Lifeís Dream
The Journal of Pandora & Karl
By Bernard Doove © 2006 - 2007

Chapter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


Chapter 1: Unexpected Attractions  


Hanging over the rapids Pandora wondered for the hundredth time what had possessed her to try to cross the old rope bridge. It had obviously been decaying, unused for years, and it was difficult enough for a foxtaur to cross even in the best of conditions. Yet here she was, broken ropes tangling a foreleg, her hind legs slipped between the rungs, her weight basically on just one dangerously creaking rope, while her balance was barely maintained by hanging on to another overhead rope with her hands. Try as she might, she could not get her paws into a position to regain footing to continue across what remained of the bridge without overbalancing and toppling into the rapids that were swirling noisily below her. If she fell in and she wasnít killed smashing into rocks, she would almost certainly drown for being unable to get out of the river due to the steep sides of the chasm it flowed through. However, her arms were trembling now from the effort of maintaining her tenuous hold, and it would not be long now before she would be unable to hold on any more.

"Help! Help!" she yelled at the top of her voice once again. As all the previous times, the only thing that she heard above the noise of the rapids was a faint echo from the walls of the gorge. She felt her tired fingers slipping on the rope, and no longer had the energy to regain their grip for the thousandth time.

ĎThis is it,í she thought to herself. ĎIt looks like my destiny was to come out here to die. That sure solves my problem, even if I donít like the method.í Just as she had almost decided to consign herself to the whims of the river though, a voice came from the trees on the bank in front of her.

"Hang on! Iím coming!"

Because of the sag of the rope and the position of the owner of that voice, Pandora could not see who was calling, but he sounded male. After what seemed an eternity of waiting, she caught a glimpse of clothing, then a rope sailed through the air to land in front of her, lying there for a moment before it began to slide through the bridgeís ropes.

"Grab the line and Iíll haul you in!" came the voice again.

This time she thought she glimpsed a head but had missed seeing more as her eyes had followed the line. "I canít!" she wailed. "My arms are barely holding on now. Iíll never be able to hang onto it!"

The rope halted its slide as it was rapidly pulled back. After a brief moment, it sailed out again, this time landing roughly on her shoulders.

"Iíve put a loop into it," her rescuer shouted. "Pull it under your armpits and then leave the rest to me. Come on! You can manage that much!"

Stung into action, she struggled to get the rope under one arm, taking all the strain with the remaining arm. She barely got the first hand back before the other slipped, then dropped the weary arm for half a second before she raised it tremblingly to slip it through the loop. She immediately felt the rope pulled taut.

"Let go now! Try to grab the line if you can!"

With a sigh of relief she let go of the overhead rope. If she had not been so exhausted, she was not sure if she could have relinquished it so readily, but she no longer had the energy to do otherwise. She couldnít even grab the line, but thankfully it settled properly behind her back and under her armpits, and she swung from it as she rolled off the ropes under her. For a brief moment, she flew through the air above the water before crashing into the side of the gorge. Fortunately her legs were able to brace for impact, although the slightly less than perfectly straight swing meant that she might have some sore ankles later. Right now though she was wondering if her rescuer could manage to haul her up. Although hers was a smaller breed of foxtaur than average, she knew she still weighed a lot more than could be easily lifted. She didnít seem to be getting any lower though, but her tail was half in the river. The extra weight of the water couldnít be helping any, so she strove to hold it out of the river to let it drain off. She felt herself being lifted, then there was a pause and another lift. In this manner, she was brought up to the lip of the gorge. Her arms finally regained enough strength to help out, and she grabbed the line and started scrabbling with her legs to gain even a small amount of purchase on the steep sides. Abruptly she was over the side and sprawled safely on the bank, and for several seconds she panted and trembled in relief and tiredness.

Eventually she raised her eyes to look at her rescuer. She was surprised to see that he was a human. He was about 5' 8" tall, fair-skinned, with brown hair, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and runners. The only things at all out of average were the strikingly blue eyes that regarded her with concern.

"Are you okay, miss?" he asked.

She nodded. "My name is Pandora, and I think you just saved my life. Whom have I got to thank?" she asked as she pushed herself into a sitting position.

The man smiled. "My name is Karl, and Iím happy to have gotten here in time to rescue such a pretty vixen."

Now that she was upright, Karl was able to get a good look at the person heíd rescued. She was foxtaur vixen with strongly orange fur. Like many foxtaurs, she had white fur running down from her throat, between her breasts and over the stomach, then between her forelegs and covering her lower belly. She also had a white tip on the longest and fluffiest tail that heíd ever seen on a fox, taur or otherwise. There the resemblance to a red fox ended because not only was her entire face covered in white fur, but the Ďglovesí and Ďbootsí were white furred instead of black or brown. In fact the only black fur was on her ears, setting off the most strikingly red hair that heíd ever seen. There was one other feature that drew his eyes though, and that was her heaving bust. As was common with foxtaur vixens, she wore no top, and the breasts that rose and fell as she panted were plainly visible, and obviously very ample, at least an E-cup or more if he was any judge. Tearing his gaze from the hypnotic sight, he met her green eyes and realised that she knew that he had been staring. Still he wasnít sure why she looked away ashamedly. He hastened to get her mind off it anyway.

"So, tell me what happened while we both rest a bit." He carefully took the rescue line from around her and untied it from the tree that he had belayed it to.

Pandora noted the branch that he had apparently wrapped the rope around to ensure she didnít slip back as he had pulled her up in short bursts. "You seem well prepared, Karl."

"I had intended to be self-sufficient for a while," he replied as he attached the rope to his backpack. "A rope is a very basic piece of equipment." He sat down, propping himself against a tree trunk and waited for her to say something.

Pandora said, "I was stupid."

"After seeing the condition of that old bridge, that would seem pretty obvious. Why on Earth did you try? Were you in that much of a hurry?"

"Thatís the really stupid part," she replied. "Thereís a sturdy bridge a few kilometres upstream, and Iím in absolutely no hurry to be anywhere."

"That doesnít answer the question Ė why did you try it?"

Pandora paused, contemplating whether to answer that, then decided to tell him more. "I was on what you might call a spirit quest. After consulting with my clanís wise woman, I set out on a path that led me to this bridge. Something told me that I should cross this bridge even though it looked unsafe, and I stupidly did so. Then one of the rungs broke, followed by one of the hand ropes when my weight was thrown onto it. I barely managed to hang onto the other, and that was where I was stuck until you came along. I lost track of the time I spent hanging there calling for help that I thought would never come because this is such isolated country. Speaking of which, what are you doing in foxtaur territory?"

"Actually I hadnít realised that I was in foxtaur territory. Iíve been hiking for a few days without much of a goal. Havenít seen a soul since I set out until I came across you. Havenít a clue why I actually came this way, in fact."

Pandora was startled by that revelation. Two people without a specific goal meeting like this was a bit too coincidental for someone who believed in spirit quests and destiny. She decided that this would have to be tested for a while longer. However one thing more immediately important came to mind. "Iím terribly thirsty. Have you got something to drink? The nearest water is a bit out of reach," she added wryly.

"No problem!" Karl declared as he pulled out a water bottle.

Pandora took it gratefully and squeezed a stream of the revitalising liquid into her muzzle. She drank half the contents before halting. "Thanks. I needed that badly."

"Youíre welcome. Have as much as you want. I can easily refill it. There are some lovely clear streams flowing through here."

"Yes, the water is very sweet around here." Pandora took another mouthful, then handed the bottle back. "What do you intend to do now?" she asked curiously.

"Might as well stop for lunch, I suppose. Care to join me? I donít have much, but thereís enough for two."

"If youíre this far from wherever you started, donít you have enough to get back?" she asked curiously.

"I planned to gather some food as I went. The time of year should be good for that."

"But you havenít done as well as you expected?"

Karl nodded begrudgingly.

Pandora said, "I thought so. Thereís plenty to find if you know the territory and what to look for, but I donít think youíre that familiar with either." She cocked her head, one hand stroking her chin. "And yet you donít seem hugely concerned. Either youíre a fool or you have something else in mind."

"Perhaps," he admitted unhelpfully. "Do you want something to eat or not?"

"I am hungry, but I think I can help out. Give me a moment." She got onto all four legs and walked a little unsteadily to one side of the rope bridge, pushing past a bush. She reappeared a moment later with a small backpack.

"Where did that come from?" Karl asked curiously.

"Soon after I got stuck, I took it off with one hand while I hung on with the other, and I threw it up to the bank. It was pulling me further off balance, and I wanted to get rid of the extra weight. It was a very awkward throw and I almost missed. It was sitting on the lip just over there. It wouldnít have been a great loss if it had fallen in, but Iím glad to have it back." She pulled out packages that turned out to contain some jerky and dried fruit, perfect rations for someone on the go. Then she pulled out a piece of clothing. It was a halter top and she proceeded to don it.

Karl tried to politely ignore that, but his eyes kept straying back to the sight of her breasts being settled comfortably into their confinement. Far from helping, it made him even more aware of the delightful attributes as the cloth hugged their curves tightly. His attention was dragged back as the vixen spoke again.

"I usually wear a top while in company. I just like the complete freedom when Iím alone. Iím sorry if the sight disturbed you."

This statement startled Karl. Why on Earth would looking at her breasts disturb him? He couldnít help some voyeuristic tendencies as he had a fetish for ladies with luscious breasts, no matter what the species, but while he might be a bit embarrassed to be caught staring, it wouldnít disturb him. He considered whether or not to ask more, then thought, ĎWhat the heck! I rescued her, and sheís not about to bite my head off. Itís not as if I was seeking her company anyway.í "Why should I find the sight of your breasts disturbing?"

Pandora looked at him as if he was a bit daft, missing the blindingly obvious. Then she sighed. Heíd asked a straightforward question and he deserved an answer. "I know that theyíre grossly huge and ugly. You donít have to pretend otherwise."

Karl was floored. For a moment he didnít say anything and Pandora was convinced that he was silently agreeing with her, but politely not saying anything. Then he startled her by vehemently protesting.

"They most certainly are not!" he blurted out, then rapidly blushed with embarrassment.

Pandora looked at him curiously, noting the redness of his complexion, realising his reaction despite unfamiliarity with humans. "What do you mean by that?" she asked curiously.

Karl sighed. ĎToo late to shut up now!í he told himself. Even so he hesitated before answering her. "I mean that you have some of the most sexy and desirable breasts that I have ever seen. They are not grossly huge. Yes, if they were any bigger they could be too big, but you have the perfect body shape to make those work beautifully." He finally managed to stop babbling, but felt heíd already irredeemably made a fool of himself in front of a perfect stranger.

Pandora was astonished though, not at all expecting that reaction. She could scarcely believe his words even now. "YouÖ. You like them? You think theyíreÖ pretty?" she asked incredulously.

Karl felt as if he was burning up with embarrassment now, but heíd passed the point of no return, so he answered her candidly. "No, I think theyíre gorgeous. I donít understand why you think theyíd be otherwise."

Pandora had a ready answer for that. "Because the bustiest vixen in my entire clan isnít even half my size. Because all the other vixens have sleek figures and mock me for the way I look! Because Iíve heard far too many cow jokes at my expense!" she said bitterly. "Hardly a day goes by when someone doesnít have a dig at me saying things like, ĎHas the farmer been by to milk you yet, Bossie?í Worse yet, they turn all the tods against me too and none will have anything to do with me. I hate them! Iíve hated how these things wouldnít stop growing until a blind person couldnít miss them! I havenít had a truly happy day since shortly after I hit puberty. If it wasnít for the Obligation, Iíd still be a virgin!" She stopped then, finally realising that sheíd said more than she had intended. However, all the anger and frustration had come boiling up out of her then, released by the relief of surviving a near-fatal experience. She started weeping then, and when Karl came over to her to wrap his arms comfortingly around her, she didnít resist. He let her cry her heart out in much-needed catharsis. Finally she was done, and she gently disengaged from him. "Iím sorry for blowing up like that. ItÖ itís been a strain."

"Itís okay, Pandora. However, let me point out to you that Iíve had dealings with several foxtaur clans, and Iíve seen many vixens who are well endowed like you. Your clan might run to small breasts, but youíre not that unusual."

"Youíve seen vixens with a bust as big as mine?"

"Well, almost as big," he admitted honestly. "But Iíve hardly seen even a small fraction of all the foxtaur vixens, so it would hardly be surprising to find bigger busts still. I can definitely say that those vixens werenít the subject of ridicule in their clans, and you donít deserve it either."

Pandora was almost overwhelmed by that concept. For years she had nothing else to go by but what other vixens said. She had never left the clanís territory, so she only knew what some other clans looked like by the few visitors, and most had been tods anyway. None had been busty vixens. It had taken a human to tell her that she was not a freak. It gave her a feeling she couldnít honestly say she had ever felt before. She gazed at the man who had saved her, both in body, and now perhaps emotionally too. Shyly, she asked, "Would youÖ like to touch them?"

This was hardly a question Karl had ever expected a female to ever ask of him, and he was briefly stunned.

Pandora wondered at his reaction. Had she offended him or made him nervous? "I mean it. Weíre not as body shy as you humans, so we are more physically expressive. If you like them, would you like to touch them? As a reward for rescuing me?" she asked earnestly.

He couldnít think of any way to gracefully decline without crushing her spirit. But as a reward? He could cope with that. "I think Iíd like that."

She stepped up close, undoing the halter top, smiling expectantly. He couldnít back out now, nor did he really want to. He lifted his hands to her breasts, caressing them. She sighed, her eyes closing as she savoured his touch. He was surprised at how firm they were for their size, and the silky fur over them made for a delightful texture. And her nipples! They were large and hard with excitement, and she trembled as his thumbs brushed over them. She was obviously getting horny as hell, and he wasnít much less so now. He reluctantly took his hands off her and she sighed both in pleasure and frustration. She opened her eyes again to look earnestly at him.

"I have never felt that much pleasure in the hands of a male before. I hope you enjoyed it too."

Karl nodded earnestly, then added, "I was right though. You do have a perfectly wonderful pair there."

"Thank you, Karl. Would I be right in guessing that you have what humans call a tit fetish?"

"You got me there. I have indeed, but for that very reason I can say with fair authority just what exactly is attractive and what is not."

"Then I will accept the word of the only expert Iíve ever known," she replied with a large smile. "Now should I put the halter back on or not?"

"Now youíre teasing me," he replied with a lopsided grin. "Okay, leave it off. Youíre prettier without it anyway."

"For you, Karl, Iíll do just that!" she said emphatically, throwing the halter onto her pack. "Now, Iím still starving. Letís eat!"

The two shared their various foodstuffs to make a more interesting meal, and if Pandora happened to seem to strike a pose that showed off her endowments, Karl was happy to let his sight linger on them. He enjoyed looking, and she enjoyed being looked at with desire. It was a very pleasant lunch.

"What do you plan to do now?" Pandora asked curiously.

Karl paused as he packed up everything brought out for the meal. He had no good answer for her. "I suppose Iíll keep doing what I was doing before I met you Ė follow my nose."

"What? That little thing? If youíre going to follow a nose, you need a muzzle like mine at least!" she joked.

Karl smiled. "I donít know. It found you when you needed me, didnít it?"

"Youíve got me there," she admitted. "Seriously though, where do you intend going?"

"I donít have any particular goal. I think Iíll just keep following the river."

"Would you mind if I tag along for a while?"

Karl looked at the vixen with one eyebrow lifted in query. "I though that you were on some sort of spirit quest or something."

"I am. Thatís why I wish to go with you."

"Huh? Howís that work?"

"A spirit quest isnít just a tramp in the woods. You have to look for signs that will guide you to fulfil your quest. And Karl, I think meeting you is no coincidence."

"Why would you think that? And why would you think a human can help a foxtaurís spirit quest?"

"Youíve already helped me, Karl. I think the rest will reveal itself if I stay with you. This part of the country should be empty of any people at this time, yet the two of us met here. Perhaps our meeting was destined?"

Karl smiled gently. "I have respect for your beliefs, Pandora, but I find it hard to believe that that would be true. However, if you want, you can come with me. Itís not as if I could stop you anyway, particularly if Iím in foxtaur territory as you mentioned."

"Thatís true, but Iíd rather have a willing companion."

"Well, I think Iíd enjoy the company."

"Itís decided then," Pandora said, picking up her pack and strapping it on. "Are you ready?"

Karl nodded and started heading upstream. For a while they walked in silence. They walked side by side where they could, Karl taking the lead most other times, while Pandora found a way past some awkward sections. Eventually though, Pandora broke the quiet.

"Why are you here, Karl?" she asked simply.

For a long time, he didnít reply, but Pandora waited patiently.

Eventually he sighed and said, "I had this idea of just marching into the forest and not bothering to come back out again."

That hadnít exactly been what she had anticipated, although she had already figured out that something was bothering him that had nothing to do with her. "That didnít really answer the question though. Why would you want to do that?"

He turned his head to look at her seriously. "Because I donít care anymore."

"Donít care about what?" Getting answers from him was a bit like pulling teeth Ė a slow and painful process.

Again he didnít answer for a long time, then eventually he stopped and sighed. "If you really want to know, Iíll tell you, but donít blame me if it bores you."

"If nothing else, I owe you a sympathetic ear," she answered determinedly.

Karl sat down on a convenient rock. Pandora just settled on her rump in front of him, close enough to be attentive, but not so close as to make him uncomfortable.

"I was married to a bitch, and no, I donít mean to a female canine. She sank her teeth into me, chewed me up and spat me out like one though. After she was done with me, I had nothing. No money, no possessions, no daughter, and no life. I came out here because I had nothing to live for anymore. I have no goal. I have no intention of going back to so-called civilisation though. Actually this wasnít a very well thought-out course of action either, but as I said earlier, I donít care anymore. I just headed where impulse took me."

"You seemed to care when you rescued me though," Pandora observed.

"You never did me wrong, and I couldnít just let you die."

"For which Iíll be eternally grateful. But back to you. What did thisÖ bitchÖ do to you?"

"Okay, the long sob-story then. I suppose I should start by saying that I am a carpenter by trade. I'm a professional cabinetmaker, but by the time I met Isabel, I had been making and selling my own designs for top quality goods in my own private business for a few years. Thatís how I got to know several foxtaur clans Ė they supplied me with some of the best wood that was hard to get anywhere else but in the foxtaur territories. Anyway, I had built my company from the ground up until it was past the struggling stage and had started turning a nice profit. Then one day, a new customer came into my showroom. She was a drop-dead gorgeous lady, tall, well-built, not fashionably thin like some, long red hair, and a pair of tits that absolutely knocked my socks off." Karl looked at Pandora to watch her reaction to that last bit.

Pandora though, being a foxtaur vixen with a lot more down-to-earth attitude to such things, merely took it as a piece of relevant information. She already had a suspicion what was going to happen though.

Karl continued. "As you probably can guess, this was Isabel. She had come into the showroom on the pretext of being interested in a formal dining table. Later I came to realise that it wasnít the table she was interested in though. I didnít know it, but we had both been at a social occasion where she had first learned about me. Back then I was still single and dating, not settling down with any one person. Isabel apparently decided that I was her target of choice and found out as much as she could about me. That first day in the shop, she started seducing me, and the fool that I was, I loved all the attention. It was a whirlwind romance, and before I knew it, we were tying the knot. Things changed almost at once after that. Where she had been playful and seductive, she was now more reserved, doling out her sexual favours only occasionally. She got involved with the business, taking over more and more duties in the office. One of the reasons behind the success of my business was a handful of people who worked with me to build the business from very small beginnings. Suddenly they started leaving, one by one, and I was too blind to see why. Then suddenly, Maria, my accountant and secretary who had been a godsend when we were still struggling, announced that she was resigning. I was shocked, but I was also puzzled when she wished me luck as I was going to need it. That left Isabel alone in the office, and myself working harder in the factory to compensate for the loss of my key workers. In other words, Isabel had me exactly where she wanted me. In the meantime, she gave birth to our daughter. She had apparently fallen pregnant during our very brief honeymoon, and after she knew she was expecting, sex pretty much stopped straight after. She was Ďconcerned for the babyí, sheíd tell me. Hell, she wouldnít even let me hold the baby after she was born! Claimed she couldnít trust her in my rough strong hands!"

By now, Karlís voice had practically risen to shouting. He shuddered in reaction, then forced himself to calm down. While he did so, Pandora took the opportunity to ask a question.

"So youíre saying that Isabelís goal was to take control of your business. She sounds like a ruthless business person, but wasnít she just trying to do her best for the family business? I donít like her attitude towards you and your child, but Iíve come across overprotective mothers before."

Karl smiled in grim humour. Now his voice was deadly calm. "Oh no, youíve severely underestimated Isabel, almost as much as I did. She had no intention of stopping there. Over a period of a few years, she slowly robbed me blind. She eventually tricked me out of my shares in the business. Handling the accounts had always been Mariaís job, but without her there to control Isabel, I was swindled with my eyes wide open. Then one day, my baby girl kicked me in the shins, verbally abused me and told me she never wanted to see me again, and Isabel just stood there smiling in triumph. It was at that moment that I realised what a total and utter fool I had been, and I also knew that it was now too late to do anything. I grabbed a couple of things and I left the house. Her lawyer served me with divorce papers the very next day."

Pandora was shocked at what he said about his daughter, even more so than the rest of the revelations. "She poisoned your own child against you?"

Karl was too choked up to reply immediately, so he just nodded. Pandora waited for him to be able to continue. Eventually he continued with a rough voice, "That and more. To cut a long story short, she used me from square one. She used me to get my money, my possessions, my business, and even my sperm to produce a legitimate child for legal purposes, a child that she could mould to her own image and purpose. We fought over the legalities in court, but sheíd done her work too well. Eventually I gave up. I no longer cared anymore. I cut a deal to sign over everything that I still owned, including all remaining control in the business. I would walk out with little more than my clothes and a suitcase of stuff, and in return she would never have a call on me financially again. Since then Iíve been drifting, doing odd jobs for food and shelter. Then with the last of my money, I bought a few supplies and headed into the forest here. A few days later, I met you."

Pandora regarded him intensely, then said, "Did you come out here to die?"

He shrugged. "Iím not actively trying to commit suicide, if thatís what youíre asking. I have some vague idea about being a hermit, and if I donít ever come back, then who would care?"

"Well I care, for one!" Pandora protested.

Karl was taken aback by the vixentaurís vehemence and merely gaped at her while she continued.

"I canít believe that you donít have any friends who would miss you or mourn your passing. I know that I would since you saved my life. Youíve had a raw deal, but youíre still young enough to start again. Marching off into the depths of the forest is not the answer."

"What about you?" he retorted. "Youíre off on this spirit quest thing, also wandering into unfamiliar territory!"

"Not that unfamiliar, and I have every intention of returning home when I believe the quest is fulfilled, despite how bad things have been lately."

"At least you have a home to go to," Karl said a bit sullenly.

An idea occurred to Pandora. "Perhaps you would like to come home with me? I have a spare room in my den that has never been used. You can stay until you have found a bit of inner peace and begun your life over."

Karl stared at her, his mind racing in circles. Finally he asked, "Why would you do this for me?"

She looked him earnestly in the eye. "Because I believe my quest has led me to you for some reason, and because itís flattering to have a male appreciative of my looks for a change." She drew closer to him. "Do you know how happy you made me just by your touch? For a brief moment, I had no cares; I felt beautiful and sexy for once in life." She put one hand on his chest and took his right hand with her other. She drew it to her breast. "I want to feel that way again. I still owe you more than I can repay anyway."

Karl could feel Pandoraís nipple hard beneath the fur. "Pandora, IÖ I really liked that too, but you really donít have to do thisÖ."

She interrupted him. "Yes I do! What sort of reward is it when I get more out of it than you do? I have been without the willing touch of a male for most of my adult life, and I long for more. If I can reward you at the same time, donít we both win?"

Unable or unwilling to refute her argument, he simply nodded agreement.

"Then youíll come home with me?"

"Yes. If that will make you happy."

"It would, but something else would make me even happier now," Pandora took both his hands and pressed them to her breasts. "Take your pleasure with these as much as you want. If they truly make you happy, then Iíll be happy too."

"Can I take off my pack first?" Karl asked plaintively.

Pandora laughed and released him, taking the opportunity to remove her own pack at the same time. When both were done, neither hesitated any more and they indulged in petting and licking and much sighing in pleasure. Then Pandora started fumbling with Karlís jeans.

"What are you doing?" he asked, startled.

"Trying to figure out how to open this thing youíre wearing."

"But why?"

"Donít be silly. I think you know why.

"But you donít have to do this, Pandora!"

"Youíre absolutely right; I donít. Thatís what makes it even better. Iím doing it because I want to. I want to see your reaction to me, to feel your manhood, to give you pleasure in return."

"How can you like me that much? Iím a plain hairless human; youíre a gorgeously furred vixen!"

"I like the feel of your smooth skin, and youíre not unhandsome," she demurred.

"Isnít this rather sudden?" Karl asked, rapidly running out of objections.

"I thought you knew things about foxtaurs? A vixen has much competition for the attentions of the tods due to the males being outnumbered three to one by the females. You have to learn to know your needs and desires and be able to act on them quickly. I want you, Karl. I want to pleasure you too. Iím not Isabel; I donít want anything else of you but a bit of mutual pleasure. Wonít you let me?"

Hardly believing what was happening, yet having his long-suppressed libido rapidly being revived, Karl could not resist the vixen, and helped her disrobe him. Then she gently pushed him to the ground. She brought his face to one of her large breasts and said, "Theyíre all yours!"

Karl willingly indulged, and hardly noticed as Pandora manoeuvred him until his head rested on his pack and she lay on top of him. She could feel the hardness of his penis against her soft belly. Not quite as big as the average foxtaur todís, nevertheless it was of more than adequate size, and Pandora felt herself being more and more aroused. She put a tender hand to his face and Karl paused his fondling of her breasts to gaze back at her. Then she lifted her hind quarters up and said, "Can you spare a hand for a moment to hold your cock upright?"

With a slight tremble, Karl did as she asked. She shifted forward then lowered herself until they felt her wet labia meet the head of his penis. She smiled reassuringly at him before pushing down against it so that it entered her smoothly. She pushed until she had taken all of him and they both groaned in combined relief and pleasure at their joining.

They exchanged broad smiles for a long moment before Pandora began to move up and forward, then down and back, stroking his shaft deliciously. Karl stroked Pandoraís nipples, and they both sighed, groaned and gasped in pleasure as they both found physical release. Karl came first, but the feel of his pulsing cock delivering his seed into her swept Pandora immediately into an orgasm of an intensity that she had never previously experienced. The moment lasted forever, yet ended too soon, and Pandora collapsed into Karlís arms as they both panted and laughed joyously. They stayed embraced for a considerable time before Karlís penis slipped free as his erection faded, then they reluctantly disengaged from each other.

Karl propped himself up on one elbow as Pandora rolled lithely to her feet, admiring her grace. Pandora soaked up the silent flattery a bit, then held out her hand to Karl to bring him to his feet also. They stood unselfconsciously face to face, although she had to look upwards, and he downwards. Then she put her hand behind his neck and pulled his head down to her level, giving him a quick lick on the cheek: a lick-kiss. He returned it with an awkward human-style kiss that, despite the mismatched mouths, lasted longer than either thought it would. Finally they parted reluctantly, and Karl started picking up his scattered clothing to get dressed after wiping off the dirt and leaves that clung to him. Pandora fished out a brush from her pack to tame and clean her dishevelled fur at the same time.

Pandora was the first to speak as she realised something. "Itís rapidly getting dark. May I suggest we make camp for the evening? I donít know about you, but Iíve worked up quite an appetite!"

Karl laughed but had to agree. "Me too. Yeah, might as well pitch camp here in the clearing. I can build a fire to cook us some food."

"Want to share stuff again?"


It was as if theyíd been working together for weeks as they coordinated their efforts in making camp. Karl had to set up a tent, but Pandora only had little more than a ground sheet and a fly sheet that would protect her head from falling debris. In this warm weather, her fur was enough to keep her comfortable throughout the night. So while Karl coped with poles and pegs, she took a rope and a large billycan and fetched water from the river in the nearby gorge. Then, from their humble supplies, they cooked up a feast, supplemented by some ripe fruit that Pandora had spotted. The stars were out by the time they had eaten all the food and cleaned up. Karl propped himself up against a log and gazed at the heavens as they revealed themselves. Pandora sat next to him and shared the view in quiet companionship. Eventually he broke the silence with a question.

"So, youíre really ending your quest just to take me back to your village?"

"No, my quest is completed."

"Oh? I thought you were seeking some foxtaur tod who would love you as you are?"

"That was never my goal."

Karl looked at Pandora curiously. "Then what were you seeking?"

"Happiness," she replied simply.

"Thatís it? Just happiness? How can you go seeking in a particular direction for that?"

"If you narrow your goal too much, you may miss what you truly seek. All I wanted was to be happy, and my spirit quest led me to you. I have not been this happy and content for far too many years, so my quest was indeed successful."

Karl could not argue with her feelings, but wondered how long her happiness could last. What would she do when he inevitably had to leave?

Karl woke up rapidly as a claw-tip tickled the sole of his left foot that was sticking out of the tent flap.

"Rise and groom, sleepy! Weíre a long way from the village and weíre burning daylight!

Karl groaned but complied. He had started getting out of the habit of early rising since he had begun drifting. He was a bit ashamed though to find that Pandora had not only gotten up, but also had the fire going, the billy boiling and food cooking. He freshened up quickly and gratefully accepted the plate of food that she served up to him. As he ate, he observed the mist drifting through the trees already beginning to burn off from the morning sun. The gentle roar of the nearby river was punctuated by calling birds. It seemed an idyllic setting to him, and when he turned his gaze back to the sexy vixentaur, it all seemed to enhance her in his eyes.

She smiled at him. "Do you like your breakfast?" she asked as if unaware of his regard.

He was momentarily tongue-tied, then replied, "Itís good." ĎGod, that was lame!í he thought. He hastily added, "Youíre going to spoil me if you keep this up."

"Itís nice to have someone to spoil for once. However, youíre going to need the energy from that meal. Itís a long walk to my village from here, and we need to get started soon." She got up off her haunches to take the plate heíd just emptied. Rinsing them off with the remainder of the hot water used to make tea, she quickly and efficiently started packing up.

Karl hastened to pack his tent and was barely ready when Pandora was. "Where to now?" he asked.

Pandora pointed upstream. "Same way we were going yesterday. We should soon come to the bridge that I ought to have used, and thereís a path from there that eventually ends up at my village. If we maintain a pace like yesterday, we should make it there comfortably before sunset."

"Then weíd better get going. Lead on!"

The two set off, Pandora in the lead, following a near invisible trail, with Karl following close behind. Not only did he want to let the expert do the path-finding, he found that he was enjoying the view of the vixentaurís swaying backside and tail.

It took only about twenty minutes before they hit a large, well-used trail that led to the bridge. It too was made of rope, but unlike the other, was built far more sturdily, was well-maintained, and had wooden slats to give a secure footing to all users. The handholds were a bit low for comfort though, so it was obviously built mainly for the convenience of the foxtaurs. Pandora crossed it quickly, but Karl took it a tad more carefully.

"Okay, we double back for a bit until the path diverges from the river," Pandora informed him. "Itís a major trail, so the going should be fairly easy."

"Letís get moving then!" Without an excuse to follow behind anymore, Karl elected to forge ahead. Pandora settled into an easy trot beside him. He still cast the occasional glance at the wonderful bosom bobbing alongside, but Pandora never said anything more. However her happy smile seemed indelible all morning.

Both walkers conserved their breath for travelling, but eventually Pandora called for a break. Karl looked at his watch and was surprised to see that it was already past midday. Prior to meeting Pandora, his days had seemed to drag. Theyíd stopped by one of the frequent crystal-clear streams that fed the river that they had left behind. At this point most were easy to cross without getting feet or paws wet. They elected not to take the time and trouble of building a fire for a hot drink, but they did fill up their water bottles. They sat down to eat some trail food and rest for a little bit. Conversation had been almost lacking between them up until now, but it had been a comfortable easy quiet. However, finally Pandora broke the silence.

"Iím curious about something, Karl, although if you donít want to talk about it, Iíll understand."

"Now youíve got me curious too. Ask away. Let me judge for myself."

For the first time though, the vixen looked embarrassed. Sheíd resolved to ask though, and pushed herself to say, "IímÖ curious about what we did yesterday. Is it... do I feel like a human female? On the inside, I mean?"

Despite having been forewarned, Karl was still felt himself blushing at the question. He thought about it though and attempted to answer her. "As best as I can recall, you felt just like any other female that IíveÖ erÖ been with. In fact, if it wasnít for the fur around your labia, you seem almost the same. I suppose the thing to ask now is: what about me? Was IÖ different?"

"Actually, aside from slight differences in size, your penis looks much like a foxtaur todís. Felt like one too! Iíve known for a long time that the genitals of male foxtaurs are nothing like our animal cousins, unlike the wolftaurs who seem very similar to their wild kin, cock-knot and all. Iím glad not to have one of those poking into me!" Then she noticed Karl blushing fiercely. "Iím sorry, I didnít mean to embarrass you. I felt much the same way when I asked my question, but although I knew about males simply by having seen it, I couldnít say the same about females, and I wanted to know if your experience yesterday wasÖ wellÖ weird."

Their mutual discomfiture seemed to cancel each out mostly, and Karl was able to smile and say, "No, it was wonderfully comfortable. Itís almost as if foxtaurs were made to beÖ compatibleÖ with humans."

"Oh, yes. Compatible indeed!" Pandora agreed fervently.

They looked at each other, then burst into laughter.

"Oh, I feel like a pubescent kit again, discussing what sex must be like!"

"Yeah, sounds like a number of conversations I had with my teenage friends years ago." Karl sighed. "I wish I could be that innocent again."

Pandora put her arm around his waist and hugged him. "Then we might never have shared that delightful experience. I regret nothing."

"Me neither," he replied, returning the hug.

Soon after, they recommenced their walk, but this time the conversation flowed steadily. The awkwardness had been dealt with, and now they could just be two companions enjoying the hike.

They made it to the village in good time. The path opened up to reveal a glen through which a stream flowed. On either side, sufficiently high enough to be out of reach of floods, foxtaur dens, gardens and other trappings of villages lined the sides of the valley. It seemed pleasantly bucolic, and Karl liked what he saw. He hoped that its inhabitants were similarly agreeable. His hopes were to be somewhat dashed very quickly.

Pandora paused long enough to put her halter top back on As they walked down the main trail that paralleled the stream, two vixens approaching from the opposite direction accosted them.

"Whatís this human doing here?" the first demanded. She resembled Pandora a lot, including the white gloves and boots, and the voluminous tail, but her face fur wasnít all white. Her cheeks and forehead were the same orange as her main fur.

"I know!" the second exclaimed. "Sheís finally brought the farmer home to meet us. Going to give us a milking demonstration, Pannie?" she laughed nastily. Again, she looked a lot like Pandora, although her face was all orange-furred, and the tailtip was black this time. The biggest difference though was that both vixens would struggle to fill a B-cup.

Karl began to appreciate Pandoraís problem a lot more. He was about to respond when he felt Pandora squeeze his arm warningly.

"At least he can get something from me, unlike you two flat-chested, oxygen-wasters," Pandora retorted, then drew Karl along past the jeering vixens.

"Why did you stop me from putting those two in their place?" Karl asked when they were safely out of earshot.

"Because while my position canít get any worse, you have a clean slate, and if youíre going to stay here any length of time, you donít want to get on the bad side of too many, or else the Elders might decide to evict you," she explained.

"Oh. I see. Pandora, I canít ignore that sort of thing forever."

"I know, Karl, but letís not beg trouble too soon."

The two encountered only a couple more vixens and one tod as they passed through the village. One female made a mooing sound as she passed, but otherwise didnít bother them, and the others passed without even acknowledging them. Pandora turned off on a lesser path that led up the sides of the valley. After a few minutes, they came to a den set into the hillside. Utilising natural stone and rough timbers, it blended into the scenery, and although it wasnít camouflaged, it did look as if it belonged as part of the forest.

Pandora stepped up to the door and opened it, then said, "Welcome to my home, Karl. Umm, better watch your head."

Built to foxtaur scale, the lintel of the main entrance was just above eye level on Karl, and he ducked his head to enter. At first gloomy inside, the room was soon flooded with light as Pandora opened the shutters on the windows. Simple and rustic, the room was nevertheless attractive and homey. Karl liked it immediately. Pandora then indicated a small doorway.

"You can put your things in there. Thatís the spare room, and itís yours for as long as you wish to stay."

Karl unloaded himself as Pandora likewise divested herself of her backpacks and stored them away after removing a few items. Taking off his boots, Karl cooled his feet on the flagstones tiling the floor.

"Iím sorry, but I donít have any chairs. I never anticipated having two-legged company."

"Iíll settle for one of these mats for now. If you have some suitable tools though, Iíll soon fix the lack."

"Thatís right, youíre a carpenter. I do have the basic tools, but nothing very fancy."

"I donít need fancy tools. Iím not planning to make something much more than a serviceable stool for now."

"Okay. You just relax there on a lounging rug for now. Iíll throw together something quick and easy for a meal. Then Iíll show you around before it gets too dark. I tend to prefer going to bed early and rising early too."

The kitchen area was an alcove of the overall living space, so the two could talk while she made the meal. Karl observed how almost nothing of high technology showed, a typical attribute of foxtaur dwellings. Rough wood and stone were the typical building materials, and some of the walls were the bare rock of the hillside. He realised that the den must have been built partially into a cave. He noted a few electrical light fixtures, and there was probably a modern comm set hidden away somewhere, but he didnít plan on using it. What Karl noticed though was a lack of memorabilia. Most dens heíd had the opportunity to visit in trading with the foxtaurs had quite a collection of keepsakes and mementos on the walls. Pandoraís were virtually bare. Perhaps she simply wasnít interested in such things, but Karl suspected that it was more likely that she had never found much worth remembering.

The meal was tasty and filling, but awkward to eat. Although she had a table, Karl was forced to stand. He resolved to make the chair a high priority. He helped clean up, then Pandora invited him to follow her outside. She led him to one side of the den where there was a clearing that was just slipping into shadow as the sun set. It was apparently positioned to take the maximum advantage of available sunlight, because the whole area was filled with vegetables in neat rows.

"This is my market garden," Pandora explained. This is how I make a living. I trade for meat with the hunters, and occasionally earn a few spare credits to spend on a luxury item. Iíll have to go to work first thing tomorrow to catch up on the days Iíve missed. Fortunately the mild weather has allowed it to survive okay without me for the time that I was away. I admit that I was a little worried about bad weather."

"You handle all this by yourself?" Karl marvelled.

"Of course. Itís not too hard, and I like my work."

"It must be nice to have a constant supply of fresh food in your yard."

"Donít forget it snows in these parts. I need to store a lot to get through the winter."

"Oh yeah. You can tell Iím city folk, canít you?"

She smiled indulgently back at him. "Come on, let me show you the rest." Pandora showed Karl the beautiful unspoilt woods that surrounded her den before retreating inside as darkness rapidly settled. She served them both hot cocoa, something Karl hadnít had since heíd been a child, but Pandora loved.

"I heard that chocolate was supposed to be bad for canines," Karl observed.

Pandora shrugged. "Foxtaurs seem to be an exception to that rule. Another way weíre more like humans, yes?"

"Yeah, and I think I could enjoy getting reacquainted with this stuff. That hit the spot!"

"Good. Iím glad you liked it. And now, as I said, I really should be heading for bed. What about yourself?"

"Itís been a long day, and I think Iíll turn in early also."

"Would you like me to wake you in the morning?"

"Yes, please."

"Okay." She hesitated outside the doors of the sleeping dens. "As I said earlier, this room is all yours for now," she said, indicating the relevant room. Then she turned to look him earnestly in his eyes. "However, I would prefer it if youíd do me the pleasure of joining me in my bed tonight."

Karl didnít have to ponder long. "Iíd like that," he replied.

Pandoraís face lit up with joy, and she practically dragged him into her room.

Her bed was basically a large futon with an extra large pillow. She laid down on it, draping herself seductively across the pillow and waited for him expectantly.

This time there was no shyness or hesitation. Karl disrobed as Pandora watched appreciatively. She smiled as he revealed that his cock was already at full attention. To have a companion who thought her to be sexy was the greatest pleasure that she had had in years, and she didnít care that he wasnít even her species.

Karl knelt on the mattress in front of her, his smile matching hers. To him, a companion who wanted him for himself rather than for what he could give her was a dream come true, and species was also irrelevant.

The two gazed into each otherís eyes for a long moment before they leaned together to kiss. Like the first time, there were a few moments of awkwardness as the two figured out how to kiss with two different kinds of mouths, but when both were comfortable, the kiss went on for ages. Eventually they parted, but the smiles on their faces showed how much pleasure theyíd gotten from it, and how ready they were to go on to the next level.

Karl shifted to a position behind Pandora, reaching around her to start caressing the nearer of her firm breasts. Beneath his fingers, her nipple hardened in excitement. Then his hand shifted to the other breast to do the same, but at the same he leaned forward to start suckling at the first breast. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the feel of the large nipple in his mouth and the weight of the other breast in his hand. His excitement was building and his cock was beginning to ache with anticipation.

Pandora was a bit surprised when he started suckling, but that rapidly changed to great pleasure as the erotic nature of the action turned her on immensely. "Ooh! Thatís wonderful! OhÖ I never knew it could feel like this! I wish I had milk to give you!"

Karl paused barely long enough to say, "That would be nice, but itís the attempt that gives me pleasure, and you too, Iím thinking." He went back to his delightful efforts.

By now though, Pandora was beyond words as the pleasure flooded her being, and when he resumed suckling, it triggered an orgasm that left her panting.

ĎAn orgasm just from him pleasuring my breasts? I can hardly believe it! Do other vixens get them? Are mine extra sensitive? If so, Iím never going to regret their size again!í

Karl had noticed her stiffening and trembling as the orgasm hit her, and when she was done he lifted his head to smile at her. "Do you want more?" he asked.

"Oh yes! Donít stop now! Join with me, my lover!" She lifted her hind leg in invitation and Karl could see that the fur around her labia was sodden with the love juice that was leaking from between them. He shifted position until his penis rested in the damp fur. Rubbing against it, he got it moist with the lubricant before parting the lips of the labia. Pandora watched in anticipation, then gasped as he pushed himself smoothly into her. They were one once again, and it was beautiful.

Karl resumed pleasuring them both by fondling and suckling her breasts, but he also started a gentle back and forth motion of his hips to elicit more waves of pleasure from her vagina. Pandora in turn responded with her limited sexual experience by trying to use her vaginal muscles to squeeze the rigid flesh that they surrounded. Briefly she looked at them both united in pleasure, human and foxtaur, and knew that it was right and beautiful. Then she lost herself in their mutual lovemaking. When their climax came, it exceeded their first together.

