Seven Brides for Seven Bunnies

(Author's note: This is the sequel to "Loonquest", set about 2 months later. Plucky's neighbours Gracie and Gladys appear for about 10 seconds and are named in the original cartoon, but don't get any lines.)

Chapter One

The city of Acme Acres in late September rested under a golden end-of-summer haze – a 10 percent wash of Marigold Yellow, listed as shade #4 on the model colour chart to be precise – as the more alert of its inhabitants noted the turning of the season. For some it was time to harvest the crops, for others it was time to pack away the beach ball and surfboard for another year and head home. At the city's famous Acme Looniversity the halls were still empty but smelling of polish and fresh paint; the building seemed to be holding its breath (not impossible for a Toon structure) and bracing itself for the impact of the usual mob of new and returning students eager to learn the fine and coarse arts of Comedy.

Of course, every year that meant some once familiar faces would be missing from its hallowed halls, their places in class taken by a new generation who would briefly wonder who the names written inside the desks and lockers had belonged to. Not all toons who graduated with their Degree of Lunacy ever managed to break into the world of fame and fortune they had studied hard for years to qualify for. Some, on the other hand, were already doing very nicely.

"I'm heeerrrreee!" At Acme Acres airport, a pink and white bunny waved gleefully at the city from the top of the aircraft boarding ramp. She was dressed in a colourful Asian robe that set off her fur skilfully, and silk scarves fluttered at her long ears. Behind her a blue and white bunny buck halted for a second, leaning nonchalantly against the fuselage door frame, wearing the top part of a white safari suit and slipping mirror shades into his pocket.

Babs Bunny looked around the airport, her ears drooping a little. "The last flight we got off had a few hundred more fans waving us."

"That was in Mumbai. Folk had just seen us on the big screen. I don't think they've even released the film over here yet. Anyway, when was the last time you watched anything that needed sub-titles?" Buster picked up his flight bag and followed his wife down the steps to the concrete where some familiar faces were visible in the crowd. "You've got your wish though – there's a camera team waiting for us, and at least Mary knows what we've been doing!"

"This is Mary Melody, at the airport reporting for K-ACME TV." As they approached, a pretty African-American lady reporter strode forwards with a microphone. She winked at Babs. "Arriving back in town are our latest film stars – they only graduated in July, and they've two films in the can already. Fresh from their success in Bollywood, Acme Acres' very own Babs and Buster Bunny!"

"Related." The rabbits said in sync, holding paws. Babs was bursting to hug Mary and tell her a million things, but first Mary had her job to do.

"The smash hit stars of the comic Bollywood hit 'You'll be sari!' and the forthcoming remake of 'Blue Danube,' 'Blue Indus'. How did you find the subcontinent?" Mary asked.

"Not a problem. We changed planes at Los Angeles, and eight hours later there we were." Buster deadpanned.

"Sub-continent? I thought it was super!" Babs gave her best grin for the camera a tall zebra toon was carrying just behind Mary's shoulder. "What's not to like? We got to nearly dance our paws off – and with toes like these, that takes a lot of dancing. They loved us – and I've brought home the recipe for Gajar Halwa, a carrot dessert that's to die for!"

"So many brave young carrots did," Buster inclined his head respectfully.

"And that's the word from Acme Acres' latest international stars. Watch your movie screens for developments, folks! Mary Melody at K-ACME, signing out." Mary switched off the microphone, and smiled. "Welcome home!"


An hour later, the scene was a freshly dug burrow under Acme Forest. It was cosy, still very basic and built just for two – but when the whole planet was there to be dug into, there was plenty of room for expansion as needed.

"We weren't in here three days after we came back from our Bunnymoon – there was Fifi's and Rhubella's wedding, then they headed East to France on their honeymoon and we headed West to Bollywood." Babs looked around, alone with Mary and relaxed, as Buster and Jaggi Di Speckle went out for supplies. "Settling in – we haven't. It's been hotels and film sets ever since. And we've Hollywood auditions next week." She relaxed, stretching out on the couch that had been in Buster's burrow. That bachelor burrow was now abandoned as per rabbit traditions, the car tyre suspended outside swinging in the wind awaiting a new resident. "What a rush!" She smiled slyly at her friend, taking in Mary's engagement ring and athletic figure. The staid reporter's jacket was neatly stored on a hangar by the door in the early Autumn heat, and Mary looked striking in her white shirt contrasting with her coffee-brown skin. "So, how is it with you and Jaggi? Any… interesting developments?" She winked.

Mary Melody smiled back, looking her friend in her brown eyes – Babs' blue contact lenses had gone the way of her pink ear-ribbons that Summer. "I'm making my way in the reporting business. That's our career, mine and Jaggi's. But if despite everything there's a little zebra-striped diversion turning up one day… if it's next year or next month, I'll be very happy with that. I've kept in touch with just about everybody. They're making news, I'm reporting news."

"Oh? I'm all ears." Babs's long pink ears twitched eagerly. "Everyone's doing well?"

