Living the Dream
By Indy and Chris Silva

Authors' note--This story takes up where Part One: Daring To Dream leaves off. It is highly recommended that the reader first enjoy part one, since the elements of part two refer to the plot development in that story. Although the time line in the original "Good Times, Bat Times" would place this story in the early nineties, the authors have chosen to place these events in the current year (2000). This is seen as consistent with this time line being totally separate from the other and the authors hope it does not preclude the reader's enjoyment.


Chapter 1 - The Dream Continues

       In Dale’s secret lair, two familiar faces looked at each other across the small table where they’d been so short a time ago. All was well with them, yet they had a decision to make that they could only make together. So Gadget and Dale had made their way out of headquarters on the pretense of a walk in the afternoon sun, and once out of sight they had gone to what was now a special place for them both. Gadget put her hands around Dale’s, who had folded both of his into each other on the table
       "I don’t know, Dale. It’s so sudden…maybe we should wait," Gadget said. Dale nodded. "But we should let them know. I mean, I guess there’s no reason not to let them know." Gadget thought about all the implications, then patted Dale’s hand. "If you’re sure, Dale. Then yes, I accept."

       Dale got up and hugged Gadget, then gave her his arm. She took it with a kind look to him and they descended back down to the others. Chip and Foxy were watching a movie together, along with Monty and Zipper. "Uh, everyone? There’s something Gadget and I need to tell you about...." Dale began. Gadget was beside herself with excitement "There’s something we just can’t keep from you guys anymore!"
       Monty got up, as well as the others. "Ya mean...oh, congratulations you two! When’s the date?" Gadget looked at Monty with a hint of curiosity. "Well, it should only take us a couple of days…" Chip appeared slightly shaken, but covered it instantly.
       Foxy couldn’t figure out why they had such a need to rush. "But won’t you need to call up your friends and relatives?" Dale shrugged, "Why would we need them here for something like this? They’d just get in the way." Monty was getting more than a little worried at this turn of events. "Uh, Dale me pal, a weddin’ takes plannin’ and timin’, and ya really should send out invitations. I mean, we’ll have people linin’ up at the door...."
       Dale’s eyes bugged out. "WEDDING?! Who said anything about that?" Chip looked a bit more relaxed, while Monty scratched his head. "Well, you did imply it with the talk o’ something grand and Gadget bein’ so excited and all...." Gadget blushed deep red and glanced at Dale, who had glanced at her and he reflected her embarrassment.
       ", I mean...maybe some day..." Dale stumbled. "Oh uh, yeah. Well, it’s not about a wedding. You see, I’ve got a secret that I’ve been keeping for a long time and now that Gadget knows, I feel that you all should. Would you guys mind coming with us?"
       Chip breathed a deep sigh of relief and smiled. "Sure, Dale." Foxy wrapped her wings around Chip as they started out. "Me too!" Then Foxy took on a look of concern as they went outside. "You’re not sick or something are you, Dale?" Dale laughed with nervous excitement. "Oh, no! Nothing like that. I’d tell you my secret, but it’s a lot easier to explain if I show ya."