They cuddled as they enjoyed the afterglow. Eventually Karl propped himself up on an elbow to look at her and noticed that she was crying. "Is something wrong, Pandora?" he asked in concern, brushing a tear from her cheek-fur.

She shook her head. "Theyíre tears of happiness. Iím so full of joy right now that I canít keep it in!"

Karl smiled tenderly. "I think I know exactly what you mean."

Karl woke, momentarily disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings. The blanket over him seemed strange too. Then he remembered where he was and was startled to realise what his blanket really was. He was curled up with Pandora wrapped around him, his head pillowed against her breasts, and her huge fluffy tail covering most of the rest of him, keeping him perfectly warm. Seeing as he was still nude, the chilly morning air would have made for a poor sleep, if any, if it wasnít for the furry blanket.

His movements woke Pandora, and she said, "Good morning, lover."

"A very good morning, Pandora. You make a very comfortable blanket. In fact so comfortable, I hate to move."

"Thank you, but regrettably I must rise. Thereís work to be done. Besides, last night gave me a huge appetite!"

Karl realised that he too was hungry once it was pointed out. However, there was one thing that needed attention. "I need to clean up first."

"Then you go do what you need to do, and Iíll fix us up some breakfast. Iíll freshen up afterwards."

Karl grabbed his clothes. Unfortunately he didnít have more than a single pair of clean underpants left, and no changes of clothes, so heíd have to make do until he could do some laundry. He made his way quickly to the bathroom, starting to shiver now that he was unprotected by Pandoraís fur. Yesterday he had checked out the facilities. The toilet designed for taurs had taken a bit of improvising to use, but it vaguely resembled a traditional Japanese style one, and if they could use that, so could he. The shower was still a shower though, although the stall had more manoeuvring room for a taur body. Hot water was in abundant supply too, and he was quickly invigorated and feeling much cleaner. There was nothing bigger than a handtowel though, but it was obvious that a foxtaur needed something other than a towel to dry all that fur. He found the switch for the fans that blew strong draughts of warm air through the stall, rapidly drying him, then he dressed and rejoined Pandora.

"That was quick," she said. "But I suppose not having a lot of fur to dry saves a great deal of time. Breakfast is ready anyway." She served up a large meal of eggs, bacon and toast. Then she flicked her tongue on his cheek in a lick-kiss and said, "Iíve had mine. Iíve got to clean up a bit now. Take your time."

Karl savoured the meal, then cleaned up as best he could. Pandora was back more quickly than he anticipated. She explained that she hadnít had a full shower as she was going to get dirty again very quickly when she got out in the field. Sheíd have a good one after work. She took Karl outside and opened a door to a small shed that was recessed into the hillside like the den.

"I keep my tools in here. I also have some screws, nails and materials for doing repairs. Hopefully you will find what you need to make that chair you need."

Karl looked about. Her tool collection wasnít very extensive, but it seemed that she had all the basics covered. "This should do fine. Iíll get straight to work on it."

"If you need me, Iíll be over in that field," she said, indicating the one she meant. "Have fun!"

She trotted off and Karl started taking materials out of the shed and setting himself up. Aside from the shed roof overhanging a simple workbench, the area was open to the elements. It had been a long time since Karl had worked under such primitive conditions, but he was going to enjoy the challenge of getting back to the basics. He then took a bit of time assessing the materials he had to work with before deciding on a design, then set willingly to work.

Pandoraís first task was to start the watering system on some of the crops. The weather had been kind in her absence, but some plants badly needed a drink by now. If it had been any warmer, she would have had to make sure they were watered last night instead of relaxing after the journey. She next attended to the tomatoes which needed to have the offshoots thinned out and then tied up to their stakes. She was still doing this when Karl arrived, surprising her.

"Is there a problem?" she asked.

"Nope. Iíve pretty much finished."


"Iím a professional carpenter, remember? Even without all the tools, this was a pretty straightforward job for me, and it's only a very basic design. I will need to get some sandpaper to finish it off though. Some stain too if I want to make a complete job of it."

"Sorry, I should have realised that it would be an easy job for you. We can go to the general store and get that sandpaper and stain for you right now if you wish."

"Perhaps weíll skip the stain for now. Itíd take too long to dry and I need the chair immediately. I can always do that a bit later." ĎIf Iím still around long enough,í he added in his head.

"Why donít you pick some of the ripe tomatoes, while I harvest a few other crops. I can do a bit of trading for stuff we need at the same time. Thereís some baskets back in the shed."

"Okay," he said and jogged off to fetch the baskets.

They quickly picked a large load, much of which was put into carriers slung on either side of Pandoraís lower torso. Karl carried two hand-baskets also though. They then walked to the village centre to the trading post, fortunately encountering none of the malicious vixens, although the human garnered a lot of curious stares. The place was actually not only the general store, but also where farmers, hunters and crafters exchanged their goods. The foxtaur in charge was a greying tod, possibly old enough to be Pandoraís grandfather. Typical of foxtaur males, he had no human-like hair, only fur on his head. It seemed like he did though because the orange fur met the white fur on his face about where a hairline would be, and made it look as if he had closely cropped hair. His whiskers were grey, and the black ears were now salt and pepper instead, but his eyes showed that he was still full of life, and missed nothing that went on around him.

"Good day, Pandora. I see that the rumours were true. You did return with a human."

"Good morning, Randar. Let me introduce to you my friend, Karl. Heís staying with me for a while."

"Pleased to meet you, sir," Karl said, extending his hand.

The tod took it firmly. "The nameís Randar, not sir, okay? I see Pandoraís put you to work already." His eyes indicated the baskets that Karl had put down.

Karl laughed. "Yes, I have to earn my keep, it seems."

"Good! Now what can I do for you both?"

Pandora said, "I need to lay in a few supplies for Karlís needs before market day, so I thought Iíd see if you could do with some fresh produce."

"I can indeed. What did you need?"

"Well, first of all, Karl needs sandpaper."

"Sandpaper?" Randar looked queryingly at Karl.

"To finish off a chair I just made," Karl explained.

Randar smiled. "Ah, yes. Not too many of those around this village. Come right this way."

Karl chose the sandpaper he needed, then the three of them worked out their other needs that could be afforded with what they were bartering. The tod seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what they needed almost before they asked for it. All the time, he also elicited a general explanation of how Karl came to be there, although both Karl and Pandora refrained from revealing any of the more private details. Then the trader bade them a cheery farewell as he left to attend another customer.

"Nice fellow," Karl remarked as they carried their goods back home.

"Yes, heís very nice, and also the greatest source of information in the village. By the end of the day, everyone will know everything about us."

"Is that going to be a bad thing?" Karl asked worriedly.

"Actually itís a good thing," Pandora reassured him. "Randar is a very shrewd judge of character, and if he likes you, heíll put a good spin on the news. He liked you straight off, by the way."

"He seems to be a very kind and understanding person, the way he was so helpful with his suggestions. He also seemed very friendly to you, unlike what you told me about the other tods."

"Heís far more mature than them, and way beyond the influence of the vixens who are my peers. In fact, heís the kind of tod whom I would have liked as a mate."

Karl thought about that for a bit. "So, his age made him both suitable and unsuitable at the same time?"

"That, and the fact that heís very devoted to his lifemate."

"Just one? I thought all tods ended up with several?"

"No, some are happy to have just one mate, although that still doesnít stop the vixens from trying, or claiming him for an Obligation. Heís responsible for siring many kits in the village."

"Although Iím hardly an expert at judging such, I would have thought he was too old by now."

Pandora snorted in amusement. "Old, yes, but still very virile. I think heíll be siring kits for a while yet. Heís a popular choice because he has a reputation for siring strong, healthy children."

"Did you ever consider having a kit by him, then?"

"Yes, actually, but he talked me out of it. He knew I wasnít ready yet."

"Talked you outÖ? Did you have an Obligation liaison with him?"

Pandora stopped walking to look at Karl earnestly. "You knew I wasnít a virgin. I even told you that I had had an Obligation assignation. I chose him precisely because he is a good tod who was sympathetic to me."

"Sorry, I didnít mean to make it sound that way. I just found it strange to picture you and him together. I really need to get more at home with your customs if Iím going to be around for any length of time."

Pandora put her arm around Karlís waist. "Youíre the first person whom I really care for, Karl, and at least he taught me a few things about lovemaking so I wasnít completely useless when we made love."

Karl put his arm around her shoulders. "Then Iím grateful to him. He made our night together so much better."

"Now thatís the foxtaur attitude!" Pandora laughed.

By the time that they got back to the den, Pandora declared that it was time to have a lunch break. Karl enjoyed some of the freshly picked tomatoes and lettuce on bread that they had just procured. After lunch, Karl headed off to finish the chair and Pandora went back to the fields. Karl rejoined her when he was done and volunteered to help Pandora for the rest of the day. It was hard work, and of a type that he was not used to, but he still enjoyed spending it with the vixentaur.

Pandora declared that work was done for the day when the sun got sufficiently low. After putting away all the tools, the grimy pair headed to the bathroom to clean up. When Karl offered to let Pandora shower first, she had simply pushed him into the stall ahead of her and they showered together. She scrubbed his back for him, while he returned the favour, shampooing her fur and rinsing her off. It took them twice as long as it needed to, but they both had other things on their mind besides cleaning themselves.

That evening, Pandora cooked a roast dinner, a rare treat but one that she was glad to be able to make for two people. She was very impressed by the chair that Karl had made. He had found enough material to make a chair with a back, rather than just the stool heíd said heíd make. That made his speed even more impressive. He sat opposite her at the table as they ate their dinner. This made her feel happier than the excellent food. ĎAlmost like real mates,í she thought wistfully.

After cleaning up the dinner mess, they spent a bit of time talking about what Pandora grew and how much she got at the market for it. He told her about the furniture business, and how you had to have an edge to be a success. His ability to produce stylish goods from the rarer woods had got him that edge, but he acknowledged that it was his foxtaur suppliers that had enabled it to happen. Pandora promised to take some time one day to see if they could find some suitable wood for making more furniture.

Then they headed off to bed early again. Pandora didnít even ask Karl this time. She merely laid on her bed and patted a spot next to her. Karl willingly joined her.

"Do you want to have sex-play again?" she asked.

"Youíre going to spoil me," he replied with a grin.

"Youíre the first person that I have had to spoil. Iíve got a lot of catching up to do!"

They made love, and while it might not have been as earth-shaking as the previous night, both were more than satisfied. Afterwards, they settled down to sleep in the manner that they had found themselves that morning, the vixenís tail once again serving as a blanket. That begun a habit that they would not break for a long time.

The next few days were much the same as each other until market day. Each morning after they ate breakfast, Pandora went out to her fields to work. For lack of anything better to do, not to mention a desire to pull his own weight, Karl joined her. They soon caught up with the backlog accumulated by her absence. One afternoon they spent a lot of time harvesting a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, loading them onto a cart designed to be pulled by a foxtaur. Early the next morning, they headed into the village, the slight downhill route making the going not too arduous for the vixentaur. They encountered many more foxtaurs than on previous occasions, all heading towards the market apparently. As before, several of the younger vixens made snide remarks to Pandora. However Karl noted that the more mature ones tended either to ignore her, or were quite pleasant. It seemed to him that only Pandoraís peers were the troublemakers, but of course that was more than enough to make her life miserable, especially as prospective mates were also amongst those peers.

Karl found the market to be fascinating. Farmers, herders, hunters and crafters not only haggled with each other over the value of their respective goods, but they also seemed to treat it as a major social occasion. More than one foxtaur was curious about him and what he was doing there. A couple of vixens tried to stir up trouble, but were quickly told to move on by Elders.

During a lull, Pandora remarked to Karl, "This has been the best market day Iíve had for ages, and youíre the reason."

"Me? How come?"

"People want to know about you and what youíre doing with me. They come over on the pretext of wanting to buy something, and they either buy more than they intended or pay more than they usually would because theyíre distracted!"

"Well, Iím glad to have done my part," he replied with a grin.

The market closed about midday and the two went home with very little left over. After having lunch, Pandora said, "I need to work on my accounts this afternoon. The rest of the day is free. Iím not sure what you want to do though."

"I think Iíll poke around in the shed and see what I can make. Gotta keep my hand in, yíknow?"

"Is there much timber left?"

"Not really, but one of the vixens whom I talked to this morning says she knows where to find some good timber, so Iím going to design a couple of things in anticipation of getting some."

"Okay, have fun!" she said, giving him a lick-kiss.

A couple of hours later, Karl came inside to get a drink. He found Pandora sighing over a pile of papers.

"Whatís the matter, hon?" he asked.

Pandora smiled briefly at the endearment, but then sighed again and indicated the papers. "We have a problem."

"We do? Whatís the problem?"

"Karl, my market gardens have sustained me pretty well for a few years, but even at its best, it wonít be able to sustain both of us."

"I see. I presume thatís what youíve just been checking. Thereís no potential for growth?"

"Not nearly enough. Our community is small, and as you saw today, I have competition for the goods that I supply. It wonít happen soon, but eventually weíre going to run out of both money and stores."

"So, either I leave, or get an additional income."

Pandora came over to him and put her arm around his waist reassuringly. "I said that you could stay as long as you needed to in order to get your life back on track. Personally, Iíd like you to stay a while longer also."

Karl smiled back at her. "Donít fret too much yet. I may have an answer to that problem."

"You do?" she said surprise. "What is it?"

"Iíll tell you more about it if it pans out. Iím going to go back to the village for a little bit. I suggest that you put away your paperwork and have a nap. Youíve earned a rest. Iíll be back before you know it!"

He left the stunned vixenís embrace and headed out the door. Moments later he came back in. "Forgot that I was thirsty," he explained, grabbing a glass, filling it water and chugging it down. Then he left again.

Pandora decided to trust him and took his advice about a nap. It was either that or do some more worrying over the figures which werenít about to change. She curled up on a patch of grass in the shade outside the den.

She dozed off quickly, but she wasnít asleep for long before visitors woke her again.

Karl returned to the den to find Pandora lying on the grass with a half-forgotten mug of tea in her hand, seemingly just looking at the view. She looked preoccupied, but when she saw his grin, it made her feel more optimistic.

"Congratulate me," he said.

"Sure! For what?" she asked curiously.

"Youíre looking at the new apprentice carpenter. I just lined up the job with Tobar, the village tradesman. I talked to him earlier at the market. It seems heís been unable to attract an apprentice, and his workload is getting out of hand. I thought originally that I might be able to make some things to sell through his business, but a full-time job is more reliable."

"Thatís great news, but you as an apprentice? Youíre already a professional."

"Well, itís basically for a trial period to see how things work out. Also, as he pointed out to me, foxtaurs do some things differently from humans, and I would need to learn a few new tricks. If every goes well though, I will very quickly be promoted to full tradesman status again, with a commensurate increase in wages. Do you think thatíll cover our needs?"

Pandora laughed and hugged him. "More than enough. Iím glad that you were able to solve this problem so quickly."

"Iím lucky that the foxtaurs run their own communities without interference from the Greater North American government. I really didnít want to have my presence here generally known outside of the village. I still donít intend to go back to so-called civilisation. At least, not until Iím good and ready."

That reminded Pandora that he wasnít bound to this place, and also brought back the latest developments raised by her visitors. "Speaking of running this community, I was visited by two council Elders while you were away."

"Oh? What did they want?"

"Apparently they got some complaints, you can speculate from who, about your presence here. They want you out of the village."

"What!? Just like that, they want to kick me out?"

"No, itís just a preliminary thing, more a forewarning. The council would have to convene and rule that you be ordered to leave, and that would take some time. However, the complainants have clan tradition on their side which says that while visitors should be made welcome, they should not overstay that welcome. Itís a bit vague, I know, but itís enough to get you on when you look like staying for so long. The flip side is that you made a lot of friends today, and theyíre likely to side with you if you wish to stay."

"But thereís no guarantee?"

"No, there isnít. In fact the odds are still stacked against you."

Karl looked sad. After being so excited again about his trade after so long, his hopes looked like being dashed.

Pandora came to a decision and said, "Karl, will you come walk with me?" She held out her hand.

"Okay. Where are we going?"

"Youíll see," she replied unhelpfully.

They walked to the side of the den that was opposite to the gardens. After several metres, they came to a side path that she turned into. The trail headed up the side of the valley, switching back and forth to make the climb easier as it got steeper. Eventually they passed over the rim of the valley and the path opened up to a wonderful view down its length and overlooking the village. Pandora picked her way between the low bushes until she reached a solid rock ledge.

"Come sit on the ledge with me, but watch out for the drop," she said.

He did as we asked, and she settled down next to him. The sun was lowering to their left and the sky beginning to redden, but the sunlight lined up with the valley so it was still well lit. The stream sparkled as it wound through the village and down through the valley. A sea of redwoods and cedars spread on either side of the village, unspoiled as far as the eye could see. Smoke from the fires of foxtaurs cooking their evening meals curled lazily up into the air and a gentle breeze blew enough of the smells to tantalise even the humanís poor sense of smell.

"Beautiful, isnít it?" Pandora asked.

Karl nodded. "As pretty as one could hope from a potential new home. Iíd hate to leave it."

"A lot of lovers come up here, especially at sunset. I think it inspires all of us at some time."

Karl thought about that for a bit, then said a bit hesitantly, "Are we lovers, Pandora?"

She looked at him with both hope and uncertainty. "Iím hoping we are that, and more. Karl, will you be my Denmate?"

Pandoraís proposal came as a surprise to Karl. Despite the events of the past few days, he had not seriously looked at their relationship. In fact he wasnít sure if he was ready to have a steady relationship again. And yet, she was so sure, and it was the vixens who proposed when they knew they had the right potential mate. She had already made her decision, so what did he really want?

Watching his face, Pandora tried to read Karlís emotions. She was getting better at reading human expressions, but she was still unsure of how he was leaning. She decided to argue her case.

"Karl, Iím not Isabel. Even if you had money or other assets, I wouldnít want them. I donít want to steal your business. I donít want to rule your life. And even if it was possible for me to bear you a child, I would never take her away from you. I just want to love you and have you share my life. Do you want to spend yours with me? Can you love me back?"

Karl gazed longingly back at the vixentaur, but he still had some questions. "Can such two different species as us truly be Denmates?" he asked.

"I havenít found any problem so far that we couldnít overcome. We both like each other, and the sex has been great. We work together well, and we seem to fulfil each otherís needs. I see nothing physical, mental or spiritual that would hinder us becoming mates. And one more thing Ė as Denmates, the council could no longer throw you out of the village. All mates from outside the clan automatically have the right to stay as part of the clan once officially Denmated, and thereís nothing in the traditions that says that they have to be foxtaurs."

"I wouldnít want to become Denmates just to stay in the village though."

"And I would not want you to. I want you to love me. I want us to make love as often as possible, and I want us to share the rest of our lives. I just would be happier knowing that you can stay without problems if you officially become my mate. I love you, Karl, with all my heart, so I ask you once again, will you be my Denmate?"

The emotion built up so much that Karl felt himself starting to be overwhelmed by it. Pandora was the opposite of Isabel in almost every way, and yet despite the fact that she was so different to him physically, she was right for him in every way that his ex-wife had been wrong. But was he ready yet to take another risk so soon? Pandora had known this, but her hand had been forced by the potential eviction. She was eager but sincere; he was tempted but afraid. Then she suddenly leaned forward and kissed him, human style. The kiss was long and passionate, but when their lips finally parted, it was as if all had been made clear to him at last.

"Yes, Pandora my love, I will be your Denmate."

She squealed with joy and hugged him fiercely, tears of happiness flooding from her eyes. Karlís eyes were moist too as he enjoyed the closeness of the beautiful sexy vixen who would now be his mate.

They stayed close for a long time, watching the gorgeous sunset together. She had her muzzle resting lovingly on his right shoulder, one arm around his waist, the other stroking his chest. He laid his left hand on hers and stroked her foreleg softly. Pandora could hardly believe how much such a simple thing was arousing her.

Eventually as darkness began setting in, she said, "Letís go home to our den, love. Iíll make us a special meal to celebrate."

"That sounds wonderful, dear. Only problem is that itís gotten so dark, I can hardly see the way."

Pandora took Karlís hand and drew him up. "My night vision is good, so Iíll show you the way safely. From now on, weíre a team, and weíll get over all our problems together. My quest has truly ended."


Chapter 2: Family Matters  


8 August 2333

[Karl]   Our second anniversary was very nearly ruined.

Pandora just poked me and told me that this isnít the way to start a brand new journal. She persuaded me to do this shared journal where we both will write the highlights of our lives, and also the lowlights that needed to be remembered. Apparently itís a tradition with many of the families in this clan to keep a journal, some many generations long. If our unique relationship succeeds or fails, perhaps this will help point out where it worked, and where there were problems. At the very least, it might make for some amusing re-reading in the future.

[Pandora]   Karl always has a slight pessimistic streak, not that I blame him after the horrible experiences he had. Nevertheless, I expect to use the journal more to relive these early days in our relationship when almost everything seems wonderful and yet promising even more. Right this moment, I am happier than I have ever been in my life.

[Karl]   So how should I begin this? ĎAnd they all lived happily ever afterí, right? Yeah, sure! Like any other couple, we occasionally disagree and quarrel. What is unusual is the infrequency and brevity of these events. Only twice have I resorted to actually sleeping alone in the spare den that I was given the day that I arrived, and both times I woke to find Pandora cuddled up with me on the bedding, her tail in its usual place keeping me warm. Our love for each other is such that neither of us can stay angry for long, and I can confidently say that the foxtaur community has no other members whose devotion is stronger than ours.

However, thatís evading the subject. After an unbelievably long period of mated bliss, we had our first major disagreement over my insistence on installing some up-to-date hypernet equipment. After about a year and a half of working for Tobar, I had started producing fancy furniture of my own design again, and was seeking to establish a market for it. To do this, I needed to deal with the outside world again, and as I wasnít prepared to leave the village, I needed modern communications and business equipment. Pandora, like the majority of foxtaurs, is a staunch stick-to-the-basics kind of person, and wanted none of that in her den. We have a CF generator that supplies power essential for running the water pump that not only supplies the den, but more importantly irrigates the fields. Pandora also has power tools where the desire for basics is outweighed by sheer bloody hard work. Efficient electric lighting is also used in places, although lanterns are just as common. She could not however convince herself that a computer and satellite link belonged in a foxtaur den. Eventually she stormed off to the bedroom and sulked. We two, because of our histories, have promised we would never hold the other to ransom physically, particularly sexually, so rather than confronting her, I decided to make do with the sleeping mat in the spare room.

[Pandora]   After a while, I got over my sulk and started feeling lonely. After being mated for all this time, I had come to both expect and need our easy physical intimacy. I padded silently into the other room and watched him slumbering for a while. I smiled fondly at the human who had made my life so joyful, and wondered why I was being so pigheaded about the new equipment. Deciding that I would concede to him on this, I felt that it was okay to take my rightful place with him.

Our second fight began with the best of intentions. It started one day when we went bathing at the local swimming hole after a particularly hot day. Several kits were there being their usual exuberant and noisy selves, splashing and diving with carefree abandon. I admit that they made me wistful for not being able to have any of my own. As much as we love one another, that will not overcome genetics. Karl asked what was bothering me, and I explained. He looked thoughtful for a while, then surprised me by saying,
"I want you to have a child. Ask one of those tods on that Obligation that you told me about. Iíll support your choice." Well, I was shocked. I told him that I wasnít interested in having another todís child, only his. I didnít doubt that his intentions were noble, but I was disappointed that he would so readily relinquish his right to siring our children to a stranger, and that he hadnít even thought about how I would feel about that.

[Karl]   I admit it. I was an idiot. I kept insisting that she should take the opportunity when it arose, and I could not understand why she kept getting angrier and angrier. I just got more and more stubborn about Ďdoing the right thingí and just didnít see her point of view. She got up and stalked off, presumably before she bit my head off, and went home. I picked up our things and followed, but found that she had gone into the sleeping den and closed the door, something that we never did. She obviously did not want my company then, so I made our dinner. For the first time in almost two years though, I ate alone. I went to bed in the spare room and spent a miserably long time trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Eventually I managed to go to sleep, but woke up when Pandora joined me. Only then did it get through my thick head how she truly felt about our relationship and her attitude towards children. I wanted to kick myself, but settled for snuggling deeper into my mateís embrace. In the morning, I simply told her that I was sorry and I would never be so insensitive again. Such is the love she has for me, she forgave me instantly. I hardly deserve such a wonderful person.

[Pandora]   I just bapped Karl on the head for that last comment. Of course he deserves me, just as I deserve him. I believe that we were destined to be together. I believed it from the day that we first met. Anyway, now you can record yesterdayís events, dear.

[Karl]   Thanks, love. It seems Iím to be the official chronicler, so here goes.

Our second anniversary was very nearly ruined...

Karl made sure that he finished up promptly this day. Pandora had told him to be on time or else! Of course she couldnít think of an Ďor elseí that wouldnít punish her too, but she could give him an earful about it. Not that he wanted to be late anyway. Two years! Two years of being mated to the most wonderful vixentaur on Earth. No human could possibly be luckier, or happier, than he was right now, and he hummed in cheerful anticipation as he cleaned up before hiking back home.

"Sounds like youíve got a big night planned," said Tobar, the foxtaur tod who was both his employer and close friend.

"Well, I donít know exactly what Pandora has in mind for us tonight, but I anticipate that she will spare no effort."

"What? For the meal, or later on the bedroll?" Tobar asked with an exaggerated leer.

Karl laughed. "Both if weíre lucky, you dirty old tod!" Karl walked over to a gleaming new piece of furniture that he had built. "Thanks for helping me cart this home. It isnít that heavy but itís awkward, and I donít want to scratch it before I get it in the den."

"No problem. Itís certainly a bit heavier than that cedar jewel box that you gave her last anniversary! Let me know what Pandora thinks of it."

"Iíll do that," Karl promised as he lifted one end. Tobar easily lifted the other and they manoeuvred it out the door of the workshop.

"This coffee table would make a nice addition to the pieces that youíve been selling at the trading post," Tobar commented.

"I made this with shorter legs specifically with a taur in mind. I donít know how saleable it would be."

"So? Just make the legs longer."

"Yeah, I know, but this piece is going to be of significance to me, so I might just keep it a one-of-a-kind style."

"Fair enough. Your success with the other furniture shows you know what people like."

"I couldnít have done it without you. Taking me in so soon after I came here made a huge difference to my life, and you know it!"

"You make your own success, Karl. I just saw the potential, and since no young foxtaur was looking for a career as a carpenter, I was serving my own interests in taking you in."

"Ha! With a large number of the vixens giving Pandora hell, you risked a lot by associating with me, her lover."

"Iíve said it before and Iíll say it again, vixens may run the community, but they donít run my life!"

"And itís why youíre still unmated, I suppose?"

"Donít knock my methods. The vixens seem eager to try to attain the unattainable."

Karl smiled to himself. He already knew that his friend rarely lacked for company in the sleeping den, despite the fact that he was quite a mature tod.

The two continued on in amiable silence, interrupted only by a few words of caution when carrying the table past an awkward section of the rough path to Karl and Pandoraís den. As they reached it, Karl called out in the imitation of a foxtaur yip to announce his arrival. It was an affectation that amused Pandora, and she came to the doorway immediately. Her eyes widened at the sight of the coffee table.

"Happy anniversary, love!" Karl announced as he put his end down carefully.

Pandora threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly, lick-kissing him liberally. Letting him go except for one hand holding his, she admired the workmanship. "Oh, itís gorgeous, Karl; and the carving is so intricate! So thatís what youíve been spending so much time on lately. Itís the perfect height too."

"More than you might realise," Karl agreed cryptically.

Pandora looked at him curiously, but decided to wait to ask what he meant later. She turned to Tobar with a smile. "Thanks for helping Karl bring this up. Iíd have hated to have seen it scratched." She gave him a one-armed hug.

Grinning, he accepted the hug with pleasure. "You can come by my den later and thank me more."

Pandora grinned. This was an old game they played. "Dirty olí tod! If I ever tire of Karl, youíll be the first in line, I promise."

"Canít ask for more than that! Iíll leave you two love-birds to yourselves now. Donít do anything that I wouldnít do!"

"That doesnít leave out much!" Pandora retorted as the tod trotted off down the path back to the village. He gave them a cheerful wave as he disappeared around a bend. Pandora turned to Karl who was grinning at their by-play. "Okay, stop that smirk and tell me the rest. Thatís a beautiful piece of furniture and I love it, but itís not as if we really needed a coffee table. Whatís your motive?"

"Would you prefer to find out now, or after dinner?"

Pandora considered. She was extremely curious, but then there was the dinner she was preparing. With a sigh, she resigned herself to be patient. "After dinner. Iíve spent a lot of time on this meal, and I donít want it spoiled.

Karl nodded. "Good, that will be best." He cuddled his mate, fondling one of her breasts with mutual enjoyment. "Itíll be worth the wait."

Pandora helped Karl get the table inside and told him where she wanted it. The den was not so big as to allow much choice, but the tableís size was made with this in mind.

Karl pulled out a bottle of red wine from his backpack and put it into the fridge to chill a bit while he showered and changed into casual den clothing. Then he helped Pandora with the final preparations for the meal, carving up the roast lamb that he loved, but they rarely were able to have. Roasted potatoes and pumpkin, both from Pandoraís garden were slathered with gravy, plus corn on the cob dripping with butter for him alone, completed the meal.

Karl poured two glasses of wine, passed one to Pandora and held his up in a toast. "To the two happiest years of my life, and to many more with the finest mate a man could dream of having."

"To the two happiest years of our lives, my love, and to giving my life meaning," Pandora replied.

They clinked their glasses together and drank some of the wine, a fine vintage from Australia.

"Now dig in!" Pandora insisted. "I didnít go to all this effort to let the food get cold!" she added with a grin.

The two enjoyed the meal immensely, but not merely because the meal was delicious, but also for the joy of the occasion. After a second serving for each, Pandora judged that an apple pie that she had left baking was ready, and went to remove it from the oven. Just then, there was a knock at the door. They looked at each other in puzzlement, not expecting any visitors. Karl, who had just got the cream out of the fridge for the pie, went to answer the door. Upon recognising the person standing there, he dropped the jug of cream, shattering it on the floor.

"Well, arenít you going to invite me in?" asked the elegantly dressed human female standing there.

"Isabel!" Karl simply said, stunned at the appearance of someone he had not only had never expected to see again, but sincerely hoped never to hear from for the rest of his life. "What are you doing here?"

Pandora came to the door to investigate. Hearing the name, the vixentaur was immediately on guard, her hackles rising. She glared at the unwelcome intruder who coldly regarded her.

"So this is what you abandoned me for? You truly have gone to the dogs, havenít you? Although I can see what attracted you to it," she added, pointedly looking at Pandoraís very generous bust. "You always did have a one-track mind."

"Pandora is not an it, nor is she a dog. She is a vixen, and more to the point, she is my wife, and you will not insult her, especially in our home!" Karl retorted with some heat.

"Your wife?! Youíve taken a morph as your wife, and a four-legger at that?"

"My opinion of you is already as low as possible. Adding bigot to that wonít help. Sheís been more of a wife to me in a week than you were during our entire marriage, which incidentally is ended. Whatís this crap about me abandoning you?"

"Oh, you and I are hardly finished, dear Karl. Shall we talk about it over a drink?"

"No, we shall not! How the hell did you find me anyway? Iíve made a point of leaving my previous life behind and Iíve barely had any dealings outside of this village since I came here."

"Pure good luck, Karl," Isabel said unperturbed by his irate attitude. I stopped at a certain trading post where I saw some fine furniture made with an extremely distinctive style. I asked the proprietor about it, and he kindly informed me about a man named Karl who was living in this village, so naturally I had to pay you a visit."

"You had to do no such thing! When I settled our divorce, it was with the agreement that you never bother me again."

Isabel gave Karl a smile that held no warmth, and sent a shiver down Pandoraís spine. She knew that this woman was scheming something.

Isabel said, "That was a verbal agreement, and you know what they say about those: that they are not worth the paper that theyíre written on." She suddenly turned business-like. "Iím still entitled to half of what you earn. My lawyer will see to that, and now that youíre making good money again, I want my share!"

Karl was outraged. "What?!!! How can you possibly think you can get away with such a ludicrous idea?"

"You have a daughter, remember? And sheís still a minor. You have to pay maintenance, and seeing as you havenít paid a cent in over two years, there will be other penalties and costs involved," Isabel said with a malicious grin.

"Bullshit! I signed over everything that you hadnít yet stolen from me, left the business in your hands, and left you both set for life. You canít possibly thinkÖ" Karl suddenly realised something. He looked at Isabel keenly. "Youíve blown it all, havenít you? Your excessive lifestyle was always getting more and more exorbitant. Did you also spend the money meant for your brat?"

"Kathleen is your daughter too," Isabel replied without answering Karlís question.

"I have no daughter," Karl said in a voice as icy as a glacier. "You made sure of that. I may have provided the seed, but that brat is solely yours. I did my legal duty and more, and youíll not get a cent more out of me. I wonder if she knows that youíve spent all the money meant for her? Iíll bet she doesnít. Iíd like to see her reaction when she discovers what mommy dearest has done."

The jabs finally cracked Isabelís veneer of politeness and she snarled acidly, "She wonít lack, because now that Iíve found you, my lawyer will soon have you before the court if you donít cooperate. And you know me, Karl dear, I donít give up until I get what I want!"


At this point Pandora broke her silence. Up until then, she had just stood there seething in anger at what Isabel was saying, but the woman had gone too far. She pushed past Karl and shoved her muzzle practically in Isabelís face, baring her fangs. "No you wonít, bitch! You donít deserve it, you never did, and never will. Youíre missing one very important fact, and that is youíre currently on Foxtaur Clan territory, and by UNTWG ruling, this is an independent territory, with its own laws and government by the Council of Foxtaur Clans. Your laws do not have legal status here. While Karl lives on Foxtaur Clan territory, he is out of your evil grasp. In fact, without the consent of our Clanís Elders, you may not even remain on our territory. I can even get Justice & Enforcement to expel you as an undesirable, and I will too if you donít leave this village right now!" Pandora practically spat the last in Isabelís face, snapping her jaws shut with an implied threat.

Isabel reeled back, genuinely frightened by the sudden verbal attack by the angry vixen, not to mention the dangerous teeth mere centimeters from her face. Karl was in awe of her defence of him, and how she dealt with Isabel. The woman tried one more feeble riposte.

"He canít hide behind you forever..."

Pandora didnít let her finish. "He doesnít need to hide behind me. We stand together as lifemates, and any attack on him is an attack on me, and I bite hard when attacked. If youíre not off our land in ten seconds, youíll find out just how hard! Now GO!"

Isabel lost her nerve and turned and ran. The expensive shoes she wore definitely were not made for running, but fear allowed her to make good time anyway. Karl slipped his arm around Pandoraís waist and watched until Isabel disappeared around a bend in the path. Neither said anything for a few moments more, both needing to calm down after the unwelcome visit. Then Karl put his hand to Pandoraís face, turning her head towards his, and kissed her long and passionately. He felt the tension drain from the vixen as she responded.

Eventually they broke and Karl, with adoration in his eyes, said, "What finer anniversary present could I get than to have my mate defend me so well? I love you so much, Pandora Whitepaw, more than I can possibly say, but Iíll continue trying until the end of my days."

Pandora felt almost overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment, but not so much that she couldnít reply, "How could I not defend my true love, especially against such evil? I promise that you will never have to face her, or any other peril, by yourself. We two are forever bonded."

Then Karl remembered something. "You told her we were lifemates, but we havenít actually made that declaration yet."

"I was going to ask you after dinner whether you wanted to make that commitment," Pandora explained. "In my own mind though, I already see us as such. We are well past the year minimum requirement as denmates, and I see our lives just getting better and better. I truly want you as my partner for the rest of our lives," she finished earnestly.

"Tomorrow we will go to the council offices and register as lifemates. Itís only a formality though, because youíre already a permanent part of me, my dearest vixen," Karl replied with tears of happiness starting to sting his eyes.

With their love and commitment reaffirmed, they hugged and watched the sunset in perfect companionship. As twilight set in, Pandora suddenly remembered something.

"Oh, furballs! I forgot the pie. Itíll be completely cold by now."

Karl gave her a crooked grin. "Worse yet, all our cream is now on the floor. Cold pie will be fine, love. You serve it up while I clean up this mess."

And so they did, and cold apple pie never tasted so good.

After they cleaned up the dishes and cooking utensils, Karl announced, "Now itís time to show you the secret of the coffee table. Let me just get one thing first." He went into the spare room and came out with a thick blanket. He then spread it over the table and tucked the loose ends under the legs so it wouldnít shift. Then he gave Pandora a lascivious grin.

"This way, your claws wonít mar the finish, so hop up onto the table, my dear!"

Pandora did so, beginning to suspect where this was going. Her head was now a little higher than Karlís, but much closer to level than when they normally kissed. Karl did just that, but Pandora knew that wasnít the real reason, although she enjoyed it from that angle for a change.

Karl started undressing as he continued his explanation. "Weíve done many things during making love to make our different bodies more compatible, and thus more mutually enjoyable. You will note that the height of this thing, while very suitable for a coffee table, has been perfectly measured to bring your sexy hindquarters up to the level of my waist. No more awkward hunching over. No more makeshift props. Iím going to make love to you as never before, concentrating on pleasuring you instead of having part of me manoeuvring for balance." He finished with an exaggerated studly pose intended to make Pandora grin, but his full erection showed he was ready and eager to put his words into action.

Karlís explanation and antics had the desired effect, and Pandora was both amused and aroused. However, she had a surprise for him too. "Before you get carried away back there, lover, thereís something else that I want you to do. This table brings something else within easier reach now," she said as she hefted her lush breasts, now bare also as she had taken off her halter while Karl stripped.

Karl grinned in pleasure. Both people thoroughly enjoyed his delight in her unusually large but sensitive breasts, and he willingly postponed his test of the table. He didnít even have to stroke her nipples into firmness as she was so aroused already. Fondling one, he said, "Is it my imagination, or are these looking even more firm and full than usual? They never looked lovelier!" He put his lips to one nipple and kissed it, then licked it, feeling Pandora shudder in pleasure. He teased her a bit more before putting his mouth to it and suckling. A moment later, he started back in surprise, looking at the moist nipple while licking his lips. "Youíre lactating!" he said in surprise.

Pandora grinned, delighted with the surprised look on his face. "You were right, my love. My breasts are indeed a bit fuller than normal as they now have milk filling them. Do you like?"

In response, Karl put his mouth back to the nipple and started sucking enthusiastically. He felt the warm milk squirt into his mouth, enjoying the unusual taste. Pandora found the sensation extremely pleasurable too, and growled in delight.

Karl pulled away reluctantly, licking his lips. "Darling, you taste absolutely delicious! This is such a great present, but how did you do it?"

"Give my other teat the same attention and Iíll explain." Karl unhesitatingly did so, quickly eliciting a similar flow of milk to the other. Pandora enjoyed it for a moment before beginning her explanation. "It occurred to me one night when we were making love that your enjoyment of my breasts was one of the first things that attracted you to me, and I wondered if there was anything that would make them even better." She shuddered in a small orgasm as Karl's contant suckling elicited more pleasure than ever before. She stroked his hair lovingly as she continued. "You had mentioned something about how a child would be in heaven feeding from these, and it occurred to me that so would you, my adorable breast-fetishist. Ooooh! I didnít realise that it would feel so much better for me too! Oh, yes, keep that up!" she encouraged as one hand played with her other nipple, while the other stroked through the fur on her back in a sensitive spot. "Anyway, I went to see the village healer and asked her if there was any way to make my breasts start producing milk, and she said that there was indeed something meant to help new mothers get their milk flowing. When I explained why I wanted it, she was a willing accomplice. The tricky bit was to figure out the correct dose to have the milk ready for today." She gasped as a stronger orgasm hit her, then said in a voice shaky with emotion, "Iím glad to find that we got it right!"

Karl stopped what he was doing just long enough to say, "Such a thoughtful and delightful present. Thank you, darling!"

"Believe me, itís my pleasure!" Pandora replied.

The lovers continued this for a long time, stroking and fondling each otherís body as Karl drove Pandora to ecstasy as he drained her dry. Only then did he finally get to prove the worth of the design of the new table as he made love to her until they were both exhausted.

[Karl]   Although Isabelís appearance was far from desirable, it did have one effect that Iím sure would annoy her a lot. It helped reaffirm the loyalty and love that Pandora and I have for one another on that special day.

[Pandora]   P.S. The coffee table is indeed the perfect height!


Chapter 3: The Rival  


5 April 2334

[Karl] Of all the seven deadly sins, jealousy has to be the ugliest in my opinion. Iím not blessed from birth like a chakat, unable to feel this invidious emotion except indirectly. Nor am I a foxtaur, adapted physiologically and sociologically to having multiple mates. No, Iím just a normal male human trying to do the right thing. So what does one do when the perfect match comes along for your mate?

Randan picked disinterestedly through the items being offered at the trading post. ĎWhat an utter waste of time this detour proved to be,í he mused to himself. ĎI barely made a profit on my trade goods, and I haven't seen a single thing yet that would be a sure seller at the other villages. What a hick clan!í

The black and silver foxtaur tod looked up as one of the local vixens brushed Ďaccidentallyí against his side. She smiled in what was superficially an apology, but was more an expression of interest in the handsome tod. He sighed and gave her a polite smile back, but turned again to the goods as if he was actually interested in buying something. ĎWorse yet, every single vixen in this backwater is practically flat-chested. Not a decent rack amongst them!í Of course he didnít plan for one moment to spend the night alone, even if the vixens here werenít his idea of vulpine beauty. Over the years, his stunning good looks had gained him the attention of many foxtaur vixens, and not a few bipedal ones also. He had never been slow to take advantage of that fact either. Although in this female-dominated society, a tod could not ask a vixen for a liaison, he never lacked for one or more of them inviting him over for a meal, and to stay the night. ĎI suppose if I hang around long enough, sooner or later a more worthwhile partner has got to come along.í

An hour later, he was about to give up and accept the approaches of one of the vixens when he laid eyes on a newcomer who made his heart stop. Her fur pattern was pretty common for this village Ė a bold orange with white on her face, chest, belly, tailtip and paws, and she had the same outrageously floofy tail that all the other foxtaurs had in this clan, but she did have rather distinctively red hair. However, it wasnít her hair that riveted his attention, but a pair of gorgeously full breasts seemingly barely constrained by her top. Most vixens in this village didnít bother with tops, but most didnít have much worth containing or embellishing. He had hit the mother lode, and best of all, she seemed headed in his general direction.

Randan positioned himself to best advantage, both to let the vixen get an eyeful of his bold and handsome coat pattern, and to be a seemingly accidental obstacle in her path. By standing sideways between the stalls, he effectively blocked the way through, thus giving her a reason to speak to him.