"Umm." Mary went to the briefcase hung up by her jacket and pulled out a tablet computer. "I did this article on Concord Condor last week – he's over in WashingToon, he's doing very well." She tapped a few keys then handed it over to Babs, whose ears went right up at the sight of a familiar dim-looking buzzard enthusiastically shaking feather-hands with various doves and hawks whose beaks often featured on the news.

"Time for a new look in politics," Babs read "voters are tired of politicians who they only discover are idiots after taking such trouble to elect them. The new party candidate promises the voters will never be deceived that way." She dipped one ear. "Hmm. Sounds reasonable. No matter how badly it ends up, at least you can't say you're surprised."

"His party had to try something, with who he's running against. Look at what the opposition found." Mary flipped the page to show another familiar face; she and Babs winced at the sight of the stringy-haired, sallow-faced toon human who she recalled all too well from their first Summer vacation. It seemed there was a good chance that the new face in political power would be wearing a hockey-mask and frenziedly wielding power tools.

"With Mister Hitcher, we have another crossover hit scoring big points with both young and old," she read out, her fur bristling in panic. "He brings in the direct 'chainsaw-wielding maniac' home demographic, the younger 'chainsaw-wielding maniacs are sorta cool' vote and the 'let's not annoy that chainsaw-wielding maniac, honey' mass voting public." Babs gave a theatrical sigh. "That's what I love about our great Nation," she declared "absolutely anyone can get to be President!"

"Or a movie star." Mary nodded. "So… what was it like? I heard your film "Blue Indus" is a religious film? Isn't that a bit off track for you?"

"Oh, not over there…" Babs winked. "We played actors doing a film – which was pretty circular. Buster played an actor playing a wandering deity – and their deities come on down to party! Wait till you see the scenes with him as Krishna and all those pretty milkmaids – Blue-boy was perfect for the part, that's the traditional fur colour they wanted anyway. It's a Deity thing."

"All those milkmaids? Straight off your bunnymoon and you didn't get jealous?" Mary tried to keep the amazement out of her voice.

Babs stood, concentrated for a second then spin-changed into a dozen classically attired Indian bunny maidens, all very different, one after another. She transformed back to her regular self and sat down, panting with effort. "Phew! That takes it out of you. The ones in the close-ups were all me. They had a famous lady singer dub in the songs – but that's OK, everyone does that out there."

"A one-girl harem." Mary nodded, impressed. She struck a pose herself. "He who is tired of Babs, is tired of bunnies," she proclaimed.

Babs snickered. "It'll be a long time before that happens. And I'll tell you something else I found out about what happened when I spin-change. Better still, I'll show you. Just a sec." She stepped over to the bathroom and stood in the shower cubicle. Without turning on the water, she spin-changed – and a second later, a completely drenched Lady Gaga rabbit impersonation was grabbing a towel. "Ooh! I got caught out in the monsoon like this yesterday on the way to the airport – and I didn't want to be dripping all over First Class."

The human's dark eyes went wide. Spin-changing was a rare Toon talent to the degree Babs had it; most folk worked hard enough to develop a single "transform". Being able to turn into anything she had in mind (and Babs' mind was scarily strange at times) was one of the things that had won her the almost unknown top academic honours of 'summa cum loony'. Mary's keen mind worked fast. "When you changed back… the form you changed out of stays – just as it was the second you left it?"

Babs nodded happily. "To the second. I checked!" She Spun into a Nurse Babs outfit that would have the pulse rate of any male toon soaring. "This costume comes with a stopwatch. It works fine while I'm wearing it. When I'm not – the clock stops. No time passes." She paused. "And when I fall asleep, I flip back to normal. Nobody ever woke up still in a spin-change."

Mary Melody had never claimed to be top of the class in "wicked humour" back at Acme Loo, but she could see there were certain possibilities. Although there was nobody around, she whispered in Babs' long ear.

Babs nodded, and snickered. "Oh yes. That's going to prove very handy, one way or another. There's some forms I took Buster was very keen on. I'd show you which but first… they really, really need a shower!"


A few miles away on the placid waters of Lake Acme, another two of the Looniversity graduates were enjoying their afternoon. Fifty yards offshore there was a tethered platform where an oddly matched pair was relaxing. One was a tall, thin grey-furred toon coyote with a studious look, currently wearing a pair of red swimming shorts and looking at the online ACME catalogue on a waterproof E-reader.

Reclining on an airbed with one foot trailing in the cool water, was someone very different. Where Calamity Coyote was dusty grey, Marcia Martian was black – an utter and unearthly black that gave her the appearance of a hole in the film or a statue cast from a solid piece of the abyssal voids between the farthest stars. One expected to see light bending in to be swallowed by her form.

""Like, way cool, daddy-o," Marcia looked over the coyote's shoulder and noted what he was reading. "Chill! Got the frothy water. That catalogue's a happening thing."

Calamity blushed slightly as he scanned through the pages on giant slapstick seltzer bottles. Would you like one for your birthday? His raised sign seemed hesitant.