       Gadget had gone to her workshop, and now joined the others with an extra pair of plunger shoes for Monty. "Where’re we goin? Ta climb city hall?" Monty asked. Gadget smiled and pointed toward the sky, "Nope. Straight up!" Monty tied on the plunger shoes and the group began their trek up the tree. Foxy had the easiest time of it naturally and waited at the top for them. As they stood at the top of the trunk, the group looked around.
       "So where’s your secret?" Chip asked. Dale walked to the knothole not three inches from where Chip stood. "Right here! C’mon, it’s a secret entrance!" Chip was about to say something when he saw the "D+G" inscribed on the round entrance door. He choked back the pain and had to fight an impulse to leave, but followed Dale inside. Foxy and Zipper followed Chip, going through together.
       Monty was another matter. His frame wasn’t made for the door, so Gadget had to carefully remove it and set it aside. Monty twisted a little and his body popped through. When they reached the bottom, Gadget could hear that sound of awe that she’d made when she saw the lair for the first time. Heads turned every which way, looking at the paintings, the drawings, and the room’s unique layout. Dale stood there, just eyeing them all. No one said anything for a good minute, then Chip was the first to speak.
       " this is where you would run off did you do all this? When did you start painting, and how did you learn to draw like this? When did you find this place?" Dale smiled with some satisfaction at Chip’s confusion. "You remember when we first started exploring the park? Well, I found this hole by accident—I was trying to reach an acorn and jumped, and when I came down it was right into that hole! I screamed so loud I can still hear it, but when I fell through I found this cavity. It was so neat, like Ali Baba’s cave or something! So from that day on, I decided to make it my own. I came here as often as I could, fixing it up."
       Dale went over to one of his canvases. "As for painting, I’d always enjoyed it but everyone made fun of everything I did, so I only had the guts to express myself here. I wasn’t good at first, but I just kept doing it year after year and I’d get better as I went. By the time the Rangers formed, I was already pretty good. But then I had so many things to paint and draw about that I really got better. I wasn’t going to tell any of you about this, but then I made a mistake—the best in my life."
       "You got that right," Gadget said as she folded her arms around Dale and he continued. "I knew that Gadget had feelings for me and I was so nervous I was about to keel over! So when she said something to me in headquarters, I panicked and ran up here. But on the way, something caught a thread of my shirt and gave her a perfect trail to follow. So when she got here, I was totally shocked! I was embarrassed by it all, but that’s when the wonderful thing happened. Gadget made me see that I wasn’t worthless and that this part of me I’d held back for so long was as much myself as the funny guy that all of you know. So now I feel that I can show you who Dale Oakmont really is."
       Chip looked around now, as if he were in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Monty whistled in amazement, and shook his head. "Too-ra-loo! Dale, this place is down right amazin’! You’re a bonzer painter!" Zipper added a "Buzzz...buzzzzzzzz...buzzz!" to Monty’s compliments. Dale was finding that he was feeling better and better about the Rangers knowing his secret. "Thanks, Monty. Uh...thanks, Zipper."
       Foxy eyed the paintings, and pointed at a particular one. "Oh, what a pretty red dress! Is that you, Gadget?" The color of Gadget’s face quickly matched the color of the red dress in the painting. "Yeah." Chip looked at the picture and blushed as well. He’d been so envious of Dale getting that kiss from Gadget, and now he found he was envious of talent like that. Dale had caught her just as she’d appeared. Chip had to admit, he was good. Then Chip noticed some other paintings near the closet.
       "Hey Dale? Are these paintings of me?" Chip asked. Dale walked over to him. "Well, not actually. They’re...what I wished I could be..." Gadget saw his discomfort and gently took his hand in a show of support. Chip was taken aback at it all. " mean, you wanted to be me?"
       Dale looked at the floor. "Who wouldn’t want to be you? You’re cool, handsome, smart and real clever! Chip…you’ve always been my hero." Gadget squeezed Dale’s hand while Chip just stood there, unable to say anything at first. **What it must have taken for Dale to stand up to me…** Chip took Dale’s other hand.
       "Dale, I’m sorry about all this. I know I said it before, but that doesn’t cover the pain of all the years this represents. I’ve...done a lot of things I shouldn’t have in last few weeks. But this is...I’m sorry, Dale," Chip said. Chip walked into the next room, overcome by the guilt and Foxy followed him. Monty escorted Dale and Gadget to the table.
       "Let’s give them a minute or two. I have a feelin’ Chipper’s gonna need some time to talk things out," Monty said. Dale looked toward the adjoining room. "I guess that there’s still a dummy lurking inside of me after all. Why didn’t I guess that this would happen?"