Pandora had just noticed the unusual foxtaur tod, his black and silver pelt standing out like a beacon amongst the more common colours. While she didnít have business to do with a stallholder in that general direction, she purposefully headed that way in order to have a closer look at him, just to satisfy her curiosity. Stepping up to the seemingly oblivious tod, she said with a friendly smile, "Excuse me, but I need to get past you."

Randan looked up and allowed a look of pleased surprise onto his face. "My apologies, beautiful vixen. Please forgive this visitor to your picturesque village. I am Randan Silverstreak, a humble itinerant trader."

ĎHe's laying it on a bit thick,í Pandora thought to herself, Ďbut at least it gives me an excuse to talk to him a bit more.í She gave him a look of polite interest. "Iím Pandora Whitepaw, an equally humble vegetable farmer. Iíve never seen you here before. I know that I would remember that fur pattern!"

Randan assumed a pose of studied casualness, leaning one arm against a stall, the other on his hip, and crossing his forelegs. He grinned disarmingly, and his rakish tuft of white headfur made him an almost irresistible target for the eyes of any vixentaur. "Youíre right, this is my first visit to this village, but if Iíd known that it had such a gorgeous vixen as yourself, Iíd have come here long ago!"

Now Pandora was a level-headed sort of person, not prone to being swayed by flattery, but after spending all her mature years as the subject of mockery due to her extraordinary physical assets, the forthright compliments caught her unprepared, and she found herself blushing. "IÖ thank you, Randan. And if youíd visited here some years ago before I found my mate, I would have been pleased to have shown you around personally."

Randan was momentarily nonplussed. ĎMated? Hardly a surprise, I suppose. A sexy vixen like her has got to have had half the tods in the village lusting over her. This will be a little trickier, but still attainable,í he thought. "Perhaps I could help you with whatever youíre doing here, and we can chat in the meantime?"

Pandora wasnít fooled for a moment. She may not have had the moves put on her by the local tods, but she could recognise them when she heard them. "Thank you, but no. My mate will be joining me here momentarily, and weíll be heading back to our den then. I hope you have a pleasant visit to our village though, and perhaps weíll see each other again."

Randan gave her a regretful smile. He may have lost round one, but there would be other opportunities. "I can only hope so, Pandora. Until then, farewell." He watched her pass, admiring her profile and graceful movement. ĎOh yes, there will be another meeting, sexy one. You can be assured of that!í He continued to watch her swaying rump while turning over in his mind which of the other vixensí invitations he should accept. Then he got the shock of his life as he saw a human male walk over to Pandora, give her a hug, and walk off with their arms around each otherís waist. ĎSheÖ she's mated toÖ a human? What the hell is going on in this crazy village? I can't believe that she can be satisfied with that two-legger. I'm going to give her the chance to find out what she's been missing!í

"How did your business go?" Karl asked Pandora as they walked off in the direction of the track that led to their den.

Pandora looked up at her mateís face and smiled. "I got a contract to supply my entire crop of tomatoes, lettuces, carrots and cabbages this season, and things are looking promising for a lot of my other crops too. Itís been a very good day, love."

"Excellent! If the weather continues to be kind, we could make a bit of extra money this season and get a couple of luxuries for a change. By the way, who was that black and silver foxtaur tod that I saw talking to you?"

"Him? Heís a travelling trader. It seems that I caught his eye. Sometimes I forget that not everyone is like those in my village, and it was nice to get some honest appreciation of my looks for a change." Then she hastily added, "Aside from you, Karl. You never fail to make me feel beautiful."

However, the seeds of doubt had already been sown in Karlís mind. He had more than glimpsed the foxtaur tod, and he had seen Pandoraís reaction while hanging back out of sight. Karl had no doubt that if Pandora had not met himself and become his mate, she would have accepted that todís advances without hesitation. He still felt that Pandora was going to miss not being with her own kind sooner or later, and although he felt that she deserved to have a liaison with a foxtaur tod, he did not know if he could remain emotionally distanced from that. She may have met her perfect match, and he, his perfect rival.

They celebrated Pandoraís contract by making a special dinner that night. Afterwards, when everything had been cleaned up, Pandora had to spend a little time working on paperwork for the contract. Karl took the opportunity to catch up a bit on his own business. Sales of his custom furniture were picking up, and their future was looking rosy. Then the two retired to the bedroom, and all thoughts of the visiting tod were cast aside as they made love, as deeply and enthusiastically as they had been doing for over two and a half years.

Karl was minding the shop while Tobar was meeting with a supplier, so he attended the counter when he heard someone enter the workshop. To his surprise, he saw that it was the same tod whom heíd seen talking to Pandora yesterday, and the tod seemed equally surprised for a moment. Karl was used to that though, as not too many visiting foxtaurs expected to see a human resident here.

"Howdy! Can I help you?" Karl asked, determined to keep his emotions in check. After all, this was probably a potential customer.

"Good day," Randan replied. "I presume that you are the same human that I saw at the market yesterday, unless there are more of you here?"

"No, Iím the only one. I was meeting my mate there."

Randan didnít miss the slight emphasis on Ďmateí. "So, does this mean that youíre the village carpenter? I find that rather unusual."

"Tobar is the village carpenter. I work for him, and specialise in custom furniture. So, is there anything in particular that you were after?"

Randan looked about at the samples of carpentry goods. They were all well made, but unexceptional. "I see none of this custom furniture that you speak of."

"I have a deal with a trading post out on the main route outside the clan territory. He sells my general stuff and acts as my agent for the custom pieces. Here in the village, any special orders go directly to the customer when completed, so I have nothing to show you."

"A pity. Iím looking for special goods that might be worth trading in other villages. I would have liked to have seen some of your work. Perhaps you have some in your home that you could show me?" Randan was looking for an excuse to visit Pandoraís den.

"No," replied Karl with a touch of suspicion creeping in. "Our home is not a display room."

Randan feigned indifference. "It was worth asking anyway. So, whatís a human doing with a foxtaur mate anyway, if I may ask?"

The tod was starting to get on Karlís nerves, but as he was being unfailingly polite, Karl could not bring himself to be rude in return. "When we met, we both had needs that the other could fulfil. It brought us together and grew into love. Now we are lifemates."

Randan quirked a silver eyebrow. "What? She hasnít missed having a foxtaur tod around, at least to sire children?"

That hit Karl hard. Although it was obvious that this smarmy tod thought that heíd be a good choice for a partner, it jibed with what Karl had felt for some time Ė sooner or later, Pandora would start pining to have children, and he would be unable to provide them. Nevertheless, this was his mate that he was discussing, and he wasnít about to step aside for the first tod that came along. "We have been very happy together. If she ever finds the need though, it will be her choice, not yours."

"Happy? How can a vixen ever be happy with just a human? Itís not natural! She needs another foxtaur, and since sheís apparently not a vulpamour, she needs a tod to fulfil her."

"A tod like you?" asked Karl coldly.

"Yeah," Randan replied with a smug expression. "No vixen has ever been disappointed with my company, and Iíve sired plenty of kits over the years."

This was the wrong thing to say to Karl. It might have been a safe subject for two foxtaur tods to discuss, but not with a human whose mate was the subject of the discussion. "Get out!" he ordered. "And donít bother Pandora. Sheís not interested!"

Randan frowned, set back by the sudden turn of events. "Thatís up to the vixen to decide, not you!" he insisted.

Karl leaned over until he was nose to nose with Randan. "OUT!" he roared.

The tod flinched back, both surprised and intimidated. Hastily he turned, but as he headed out the door, he flung back a parting shot. "Remember that the law says itís Vixenís Choice, human, and Iím going to make sure she makes the best choice!"

Karl stared at the closed door for a long time after Randan departed. Vixenís Choice. Those two words were what haunted him. He might not like it but, according to foxtaur law, he could do nothing about the todís intent to seduce Pandora. The vixens always had the right to choose to have a liaison with more than one male, especially if it involved procreation and, God help him, that tod was a damn attractive choice for that purpose.

Pandora needed stakes for her tomato plants, and the carpentry shop often had leftover wood that Karl would trim to appropriate size for her. She dropped in that afternoon to pick some up, and found Karl half-heartedly trying to work.

"Why so glum, lover?" she asked as she put her arms around him to hug him.

Karl desperately wanted to keep Pandora from seeing the pangs of jealousy that Randan had stirred in him. However, he didnít avoid the question as honesty between them was one of the things he held sacred. "I had a visit from that Randan fellow you met in the market yesterday."

"Oh? And what did he want?" Pandora asked curiously.

"Basically, you," Karl answered flatly.

Pandora frowned. "It seems he canít take a subtle hint. Heís cute, I admit, but Iím not interested in what heís got in mind." She looked Karl in the eye. "And donít you start thinking again about siring kits, okay?"

Karl gave her a guilty smile. "Okay, love."

"Good! Now help me load a bundle of those stakes onto me."

"Yes, dear," he replied, cheekily obedient.

He tied the bundle securely to her carting saddle, then she kissed him and headed off back to the fields. However, she was surprised to encounter Randan on the path just short of the den. He made it look as if the meeting was a coincidence, but Pandora wasnít fooled for a moment.

"So we meet again, my beauteous vixen," Randan said in his most charming manner. "How fortunate for me to be here at this time."

"Extraordinarily lucky, I would say. However, I really donít have time to chat right now. I need to get tomatoes staked up this afternoon. Work is never done when youíre a farmer."

"A vixen like you deserves much more than to toil in the fields all day."

"But I enjoy my work, and I have my mate to come home to every evening, so Iím happy." Pandora tried to subtly hint once again that she wasnít in the market for male attention.

"I met your mate today," Randan admitted. "A rather intense fellow. I wonder though if you can be fully satisfied with a human. Any tod would be happy to take care of the gaps in fulfilling your needs."

ĎAny tod, meaning himself, of course,í Pandora thought to herself. ĎHeís a persistent cock, and rather full of himself.í Pandora used the derogative term for a foxtaur tod who was oversexed and one-track minded. Then an idea occurred to her. "Perhaps youíre right but, as I said, I need to get tomatoes staked right now, and I still need to bring back another load of stakes yet."

"Then perhaps I can help you out there," Randan rushed to ingratiate himself. "My afternoon is free and I would be delighted to assist you."

Pandora smiled; he had taken the bait. Randan though thought that the smile was one of gratitude and was encouraged. Pandora said, "Then just let me drop off this load, and we can go back for another lot."

They walked the rest of the way to the den where Pandora unloaded the stakes at the workshop at the side. Then the two walked back to the village, Randan trying to chat her up, while she deftly danced around his advances. She didn't want him to be discouraged, yet she still left him an opening to back out gracefully. Karl was surprised to see Randan with Pandora, and wasnít pleased when the tod slyly smirked at him. However, when Pandora winked at him, he decided to play along with whatever she was up to.

"Randan has volunteered to help me, dear. Could you load one of those bundles of stakes onto him too, please?"

Randan was surprised that he was going to be a pack mule too, but gamely went along with the request. When they were both loaded, Pandora indicated to Randan to head off while she said goodbye. The tod thought she was going to tell the human to not expect her for a while, or some such excuse. Instead, she said as soon as the tod was out of earshot, "Follow us, but stay out of sight." Then she kissed him and hastened to rejoin Randan.

Karl hastily divested himself of his overalls, grabbed his satchel, bid a hasty farewell to a surprised Tobar who had just recently returned, then headed home. He caught sight of the two foxtaurs turning onto the path that led to their den, and then hurried to close the gap whilst still leaving a bend in the path to conceal the fact that he was close behind. Belatedly he remembered to check the direction of the breeze. Foxtaurs could notice his scent if he was too close, but the wind direction favoured him. He let the two go around the side to the workshop before he went up to the den and went inside. He moved to the window on the side that opened near the workshop, and carefully listened without letting himself be seen.

"So, what do you wish to do now, Pandora?" Karl heard Randan asked.

"Why, stake up tomatoes, of course," she replied.

"What? I thought you had something else in mind."

"No, I already told you that I need to get that done. Iím sorry if you thought otherwise."

"Now see here, you know what I intended, and donít deny it!"

"I do know, but I never agreed to anything. In fact, I have told you more than once that I am quite happy with my mate."

Randan was angry now, and his veneer of civility was slipping. "Donít give me that. No real foxtaur vixen could ever be satisfied with a furless two-legger!"

"Youíre wrong, Randan, and I advise you to leave it at that."

"No vixen has ever knocked me back, and Iíve never failed to satisfy them. Youíre not going to be the first either! Iím going to prove that a tod is a better lover than any human!"

Pandoraís voice had lost any degree of friendliness or tolerance. "I said no, Randan. Now let it go."

Karl was alarmed. It sounded as if Randan was about to go too far. He headed for the door, but heard Pandora say before he got there, "Get your hand off me, Randan!"

He burst outside and headed toward the workshop, but before he rounded the corner, he heard a loud yelp. Frantic at the thought of the tod forcing himself on his mate, he rushed to help, only to skid to a stop in surprise when he saw Randan rolling on the ground in pain, his forepaws between his hind legs, rubbing his scrotum.

Pandora was leaning over him with a look of contempt. "No means no!" She walked to the side of the workshop where a rake was leaning, grabbed it and raised it overhead. "Now get off our land! Scram!!"

Despite the pain in his groin, Randan managed to scramble to all four feet and started walking off, his tail between his legs. Pandora started following him, still menacing with the rake. "Not fast enough. Run, you cur!" Randan hastily broke into a run, with Pandora close behind, waving the rake wildly in the air. Karl stared at the sight for a moment, then sat down and burst out laughing.

He was still chortling to himself when Pandora returned, a grin on her muzzle. "So, you enjoyed that, did you?" she asked.

Karl stood up and hugged her lovingly. "Yes, and I feel a lot better now."

Pandora dropped the rake so that she could return the hug. "I thought that it would help clear up your doubts, and get rid of a pest at the same time. Seems to have worked well on both counts."

Karl drew back to look at Pandora earnestly. "But he practically tried to rape you. How did you get away from him so fast?"

"Pfft!" Pandora said contemptuously. "Foxtaur vixens and tods are virtually the same strength normally, unlike humans. However, Iím a farmer, and years of labour have made me stronger than average, especially compared to a trader like Randan who doesnít get to exercise more than his ego. You should have heard him panting after lugging that bundle of stakes up here! Breaking his grip was absurdly easy, and his surprise gave me the chance to knock him over and jump on him where it hurts the most."

"And a more deserving tod I would not know," Karl said fervently. "Are you going to get into any trouble because of this though? After all, you did assault him, and he could claim that you had been leading him on."

"Youíre thinking too much in human terms, dear. I had already told him a few times that I wasnít interested, and while males have the right to approach any vixen and make their interest plain, once they are plainly told Ďnoí, they are required to drop any further overtures. Randan is obviously too used to getting his way, playing on his handsomeness. He just didnít know how to deal with rejection, so he persisted. That action broke clan law, and I had the right to do everything that I did in response. In fact, if he tries to make a complaint to the Elders, he will quickly find himself arrested and tried on charges of attempted rape. If he has any brains at all, he will be heading out of clan territory just as soon as he possibly can."

"On to the next unsuspecting vixen, I suppose," Karl said glumly.

"Donít worry about them, love. They know what heís offering, and most are quite pleased with what they get. I just hope that he has learned to accept rejection for the next time that one of them says no."

"If you say so, dear. Now, how about forgetting those tomatoes for a little while and coming inside with me? I have something to offer you too."

Pandora smiled lovingly at Karl and simply replied, "Yes."

[Pandora] In a way, the episode with Randan was a blessing. Although I have often tried to reassure Karl that I was not unhappy because we could not have children, he has always had a nagging doubt. I love him for his continued consideration of my needs and feelings, but I need his love more than offspring, and his happiness is of great importance to me. Only when he is happy can I be completely happy also. His doubts have been allayed now, and our relationship has never been stronger. Perhaps sometime in the future my biological urges may become a problem, but we will both deal with them when or if they do. Meanwhile, we will love each other as much or more than any two foxtaurs have ever done.


Chapter 4: The Great Drought  


25 June 2334

[Pandora] We successfully petitioned the Council of Elders to permanently ban Karlís ex-wife, Isabel, from ever setting foot on our clan territory again, but of course the entire outside world was out of their jurisdiction. Karl could never be sure of being safe from being accosted if he left Crystal Creek foxtaur lands. Fortunately, he had already established a good business partnership with a trader at the nearest township who managed any face-to-face contacts away from our village. For a while, we had peaceful, albeit busy lives. If he chafed from being restricted, Karl hid it well, and I did my best to make him so happy that he wouldn't even think about leaving the safety of our home.

However, not all problems are caused by people. The weather that had been so ideal a few months earlier, had continued to get hotter and hotter, and the rains failed. This would become known as the year of the great drought.

Pandora took off her broad-rimmed hat and fanned herself, her tongue lolling in the heat. Replacing the hat, she took a water bottle out of the saddle pack on her taur torso, and drained the last of its contents. She panted a while before getting back to work, completing the final pipe connections to irrigate this field in the evening after the sun could no longer evaporate the precious resource. Twisting the final coupling into place, she leaned back with a satisfied sigh. She glanced in the direction of the feed pipe that disappeared into a pool fed by a creek. An artfully concealed electrically powered pump would automatically turn on and off later. The wind-powered pumps had been virtually useless for weeks in the breathlessly hot conditions. Pandora picked up her tools and put most of them into her saddlebags. With a spade in hand, she walked over to the pool to check it for debris. She observed the trickle that still fed into it with a worried shake of her head.

"If we don't get rain really soon, you're going to stop flowing, aren't you?" she asked the severely diminished creek. The tiny trickle of water was unresponsive however. Pandora could not recall it ever being this low before. Right now, it could barely replace the water that she used, let alone overflow the pool and continue down to feed Crystal Creek, the stream that flowed through the village and into the small lake that was the supply of the villageís drinking water. The creek was barely more than this trickle, and that was worrying for more people than just Pandora.

A shout from behind attracted her attention. Turning around, she saw on the far side of the field the lanky human who made her forget all her worries. She trotted off to meet him as he crossed the rows of vegetables. They met in a hug and spent a quiet moment just being together. Then she lifted her muzzle to look at him.

"You're home early, aren't you?" Pandora asked.

Karl stroked her cheek ruff affectionately, replying, "I suppose that I could be romantic and say that I couldn't bear another moment without you, but the truth is that Tobar called it quits early because it was too damn hot in the workshop." For the fur-bearing foxtaurs, the heat was even worse than it was for the human. Even the cleverly designed foxtaur structures that reflected radiant heat, minimised heat absorption, and maximised cooling breezes couldn't cope with the oppressive conditions. Also, because foxtaurs eschewed unnecessary technology, there wasn't an air-conditioner to be found in the entire village, and many foxtaurs had been taking to cool caves to sleep through the worst of the afternoonís baking conditions.

"Try working in the fields!" she replied as she disengaged from Karlís arms. For the umpteenth time that day, she tried adjusting her work top to make her breasts more comfortable. Her anniversary gift to Karl had proven very popular, but the lactating breasts were even heavier and more awkward than ever, and made her more uncomfortable than her already-large endowments usually did. The top was well designed to restrain her breasts while working on her farm, but even it couldn't work miracles.

"You really should wean yourself," Karl said solicitously.

"Not on your life!" Pandora retorted. "I enjoy you drinking my milk as much as you do." Indeed, to her surprise, she had enjoyed it far more than she had anticipated. Originally intending to wean herself after a few weeks when they got bored with it, both realised that they enjoyed it too much to want it to stop. Now it was a regular part of their lovemaking at night, and of Ďbreakfast in bedí of a morning. Still, in weather like this, it did tend to stretch the limits of her tolerance. For now though, the pay-off still outweighed the discomfort.

"Let's hit the swimming hole," Karl suggested. "We both need to cool down after a hard day."

"Now that suggestion I can agree with," Pandora replied, and the couple headed to their home.

Strolling to the swimming hole

Once there, Pandora changed out of the uncomfortable but practical work top into something far from practical, but immensely more comfortable. Her favourite red and white halter simply tied in the front. Meanwhile, Karl grabbed a pair of clean shorts and rolled them up into a couple of towels. Arm in arm, the couple headed off towards the swimming hole. That was located just a little way from their property, fed by another of the small creeks that ran into the valley, joining with Crystal Creek.

"I heard that the Elders are seriously considering closing the hole for swimming," Karl told Pandora. "They think that we are likely to need it for more important reasons, such as drinking water, if this drought continues."

"That would be a damn shame," commented Pandora. They were close enough now to hear the shouts and squeals of the foxtaur cubs enjoying the cool water. "It's bad enough for everyone without having a means to cool off as well."

As soon as they walked within sight of the swimming hole, one of the cubs spotted them, and a cry of glee went up. Not that anyone had particularly wanted to see Pandora; it was Karl for whom they waited. Far less suspicious and conservative than the adults, the inquisitive foxtaur kits had been very curious about the human who lived in their village. At the watering hole, this had become great puzzlement. Not one foxtaur, either adult or child, wore anything but their fur when swimming, and they could not comprehend why this man wanted to wear clothes while doing so. One day, a cheeky lad pulled off Karlís shorts while he was in the water, and waved them in triumph. Karl naturally tried to get them back, and it had turned into a huge game of Ďkeepings-offí. Pandora had nearly laughed her head off watching the antics of her mate and the kits. Ever since then, Karlís shorts were considered fair game, but a couple of rules had been established. If he was with Pandora, they weren't to be bothered. The moment that he left her side though, he was a target. Also, if Karl or Pandora declared that they had to leave, the game was immediately ended and, if Karl wasn't in possession of his shorts, they had to be promptly surrendered. The only other rule was the strictest Ė it was only a game, and no one should be hurt. The laughing kits eyed Karl with near-predatory glee. Stripping off his work clothes, Karl left them by the towels, and then he and Pandora held hands as they took a running jump into the pool. The cold water made them gasp reflexively after the heat of the air, but they soon adjusted and sighed in relief.

After a few minutes of blissful relaxation, Pandora kissed Karl on the nose, whispered "Good luck" to him, then dived under the water to resurface at the edge of the pool where she leaned against a fallen branch and rested her muzzle on her arms to watch the shenanigans. The handful of adults who were also there started taking bets on how long Karl would last as the first of the kits whooped in exuberance and made her attack. She only just beat the others by a moment though, and in a trice a mob had descended on KarlÖ who had disappeared. Not waiting to be mobbed, Karl had dived under the water and headed off in a random direction. Inevitably though, one of the kits spotted him, and the chase was on. All of the foxtaurs were at home in the water, but none could match the human in speed and manoeuvrability, so Karl wasn't caught quickly. However, the swimming hole wasn't that big, and there were a lot of kits, so soon enough a triumphant kit waved her prize. Then there was the matter of keeping it as the hunted became the hunter. The children had a ball!

Pandora watched her mate fondly. He was so good with the kits and, at times like these, he was almost like a big kit himself, willing to just let go and have some pure fun. Even so, he played fairly with all the children, giving the little ones a good chance to catch him, while making it harder for the teenagers. When the game had first started, Karl had been very self-conscious about his nudity, but he quickly realised that after the cubs had satisfied their childish curiosity about human anatomy, they lost interest in that after a few moments, and they literally didn't care that he was naked. After all, so were they, only they had fur. Now he was as indifferent to it as they were, but the shorts were always worn. After all, it was expected of him!

In this manner, Karl had won over even the shyest kit in the village and, through them, had earned the favourable opinion of many of the adults. Although there were still a few who felt a human didn't belong in a foxtaur community, Karl was regarded as a member in good standing by the overwhelming majority. He'd even made some very good friends, vastly improving Pandoraís own social standing. She was extremely proud of her mate. Still, it was at times like these that she was strongly reminded that she had no kits of her own. She never let that show to Karl though, not wanting to revive the old arguments that she should find a tod on Obligation. The only child that she wanted was Karlís, and if that could never be, she would be satisfied with experiences such as these.

Eventually Pandora put two fingers in her muzzle and blew a long, loud whistle to signal the end of the game. The kit in possession of the shorts at that moment magnanimously handed them back to Karl. Several of the worn-out kits pulled themselves out onto the banks to dry off. Karl took his time getting out though. All that exercise had also worn him out, and all he wanted to do was float peacefully for a few moments. Pandora spoiled that idea though. Paddling over to him, she said, "Remember that we're expecting a guest for dinner?"

Karl frowned, then remembered. "Oh, yeah." He sighed. "I suppose we'd better get dry."

Swimming Hole

They both headed for the bank, and Karl helped Pandora get out of the water. Waterlogged fur was rather heavy, and the banks were slippery from all the splashing. For few moments, Pandora let the excess water drain from her fur, and then shook herself like a dog, spraying water everywhere. Karl was showered until the worst of it was gone. Then they walked over to their towels. Not bothering to dry himself, he handed one to Pandora, then used the other to help dry off her fur. By the time that they were satisfied, he had dried off naturally in the heat, and only then did he put on his clean shorts, wrapping the wet ones in the towels. Pandora picked up his work clothes and took his arm as they strolled casually back home, waving goodbye to those still at the pool.

As they approached the den, they spotted a lean biped figure leaning against a post in the shade of the porch. They easily recognised him as a coyote morph, tall, middle-aged, and smartly dressed despite the heat. His muzzle was split by a big grin as the couple approached.

"Looking at you two, I feel distinctly overdressed!" the coyote said.

"Howdy, Jake," Karl replied. "You make me hotter just looking at you!"

"I hope we didn't keep you waiting long," Pandora added.

"Nah, I'm a bit early. Closed up earlier than normal because customers weren't coming out in this heat either."

"Come on inside then," she said after giving him a welcoming embrace.

Like many of the dens in the area, Pandora and Karlís was partially built into one of the numerous caves in the hillside. This meant that the inside of the den was significantly cooler than the outside. Karl quickly closed the door behind them to keep the hot air out.

"Can I offer you a drink, Jake?" Karl asked hospitably.

"Some of that home-made cider of Pandoraís would hit the spot right now," Jake replied, lolling his tongue thirstily.

Karl grabbed a jug from the refrigerator, one of the few pieces of technology that no foxtaur ever objected to. However, as a compromise, they went out of their way to decorate or camouflage the units. One snowbound day, Pandora had skilfully repainted theirs to match the stone of the walls in the Bedrock style. Now you had to look twice to even figure out that it wasn't rock, let alone a fridge.

Karl poured three glasses of ice-cold cider. When Pandora came back from dumping the clothes and towels in the laundry basket, she joined them in a toast.

"To friendship!" They clinked glasses and drank thirstily.

Pandora refilled the glasses, then said, "I hope you like cold cuts, Jake. It's too hot to cook today."

"Not a problem, Pandora. As long as there's meat in there somewhere, I'm happy."

"Okay, you two get on with your business while I prepare the food."

"Thanks, Hon," Karl said, giving her a quick kiss.

Jake sat on the lounge while Karl took a chair. "So," began Karl, "has that dining set sold yet?"

"Yep! Same specialty furniture store that wanted you to knock out a few more of those dressers last month."

Karl frowned. "And as I keep telling them and others, I don't mass-produce. Everything that I sell through you is unique."

Jake held up his hands in mock self-defence. "Whoa! I know that. We wouldn't be doing such good business if it wasn't."

Indeed, Karlís custom furniture, sold as ĎWhitepaw Creationsí, had been attracting a steadily-growing clientele due to its high-quality one-off pieces. The only things he duplicated were matching chairs for a dining table, and even then he usually added something unique to each. Originally sold on consignment through Jakeís Trading Post located on the main highway close to the access road to the village, Karlís furniture had quickly grown in reputation when it was Ďdiscoveredí. Now it constituted a major portion of Jakeís turnover, and the business relationship grew as rapidly as the friendship between them.

"How's the drop-by traffic? Getting many sales that way?" Karl enquired.

"Now there's the problem, Karl." He started pulling out a sheaf of papers as Karlís expression turned to worry. With a grin, Jake continued, "We've sold so much, we've almost nothing to show them except photographs!" he said triumphantly as he laid the pile of sales invoices on the coffee table.

Karl sighed in relief, then glared good-naturedly at his friend and business partner. "You had me worried for a moment."

Jake protested innocently. "But it is a problem. How can I sell stuff if you can't produce it fast enough?"

Karl snorted. "The day I start mass-production is also the day that would mark the death of what makes my furniture so saleable."

Jake became serious. "I know, my friend. I just wish that you could see the customers coming in and Ďoohingí and Ďaahingí over your furniture. I also have some more requests for custom pieces in that pile of paper."

"While my ex-wife is still a factor, I'm afraid that coming out to your place is just too risky. Are you still getting those suspicious types?"

Jake nodded. "I had a new one asking questions only a few days ago. I played the dumb country hick and gave him a few red herrings to chase. Unfortunately, as fun as that was, it does show that she's not giving up."

"She never will," Karl said soberly. "It's not in her nature."

"Stop being so gloomy, you two!" Pandora ordered as she brought over plates laden with cold cuts of meat, cheese and a garden salad. "She can't ever get you here now that the Elders have put their full support behind you. Your business is doing fine with Jake handling it," she said as she put the plates on the table and gave Karl a cuddle, "and if you're feeling down, I know how to cheer you up."

"You're a lucky man to get such nice hugs," Jake said enviously.

"What about your own mate?" Karl asked.

"Well, yeah, but she isn't nearly as well-cushioned," Jake replied cheekily.

The couple rolled their eyes. "I'm going to tell her that you said that next time we see each other," Pandora threatened.

"Oh, she already knows. Makes her more eager to please in other areas where she does excel."

Pandora threw a cushion at him. He wasn't really so lecherous; he just enjoyed playing it. In fact, Jake and his mate often had dinner at Karl and Pandoraís den, and had a standing agreement to return the favour if the situation with Isabel was ever resolved.

[Karl] The Council of Elders closed the swimming hole two days later. Pandoraís water supply dried up within a week.

Pandora and Karl stood by the bed of the creek, looking at the line of pathetic puddles that was all that remained. Soon, they too would dry up.

"Can you harvest now?" Karl asked.

Pandora shook her head. "Aside from a few things, they're not ready yet, and the continuous crop plants such as the tomatoes will need watering for a long while before they finish producing fruit."

"How about asking the council if we can run a pipe to the swimming hole?"

"I've already asked. They regretfully declined. The village can get food from the hunters or stored goods, but we don't have another alternative drinking water source."

"A well, maybe?"

"Wrong kind of terrain."

Karl thought for a while, then said, "We'll have to buy it in then."

Pandora looked at Karl sharply. "Won't that be expensive?"

Karl nodded. "Yeah, but what point is there in making good money on furniture if you can't spend it on a worthy cause?"

Pandora hugged her mate. That money had been earmarked for other purposes, but she had to agree with Karl. "Thank you, dear. We're going to have to widen the track to our place to get even a small tanker up here."

"Yeah, and smooth out the worst bumps too. How will you get the water to where it needs to go?"

"We're going to have to pump it straight from the tanker and onto the fields. If we try to use our pump pool, there could be too much loss. We'll also need to do this at night and shift the irrigation pipes around a couple of times in the dark. We're not going to have much time to ourselves for a while, and sleep is going to be broken."

"We'll manage, love," Karl said, giving her a reassuring hug.

[Karl] We did manage, although the first couple of days were hard. I took time off from my carpentry in order to help Pandora get ready. Then that evening, the truck turned up. Despite the preparations, the truck could barely negotiate the rough road. The path had never been intended for vehicles. The driver, a big black man named Samuel, was sympathetic and determined though, and soon the tanker was parked besides the fields. While Pandora and Sam hooked up the pipes, I prepared some of Pandoraís cider and food. When the first of the thirsty fields was being irrigated, we all retired to the cool of the den for a drink and a meal. Sam stayed the night and, after breakfast, took the empty tanker back for another load the next evening. Finding the right size of tanker at short notice hadn't been easy. Finding one with a driver willing to work within our preferred times had been nearly miraculous, so we treated Sam like royalty while he was over here. It took another two loads to catch up with the watering and, after that, Sam only had to come back every few days. Or at least, so we thought.

Pandora packed up after the market closed for the day. That mostly involved dismantling the canvas shade and temporary trestle because almost all her vegetables and fruit had been sold. As was her habit, she visited Karl in his workshop before returning home. He visibly brightened as he saw her coming.

"Pandora!" How went the market today?"

She gave him a brief hug, it being too hot to enjoy a long one. "Best yet. I should have brought more of a couple of things."

"Not that I'm complaining, but why are they so good?"

"It seems that because all the streams and ponds have dried up in the area, game has moved to more reliable water sources far away. The hunters are coming back empty-handed more frequently and, with little fresh meat, they're turning to the farmers to make up the difference."

"At least that will help offset the expense of having to ship in the water. How is Kalara doing?"

Kalara was one of the other produce growers, and Pandoraís biggest competitor. Her fields on the opposite side of the village were watered by a different creek, one that hadn't dried up yet.

"That's one piece of news that I have. Kalara spoke to me today. She did good business also, but she was worried because her water supply has just failed also. She was considering doing the same as us and wanted to get in contact with Sam."

"Did you tell her how much that it costs?"

"Yes, and it's going to be hard on her and Ryshu." Ryshu was Kalaraís vixen mate. The vulpamours worked their farm together, but Kalara always managed the market. "I almost feel sorry for her."

ĎAlmost,í thought Karl. Kalara had been one of the worst of those who used to mock Pandora. "It must have been galling for her to have to ask you for help."

"Oh yeah," Pandora replied with a predatory grin. "It was sweet seeing her squirm."

Karl smiled. Pandora was a wonderful person, but she wasn't a saint. She had been waiting a long time to get one back on her detractors.

"But Kalara isn't the only one with water troubles.," Pandora continued, her expression growing serious again. "The whole village has got problems."

Karl looked puzzled. "I thought that the water from the swimming hole would be sufficient providing people were prudent with its usage?"

Pandora nodded. "So did everyone else too. However, unlike the lake that usually supplies our water, the swimming hole is formed by a natural dam caused by a rockslide, and it's leaking badly. Normally the water coming in balances out or exceeds that which leaks outÖ"

"Öbut not now that the creek feeding it has dried up," finished Karl.

"And the run-off joins Crystal Creek below the lake, otherwise they would not have needed to close the pool. They're trying to figure out ways to salvage that water now, but the rocky terrain is making that hard."

Karl recalled images of a boulder-strewn narrow gully without any significant pools. The water could more frequently be heard rather than seen.

"So what happens if that runs out? Buy it in also?"

Pandora shrugged. "I guess so, but we're only a tiny community with very little spare money. Ironically, your income from the furniture sales has vastly increased the overall wealth of this community."

"Then everyone had better start praying that rain comes soon. None of us can afford to keep this up."

[Pandora] But rain did not come. Although clouds threatened occasionally, they never delivered. If anything, they made the climate even more oppressive. I harvested most of my crops successfully, but hadn't sewn anything new as yet. Instead, I conserved our water for the fruit trees and perennials. With game still scarce, Karl recruited some of the hunters to find more suitable timber. He had taken on more commissioned work in order to earn extra money. He used the deposit money to pay the hunters, which eased their problems, but increased his own. It was hard enough to find suitably seasoned wood, but he had to put in extra hours in order to get the goods completed without compromising the quality. When my workload eased after the harvest, and the produce stacked in the cool cave that I used for storage, I joined him in the workshop to help with the basic preparation so that he could concentrate on the difficult parts. It also gave us more time together again. It was also a reversal of the roles when we first met and he had helped me in the fields.

The overtime had eaten a lot into our personal time, and we were often too tired to make love. At least we both found enough time to at least suckle my breasts still, and we could go to sleep contented. Eventually though, I had to insist on him taking a day off.

"I still don't feel comfortable going on a picnic while things are like this," Karl grumbled.

"Nonsense!" Pandora scolded. "You've been working yourself into the ground, and I don't want to have to take care of a sick mate."

"Aw, I'm okay. Just a bit tired is all."

"Don't try to fob me off with that; I know you too well by now. You've been practically supporting half the village since the water ran out. Sam is a good man, but he can't afford to give away the water any more than you can give away your furniture, so he needs to be paid, and we're the only ones getting any significant income from outside the village. You've been supplying the tankers that have been standing out there in the middle of the village for weeks now. No one has worked harder than you, nor deserved a rest more than you." Pandora put her arms around Karlís neck and gazed adoringly into his eyes. "Besides, your lifemate insists."

Karl laughed. "How can I argue with that?" He kissed the vixentaur thoroughly, then they disengaged and picked up the picnic gear.

They took the trail up to their favourite spot, the lookout area where they had first declared themselves as denmates. It was a sad sight. Small saplings had died, young trees were suffering badly, and even the mature trees had dropped leaves and even limbs in an attempt to conserve water. The air smelled dusty, and the usual scents of the forest had all but disappeared. The tinder-dry undergrowth didn't rustle with unseen animals or insects as much of the wildlife had either died or had left in search of water. It was eerily quiet in the still, hot air. The dull overcast day sapped the remaining colour out of everything.

"I suppose that we can count our blessings that no fires have come this way," Karl commented.

"I shudder to think if one did. This forest would practically explode into flame, it's so dry," agreed Pandora.

When they reached the top, Karl spread out a blanket over the rough ground, and then they both unpacked the food. They enjoyed the meal more than any that they had had for a while, but Karl brightened even more when Pandora pulled out a jug of her cider.

"I thought that all the cider was gone," he said questioningly.

"I've been saving that one for a special occasion. Having time to ourselves is very special to me."

Karl smiled lovingly at his sole reason for living, his soulmate and perfect companion. "I'll drink to that!" he declared as he poured them each a cupful.

They drank the cider with great satisfaction, then got stuck into the rest of the food before the heat spoiled it. As they nearly finished, Karl poured out the last of the cider. A splash of liquid on her arm caused Pandora to say, "Careful with that! It's the last we'll have for a while."

Karl looked puzzled, but he poured more slowly, only to be surprised by a damp splash on his hand. This time though, it was closely followed by more splashes on his arm and nose. Karl stared at them unbelievingly, then looked up. The clouds had thickened and darkened unnoticed. A drop of water splashed in his eye. Then the skies broke and the rain began in earnest. Hardly daring to believe their senses, Pandora and Karl watched the rain come down for several long moments, then they started whooping for joy. When it became evident that the rain had settled in and wasn't just teasing them with false hope, they toasted it with the last of the cider. When Karl finished, he threw back his head and laughed as the rain spattered on his face.

"What's so funny, Hon?" Pandora asked with a smile.

"We've all been working so hard that nobody has had the time for recreation lately, but all it took was one real picnic to get rained upon! God has answered our prayers with a sense of humour."

"Silly human!" Pandora said, then kissed him until they were both breathless. Then they made love on the blanket as the heavens poured their gift of life upon them.

[Pandora] It was the perfect rain Ė steady and not too heavy. The thirsty ground soaked it up as fast as it fell. It took two days of non-stop rain before the run-off was significant enough to revive the creeks. It was a week before the water levels started rising to the point where the normal village usage was outstripped by the water coming in. Sam took away his tanker and life slowly returned to a semblance of normality.

Nature showed its resilience by quickly sending up new shoots of grass in the meadows, and trees put out new foliage, making the most of the mild conditions before the cold season arrived. I planted my late season crops barely in time to mature before the frosts of winter were due.

A few weeks later, the village was called to a general meeting. Every single member of the Crystal Creek clan crammed into the small community hall to hear what the Elders had to say.

Elder Yuni yipped and held up her hands for silence, and the roar of conversation abated.

"Thank you," she began. "This clan has recently weathered an unprecedented crisis, and it was chiefly due to the tireless efforts of one person. That person has only been a member of our community for a few years, yet he has become well-liked by the majority of our population, especially by our children. We are here to honour him today. Karl, would you please step up here?"

Karl rather self-consciously joined Yuni up the front.

Yuni faced Karl and continued. "You have become a member in very good standing in the time that you have been here. You have truly made this place your home and, during the recent drought, acted in the best interest of the community. We wish to publicly thank you for all that you have done, and acknowledge that we are in your debt. Whatever is within our power to do for you shall be yours for the asking."

There were cheers and applause from the audience. Yuni waited for it to die down before continuing. "For now, there is little else that we can do until the village recovers completely. However, there is one thing that we can do. At times you have felt alone as the only human amongst we foxtaurs. It is the consensus of this community that you be declared as an honorary foxtaur, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of any other tod. If you choose to stay with us permanently, and we hope that you do, you will also eventually be as eligible to go on the Council of Elders as any other foxtaur. In short, we welcome you into our hearts, Karl Whitepaw."

The crowd went wild with cheers, clapping, and stamping of paws, while Karl stood there embarrassed but pleased. Pandora joined him by his side, hugging him joyfully. The rest of the Elders came over to shake his hand in congratulations, closely followed by the rest of the adults, and many of the children. One little kit who probably didn't understand the meaning of the celebration, but understood the emotion, gave his leg a fierce hug.

When the congratulations died down, Karl finally got to have his say.

"Thank you, Yuni, and all of you who have welcomed me as one of your own. I love this community, and I can't think of a better place to spend the rest of my life, alongside my lifemate, Pandora. All of you have made Crystal Creek my slice of heaven, but it was the kits who were often the first to warm up to me, and I love them extra dearly for that." He paused to give the kits a big grin, then continued. "So I have just one thing left to say Ė last one to the swimming hole is a hairless two-legger!"

With that, Karl ducked out the door. It took only a brief moment for the first of the kits to catch on, and they shot out the door after him with yips and squeals of glee. They were quickly followed by the rest of the children, and not a few of the adults too. Pandora quickly caught up with Karl to join him in celebrating his new status. She had never been prouder of her beloved.


Chapter 5: Miracles Can Happen  


3 February 2335

[Karl] Since I met Pandora, my life has been nearly perfect. My lifestyle has totally changed, and sometimes it's hard to believe just how differently I feel emotionally, mentally and physically compared to the time that I spent with Isabel. I will never comprehend why such people seem to prefer satisfying their desires at the expense of others when Pandora is proof that both partners can be totally happy when they consider the needs and desires of the other. In fact, there was only one thing that Isabel did for me that Pandora could not, and even that she perverted. I had resigned myself to never having a child of my heart rather than just of my genes. Then one day, I was handed a miracle.

"Oh, it's so unique! I have to get one exactly like it for my friend!" Jake finished telling a tale about silly customers.

Pandora and Karl laughed. Jake was their usual source of outside news, anecdotes and jokes. Jakeís wife, a pretty coyote morph named Lavender, merely smiled as she had heard that one before.

It was one of their regular dinner dates that had brought them together this evening. Karl served up some coffee brewed from the fresh beans that Jake had brought with him, and then settled next to Pandora on their special sofa, putting his arm around her waist. Jake and Lavender made themselves comfortable on the second sofa that Karl had made especially with biped guests in mind. The foursome enjoyed their coffee in companionable silence for a while before Karl spoke up.

"Okay, Jake, you've been hinting about something special all evening. Time to spit it out."

Jake grinned that big coyote grin of his, the one that made him look as if he had just successfully raided the henhouse. "I think that you'll reckon that it will have been worth the wait." He reached into his inside jacket pocket to pull out a few folded sheets of paper. "What's the one thing that you want that you thought that you could never get?"