Marcia's long lashed eyes went wide, and she nodded. Her eyes were the only part of her face – actually her whole body – that were actually visible. From under a bathing cap a shoulder-length mop of red-orange hair spilled down to her shoulders, and the cap itself had a fetching pink bow. Being a Martian, in her Earth outfits she had to concentrate on showing off what the books called her 'Tertiary sexual characteristics' as other aspects of Martians functioned more like a Yale lock and a Zenith carburettor respectively. "You know how that hits me, hep-cat."

Calamity took in the scene; the acres of fresh water and bright sunshine. It was pleasant enough to him – but the scientist extrapolated what it must mean to Marcia, whose people used drops of water as currency. Regular fresh water was a marvel to Martians, but that was not the ultimate. It had been a pure accident the year before in the Gags and Props 701 slapstick humour class when Plucky had ducked and Marcia had been soaked with a jet of seltzer water – freezing cold and heavily carbonated, just the way it used to be found on Mars. The effect on Marcia had been memorable, starting her metabolism shifting down a pathway that had not been seen since water flowed in the old canals of her homeland.

If you keep this up you'll be a 7 2/3 by mid-Winter here. Next Martian year, maybe an 8! Calamity's sign somehow expressed awe. They were both post-graduate students, not at Acme Loo (which did not offer such courses) but at the National Pie Accelerator Complex in Akron Ow-Hi-Oww, to where they would be returning after meeting Professor Coyote. Marcia was his research project, and even for a long-lived Toon there was a lifetime's work involved in studying her development. Martians lived for centuries, their fundamental model sheets changing with age and environmental factors as the climate changed wildly; though Marcia had once told Babs her people had eleven and two thirds genders, that was only half of the story. Enough carbonated water and – that'll be a sight to see.

Marcia probably grinned, but with her Colour Out Of Space complexion earthly eyes could not detect it. "Uncle Marvin he's only met one Eight, and she's old. It'd be hep to be a Queen type!"


Only a mile or so away from the happy scene, the swamps upstream of Lake Acme steamed in the early Autumn heat. In a well-tended part of the reed beds, a small island housed a traditional open nest woven of reed and willow, where a green duck sat alone. Or not quite alone; under his green feathered rump a careful observer could have made out the forms of two large, pale eggs.

"This is ridiculous!" Plucky Duck rose to address the uncaring wetlands, as he looked around the nesting site. "Here's me, natural star and hero to the nation – doing this!" He winced slightly. It had not been a good month for him. For that matter, he had been treated shamefully since July when some deeply secret conspiracy had denied his rightful place as top-scoring head of the class at graduation and handed him a minimal Pass mark. Since then things had only gone downhill – and living in a swamp as he did to begin with, that took some doing.

As he grumpily sat back on the nest, his perceptions began to swim as he recalled the month before. Oddly enough, just like… a flashback.

Monday:

Shirley buried the last crystal of the nineteen exactly positioned underground in a complex pattern around the geometric centre of the freshly built nest, and gave a sigh of relief. "That's, the most harmonious configuration I can make. Should give you and our eggs the best protection I can give while I'm away – so you totally won't need that junk." Her bill twitched up disdainfully at the baseball bat strapped onto Plucky's rucksack – the only luggage he had been allowed to bring.

"Have a heart, Shirl!" Plucky pleaded. "We have a house! It's not a mile away! It's no mansion but it has a roof and a door – and my stereo and TV set! Mains power! Hot water!"

Shirley sighed, but her expression remained stern. "We've been through this like how many times, Plucky? I looked at twenty-three energy alignments around here and this is the most auspicious place for our hatchlings." Her expression softened at that idea. "You know I have to go. This is the very best I can do for you."

"Razza-fracking Feng Shui…" Plucky groused. There was no point in merely thinking such things; with Shirley's mind-reading powers he might as well honestly say it. "What about your house? That's got a door and a roof – and isn't that up to your beak in protective spells and mystic stuff?"

"Here, Plucky." Shirley said firmly, pointing at the nest. "This is our nest, the one we built." She hesitated. "Later on – we might expand it. A woven thatch roof, maybe. But our chicks are going to be hatched as part of the ecosystem."

"You just want me out of extension cord range of mains power." Plucky looked up defiantly.

Shirley turned her slightly glowing blue eyes at her mate levelly; her aura had returned, grumbling somewhat, once their eggs had been laid and Shirley's metabolism had stopped craving fish and shellfish. "No incubator, we agreed. And no vegging out watching evil horror films on TV or playing war games on your Numbmindo console. Imagine what that'd do to our hatchlings' auras!" She shuddered.

"So what am I going to do, all this time when you're off getting all the fame and glory? As for war games – you're a fine one to talk." Plucky looked up with undisguised envy at the uniform Shirley wore. Strictly speaking it was just the jacket; a parsimonious Government had long ago decreed that serving Toons who normally went bare-tailed in public would not be issued needless pants at national expense.