       Foxy could feel that same condemnation Chip had shown in the past resurfacing. "Chip darling, he knows you didn’t do it to him on purpose. It was just something that happened that neither of you really thought about. Don’t blame yourself like this!" Chip rubbed his hand over his face, and shook his head slightly. "Foxy, just look at this place! It’s a monument to what a terrible person I am! He had to come here to escape from me, because he knew I would have mocked him for his artistic skills. He knew he couldn’t be himself around me."
       "Okay, maybe you would have mocked him. But not now! I know you, Chip Maplewood—even if you don’t—and you’ve got a heart. You’ve been so blinded by what you thought was right that you’ve never considered anything else. Well, now’s your chance!" Foxy said. Chip let out a long sigh. "You’re right. But it still hurts to realize how badly I’ve treated my oldest and dearest friend. This would almost be easier for me if he was angry and yelled at me, but his total forgiveness just makes me feel even guiltier that I would be otherwise."
       Foxy took his hand. "Chip, I know it’s not going to be easy—you told me so yourself. You don’t have to be perfect now, and frankly I wouldn’t want you to try. You’re rough around the edges, but you’re my cutie and I’ve learned to accept that. Just take it slow, honey." Chip’s face softened some. "I know, ...cutie. Come on, let’s go back. I spoiled their first big moment together, and I don’t want to spoil this one too."
       Dale was relieved when he saw that Chip was coming back. "Chip, I didn’t know how hard this was gonna be on you. I’m just...just glad you know now. Friends?" Dale stood and offered his hand. Chip did the remarkably uncharacteristic act of hugging Dale. "Friends."
       "Aw, c’mere everyone!" Monty said. The group all centered around the two chipmunks with a group hug. Gadget felt the same relief that Dale had. "Golly, it’s nice to feel we’re all together again! I was hard-pressed to keep all this secret. Oh, that reminds me! The reason I was excited was because this extra room allows me to move up here and for Foxy to move out of the gym and into my room—well, at least until I get her room made..."
       Foxy gasped in surprise. "You’d go to all the trouble of making a room, just for me?" Gadget smiled in a show of friendship. "Sure! You’re a member of the Rescue Rangers now, and while our gym is okay, it’s certainly not a great place to live in. I’ve already been drawing up the plans for bat-friendly living quarters!" Now Foxy hugged Gadget. "Oh thank you, Gadget. You’re so nice!" Gadget chuckled at Foxy’s display. "You’re welcome, Foxy. I just realized that we’ve never talked too much. We’ll have to sit down soon and have a real girl-to-girl talk. I haven’t done that since...well, nevermind that part. But I’ll look forward to talking with you!"
       Monty looked on the scene with satisfaction. Things were going much better than he’d thought "Yeah, Zipper me pal, it’s great to be a Ranger ain’t it? Zipper? Hey Zip, where’d ya go?" Monty poked his head in the two other rooms in Dale’s lair, but Zipper wasn’t there.
       Gadget shrugged when Monty came back to the group and asked her if she’d seen Zipper leave. "Golly, he was here a minute ago wasn’t he?" Monty stroked his chin. "Maybe he jus’ went out for a bit o’ air. I’ll find ‘im, don’t worry. Dale, this is sure a bonzer place ya have here! You’ll haveta do ol’ Monty’s portrait around some ‘o me trophies. See you soon, pallies!" Monty’s said.

       Monty tied on his plunger shoes, pried his way out of the hole and called out for Zipper. The rough-hewn mouse edged backwards down of the side of the tree, not sure that the plungers could handle his mass in the other direction. Monty found his long-time companion sitting on the veranda. He knew Zipper’s moods, and the fly was down about something. The other Rangers still had problems reading Zipper, just like they couldn’t always decipher his buzzing and squeaking. Monty had been with Zipper longer than the others, and that experience made the difference. Now he walked up slowly to his little comrade
       "What’s the matter, Zipper? Did all that emotion up there get to ya?" Zipper shook his head. "Then what’s the problem, mate? You look like you’ve jus’ lost yer best friend," Monty said. Zipper squeaked a reply and held up a tiny photo to Monty. "Queenie? Ye’re sad because Dale ownin’ up ta Gadget reminds you o’ her? Well, why don’t ya fly over and tell her, jus’ like Dale did?" Monty asked.
       Zipper’s eyes spoke of how sad he was, a tear coming down. He squeaked some more, held his mouth open and pointed down his throat "Oh, it’s yer voice that’s botherin’ ya," Monty said. "Well, you and I both know that Queenie’s not the type ta hold that against ya. She can’t blame ya fer bein’ born that way."
       Zipper flew up and buzzed in frustrated anger right in Monty’s face. "That ain’t all there is to it, is it?" Monty asked. Zipper shook his head, pointed at the RR sign over the door to headquarters and squeaked loud and fast. Monty’s face took on his friend’s concern. "But of course you’re an important part o’ the Rangers! Okay, so maybe you are ignored some, but ya are a little on the small side, pally. I know you wanna talk better, but you also know what the doctor told ya when you were a hatchling. They didn’t have a way to fix ya."
       The feisty fly crossed his arms and brooded for a few moments. Then as he thought over Monty’s last words, a question formed in his mind which he squeaked to Monty. The big mouse was surprised at the request. "Now? Would they be able to fix ya now? I don’t know, Zip. Medical science has come a long ways all right, but as ya know flies live more primitive-like than us mammals. Still, it could be possible. Maybe Gadget would know."