"This had better not be one of your jokes, Jake," Karl said with a frown. Both he and Pandora instantly knew to what he was referring.

"No joke, my friend. A very real possibility. Check it out." In all seriousness, he handed over the papers.

Karl took them and opened them up so that he and Pandora could read them together. The top one was an advertising brochure headed, ĎNew You Creationsí, underneath which was written in small print, ĎA division of the Institute For New Generation Geneticsí. Opening it up, they read a floral description of the services that the business provided. It offered everything from correcting minor defects to major body rebuilds. The pièce de resistance was the final section that read Ė ĎDo you feel that you were born into the wrong body? Not satisfied with your species? We can fix that too!í.

Pandora looked up in alarm. "You're surely not suggesting that Karl becomes a foxtaur, do you? I don't want that! Never! Not even for children! I love Karl exactly the way he is."

Karl vehemently agreed with her. "I like being a human. I would not want to become a foxtaur any more than Pandora would want to become a human."

Jakeís smile never faltered. "Who said anything about a species change? Although I admit that a muzzle and fur might improve your looks, it isn't necessary." He looked keenly at Karl. "After all, there's only one thing that needs to change to make a child, right?"

Karl stared at Jake a moment before it clicked, a little gasp from Pandora indicating that she had just reached the same conclusion.

Karl asked, "Do you mean to say that all I have to do is get a change made to my testes so that I can become compatible with Pandora? Is that even possible?"

Jake nodded, satisfied with the reaction that he had received. "Yep. I double-checked it with them before getting your hopes up. When you call them, ask for Doctor Springstep. Shi's a chakat who has gotten quite interested in your particular desire."

"Yeah, chakats do have a great interest in child-rearing, don't they?" Karl said.

"To put it mildly. I got the impression that shi would be starting on the problem already, even before you do anything."

"How long have you known this and not told me?" Lavender asked her husband accusingly.

"A few days, love. I didn't want you giving away the surprise before our dinner engagement tonight."

"Are you saying that I can't keep a secret?" she asked, miffed.

"Are you telling me that you could have spent half a day with Pandora at the market two days ago and resisted the urge to tell her?" asked Jake.

"Of course!" she replied indignantly.

ĎNot!í was mentally added by all three others.

"Ah well, I got to surprise you too, darlin'. Forgive me?" he asked her, pulling her closer for a kiss.

"Of course!" she said again, but meaning it this time, then leaned in to kiss him deeply. Theirs was a lively and passionate romance.

Meanwhile, Karl turned to Pandora, excitement in his eyes. "How about it, Pandora? Should I go for it? It won't be cheap, you know."

Pandora hugged him fiercely. "Who cares? I'd spend every cent we have if that's what it would take to have your child. Oh, Karl, it'll be a dream come true. You must call them first thing in the morning. You're not going to work until we have a talk with this Doctor Springstep."

"I'm with you, darling," Karl agreed. Then he turned to Jake. "If this works out, we're going to owe you big time."

Jake grinned broadly. "Just name the first kit after me, okay?"

Pandora answered his grin with one of her own. "Okay, but a vixen named Jake is going to wonder if her parents had a screw loose up here," she said as she tapped her head.

Everyone laughed at that. It was a very good evening for all.

The brindle-furred chakat wearing a traditional white doctorís coat on the comm screen seemed very excitable. It seemed shi had been swept away with the idea of being able to offer a solution to the coupleís inter-fertility problem. "You must realise that I get a lot of customers who want rather petty things, and the really interesting jobs are few. I can't think of a better application of our services than to give a couple like you the children that they want. That's why I took the liberty of starting the ball rolling back when your friend contacted me."

Pandora said with a little exasperation, "But you haven't said yet whether you can do this for sure."

"What? Oh, sorry. Of course we can. If we can make a male human into a female foxmorph, why shouldn't we be able to do such a relatively small change? I'm going to need DNA samples from both of you though. Karlís is the important one, as we're going to have to compute the changes that have to be engineered to achieve the desired result, but we'll want some of yours too, Pandora, so that we can optimise his compatibility with yours rather than aim for a generic foxtaur type."

"Is a DNA sample all that you require of us?" Karl asked hir.

"Well, you will need to sign a contract and pay a deposit, but yes, that's all that we require until we're ready to make the changes."

Pandora asked a little worriedly, "And how much is the whole thing going to cost us? We're not exactly rich, you know."

"I've yet to meet a clan foxtaur who is. Not that I've met terribly many, but I know how your kind prefer to live." Springstep leaned in closer to the screen, and continued reassuringly. "Don't worry about it. I'll make it affordable. I'm high enough on the food chain here that I can write off some of this to research. I want to see you two lovers get the children you deserve. Anyway, I will forward some documents to you later along with instructions on how to proceed. I'll be looking forward to working on this for you. Leave it to me now; you won't be disappointed. Tail high!"

With that, the chakat disconnected. Karl looked at Pandora, and they both burst out laughing.

"You'd think that shi was the one who was going to have a baby, wouldn't you?" Pandora said.

"That's a chakat for you," Karl agreed with a nod. "This really pushed hir buttons big time. It also reassures me about our chances of success." He grinned widely at Pandora. "You'd better start thinking up names for our kit, darling."

"Just one kit?" Pandora asked with a smile.

Karl laughed. "Well, one at a time, okay?" Then he kissed her thoroughly, which she most enthusiastically returned.

18 February 2335

[Pandora] We sent in the required samples, and waited. I don't believe that any period of waiting before has ever dragged on for as long as this did. Karl tried to reassure me, telling me that once upon a time, calculations like those that they were making would take computers decades, not days but, while I believe him, it makes no difference to someone like me. I work my farm, prepare the soil, sow the seeds, tend the plants, and eventually harvest the crops. Simply asking somebody to do something this important, then waiting around for it to happen is alien to me. However, yesterday afternoon we received the call that we had been waiting for. Doctor Springstep informed us that the process had been formulated and double-checked, and that shi was ready to see Karl now. Our excitement went through the roof. So did our fear, for Karl would have to leave the safety of clan territory. Worse yet, he would be facing it without me.

It's not commonly known, but many of my kind have a flaw. In trying to develop a species that had a high affinity with the land, our progenitors made an error that resulted in many foxtaurs being so attuned to their particular territories that homesickness was a very real problem. To some it was minor, but to others like myself, it could become crippling within hours. As long as I stayed within the boundaries of my clanís territories, I was fine, but if I left it for something like visiting Jake and Lavenderís home, I could only do so for a short time before the urge to return would hit me. I was in tears when I bade Karl farewell this morning. Despite my problem, I tried to insist that I go with him, but Karl has seen how I become when the homesickness strikes, and he even more insistently urged me to stay. Jake was waiting to take him to the city where the clinic was located, and I had to leave protection of my lifemate in his admittedly capable hands. I've never been so envious of him, or of my own kind who are not so crippled.

I was wrong. The past few days were long. The next two would be an absolute eternity without my other half.

Although Jake had spotted no suspicious activity for weeks, he and Karl decided to be paranoid. Karl concealed himself within Jakeís PTV until they were far from clan grounds before joining Jake in the front seat. Karl felt strange. Not because of what he was about to do; he had gotten used to the idea by now. The strangeness was from leaving the clan territory for the first time in years. He had embraced the foxtaur lifestyle, but here he was plunging back into the most sophisticated of modern life. When they arrived at the clinic, it was such an ultra-sophisticated example of current technology that it was something of a culture shock after the foxtaursí simple stone and wood constructions.

Jake accompanied Karl inside, but after the receptionist had booked Karl in, took his leave of his friend with wishes of good luck. He would return to pick up Karl the next afternoon.

Doctor Springstep soon came out to take charge of Karl. The chakat seemed every bit as excited as shi had been on the first day that they had talked. Shi surprised him with a quick hug before he remembered their habit. It had been a long time since he'd met one in person, and then only rarely.

"Come on," shi said, virtually dragging him along in hir haste. "Everything is ready. One final check on your health and we'll do the treatment."

Karl had to laugh. "Slow down, Doctor! It's not as if you're going to have the child, you know?"

Springstep grinned broadly back at him. "Just call me Springstep, please. I feel a bit like an eager grandparent, waiting for hir first grandchild to be conceived. And no, my own children aren't old enough to have cubs yet, so this will be a first. Ironically though, once the treatment comes into effect, you will probably be interfertile with chakats also. We can and have interbred with foxtaurs on occasion."

"I'll remember that if the situation ever crops up," Karl replied dryly. "I think I know how you got your name. If you're this enthusiastic about your interests, you must have a very bouncy personality."

Springstep giggled. "You got me, Karl. I do get excited about my work, and this project caught my imagination. It's the kind of thing that I got into this profession for." Shi palmed a door panel, which opened to admit them into hir personal clinic. Shi pointed him at a reclining chair. "Make yourself comfortable on there and I'll do some quick scans."

As soon as Karl was settled, the seatback tilted back and a scanner swung over the chair. Springstep started taking readings while humming cheerfully to hirself. Then the scanner swung back and the chair returned to the upright position.

"You're in perfect health, and all readings are nominal. Conditions are ideal to start the treatment," Springstep concluded.

"Do you want me to undress now?" Karl asked.

Springstep smiled. "If you really want to, I won't mind, but it isn't necessary. We can do the treatment without you taking off any clothes."

"Oh!" Karl said, more embarrassed at his mistake than he would have been standing nude in front of the chakat.

Springstepís expression turned serious. "We're now at the point of no return. Radical changes to the body such as we're going to do to you are not something you would want to repeat, so once you've been altered, I would not recommend that you try to reverse it. Therefore, from this point onwards, if you choose to continue, you will never be able to sire a human child again. I urge you once again to consider storing a semen sample against this possibility."

Karl shook his head. "Pandora and I discussed this at length, and we're both committed to the course."

"Let the record show that the client has declined the proffered service," Springstep said for the benefit of the devices keeping a record of the proceedings.

Springstep smiled once again. "Somehow I knew you'd say that. I can tell that you two are bonded for life. So let's make your dream a reality, shall we?"

The chakat opened an insulated case on hir workbench, from which shi extracted a large syringe full of a milky liquid. Shi walked over to Karl, bringing it along with a couple of other items. Shi got Karl to pull up his shirt so that shi could swab his skin to disinfect it, then uncapped the needle and skilfully inserted it. Shi gradually pumped the contents into his body with minimum discomfort to Karl, then extracted the needle.

"Now just lie back and relax. This is the boring part." The chair tilted back as shi adjusted the machinery and another device swung over him. A light turned on to indicate that it was functioning, but otherwise Karl couldn't feel anything happening.

"That's the only injection that you will need. It contained agents that are programmed to seek out a very specific target Ė your testes. There they will start rebuilding them into ones capable of producing foxtaur compatible sperm cells without being rejected as being foreign to your body. The machine humming over you is a variation on the healing accelerators that you find in hospitals. Normally an adult has completed the growth stage, so this device is fooling your body into believing it's still developing, and will hasten the progress of the agents. This should mean that by mid afternoon tomorrow, the treatment will be concluded. Soon after, you will start producing foxtaur sperm. The rest will be up to you and your lovely mate."

"I can't begin to express how grateful we are, Springstep," Karl said.

The chakat smiled. "You still have to pay for my services, you understand?"

"But you never would settle on a price. You kept saying that you'd make it affordable, but nothing more specific."

"Here's a major part of it then: Tell me all about yourself and Pandora; what brought you together and what your life is like for a human living in a foxtaur village." Shi made hirself comfortable on a lounging mat. "Curious kitty wants to know everything."

Karl realised that this was something that chakats valued as much or more than money. Shi was not just interested in helping them; shi had an emotional investment also. So, for the rest of the day, he and Springstep talked about his life and Pandoraís. The treatment was paused for them both to go have dinner, but the conversation never stopped. It continued into the evening until Springstep announced that shi had better get home before hir mates came looking for hir again. Shi explained that shi often got wrapped up in hir work, and shi was so glad that shi had such understanding mates who proved time and again that there were some things more interesting than work.

Karl was left to sleep on the reclining chair. It was contoured so that it was extremely comfortable and, in the fully reclined position, made an excellent bed. Nevertheless, he didn't get to sleep quickly. Something was missing; a familiar comforting presence that had been by his side for years was absent. Without the chakatís distraction, he felt lonely and missed Pandora badly.

Karl did eventually fall asleep, only to be woken by the arrival of Springstep the next morning.

"Good morning, Karl. I hope you rested well. I came in a bit early so that we could have some breakfast together. First you'll want to freshen up a bit though, I suspect."

The mention of breakfast reminded Karl of his regular milk drink in the morning, and he wondered how Pandora was coping with emptying her breasts in his absence. Then he brought his mind back to the present before a raging erection could embarrass him in front of the chakat.

Springstep accompanied Karl to the clinicís restaurant to have breakfast, then it was back to the chair for further treatment, with only a detour to the bathroom on the way. They spent the morning chatting again, although this time Springstep seemed to be multitasking at hir workbench. It was around one in the afternoon when shi turned off the healing accelerator and replaced it with the specialised scanner to take some readings. Apparently what shi saw satisfied hir as shi smiled.

Looking up from hir screens, shi said to Karl, "I'd give your friend a call to start heading over here to pick you up. I'd say that one more hour will be more than sufficient to finalise the process."

Karl said, "Okay," then pulled out his comm to call Jake. The coyote told him that it would take him at least ninety minutes to get back there, so Karl arranged to have Jake meet him in the restaurant where they could have some lunch before heading home. Springstep then started the final session.

Karl said, "Springstep, this has been a far more pleasant experience than I had thought it would be. Is this really all there is to it?"

The chakat smiled. "Oh, you might find your genitalia a bit uncomfortable for a day or so as the new configuration settles in, but that's about it."

"That's a relief. ErÖ how soon can I start using them?"

"If you really want to, right away, but I would give it another day. Besides, if it's foxtaur sperm you're wanting, give them a chance to start full production. A few good sessions of intercourse will clear out your remaining human sperm. Then you'll be ready to make that kit whenever Pandora goes into heat next."

"Great! Now, I know you've told me that, in your own words, you're Ďhigh on the food chainí here, but I'm sure that there's still a bill to settle besides this wonderful conversation we've been having."

Springstep smiled like one who has successfully played a joke. "I kind of fooled you there." Karl immediately looked worried, but then the chakat played hir trump. "I'm actually the director of this facility. I'm able to devote myself to projects like this because I am only responsible to the parent company. While we've been talking, I've actually been working all morning on clinic business that I put off yesterday. Anyway, yes there will be a bill for services, but you will find that I have only charged you for actual costs incurred rather than our usual rates. Additionally, you have as long as you need to pay it off. My one condition is that you invite me to the kitís birthing party, or whatever the foxtaurs do to celebrate the arrival of the new kit."

Karl absorbed this all first with surprise, then gratitude. "You know, I'm not really 100% sure what they do either despite the time I've spent there. However, you have a deal! I'll talk to Pandora about it and let you know as soon as possible. Just don't ask to have the baby named after you!" He grinned widely at Springstep.

The chakat laughed. "Fair enough."

Jake was pretty much exactly on time. An enquiry at reception had pointed him in the right direction, and he was soon enjoying a meal with Karl and Springstep. Then Karl made his farewells, and Springstep surprised him by not only giving him the hug that he expected, but a quick lick-kiss too.

As Jake and Karl walked out of the building, Jake said, "What is it that you have with taurs? Whatever it is, can you spare some?"

Karl laughed and clapped his friend on the back. He was about to reply when a sight stopped him dead in his tracks Ė a sight that made his blood run hot.

"Isabel," he grated out. "What are you doing here?"

"Why, Karl, anyone would think that you're unhappy to see your wife," Isabel said as if offended.

"EX-wife! Ex everything in fact. Haven't you got it through your head that you don't have any claim over me any more? You parasites have sucked everything that you're going to out of me."

"Don't be too sure of that, dear. I have a little piece of paper that says otherwise," she said, pulling a folded sheet of paper from her handbag and holding it out to him.

Karl merely glared at her and ignored the paper. "Who did you buy this time to come up with that piece of crock?"

"Buy?" she asked innocently. "Oh no, I didn't have to do any such thing. You might as well take it because I'm not letting you leave now that you're out of that damn foxtaur haven of yours. And my friend here is going to see to it that you don't go back."

For the first time, Karl tore his eyes off Isabel to look at her companion. With a shock, he realised that it was a sheriff, and the man had a very unhappy look on his face.

Isabel continued, "You see, I convinced the lovely judge who provided that subpoena that you'd do a runner, so he has ordered that you be arrested. We made sure that all the legalities were strictly observed, all the Ďiís dotted and the Ďtís crossed, so there's no getting away from this one, dear."

Her malicious smile cut Karl deeply. He took the subpoena and started reading it, looking for a way out. Meanwhile, Jake had been fuming next to his friend.

"How the hell did you find out that Karl was here? You couldn't have known that he'd left the village."

Isabel turned that chilling smile on the coyote. "You're right, but I also knew that he couldn't get far without transport, so the most likely way that he would ever travel any distance would be with you, his friend and business partner. So we watched you. Whenever you made a trip into the foxtaur village, we checked you when you left. This time you went here, and it didn't take long to find out that Karl was here too. So thank you for your help."

Jake was devastated. ĎOh, no! Not again!í was all he could think. It had been he who had told Isabel where Karl was a year and a half ago, although at the time he had not known who she was. Ever since then, he had been trying to make up for that mistake, even though Karl insisted it wasn't his fault. Now he had inadvertently given away his friend and partner yet again, and there was absolutely nothing that he could do about it. Jake felt as if he was in purgatory.

Isabel said, "Enough of this chit-chat. Sheriff, I believe you have a job to do."

For some reason, the sheriff looked very reluctant to do his duty, but his hand was forced. "Karl Jürgens, you are under arrest by order of Judge Sheffield."

Karl looked up and surprised everyone by smiling. "You have the wrong man, sheriff."

That was a response that nobody had expected, least of all Isabel. Suddenly her civilised veneer slipped off. "What the hell are you talking about? Sheriff, I demand that you arrest Karl right now and get him into custody!"

However, the sheriff wasn't having his hand forced by someone whom he'd taken an intense dislike to the moment that he'd met her. Ignoring her, he asked, "What do you mean, we have the wrong man? It's clear that you're the person to whom Isabel Jürgens is referring."

Karl held up the subpoena, pointing at a line on it. "Yes, it clearly says ĎKarl Jürgensí on it. However, my name is Karl Whitepaw. It was legally changed a while back, and I even have proof of identification in my wallet." Karl looked at Isabel with a grin of triumph. "Looks like you forgot to cross one of those Ďtís, dear."

The sheriff checked the proffered I.D. and nodded. "You're free to go, Mr Whitepaw."

"WHAT!" screeched Isabel. "You can't do that! He's my ex-husband. He's the one that you have to arrest! I don't care if he's changed his name to Tinkerbell; you have to arrest him!"

The sheriff blithely ignored her rants. "You wanted to do this with your legal tricks. Well this one has backfired on you. You made the terms so specific in order to catch him that the slightest flaw would unravel your plans. I suggest that you go back to your pet judge and try to convince him to re-issue the subpoena with the correct name. Better hurry though. I don't think Mr Whitepaw is going to wait for you."

Isabel stood there rigid with fury. For a moment Karl thought that she would lash out at the sheriff, hoping that the woman would do something really stupid and get herself arrested instead. Instead she turned abruptly and stalked away. Karl sincerely hoped that that would be the last time that he ever saw her.

Karl turned to the sheriff. "Thank you, officer. Somehow I think that you could have arrested me anyway, but I had a feeling that you wouldn't. Why?"

The sheriff had relaxed a bit. He was still a stern and gruff person, but the irritation had gone. "Mr Whitepaw, Judge Sheffield is well known to us as being in the pocket of many a shifty lawyer. The only reason that he's not been jailed is that he's been too smart to be caught at it yet. Until he does though, he has the weight of the law behind him, and I despise being used as a puppet by the likes of him. I've been a police officer for thirty-two years now, and upholding the law is what I am committed to doing. When people abuse the law, it really steams me. When your ex-wife came to me with that subpoena and the orders from the judge, I recognised her kind immediately. I've seen so many others, both men and women alike, who have used the law to hurt people, but my hands were tied. It gave me enormous pleasure to deny her that victory."

Karl held out his hand to shake the sheriffís. "I'm very pleased to have been able to provide you with that victory. Are you sure you won't get in trouble though?"

"None that I can't handle, son. Now get along. I don't want that witch working a miracle somehow. Get back to your home and stay there. I never want to see you again, you hear?"

Karl smiled. "I hear. Thanks again, sheriff." Karl turned to Jake who had been regaining his composure after seeing victory snatched from the very teeth of defeat. "Come on, Jake! Time's wasting!"

Jake snapped out of his stasis and started jogging in the direction of the PTV, with Karl hot on his heels. They wasted no time in getting it started and making their way home, although they avoided the fastest route because it was mostly on one of the computer-controlled sections, and any PTV on that road could be identified and stopped remotely. They weren't going to take that chance. Still, both heaved an enormous sigh of relief when they crossed the border into Crystal Creek Clan territory.

The PTV had hardly pulled into the village square when Pandora came running down to meet them. She flew into Karlís arms and nearly hugged him to death.

"I've been so worried about you! Since you called to let me know that you were on your way home, I had this strange premonition of disaster," she said between kisses.

When Karl could get a word in edgewise, he said, "You had good reason to be concerned. We had to deal with Isabel, but we won out. I didn't want to worry you though."

"What! Tell me everything! You too, Jake. I see you trying to sneak away."

The two men flanked the vixen as they walked to the den. There were cries of horror and gasps of relief as they related the incident to her. By the time that they got home, Pandora was clinging to Karl possessively, as if she intended to never let him go again.

"Karl, I want you to look into something for me," she said.

"What would that be?" he asked.

"Find a treatment or something to break this damn territorial homesickness of mine. I'm never going to let you leave without me ever again."

"But I never intend to leave clan grounds again," Karl pointed out.

"You weren't going to before this opportunity came up, but you did. Next time the unexpected comes up, we're going to be prepared!"

Karl nodded agreement. He recognised the final word when he heard it, so he changed the subject. Turning to Jake, he said, "It's possible that Isabel has a snitch somewhere just outside clan territory, but it's also possible that she or her agent has had your PTV bugged. I'd check it out if I were you."

Jake nodded fervently. "I'll do that immediately, Karl. I'm going to go home now. I've had enough excitement for one day, and you two need to be alone, I reckon." He shook his friendís hand, and then with a cheery wave more reminiscent of his usual demeanour, he departed.

Pandora then snuggled up to Karl. The day was waning and the winter chill was gathering strength. She had a good fire burning though, and the two gradually relaxed and let their tensions flow out.

"Now," Pandora began, "tell me all about what happened at the clinic. I want to know everything!"

4 March 2335

[Karl] Thirteen days later, Pandora went into heat. In anticipation of this, I had been taking it easy with our lovemaking for a couple of days, conserving my resources for a major Ďassaultí. When Pandora announced that she was as fertile as she was ever going to be, we went at it with joyful abandon. In fact we did it as much as possible. The alterations did nothing to improve my stamina, but I think I did an adequate job. Pandora didn't seem to have any complaints anyway.

10 March 2335

[Pandora] Waiting to find out if I was pregnant was the second-hardest thing that I have ever done. We don't have very sophisticated medical services in our village unlike some of the bigger clans. All we had was our shaman, but she was infallible with testing for pregnancy. Unfortunately, that infallibility relied on waiting for the optimum amount of time since the hoped-for conception to test for it. Today was the day though. I think half the village must have thought I had gone nuts when I came out of the shamanís den and went whooping and cavorting through the village on my way to Karlís workshop. There I pounced him and nearly drowned him with kisses. Let the record show that today we confirmed that we had conceived our first child!

Karl paused on his way to the den to admire his lifemate tending her gardens. Pregnancy hadn't slowed her down one bit, as was typical of taurs, but it had certainly filled her out a bit. Karl chuckled as he recalled his attempts to get Pandora to take it easy. She had smartly put him his place. Aside from that, the past several months had been like a dream. Days of fruitful toil had been followed by nights of tender love-making, and absolutely nothing seemed able to spoil it. Now the fields were fallow as the winter descended upon them, but Pandora was still busy with maintenance and repairs. Karl called out to Pandora who looked up and waved. Gathering her tools, she hurried to join him, her gait now having a bit of a waddle caused by her swollen belly. She lick-kissed him and they joined hands to complete the walk to the den. Pandora stowed her tools in the shed, and they both went inside. Karl stoked the embers of the fire and soon had a merry blaze going. Pandora meanwhile headed for the shower. Karl joined her as soon as he was done with the fire, and helped her wash the dirt from the fields out of her fur. Warmed by the shower and feeling hungry, they then started preparing their evening meal.

Karl started a conversation with, "They're predicting snow tonight."

Pandora snorted in amusement. "They've been predicting snow for the past week. Not a flake!"

"Ah, but this time it was the shaman who made the prediction."

That made Pandora pause. The shaman did things differently to most people, but her results were consistently good. If she said there would be snow tonight, the odds had just swung enormously in its favour. "Then I'm glad that I got that trellis repaired today, she replied thoughtfully. "Is the village prepared?"

Karl grinned. "There were a few making hasty last-minute preparations. Seems a lot of people had ignored the earlier warnings."

"Happens every year. Some people never learn."

"Anticipating having a kit to cater for has sharpened my awareness of what we will be needing," Karl said as he cuddled up to Pandora while the food was cooking.

She kissed him, then said, "And you have laid in enough supplies for two kits. I'm not having twins, you know."

"I know. I just can't help myself. This time I want everything to be right."

Pandora hugged him reassuringly. "You're doing just fine, darling."

"Thanks. Have you decided what you're going to do for the birth?" Karlís enquiries had found out that there was no single tradition for the birth of kits. Some preferred to have them in complete privacy, others made a big celebration of it like chakats did. Pandora had been aiming for something in between.

"Uh-huh. Mom wants to be there. Lavender said she had never been to something like it, but would be happy to come along and give her support. I think Jake will come also, but mostly because Lavender will insist that he be there!"

Karl grinned at that. At least he'd have a bit of male support as he attended to Pandora during labour.

Pandora continued. "I've been chatting to Springstep too, and shi says shi will be available at a momentís notice, and don't dare have the kit without hir!"

Karl laughed along with his mate. "Yeah, I can believe that. A pity that the time of birth isn't as predictable as a chakatís. So that's it? No one else?"

"Besides the shaman as midwife, only those closest to us, love. Those that always supported us, and those who made this day possible."

"Suits me, darling."

The next morning saw the shamanís prediction had come true. The view through the window showed a white blanket of snow carpeting everything, and snow continued falling as the couple watched. They had stoked the fire so that the den was a very comfortable temperature despite the chilly scene outside. Both seemed disinclined to venture out in it, and instead were cuddling on the rugs and cushions in front of the fireplace.

"I really should be out in the shed doing maintenance on my tools," Pandora murmured, her head resting on Karlís shoulder, arm round him with the hand resting on the other shoulder, her breast firmly cushioned against Karlís chest.

"And I should trudge through the snow to the workshop," Karl added, his arms around her shoulder and waist.

Neither moved a millimetre. Both were perfectly content as they were. In fact, the most movement right then was coming from a restless child in the womb, occasionally kicking to remind them that it would not be long before the birth. It was the perfect day for an impromptu vacation, and they spent the morning cuddling, making gentle love, and watching the beautiful snowfall.

Of course that had to end and, in hindsight for both of them, in quite an inevitable way. It was early afternoon when Pandora gave a gasping cry.

Karl asked, "What's wrong?"

Pandora replied, "I think we have to move up our plans, dear. This kit has decided to come out a bit early!"

There was no panic. They had already thoroughly planned what to do when the time came. Karl was glad that they had finalised the attendees last night though. Only the snow added a new factor, but not a major one. Karl went into action. First he used the comm to inform the shaman who said that she would come immediately. His next call went to Springstep because shi would have the longest trip to make, and he knew the chakat would never forgive him if shi missed the birth.

"Karl! It's good to see you," Springstep said. "How's Pandora?"

"Pandora's not only fine, but we think she's just started going into labour. We've called the shaman to check her out, but naturally we couldn't wait for her verdict to let you know."

Springstep became very animated. "Quite right. I've got a bag packed and in my PTV. I'm going to go the skyport and get an air taxi, so I should be there soon. Get back to your mate, Karl. I'll let my assistant know that I'm leaving early, then I'm on my way!" Shi then disconnected.

Karl then placed calls to Pandoraís mother, Kallista, and then to Jake and Lavender. He then started pulling out more blankets and towels and made other preparations. Belatedly, he remembered to put on some clothes also.

Mishi, the clan shaman, was first to arrive. She shook the snow off her cloak before stepping inside quickly to minimise heat loss. She gave both Karl and Pandora a reassuring hug and smile. "Okay, my friends, I know that this is going to be your first child, but Pandoraís pregnancy has proceeded utterly normally, so there's no reason to worry despite starting labour a few days sooner than anticipated. It's still well within acceptable limits, so we'll just make sure that this isn't a false alarm, but make preparations in case it isn't. Let me examine you, dear."

Pandora complied, and while Mishi was examining her, had another contraction.

Mishi smiled. "Yes, I would have to say that the kit is definitely on the way." She pulled out a packet from one of her saddle packs and handed it to Karl. "I see you've got a kettle on the boil. Please make a drink out of these herbs for Pandora. Oh, and a cup of tea for me too, if you please," she added with a grin.

After that, things got a bit more hectic. Kallista arrived and immediately hurried over to her daughter to fuss over her. Jake and Lavender came about fifteen minutes later. Karl had heard them coming long before seeing them. The snow had of course blocked the roads, and the village was cut off until their road was cleared, which was not a high priority with the roads department. However, Jake and Lavender arrived on a snow-bike which, unlike their PTV, they could ride right up to the denís doorway. The hum of an air shuttle announced the arrival of Springstep. Karl hastened down the track to the village square where it landed so that he could guide the chakat back to the den. Shi gave him the usual greeting hug, then once they got back to the den, gave Pandora a similar one. Then shi momentarily surprised Karl by stripping bare before he recalled their custom of greeting the newborn in that manner.

Thankfully the early arrival was the only drama in the delivery. After a normal period of labour, while Karl supported his mate both physically and with words of endearment and encouragement, Pandora delivered a perfectly formed foxtaur kit.

Mishi held up the wet and squalling infant. "You have a son," she announced.

Karl and Pandora hugged each other in delight. A daughter would have been equally welcome, but in foxtaur society, getting a son on the first try was something special. Springstep insisted on cleaning up the kit while the shaman helped Pandora take care of the afterbirth. As Mishi cleaned up Pandora, Springstep handed over the swaddled kit to Pandora who put him to the breast for his first feed. The kit blindly sought out the nipple and quickly latched on, suckling strongly.

Pandora watched him lovingly for a while, then looked up at Karl. "Only leftovers for you from now on," she said with a grin.

"Well worth the price, love," he replied adoringly.

9 January 2336

[Karl] Today, I am proud to announce that Pandora gave birth to a healthy male kit. The shaman has pronounced him to be a perfect foxtaur tod, which was an immense relief to Pandora and myself. Springstep insisted that there was never any doubt he would be, and declared hirself to be the kitís godmother. But we reserved the biggest honour for Jake who started these events rolling. We have decided to name our son in the foxtaur style. Welcome to the world, Jakkar!


Chapter 6: Growing Pains  

Baby Jakkar

22 February 2336

[Karl] After the euphoria of the birth of our son, there comes the hard work, right? Well, not really. Naturally I had to go back to the workshop, but mid-winter is a good time to have a child when youíre a farmer and farm chores have slackened off. Pandora was able to devote a lot of her time to Jakkar for a few weeks. Inevitably though, Spring approached, and she needed to get back out into the fields. Now as much as I am careful about our cubís health, foxtaur kits are remarkably tough, and many spent time with their parents in the workshops or fields. Pandora did this a few times before a better solution came along.

My relationship with my mother-in-law, Kallista, had varied greatly over time. When I had first come to the village, she had been polite but very cool. She did not approve of her daughter associating with a human. When we declared ourselves as denmates, she thawed out a bit. After all, I had accomplished what no foxtaur tod had done Ė made her youngest daughter happy. Thereafter, while she still didnít go out of her way to see me, we were on reasonably friendly terms. When Pandora got pregnant though, the change in Kallista was amazing. It turned out that her final reservations concerning me were due to me not being able to give her grandchildren, and when I proved otherwise and that child turned out to be a male, her affection for me grew to be almost embarrassing. It gave us an opportunity though. Kallista was semi-retired (I donít think any foxtaur fully retires), and she declared herself available for kit-minding duty. Five days a week, she turns up at breakfast time and takes charge of Jakkar. Pandora only has to interrupt her work then in order to breastfeed him. Itís a mutually satisfactory arrangement. On market days, Pandora takes him with her while she sells her produce. On Sundays, we have him all to ourselves. Life is good.

So what could make it even better? About six weeks after Jakkarís birth, Pandora sprang a surprise on me....


"I want another kit," Pandora declared at dinnertime.

Karl didnít quite choke on the forkful of food that heíd just put in his mouth. "What?" he sputtered when he recovered. "Another so soon?"

"Itís common practice for foxtaur mates to have a second kit soon after the first so that they can grow up together," Pandora said defensively.

"Are you sure that you arenít just making up for lost time?" Karl asked.

The insides of Pandoraís ears pinked in the foxtaur equivalent of a blush. "There is a little of that, admittedly, but honestly Karl, I think Jakkar would be better off with a sibling to grow up alongside and play with. I was the youngest child, and my nearest sibling was more than three years older than me, and I missed out on a lot. We can afford to raise another child, and with mother here to do the babysitting, it would hardly be much more of a bother."

"Enough! I surrender!" Karl said with a laugh. "I was far more concerned about you. Iíd love to have another child also. What would you like Ė another tod, or a vixen this time?"

Pandora smiled. "It would be greedy of me to want another son after scoring one first try, but I bet Jakkar would love a younger brother. However, it would also be nice to have one of each gender. I think Iíll just wait and see, and not worry about it. After all, itís not as if we have much choice in the matter."

About two weeks later during Pandoraís next heat, she successfully conceived. This delighted Kallista who, unlike her daughter, was adamant that this one was going to be a girl. Karl hoped that, for the sake of family harmony, she was right.

Karl had found out that foxtaur kits slept with their parents. Rather than being disturbed by them, the kits were comforted by their parentsí presence and slept more soundly than if left alone in another room. Once he got used to the idea, Karl rather liked the idea of having his son there also, but wondered what it would be like if their family grew much bigger.

Life was pretty idyllic for a while. Karl continued producing his highly prized custom furniture, with a couple of vixens now on the payroll, foraging for appropriate timber. Karl sought, and was granted, permission to fell a few select trees which were cut up and set aside for seasoning in order to be ready for future business. The village grew in prosperity, due in no small part to Karlís exports. The population grew also, allowing Pandora to increase the size of her crops. Both worked hard by day, and then played and made love enthusiastically at night. Both were extremely happy and the time just flew by.

Then one day as Jakkar was playing with his wooden toys that Karl had made, his parents were cuddling on the couch while watching him proudly. Then Pandora gasped as the first contraction began. Like the first time, they called Mishi, Springstep and all the others, but unlike the first birthing, there was not even the slightest bit of panic and confusion. Karl even had food and drink ready for Pandora and their guests, and it was almost a party atmosphere until the contractions grew to a crescendo, and it was time for the new kit to make his or her entrance into the outside world. The birth was much easier the second time around, and the delivery was textbook. Mishi held up the sodden kit who squeaked in indignity at being forced into the cold, bright world.

Baby Sylvia

"You have a daughter!" Mishi declared.

Karl hugged and kissed his mate. "Congratulations, darling, you now have a beautiful set."

Pandora replied, "We have a set. Are you disappointed not to get another son?"

"No, love, Iím ecstatic. It means that this time Iíll have a daughter whom I can raise and love, unlike a certain ungrateful whelp."

"Weíll do it right, Karl. I promise," Pandora said, hugging him tightly.

The cleaned-off kit was handed to Pandora, who put her to one breast for her first feed. The proud parents watched her suckle for a while. Then Pandora suddenly said, "Sylvia Ė do you like that name, Karl? It means ĎForest Maidení."

Karl smiled, remembering all the permutations of possible names that Pandora had gone through for both males and females. "She looks like a Sylvia to me," he agreed.

"Welcome to our family, Sylvia Whitepaw!" Pandora declared.

13 January 2337

[Karl] The ancient myths say that from Pandoraís box, the last thing to escape was ĎHopeí. On this day, my hope for a daughter whom I could love and raise, was born of my Pandora. It is the most beautiful gift imaginable.

10 June 2338

[Pandora] Our second child has been as wonderful, as naughty, as good, as vivacious, as dirty, and as beautiful as any other kit. We adore her. As Iíd hoped, Jakkar has taken a shine to her, and I think they will become playmates when she gets older. Sylvia has taken to sleeping in Karlís lap a lot. Perhaps she is forming a particularly strong bond with him. He dotes on her. After the crushing disappointment of his human daughter, I think that heís trying to give Sylvia all the love that he couldnít give to Kathleen. I hope he doesnít end up spoiling her.

This summerís weather has been exceptional so far. We have had the perfect amount of rain balanced with the perfect amount of sunlight and warmth. The crops this year will be amazing. The surrounding forest is bursting with life. Itís difficult to work when so much beauty is there to be admired and explored.

Pandora paused to rest briefly. Since the first harvest, she had been working hard to ready the ground for planting the second crop. With conditions the best that they had been in decades, she hoped to get a bountiful second harvest before the cold weather set in. Time was of the essence though. She smiled as she looked at Jakkar, whom she had brought out into the fields with her for a change. He had taken the little hand spade and dug a hole and filled it with water. He was now plastered in mud on all four legs, both arms, belly and chest. In short, he was having a ball!

ĎNothing that a good bath wonít fix,í she thought. ĎMaybe heíll be a farmer one day, the way he loves the earth.í

Just then, she caught a whiff of a disturbing smell. The wind had shifted, bringing with it scents from beyond the ridge that her fields backed onto. Smoke! "Thereís a fire ban in place. No one should be burning anything in that direction," she said to Jakkar, although he didnít understand what she was talking about. The great drought a few years back, combined with the bumper growth of the underbrush this year, had left the forest in a precarious position fire-wise. Back-burning had ceased when it became too dangerous to control, but the foxtaurs had concentrated then on making firebreaks in an attempt to reduce the danger. Lightning was a constant worry though. While they had been fortunate during the drought, some wondered if their luck was being stretched a bit thin. However, the skies were clear today, so that seemed unlikely.

A shout drew her attention. Two hunter vixens had burst out of the forest and were running full speed in the direction of the village. There wasnít a path there, so Pandora surmised that they had taken a shortcut in their haste. One said something to the other that Pandora didnít quite catch. The one who spoke detoured towards Pandora, while the other continued unabated towards the village. The huntress pulled up in front of Pandora, panting hard.

The vixen, whom Pandora recognised as Willow, gasped out, "Forest fire! Coming this wayÖ when wind shiftedÖ Get to shelterÖ quickly!"

"How did the fire start?" Pandora asked, even as she grabbed her sodden son.

Willow growled. "We think itísÖ idiot hikersÖ Iíll kill íemÖ if I catch íem! Gotta go!" With that, she was off again to spread the warning.

As Pandora bounded towards her den with the protesting Jakkar underneath her arm, she thought, ĎThis is one time that we should have a bit of technology. A Unicom would get the word out a lot faster!í

Kallista was startled by Pandora bursting into the den and thrusting a filthy kit into her arms. Before she could ask what was going on, Pandora said, "Put the kits in the bedroom, then help me put up the shutters. Thereís a fire coming this way!"

When you live in a forested area, you learn to react quickly when warned about a fire, and Kallista had the children safely locked in the bedroom and was outside in moments. Pandora was hauling out the shutters from the storage shed. Like the den, the shed was a small cave with a stone wall built to cover the entrance. However, while the den had similarly fireproof walls, the windows were a vulnerable point. The fireproof shutters sealed and protected them. The front door too had been treated with a fire retardant. That only left the wooden porch at risk, but the occupants of the den would be safe.

The job was quickly done. However, rather than following Pandora inside, Kallista started heading for the village.

"Where are you going, mom? The fire could go through very soon. Come back inside where itís safe!"

Kallista looked torn. "My den isnít as safe as yours. I need to make sure my denmates have gotten the warning and help them prepare for the fire. You stay there with the kits. Nothing is more important than their safety now." Not giving Pandora a chance to argue, Kallista left at top speed.

Pandora looked around and saw billowing clouds of smoke pouring over the ridge. Soon the flames would line it, then come roaring down into the valley. She shuddered and went inside, firmly fastening the door, putting a fireproof draught-stopper along the bottom. She then had time to start worrying about Karl, and went over to the comm that she seldom used, and called his workshop.

"Canít talk now, love. Weíre rushing around like maniacs trying to batten down the hatches. Donít worry about me; I have a fireproof place to retreat to. Gotta go!" Karl replaced the phone, annoyed at having to give Pandora such a curt dismissal, but there was a lot to do in a very short time. The workshop was built of native stone, but a carpentry shop is always surrounded by much flammable material. He and Tobar were desperately trying to get as much as possible crammed inside in time. The fire shutters had been the first things to go up, and Karl could see neighbouring shops and dens being prepared similarly. He worried about those that were constructed partially of wood. Although the foxtaurs kept the grounds clear of underbrush and fallen branches, the surrounding trees could go up in flames and ignite the nearby buildings. It was a risk that foxtaurs took in order to be close to nature. Karl glanced up at the ridge and saw the first of the flames. ĎSometimes nature comes too close,í he thought.

When they had crammed as much as they could into the workshop, they closed and sealed the main doors, presenting an unbroken fireproof barrier to the oncoming inferno. Karl wondered if he should do something to help the others preparing to fight the blaze. He approached one foxtaur who was unrecognisable in a bulky fire-fighting coverall. Only a glimpse of head-hair enabled him to realise that it was a vixen inside. She was unrolling a long, thick hose that led to one of the elevated water storage tanks that were filled from the lake. Others were organising backpacks and other fire-fighting equipment.

Karl asked the vixen, "Is there any way that I can help out?"

"Yeah," she said. "Connect all those hoses to the pump at the tanks, then get the hell back inside where itís safe. We donít have any protective clothing for humans, so youíd only be a liability. Move it!"

Karl moved with alacrity. He quickly attached all the hoses, and then he retreated to the workshop. Closing and sealing the door behind him, he sighed in frustration at not being able to do more. It was going to be a long nerve-wracking wait.

Although she had faith in her denís ability to withstand a conflagration, Pandora nevertheless felt nervous as she heard the roar of the flames muted by the walls. To help keep her mind off what was happening outside, she bathed Jakkar. By the time he was dried off, she judged that it would be safe to venture outside.