Ensign McLoon, newest recruit to the Abnatural Forces unit known only as Unit Four Plus Two, sighed. "Count your blessings." And with that she was off: there was a bright orange Abnatural Forces helicopter just landed in the middle of Acme Park waiting for her. True, its garish logo claimed it belonged to 'Tears from Heaven – cloud-seeding and wedding celebrations R Us. Bridal Showers a speciality!' Her plain green uniform claimed she was a 'Parks Department Junior Warden' for that matter – but Unit Four Plus Two was just that sort of a unit.

Tuesday:

Plucky's vigil had already felt like a ten-year stretch (and in a Toon prison, that much stretching would at least qualify him for basketball teams by the time he got out) when the peace of the swamp was broken. He looked up, hope in his heart at the sight of two familiar faces – the stocky rooster Fowlmouth, and the whirling Chaos spiral Dizzy Devil.

"Hey, Pluckster!" Fowlmouth stuck out a white feather-hand to shake. "Me and Diz stopped to say so long – we're in a da-gum band, we're heading out on tour."

"Dizzy play drums. Dizzy play steel drums. With hammers!" The purple Tasmanian Devil's grin could have swallowed a watermelon.

"Oh great. Oh joy." Plucky's hard-to-genetically-explain teeth gritted as he tried to smile back. "You've made a record already?"

"Da-gum right! We gotta whole album out online. We couldn't get a songwriter to work for nuthin' so we hadta do covers of freakin' old Christmas Carols – it went viral last week. Gee, who'd a thought it?" Fowlmouth shrugged. "That's the music biz for ya."

"Dizzy do dumb old carols in Death Metal style! Yaaa!" Dizzy nodded manically. "We rich! Now we go on tour and party and throw limos into hotel swimming pools every night!"

"I'm da-gum sorry you can't join us, Pluckster," Fowlmouth sighed. "You're ace on keyboards, we coulda used you. But – ya gots better things to do now." He shook feather-hands with Plucky, a tear coming to his eye. "I hadta come by and bury the hatchet between us, okay? The best bird won. Chee, you and Shirley… you oughta be called, Lucky Duck."

"Dizzy see Shirley yesterday – in uniform. Shirley look hot girl now!" Dizzy nodded, ignoring the sharp elbow Fowlmouth drove into his ribs. "But Dizzy got a hotter one. Mitzi dances on stage with band. Look great in video."

"So you'd have hadta stay behind anyway," Fowlmouth shook his head sadly. "We gots another three girls in da band. I mean, what kinda moron would risk making Shirley jealous? Shirley. What a girl." His rooster comb drooped as he shook his head, and straightened up. "I'd give my da-gum beak and feathers to swap places with ya, Pluckster. But hey! That's Fate for you. And boy, you sure got dealt four aces." With that, they left. Neither noticed a certain green mallard slowly turning purple as he held his breath.

A minute later, a plume of special-effects steam rose above the swamp as if something had suffered a runaway meltdown. A scorched green feather rose a mile high on the thermals.

Wednesday:

Even in August in California, whenever it was dramatically suitable it rained. A thin cloud of steam rose from Plucky's feathers as he still visibly fumed. "I have a house! Shirley has a house! I oughta up sticks and move… us." He ceased to steam as he began to scheme, the energies diverted elsewhere. "Yeah. That's it. I'd still be on the nest like I promised – but in the dry." Mentally he sketched rebuilding the reed wall of his hut into a canopy covering the relocated nest, within reach of his stereo and his games console. His feather-fingers twitched in withdrawal symptoms; he had not been on his Numbmindo system in weeks.

Suddenly, he sighed. There was no fooling Shirley that way. For a New Ager, she had some surprisingly old-fashioned values, mostly about a Toon keeping their word no matter what. That was why she had joined up; she had promised it to the suave and enigmatic Colonel Fenix (admit it, Plucky, he forced his ego back determinedly you think he's pretty cool and you want to be doing all that stuff yourself).

Yeah – and I should. Drakes do that. They don't sit on eggs. She's the one who should be here! I should never have let her sweet-talk me into that dumb deal. He thought disconsolately of the ACME memory-foam pillow in his house; the salesman had not actually said putting the textbooks under it would let him absorb their contents while he slept rather than sweating on the hard grind of studying – but it was memory foam, what else would it do? If it'd had worked, I'd have got the top marks and there wouldn't have been a thing Shirley could do about it. She'd be here, and I could tell that stuffed-shirt Colonel to go fish. Maybe I can sue ACME. So what if Calamity and Professor Coyote never managed it? Well, I'm smarter than both of them together...

Just then, the phone rang. The rain never bothered it; he was a waterfowl and needed a waterproof model whatever the weather. A broad grin came to Plucky's beak as he recognised his Hollywood agent. "Mister Rosengeldensteinengeberger! Great to hear from you!"

"Plucky, my boy! Have I got a part for you?" For once, Mr. R was in an expansive mood. "They're casting for a voice actor at Flixar – you've got just the voice they want. I spent all morning telling them so. So come and schlep it along to their studios at Palm Beach. Auditions in two days' time. The film's going to be massive. Whadda ya say?"