       Chip watched in a degree of awe as Dale drew a picture of Foxglove. She’d asked if he would do it, and Dale was more than willing to oblige. As Chip and Gadget looked on, the lines seemed to just run together as if by magic and with some shading he caught that cuteness that Chip had come to appreciate in Foxy. Dale turned the paper around and showed it to her and Foxy hugged Dale gratefully.
       "Dale, it’s wonderful! You have such a gift!" Foxy said. Dale blushed at her display. "You’re welcome, Foxglove, and I’m glad you like it. How ‘bout one of you, Chip?" Chip felt uncomfortable with the idea, and he wasn’t sure just why. "Uh, not right now, Dale. But the picture of Foxy is great! I like looking at it almost as much as looking at her." Foxy blushed, then caught Chip’s arm. "But a picture of me can’t do this!"
       Gadget laughed appreciatively, and turned to Dale. "Dale, do you think you could teach me to paint like that? I’d really like to have a try at it." Dale was surprised she’d ask that, but then again he was figuring out Gadget was a surprising girl. "Sure, Gadget! I’ve seen your blueprints, so you’ve already developed some artistic skill. I’m sure it would only be a small jump to regular art."
       Gadget’s eyes brightened. "Golly, you really think so? I’ll clear a space out in my workshop and you can bring your tools down there! The ventilation in here’s not as good for you as the workshop, and maybe once I’ve seen how it’s done I can invent something to make it even easier!" Dale smiled as he imagined Gadget’s painting machine.
       "Gadget, you should paint for the joy of doing it! If you build a machine to do it, where’s the fun in that?" Dale asked. Gadget began to think about it. "Well, you could paint for fun when you wanted to and when it wasn’t fun you could let the machine do it. Not that I’d think it wouldn’t be fun—I think it’ll be fun and I like to have fun especially when the fun’s with you...."
       Dale saw an opportunity to finally do something he had always dreamed of—he kissed Gadget to silence her exposition. Chip and Foxy had gotten off in a world of their own for a minute, but when they heard Gadget and Dale’s talk suddenly stop they turned to look. "Now that’s a conversation stopper!" Foxy said. Chip had been brought back to planet reality. "And how. C’mon, let’s give them some privacy." Chip got up, took the picture Dale had drawn and led Foxy out. He looked back and they were still kissing. Chip knew he shouldn’t feel bad about it. He knew he shouldn’t.

       Monty and Zipper got up from the lawn chairs on the veranda as Chip and Foxy came down. "Howdy, mates! Where’s Gadget and Dale?" Foxy giggled and blushed. "They’re busy kissing!" Chip did his best to ignore the smiles and winks. "It sure was nice of Gadget to let you use her room, Foxy. Now you won’t have to hang from the high bar in the gym."
       Monty headed for the sofa in the main room and sat down, the others in tow. "Sure was strange to see Dale up there. Who’d a known he was hidin’ like that! He opened up to me a little while before you two had yer showdown, but I didn’t even imagine he was hidin’ that much inside!" Foxy sat down too, still gleaming over her portrait. "He’s so talented! That picture he made was so wonderful! Look at it, Monty!"
       As Monty admired the drawing, Zipper cleared his throat. Monty caught the interruption and saw Dale and Gadget coming in, arm in arm. "Maybe ol’ Dale missed his callin’," Monty said. "Okay, Zipper. I’ll have a word or three with Gadget."
       Gadget sauntered in, enjoying Dale’s closeness. They sat down on the couch with the others, and only then did she realize that Monty was trying to get her attention. "Oh, hi Monty! What is it?" Monty felt a little awkward, but spoke up anyway. "Gadget luv, could Zip and me have a moment o’ yer time?"
       "Sure, what’s up?" Gadget asked. Monty pointed to the fly in question. "Well, Zipper wanted me to ask you if it would be medically, you know, possible to repair his voice. Now, I know ye’re no doctor, but ya got a better head for science and medicine than the rest o’ us put together and we just wanted yer opinion."
       If Gadget had been expecting any particular question, it wasn’t that one. She looked at Zipper, and saw the sadness in his eyes. "Golly, I’m not sure. I know Zipper’s larynx doesn’t work properly, but didn’t you tell me once he was born that way?" Monty nodded. "Well, yeah. I’ve looked after the lad since he was a mag...tyke and he’s always sounded like that. But it’s been long enough—science surely can do somethin’ for him now, can’t they?"
       Gadget closed her eyes and allowed her photographic memory to sift though all the information she’d gleaned on the topic. "There may be a surgical technique that would work. I’ll have to do a little research to be certain. I do know one thing, though—there hasn’t been much medical research advancement on flies recorded in the journals I’ve read. It’s nothing personal, Zipper, but I guess the old stigma about flies is still preventing much progress there. But if I can’t find out what I need to know from recorded research, there is a medical researcher in town who might know. He’s an old bat that goes by the name of Dr. Batorious. I still don’t think that’s his real name, but he’s done as much as anyone to care for the animals in the city."
       "It would mean the world to Zipper if ya could find out, Gadget luv," Monty said. Zipper flew over to Gadget and hugged her. Gadget responded in kind, as always. "Don’t worry, Zipper. If you want to be able to speak normally, we’ll do everything we can to see that you do!" Dale patted Zipper on the head. "You bet! You’re my right-hand fly after all!" Chip stood up and pounded his fist into his other hand. "We’re with you on this, Zipper!" Foxy stood up with him. "Right!"