After the fire

The heat and smoke struck Pandora the moment that she opened the door despite the fire-front being well past. Their shady porch was a smouldering ruin, a few flames still trying to burn through the thick posts. She extinguished the embers with a few buckets of water that she had filled earlier. Only then did she take a really good look around. Her first impression of the devastation was nothing compared to the full impact as the smoke cleared to give the complete picture, and she gasped in horror. Normally the forest blocked any direct view of the village from the den, but the denuded trees and incinerated shrubs could no longer do so. Between the smoking trunks, she could see foxtaurs in their fire gear trying to extinguish flames. Everywhere it was black or grey except for a green patch in the open commons area, and the lush greenery along the banks of Crystal Creek. Beyond the village, she saw the fire-front as it crested the ridge on the other side of the valley. She barely noticed it.

"Mother!" she cried as she recognised the site of Kallistaís den. Pandora dashed back inside and hastily put on her saddle-pack. She put Sylvia into its pouch, grabbed Jakkar firmly by the hand, then raced towards the village. Dodging around fallen trees and spot fires, she headed straight for her motherís den, only to be brought up short by a vixen who blocked her way.

"Pandora, stop! Itís unsafe in there," the vixen warned her. The tree that had fallen on it had breached its fireproofing, and wisps of smoke still curled up out of the hole.

It took Pandora a moment to identify Capella, her motherís co-mate, covered in so much ash and soot as to be nearly unrecognisable. "Whereís my mother?" she demanded.

"She was hurt when she risked herself by trying to put out the fire when that burning tree crashed through the roof. The den is damaged but salvageable, and she saved a lot of our possessions because of her actions, but she got burnt doing so. Theyíve taken her to Mishiís infirmary."

"Thanks, Capella. Iíve got to go!" Pandora set off at speed.

Karlís workshop lay roughly between there and the infirmary. Pandora was glad of the excuse to make a diversion. Although the stone workshop was one of the oldest and sturdiest structures in the village, she still had to see for herself that Karl was safe before she went on. He met her outside as he and Tobar started opening up the place again to inspect the damage.

"Pandora! Why didnít you wait until theyíd put out all the fires before bringing yourself and the children down here?" Karl asked, concern making him a bit abrupt.

Pandora gave him a reassuring hug, then handed Jakkar over to him. "Itís mother Ė sheís been hurt. Look after Jakkar while I go check out how she is."

"Weíll all go. There isnít much that I can do until the fire-fighters make sure all the fires are completely extinguished."

Pandora didnít argue, and they hastened to Mishiís infirmary. They had a hard time getting in though because she and her helpers had their hands full trying to deal with several patients, most of them fire-fighters overcome by heat or smoke. Eventually Pandora was allowed in, and she rushed to her motherís side.

Kallista winced a little as Pandora hugged her in relief. Then Pandora looked over her motherís injuries. Kallista grinned in chagrin.

"I broke my arm when I tried to stop a burning tree from falling on the den," explained Kallista. "I got the burns while trapped. Donít worry, Mishi tells me that I was very lucky and theyíre only light. Iíd soaked myself before going out, so that protected me. They should heal properly in time."

"Thank heavens for that!" exclaimed Pandora, "but why were you crazy enough to go out in that?"

Kallistaís expression was slightly sad. "Since your sire died an early death, all that there is left to pass onto his children and grandchildren is kept in that den. I couldnít let that heritage be lost."

"But what of the heritage of Kallista Whitepaw?" Pandora asked. "How could we have replaced you?"

Kallista reached up with her good arm to pat Pandora on the cheek. "Iím sorry that Iíve caused you concern, dear. I promise not to do it again."

"Good! Now what are you and your co-mates going to do for a home until your den is repaired?"

Kallista looked uncertain. "IÖ donít know."

"You will stay with us," Pandora stated decisively. "Iím sure that the others can find lodgings with one of their children also."

"Wonít I be in your and Karlís way?"

"Donít be silly. You spend half the day there anyway. Besides, the den used to be yours before you gave it to me. You belong there."

"You were the only one of my children who wanted to continue farming. You deserved the den. My only mistake was letting you live there by yourself. You might not have been so lonely otherwise."

"And I might not have met Karl. And you probably would not have two gorgeous grandkits either," Pandora added.

Kallista smiled. "Quite right, and itís time that you got back to them. Iíll be fine. You two will have a lot of work to do."

Pandora gave her mother another hug. "Iíll check back later," she promised.

Karl met Pandora at the infirmary door. "How is she?" he asked.

"Sheíll be around a long time yet. In fact, sheíll be staying with us until her den is repaired."

"She will?" Karl was a bit dismayed at the thought of having his mother-in-law around all night.

Pandora laughed at the look on his face. "Iím sorry, love, but I promise that it wonít be too bad."

They started walking back to Karlís workshop. Now that she wasnít so frantic about the condition of her mother, Pandora took the time to look closely at the effects of the fire. Dens like their own had withstood the flames unharmed. Only any additions outside the walls had suffered. However, there were only so many caves in the area, and many of the newer dens were built with materials that were available locally. Nevertheless, foxtaurs built well with forest conditions in mind. Quarried stone was not only sturdy, but more resistant to extremes of temperature, and well-maintained slate roofs were also fireproof. Only the wooden frameworks were vulnerable, and they was cleverly sealed away from the elements. But fire is an unforgiving beast, and any chink in the armour was ruthlessly exploited, and sometimes the fire made itís own gap by dropping burning limbs on the roof and making a hole in its defences, such as had happened to Kallista. Pandora counted three smoking dens, including her motherís, that had failed to meet the fireís challenge.

Then, for the first time, Pandora really took in the entire scene and saw how the village had fared as a whole. Their picturesque community was now a study in greys, including a large portion of the population. Old shade trees had been reduced to smouldering stumps, carefully tended gardens were either burnt or crushed. Wind-blown ash was piling up in every nook and cranny. The wooden market stalls were now all piles of charcoal, as was every other wooden structure. Steam rose from some of the piles adjacent to the dens Ė fires that had been extinguished with water by the fire-fighters to prevent the more important dwellings from also catching alight. It looked and smelled a bit like she imagined hell to be.

Young kits were crying, their parents attempting to comfort them, while looking like they were about to burst into tears themselves. A few of the clanís Elders were beginning to organise a clean-up.

A noise overhead caused Pandora to glance upwards. She tracked the hum until she spotted the aircraft making it, and witnessed it pouring a never-ending stream of water on the fire.

"Too late for us," she said a little bitterly. "At least maybe Jakeís trading post will be spared a disaster."

"Not to mention the rest of the township," Karl added, spotting what Pandora was looking at.

"Iíd better go check our property for damage," Pandora said, "and prepare for momís arrival too."

"Will you be putting the extra mattress back into the spare room?" Karl asked.

"Thatís the best solution for now," Pandora agreed. Privately though, she wondered how long that arrangement would work. Her mate didnít know everything about foxtaur families yet. Rather than beg trouble, she decided to keep that to herself for the moment.

"Iíd better get back and help Tobar before he comes and hauls me back by my ear. Weíve lost some stuff for sure. How much is yet to be determined."

"Iíll have dinner ready at the usual time. Donít let him monopolise you for the rest of the day."

"Yes, dear," Karl said with mock meekness.

Pandora walked back, with Jakkar setting the pace. The kit was very curious about the burnt landscape, stopping to look and sniff at things and frequently sneezing from the ash. Pandora just found it very saddening despite the fact that she knew that it would regenerate.

Pandora found that the empty fields had acted as a partial firebreak, but even so she had lost a few fruit trees, including her favourite pecan tree and a blood plum. Others had been damaged but could be pruned back and recover. Some plants too close to the intense heat had wilted or been scorched beyond recovery, but Pandora reckoned that she had gotten off easily. She wondered how the other farmers and herders had fared, and if any people had lost their lives. Preparation had mostly spared the foxtaurs in the village, but what of those out in the forest, both foxtaurs and others?

[Karl] And that is how Crystal Creekís best summer became instead a major setback, and Kallista came to stay with us. Tobar and I lost some of our timber stockpiles that we werenít able to fit inside. The growth in the business had long since caused us to exceed the workshopís ability to store material. At least weíd managed to save some of the more precious timbers which we had put inside first. In hindsight, we should have constructed a proper storage building rather than the makeshift racks that weíd hastily erected. We planned to rectify that as soon as possible, but the village had higher priorities first. Some foxtaurs had their dens damaged or destroyed, but while there were a number of injuries, there were no deathsÖ at least not in the community. About two weeks after the fire, a hunter vixen came across the charred corpses of two people. At first the only thing that could be determined was that they were morphs. A subsequent forensic investigation finally concluded that they were a wolf couple who had been vacationing in the area, and that they had died trying to escape the fire. The time and place of their death made them the most likely cause of the source of the disaster Ė a poorly constructed cooking fire that had not been properly extinguished. It seems that nature had beaten Willow to the punishment of the fools.

While there was a lot of readjustment needed to cope with the fireís consequences, none were more personal than having Kallista staying with us. I erred with an earlier journal entry. It isnít just the children who sleep with the parents. The whole family sleeps together.

Karl liked his mother-in-law. He really did. Having her eat meals in his home and sleeping in their spare room felt a bit weird but tolerable. It would only be for a few weeks, after all. However, this was too much.

"You want her to do what?" Karl asked his mate.

Pandora had expected some resistance to the idea, so she replied patiently, "Love, itís a perfectly normal thing. Family always sleeps together. Mom put up with being alone for a few nights so that you could get used to having her around as a long-term house guest, but now sheís finding it hard to sleep at night.

"And sheís going to sleep with us every night?"

"Karl, look at our den. This used to be the home for my entire family, yet it has only one large bedroom plus a guest room. Why do you think it is so?"

"Are we supposed to make love in front of her too?" he asked irritably.

"Only if you want to," was Pandoraís startling reply. Before Karl could recover from that surprising remark, she continued. "Sometimes lovers prefer privacy, but the bedroom is the one place where that activity is always expected and allowed. Of course the adults always wait for the children to go to sleep, but most adolescents get a lot of their sexual education from watching their elders. Anyway, my mother says sheís quite prepared to wait until weíve finished making love before joining us to sleep."

Karl was silent for a few moments, and Pandora wondered if they were going to have their first fight in years. Eventually though, Karl sighed in resignation.

"Iíve tried my best to fit into this foxtaur society, but some things strain my sensibilities. Iíll try this out because you have asked me to do so, Pandora, but I canít guarantee that it will work out."

Pandora kissed him. "I canít ask for more than that, love. Iíll go tell mom."

She left to tell Kallista that she could join them. Karl briefly considered putting on a pair of shorts, but decided against it. It wouldnít make him feel more comfortable, and if Kallista found it awkward, it was best to find it out immediately. When Kallista entered the room, she walked over to Karl.

"Thank you, Karl," she said, giving him a motherly lick-kiss on the cheek before settling down on the bedding on the other side of Pandora, with Sylvia nestled between them.

A rather bemused Karl cuddled up to Pandora. He hadnít expected the kiss. It reminded him of his own mother, making Kallista seem more familiar. Of course he hadnít slept in the same bed with her since he was an infant, so it was still a bit weird. Nonetheless he went to sleep as easily as normal.

[Karl] I must admit that other than waking up sandwiched between two vixens occasionally, the nights in the bedroom were much as they had been before Kallista had joined us. She never interfered with our private lives, and always waited patiently for Pandora and I to finish making love at our leisure before joining us for sleep. However, despite the fact that Kallista is an attractive vixen in her right, I was never tempted to have her present while Pandora and I were being intimate. Iím not quite ready for that yet! When Kallistaís den was finally repaired though, she moved out immediately. Damned if I donít miss her!

[Pandora] Like Karl, I had gotten used to having my mother in the bedroom with us. With my mate and two kits, it finally felt like a full family again. I have missed that feeling more than I thought. I intend to ask mom to stay overnight with us occasionally. Somehow I donít think that Karl will mind.

6 November 2338

[Pandora] A second good crop helped ameliorate the losses due to the fire. Others didnít fare so well. Herders had lost some of their stock, hunters had to travel further to find prey, and Karlís wood foragers had to do likewise. A lot of time was lost replacing burnt structures, but more time was spent cleaning up the mess and dead trees, and then working to re-beautify the village. By the time of the harvest festival, our community had done a creditable job of re-greening the area. Crystal Creek Clan may not have come through unscathed, but we were undaunted.

21 June 2341

[Karl] Not all crises are so terrible as fires and droughts. The little ones can be important too!

Karl arrived home, looking forward to going to the swimming hole with Pandora. He was surprised to find Jakkar there instead of playing with the other kits in the water already. The boy had a distinctly troubled expression. Karl immediately squatted down in front of his son so that he could look at him on the same level.

"Whatís bothering you, Jakkar?"

The young tod seemed to be thinking of how to ask a difficult question. At last he said, "Dad, youíre my real sire, arenít you?"

Karl had expected this question sooner or later. He wondered what had brought this on though. "Yes, Jakkar, I am your real sire, and youíre really my son. I know that foxtaurs and humans canít have kits usually, but your Auntie Springstep made it so that we could have you, and your sister Sylvia, and hopefully some more sisters or brothers for you."

"Whenís my fur going to fall out?"

Karl nearly fell over in surprise. "What? Who told you that?"

"Kellen said that because my sire is a human, then all my fur will fall out like yours did," he replied worriedly.

Karl threw back his head and laughed, then hugged Jakkar. "My dear boy, Kellen is wrong in so many ways. First, humans never have fur, even when weíre just born. In fact we grow more hair on our heads afterwards, but thatís about it. We donít have any fur to lose. Second, while only a little bit of me is foxtaur, youíre completely one. Your fur is never going to fall out."

Jakkar looked relieved, then disgusted. "Iím gonna pull Kellenís tail for lying to me," he vowed.

Normally Karl wouldnít condone such behaviour, but Kellen was an older kit with a reputation for pulling practical jokes. Perhaps a little turnabout was called for. "I have a better idea, Jak. When we go down to the swimming hole, Kellen is likely to be there. You go to him and pretend to be very worried. Tell him that he was right, but itís even worse. Itís contagious! You can catch it like a cold from someone with it. Just touching him could make him catch it too, and because heís older, it could happen to him sooner!"

Jakkar started giggling. "That sounds like fun!"

"Letís grab your mother and drag her to the swimming hole to watch the fun, hey?"

"Okay! Mom!" he started yelling as he dashed out the door.

[Karl] We got a visit from Kellenís mother a couple of days later, demanding to know what weíd done to her son. I explained to the irate vixen just exactly what Kellen had done, and what we had done in return. By the time weíd told her everything, she was still angry, but this time it was at her foolish offspring. She said to me, "I told him that his stupid jokes were going to backfire on him. Serves him right. Iíll let him stew for a bit longer as punishment." Iíve known many people who think their children can do no wrong. Thankfully, although they have their faults, that is one thing that foxtaurs donít normally do, and they make sure their kits treat others with respect, or at least behave themselves. She bid us goodnight, and we heard no more about it. Jakkar and I still have a good chuckle over it however.

Child Sylvia

7 November 2343

[Pandora] This yearís Harvest Festival was especially enjoyable. Regrowth had virtually covered up all the signs of the forest fire by now, and the community had outdone itself in decorating the commons. This year, a roving troupe of foxtaur musicians had graced our festival and provided us with entertainment, in return for which we stuffed them with the best we had to offer from our bountiful harvest. Jake and Lavender had brought their daughter, Lilac, who often played with Sylvia. Springstep had brought hir mate, Silverbrook, and their cubs, Dappleback and Fastpounce, who had worn themselves out playing with the village kits. They found the playful felines new and fascinating! And then there was Jakkar who had just joined the foxtaur baseball junior league. When Karl had learned that he was interested in the game, he had immediately started helping him practice after dinner. Iíve been sitting on the grass with Sylvia who made daisy chains while I watched my mate and firstborn play and bond even more closely. Karl was always patient and encouraging with Jakkar, and he responded by listening attentively and improving quite quickly. I am so proud of them, I could burst!

We had invited Springstepís family to stay overnight with us for the second day of the festival. Chakats have similar ideas of family sleeping together as foxtaurs do, and seeing as Springstep was more like family than friend, I wanted to have them join us instead of using the guest room, but I made sure that Karl was okay with the idea first. A few years of mother staying overnight with us every few weeks had gotten him used to the idea though, and he agreed pretty much straight away. The night went well, and the children certainly made the most of the occasion, staying up much later than normal. Eventually though, they all crashed and were put to bed. The sight of foxtaur kits, a coyote pup and chakat cubs all piled together was adorable! We adults chatted over coffee late into the evening before Jake and Lavender excused themselves to head off home after fetching Lilac from the fur-pile. After doing a quick tidy-up, the rest of us headed for bed also. Springstep quickly diffused any remaining uncertainty on Karlís part by jokingly telling him, "No funny business. Iím not wanting a half-foxtaur child just yet!" I enjoyed having them there with us that night, and dreamed very pleasant dreams.

Springstep showed that shi could cook on a stove just as well as shi could in a laboratory, and made everyone breakfast. It was a pity that such a fine meal was wolfed down so fast by people who wanted to get the dayís activities off to an early start. We were all eager to enjoy the festival though. Of course, thereís always one sour note in every song of joy.

Child Jakkar

"Dad! Dad! Guess what?" Jakkar bounded up to Karl excitedly.

Karl grinned up at his son from his position reclined against a tree. "Guess? Youíve got ants in your ear and you canít stop hopping about?"

"No!" Jakkar said scornfully. "Be serious!"

"Okay, letís seeÖ you just finished a game of baseballÖ did you hit a home run?"

"Yeah, but that isnít it. Theyíve asked me to join the team thatís going to play against the Black Ridge Clanís team next week. Can you take me there?"

Pandora watched Karl closely, and saw how he determinedly he kept his smile of happiness for his sonís achievement, despite knowing that he couldnít make that commitment. Leaving clan territory was still very unsafe. His ex-wife still waited for him to make a slip. Only a couple of years back, the village Elders had informed them that Isabel had petitioned the inter-clan council to extradite Karl from Crystal Creek. The council members had investigated and, after learning the true situation, had told Isabel that she take her petition and shove it up her tail hole. Those were the councilís exact words, Elder Yuni had informed them with a grin. Foxtaurs frequently had an earthy sense of humour.

"Weíll make sure you get there, son," Karl replied, carefully sidestepping the issue for the moment.

"Thanks, dad!," Jakkar said as he threw his arms around his father and gave him a quick hug before bounding off happily to tell his friends.

Pandora waited until Jakkar was definitely out of earshot before asking Karl, "How are you going to keep that promise?"

Karl sighed. "Iím not sure. Heís too young yet to properly understand why I canít be caught outside of clan territory, but his feelings will be hurt if Iím not there."

Pandora said, "Maybe I can take him? The treatment that Iíve been getting for the homesickness has been good enough to let me last at least a few days now."

"Weíll probably have to do that, but Jakkar will still feel rejected. After all, Iíve been the one who has been practicing with him, not you. He will expect me to be there when he starts his first formal game after all these informal ones here to build his experience."

Pandora was struck by a thought. "This game will be played on Black Ridge Clanís territory, right?"

Karl nodded. "That sounds right."

"Couldnít we ask our clan Elders to petition theirs to extend clan protection to you while youíre there?"

Karl brightened. "Yeah, thatís worth a shot. Of course Iíd still have to sneak unseen between the territories, but I think that can be worked out." He got up and held out a hand to Pandora. "Come on! Letís go see Yuni right away!"

Pandora giggled. "Last I saw her, she was dallying with one of the visiting tods. I donít think that sheíd appreciate an interruption like this right now. I think that it can wait until tomorrow."

Karl gave her a lopsided grin. "Yeah, I see your point."

The couple did go see Yuni first thing the next day though, and she was in a very receptive mood.

"Iíve invited Steffenís troupe back again next year. It was good to have a tod of his accomplishments gracing our festival."

Privately, both Karl and Pandora thought that it wasnít just Steffenís musical accomplishments that Yuni was talking about, but they both knew when to mind their own business. Instead they just wholeheartedly agreed, then changed the subject. They explained their situation with Jakkar and Karl, and their idea of how to deal with it.

Yuni replied, "That seems like a reasonable solution. Iíll contact the Black Ridge Elders today to negotiate an agreement. I donít foresee any problems, so just leave it in my hands and Iíll get back to you when itís resolved."

Three days later, she called in on them to relieve the suspense.

"Black Ridge Clan has formally extended its protection to you, Karl. Thatís not all though," she hastened to add. "I felt it necessary to take this up to a higher level, and because the inter-clan council was meeting yesterday, I submitted a request for a ruling on the matter. The council has ratified your status as an honorary foxtaur, and they will be informing all the clans of your status. You will be able to go to any clanís territory and remain in complete security. Head of Council, Ashlee Honeytail, says to remind you though that this is the equivalent of granting citizenship, and therefore you have all the responsibilities of a clan foxtaur also, and are subject to clan laws. Lastly, she wishes you and your family good luck, and hopes to meet you in person some day."

Karl was surprised. "All this in just three days? Thatís not what Iím used to with a bureaucracy."

Yuni smiled. "Well, you were fortunate with the timing, but I donít think that you realise just how much interest that you and Pandora have aroused. While not everyone is happy about it, your mating and children have piqued the curiosity of all. Most are eager to see your partnership be successful, so you did get some priority."

Karl grinned at Pandora. "Hear that? Weíre notorious!"

Pandora laughed. "I suppose so. It certainly helps anyway."

They thanked Yuni profusely, then headed out, debating what to do next.

"I think that weíre going to have to leave Jake out of it altogether. Theyíll still be monitoring his travels even if itís unlikely that heíd fall for the same trap," Pandora said. "We canít risk him drawing attention to your presence at the other clans."

"Heíll be disappointed not to be able to watch Jakkar play," Karl replied, "but heíll understand. Looks like that thereís only one reasonable way, and thatís to hide on the bus thatíll be taking the players to Black Ridge. It shouldnít be too bad. I canít see them guessing that Iíll be aboard."

And thatís exactly what Karl did. Jakkar thought that his father was being silly, but he and the other kits cooperated in hiding him. Forewarned of his coming, a couple of the clanís Elders, one of the Justice & Enforcement, met the bus as it arrived. As Karl stepped off the bus with Jakkar, one stepped up with a smile.

"Welcome Karl Whitepaw. I am Tessu Silvermane. This is your son, I take it?"

Karl clasped forearms with the Elder in the foxtaur-style greeting. "Pleased to meet you, Tessu. Yes, this is my son, Jakkar. Heís playing his first inter-clan game today, and Iím very happy to be here to watch him."

Tessu nodded. "We understand the situation, and Karnak here," she indicated the stoic J&E foxtaur tod, "has the responsibility of ensuring that your sonís performance will be the only thing that you will have to worry about while youíre here."

Karl stepped up to Karnak. "Thank you, I appreciate this."

Karnak nodded gravely. "Itís my privilege," he responded.

"Good luck to your son and his team," Tessu said. "Youíre going to need it!" she added with a twinkle in her eye.

Karl grinned back at her. "Weíve got a good bunch of kits here, so weíre going to give you a good run for your money."

It certainly was a good game, and when Jakkar hit a home run, Karl proudly hugged and congratulated his son. Jakkar was so happy, he felt he would explode. Crystal Creek lost that day, but only by one run. They hadnít done so well in a long time though, so the near-miss left them feeling optimistic. The kits were singing in the bus all the way home.

"Race you home!" Jakkar yelled as they got off the bus.

Although he tried manfully, Karl hadnít the slightest chance of keeping up with his four-footed offspring, let alone beat him. He grinned as he ate Jakkarís dust. "At least he might burn off some of the remaining excess energy of his," he thought.

As the baseball season continued, Karl continued to accompany Jakkar to various clans. At each, he was generally greeted with courtesy and curiosity, and provided almost as much entertainment to the adults as the game. One village though, a rather stiff-necked bunch of traditionalists, gave him the cold shoulder, but otherwise let him be, honouring the inter-clan directive. Much to his relief, they did not single out Jakkar for any taunts, so Karl was willing to tolerate his own treatment. As the season went on though, he started to worry about how smoothly things were going, especially after a visit from Jake.

"Sheís up to something," the coyote told him with a puzzled frown. Ever since the last encounter with Isabel, Jake had made it his personal project to know about her activities as possible. "That new warrant for your arrest is still good, even if the foxtaurs have rejected it. Youíre risking too much."

"I canít let Jakkar down. You should see his eyes light up when he sees me there cheering him on."

"Every cub has disappointments occasionally. Think how much worse it would be if you canít be with him at all. I think that Isabel has found out that you have been visiting other clans. Someone has blabbed, and one of her informants has heard. I canít believe how much all this surveillance must be costing her. Itís got to be costing more than she can ever hope to get from you. If she wasnít leeching money from some other poor victim, sheíd probably would have been forced to give up by now."

Karl shook his head. "You still donít understand. Itís not about the money anymore. Yes, sheíll try to drain every last cred from me if she ever manages to catch me, but thatís not her motivation. Iíve won the last two bouts with her. Iíve cheated her of what she seeks to take from me. Iíve defied her. Thatís a totally intolerable situation to her warped mind. She will do everything in her power until the day she dies to squash me like a bug and achieve that final victory."

"And thatís why you have to stop sneaking around the clans," Jake added emphatically. "She will get you if you keep this up. Iíll take Jakkar on the next trip."

Karl sighed. He knew Jake was right, but he just couldnít face Jakkar and tell him that his father couldnít go with him anymore. He would understand once, but not the rest of the season, or ever again. Glumly he told Jake, "Iíll think about it."

Jake realised that further argument was useless at this time. "My offer to take Jakkar will always be open, you know that. Iíll let Pandora nag you for a while until you come to your senses. Iíd better get home before I cop it from Lavender for letting the dinner get ruined."

"Thanks, Jake. I always appreciate everything that you do for me, my friend," Karl said as he laid his hand on Jakeís shoulder.

"Itís never too much trouble, Karl." The coyote then took his leave.

Pandora didnít have to say a word. Her looks said that she agreed with Jake, but let Karl stew on his thoughts until after the children had gone to bed and they cuddled on the couch for a few moments of quiet intimacy. Eventually she said, "Well?"

"Well what?" Karl replied, deliberately not understanding.

"Are you going to keep sticking your head in the noose?"

"Thereís got to be a way around this."

"That didnít answer the question."

"I canít let Isabel control my life, even if itís just in this one thing. It would be a win for her, even if all she accomplished was spoiling things between Jakkar and me."

"The alternative is worse. What chance do you think youíll have of being there for him if youíre caught? Whoís going to take care of him and Sylvia, not to mention myself?"

"Now youíre being melodramatic. Besides, at worst you have your mother, Jake and Lavender, and even SpringstepÖ." His voice trailed off.

Pandora looked at him curiously. He just chuckled and gave her a wry grin.

"What?!" she demanded.

"Only that your lifemate is a big stupid idiot who has been hanging out with foxtaurs for too long."

"Iíll forgive you for being an idiot, but whatís that crack about foxtaurs mean?"

"It means that Iíve gotten so used to doing everything in the simplest and least technological way, that I fail to think of more sophisticated alternatives. Excuse me, dear. I need to make a comm call."

Listening to Karlís conversation on the comm, Pandora had to admit that he had a point.

A week and a half later, Karl was standing in Blackpaw Peak foxtaur village, conversing with the head Elder, when Jakkar bounded up to him excitedly.

"Dad! Dad! Guess what happened on the way?"

Karl said to the Elder, "Excuse me. As you can guess, this is my son, Jakkar. What happened, son?"

"There was a tree across the road, and there were workers cutting it up and clearing it away."

Karl nodded. "That happens occasionally."

Jakkar smiled because he knew that wasnít the interesting bit. "As soon as we stopped to wait, some of the men came over to the bus. One pounded on the door of the bus and said he wanted to be let in. He said that he had a warrant to search for a fugitive from justice. Kleo looked at it and his ID card carefully before she would let him in. He had a picture of me too! He said, ĎThat one is Karl Whitepawís soní, and asked me where you were. I told him that you were back home as you told me to do. He didnít believe me, and they searched the bus, including the luggage compartment. They were real mad when they didnít find you."

"I bet they were!" Karl said. "Did they give you any more trouble?"

"Kleo told them to get off the bus and bared her fangs at them. They didnít want to argue with her then. As soon as they were off and the tree moved, we drove on, but nothing else happened until we got here."

Karl turned to Springstep and said, "Looks like Jake was right on the money. He was only off by one weekend. Your air shuttle spoiled their nasty surprise."

The chakat grinned. "As I said, you should have called me sooner. They canít pull an aircar over except in a real emergency, and if they tried anyway, theyíd violate the terms of the warrant, so they wouldnít be able to hold you after that. Anyway, these trips give me a good excuse to see my godchildren. Speaking of which," shi said, putting a hand on Jakkarís shoulder, "letís go size up the competition, Jak."

"Sure, Aunt Springstep! Seeya later, dad!" Jakkar responded enthusiastically, and the two trotted off to rejoin the rest of the team.

"Thatís a fine son that you have there," the Elder commented.

"Iím extremely proud of him, and Iím relieved that I wonít have to miss any of his games."

"Youíre a very dedicated sire. I admire that. I hope that your son grows up to be as good a tod as you. Youíll always be welcome back here again. Thatís assuming, of course, that youíll want to come back after our team thrashes yours," she added with a grin.

Karl returned the grin. "Weíll just see about that, wonít we?"

[Karl] Jakeís spies reported later that Isabel was in an exceptionally foul mood for a week. It added spice to the win that our team had that day. Jake certainly made up for past mistakes with that warning, thatís for sure. Of course, if I hadnít been so dense as to not think of using an air shuttle before, it might not have come to this. I had definitely gotten used to the foxtaur philosophy of minimal technology though, and I have to not let that trip me up again. Still, I had a chance to stick one to Isabel, and I enjoyed it. Petty of me, but Iíll do it again if I get the chance. I owe her more than a little payback.

3 April 2349

Teenage Jakkar

[Pandora] Jakkar asked me today for a plot of ground so that he could make a garden of his own. Considering how many questions about farming heís been asking lately, I thought that it was a good idea for him to try some for himself from scratch, so I agreed. From the time that he was a kit, he hasnít been afraid to get his fur dirty, and heís often helped me after school. Iíve enjoyed having him around, but I think that Karl is a little disappointed that Jakkar didnít have more interest in his work. I think that Karl is missing something that is right under his nose though.

A rather busty adolescent vixen entered the workshop and stopped just inside the door for safety reasons as she had been taught. "Dad!" Sylvia called across the workshop.

Karl put down his tool and walked over to his daughter. "Shouldnít you be at home by now?"

"Oh, Iíve been home already. Mom asked me to tell you to bring home a new handle for the hoe," Sylvia replied, holding up the shattered stump.

"Easily done," Karl said, heading for a stock of wooden rods. Selecting one as suitable for finishing off as a handle, he asked, "What happened to the old one? Your mother doesnít usually mistreat her tools."

"It wasnít mom," Sylvia refuted. "Jakkar broke it while working on his garden."

Karl chuckled. "The boy doesnít know his own strength. Just give me a moment and Iíll have this finished off properly." Karl cut the piece to the appropriate length, then turned down the end a couple of millimetres to match the shaft diameter of the hoe. Finally he smoothed down the cut ends and handed it to Sylvia. "He should be able to finish the job now."

Sylvia nodded, but seemed reluctant to leave. "Dad, do you think that you could show me how to use those tools?"

Karl smiled. "What? Doing odd jobs here isnít enough for you? You want to earn more pocket money?"

"Iíd like to learn, thatís all," Sylvia replied, a little frustration creeping into her voice.

Karl suddenly realised that she wasnít just talking about doing more chores or indulging her curiosity. "Let me think about that, dear."

Sylvia brightened. "OK! Seeya!" She turned and left for home.

Tobar came up beside him and asked, "Donít you think that itís about time that you took on an apprentice?"

Staring at nothing in particular in the direction that Sylvia had departed, Karl said a little distractedly, "You know that Iíve been hoping that Jakkar would ask."

Tobar harrumphed. "And you know that heís taking after his mother. That boy has farming in his blood."

"Heís never told me that he wants to be a farmer."

"Heís probably worried about how youíd feel about that. Heís been close to you in every other way, and he might feel that heíd be disappointing you if he doesnít take up your profession. On the other hand, thereís Sylvia. Sheís truly daddyís girl. She adores you and wants to emulate you. This workshop has never been so tidy and organised since she started doing after-school chores here. She hasnít been doing that merely for the pocket money that she spends when Lavender takes her and Lilac to town. She wants to be around you and learn from you. Take advantage of that and youíll both be happy."

"OK! OK! I give in!" Karl laughed and clapped his hand on Tobarís back. "I may have been indulging in wishful thinking, but Iím not totally blind. Iíll offer her an apprenticeship tonight. Now letís get back to work, shall we?"

Having made closure on his unrealistic dreams, Karl found that he was both relieved and excited. He hadnít realised the subtle strains that he had been putting on his relationship with Jakkar. He would have to have a talk with him also and make sure that they were squared away again. Then there was the thought of teaching Sylvia his trade, and that pleased him mightily. Karl could hardly wait until he could go home.

Karl waited until after dinner to make his announcement. Sylvia had been wondering if he was ever going to say anything at all! He let her off the hook when the washing-up was completed.

"Okay, I have a bit of family business to attend to before everybody goes off and does their own thing." He quickly got everyoneís attention. "Sylvia, perhaps I should have said something much earlier than this, but youíre the perfect age to start now anyway. I need an apprentice Ė would you like to be that person?"

Sylvia practically threw herself into her sireís arms and smothered him with lick-kisses. "Yes! Yes! Oh, thank you, daddy!"

When Sylvia had calmed down, he noticed that Jakkar was looking relieved and was grinning at his sisterís joy. Karl beckoned him over and asked, "Son, is there anything that youíd like to say about this?"

Jakkar nodded. "I know that you would have liked me to follow in your footsteps, dad, but carpentry really isnít for me. I like to grow things."

"And youíd like to be a farmer like your mother," Karl finished for him. "Itís alright, son, I understand. Youíve always made me very proud, and youíll continue doing so by being a very good farmer. Youíll have an excellent teacher," he added, smiling at his lifemate.

Pandora smiled happily back at him, pleased that she wouldnít have to step in after all. While it hadnít become a crisis yet, if Karl hadnít picked up on his childrenís desires soon, she would have had to intervene. It was better that Karl had made the correct arrangement than for her to contradict him and correct him. Now everybody was happy.

"Thanks, dad," Jakkar said. "Iíll grow and pick the best stuff just for you and mom," he promised.

"Thanks, Jak," Karl said as he tousled his sonís headfur. "Weíll work out the requirements for both of you tomorrow. Tonight, letís celebrate with a jug of your motherís famous cider.

After they had emptied the jug, Jakkar settled down to read a book, while Sylvia worked on a sculpture. As usual, Karl and Pandora snuggled on the couch that he had built especially for them, and they talked over the events of the day. This time though, Pandora departed from the norm.

"When you apprenticed Sylvia and acknowledged Jakkarís vocation, you passed a checkpoint for my personal goals," Pandora told Karl.

Karl quirked an eyebrow. "Oh? And what would that be?" he asked.

Pandora snuggled up close and lick-kissed him, then whispered in his ear, "Time to have more kits."

For once, Karl wasnít taken by surprise. He replied, "Funny, I was just thinking the same thing the other day."

"Great minds think alike," Pandora said with a happy smile on her muzzle. "My next heat is due in about five days."

"Iíll be ready to do my duty, maíam," Karl replied in mock seriousness.

Teenage Sylvia

[Pandora] We arranged for the schooling for both our kits to be adjusted to emphasise what they needed to learn for their chosen careers. After school, Sylvia headed for Karlís workshop to spend a couple of hours learning the basics of her trade, while Jakkar helped me while I showed him the more practical side of farming, or he worked on his personal plot when I was too busy.

Our efforts to get pregnant again were successful, and even Jakkar and Sylvia were excited at the prospect of having a baby sister or brother.

[Karl] Sylvia is an absolute delight as an apprentice. She grasps concepts quickly and gains skills daily. She is everything that I had hoped that Jakkar would be and more. I see the same joy in the trade that I had had as an apprentice, and I think that she will do excellently as a professional. Iím as eager to find out as she is!

28 February 2350

[Pandora] I was showing Jakkar how to make repairs on our water pump when the first contraction hit me. Jakkar was very concerned, but I told him to just call his father and I could make my way back to the den without a problem. He did, and I did, but he also put on a kettle and called a few other people in the meantime. This one was a little reluctant to leave the womb though, so everyone who wanted to attend the birth not only had plenty of time to get there, but also get a good feed! Still, it was otherwise a quite normal birth. We did get one surprise though.

"Itís a boy!" exclaimed Mishi.

All the foxtaurs present were momentarily stunned. Getting one male in the family was about the most that any vixen ever expected. Getting two males out of only three births was extremely unusual. Then they all started talking simultaneously, and there was much laughter and joy. The poor kit was almost hugged to death!

Karl was very pleased. Unlike his mate though, he had had higher hopes of getting another son despite the typical gender imbalance in births. He had a name already picked out. "Iíd like to name him Xander," he said to Pandora, "if thatís okay with you."

"Zander? Why that name?" Pandora asked.

"Because my favourite grandfatherís name was Alexander, and rather than name our son either that or Alex, I thought Xander sounded like a good foxtaur name."

"Oh, Xander with an X." Pandora looked at the tiny kit in her arms. "Yes, thatís a good name for him. It keeps his sireís heritage in mind. And as a second son, I think heís going to be a very popular with the vixens when he grows up!"

[Pandora] I think nearly every vixen in the village came around to look at Xander when they heard that I had given birth to a second male. Itís nice to be notorious for a while, but eventually one gets tired of it. Fortunately things returned to normal fairly quickly. Jakkar looked after many of the winter chores for me, and mother was around often again.

Karl asked me whether I intended to try for a sibling for him like Jakkar and Sylvia. I told him, "Of course", and Iím pleased that he remembered. After all these years, I was afraid I was going to have to remind him!

30 January 2351

[Karl] Pandora and I are proud to announce that on this day, our daughter, Kalika, was born. Her name means ĎRosebudí, and I have to say that sheís the prettiest red rosebud that I have ever seen!

[Pandora] Karl never had the chance to properly experience having a daughter growing to maturity, nor did he grow up in a foxtaur village. I knew that eventually this would cause some problems, but I wouldnít shield him from them. He had undertaken to have a normal foxtaur family, so he also had to deal with normal foxtaur situations. I sympathise with him, but he must learn to cope.

[Karl] Sylviaís adolescence has caused me a couple of problems. Aside from the usual hormone-related incidents (which thankfully were very few), sheís having a reasonably smooth transition into maturity. However, Sylvia has taken after her mother in one significant way. As soon as she hit puberty, her bust had started filling out at a very fast rate. She already wears a halter to contain them, while many adults in this clan donít need or wear a top. Sheís starting to look a bit top heavy, but Pandora assures me that she had grown up exactly the same way, and a growth spurt would soon enough bring her back into better proportion. I am still concerned that she will be self-conscious about herself or, worse yet, suffer taunts from her peers. So far that hasnít eventuated. Perhaps itís because her mother is a prominent member of the community and is even bustier, which means that Sylvia isnít as unique as Pandora had been as a youth. I certainly hope so because I know that children can be cruel, no matter what the species.

Thereís still one problem though. As she has done since the day she was born, she sleeps with the rest of us, and I find that more and more disconcerting. It was my fetish for busty females that helped bring Pandora and I together. That condition still exists, but while my mind tells me that this is my daughter and not an object of sexual interest, my body reacts otherwise. Sylvia loved cuddling up to me as a tiny kit, and she still likes to do that. Itís a very uncomfortable situation for me sometimes, but if I refuse to let her cuddle anymore, her feelings would be deeply hurt. Instead, I focus on my lifemate at these times. Pandora, if youíve been wondering why Iíve been extra frisky lately, now you know the reason!

Karlís sleep was disturbed by someone constantly tossing and turning, finally waking him completely when a stray kick hit a tender spot. Sitting up, he realised that everyone else had been woken also. Pandora was already settling the kits elsewhere to let them get back to sleep. Jakkar was sitting on his haunches, oblivious to his conspicuous erection. Karl was aware that the young tod had taken up masturbating lately, and he was happier that he did that than chasing vixens at his youthful age. However, he was also aware that Jakkar did it when and where it wouldnít disturb the others. No, he too was looking at the source of the disturbance Ė Sylvia.

"Whatís wrong with her?" Karl asked, concerned for his daughterís welfare.

Pandora looked at him, surprise already turning into realisation. "Thatís right; you canít smell it. Sheís gone into her first heat. Itís a rather difficult time for foxtaur vixens."

Karl suddenly realised that Jakkar wasnít oblivious to his condition, triggered by Sylviaís pheromones Ė he was steadfastly ignoring it. Karl was relieved that however close the siblings were, it wasnít in a sexual way. "Oh. Is there anything that I can do to help?" Karl asked, feeling a little bit out of his depth.

"Not unless you intend to service her," Pandora shocked him by saying. Karl had heard tales of how some vixens desperately in search of a scarce male to mate, would sometimes take their own brother, or even their sire. He loved Sylvia dearly, but only as a daughter, and not sexually at all. No matter how deeply he got into foxtaur customs, that was something that he intended to refuse if he was ever asked.

"Of course not!" he blurted out.

"Then just leave this to me. We have ways of dealing with it. Iíll take Sylvia into the spare room with me for the rest of the night. Go back to sleep; this is vixensí business."

Karl wasnít going to argue, even if he did feel as if heíd been summarily dismissed.

Sylvia did not go to the workshop the next day, although she did seem to behave pretty much as normal by dinnertime. Nevertheless, she and Pandora spent that night in the spare room again. The bedroom seemed strangely empty without the two, and Karl felt distinctly naked without his mate beside him. The episode reminded Karl that his daughter was getting closer to being a fully mature vixen, and he wondered if their relationship was going to be the same wonderfully close one that theyíd enjoyed since she was born. He was relieved when the two vixens rejoined them the following night, and Sylvia lick-kissed him as she had done every night for years, and snuggled up to him on the opposite side to her mother. The two most important females in his life were where they belonged, and his world was back on track again.

18 May 2352

[Pandora] Since getting treatment for the homesickness, I have been able to leave the village for a reasonable amount of time. Iíve accompanied Jakkar to a few of his baseball games, but mostly Iíve been going out with Lavender once a month to enjoy shopping, meeting Lavenderís friends over coffee, and generally having a girlís day out. Sylvia had been coming with me more and more lately also, and it was wonderful to be able to share that mother/daughter experience. Sheís growing into a fine mature vixen and, although her father is still her favourite parent (which has been obvious all her life), there are more things to appeal to her female nature when she is spending time with me. Iíve always been happy about the closeness between sire and daughter as I had feared that Karl would distance himself from Sylvia as she grew older because of his experience with Kathleen. This never eventuated though, and the two have remained close all her life. I will never come between that. Besides, now that I have a new baby daughter, I may have the opportunity to be as close to her as Karl is to Sylvia.