Plucky opened up his bill, his heart hammering visibly – then stopped. This was the kind of call he had been waiting for all year. But there was a matter of a nest and eggs between him and accepting. "Can't they do it over the phone? If it's a voice part anyway?"

There was a disapproving clucking from the far end. "Plucky, they want to meet you. Rule One, be nice to the studio, be sure they don't have to be nice to you. When can you get there?"

Plucky groaned. "I can't."

"Plucky, my boy. This is the film industry. You want to start, you need to hit the ground running – there's nothing fresher in your resume than last month's Looniversity degree… and it's not the tastiest I ever saw. I'm in business for you – but ten percent of "no" is what sort of business?" Mr. R switched on the video screen to wag a finger at the reluctant star. "Think about this. I'll call you tomorrow. Be in."

The rain continued to pour all afternoon. That evening, the sun came out as Plucky heard the distant sound of a car stopping on the nearest road two hundred yards away. "Company!" For a few minutes his spirits were quite lifted until he saw just had come slumming.

"Well, hello Mister Family Man." Roderick Rat was elegantly dressed in hand-woven hunting tweeds that cost more than every piece of clothing Plucky had ever owned. "Sweet Margot and I heard about your – promotion." He gave a mock sigh. "We're off on our travels. I had thought of asking you along – golf caddies are so expensive where we're bound for – but it looks as if you've better things to do."

Margot Mallard took in the sight, her eyes flashing. "We just had to say goodbye. And – hello to the new additions." She waved flippantly towards the nest.

Roderick snickered. "I'll leave you two to your tender farewells." His professionally polished tail swished as he strode off to marvel at how the other 99.99 percent somehow managed to live.

For a few seconds Plucky and Margot looked at each other, taking in the sight. Margot wore a precisely tailored business skirt suit that still managed to show off her stunning figure. Her purple head-feathers were piled up in an artistically arranged coiffure that nowhere in Acme Acres was qualified to have created. Margot smiled.

"Well, isn't that a sight." Her minimal tail feathers twitched, as she took in the view. "Plucky – you and Shirley actually wove that nest yourselves? With your bare hands?"

Plucky gulped. He nodded, his eyes crossing as he looked up at Margot. "Sure! It's what we birds do, you know?"

Margot raised an eyebrow. She took in a deep breath, about to unleash one of the devastating one-liners that had made her the terror of Perfecto – and then abruptly changed her mind. Looking around to confirm nobody was watching, she sat down on one of the dryer parts of the island, just out of reach of the nest. "Quaint. Such a sweet, old-fashioned notion. But on the other hand… a rather... intriguing idea." She paused. "And actual eggs, like dinosaurs used to lay. My grandmother was the last one in my family who hatched from an eggshell. I'm not… set up that way." She took a deep breath, her tailored jacket straining tight.

Plucky nodded, unable to tear his eyes away as Margot leaned forwards seductively. "I can see that."

Margot gave a throaty chuckle. She propped her elbow on her knee and rested her bill on her fist, her gaze boring deep into Plucky's eyes. "Oh, I've always been grateful to Great-Grandmother and her tastes in dates. I have fine feathers on the outside, and inside – rather more evolved. And so very much nicer. Even for another avian. Danforth thought so, and he was always boasting about being a pure pedigree bird. Rather tiresomely towards the end."

"The end? What happened to him?" Plucky had heard Margot was the star pupil of Perfecto's Hatta Mari, who held various world records for Toon fatalities in the femme fatale stakes.

Margot shrugged. "Perfecto graduation happened. Or not, in his case. There's never room at the top for everyone. Maybe you'll find him begging for change at the bus depot someday, since I cleaned him right out." Her eyes went wide in delight seeing the shock on Plucky's beak. "Oh, yes. That's the way it goes at Perfecto. It's very like… you spend hours playing 'Toon Tank Online', don't you?"

"Yeah." Plucky's feathers suddenly bristled. "But how did you know?"

"Oh, please. We have detailed dossiers on all of you. I could look up your password and scrub all your scores if I cared. Graduating from Perfecto is like… in the game, when you and the opposition surprise each other. Surprise, look what's coming round the corner at point-blank. You both have a round in the breech. What happens?

"You win or die." The green mallard felt his head-feathers standing on end, even as he felt his eyes drawn to Margot's. There was a cold, reptilian intellect there despite her smouldering looks and obvious curvaceous mammal ancestry.

"Mmm. First one fires and hits, wins. Just like at Perfecto - no second place prizes. Dear Danforth! If he'd been just that tiny bit smarter – well." For a second Margot's façade slipped, as she looked around the swamp. The phrase 'you don't have to be nice on the way up – because you're not coming down' was so instilled in the Perfecto ethos that it was rarely spoken aloud; it never had to be. And yet – the swamp had a certain naïve charm, and toons whose pockets had been cleaned out could still weave a free reed nest and fish for clams, she reflected. She realised with an inward shudder that she could have ended up somewhere like this. There were no tears to be shed for Danforth wherever he had ended up; he would have shed none for her. "And you, Plucky – you won the main prize." She gestured towards the eggs. "I should congratulate you. But I'm surprised to see you stuck here."