       Gadget received another hug from Zipper and then she took Foxy into her room to help her settle in. Dale went off to get his painting supplies and Chip went to his own room to read. Monty and Zipper were left alone to think and talk. "Ya know, I’ve gotten so used to the way ya talk, it’ll be right strange hearin’ you talk regular," Monty said.
       Zipper had a look of hope in his eyes now, and wondered if Gadget could really find a way. He squeaked his concerns to Monty. "Don’t you worry none, Zip. Gadget always says that nothing’s impossible. I don’t have a doubt in my mind that she’ll find a way to turn yer squeakin’ ta speakin’." Zipper took out the picture of Queenie again, and sighed admiringly. Then he buzzed and squeaked another concern he had.
       Monty could see that Zipper really had it bad for Queenie. "But why not tell ‘er? What are ya afraid of, mate?" Zipper indicated he wasn’t afraid of anything. He pantomimed knocking on her door and saying hello. "But she might feel hurt if ya didn’t give her the chance to be there for you when ye’re recoverin’. Besides, it might be hard to keep news o’ a Rescue Ranger gettin’ surgery quiet," Monty said. Zipper settled back on the couch and shook his head. He pointed to the picture again and then to his throat and squeaked again.
       "Well, I gotta disagree with yer reasoning there Zipper. Ya got strong feelings for her. If she’s concerned, then she’ll make time to see ya!" Monty said. Zipper grimaced and looked into Monty’s eyes. Monty could see that something was burning at his little partner. Zipper spoke to him again, and the words in response didn’t come easy, even for him. Monty thought Zip was blowing things way out of proportion.
       "Zipper, she took a shine to ya, knowin’ the way you talk. Ye’re not bein’ fair to the lass! Give her a chance. Who knows? Maybe she’s pinin’ fer you the way you’re pinin’ fer her!" Zipper’s face didn’t change, but he pointed to the kitchen and talked some more. Monty knew that Dale and Gadget’s relationship was spurring this some, and it had his pally’s hopes up. "Well lad, I don’t want to bring this up, but I gotta. You’ve gotta be ready to face it if she don’t like ya the way you like her. I mean, look what happened between Chip and Dale! You gotta be strong, mate."
       Zipper flew up and hugged Monty. He whispered something in his ear and then flew to his home in the knothole in the wall. Monty watched him disappear, then nodded slowly. "I gotta agree with you there, Zip. It’s always the best way ta go."