However, while this journal entry is about a daughter, it isnít primarily about mine this time. Today, while we went shopping, Jake filled in Karl with the latest news....

"You look grim today," Karl commented.

"I donít have the best of news, Karl."

Karl sighed. "Canít be much worse than when we found out that Isabel hooked another poor sucker to bleed for funds to keep harassing me. Did your warnings about Isabel ever get through to him?"

"Iím not sure, but if they ever did, he hasnít done a thing about them."

"Well, we tried. So," Karl said as he handed Jake a mug of coffee and they settled comfortably into lounge chairs, "tell me what has gone kablooey this time."

Jake took a swig of his coffee before breaking his news. "Kathleen has been arrested for trafficking in narcotics. This also brought out something that I have suspected for quite a while Ė sheís also a heavy user."

Karl took the news in stunned silence. Despite everything that had occurred between Kathleen and himself, and although he held no unrealistic ideas of a reconciliation, he had still hoped that eventually his first daughter would make something better of herself. Instead they had taken a turn for the worse.

"I wish that I could say that Iím surprised," Jake went on, "but the more that I learned about Kathleen, the more that I could see that she had learned to be as deceitful, manipulative and greedy as her mother, but without Isabelís strong will and discipline. Sheís in a self-destructive cycle that I doubt will ever be broken."

Karl nodded. "Iím forced to agree, but it still hurts, Jake. Despite what she said and did to me, she is still my daughter, and no father ever wants to hear this sort of thing."

"I know I wouldnít," agreed Jake.

Karl gave him a lopsided smile. "Youíre a good father, Jake, and Pandora agrees with me. Lilac will break hearts in only the nicest way."

"You make it sound as if youíve been a bad father in comparison, and youíre not. Sylvia is a happy, healthy vixen with a bright future, and your other children certainly donít lack for love. It does you credit to still be concerned about Kathleen in spite of everything, but you can take that too far. The blame and responsibility lie entirely with Isabel. Let it go."

Karl smiled at his best friend. "Sorry to be a downer. Youíre right of course, but let me know if there are any further developments."

Jake nodded. "Of course."

30 May 2352

[Karl] After all that has happened with Isabel and Kathleen over the years, especially lately, I didnít think there was anything left that could shock me, but I didnít see this coming. Nobody did. Kathleen was released on bail pending her trial, the money provided by Isabel. Kathleen was staying with Isabel, of course. In fact her mother had insisted on it. In hindsight, that was the biggest mistake in a series that she had made.

Karl was surprised to see not only Jake but also Pandora in the doorway of the workshop, obviously waiting to catch his attention. He shut down the lathe and walked over to them, pulling off his safety spectacles. Before he could say anything, Pandora indicated the shop-front office, and she and Jake walked in there. Curiosity aroused, Karl followed, and was surprised again when they locked the doors for privacy.

"Whatís going on?" he asked in puzzlement.

"I have some important news," Jake began, "the kind that you only tell in person if possible. I just found this out a couple of hours ago, and I spent a bit of time verifying it before I came here. Isabel is dead."

"What!" exclaimed Karl. "When? How?"

"Karl," Pandora said as she took him in her comforting arms, "thatís not the shocking part. She was murdered last nightÖ by Kathleen."

Karl felt thunderstruck. His mind refused to comprehend it for several long seconds. Pandora and Jake waited for him to absorb that information and recover before continuing.

Jake explained, "My sources have confirmed this, and while the police are still investigating the circumstances, there isnít any actual doubt over Kathleenís guilt. Isabel had confined her to the house to try to keep her out of trouble and away from drugs, but Kathleen is too much like her mother to be thwarted so easily. There have been several loud verbal stoushes between them over the past few nights. A P.I. whom Iíve had watching the house since Kathleenís release on bail had no difficulty hearing exactly what has been happening. They fought over many things, but mostly it boiled down to Kathleen wanting a fix, and Isabel absolutely refusing to let her. Then last night, apparently Isabel caught Kathleen stealing a large sum of money from her and the following fight turned physical. Isabel was found bludgeoned to death. Kathleen was picked up this morning from some alley where she at last got her fix. Sheís currently under guard at the city hospital."

Karl was dazed. His nemesis was dead, but at the hands of his own flesh and blood. It was too much. "Iíve got to go home," he told Pandora, who nodded and gently escorted her lifemate out.

"Iíll let Tobar and Sylvia know that youíre taking the rest of the day off," Jake said.

[Pandora] No matter how badly he had been treated, no matter how much he had publicly denounced and disowned Kathleen, she was still Karlís daughter, and it was not in his nature to be totally unable to care about her. That is one reason why I love him so much. However, this news was the final straw, and he knew that she was forever lost to him. It took him a long time to recover from the shock. I confess that I was glad to hear that Kathleen died a couple of days later due to complications from the drug overdose. If she hadnít, I donít know how Karl would have dealt with the situation. Sometimes he cares too much.

[Karl] I buried Kathleen today. Jake had gotten our lawyer to get the old warrant cancelled, and I was free to travel with impunity again. I did not want my first taste of freedom in nearly nineteen years to be such a sad affair, but at least I have been able to lay to rest the ghosts that have haunted me for so long. I think that Kathleen will be at peace completely for the first time since she was brought into the world as a pawn for her mother. As for Isabel, I hear that her husband buried her somewhere. Donít know where, and I donít care. The poor fool still believes that she loved him.

Isabelís death has proved to be something of an anti-climax. After years of staying out of her reach on foxtaur territory, and dodging her traps off it, itís a relief to be able to go into town without a care, but other than being able to visit the trading post and Jakeís place at last, I find little reason to leave Crystal Creek. My life is focused here, and now that the last of my past has been dealt with, Iím happy to remain here indefinitely, raise foxtaur kits, and love my lifemate to the fullest. That old chapter is closed Ė bring on the future!


Chapter 7: Culture Clashes  


18 April 2353

[Karl] If youíre an exhibitionist, youíd probably deal okay with having a foxtaur mate. In previous journals, I have mentioned how everyone in the family sleeps together, and everything that might go on in a bedroom, goes on in front of everyone. Foxtaurs are matter-of-fact about these things to a fault. Pandora and I never stopped making love almost every night as the kits grew up, but it was still disconcerting to notice Sylvia watching us as we finished one evening. I brought up the subject with Pandora in private the next morning, whereupon she surprised me by informing me that it was at least the third time that she had watched us, not to mention Jakkar. When I asked her what we should do about it, she asked me, "Why do you think that anything needs doing? How do you think that kits learn about sex anyway?" Considering the dry facts that were taught at sex education classes, and the misinformation spread by school peers, I had to admit that she had a point. I asked her, "Do kits learn everything just by watching their parents?" She informed me, "Sooner or later they will start asking questions. Then they will be ready to learn all the facts about sex, and weíll teach them properly."

And thatís exactly what happened. One night, Sylvia asked why I put my penis in her motherís vagina, and Jakkar expressed interest in the answer. So we gave them a thorough description of what goes where and why, complete with full demonstrations. I let Pandora do most of the talking as I felt that she would know better how to handle this situation, only leaving more male-specific questions for me to answer. Mostly I hoped that I wouldnít suffer from performance anxiety. It went pretty well though, and the kits went to sleep satisfied. They watched us a few more times, but as they werenít physically mature enough to do anything about their knowledge, they soon lost interest and stopped watching, except occasionally. Weird as the experience was, I was happy that our children would not have to deal with the same problems that I, and many of my contemporaries, had to go through. After that, there was just one more change. Because I felt that performing in front of my kits reduced any other embarrassment to the trivial, I told Kallista that it would no longer be necessary to wait until Pandora and I had finished making love before joining us in the bedroom whenever she stayed overnight. The first time that she did though, she complimented me on my technique the next morning! I was so dumbstruck that I was barely able to reply, "Thanks!"

I believe Pandora followed up Sylviaís sex education on the night of her first heat, mostly with the specific methods of dealing with her heat, but also advice on avoiding unwanted pregnancies. I also had a few words with Jakkar, but basically the two were ready and responsible when the time came for them to be sexually active. That didnít mean that there werenít still more headaches for me however.

Another dayís work was done, and Karl was walking home with Sylvia. Neither hurried because the stroll between workshop and den was often spent in private talk between father and daughter. Mostly it was trivial family stuff, or a minor problem that needed discussing. Todayís talk started off no differently.

Sylvia brought up the next subject. "Do you remember Mellikan?" she asked.

Karl looked thoughtful, then said, "Mellikan? Son of Artena and Martan? Apprenticed to Dena the Potter?"

Sylvia nodded. "Yes, thatís right."

"Never heard of him," Karl replied with a straight face.

Sylvia punched him in the arm. "Be serious, Dad!" she said indignantly.

Karl winced. Foxtaurs were stronger than they appeared, and his daughter was no slouch when it came to hauling timber and furniture around. Nevertheless he grinned back at her. "Heís a pretty nice hard-working young tod. What about him?"

"Heís asked me to go on a picnic with him tomorrow."

Karl was silent for a while as Sylvia let him absorb the implications. She was still young, but more than old enough for a vixen to be seriously chasing tods. With the typical shortage of males, competition amongst the vixens to snare the interest of tods was often intense. Sylvia had obviously been successful. Despite his light-hearted attitude, Karl had been aware that Sylvia had been spending time in Mellikanís company. Sylvia didnít need to tell him that though; Karl trusted his daughter to use her head. The picnic sounded different however.

"Is this picnic with your friends, or just you two?" Karl asked.

"Just us," Sylvia clarified. "We plan to go to Lookout Bluff."

Karl was quite familiar with the place. Not only was it one of his and Pandoraís favourite spots, it was also the place that they had declared themselves denmates. More significantly, it was also the place where lovers often came to make out, as Pandora had informed him so long ago.

Karl favoured his daughter with a keen look. "This isnít just about a picnic, is it?"

"No, Dad," she confirmed.

After two decades, Karl was finally acquiring some of the foxtaur matter-of-fact attitude about these things, yet this was his beloved daughter. "So you are going to have your first then?" he asked in his best foxtaur manner.

"Thatís what we hope to do, yes."

"Your mother already knows about this, I guess?"

"I told her last night."

"And she told you to tell me about it?"

"No, that was my idea."

Karl was surprised. "I thought that the sire usually doesnít have a say in these matters? Vixenís Choice, and all that stuff."

Sylvia nodded. "Thatís true, but I still wanted you to know and not find out until after the fact. Still, Iím of age now, and I intend to finish being a virgin this weekend."

Karl gave Sylvia a hug. "Thank you, honey. I canít help but worry about my favourite girl though, so would you mind if your old man asks a few more questions?"

Sylvia giggled. "I kind of expected it."

"Good. Youíre not in heat, are you?"

"Nowhere near that time, Dad. I deliberately picked a date a long time from it."

Karl nodded. "I didnít think that youíd overlook that. Now what about Mellikan? What does he expect of you? Did he pressure you about having sex?"

"No, Dad, heís been thoughtful and patient, and although I know that other vixens have offered him sex, he preferred to wait until I was ready. Then it was I who did the asking."

"This tod is racking up a lot of points in his favour so far," Karl said grudgingly. "Does he claim to love you? Donít ever mistake sexual intimacy with love, as I did with Isabel."

"He hasnít, but we think our relationship will grow. We need to find out if weíre sexually compatible too. And I remember your lesson about Isabel and how she used sex against you. Iíll try my best to use my head as well as my heart. But that brings me to my own question: How do you know that you are in love?"

Karl gave her a crooked smile. "Humans have been trying to figure that out for centuries. Morphs have had no better luck, although perhaps the empathic chakats might have more than a clue."

"Well, what about you and Mom? From what you told us, you pretty much fell in love straight away."

Karl grinned broadly. "It was more like lust at first sight. We were very different species, and an attraction between us would not have been normal, but your mother and I were both very lonely people, deeply hurting in different ways. When she realised that I found her big breasts extremely desirable, her needs brought her to physical intimacy with me. To our surprise, this was not only mutually pleasant, but we also started down the road of healing each otherís emotional wounds. Despite being very different physically, we found that we also had other things in common, with very similar tastes, and the sex was great. We formed attachments, and felt secure and happy for the first time in ages. I suppose thatís as close as I can say that we knew that we were in love. Apart, we were just muddling through life; together we started living it to the fullest. Making the other happy made ourselves happy. In a short time, we knew that we wanted to stay together, making a new life as partners. After two decades together, it still seems like a grand thing to do."

Sylvia nodded thoughtfully. "So youíre saying that a potential mate should be caring, fulfil your needs and wants as you fulfil his, makes you feel loved and secure, has similar tastes, and is a good lover?"

"Itís not a foolproof recipe, but itís a damn good start," agreed Karl. "Do you think Mellikan can be like that?"

"I think that he can be, but I know of one other who is all that and would be even better."

"Oh? Who?" Karl asked, his curiosity aroused.

"You! Will you be my first, Karl Whitepaw?"

Karl realised then that he had been set up. He looked sharply at Sylvia. Whether consciously or not, she had her shoulders pushed back and she breathed in deeply, thus lifting and thrusting forward her large breasts, almost a match for her motherís as they strained against their halter. Karl decided that it was deliberate. His daughter certainly knew his tastes and, as always, his body reacted in spite of his wishes. He deliberately looked away.

Staring forward at nothing in particular, he said, "Iíve taken up as many of the foxtaur ways as possible. Iíve even been made an honorary foxtaur by the clan. In the end though, Iím still human, and I donít believe a father should be having sex with his daughter, even if that is acceptable by foxtaur standards. You have the right to ask however, but I also have the right to refuse, and I do. But," he added, turning to smile proudly at his daughter, "any other tod would be crazy to do so. You shouldnít have to be competing with other vixens for males, the tods should be competing for you!"

"You flatter me, Dad, but I love you anyway. I canít say that Iím not very much disappointed that you rejected my proposal, but Iím not surprised either. Still, I had to try. If anyone could have been the perfect partner for my first, it would have been you. However, I wonít let that spoil the moment when I finally have it with Mellikan."

"Good for you, dear. So, did your mother know that you were going to ask me to be your first?"

"Yes, I discussed it with Mom."

"And what was her opinion?"

"While she supported me, she predicted that you would say no."

Karl nodded. "She knows me well enough for that, but it doesnít stop her from giving me the occasional nudge in a certain direction. Iíll have to get her back for that. Donít tell her what we said," he instructed as they reached the den. "Let her curiosity drive her nuts for a while!"

Daughter and sire laughed as they went inside.

That night as they got comfortable for bed, Sylvia snuggled up to Karl as closely as they had ever done, but there was a slight change in attitude. Karl now regarded her as an unqualified adult. He no longer tried to hide his reactions to her sexuality, even if he intended never to follow through, and she respected him for both his feelings and his decision. They fell asleep fairly content with the way things had worked out.

[Karl] Unlike Sylvia, Jakkar never announced his intention to lose his virginity, so I never knew when he did it, although Iím reasonably certain that he had long before Sylvia. Once a tod is sufficiently mature, he immediately becomes a target for the vixens, all eager to get a chance at making a good early impression. Although a number of vixens were vulpamours, a.k.a. lesbians, the heterosexual and the bisexual females still greatly outnumbered the males, and it was often a case that the first vixens to show an interest in a tod stood the best chance of getting him as a mate. Naturally, sex was a powerful weapon in their arsenal. In humans, that often caused a lot of problems, including unwanted pregnancies. Foxtaur vixens however not only had a much higher awareness of their state of fertility, but even if they did get pregnant unintentionally, the matriarchal nature of foxtaur society laid the entire onus for the pregnancy on the vixen, and no tod was ever forced into a mating on that basis. Not that many wanted children at that age; they usually left that until years later.

Despite all that, I did have a very good idea about who he did it with. As part of Jakkarís education into farming, he attended market days with Pandora to learn how to value, sell and barter the produce. There he met a trainee hunter who had to learn similar things about her trade, such as bartering meat for vegetables. Pandora tells me that he was immediately smitten. I think sheís exaggerating, but thereís no doubt that he started spending a lot of his spare time in her company, more so than others Iíd seen chasing him. One day, Jakkar brought her over for dinner...

"Dad, Iíd like you to meet Jacinta," Jakkar announced formally. "Weíre going steady now, so I thought it best that you get to know each other better."

Jakkar and Jacinta

Pandora was already familiar with the vixen, so Jakkar didnít need to introduce her to his mother also. Karl knew her too, but only generally as one of the many youths in the village. He recognised her as one of the many kits that he had played with at the swimming hole, amongst other places. Now though, she had blossomed into a beautiful young vixen. Her fur was a striking red in comparison to Jakkarís more orange hue, and she had long blond hair and beautiful green eyes. Karl also noticed that her breasts, although hardly what he would call busty, were large by this villageís standard, and he wondered if his own tastes had rubbed off on his son.

Pandora finished preparing the dinner, pointedly leaving Karl to talk with the Jacinta. Karl said to her, "Tell me about yourself, Jacinta. I hear that youíre a hunter in training?"

"Thatís right, sir. Iím into my second year of training, and I hope to be fully qualified in another eighteen months."

"Please call me Karl, Jacinta. So, how many kills have you made as yet?"

"Oh, Iím not allowed to actually make a kill as yet. I have to reach a certain level of proficiency with all weapons before Iíll be given the chance to take on some real game. One of the most important tenets of the hunter trade is making a clean kill so that the prey doesnít suffer needlessly. We practice with many weapons, but the bow is our primary tool, and while Iím fairly proficient with it, I need to get even better before I meet the necessary standard."

Karl was quite aware of the foxtaursí skill with bow and arrow. Archery tournaments were a major part of foxtaur games, and there was a great deal of inter-clan competition in the sport. The centaurs of myth were reputed to be archers par excellence, and it seemed appropriate that centaur foxes should emulate that skill so well. Even a trainee like Jacinta was likely to make tough competition for an archer of any other species.

"So, what do you do between practicing with the bow?"

"Lots of schoolwork, mostly. Biology, herd management, ecological studies, and of course the more basic skills of skinning, butchering and tanning."

"Biology? Ecological studies? Why does a hunter need those sort of things?"

"SirÖ KarlÖ hunters donít just kill animals to bring meat to the clan. Herders can do that too, and possibly more efficiently, although the amount of grazing land is limited, so the herd numbers are also. Hunters serve one of the responsibilities laid upon the foxtaur clans in exchange for granting them these territories. We donít kill indiscriminately. Like natural predators, we seek out the weak and the wounded, and where those arenít available, we choose targets that will have the least impact on the speciesí ideal population. That is one aspect of herd management. Keeping a check on the health of various species, both animal and plant, is also our concern. Moving some to areas with better resources, or encouraging predators to chase other prey elsewhere to help maintain or retain a balance is a major goal. Nature maintains its own balance, but foxtaurs try to do so without the disastrous swings in that balance, while looking after our own self-interest. We also watch out for ecological problems, map territories, and hunt for resources useful to the clan. You, yourself, get hunters to locate suitable timber for your furniture, which they do with minimal impact to the environment. Hunters serve a large and important role in any foxtaur clan."

Karl smiled as he recognised the passion in Jacintaís voice, even as he realised that he still had much to learn despite the years he had spent in this village. "Well, trainee-hunter Jacinta, you have impressed me, and I can see some of what my son sees in you. I hope you do well in your studies, especially if you hope to land Jakkar as a mate!" Karl said with a grin.

Jacinta had the grace to blush a little, the insides of her ears pinking visibly.

Jacinta was a regular visitor after that, and even Karl realised that Jakkar was indeed quite smitten. Although he was reasonably sure that his approval wasnít required, he gave it anyway. He just wished that he was able to be as blasé about his daughterís relationship with Mellikan. The tod was pleasant, thoughtful, intelligent and showed real skill in his chosen trade. Against all this was that he was interested in Karlís favourite child, and the human sometimes had to control his concerns for her. Inevitably though, Sylvia was either going to tell her father off, or simply take the tod as her mate without involving Karl at all. Not wanting either to happen, Karl did his very best not to let his human responses rule him. Eventually the day came that it would no longer matter.

Jakkar had recently successfully passed all his exams in the courses he had undertaken to be a better farmer, and Sylvia had been given her final test for journeyman status as a carpenter. She was required from scratch to design, procure materials, and build by herself a fancy piece of furniture. Emulating her fatherís sense of style, she built a fancy set of drawers out of Eastern Red Cedar, incorporating a mirror, suitable for a posh bedroom. Karl and Tobar observed her progress carefully, and when the final coat of lacquer on the richly hued wood had dried and she declared it complete, they went over it in careful detail, noting how many techniques had been incorporated into the construction, and how well they had been executed, and how the completed piece matched the intended design. Then the two went off to the office to confer on their observations, leaving a very nervous vixen sweating over the verdict. She might have cheerfully strangled her father if she had realised that behind the closed door, the two males were toasting Sylviaís excellent work with cold beers, and stringing her along in the time-honoured tradition of masters about to promote their apprentices. Fortunately, Sylvia never learned about this tradition until much later in life, and her father was relatively safe. Sylvia was overjoyed to eventually learn that she had passed with distinction, and her apprenticeship was over. She was now considered a skilled tradesman, and she received a hefty raise in her wages from then on. It was also the landmark that she had set for another goal.

That evening, Pandora and Karl laid on a large celebratory meal, and Sylvia had brought along Mellikan to help her celebrate. Jacinta was there also, a regular dinner guest nowadays. They all enjoyed the meal and a special dessert prepared just for the occasion, all washed down with Pandoraís special cider. Then Sylvia asked for everyoneís attention.

"Thanks, everyone! Iím so very happy to have finally completed my apprenticeship, and to have impressed Dad so much. Now I think itís time for another step in my life. I have asked Mellikan to be my denmate, and he has accepted my proposal!"

Pandora padded over to her daughter to give her a big hug of congratulations. Karl was stunned. Heíd known that his daughter was likely to mate sooner rather than later, but even so he had a certain amount of denial, not ever wanting his darling daughter to completely grow up. Nevertheless, he pulled himself together quickly enough to add his own hug after Pandora was done. She was not done with surprising him though.

"Jakkar and I have been talking for a while about my intention to ask Mellikan to be my denmate when I passed my journeyman test. He told me that heíd been hoping that Iíd be doing something like that." Sylvia turned to Jakkar. "Your turn, big brother," she said with a smile.

Jakkar grinned and stepped forward. "Jacinta has also asked me to be her denmate. Actually she has asked me a couple of times, but I told her that I wanted to wait until Sylvia and Mellikan had set the date. You see, Sylvia and I want to have combined mating ceremony. Dad, when Sylvia becomes Mellikanís mate, she will be moving into his den, and Jacinta will be moving into ours. I want you to realise though that youíre not losing a daughter, but gaining a daughter-in-law, and welcome her into the family."

Karl looked like a deer in the headlights for a long moment, until he shook his head and started chuckling. "I think that if you kits ever stop surprising me, Iíll be dead. Son, you did good, and Jacinta, I think that youíre a great match for my boy. Congratulations to you all. Now I think my lifemate is about to explode if I donít let her and you two young vixens talk about arrangements for the mating ceremony. Jakkar, you and Mellikan are going to celebrate with me with a bit more cider; the alcoholic type this time!"

31 January 2354

Sylvia's mating gown

[Pandora] Foxtaur mating traditions vary hugely. When Karl and I decided to become denmates, we simply declared it, and registered it with the council the next day. Some people prefer to make a huge fuss over it, and others go for any variation in between. Both Sylvia and Jacinta had wanted a quiet family ceremony, but liked the idea of combining theirs. I also liked it because it had given me an excuse to unpack the family mating costume. This was a foxtaur tailored gown that had been passed down the family for several generations. Obviously I never wore it, although one of my sisters had done so, but each vixen who did, added their personal touch to the gown. This territory was known to be a source of emeralds, and Sylvia had discovered some small stones on her many hiking trips, while either checking out timber supplies, or just for fun. Sheíd had the stones cut and polished, and then saved them for this occasion. They had been carefully and tastefully incorporated into the design of the gown. Sylvia looks wonderful in it.

Today, on the day of their mating ceremony, brother and sister walked together to the dais upon which stood the council Elder, Yuni, who had agreed to perform the ceremony. From each side, emerging from their respective families, came Jacinta and Mellikan, she in a mating gown also, he in a smart foxtaur vest similar to the one that Jakkar was wearing. It was a short but heartfelt ceremony that made ties between our three families, followed by a much longer and joyful celebration involving lots of music, dancing, food and drink. I think the scene that I will remember best is when both Sylvia and Jacinta dragged Karl out to dance with them, with the enthusiastic encouragement of all gathered there. He performed most creditably, after which I took him into my arms to repeat the performance. This was a big moment in my two eldest childrenís lives, and I wanted their sire to be as happy for them as I was. I think Karl will cope better after seeing how happy they and everyone else is with their mating.

[Karl] Despite what my lifemate might think, losing a favourite daughter to a new mate is not something that many a father hasnít had to do before, and while I didnít like that aspect of it, I was still very happy for Sylvia. I felt she made a good choice, and despite my hopes that she might put it off for a while, she was ready for a denmate. Anyway, although she would be moving to Mellikanís den from that night forth, it wasnít as if I still wouldnít see her every work day, and occasionally have her stay back home like her grandmother still did. No, that was nothing compared to dealing with the presence of a new vixen in the den. Of course Jakkar and Jacinta spent their mating night alone in the spare room, one of the few times that foxtaurs prefer privacy. After that though, it was back to the practice of one family Ė one sleeping den. That meant that not only would Pandora and I would be making loving in front of Jacinta, but of course she and Jakkar would be doing the same in front of us! That definitely took a lot of getting used to. I think that Jacinta managed to simultaneously embarrass and relax me when she complimented us one night on teaching Jakkar to make love so well. She also took interest in how I nursed Pandoraís breasts, and Pandora made me watch Jakkar and Jacinta also. It taught us a couple of little tricks, but it also made me extra horny for my own mate. Yes, I definitely think I will get used to this!

[Pandora] Being mated meant greater responsibilities for Jakkar, and more time spent with Jacinta. He had to make compromises, amongst which was his commitment to baseball. He gave notice to the team that he was quitting even before the mating ceremony. However, there was one aspect that he didnít give up. Xander had taken an interest in the sport at about the same age as Jakkar had, and he and Karl shared the pleasure of coaching him. Then Kalika insisted on learning also. This was hardly unusual as vixens composed three quarters of every team, once again due to the gender imbalance, and because foxtaur females were about as physically capable as males. Kalika and Xander had grown up as close companions, like Jakkar and Sylvia, but our youngest took it even further. They were almost inseparable. Anything one did, the other wanted to do also. Anything you gave to one, you had to be able to give to the other also. They have been ideal children, even better than Jakkar and Sylvia, because it seemed that as long as they were together, they were almost always happy, which admittedly made it a lot easier to raise them. It also started putting me in the mood for another kit.

Sylvia celebrated her mating anniversary by making an announcement at the family gathering at Pandora and Karlís den. "Iím pregnant. Mellikan and I decided to try to conceive a kit at my last heat a couple of weeks ago, and we were successful."

There was a chorus of congratulations from all present. Then Sylvia continued, "What about you, big brother? Have you any plans for a kit of your own yet?"

Jakkar laughed. "Not yet. Jacinta wants to graduate as a full-fledged hunter first, and even then both of us want to leave it a while longer, probably another year, although we reserve the right to change our minds."

"Suits me," Sylvia said. "I get to give our parents their first grandkit to dote on.

Karl looked at Pandora. "Do you feel like a grandmother, love?" he asked with a crooked grin.

Pandora gave him an exaggerated lascivious look. "No, I feel like a horny teenager! Perhaps we should have another child of our own, and save the grandchild from being spoilt."

"Another?!" exclaimed Karl. "You arenít satisfied with four?"

Pandora put her arms around her mate and looked him deeply in his eyes. "Have I ever said that I only wanted four?"

Karl opened his mouth to reply, then realised that he couldnít recall her ever mentioning how many she planned to have. "Um, no. Honey, just how many do you plan to have?"

Pandora grinned mischievously. "Oh, at least one more," she replied evasively.

Karl groaned theatrically. By now he had learned to look for other clues for when a vixen was in heat, besides the scent that he couldnít smell. Pandora was in heat, and the announcement had been the trigger for an inevitable chain of events. He looked at his elder daughter with mock sternness and berated her.

"Now look what youíve done! Soon youíll have another sibling and weíll have another mouth to feed!"

Sylvia giggled. "You canít blame me if Mom is a horny vixen. After all, she has one of the best tods in the world as a mate."

Karl didnít know how to refute that without belittling himself, so instead he just grinned and rolled with the punch. "Then weíll just have to leave the kit with his grown-up sister to cubsit, wonít we?"

Sylvia just poked her tongue out at him.

[Karl] The kit was conceived that night, or at least weíre fairly sure it was. Of course we made double-sure the following night. Truthfully, I wasnít as discomfited by the thought of having another child as I made out. Heck, it bothered me more to be becoming a grandfather than a father again. I just didnít feel that old yet, and Pandora looked as good to me as the day we met. Better even.

In the meantime, Jacinta graduated with distinction, and she brought her first kill back for our family. Jakkar opened up a previously unutilised field that was farthest from the den, just so that he could increase production to meet the growing needs of the family, and the village. Kalika became the star newcomer in the Foxtaur Little League, very closely followed as always by her brother. Then Tobar announced that he intended to retire, and he wanted to sell the business to me.

Somehow I had gotten used to the old tod always being there, but I had to remind myself that he had been looking for an apprentice with a view to a successor when I had first met him, and that had been many years ago. Naturally my successful furniture business allowed me to buy the business easily, but it did mean that we were going to go back down to just two pair of hands in the workshop once again, so things were likely to get busy for a while. I needed to start considering a new apprentice now that Sylvia was fully qualified. Fortunately being pregnant barely slowed Sylvia down, even when she was near full term. However, even she had to take it easy when she gave birth to a beautiful daughter whom they named Allana. So far there hadnít been a response to my call for an apprentice, so for a couple of weeks, I had to make do mostly by myself, although Jake dropped by to lend a hand occasionally for a couple of hours, and Tobar even came back to help. Like most foxtaurs, he didnít completely retire from active life, and liked to keep his hand in. Pressure was on to fill the ever-increasing list of orders.

All this paled into insignificance the day that our newest child arrived on the night of the new moon.

4 December 2355

"Have you picked a name for her yet?" Karl asked Pandora, hoping to distract her a little from the discomfort of labour. Neither of them had even considered for a moment that the child would be a male. Karl had stretched the odds enormously by having Xander, so the two had been considering names for vixens for a few weeks.

"Iím nngggg... waiting to see her before ahhrrr ... before making that decision," she replied.

"Nearly there," encouraged Mishi.

Karl hugged and stroked his lifemate comfortingly. "Youíll have to decide very soon then," he said.

"Push hard now!" Mishi ordered.

Pandora pushed dutifully, groaning loudly with the effort, and then she felt the infant abruptly slide out.

"Thatís it! A perfect birth," Mishi commented as she began to clean off the newborn kit. "Congratulations of having yet another lovely childÖ oh! By the Makers! You have another son!" The shaman and midwife was utterly astonished. Karl and Pandora were flabbergasted. Every other foxtaur in the room was equally surprised, at least those of them old enough to know the significance. Springstep, the perennial godmother, was less astonished, but shi soon felt the pressure of many pairs of eyes turning on hir, looking for an explanation.

The chakat shrugged. "I think thereís something in how a tod produces sperm that is different in Karl," shi hypothesised. "If thatís the case, then it seems he has a roughly equal chance of siring a male as a female. Congratulations you two. Youíre going to be famous!"

Little did Springstep know how right shi was.

[Pandora] As Karl mentioned, we had not anticipated having another son, and we had spent no time in consideration of a male name. We brainstormed that evening with the help of Springstepís PADD, and soon chose an appropriate foxtaur-sounding name Ė Varen. It comes from Sanskrit and means "Gifts", and a third son was a unique gift to a unique couple.

If Xanderís birth had seemed to make a big fuss, it was nothing in comparison to the effects of the news of the third son when it leaked out. Karl and Pandora had to demand that the Council of Elders do something about controlling the fascinated and obsessed crowds. It was days before Karl could travel relatively unscathed to his workshop, and he had to put a strict ban on people disturbing him for non-work related matters. Then, a few weeks after the birth, an Elder from the council paid him a visit.

Before Karl had a chance to say anything, the Elder said, "In case youíre wondering, my presence here today is only indirectly related to your third son. In fact, this is basically a courtesy call. I wish to advise you that the council has been petitioned in regards to you, and it has been pointed out that as a full member of this clan, and an honorary foxtaur with all rights and responsibilities thereof, you have been remiss in presenting yourself for the Obligation."

Karlís jaw dropped in shock. He tried to say something, but he nothing would come out.

The Elder continued. "Now weíre not blind to your exceptional circumstances, but I have to warn you that thereís an enormous amount of tradition and law backing the petitioner. You will be able to argue your case at the next clan meeting in two nights, at which time the Council of Elders will make a final decision. Good day to you, Karl Whitepaw."

Karl just stood there and watched the Elder leave, and then stood there for several minutes more while trying to figure out just what the hell he was going to do. Then when he told Tobar what the Elder had said so that he could ask his advice, instead he had to put up with the old tod roaring with laughter for several minutes at his friendís predicament.

"A fat lot of help you are," grumbled Karl.

Still chuckling, Tobar finally said, "Nearly two and a half decades in this village, and you still donít know whoís in charge? You want my advice? Give in gracefully; itís not the end of the world. But Iím betting youíre going to get all human and stubborn, so Iíll leave it to Pandora to try to get some reality pushed in between those little round ears of yours."

It irked Karl that Tobar had no sympathy for his plight, but it really irritated him to realise that the tod was probably right about everything. He pulled off his protective apron and grabbed his coat to head home. Opening the door to the workshop, he stepped out into the snow to trudge home past foxtaurs setting up for the Christmas Festival. The irony of the timing did not escape him.

"I suppose that this was inevitable after siring three sons," Pandora said, chagrined.

Karl was stunned. "Is that all that you have to say about this?"

Pandora looked at him quizzically. "What? Did they say when youíd be expected to do your Obligation? It canít be during your birthday as is normal because itís too far away."

"Huh? No, I mean how can they expect me to do this? Iím not interested in having sex with other vixens!"

"Oh, are you thinking that it will bother me?" Pandora asked, seemingly understanding his objections. "Donít let it worry you, love. Every vixen knows and understands the need, and it doesnít bother us at all. Honestly!"

"But it bothers me!" Karl said emphatically. "I like a lot of those vixens, but as friends, not potential sex partners."

"Donít let it worry you, hon. Theyíre not interested in a relationship. Anyone who taps you for Obligation wonít be after you for their First, nor any of the other reasons for using Obligation. No, I predict that theyíll only be after one thing Ė a son."

"But I donít want to be siring children with other vixens. I donít want to be somebodyís sperm injector. This compulsory sex is just one step short of outright rape!"

Pandora was shocked, and for a moment could not find her voice. Eventually she said, "Iím sorry, Karl. I didnít realise that you felt so strongly about this. I havenít really stopped to think about it in that light before; Iíve never had a reason to do so. I can say that the tods usually get worthwhile recompense in the form of enthusiastic love-making and other considerations from a grateful vixen, without having to take the responsibility for any consequences. In fact, many tods like to take advantage of the one of the few times when the vixens have no other claim on them. Most look forward to Obligation to add a little spice to their lives."

"Well I donít need any spice in my life. Iím very happy with things just the way they are. Iím not interested in those compensations," Karl declared.

Pandora gave him a comforting hug before she sighed and said, "Well there we have a problem. You see, you have accepted your status as an honorary foxtaur, and lived and worked virtually as one." She held up her hand to forestall Karlís incipient objections. "Now I realise that by itself, that might not be enough to convince you, but youíve also accepted the laws and protection of this village, which kept you out of Isabelís reach. However, itís a two-way street. You cannot use foxtaur law to your advantage, then choose to ignore it when it doesnít suit you. Along with the rights come the obligations, and in particular, The Obligation. My love, you have both a moral and legal requirement to put aside your feelings and do your duty if the council rules that you are eligible for Obligation."

Karl slumped a little, unable to refute that argument. "Then I suppose that I will have to try to convince the Elders that I should be an exception."

"That would seem to be your only course of action," Pandora agreed.

"What do you think my chances are like?" he asked.

Pandora sighed and shook her head. "Donít count on it, love. With both law and tradition on the side of the petitioner, I think that itís most likely that they will rule against you."

"I thought as much, but Iím going to try anyway."

"Thereís no law against trying," Pandora said with a smile.

Community meetings were usually well-attended. The way the village was headed by Elders, rather than politicians, meant that there was a far larger degree of community participation in the running of the village. Most of the time, there were only a few important matters to discuss before the meeting would close and a barbecue or other social activity would begin, encouraging a great deal of community interaction. Karl quite enjoyed these occasions usually. This time, however, he felt like he was going to his trial.

The announcement of the petition caused a great deal of commotion, and conversation rose to a roar before the Elders called the meeting to order. When the room was quiet, Yuni, the head Elder, said, "Due to the unusual circumstances of the petition, we felt it was in the best interests of the community to open this subject up for comment. Karl Whitepaw, I invite you to state your case."

Karl stepped up to the podium. "Thank you, Yuni. Fellow citizens of Crystal Creek, for the past two and a half decades, I have lived and worked among you and, for the most part, been treated as an equal, an honorary foxtaur. I have tried my best to comply with what has been expected of me as such and, while it hasnít always been easy, I havenít tried to force my own values on this community. This time though, I must object, for although I have gotten steeped in your culture, in the end I am still human. As such, I have chosen monogamy with just one mate to whom I intend to be faithful for the rest of my life. Sexual intimacy with some other person goes against that choice. On top of that, I would feel the responsibility for any children whom I might sire, despite the fact that I am absolved of all such during the Obligation. I could not just turn my back on them, and I would want them to know who their father was. Also, I have been made aware of all the other purposes that can be served by the Obligation and, not only do I feel that I could not fulfil some of them, but I would also feel used and abused because it could be done without my consent. I do not feel that being required to stand Obligation is in my best interests, nor necessarily of those demanding my services. Finally, I would like to point out that this has been triggered by the birth of my third son. Chakat Springstep has looked into the situation and has concluded that although I donít seem to have the factor present in foxtaurs that biases the gender numbers in favour of females, nevertheless that does not mean that I will consistently produce more males. In fact, it seems just as random as any human, so a vixen looking to me to sire a tod may be in for a big disappointment."

"I hope that you will consider all these things carefully before making your decision. Thank you." Karl stepped down from the podium.

"Would anyone like to comment?" Yuni asked the gathering.

"I would!" a tod called out.

"Step forward, Markon, and be heard."

Markon stepped up onto the podium and turned to face the others, and Karl in particular. "My lifemate and I have been monogamous since we mated 23 years ago. The Obligation has had no effect on our relationship, and I believe that Pandora would feel the same way with regards to you. As for children, even if a vixen chooses to exclude you from a direct role in the kitís life, our society is set up so that everyone is responsible for the kits, and you could still play a part in seeing that the child is reared well, even if you are restricted to going through the council to achieve that. And as for the chances of getting a male kit, that is always the vixenís gamble, but Iím betting that they will have a better chance with you than with any other tod. My opinion is that your objections are not only insufficient, but you are also trying to ignore your moral responsibility to do your duty to the clan. I think that some of the tods may even resent it if you were to be excused from the Obligation. We are one people, and while you may have been born human, you belong with us now, and you should do your best for our village." He had finished seriously, but now he broke into a knowing smile. "Besides, it can be very enjoyable if you let it. Thank you, Yuni." Markon stepped down.

Before Yuni could ask for anybody else, a loud voice demanded, "I wish to be heard!"

Yuni fixed the owner of that voice with a disapproving glare. "You will be heard, Akela, but that is no excuse for rudeness."

Slightly chastised but determined, Akela pushed through the crowd to take the podium. Karl recognised her as one of the very few vixens who continued to take a dislike to having a human as part of the community, and he wondered what her viewpoint would be because, as a traditionalist, she would support the Obligation, but personally would want him out of the village altogether. He was not kept wondering long.

"I think having Karl serve Obligation is a travesty of our customs," Akela began hotly. "Iíve always said that he doesnít belong here, but Iíve been outvoted. Now you want to dilute the purity of our bloodline with a humanís? Itís bad enough that there are five mongrels already; now you want more? You vixens should be ashamed of yourselves, lusting over him just because you think you will have a better chance of getting a son! Stick to real foxtaurs!" The vixen then stepped down and stalked back to her place in the crowd.

Yuni spoke up. "Thank you for your opinion, Akela. However, any kit with schooling knows that we foxtaurs are a created species made from various genetic sources, including humans. There is no such thing as a pure blood foxtaur, and there is no doubt that Karlís children are true foxtaurs. Now, would anybody else like to air their opinion?"

Pandoraís mother spoke up. "I would like to, Yuni."

Kallista took her place on the podium. "Itís no secret that when Karl first came to our village, I disapproved of him associating with Pandora. However, time and circumstances have changed that viewpoint, and now I am quite fond of him. Anyway, I havenít been blindly sticking to a prejudice all these years, and I have seen him work at fitting in with us. I feel Karl would make a fine Obligation partner, but he needs to be treated a little differently with regards to his human nature. Karl, I respect your views, but I think that you have got to be prepared to cope with another change. The Obligation isnít a perfect system, but it is one that has worked very well for foxtaurs, and much better than many human ones. Please give this one a chance." Kallista stepped down from the podium, walked over to Karl and gave him a motherly hug before sitting on her haunches next to him.

"Thank you, Kallista," Yuni said. "Anyone else?"

A vixen in her twenties put up her hand. "I would like to," she said.

"Take the podium then, Vena."

Vena did so, then started her speech, "I did not petition the Elders for Karl to undergo Obligation, but I did wonder why I didnít think of it myself when I heard about it. I like Karl. He was a wonderful friend to us all as kits, and now that I have kits of my own, heís continuing that tradition with them. Heís wonderful to know socially, and while I donít find him anywhere near as physically attractive as a real tod..." she winked at Karl, "no offence meant."

Karl smiled in return. "None taken."

Vena continued, "Nevertheless, in every other way, I would find him highly desirable. I think he is a major asset to this village, and a grand catch as a mate. In the future, if I donít have a son, and it is decided that Karl must undergo Obligation, I will be seriously considering his services in the future, and it will be an experience that I will enjoy, not endure. Iím sure that I speak for several other vixens too, Karl, so please reconsider your objections."

Vena stepped down amid murmurs of agreement.