Plucky hesitated. He had told himself that this was just a temporary glitch in his career – that Shirley would never make it in the military, even if it was Abnatural Forces. He had been sure that she'd be back in a week, either quitting or thrown out. Instead he drew himself up proudly. "My girl's serving in an important job. Making sure all the stuff in the horror films stays fiction."

"Oh, bravo!" Margot relaxed, grinning. "And you volunteered to hold the fort and look after the rugrats. I hope you're getting plenty of sleep. Because as soon as those eggs hatch – that'll be the end of that." She smiled in delight at the expression on Plucky's face. He hasn't thought about it. He actually hasn't thought about how it's going to be. "Oh, Plucky! I'm no mind-reader but don't tell me – you're guarding those eggs like they were just a pair of valuable pet rocks? That's the prize and the future you won. Squalling brats and two a.m. feeds, used diapers from next month onwards and tantrums pretty soon after. No bright lights and cheering fans for Plucky Duck now. No Emmies or Oscars in the family – unless Shirley decides to call her chicks that."

"She'll be back! And soon. I know it." Plucky strove to keep his tone confident and defiant despite the rapid sinking feeling in his feathered body. Against a Perfecto graduate he might as well be bleeding in a shark-tank and expect the sharks not to notice, and well he knew it.

Their eyes met, searchingly. Margot's silvery laugh was like tinkling icicles falling into the cold darkness of a crevasse. "Bravo again! So, did she hand you her crystal ball 'for the duration'? It's not up to her now. She could end up anywhere in the world, for as long as it takes. And if that Martian from your class gets a panic call from home and the folk in WashingToon want to help out against the Space Spectres of Olympus Mons – into the rocket she and her squad go." She looked at the mallard from under half-closed eyelids. "Poor Plucky. I hear she didn't even bother to marry you. Just dumps her eggs in your lap and it's arrivederchi." So long, sucker, was her unspoken thought.

"Shirley's got a job she has to do first. But she'll be back." The mallard stuck his beak out, but winced inside. Even after attending the Bunny's wedding and Fifi's with Rhubella, Shirley had refused his offer of a wedding ring. "Like, you're my mate, Plucky, and these are our eggs," he could still hear her annoyed tones "and there's no church, temple or judge in the world that can add anything to that."

"Mmm. I hope so. But think about it." Margot shook her head wonderingly. "She'll be amongst her own kind now, spook-hunters and mystics and psychics, oh my! Going into danger, sharing risk and victory. That pushes toons together, you know. Pretty soon someone at home's getting that official military FM-177 "Dear John" form letter. Of course, I hope I'm wrong." Margot sighed deeply. She sat back, enjoying watching the expressions wash over the mallard's face. Her elegantly groomed tail-feathers twitched.

Well, Danforth had the attractions of money and position – but I'm not short of that. Roderick is amusing, though we both know only one of us will walk away in one piece. Plucky has nothing like that. A mallard who is actually no threat is a very… exotic idea, even for me. And he surprisingly has something of – interest now. Margot felt her tail feathers twitching, as a delightful idea came to her. She relaxed, shifting to a more comfortable pose and feeling the drake's eyes drawn to her assets.

"It must be an awfully – lonely job." She shook her head, trying to recall from her acting classes what sympathy sounded like. "Everyone's gone and left you. No lights, camera, action. Certainly no action." Her eyes scanned the nest; it was certainly built to sleep two in comfort, and was lined with a mix of easily regenerated green and white feathers. "You must have plucked yourself bald to line that nest!" And that loon-girl must have looked like an oven-ready broiler, the delightful image came to mind. Oh, how I'd have liked to have seen that

"Lonely? Who, Me?" Plucky gave a nervous laugh. "This is my home neighbourhood! Acme Loo wasn't my whole life. I have other friends, neighbours! Gladys and Gracie drop round with supplies every other day. Look around." He gestured at the reed swamp, which suddenly was as quiet and deserted as the far side of the moon. "Heh."

"Well." Margot undid the top button of her jacket. There was a quiet pop. She laughed inwardly, looking at the drake's expression as he realised underneath she had stopped "concealing". Though Margot did not share Plucky or Shirley's dress sense and walk around with her bare tail-feathers on show, her Toon ancestry qualified her to if she wished. "I can see just one single, solitary mallard. Very single. And nobody else around to see." She nodded at the eggs. "And they won't tell."

Plucky's eyes crossed; his beak dropped open to hit the floor in an Avery #15 Take. "Margot? I…"

Margot Mallard stepped towards him, almost touching the nest. At the last second she halted, recalling the advice from her mentor – 'if it looks too easy, look harder for the trap'. She stroked a hand through her coiffure, dislodging a purple feather – and dropped it on the nest.

There was a brilliant flash, as if vengeful lightning had struck, blasting the trespassing feather to ash.

