme Bowl," Rhubella translated. "Fifi's the first skunkette under the age of forty they've seen in town since they got here last week."

"You speak French?" Babs asked, impressed.

Rhubella raised an eyebrow. "They do teach us a few things besides etiquette at Perfecto, you know."

Babs looked on, her ears up. Both René and Jacques were fine examples of young toon adults, maybe a year or two older than Fifi – and like her they were comfortable "in the fur", wearing only working caps and sports wristwatches.

Suddenly René smiled and broke off his conversation in French. "Alors – but it is zo rude of us, to talk zo when you do not all 'ave ze language! I was saying – I see Mademoiselle Fifi she wears ze engagement ring – eet must be ze luckiest toon in ze world who she 'as chosen."

Rhubella almost glowed. "Thank you. We know that toon. I'll pass along your complements."

"Ah! 'Ad we only arrived sooner." Jacques sighed wistfully. "Ze bad luck for us. Are zhere any more at 'ome like you?"

Fifi smiled. "In Toulouse, oui. But I am ze only LaFume femme in Acme Acres."

They talked for another half hour, before Jacques and René had to leave with many a backward glance at Fifi.

Rhubella looked at Shirley, her tail twitching. "I'm much mistaken if you weren't probing them like an X-ray machine – right down to their construction lines. What did you get?"

Shirley gave an embarrassed grin. "Fifi – you remember Johnny Pew? All the good looks and all the smooth moves in the book – but one mass of way toxic ego. Makes Plucky look like a Zen master, fer sure. He'd have used you like a doormat then left you behind without a thought."

"Le sigh. Zey were two more like zat? And zey looked so nice." Fifi's tail drooped like a wet rag.

"Umm… I've like got to tell you the truth, 'kay? Or my Aura would totally never forgive me." Shirley took a deep breath. "They were two genuine nice guys – their auras were as clear as crystal. Johnny Pew's was mud."

Fifi felt her heart pounding in her luxuriously furred chest. "Ze kind I 'ave been waiting years to find. And zey chose today to show up?"

It was Rhubella's turn to sigh. "This may not be the shortest engagement in history, but it feels like it." She looked at her ring sadly. "It's a good thing I kept the receipts for these."

Fifi gave a strange, animal-like whine like a whipped puppy as she looked at Rhubella. "Ruby! When I said I wanted to marry you – eet is ze truth!"

"After you'd had five years of chasing any male with an accidental back stripe," Rhubella's voice was level as she looked at Fifi. "Do you think those two would run away screaming?" She squeezed her skunkette's paw. "I'm glad you're getting the appreciation you deserve. Better late than never."

Fifi gulped. She turned to the loon. "Shirley – just because I 'ave promised my life and soul to anothair … is zees going to 'appen to me all ze time now?"

Shirley winced, taking a quick peek into the probability flows of the futures where a large number of skunk-type life lines were heading for near misses with her friend like asteroid tracks crossing Earth orbit. "Like, totally probably."

End Chapter One