"Thank you, Vena. I think you aired the views of many of the older vixens also." There were nods of agreement amongst the other Elders. "Is there anyone else who wishes to add anything?" Yuni paused, waiting for a response. When none came, she continued, "Pandora, would you like to add your viewpoint?"

Pandora replied, "I have already discussed this with Karl, and he knows my viewpoint. I strongly support upholding tradition, and I feel that he would be an excellent choice for Obligation. In the end though, I must support my lifemate, and if requiring him to undergo Obligation conflicts with him too much and harms our relationship, then I would vote no."

"Quite understandable. Thank you, Pandora. Anyone else?"

Jakkar held up his hand. "Sylvia and I would like to say something."

"Then step up and be heard," Yuni directed.

Sylvia and Jakkar went up to the podium together, and Jakkar spoke first. "We children of Karl have had the best viewpoint of how well our father has integrated with foxtaur customs. We know that it hasn't always been easy for him, especially as we were growing up, but he has always made great efforts to ensure that we lacked for nothing that other kits had, and kept his human culture to the minimum. Where he could not provide, he let our mother do so without interference, although," he qualified with a grin, "we did cause him a good deal of embarrassment sometimes. He's always been a good sport about it though, and I can't say that I have ever regretted for the slightest moment having a human father. So I know just how much Dad has done to fit in, and I don't think he can be blamed for desiring not to participate in the Obligation. My personal opinion is that he's done enough already, so don't demand that it he do this. Thank you."

Sylvia then had her turn. "My brother and I are in complete agreement with everything until the conclusion. I think that Dad has been overwhelmed by the magnitude of this matter that has been so suddenly thrust upon him, and if he had been given the chance to adjust, we would not be debating this today. I think my father would make an excellent choice of Obligation mate, and would reinforce how much we love and value him. Thank you."

"Well said, both of you. Has anyone anything more to add to these arguments?" She paused for a long moment, but there were no more takers. "No? In that case, this meeting is adjourned while my colleagues and I consider the points that were brought up." Yuni and the four other Elders, including the Justice & Enforcement vixen in her robe of office, trooped into the adjoining room to confer. It seemed like an eternity to Karl, but in fact it was only a quarter of an hour before the Elders returned. Yuni stepped up onto the podium, and the crowd instantly hushed.

"It is the majority decision of the council of Elders that Karl Whitepaw is eligible for Obligation."

A babble of conversation immediately started as the community started discussing the decision. Yuni banged her gavel and called for quiet. When she had everyone's attention, she continued.

"The foxtaur Obligation was always meant to serve the needs of the foxtaur clans. The requirement for serving the Obligation was fairly decided upon long ago, and enshrined in clan tradition, to the point of being punishable for non-compliance. No tod yet has demanded exemption, although to be honest, not all tods everywhere have been happy with some of the vixens who have thrust themselves upon them. Nevertheless, it's a system that has worked well for our kind almost since foxtaurs were first created. However, while we felt that it would set a bad precedent for you, Karl, to be excused, we are sympathetic to your position, and despite the fact that you have been granted, and accepted, honorary foxtaur membership, we realise that you are nevertheless still human, and it would be unfair to force you undergo the Obligation, not to mention it possibly violating the laws of the World Government. While the foxtaur clans have independent administration of their territories, we nevertheless are subject to their ultimate authority as part of the deal that ceded those lands to the clans. Mostly they don't bother us and we don't bother them, but you have managed to put us into a dilemma. Exempting you could cause real problems amongst the clans. Strong traditions have held us strong and united for a very long time. Challenge those traditions, and you could do a lot of damage to our society. Yet if we force you to undergo this against your will, you could cause equal, or worse, damage. You have enjoyed the benefits of this community for many years, and we in turn have benefited greatly from having you as a member. We have seen you adapt and overcome several obstacles over the years, and we feel that you have the character to meet this challenge also, if you only give it a chance and understand it fully. It is essential for you to realise that the Obligation serves strong social roles, as well as a procreational one, and while I can see that at the moment the latter is the most important one to several vixens, never doubt that the other reasons will play a part in the future."

Yuni paused, and seemed to make a decision. "Normally the Obligation is held within a week of your birthday, but because that is nowhere near now and youíre long overdue, we request you to start it ten days from today. That will bring you into the petitionerís next period of heat. The council directs that you spend those intervening days talking with all the members of the community, gain a deeper understanding of the Obligation, and reconsider your stand on the matter. If by the tenth day, you still decide to forgo Obligation, we will accept that decision and deal with the consequences. We are truly hoping that it will not come to that."

Karlís shoulders slumped in disappointment. He would not be actually forced to comply, but he'd be causing much trouble if he didn't. The only other option was to leave the community, which he realised that he found even more unthinkable than compliance. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then asked, "May I now know who petitioned you?"

"Yes, that is only fair, and you will know soon enough anyway. It was Acacia."

All eyes shifted to the middle-aged vixen who had been standing quietly in the middle of the crowd. Knowing that they expected her to say something, she shrugged and gave Karl an apologetic smile. "I have had three daughters to three different tods on Obligation, never having had a mate of my own. I intend to have one more try at having a son, and I wanted to maximise my chances of doing so. Iíve liked you since the day that you arrived, Karl, and it wasnít a hard decision to ask for you. Iím just sorry that it has caused you this much distress. I honestly never realised that you would feel so strongly about participating though, otherwise I would have tried approaching you in private first."

"It doesnít matter anyhow," Karl replied. "I would have turned you down, but sooner or later, someone would have brought this up. Iím just hoping that if it comes down to it, I can go through with this properly."

"I have full confidence in you, Karl, and I would do my best to make it pleasant and comfortable for both of us. I hope to see you again in ten days." Acacia then left the meeting hall and a babble of conversation immediately started.

Karl suddenly felt tired. Pandora put her arms about him and he turned to look at her, grateful for the strength she was lending him. "Iím not sure that Iím in the mood for the after-meeting social tonight," he said.

Pandora disagreed. "I think itís exactly what you need right now, rather than moping at home. Think about it for a moment Ė except for the likes of Akela, you are part of a community that feels so strongly about your part in it that it precipitated this unprecedented event. You are well-respected, and even loved by many. You belong here among them, as I belong by your side. Life is good. Let's enjoy it!"

Karl grinned at his lifemate. "Since you put it that way, I suppose thereís nothing to be accomplished by leaving. Donít blame me if I get a bit drunk though."

"I will carry you home if I must, love, just as long as you get that way from enjoying yourself too much, and not from trying to drown your sorrows."

Karl rarely drank much alcohol, and wasnít the type to go on a drinking binge, so he knew that Pandora was just teasing a little. He stuck his tongue out at her. "Spoilsport!" His mood brightened though. Pandora always knew how to get him out of a funk. "Okay, you have a deal. Now, are those steaks that I smell cooking?"

The next day dawned clear and bright, and the snowy scene outside was very picturesque. At breakfast, Karl asked Pandora to prepare a picnic lunch. The village meetings were always held on Saturday evenings, so this was the usual day of rest, and Karl intended to take advantage of it with his mate. Pandora was a bit puzzled as they didn't usually go on picnics during winter, but it was a lovely day. Karl dug out a waterproof sheet and a rug plus a few other items, then helped finish the picnic preparations. He made sure Varen was snugly ensconced in Pandora's saddle pack and that Xander and Kalika put on their winter jackets. Jakkar and Jacinta had already made other plans for that day, so it was just the five who set out on a hike that morning.

A fresh fall of snow overnight had covered all tracks made previously, but the route was a familiar one. The kits enjoyed bounding in and out of the mounds of powdery snow as they wound their way up the slope of the valley to their favourite spot overlooking the village. It was a perfect postcard scene from there, and the couple never tired of looking at it, but the area also had some slopes suitable for tobogganing. They had a wonderful family day, sliding down the slopes, building snow-taurs, snowball fights and everything else that makes winter fun. They soon worked up an appetite, and they enjoyed their picnic lunch before the kits ran off to do more toboganning. Pandora started breastfeeding Varen, while Karl snuggled up to her as they both watched the children play.

"This was a good idea," Pandora said. "But did you have any other motive for this picnic?"

"Yes, I admit that I did. I needed to remind myself how important my family is to me, and what it would be like for others who didn't have as much luck as we did. I need a fresh perspective on this whole Obligation issue."

"I think that you pretty much heard all the arguments pro and con last night. I think that the only sticking point is your adherence to monogamy."

"Which you think is silly. What about Randen, that black tod who was chasing after you? You liked him up until he tried to force himself upon you. You could have had him if you wanted, but you stuck with me."

"Yes, I could have had him if I wanted, but just because I'm happy with just you doesn't mean that I believe monogamy is good for everyone. Besides, that was purely on a personal basis. The Obligation is something entirely different."

Karl sighed. "I know. I'm too much the product of my repressed childhood. I just have difficulty separating the service from the relationship."

"At least you recognise that it's a service and no more unless you want it to be."

"It's the one thing that is enabling me to rethink my position. You know, as much as I like being accepted by foxtaur society, it was still a bit daunting to realise that so many people were so enthusiastic about me participating in such an important custom. It's such an intimate service, and yet almost nobody thought twice about including me in it."

"Is that it then? Are you a bit afraid of doing that duty? You accept the need logically, but you fear being put into that position."

Karl was silent for a little while as he considered that possibility. "I suppose that could be part of it. Part of it might be evoking memories of how Isabel used to manipulate me with sex. Anything outside of our relationship tends to put me on edge now."

"Fear is a terribly difficult thing to overcome, I know, but I believe in you, Karl, and while I don't want to force you into anything that causes you distress, I still feel that you have the strength of character to meet those fears and push them aside. Think of all the positive aspects instead of the negative ones learned painfully from Isabel. Think of our wonderful sons whom I would never have had if it wasn't for your unique abilities. Then think how much happiness you could give to other vixens. Once you have the right frame of mind, then the Obligation will be something to be anticipated, not dreaded. If in nine days you still can't deal with it, I will support you totally, but in the meantime, give it a chance, love."

"I think I'll give it that chance, Pandora, because you have asked me to, and I trust your opinion." He looked at his tiny new son happily nursing on Pandora's teat. "And also because I want to see Acacia as happy to have a son as I am having three."

"That's the foxtaur spirit!" Pandora leaned over and kissed Karl. "Give yourself time to get comfortable with making that decision. Right now though, I'm in the mood for some loving."

Karl grinned and realised that it wasn't too cold for some things!

The ten days seemed to fly by, and Karl spent a lot of them trying to mentally prepare himself. One challenge was to find Acacia sufficiently sexually arousing. She was one of the typical vixens of this clan Ė almost flat-chested Ė and that meant that his primary fetish might not help him very much. With only a few days to go, he abstained from some forms of sex in order to build up his supply of semen. If he was going to do this, he intended that it work the first time so that he wouldnít have to repeat the effort. Still, that was a lot harder than he thought that it would be. He and Pandora had a very active sex-life, and it was easy to get aroused with her, even when they confined themselves to just petting or suckling her breasts. It was almost a relief when the first day of his Obligation arrived.

On the designated day, Karl finally committed himself to complying with the Obligation, and once he had done so, he felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. He went to the villageís office where he formally presented himself for the service. The Elder in charge there thanked Karl on behalf of the community, and posted his availability on the public notices board. He was issued with the traditional armband, and she made sure that he understood the significance of the blue and green feathers. At that point his mind boggled at the thought that he could potentially have to service ten vixens. He sincerely hoped that it would never come to that.

He went to work as usual, trying not to let the Obligation distract him too much. Mercifully, Tobar didnít tease him about his situation anymore. Acacia didnít keep him waiting too long, turning up about mid morning.

"Good morning, Karl," Acacia said.

"Good morning to you too, Acacia," Karl replied, feeling awkward.

Acacia hesitated briefly, then reached out to pluck a green feather from the armband. "I claim Obligation from you, Karl Whitepaw."

Karl nodded. They hadnít informed him of any formal response, so he said, "Dinnertime at your place?"

Acacia replied, "Thatís right. Iíll be waiting for you then." With that, she turned and walked off, leaving the bemused human to wonder for the hundredth time how this was going to work out.

Sylvia caught him staring into space a couple of times during the day, and she gently brought her father back to Earth. She fervently hoped that his night with Acacia would go well and bring him out of his funk.

After closing up for the night, Karl started on his well-worn route to his home before remembering that he was due to be elsewhere, and he turned off in the direction of Acaciaís den. She met him at the door and invited him inside. Although he hadnít had much of an appetite, the pleasant odours of cooking reminded him that he was in need of food. Acacia asked him to sit at the table as the meal was ready to be served. Karl noted that she had borrowed a chair from the community hall for his use, although the lower table level made it a very snug fit for him.

Not much was said as Acacia served up the meal of chicken, sweet potato and corn, the latter two of which could well have come from Pandoraís fields. Finally, Karl broke the ice. "I see that weíre eating alone."

Acacia smiled. "Yes, itís customary to have the Obligation in private, so everyone else is staying elsewhere tonight."

Karl heaved a sigh of relief. Considering how everything was usually done in this open society, he had been expecting an audience. Not having to perform in front of them was going to make things a lot easier. He ate a bit more before asking his next question.

"Why are you so determined to have a son that you have turned to a human to have one? Donít you have enough children?"

Acaciaís forked paused momentarily as she considered his questions, then she finished taking it to her muzzle and chewed thoughtfully. "To answer the second question first, I love kits, and Iím not ready to stop being a mother as yet. Bearing that in mind, and the fact that all three of my children have been female, I wanted the best chance of having a son. Karl, Iím not mated. All my daughters have been conceived through the Obligation. Too many of us vixens have had to go without a mate because there are too few males to go around, and not all of them want multiple mates. You know how the average rate of male births is about one in four? Well lately it has been closer to one in five. You and Pandora are remarkable for having bucked that trend totally. Three sons in five births makes you even a greater target than you realise, and while I was first to raise the issue, sooner or later some other vixen would have come to the same conclusion as I did. You are a very precious resource to this clan, Karl, even if it does make you feel used, for which I heartily apologise."

Karl hadnít known that the male birthrate had been going down. In that light, he could hardly blame the vixens for being concerned. Still, there was one thing bothering him. "So youíre doing this just for the benefit of the clan?"

Acacia snorted in amusement. "Hardly. Iím not quite that altruistic. Sure, thatís a very large part of it, but I badly want a son also. Karl, not only have I had nothing but daughters, but my sisters have also, and my mother, and my maternal grandmother. Only my paternal grandmother had one son. I very much want to break this trend for female births in my family. So itís the combination of my wants and the clanís needs that led me to choose you."

Karl considered this while they continued eating. Acaciaís desires were honest and reasonable. By comparison, he was looking more and more selfish by the standards of the society in which he had chosen to live. If this had been a human society, he would have garnered support from many others if the equivalent of the Obligation had been foisted upon him. Here though, he was getting perilously close to being inconsiderate and insulting. Karl felt ashamed. They had not done anything that would affect his relationship with Pandora, nor would the service oblige him in any other way. In fact, Acacia would have to bend more to accommodate mating someone outside of her own species, something that he was used to, but she definitely was not. He made up his mind to stop feeling sorry for himself and to do his duty to her and the clan without any more reluctance.

"Thank you, Acacia, I understand now, and I will do my best for you. Thereís just one hurdle left to overcome Ė Iím not sure that I can get sexually aroused by you."

Acacia smiled. "There are some things that apply to all males and females, so weíll concentrate on those. At least I donít need to be brought to orgasm to conceive, so Iíll concentrate on arousing you. Weíll make this work!"

Karl realised that Acacia had been having similar feelings to him, and expected not to be stimulated enough by him to orgasm. He felt that sheíd be cheated if she didnít, so he vowed to himself that he would try his best to arouse her. He looked at his plate and realised that it was empty. Heíd hardly noticed what heíd eaten. Acacia had just finished also.

"So, do we clean up the dishes first?" he asked.

"I think that they can wait for once," Acacia replied. "If youíre ready, Iíd rather that we try to accomplish our purpose."

Karl nodded. "Thatís fine by me."

She led him to the sleeping den, furnished with the typical mattresses and large pillows on the floor. She started reaching to unfasten the sleeveless jacket that she was wearing, when Karl stopped her.

"Thereís one skill that foxtaurs never seemed to have developed well because you often walk around all day in nothing but your fur, or a token top." At the curious arch of her eyebrow, he went on to explain. "The art of sensually undressing your partner is very useful for getting in the mood. Allow me..."

Curious, she nodded her assent, and Karl took the leather ties in his hands and slowly and deliberately started unlacing them until the front halves fell open to reveal her breasts. They were small, and the nipples were completely covered with fur, but he paused to admire them anyway. Acacia was surprised to get a flush of pleasure at his gaze. He laid his hands on them, tracing the curve of each with his fingers, then finding the nipples and teasing them a bit. Her heat had made them sensitive, and she closed her eyes to enjoy the delicious sensations. Foxtaur tods didnít seem to have been that interested in them so much before, and she enjoyed the new experience. She had a pang of disappointment when it stopped.

"Now itís your turn," Karl instructed.

"I think that I get it," Acacia replied. She unbuttoned his shirt to reveal his almost hairless chest. She had seen his bare chest on many occasions, but this time she really looked at it. Aside from not having fur, it was not too unlike a todís chest, and his muscleís showed strong definition from hard labour in his workshop. A very handsome chest, she decided. Next she unbuckled his belt, then hesitated. She had been about to unfasten his trousers , but realised that there was a better approach. She walked around him, put one arm around his chest, then slipped her other hand down his pantsí front. Finding his genitals, she gently played with them, and was gratified to feel an immediate response. Yes! This was certainly arousing him, and a little herself also. Maybe this wasnít going to be as hard as both had feared. She continued this until he was at full erection before unzipping his trousers and pulling them down, followed by the undershorts. Karl stepped out of them and turned to face Acacia, proudly erect. She realised that he wasnít so different from a tod where it counted, and arousing him had helped to get her into the mood also. They stepped shyly up close and put their arms about each other in an intimate hug. Karl could feel Acaciaís hardened nipples teasing at his chest. Acacia was delighted at feeling his manhood against her upper belly. To be able to feel his penis like this while in a face to face hug would have been impossible with a taur, but deliciously arousing with this human!

"Letís do it now," she whispered, "while we are both so ready."

Normally Karl would spend a lot more time in foreplay with Pandora before actually mounting her, but he was not here to make love to Acacia, but to service her. So he followed her advice to take advantage of the mood and took his position behind her. She lifted her tail, and Karl mounted her with the ease of years of practice, and the generous amount of natural lubrication that her arousal had produced. He closed his eyes and imagined that it was Pandora to whom he was making love, while she in turn pictured him as a foxtaur stroking his penis within her. She hardly needed to bother because she discovered that the feeling was every bit as good as any tod she had been with.

Another reason that Karl had for abstaining from this kind of sex for a few days before the Obligation was so that he could be more easily aroused by Acacia. He certainly hadnít expected this to be as pleasurable as it was turning out to be. Therefore, he not only orgasmed, but came hard. His pounding in the throes of orgasm set off Acacia too, and the den was filled with yips and moans of pleasure. The peak passed, and Karl slid free of Acacia. He sat down on the mattress, panting lightly, and looked at Acacia. She had done the same, and they regarded each other in the afterglow. Then they simultaneously burst into laughter, giddy with relief.

"I feel so foolish," Acacia said first. "I was wondering how I was going to deal with sex with a human, only I now realise that sex is sex, and the species nearly irrelevant. Thank you, Karl. I enjoyed that a lot."

"Youíre welcome, but I also feel silly," Karl replied. "All that agonising over servicing someone who wasnít my mate, and yet it was accomplished so easily. And I must admit that it was good for me too."

"Do you feel up to another session to make doubly sure?"

"Give me a few moments to recover. Iím only human. I canít Ďreloadí quite as quickly as a foxtaur tod."

"Thatís not a problem," Acacia reassured him. She was quietly thoughtful for a few moments, then she said, "Karl, did you really mean what you said about wanting to be involved with any kit that you might conceive?"

Karl looked at her seriously. "Of course. I know that it is up to the vixens whether the kits are told who sired them, but I would prefer it that he or she knows that Iím the father, and I could take some part in their growing up."

Acacia reached over to lay her hand on Karlís arm. "Karl, I promise you that if this mating is successful, the kit will know that you are the sire, and I would welcome any help from you in raising that child."

"Thank you, Acacia. That means a lot to me."

Acacia smiled back at him, then her hand started straying over his chest, then down his leg, touching and appreciating. When she noticed his enquiring look, she explained, "This will probably be the only time that weíll be together, and I want to remember what you look and feel like."

"Iím flattered. Iím also getting aroused again. Keep that up and weíll soon be ready for round two!"

Acacia grinned and continued her explorations, and soon Karl took her again, this time from another position that allowed him to caress her head and breasts while he built them both back up to orgasm. The second time was even better than the first.

Acacia cradled Karl in her arms as they relaxed in the afterglow. Neither spoke while they savoured the feeling. Eventually though, Acacia said, "You have fulfilled your duty to me. If you wish to go home to Pandora, you may."

Karl thought for a moment, then asked, "Are you expecting anyone to come home to this den tonight?"

"No. Why?"

"Because Iíve gotten familiar with foxtaur ways. Are you looking forward to sleeping alone?"

Acacia cast her eyes down. "No, not really."

"When was the last time that you slept alone?" Karl enquired keenly.

"As far as I can recall, I have never slept alone," she admitted.

Karl smiled at her. "By the terms of Obligation, you may claim me from sunset to sunrise. Would you prefer my company tonight, Acacia?"

The vixen brightened. "Yes, Karl, I think that I would."

She found a blanket for him as the night was too chilly for him to sleep nude despite the fire in the den, and he snuggled up to her to sleep. She wasnít Pandora, but the vixen was still a comfort by his side. He didnít like sleeping alone anymore either.

Karl awoke to the smell of frying bacon. Acacia wasnít in the sleeping den, so he assumed that she was making breakfast. He found his clothes and dressed before joining her in the main room.

"I hope you like bacon and eggs for breakfast," she said as she saw him enter the room.

"I do, but it wasnít necessary to make me breakfast."

"Nonsense! My guests always get a good feed, and you only eat half as much as a foxtaur anyway. And perhaps youíll enjoy this more than the awkward dinner last night."

Karl grinned. "Yeah, youíre right. It was quite a learning experience though. Iím very glad that you made my first Obligation such a positive experience. I doubt that Iíll ever be thrilled about being used as a sperm resource, or being taken away from Pandora for even one night, but if every time is like this, Iíll be satisfied that it was worth it."

Acacia served up the bacon and eggs with toast and butter. As she did so, she said, "Iíd like to be able to guarantee that for you, but different vixens have different motivations, and not every one of them is going to be so understanding. Hopefully theyíll do their best though. I know you will."

"Time will tell, I suppose," Karl said with a shrug, then concentrated on eating his breakfast.

Replete at last, he sighed in satisfaction. As Acacia took away the dirty plates and cutlery, Karl asked, "How long before you know the sex of the kit if youíve conceived?"

"Only when the kit is born. Itís our custom not to find out beforehand."

"You mean Iím... weíre going to have to wait ten months before we know?"

"Yep. Even eager as I am, Iím sticking to custom. After all, knowing now wonít affect the gender at birth."

"True. I admit that I always waited to find out, but it didnít really matter to me whether the kit was a boy or a girl. This time, however, I really want to know."

"Why is that?" Acacia asked curiously.

"Well, if itís a male, that will make that the fourth out of six children, and I can see the vixens queuing up for my services. If itís a female, then Iíll be more average, and the vixens might not be so eager to take the chance, so I might not have to do this so much."

"At least youíre honest and consistent. Sorry again to add this turmoil to your life."

Karl waved his hand dismissively. "Itís obviously not the end of the world. Who knows? This might come back and bite the Elders in the behind in some way, and then Iíll get the last laugh."

Acacia shook her head and clucked disapprovingly, but there was a hint of a grin on her face.

The winter sun had still not risen by the time Karl was ready to leave. The sight of snow seen through the window made him button down his jacket firmly before stepping out into the false dawn. It was too early to go to work as yet, so he headed home. He was delighted to find Pandora was up, and they silently sunk into each otherís arms. They hugged for a long moment before Pandora finally spoke.

"When you didnít come home last night, I suspected that it went a lot better than you had feared. I missed you, but I was happy that you didnít come home because it meant that you had probably worked things out with Acacia."

"Youíre right. I think we have a much better understanding now."

"So, do you think that she would make a good second mate?" Pandora asked innocently.

Karl looked at her sharply. "Donít tease me like that, Pandora. You know that Iím not interested in more denmates. That much hasnít changed. However, she has promised that I can be involved in the raising of the child, so weíll probably be seeing more of her."

"Thatís nice, but I was only half teasing you. She might actually like having a denmate at last, and you certainly have the right to take more mates."

"Enough! Iíve reached a compromise with the Obligation, and thatís as far as I will go. Now how about a snuggle before I have to leave to go to work?"

Pandora grinned. She had been quite prepared to share like any other vixen, but she loved having Karl to herself, and if this was the way he felt after even a pleasant and successful night with another vixen, it was likely that she would have him to herself for a very long time. She intended to show him just how much she liked that!

[Karl] With the unexpectedly pleasant night with Acacia completed, I thought that I had found an acceptance of the practice of Obligation. Little did I realise the full ramifications of the custom. I learned the hard way on the last day of my Obligation. The other days had passed without even a hint of interest from any other vixen. Pandora suggested that perhaps the others were waiting to see what happened with Acacia. The seventh and final day was coming to an end, and it looked like Acacia would be the only taker this time around. Sylvia and I finished work for the day, and we closed up the workshopÖ.

"Goodnight Sylvia," Karl said, giving his daughter the usual parting hug.

"Dad, could I talk to you about a private matter before you go?"

"Of course! Step into the office and weíll talk." They did so and Karl continued. "So, whatís up?"

"Itís simpler to show you," Sylvia said, reaching up to pluck a green feather from Karlís armband.

Karlís eyes grew huge from shock. "But... but..."

"Before you jump too far to conclusions, I donít intend to have a kit by you," Sylvia reassured him.

Karl had indeed been thinking exactly that. It hardly allayed his shock though. "But why then?" he managed to ask.

"Because I love you, and because I feel a bit cheated."

"Cheated? I donít understand."

Sylvia sighed. "I know you donít, so this is going to require a long explanation. Dad, mother has been shielding you far too much all the time that you have been mates. For example: the Obligation. She knew from the day that you were made an honorary foxtaur that it would apply to you, but because it was so unlikely, rather than worry you about it, she chose not to explain it to you. Then when you had a son on the first try and your chances dramatically increased, she still didnít tell you. Even after Xanderís birth, Mom chose to let you continue in blissful ignorance, so when Obligation was finally enforced, it was a total shock to you. But thatís hardly the only thing that she has shielded you from. Remember all the shocks that you had from culture differences? Mom hoped that many would not come to pass, so she chose to leave you in the dark. The worst of them involved me. Remember what happened the night that I had my first heat?"

"Pandora asked me if I intended to service you." It was a moment strongly etched in his memory.

"Correct. Dad, that was not a rhetorical question, although Mom accidentally let that slip out. That was another thing that she intended for you never to have to worry about, but in that case, it also affected me."

"Your mother explained that it was vixenís business," Karl said with a frown of puzzlement.

"A partial truth. It became vixenís business only after you refused, but you did not know the consequences of either accepting or refusing."

"Then what is the full truth?"

"That requires a bit more explanation. You recall that I had my first heat long before I made love for the first time. The fact is that most vixens will have their first heat before they find a companion with whom theyíd like to make love. This is hardly unusual. For most sapient species, the females are usually sexually mature long before they are ready for a relationship. However, while that isnít a big problem for humans, it most certainly is for foxtaur vixens. The first heat is so strong that it demands attention, as you found out. Worse yet, if not attended to, the vixen can get seriously ill from stress. In the very worst cases, the stress and shock to the system can even kill. Itís rare, but it can and has happened. So what does a young vixen do when she comes into heat? She canít ignore it, and using drugs goes against foxtaur mores. No, the best and simplest way is to have sex, but Momís solution with sex-toys and alternative activities is extremely unsatisfying in comparison to the real thing. So she needs someone she knows, loves and trusts. Who fills that description?"

Karl was reluctant to answer, but he eventually murmured, "Her father."

Sylvia nodded and continued, "Yes, or a brother if she has one and heís old enough."

"But what about pregnancies?" Karl protested.

Sylvia rolled her eyes in disbelief. "Honestly, Dad, even foxtaurs use contraceptives!"

Karl felt foolish for not thinking that through properly. Still, there were other things that made him uncomfortable. "So, you were expecting me to service you. However, you told me back when you had your first with Mellikan that you werenít ready to have sex with me then."

"No, I said that I wasnít able to make love with you as good as I wanted to as yet. I would not have hesitated to ask you to service me despite this, but Mom cut me off before I could and shocked you, so you would no longer have agreed to do it. So thatís why I feel cheated. Itís a special moment that comes just once in a vixenís life, and I never got to experience it. Mom knew very well how you would feel, and was trying to protect you, but she had to rob me of that special moment to do so. If she had only educated you in what could happen, perhaps we would not be in this situation. Much later, I got a chance to ask you to be my First, but you refused and my disappointment was complete."

"I thought that we agreed that it was best that a father and daughter didnít have a sexual relationship?"

"No, I did not agree at all, but you had the right to refuse me then, and I chose to accept gracefully."

"I still donít think incest is right though," Karl said a bit sullenly.

Sylvia put her arm about her fatherís shoulders. "Dad, I do understand. Iím part human, at least up here," she said as she tapped her skull. "I understand you in some ways better than Mom does, but even so I think that humans make sexual relationship difficulties an obsession. Foxtaurs have made it as simple as possible Ė it should be good for both participants, and there should be no unwanted pregnancies. We express ourselves very openly and physically, as you have learned. We just see no reason to stop when the one we love so much is a blood relative. Father, I love you so much! There have been times that I have ached to express my love for you sexually, but have been constrained by various factors. Now I have the right to ask, and by the foxtaur custom that you chose to accept, you cannot refuse."

"Oh? What if I do anyway?"

"But youíd have to face Justice & Enforcement!" Sylvia protested.

"Only if you told them that I refused. Would you really give me up after professing how much you love me?"

Sylvia stared at him in disbelief, tears starting to well in her eyes. "No, of course I wouldnít. I could never do that to you!" She held out the feather. "Take it back. Iím sorry, Dad. I wanted this to be a beautiful experience for both of us. I wonít turn this into a selfish power struggle."

Karl took the feather, and Sylvia immediately turned to leave, but stopped with her hand on the doorknob when he said, "Wait!" Karl got up from his chair, walked over to Sylvia and put his arm about her.

"I still don't like some of the aspects of the Obligation, but I can no longer deny the heartfelt wishes of my beloved daughter. To satisfy my own nagging inner voice though, weíd better do this by foxtaur custom." He handed her back the feather and her eyes lit up.

"Are you sure?" Sylvia asked, almost afraid that he would change his mind.

"As sure as I can be under the circumstances," Karl replied.

Sylvia threw herself into her fatherís arms, still crying, but this time from happiness. "Thank you, father! Thank you!"

They held each other for a while, and Karl began to feel happier about his decision. This time, it felt right.

Eventually he broke the moment by asking, "So, are we going to your place now?"

Sylvia was disconcerted. "Oh! I decided this at the last moment, so Mellikan will be expecting me, not to mention my daughter and the rest of the family."

"I have a suggestion. Go home, grab Allana, then make your apologies and head over to our den. Iíll let Pandora know to expect you. Tonight we can use the spare room, and maybe my lifemate will realise that Iím not a delicate flower that needs to be protected from everything that might clash with my old culture."

"That works for me!" Sylvia declared. "Iíll be there soon!" she declared as she hurried out the door.

Karl smiled as she departed, then turned off the light and headed home.

[Karl] Pandora was very surprised when I announced that Sylvia was going to be spending an Obligation night with me. She was also rather embarrassed that her efforts to protect me had backfired and all been for naught, and even been a little ashamed at how it had affected Sylvia. I didnít take it any further than that. After all, I love her totally, and she had only been overly concerned about my welfare. I still hope though that Kalika doesnít decide to ask me to service her on her first heat, but I think Iíll be prepared to do so if the situation arises.

Making love to my daughter was a delight. I think that she was as nervous about it as me at first, but she remembered well what I enjoyed most from watching us as she grew up. Also, she now had lots of practice with her denmate, and her delightfully large breasts were lactating for her kit, another big turn-on for me as she well knew. In the beginning, I was still not quite comfortable with the idea of having sex with my daughter, but she soothed me, then quickly built up my sexual excitement. When I finally entered her, it was a moment of triumph and joy for both of us, and we made love as intimately as we ever did with our respective mates. While sex with Acacia had been pleasant, the love that Sylvia and I shared made this so much better. She wrung the best from me, and I made sure that I more than made up for the disappointments of the past.

Finally, when we were spent, we laid together in tender embrace. No more needed to be said between us, and we drifted off to sleep satisfied with our achievements that night. In the morning, it was very pleasant to wake up snuggled warmly within the curve of her furred body. When she awoke, I asked her if she was content. She smiled dreamily at me and said, "Yes. At least for five years, anyway."

Somehow I donít think she was just teasing.

[Pandora] Seeing how happy Karl and Sylvia were after their night together highlighted how badly I had erred in trying to keep them apart. Although he had his ideas of what was right and wrong, he had still been flexible enough to deal with the situation. Some may see him as weak-willed and caving in to the demands of our society, but I see him as adaptable, meeting challenges with determination and intelligence. Each time he has changed, we have all came out the happier for it. If this had proven to make him truly unhappy, our family would have been the poorer for it. I am so proud of Karl, and I can only hope to continue to be worthy of his love and devotion.

Ten months after the Obligation, Acacia gave birth to a healthy kit Ė a male. The first offer of a procreation contract from another vixen came within a week, two more before the kit was a fortnight old. Karl turned them all down flat. At the next community meeting, he announced to the entire community that he would not be accepting any offers of procreation contracts, even the ones whose terms put the responsibility totally with the vixens similar to the Obligation. However, if they were still interested in a little over four years, he would be available again by Obligation. He had no intention of being the villageís baby-maker, especially with vixens over-excited at the prospect of increasing their chances of getting a son. Four more years would help cool off those who werenít completely serious about it.

Karl got another offer. It was a proposal of a co-mating contract from Acacia. Karl was surprised but quite flattered, and he took a couple of days to consider the offer very seriously. He asked my opinion, and I told him that I liked her, and would not mind her as a co-mate. Nevertheless, eventually he decided that his decision to have only one mate would stand, and he gently turned her down. I admit that that pleased me, but I decided it would be nice to invite her to stay overnight with us occasionally.

So that Karl could spend time with his son, of course! *Grin*

When Karlís Obligation came up again, he had four green feathers taken by vixens trying their luck for a son. Half got their wish, but the other two weren't bitter. Their chances had been twice as good than with a normal tod, and they had no cause for complaint from the quality of Karlís service. Both commented to me that I was lucky to have such a talented, if unusual, lover. I had to agree.

And Sylvia made good on her comment. This time however, there was no angst. I believe that they intend to make this a tradition for his future Obligations. Now I know heís a foxtaur!


Chapter 8: Todís Choice  


23 June 2367

[Karl] What is your definition of disaster? Heaven knows our family has had to endure a few. The drought and fire affected the entire village, but if you choose to live in a rural setting, those are just some of the problems that you must be prepared to deal with sooner or later. Then there was the flooding in the Spring following my first Obligation. Of course, even though Crystal Creek cuts right through the centre of the village, the foxtaurs had been smart enough not to build too close to it, so nobodyís den was affected. However, with my workshop on the other side from our den and the bridge rendered unsafe by the swiftly flowing water, it did present a problem to me and many others. The villagers swiftly constructed a temporary bridge though, so everyone was soon able to get back to their usual activities, or as much as the incessant rain would allow. It barely qualifies as a disaster.

[Pandora] Speak for yourself, Karl! Remember that Jakkar and I have to work out in those fields, rain or shine. We came home plastered in mud for weeks. That wasnít very pleasant.

[Karl] I remember. I also remember the fun that we had in the shower together, getting you clean!

[Pandora] Dirty old tod! But seriously, we had plants rotting in the fields and other problems due to the waterlogged soil.

[Karl] True, and thatís one of the problems that you have when you live off the land but you learn to take in your stride. The ice storm that we had two years later was far worse. We normally only get a picturesque covering of snow this far south, but that freak storm proved that we werenít immune to even the wildest winter weather. Fallen trees blocked the road out of the village for weeks, and I couldnít ship anything out except by air, a horrendously expensive alternative.

[Pandora] And I lost several fruit trees and others were badly damaged. Almost everyone in the village suffered in some way. Even after the thaw, the hunter-rangersí lives were made difficult due to all the forest trails being damaged or blocked. However, it was all repaired or restored, as is our duty of care to the territory.

[Karl] Itís an ill wind that blows no good though. Many of those fallen trees were good woodworking timbers which otherwise would not have been available to me. My stockpiles were bulging for ages! No oneís life was lost in either event, thank heavens, so even those have been mitigated by time. The same canít be said for a true disaster, and it doesnít have to affect the entire community for the effects to be devastating. The worst disasters can be very personal, for how can you mend a broken heart?

Karl wondered what happened to the idyllic day he had been enjoying. His daughter Sylvia and he finished a project which they were particularly proud of, so they quit for the day earlier than normal to celebrate. They headed to Meerka's Café. It was little more than a few tables outside her den but the villagers were amused to give it a pretentious title. Meerka served some of the best beverages and cakes in the state though and she never lacked for customers. Father and daughter celebrated with Black Forest cake while chatting with Meerka when she was between customers. Everybody enjoyed the glorious summer afternoon.

Eventually Karl decided to head home. He invited Sylvia and her denmate to come over for dinner to continue the celebrations, gave her a farewell hug and headed off towards his den. By coincidence he encountered Jacinta the huntress, his son Jakkarís denmate, as she emerged from a forest trail onto the main path. Strapped onto her saddle-pack was a small deer that she had shot that afternoon and was bringing back home for butchering.

"Are you in the mood for venison, Papa Karl?" she asked. As his daughter-in-law, she had the right to call him Ďfatherí, but Karl had insisted that she call him by name. She had compromised and called him ĎPapa Karlí in jest, but it had stuck somehow ever since then.

"Sounds like an excellent idea to me," Karl said enthusiastically. "Iíll get some potatoes, pumpkin and corn from the cool store and weíll have a proper roast meal. Iíll let Pandora know whatís happening."

Before he could do so though, they encountered a coyote morph walking down from the den. He was about seventeen years of age, but nearly a dead-ringer for his father, Jake, and had his same cheerful cheeky grin. He stopped to talk to Karl.

"Good afternoon, Uncle Karl. Youíre a mite early today, arenít you?"

"Hi, Joseph. Yep. Sylvia and I finished a job and we quit early. Weíre going to have a big fancy roast dinner tonight. Want to join us?" The boy was a frequent visitor to the foxtaur village despite its distance from Jake's place, spending a lot of time with Karlís children, Xander and Kalika, who were about his age.

"Iíd love to, but dad wants me to help him with a big job this afternoon that we canít put off, so I have to go now." He sounded very regretful.

"Thatís too bad," Karl said with a grimace, disappointment briefly flickering over his face. "That means that Jake canít come over for dinner either. Tell him that we finished the Markham commission and Iíll pop in to the trading post tomorrow to see him about shipping it."

"OK, Iíll do that. Catch ya later, Uncle Karl!" Joseph continued on down the path while Karl and Jacinta headed upwards. Karl diverged from the path into the fields where he expected to find Pandora, while Jacinta continued home. He found Jakkar first though, who pointed him in the direction of the pump shed. There he found Pandora surrounded by parts of a dismantled water pump, struggling to repair it for the umpteenth time.

"Donít you think that you should buy a replacement for that ancient thing?" he asked, startling Pandora who had been absorbed in her task. "Itís done its fair share of work. Itís older than you are!"

Pandora shrugged. "You know me Ė never replace what can be fixed. However, you may be right this time. I think that itís on its last gasp. Iíll get it going again for sure, but Iíll start shopping around for a replacement. At this time of year, I canít afford to have it out of action for too long. I thought that I would have this done before quitting time though. Are you a bit early?"

"Yep. Sylvia and I finished the Markham commission so we thought that weíd quit early and do something special. Jacinta has brought home a deer, so I thought Iíd cook up a roast venison dinner. Itíll take a while, so thereís no need to hurry."

"Good," Pandora agreed. "Ask Jakkar to pick some strawberries and somebody whip some cream. That ought to top off the meal perfectly."

"Will do, Love." Karl gave Pandora a quick kiss and headed back to the den after telling his son to pick the strawberries.

The meal was cooked to perfection, and the family enjoyed the fruits of their labours immensely. Dessert was served and the youngest kits tucked into the strawberries and cream with gusto. The older kits and the adults traditionally paused at this time to make any announcements, or lacking thereof, making a toast. Karl had a bit of both to make. He stood up with a glass of Pandoraís famous cider in his hand.

"As youíve all hear by now, today marks the completion of the Markham commission, the most complex and perhaps the most beautiful furniture we have ever done. I donít know if I could have done so well without the skills of my daughter, Sylvia. She is truly the youngest master of the trade that I have ever seen. I offer a toast to Sylvia who always makes her old man proud!"

There was a chorus of agreement and Sylviaís ears folded back in mild embarrassment at the lavish praise. It had been earned though and she accepted it gracefully.

Then Xander got up on all fours as Karl sat down. Everyone looked at him curiously. "Seeing as weíre on the subject of careers, Iíd like to make an announcement of my own." His sister, Kalikaís look was keenly expectant as if she knew what he was about to say. Xander continued, "Jacinta has agreed to take me on as an apprentice. Iím going to be a Hunter-Ranger."

"What?!" exclaimed Kalika. "Thatís not what we planned!"

"You are not!" Pandora said vehemently at almost the same moment.

Bedlam broke out as the three started arguing as all the others watched and listened in stunned silence.