       Gadget came out of her room with a small bag of supplies she thought she’d need. She and Foxy were talking up a storm and she only recognized Monty once she was at the door and about to step outside. "I’ll get on that project in the morning, Monty. Oh, Daaaaale!"
       From the room he shared with Chip, she heard his reply. "Yes, my delicate flower of wonderfulness?" Gadget laughed at his playfulness. "Get out here before I drag you out!" Dale emerged from the open door, sped through the hall and the main room, making a mighty leap and landing next to her. He then made a dramatic pose and flexed his muscles. "Supermunk, always at the ready to help someone in need!"
       "Yeah, but I know what Supermunk’s vulnerability is!" Gadget said, tickling his ribs. "HAHAHAHAH! I surrender to you, Mighty Gadget! Your powers have overwhelmed me!" Dale shouted. Gadget put her hands on his shoulders and got a mischievous grin on her face. "I just wanted to say good night to you, and let you know that I’ll probably be up at dawn and out looking for the information to help Zipper. I have to make sure you won’t forget me..."
       Dale began wobbling around. "Good idea, Thingamajig...uh, you better remind me again... " Gadget chuckled and kissed him again, more lightly. "Now have a good night's rest and maybe after lunch tomorrow we’ll paint, huh?" Dale perked up even more at that idea. "That sounds great! I’d love to see your soul expressed on canvas."
       "I’m looking at a big part of it right now. Good night, Dale..." Gadget said. She embraced him again, and finally managed to get out the door, closing it behind her. Monty tilted his head back and looked over at Dale from the sofa. "Thought you two’d never be able to get that one over." Dale slumped to the floor with a great big smile on his face. How in the world did he end up with a girl so amazing? Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that love was this wonderful!
       "We’ll she’s a girl you just don’t want to let go of," Dale said fondly. Foxy helped him up. "Dale, it’s no wonder she fell for you. You’re cute as they come...well, next to my cutie anyway." Dale smiled at Foxy’s compliment. "And you’re pretty foxy yourself, Foxy. If things had been different, maybe I would have been your cutie instead of Chip."
       Foxy smirked at the idea. "Maaaaybe, but I like the one I’ve got. He’s just what I dreamed of." Dale smirked back at her. "Chip’s a swell guy, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better one. You two will be real happy together." Foxy let out a giggle. "I’ll do my best, Dale..."

       Foxy waved good night to everyone and headed for her room. Then she stopped at Chip’s door and knocked. "Ahem, room service..." Chip looked up from the book he was reading and playfully replied, "Who is it?" Foxy was barely containing the giggles. "It’s a surprise...." Chip opened the door just enough to peek through. "Oh, really? What surprise might that be?" Foxy’s face was jubilant. "Kissing telegram!"
       Chip opened the door and put his arms around Foxy. "Goodnight, my dearest Foxglove." Chip then gave her a long lingering kiss. Foxglove felt like she was floating in joy. "I don’t know about you, but I sure got the message. Good night, my darling."
       Gadget had found it hard to leave Dale. He had such a way about him that always made her feel better. As she entered the lair and settled down for the night, she found that she liked the comfy feel of the rooms and could understand why Dale felt so secure here. His scent was everywhere, and she found that comforted her too. At that point, an idea stuck in her mind. She wouldn’t give it full thought, no not yet. But she had to admit, it had an element of excitement to it. As she turned out her portable battery-operated night light, Gadget marveled at how happy she’d become and how happy she’d made Dale and thought fondly on the days ahead.


Chapter Two--Dream a Little Dream


       When dawn arrived, Gadget’s mental clock awakened her. The room was still mostly dark since all the light there was natural, but all her life she’d had the ability to wake up whenever she needed to. The talent was particularly handy for getting an hour or two of inventing in before breakfast with the guys. Gadget turned on her flashlight and dressed quickly, then climbed up the spiral to the knothole. The coolness of the morning air was a drastic contrast to the snug feeling of the lair and she found it exhilarating. Gadget made for the RangerPlane, since it was quieter than the Wing and the guys might need it if an emergency came up.
       "First stop, the library..."
       She took off, and ten minutes later the mouse inventor was at the city library. The animal annex had just opened, and Gadget quickly found her way into the medical area. "Let’s see, fly anatomical studies...basal pair studies...ah, corrective surgery!"
       Gadget pulled the available information, which proved not to be all that informative. As she’d suspected, fly research was quite a bit behind that for mice and other mammals. Still, there was some discussion on rebuilding broken wings, antennae, and a very interesting article on the pioneering research into fly organ replacement. But the only research paper to cover Zipper’s problem was over a decade old. Still, it was something. Gadget read the paper and filed the information away. Then she got permission to check out the paper, and left to meet with Dr. Batorious.