Margot threw her head back and laughed in delight. "Oh, yes!" Her tail-feathers spread wide, her eyes shining as she read Plucky's astonishment. "You actually didn't know about that. Makes you wonder what other little surprises you're sitting on that Shirley didn't tell you about." Her eyes flicked over the eggs, and she thrilled to see Plucky's panicked gaze following hers. She drew herself up, casting him a smouldering glance – though not as smouldering as she would have been had she stepped into that nest for two. "Well – my estimation of her just went up a notch. Maybe more."

With that she turned and strutted back towards the distant limousine, a satisfied smile on her bill. A girl with the smarts and the powers to do something like that, chose him. And even went as far as carrying his eggs. That makes things interesting. And she left him – legally unclaimed. I wonder why?

Margot turned back to blow the dazed-looking mallard a kiss before rounding the corner of the reed banks out of sight. Mmmm. It's an old-fashioned notion but - he gives good egg.

Thursday:

Evidently the Great Scriptwriter Above had decided some extra weather hardships would add amusingly to Plucky's trials. After the rain, the full August sunshine beat down mercilessly.

"The heat! The heat!" Plucky stood clear of the eggs and spun into a classic Foreign Legion uniform. Unfortunately he had visualised it all too accurately. "Whoever chose them dark-blue overcoats for the middle of a desert?" He mopped a steaming brow with the sleeve before shrugging out of the coat and rigging it with sticks to make an improvised sunshade.

There was a giggle behind him. He turned and sighed in relief. "Gracie! Gladys!" He recognised his neighbours, two toon ducks who like most of the population had not gone to Acme Loo. "It's great to see you!" The sack of groceries each carried were also a very welcome sight; he and Shirley had arranged for regular supply runs while he was nest-bound.

Gracie smiled. She and Gladys were purebred plain avians with curly hair-effect head feathers down to their shoulders; hers was light brown while Gladys' was auburn. "We all missed you around the old pool. Are you settling in?"

Plucky struck a heroic pose. "Oh, I'll live. Sacrificing my youth and beauty to stern and noble duty..." He gave a stoic sigh.

Gladys and Gracie looked at each other. "We think it's a shame too," Gladys confided. "We were so looking forwards to seeing your name in lights."

"So many films you were meant to star in! We've been hearing you tell us about it for years." Gracie nodded. She went to put the groceries sack inside the nest – and her elbow brushed the nest's rim.

"No!" Plucky threw himself across the nest in an effort to stop her, the Foreign Legion uniform becoming virtual again and blinking out of existence as his whole concentration was suddenly elsewhere. Gracie flinched back, grabbing at the nest edge in an effort to avoid falling flat on her tail-feathers.

Nothing happened. No vengeful lightning charred her to Chinese-style crispy duck slices. Plucky blinked, looking at his neighbours. "Heh. Just… practicing my better-than-cat-like reflexes. For the martial arts roles I'll have. Gotta stay sharp!"

Gladys giggled. "I told you, Gracie. He's a duck who just won't give up! I wish I had your talent, Plucky."

"So do I," Gracie sighed. "Five years at Acme Looniversity, what they must have taught you! I can see what you won, though. It's not one of the famous glittering prizes – but it's worth a lot more. It's worth everything." She looked down at the eggs, a dreamy expression on her bill.

Plucky looked up from the large grocery bag he was intently rummaging in. "Say what?" He seized something at the bottom and held his prize aloft. "A candy bar! Oh thank you, thank you!"

Gracie smiled. "It's not breaking the diet sheet Shirley gave us – it's calorie-free. They're promoting it everywhere. 'Luxovice Lightweight'. It's on all the TV ads."

"TV. Remind me, won't you." Plucky sat back on the hand-built nest, sagging slightly. "This is the twenty-first century and I'm stuck in a nest with no mains power. What energy Shirley's plugged it into will even 'fowl up' battery powered stuff, apart from the phone she hexed. I've tried."

"That's a shame. But at least it's a nice day to sunbathe. We've got to get back now, though. See you Saturday!" With that Gracie waved, picked up the returning garbage bag from their last supply run and headed out, feather-hand in hand with Gladys back towards their empty nest.

"No TV sets. Hah. Still – there are a few traces of civilisation. Like this!" Plucky held the candy bar as if it was gold bullion. He had eaten nothing like it since July; dining with Shirley still involved far too much humanely harvested free-range seaweed for his taste, and having all the money she had been in charge of the grocery orders.

Just then the phone rang. His expression as he grabbed it went from joy to worry in two frames as he saw who it was and guessed why he would be calling. "Mister Rosengeldensteinengeberger. Hello!"

The raven had switched on his video phone and looked at his client reprovingly. "Plucky, Plucky. Today's the deadline. The folk at Flixar want to see you, guy. Did poor Solly Rosengeldensteinengeberger here wear his tail-feathers out for nothing in their waiting room?"