        "Thatís not what you planned!" corrected Xander.
        "We worked it all out though!" Kalika jumped up on all fours to confront her brother.
        "No son of mine is going to be a hunter!" Pandora placed her hands on her hips and leaned forward aggressively.
        "Thereís no reason why I canít!" Xander replied defiantly crossing his arms on his chest.
        "How could you do this to me?" wailed Kalika, throwing her arms in the air.
        "What about what I want?" replied Xander heatedly.
        "Only vixens can be hunters!" Pandora threw that in Xander's face.
        "Only vixens are allowed to be hunters!" he shouted in frustration.
        "We were going to travel and see the country!" Kalika grabbed Xander's arm, tugging him as if she could drag him back to her way of thinking.
        "I want to see more of our land first!" Xander shook off his sister's hand in annoyance.
        "Itís too dangerous for tods!" Pandora's voice got harder and louder as she emphasised her point, waving her hands dismissively.
        "So itís okay to risk vixens?" Xander's voice rose to match his mother's.
        "I donít want to be trapped on just one patch of land all my life!" Kalika's hands wavered helplessly in her uncertainty.
        "So who says you have to be?" Xander countered in exasperation.
        "Vixens have always done the hunter-ranger work!" Pandora pronounced in a tone that brooked no contradiction.
        "And any tod who wants to do that work is totally repressed like youíre doing to me!" the tod added, the anger in his voice mounting.
        "But weíve always done everything together!" Kalika insisted desperately.
        "And it was great, but itís time that I followed my own course." Xander said, deliberately turning away from her.
        "Weíve never repressed you!" Pandora said in outrage.
        "Dad never has. You want me to be a normal boring tod!" Xander replied bitterly
        "What was wrong with our ideas?" Kalika was stung by his rejection, and her tone had turned nasty.
        "They were your ideas. I just went along until I found something better suited to me!" he reponded nastily.
        "Iíve always wanted the best for you!" Pandora angrily retorted as she came practically nose to nose with her son.
        "The best as long as it wasnít anything you didn't approve of!" Xander yelled in his mother's face.

"QUIET!" roared Karl.

Everyone was stunned. Karl never raised his voice to his family, but one look at his face told them that this was one exception that had better not be ignored, even by his lifemate. Karl normally deferred to Pandora as head of the family as was traditional in the foxtaur matriarchy, but this time she was part of the problem, and Karl was not going to let the situation degenerate any further.

"Sit down and shut up, all of you!" Karl said with a thunderous look on his face. No one dared object. When they had all settled down, he continued. "I canít believe how quickly a pleasant family dinner has turned into an all-in brawl. I thought that Iíd raised my children better than that. And Pandora, Iím especially disappointed in you. Look at the young kits Ė theyíre all upset from the anger and shouting. So now weíre going to talk about this calmly and rationally. No!" he ordered, raising his hand as all three started trying to speak simultaneously. "Iíll ask the questions and you can talk when I say so. Is that clear?"

Son and daughter nodded sullenly. Pandora looked ready to defy her mate, but another look at his determined expression made her back down.

"Okay, Xander, you said that you had decided on a career. Tell me more."

Xander replied, "You know how I have always loved travelling around and visiting other foxtaur clans? Well, I figured that I could choose a career that would let me do that and more. I loved listening to Jacintaís stories about what she did on her trips. I thought that it might make a good career for me also, so I discussed it with Jacinta and she seems to think that I would be good at it."

Karl nodded. "That seems fine so far. Jacinta, what was your honest reaction to Xanderís interest?"

"I was surprised at first. Itís true that there arenít any hunter tods in this clan, but I really couldnít think why there couldnít be. Xander has good grades in all the necessary subjects, heís confident and competent when hiking in the forest, he already has many of the basic skills, and he shows great promise with the traditional foxtaur bow."

"You let him handle a weapon?" Pandora blurted out.

"Pandora! Donít interrupt!" Karl told her. She glared at him but backed down.

"I am a professional hunter," Jacinta replied to her anyway. "Donít you think that I know how to be responsible with a novice?"

Karl could sense that the professional pride of the huntress had been stung. "Iím confident that you handled everything correctly, Jacinta," he said soothingly. "Now, Pandora, why the vehement opposition to our son being a hunter?"

"Tods canít be hunters. Thatís a vixenís job. I wonít let my son have the foolish idea that he can be one," Pandora said with determination.

Now Karl was surprised. He had honestly expected his lifemate to come up with some good reason for her opposition, but this was silly. "Is there a clan law that I donít know about that forbids tods from being hunters?"

"Hunting is the traditional work of vixens," Pandora replied evasively.

"Traditional, but is it the law?" Karl insisted.

"ItÖ thereís neverÖ" Pandora begun, then sighed. "No, it isnít," she admitted.

"Then your objection is either a strong dedication to tradition, which I really canít see you doing, or you have personal reasons for not wanting Xander to be a hunter."

Pandora looked up at Karl and he could see tears welling in her eyes. "But itís so dangerous!" she wailed.

Karl could at last relent and hugged Pandora. "Love, we cannot hold him back just because we fear for his safety. Nor can we hold tradition over his head like a sword. Also, you do our daughter-in-law a great disservice if you feel itís okay to risk herself, but not our son."

"I know," Pandora admitted, "and I do worry about her, especially for Jakkarís sake. Every year several hunter-rangers are injured by some means. I would always be worrying if Xander was going to be one of them, or maybe even killed."

"Now, Love, how many have been killed in all the years that I have been here? None. You are making the worst of a profession with known elements of danger. If our son is half as smart as we think he is, he will avoid taking unwarranted risks. Besides, there are very few professions that are totally risk-free. Just look at how I injured my ankle last year."

"That injured ankle didnít leave you stranded in the middle of the forest many kilometres from safety," Pandora countered.

"Pandora, you canít protect Xander from every possible thing that might go wrong. Youíre smothering him. Would you have raised the same amount of fuss if it had been Kalika who had wanted to pursue that career?"

"Itís a vixenís profession, so of course not," Pandora answered.

"I see. Itís not really just a safety issue, but because itís one of our sons. Itís the over-protectiveness of males thatís at issue here." Karl sighed. Once again a foxtaur trait was throwing a wrench into his life. "Pandora, I am in total disagreement with this practice of pushing tods into Ďsafeí jobs. Itís unfair at best, discrimination at worst. If Xander has his heart set on this career, I will support him totally whether it be against just you or the whole village."

"You are a stubborn tod, Karl Whitepaw," Pandora said.

"Would you like me any other way?" Karl asked her.

"No, I suppose not, but Iím never going to let you forget this if Xander comes to harm," Pandora promised.

"Fair enough," Karl conceded. "Now before Kalika explodes, Iíd better let our daughter have her say."

Kalika had barely been able to restrain herself while her father sorted things out between Xander and her mother. She seethed with resentment until Karl let her speak.

Xander and Kalika

"Xander is breaking his promise to me!" she blurted out. "Weíve made big plans together. Weíre going to travel and see the world for some time while acting as representatives for the furniture business so that you could stop paying commissions to outside agents, and weíd keep the money in the family instead. If that worked out well, we were planning to go into partnership in our own business. Uncle Jake has been considering expanding his own business because of the amount of furniture that youíre selling through him, and itís only because you havenít been able to get more out faster that he hasnít gone ahead with those plans. Xander and I knew that would eventually change, so we proposed to Uncle Jake that we start the business for him in some prime location while he would act as the central warehouse. However, I canít do that all by myself. I never expected to have to do so. Xander was quite willing before Jacinta changed his mind." She gave the vixen an accusing look before she continued. "Weíve always done everything together. We played together as kits, shared our toys, played in the baseball team, partnered each other in various sports, helped each other in school, supported each other against bullies, been festival partners for the past couple of years, we even had our first sex together. Why is he wanting to break us up now?" she wailed.

Karl sighed. The bit about sex he had guessed but not known for sure. Ignorance had been bliss in that case. Heíd never be totally at ease with the foxtaur habit of casual incest. Now, however, it was clear what the problem was. Despite being the younger of the siblings, Kalika was the dominant of the two and had been making plans for both of them. Something had changed however. He turned to Xander.

"Son, did you really want to do that, and if so, what changed your mind?"

"I did want to do that originally. It was a good plan. Still is in fact, but I came to realise that I didnít want to see everything like Kalika does. Iím more interested in seeing our lands, exploring every nook and cranny, then perhaps doing the same with other foxtaur clans. I can do that as a Ranger, and provide for the family also as a Hunter."

"That seems reasonable," Karl agreed, glancing at Pandora meaningfully, indicating that he wanted no contradiction from her. "But why didnít you discuss this with Kalika?"

"IÖ couldnít." Xander couldnít even look at his sister as he admitted that. "She would have tried to talk me out of it, and then we would have argued just like we did just now."

"Of course I would have!" Kalika burst out. "Weíve been planning every detail for ages, and then you suddenly drop everything and leave me in the lurch. I canít do this by myself. I need you!"

"I know you do, sis. Thatís the problem Ė it leaves me with no room for what I need or want, and would have trapped me in your vision of our future. I think your plan suits you well, but Iíve changed and I have my own goals now."

Kalikaís eyes widened in realisation. "Youíve fallen for some other vixen!"

Xander nodded. "Itís true. Hassinia shares my ideas and goals, and I think my future lies with her. If all goes well with my training, we may become denmates when I graduate."

"Then where does that leave me?" Kalika asked bitterly. "Iíll be alone and unable to follow my dreams."

Karl was at a loss. Right at that moment he could not see a solution to that problem. He wanted the best for all his children, and her distress was having a bad effect on him also. He was about to offer some words of comfort and encouragement, knowing that those words would be hollow but not knowing an alternative, when Pandora broke in.

"You need not be alone, daughter."

Kalika frowned in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"

Pandora replied, "I mean that Joseph has been sweet on you for quite some time now, but you havenít even noticed."

"Joseph? He is? But heís a coyote morph and Iím a foxtaur; how could weÖ." Kalika broke off and looked guiltily at her father.

"Yes? You were about to sayÖ?" Karl asked her dryly.

Kalikaís ears reddened in embarrassment and she dropped that line of thought before continuing. "Are you really sure about that? I mean, I never really noticed him making any advances."

"Kalika, heís been coming all the way here to the foxtaur village nearly every day to spend time with you two when it would have been far easier for him to hang out with other friends in town. No offence, son, but it wasnít you he mostly wanted to hang around with."

Jakkar grinned. "Now that you point it out, that seems pretty obvious now. I mean, heís a nice guy, but he isnít exactly interested in much of what I like. As for Kalika thoughÖ." He left the rest unsaid.

A thought occurred to Karl. "Kalika, who told you about Jakeís plans to expand? That isnít something that I have discussed with the family as yet."

Kalika looked thoughtful, then said, "It was Joseph."

Karl nodded. "Joseph is a chip off the old block. Jake has told me that he was very likely to be following in his footsteps. I wonder if Jake realised something that we hadnít? Anyway, Iím thinking that Joseph has been making his moves in a subtle and appropriately coyote-sneaky way."

Xander and Kalika

Kalika said quietly, almost to herself, "Joseph has been chasing me? IÖ I never even dreamed about that. I mean, heís cute and all, and he makes me laugh with his tricks, but heís always kind and helpful, and he gave me that great gift for my Coming-of-Age ceremonyÖ. Oh good heavens, he has been courting me, and Iíve been totally oblivious." She looked at her father. "Do you think that heíd be a good companion, dad?"

"I donít know why youíre asking me. You were prepared to go off with Xander without even hinting at your plans to me yet. Canít you decide for yourself if Joseph might make as good or better alternative?"

"Of course I can, but Iíd really like to know if you approve too."

"Well, thatís a first. A vixen asking a male if he approves Ė itís one amazing revelation after another," Karl said with a chuckle.

"D-a-a-a-d!" Kalika said with impatience.

"OK! OK! If what I feel counts for anything, then yes, heís a good kid and I wonít object if he wants to partner you."

Kalika looked to Pandora. "Mom?"

Pandora smiled at her daughter fondly. "Who am I to stand in the way of cross-species attraction. Give it a try. Even if it doesnít work out, youíre young and resilient. Life is a risky business, especially in relationships, but if you donít give it a try, you canít reap any reward." She said the last as she glanced at her lifemate in fond memory.

"Then Iíll ask him tomorrow. HmmmÖ whatís the bet heíll be ready for my question?"

"No takers for that bet," Karl replied with a laugh. "Iím glad that everything seems to have been resolved for now though."

"Not quite everything," Pandora demurred. "Iím still not happy with Xander being a Hunter-Ranger."

"No, Pandora, that subject is closed for two reasons. Firstly, I will not back down on my support of Xanderís career choice. Secondly, and more importantly, heís now of age and no longer subject to either of our hopes and wishes if he doesnít choose to be. He can and must make his own choices now, and we both need to support him on those."

Pandora was unhappy but resigned. She sighed and said, "Alright, but so help me if you get killed, Xander, Iím never going to let you live this down."

Xander laughed and walked over to his mother to give her a huge hug. "I promise to not get myself killed, mom. Iíll be the most careful Hunter-Ranger ever."

Pandora smiled back at him and enjoyed the moment, realising that he was almost full-grown now, and no longer her precious little son. Finally they parted and Pandora said, "I think that weíve been keeping those strawberries waiting long enough. Weíve got a lot more celebrating to do, so dig in!"

[Karl] One of the greatest strengths of the foxtaurs is their closeness. Even their worst enemy within the clan will be staunchly defended against outsiders. This applies all the way down to the family level. However, it can also be too close, and when something changes, it can drastically affect all those who are intimately involved.

We were lucky. Xanderís choice could have left Kalika heartbroken. If Joseph hadnít already been in the picture, I donít know what would have happened, but I doubt it would have been a happy ending. Although finding another partner for her plans seems to be an obvious goal, it certainly would not have been an easy one to achieve. Not many foxtaurs were willing and able to leave clan lands. However, Kalika did ask Joseph, and he was indeed ready and eager to be her partner. Time will tell if that will grow into something more, although itís off to a very good start. Not that Kalika needs our approval any more than Xander did, but she has it anyway.

Of course it would be a gross oversimplification to say that everything was roses now. Xander and Kalika had been extremely close all their lives, and Xanderís defection had affected Kalika deeply. Joseph could never replace Xander in her heart, and it would be a long time in healing. Joseph did a magnificent job of distracting her from her pain though. Sometimes I wonder if he knew better than any of us what was happening, and always knew what would occur when Xander made his break. He certainly slipped into his new role with studied ease, his cheeky grin never fading. If he is indeed destined to become my son-in-law, I will have no qualms about accepting him into the family.

7 June 2369

[Pandora] Itís hard to believe that itís been nearly two years since Kalika and Joseph started making plans as partners. As soon as our daughter had completed her studies, they had left to do the travelling that had been planned for so long. Having left before she was totally mature prevented the onset of the Territorial Attachment Syndrome that afflicted many foxtaurs, and they were gone from our den for too long. But now that they have established a west coast branch of Whitepaw Creations as she said she would, they have come home again for one very important reason Ė their formal denmating. The entire family is excited and a huge party has been planned. Jakeís family is here, of course, and Springstep brought along hir family also. Springstep unsubtly reminded Kalika that shi wasnít tired of being a godmother yet. Joseph mentioned something that sounded like Ďcoyotetaursí. I hope he was joking!


Chapter 9: Lifeís Dream  


Pandora turned the pages of the journal until she came to the next highlight in their lives that Karl had recorded.

1 May 2370

[Karl] Springstep continues to express hir disappointment that Joseph has chosen not to be altered so as to give hir more godchildren. Apparently he and Kalika are happy to be child-free for now, and perhaps thatís for the best while they continue to work hard to expand our business. Next visit I intend to seriously discuss this with them. I donít want them to neglect themselves just for the sake of selling more furniture.

Springstep and hir family visit more often nowadays. Shi claims that hir youngest daughter, Willowind, keeps dragging hir back, but I think that the very hard-working chakat is just looking for an excuse to relax in a friendly comfortable family environment. Shi has an even better excuse now though Ė Willowind asked to join the Foxtaur Baseball Junior League team, and today the Council of Elders gave their permission. Pending their approval, I agreed to coach Willowind along with Varen, and also Acaciaís son, Tankar.

To Pandora it seemed that it had almost become a tradition for Karlís offspring to play baseball. They all loved it even though their skill levels varied. It also gave Karl the opportunity to spend more time with Tankar, his first son by Obligation. Many other vixens who had had children by him had allowed Karl to participate in their upbringing, but Tankar was as close to him as any of the sons that Pandora had borne for him. Tankar always called his sire ĎDadí, never ĎKarlí like many other Obligation kits did. The addition of Willowind was to be a major turning point however, although none had an inkling of it at that time.

Pandora turned the pages until the next big event and smiled.

5 June 2370

[Karl] Today Xander graduated with distinction as a professional Hunter-Ranger. He had encountered stiff resistance from the more stubbornly traditional foxtaur vixens, but that had only served to make him more determined. He not only impressed his teacher, Jacinta, but also his mother despite her misgivings. Iím so proud of our son!

Pandora had to smile. Karl had done so much to ensure that Xander got the best teaching possible, but he gave all the credit to his son. And despite her worries, she had nevertheless been very proud of him that day also, even if she had not been as effusive as her lifemate.

She turned another few pages to another entry regarding Xander.

25 April 2371

[Karl] Xander and one of his hunting partners, Liska, presented a proposal for the construction of early-warning fire-watch towers to the clan elders. In light of the near disaster a couple of decades ago and smaller fires since, the Council of Elders is very seriously considering it.

Pandora nodded in recollection. That had been the first of many innovations for their young community that Xander had had a hand in instigating. The Elders started getting used to him popping up at the community meetings with some new proposal on a monthly basis. It was no wonder that he worked up through the ranks of the Hunters so quickly, nor a huge surprise when he was elected Chief Hunter-Ranger years later. That had certainly turned a few heads!

Pandora skipped ahead until another series of events caught her eye. This one was an especially happy one for Karl.

17 May 2371

[Karl] Varen started doing after-school odd jobs at the workshop today, much as Sylvia did years ago. I wonder if one of my sons is finally going to be interested in my craft as a career?

18 June 2371

[Karl] I have a new apprentice! Varen asked me today if he could start learning the trade since completing the school year with high marks. I was thrilled to be able to accept him. It also partially alleviates my concerns because the continued growth of the business is making everyone busier than ever. Varen already shows much promise, so that might take a bit of the load off the rest.

Pandora always knew that Karl had been a little disappointed that neither Jakkar nor Xander had been interested in carpentry as a career. He was almost excessively proud of their daughterís mastery of the craft, but there was always a lingering hope that at least one son would also follow in his sireís footsteps.

19 June 2371

[Karl] Did I say I had a new apprentice? I meant that I have two! Willowind has asked for an apprenticeship also. Shi has always liked to hang around the workshop with Varen, but it never occurred to me that shi might have the same interest in the craft also. We discussed it with hir parents who revealed that they had suspected that their cubís interests might lie in the foxtaur village rather than the more sophisticated technological society outside. They approved on the condition that shi stay at our den which was hardly a problem as Springstep and hir mate and cubs are very much a part of our family nowadays.

Pandora had to admit that even she hadnít seen that one coming, but she did guess at part of Willowindís motivations. However, lots of other events would occur before that would come to light.

8 April 2372

[Karl] Xanderís success inevitably made him a greater target for the attentions of vixens looking for a denmate. I saw early on that the ones with the best chance of success were his three hunt partners. The vixens had been teamed up ever since they had qualified as hunter-rangers and had cooperated in getting Xander as a hunt partner, but after that they vied amicably for his favour. Today he finally announced his intentions Ė he would denmate with all three! Thankfully he will be moving in with them rather than adding to the crowding in our cosy little den.

It was the measure of Xanderís success and popularity that all three vixens were thrilled with the decision. He almost regretted it though after enduring the huge affair that they made of their mating ceremony. Nevertheless, the denmating has proven to be a big success and all four have been very happy together. The vixens gave support to Xanderís efforts to introduce changes and improvements, and were probably a large factor in getting the broader community to support them. Pandora believed that their sonís choice had been very shrewdly thought out, and was even more proud of him for that.

28 October 2372

[Karl] Kalika and Joseph have arrived for their vacation. It had taken us a long time to persuade them to take a break. Their hard work and diligence had doubled our sales though. Thanks heavens that I finally got those two new apprentices or else weíd be either working ourselves to death or weíd be hopelessly backlogged. The newest one, Hannaz, seems especially adept. However, Misha seems to have quite a talent for fine finishing, so I think that we have a nice balance of abilities there. The new workshop is nearly ready and Jake has sourced me some good quality inexpensive equipment for it. Soon we will be able to meet demand again, but I plan to keep Kalika and her mate here as long as possible. Not only do they need to relax for their first real vacation since their mating, but I also need a bit of a chance to catch up with our orders! Itíll be good to be able to catch up with the news. Those workaholics just donít call home often enough.

Pandora mused that Isabel had been an utter fool. She could have had all this Ė wealth, family, and the best lover in the world Ė but she had thrown it all away through sheer greed. Her loss had been Pandoraís gain though, so in a strange way she was grateful for Isabelís actions.

Of course Pandoraís life hadnít been the only one that was profoundly affected.

28 February 2373

[Karl] I should be used to this by now, but every time that I think that everything weird that could possibly happen has done so, life throws me another curve. And yet I confess that I should have seen it coming. Xander started his second term of Obligation today. After Jakkar had failed to produce more than a slightly greater ratio of males to females as a result of his stints at Obligation, unusual interest in our sons had abated (unlike for myself), so Xanderís Obligation wasnít taken up by too many vixens wanting to get pregnant. Kalika and Joseph also arrived for a visit, which was unusual because it wasnít so long since their last one. I attributed it to wanting to be here for Xanderís birthday since they had been very close as kits, but I soon found out that Kalika had ulterior motives. When she failed to turn up for dinner, Joseph broke the news to me. She had been pining for a kit lately, and because Joseph could not give it to her, she turned to the only foxtaur tod who she had ever loved Ė her brother. Tonight Xander will be doing his best to impregnate his sister. The Obligation can be held any time within a month of the todís birthday, but apparently Kalika had already arranged this with Xander well ahead of time, and knew she would be on heat at this particular moment. Joseph had already approved and apparently theyíd already told Pandora what she intended, leaving me to last to be presented with a fait accompli. I will never get used to that, but I hope our daughter will be happy with her decision, and I will get a fine grandchild from their union.

Pandora could still recall the expression on his face when the news was broken to him. Despite her current mood, a giggle escaped her. His calm entry in their journal belied his actual state of mind, but their children were fully grown adults and capable of making their own decisions, so there was nothing that he could have done about it anyway. However, Peony, the darling vixen kit that had resulted from their union, had been doted on unabashedly by her grandfather. Peony was the only kit that Kalika ever bore, but apparently she had been enough to satisfy Kalikaís maternal yearnings. Joseph was a loving and conscientious step-father, and Peony had never thought less of him than as her dad.

Pandora found another fond memoryÖ

9 December 2373

Varen and Willowind's mating day

[Karl] I give up! I admit it Ė Iím dumb. I canít see whatís happening right under my nose. Tonight during one of Springstep and Silverbrookís visits to see us both and their cub, Varen stood up at the dinner table to make an announcement. He then floored me by saying, "I am delighted to say that Willowind and I have agreed to become denmates!" I always knew that they had been close friends since they were toddlers, so I had put their constant companionship down to just that and never saw what was growing between them. Like I said, Iím dumb. Springstep though was absolutely ecstatic. Shi grabbed me and gave me a full-on kiss in hir enthusiasm. Chakats get so overexcited sometimes. I swear that if Iíd asked hir to have sex with me then to celebrate, shi would have been happy to. Thatís just the way they are. Not that I didnít enjoy that kiss even though shi did it right in front of Pandora. After I got over the surprise of both the announcement and the kiss, I joined in congratulating the two and formally welcomed my new daughter-in-law into the madhouse that is our home.

Pandora had realised that there was a growing romantic relationship going on between Varen and Willowind. Even though she wondered if the chakatís herm nature was going to cause any problems, she nevertheless had accepted her sonís choice and had no objections. Their family was built on cross-species relationships after all. However, there was one relationship that Karl remained blissfully unaware of. It was no accident that Springstep had given him such an intimate and affectionate celebratory kiss. Karl embodied all the qualities that chakats find endearing, and combined with the close relationships between the chakat family and theirs, Springstepís affection for Karl had grown into love. The only thing that had stopped hir from expressing that love for him was respect for Pandoraís relationship with Karl. The vixen and the chakat had discussed the matter privately and had decided that so long as Karl didnít make an approach to Springstep, then shi would not pursue a relationship with him. However, if he ever did, then he was fair game. Pandora had to admit that she liked the idea of having the chakat as a co-mate, but she liked being Karlís one special denmate even more. Right up to this day, Karl remained unaware of Springstepís deepest feelings, but shi still managed to steal a few precious moments such as that kiss or snuggling up to him when shi stayed overnight. And yes, shi would not only have said yes to sex, but also asked how many times and would he like a cub or two? Shi was that serious. Still is.

There was still one more surprise coming to Karl, and Pandora turned to the next entry.

10 December 2373

[Karl] I had been wondering how Varen was going to cope with a hermís sexual needs. I learned last night. What a way to find out that your son is bisexual!

Karl had gotten quite used to love-making in the communal bedroom, but that sure managed to surprise him. Obviously it wasnít Varenís first time, but he and Willowind had never done it before in the presence of any of the family. Pandora herself had been unsure how to feel about it. While vulpamours were common, they were almost invariably vixens, so she hadnít been really prepared to deal with her sonís sexual leanings. However, he was obviously happy so she decided to be happy for him too. Karl had already chalked it up to yet another strange twist in his life and actually dealt with the situation better than Pandora had. She wondered that day what it would take to really shock him anymore.

Still, as different as their relationship was, in some things Varen and Willowind were just the same as the rest of the familyÖ

16 April 2376

[Karl] Varen and Willowind had celebrated their graduation to Journeyman status by getting hir pregnant at hir next heat. Today, exactly 312 days after that event, shi has given birth right on schedule. The cub is a chakat of course because crossbreeding between foxtaurs and chakats always results in a chakat child, but the orange fur with white hair is definitely inherited from hir father. The white spots would be odd for a foxtaur though! The birthing was similar to the foxtaur style except with a lot more witnesses. So many nude chakat relatives had wanted to watch! After some lively debate, they have settled on a name Ė Snowfire. I never thought that I would have a chakat grandchild. This ought to be interesting.

Snowfire was a darling child and Pandora realised that shi could have easily been spoiled. Some attention was taken off hir by the birth of hir sister, Morningmist, a year later. The chakat habit of having two cubs close together seemed like a good idea, but it did add to the demands of childcare. Pandoraís mother helped as much as she could, but with all the other adults having full-time work, sheíd insisted that they hire a nanny. Thus the vixen, Melody, became a regular visitor. That led to another eventÖ

31 October 2376

[Karl] Melodyís interest in Jakkar was pretty obvious for a while, even to a dunce like me. Today at the Festival, she proposed to him and he accepted her as his second denmate. I think that I am going to have to ask the stonemasons to speed up the construction of the extension to our den before we burst apart at the seams!

Pandora had been a little wistful over the need to expand. On one hand the growing family necessitated it, but on the other hand their cosy little den lost a bit of its charm. The finished extension was as tasteful and environmentally harmonious as foxtaur dwellings always were, but it just wasnít the same anymore. As for Melody, she was the child of one of the other farmers in the valley. That meant that the joining of the two families meant some consolidation of some farmland too. Extra farmland was also needed as the village grew. Pandora leafed forward to a related event.

22 April 2379

[Karl] When I first came to Crystal Creek Village, the community was only into its second generation and was quite small still. The years since have seen considerable growth in population, our horde playing no small part in that. Foxtaurs have to play a balancing game though. Their territories are also nature preserves, and the land available for farming, grazing and public buildings was always limited, and the amount of hunting that could be done had a maximum before it impacted negatively on the prey animals and the wildlife that depended on them. So inevitably a village would reach critical point and it would be time to send part of its population to a new territory to start a new village. Crystal Creek is one of the smaller territories, and today the Elders put the matter to the community who voted in favour of doing precisely that. Due to Territorial Attachment Syndrome though, many adults are incapable of making such a move, so the new community consisted largely of youth. The time has come for many of the communityís children to make a decision about their future.

Pandora had known that that event would be coming eventually, but it was still hard on her when several of their grandchildren decided to be part of the new community. The pull of family was very strong in foxtaurs, but the adaptability of youth enabled them to cope well. Pandora had been sad to see them leave, but proud of what they were setting out to achieve. Misty Mountain Village turned out to be a beautiful new foxtaur community, and Pandora visited as often as she could.

She moved on to a happier memory.

2 August 2381

[Karl] Pandora and I have just returned from a 4-day hike that we took to celebrate the fifty years that we have been together. We retraced our routes as best as we could, but while finding the river gorge was easy, finding the site of the old rope bridge had been nearly impossible. All traces of the rope had long since decayed, and forest fires had burnt the wooden posts that supported it. Eventually we discovered one scorched stump just as we were about to give up. Then we reconstructed our meeting and journey to Crystal Creek. Although we missed our family a little, it was very pleasant to spend a few days alone, just the two of us.

Pandora grinned in memory of the occasion. Karl had left so much out of the journal entry. They were both terrible actors and they had kept cracking themselves up while re-enacting the meeting. They tried many times to do it right and failed, but they had no end of pleasure trying. That had been some of the most playful and refreshing lovemaking that they had done in a while. Karl had almost been as energetic at 77 as he had been at 27. She was seven years younger and still barely able to keep up with him!

Thinking of their age reminded Pandora of an earlier event, so she turned back the pages until she found it.

20 May 2379

[Karl] Today I was both surprised and honoured deeply. The death of Elder Parn had left a vacancy on the Council of Elders. The community had been invited to submit nominations for the post. This was done privately, so it came as a shock to me at the community meeting today when one of the nominees announced was myself! There were the usual couple of lifelong objectors to me being involved in any way, but they were ignored as they had been for decades. The Elders reminded everybody that as I had been promised when I was made an honorary foxtaur, I had all the privileges as well as the responsibilities of one, and I had certainly earned my nomination. Then came the voting. When the counting of ballots was complete, there was a grin on the face of the Head Elder as she announced the result Ė I had won! While it hadnít been a landslide, I had received significantly higher number of votes than either of the other candidates. I had no idea when I got up this morning that by the evening I would be one of the leaders of the community. Iím still choked up with emotion over it.

Pandora had never been certain which people had nominated Karl for the position on the council, but she did know why. Karl had always been humble about his achievements but they were many, and he was a very popular person. There was one other factor that had swayed many of the more far-sighted ones though. Karl had often been tripped up by the very different way of thinking and doing things by foxtaurs, but the reverse was also true. His strength was that he could look at things from a different perspective and often his role in the Council of Elders was to inject fresh ideas and keep the others out of a rut. This he ended up doing very well, eventually devoting more time to the community when he finally semi-retired from the furniture business.

25 November 2388

[Karl] At the end of work today, I asked everybody at the workshop to down tools a little early so that I could make an announcement. At the age of 85, I have decided to slow down a bit and go into retirement. I want to devote more time to my work as a village Elder, but mostly I want to spend more time with Pandora who will also be cutting down on her work on the farm. I told all that I would still be coming in occasionally but I was handing over ownership of the business to Sylvia. She promptly refused it and told me, "Iíll take ownership the day after you die, and that will be more than soon enough for me. However everybody knows who the boss is now!" I have tried hard not to show favouritism amongst my children, but Sylvia has been the perfect daughter and I could not have asked for better. Iím sure that she will lead the business to great things in the future.

It had been good to slow down and do more with Karl. Besides, they had both been feeling the effects of age. Progeria treatments that he had as a young man had ensured that Karl would have a long and vital life, but he had reached the stage where further treatments would be needed to extend his life well into the hundreds. He never did bother, choosing instead to let his life run its course as the clan foxtaurs did. Back when menopause had been setting in, Pandora had offered him one last chance at another child, but he had said that he was content with those that theyíd already had. Besides it would have been unfair to the child not to give him or her the best years of their lives. Foxtaurs who lived in the cities and took advantage of all the modern medicine could reasonably expect to live for over a century, but the majority of the foxtaurs who lived in communities like Crystal Creek had lesser lifetime expectations varying between roughly 80 and 100. Pandora was seven years younger than Karl, but potentially closer to passing on than her mate. She wanted them both to take better care of themselves so as to maximise their time together.

However, time marched on inexorably. Pandora finished her reminiscences about the past and turned to the latest entry in their journal.

21 September 2399

[Pandora] I was tending my herb garden when Varen came racing at top speed up from the workshop. He yelled to me as soon as he was within sight, "Mom, come quick! Dadís collapsed!" I raced back down to the workshop where Karl had gone to do a bit of Ďpottering aroundí. I found the doctor had already moved him to his clinic and the workshop was abandoned except for a couple of apprentices not related to us. Everyone else had crowded the clinic but made way for me. A medical assistant stopped me and informed me that Karl had had a heart attack and that they were busy working on him. It was an excruciatingly long wait before the doctor came out to let me know that my lifemate was still alive. He was weak but stable, so he could let me in to see him. It was shocking to see my mate in such a condition, but he still managed to smile at me and apologise for causing me distress. The doctor told us that he had done everything that could be done here for Karl; anything more would have to be done at a major hospital. Karl looked to me for an answer, but he knew that we had promised each other not to go that route. Instead I arranged to have Karl moved back to the den where we set up a proper bed for him in the spare room. A medical assistant was sent there to watch over him and give medication if necessary, but otherwise there would be no major medical intervention. He has been asleep ever since, but that hasnít stopped every one of our kin from coming to visit him. Our grandchildren from other villages have been arriving too with their children. Most of them though were beaten by Springstep. The chakat had arrived in hir aircar soon after we had shifted Karl to the den and shi promptly used hir degree in medicine to replace the medical assistant. Shi has been by his side ever since, helping me keep vigil.

A large teardrop splashed on the page and Pandora had to wipe away more. She looked up at Springstep lying on the other side of the bed. The chakat shook hir head.

"I donít think that heís getting any stronger," shi said.

Pandora didnít need to be an empath to tell that Springstepís heart was aching. Shi had never stopped loving Karl, but shi also had never gotten the opportunity to tell him that. Chakats lived to about 150 years Ė how much more heartbreak must they go through as they outlived their non-chakat loved ones?

Varen and Willowind came into the room bearing hot drinks for their respective parent. All Karlís children had been finding an excuse to drop in and find out how he was doing. They were all mature adults of course, but they still revered their sire. Pandora and Springstep accepted the drinks gratefully. They all watched Karl in silence for a while before Varen and Willowind left to rejoin the others.

Karl regained consciousness shortly after dawn. He discovered Pandoraís head cradled against his shoulder, asleep. It was comfortingly familiar. Finding Springstepís head pillowed on the bed next to him was a bit of a surprise, but not an unpleasant one. He turned his head to kiss Pandoraís nosepad, then stroked Springstepís long flowing mane. "Good morning, ladies," he said, barely managing a whisper. Just those small actions tired him, but they were enough to wake the two.

"Take it easy, dear," Springstep advised him.

"Karl! How are you?" exclaimed Pandora.

"Not good, love," Karl answered his lifemate.

Weíll get the doctor back over," Pandora replied.

"Iím not going anywhere, hon."

Pandora used the comm to arouse the doctor who arrived in creditably short time.

"Pardon us, ladies," he said. "I need a few moments of privacy with my patient. That means you too, Doctor Springstep," he added firmly.

Pandora and Springstep reluctantly left the room. The few minutes before the doctor came out and let them go back in seemed like an eternity despite the distraction of the other family members demanding to be updated.

"Tell us that the doctor had good news," Pandora demanded.

" 'Fraid not, darling," Karl said weakly. "Iím dying and the doctor can do little more now than give me some pain-killers. He gives me no more than two days."

Saying the final goodbye to Karl

Pandora burst into tears and wept on Karlís chest while Springstep stood around helplessly feeling miserable. When Pandora finally stopped crying, Karlís eyes were closed and she thought that he had died then. Then she saw that his chest was still rising and falling and realised that he was probably just very tired.

Karl opened his eyes again. "Come closer, darling," he whispered.

Pandora leaned in close and Karl said, "I will adore you forever, my soulmate." He bent forward enough to kiss her and she put up her hand to support his head while she savoured what could be their last kiss. They had to break when Karl started coughing. As he settled down again, Pandora caught Springstepís eye and inclined her head towards Karl.

"Last chance," was all she said to the chakat.

Springstep nodded gratefully, then leaned up close to Karl as Pandora had done. "I love you too, Karl Whitepaw, from the bottom of my heart," shi said fervently. Then shi kissed him too with as much passion as Pandora had done.

Karl was only momentarily surprised, but he cooperated and enjoyed the kiss for as long as he could before once again being reduced to coughing. They waited for him to recover and eventually he said, "I think I knewÖ in the back of my mindÖ how you really feltÖ about me. I love you tooÖ you silly chakat."

It was Springstepís turn to cry uncontrollably. While shi did, Karl asked Pandora to send in the children while he comforted the chakat. All five squeezed into the small room with alacrity. Karl gathered his strength to talk to them.

"No person on EarthÖ can claim to have betterÖchildren than I was blessed with. Jakkar, my first sonÖ you were the beginning of the miraclesÖ that Springstep enabled. You completed my and Pandoraís livesÖ and that made you so special to us. Please scatter my ashes on your tomato plants. They were the first things that you ever grew by yourself. You made me proud, son."

Iíll do that, Dad," Jakkar replied gravely.

Karl seemed to be drawing strength from his family and his voice got firmer as he turned to Sylvia and said, "Sylvia, my first true daughterÖ we have been as close as a father and daughter could be and more. You learned everything that I knew and exceeded me. You will bring greatness to the house of Whitepaw. I wish that I could be there to see it."

Sylvia grew all choked up at his words and could only reply by squeezing his hand and nodding.

Karl turned to his second son. "Xander, you have a strength of will that drove you to succeed where others may have given up. I admire that most in you. This family and the entire village would be poorer without you. I am very proud of you too."

"Thanks, Dad," Xander said with tears in his eyes.

"Kalika Ė youíre a workaholic. Youíve already done enough to make Whitepaw Creations famous. Slow down and enjoy your life with Joseph. Take it from me, itís the best time of your life. I love you, hon."

"Same here, Dad. You were my inspiration," Kalika responded.

Finally it was Varenís turn. "My third son. Varen, you brought two families together when you mated with Willowind. You gave me many surprises, but I was delighted that you followed in my footsteps and chose my profession. But do you realise just how many people waiting out there in the den that you were responsible for? Without you, I might never have had to do Obligation!" Karl tried to grin. "Thank you for making my life interesting."

"Youíre welcome, Dad." Varen said sincerely.

Karl sighed then asked for some water. After a few minutes rest, he continued. "Goodbye my children. I am sorry that I have to leave you. Could you please let the others in while I have the strength to say my farewells to them too?"

"Are you sure, Karl?" Pandora asked. "The stress of trying to see so many people canít be good for you in this condition."

"I want to see them all, Pandora. This is my last chance," Karl insisted.

And so a steady stream of people walked into the room to spend a few precious last moments with their beloved patriarch. Grandchildren, children by Obligation, great grandchildren, even a few great great grandchildren and lots of family friends. Foxtaurs mostly, but lots of chakats, several coyote morphs and lots of other species all trooped through the door. At last the final person left Pandora alone with Karl. He smiled in satisfaction at Pandora, then utter exhaustion claimed him and he shut his eyes to sleep, leaving the vixen to resume her vigil.

Hours later, the lowering sun shone through the window to warm Karlís face. His eyes opened and he looked at Pandora and said, "Letís go watch the sunset from Lookout Bluff, darling." Then the light left his eyes and he breathed his last.

The rest of the family knew that their patriarch had passed on by the howls of inconsolable grief coming from the room.

23 September 2399

[Pandora] Karl was cremated today in accordance with foxtaur tradition. Springstep left straight after the funeral. Shi not only left to seek the solace of hir own family but also because hir empathic senses were being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sorrow being emitted by almost everyone in the village. After scattering Karlís ashes amongst the tomato plants, I returned to our den. I have felt numb ever since. I did not know what to do with myself until Jakkar placed our journal in front of me. The book has a lot of blank pages left with which I had hoped to fill with many more happy memories. Instead I have to bring this journal to a close. When the doctor told Karl that he had two days or less to live, Karl only thought about saying goodbye to his extended family, even at the expense of perhaps another day of life. Now he is gone and a large piece of myself is missing. My children and grandchildren donít need me. I am at a loss to know what to do.

I think that I will go watch the sunset as Karl suggested.

Pandora put the journal back on the shelf and pulled on a warm blouse as the evenings were growing chilly. When Jakkar asked her where she was going, she said, "Iím headed over to Sylviaís den. Donít wait up for me, dear."

However, on the path to Sylviaís place, she turned off onto the track that led to Lookout Bluff where she and Karl had declared themselves denmates so long ago. She wanted to go there alone though, so she had lied to her son. The steep path was harder on her aged body than she thought that it would be, but she still got up there in time to enjoy the view and watch a spectacular sunset. So much had changed since their mating day. The quaint little village had grown up into a small town, although the foxtaur practice of blending dens with the environment made it far from obvious to the inexperienced eye. Pandora settled down next to a large boulder that was reradiating heat that it had absorbed during the day, staving off the chill. She picked out dens of various grandchildren, land that had been developed by them, the original workshop and so much more.

"So much of this community was built because of you, Karl," she said.

"I seem to remember that you and the kits were involved too," Karl replied.

"But you were the catalyst, my love. Without you, this would have been just another foxtaur village," Pandora rebutted.

"And without you, I would have been just another burned-out human. We built this all together, darling, but now our job is done and itís time to move on." He held out his hand to her. "Letís go see what else there is to see in this beautiful world."

Pandora took Karlís hand and got up smoothly and easily. "As long as itís with you, my love, I will go anywhere."

Karl put his arm around her waist and they started walking towards the sun as the last of it dipped below the horizon. "Together forever, my soul mate," he reassured her.

"Forever," she repeated in satisfaction, laying her head blissfully against his arm.


24 September 2399

[Jakkar] When mother did not come home last night, we assumed that she had stayed with Sylvia that evening. That misconception was shattered when Sylvia came around first thing in the morning to see how mother was coping. Panic ensued while we tried to figure out where she could be. It was Kalika who suggested that we look in this journal that she had been writing in just before she left. Normally a journal is considered inviolate, but we nevertheless read the last entry in desperation. "Go watch the sunset"? It didnít say where, but we all guessed that it would be at Lookout Bluff. We raced up there as fast as we could, arriving panting very hard. We are hardly youngsters anymore either. We quickly spotted mom leaning against a boulder, apparently watching the village spring to life as the sunlight peeked into the valley. She did not heed our calls though, and when we got close we could see that although her eyes were open, they were not seeing and no breath fogged from her muzzle. One touch proved that she was as cold as the stone that supported her. However, she had this very happy smile on her face. I can only surmise that she has rejoined with dad, never to be parted again.

We managed to carry our motherís lifeless remains down to the village where we gave her a proper funeral. The village was saddened by the loss of another so soon. Most turned up at the funeral because they had not been given the opportunity to say farewell to her as theyíd had with dad. I scattered her ashes with his.

As the eldest child, I was given the task of finishing this journal. We have to settle our parentsí affairs too. I now own the farm but the den I share with my brothers. Sylvia owns the furniture business but plans to give shares to Varen, Willowind, Kalika and Joseph. We would trade it all to have our parents back. However, we do have one of the greatest legacies ever left to a family, and the Whitepaw Clan and the Crystal Creek community will not soon forget the human who would be a foxtaur and the vixen who loved him above all else.


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End of Journal

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