Plucky tried and failed to stop his head-feathers bristling out in panic. Talk about between a rock and a hard place, he inwardly winced. Sure, this nest's not too rocky – but Hollywood is a hard place all right. "Something's come up. I'll have to write you a rain cheque."

His Agent sighed. "It's one thing to turn down a project when you've better things to do. But tell me, bubs, have you?"

Plucky reached for comfort to the candy bar – and dropped it. Grabbing for it he let go the phone – which fell into the nest, the camera getting a clear view of the two well-cared-for eggs.

"Ooops – sorry." Plucky retrieved the phone. "About that appointment…"

Suddenly Mister R's beak was wreathed in a smile. "You shoulda told me! Hey, I take it all back. So, you do have better things to do. I'm a family man myself. Boy, they'll run you ragged for ten hard years. And then…"

"Yes?" Plucky turned pale. Ten years was more that you got for grand theft of the less fashionable autos, and jails had at least Mystery Meat at mealtimes.

Mister R laughed. "Then you find out your troubles are just beginning! I'll keep your details on file – just in case. Regards to your good wife!"

"But I…" Plucky's beak opened in shock – but the screen was blank already. He stared at the blank handset.

A plume of steam began to arise from the steamed mallard. "Why, that cheap phony… and he's about as kosher as a bacon and blue cheese sandwich… with oysters on the side." Through sheer fluke Plucky had once discovered his agent's real name was Frank Johnson, but like many folk working either side of the cameras in Hollywood he had changed it for professional reasons in one direction or another. Plucky had always planned to pull out the secret as a trump card when he really needed one – he was now furious he had left it too late.

Friday:

It rained. Neither Mr. R nor anybody else phoned or called on the nest in the swamp. A soaked mallard sat on the nest from dawn till dusk and counted the raindrops. At noon his self-control snapped and he reached for the candy bar he had been saving till sundown; in the groceries there had been one included per day.

"Ahh. The miracles of modern science." He wiped the raindrops off the wrapper, and regarded the confectionary fondly. "Luxovice Lightweight," he read "Using the latest technology we offer you the full taste of chocolate – with no calories whatsoever." Hurriedly he stripped off the wrapper and gorged; for a change the advertising seemed to be completely true at least about the taste. "Well, it's not made by Acme – and that's a change too," he shrugged. The manufacturer was an unfamiliar company, "Resorblus Inc."

At half past twelve there was still a soaked mallard sitting on a lonely nest. The difference now was – he now had a massive craving for another Luxovice Lightweight bar, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Plucky's flashback snapped back from the unpleasant past to the unpromising present, as a distant hail alerted him. His eyes lit up at the sight of a blue and a pink bunny making their way through the reeds. "Oh boy! Babysitters!"

"Hiya, Pluckster," Buster had shed his white safari suit and wore a tan sports jacket. The buck had trimmed down considerably in the tropical heat, and eight hours a day of vigorous Indian dance had left him and Babs visibly well-toned. "How are you keeping?"

"Like a lettuce on the shelf, nothing to look at but its own sell-by date. Now I know how an egg-cosy feels," Plucky growled.

Babs' eyes grew misty, spotting the eggs. "Oh my. Aren't they the most adorable? What'll they be?"

"Waterfowl, we can only hope," Buster mused.

Plucky sniffed. "Just you watch – there'll be a boy mallard and a loon girl, you bet."

Babs looked down at the eggs. "Bet? You mean you didn't ask Shirley? She'd know. She'd have known all along."

"Oh, ha ha. It is to laugh. I know how these conventions work. What else could they be?" The green mallard cast her a scornful glance.

The bunnies exchanged looks. Exactly how Buster's ears managed to semaphore Plucky never paid much attention in biology class, was hard for a non–rabbit to follow.

Babs gave a wistful sigh. "Bunnies and eggs just go together. Easter or not, it's a culture thing. If you want a half hour break... could I try nest-sitting?"

Plucky was out of the nest so fast there were no intervening frames. "Yes! Yes! It's a cosy nest – you'll love it! Try it out as long as you like – feel free to enjoy all the... facilities."

"Such as they are," Buster commented drily as one spin-change later Nurse Babs gently stepped into Plucky's place and sat cross-legged, the eggs shielded under her skirt. "I take it you could use a walk."

Plucky laughed maniacally. "A walk! I could use a migration. Some seabirds make it to Antarctica from here. Now I know why." He stretched his back, smoothing out his tail-feathers as he walked around the corner of the reed groves. "I'd forgotten there was another view in the world."

Buster raised an eyebrow. "Seriously, Plucky – how can it be that bad? You've got everything in life you ever asked for." There's a warning proverb about that, he thought.

Plucky looked around fearfully. "How bad? Do you know what Shirley did to me? Sure, I'd said I'd do anything I could to help when the eggs came but…"

Buster looked at him. "Well?"

"Shirley grabbed hold of my mind. She was in a mind-meld with me the whole time. I felt – everything she did. Every second of it. It was horrible." The mallard shuddered uncontrollably, eyes wide in panic. "It's true what they say – there are Things that Man was Not Meant to Know."

End Chapter One