       She knew where to find the aged bat—he ran a clinic under a human doctor’s office on the far side of town. The bat’s history was largely unknown, but no one had a better reputation in the community, save the Rangers themselves. Gadget flew there quickly and walked through a mouse-sized opening at the base of the old brick building. A young mouse nurse named Louise was sitting at the desk at the head of the waiting room
       "May I help you?" Louise asked. "Golly, I sure hope so. I’d like to speak to Dr. Batorious about reconstructive surgery on a fly," Gadget said. Louise checked her schedule book. "I don’t see you listed. Do you have an appointment?"
       Gadget shook her head. "Uh, no. But it is kind of important, so I can wait." From an interior door, a somewhat deep voice rumbled. "Send her back, Louise. It’s all right." Gadget was at once relieved, and walked in. "Thanks a lot, Dr. Batorious. I know you’re a busy bat. But this is really important."
       Dr. Batorious was the kind of individual one took a notice of without really knowing why. The bat had a kindly face, partly hidden by horn-rimmed spectacles. His white lab coat was the same color as his grizzled eyebrows. His fur had grayed somewhat over the years, but still held some of its brown color. His voice was deep, but he never shouted. Now he was using that voice to comfort a young sparrow whose wing was fractured.
       "One moment, my dear. Now young man, don’t you worry. You’re going to be flying again in just a few weeks. Charlie, you go up to Louise out there and she’ll see that you get a little something special for being a good patient," the doctor said. Charlie jumped off the examining table, glad to have the hard part over with. "Gee, thanks doc!" Dr. Batorious waved to him. "And try to remember to look out for clotheslines the next time!"
       The doctor put down the bandages he’d been using to affix the splint to the bird’s wing, adjusted his spectacles and turned his attention to Gadget "Now, how can I be of service?" Gadget didn’t know exactly where to start, but that never stopped her anyway. "A fly friend of mine needs his voice repaired. He’s never been able to speak clearly. I need to know if you could help us. There isn’t much information about fly surgery that I could find, so I don’t know if it can be done. But I figured that you would be the person to ask."
       Dr. Batorious didn’t say anything at first, but opened a wooden box behind him containing an array of medical books. He ran his wingtip along the tomes, and picked one up. Humming filled the room as he flipped the pages. "Yes, yes...muscae can be a particularly difficult topic to locate proper information on. Let’s see here...the difficulty would likely lie in the tracheal area, since that is where the voice is generated from. Did your friend’s condition come about due to an accident?"
       "No, not that I know of," Gadget said. "Monty said that Zipper’s always talked like that, ever since he was little." Dr. Batorious stopped at a certain page and bookmarked it, then looked up. "Likely a birth defect, then....I’ll be frank with you, miss Gadget. I have performed two other surgeries of this kind on fly accident victims. I had to develop my own tools, since the practice of operating on flies is still...not popular. However, I am a doctor and I am here to serve the collective public, even if my colleagues have yet to learn what that commitment means. I’ll have to check your friend over to be certain of the exact problem and whether it’s operable or not. Be back here at ten in the morning tomorrow and I’ll squeeze him in."
       Gadget rushed over and hugged the doctor. "Golly, that’s so nice of you! You’re a credit to your profession, sir!" Dr. Batorious gently freed himself from Gadget. "Not at all, my dear. I’m a simple country doctor who puts the common animal first. But even at my age it’s nice to get a hug like that now and again." Gadget was so excited that she wanted to leave right then, but decided to observe the normal pleasantries first. "We’ll be here at ten on the button!"
       Dr. Batorious chuckled and his deep voice nearly made the floor vibrate. "I’m sure you will, and I hope that I can help your friend. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a patient that mentions something good your group’s done. About time this community paid you back a little." Gadget blushed. "Gosh, that’s a nice thing to say. I’m just glad we can help."
       "As am I, as am I. Now you’d best let me get back to it. The only time a doctor truly rests is when he has another doctor pushing pills down his throat, and I’m too cantankerous for that." Dr. Batorious showed Gadget to the door, and waved to her as she returned to the Plane.

       Gadget had hoped for more encouraging news from Dr. Batorious. Still, there was hope. She’d left the article she’d found with his secretary, and flew back to Ranger Headquarters. When Gadget stepped in, lunch was piping hot on the table. Dale stood up and smiled at her in welcome. "Good afternoon! You’re right on time!"
       Monty served the cheese toast and then everyone’s attention turned to Gadget. "So what’d ya find out, Gadget luv? Can Zipper be ‘elped?" Monty asked. Gadget repeated the information she’d gleaned from the library and doctor Batorious. "...and he’ll want Zipper in his office tomorrow morning. I think he didn’t want to raise our hopes too much, but I could tell that he was already leaning toward doing it."
       Zipper smiled and buzzed gratefully. "That’s super!" Dale said. "Soon you’ll be talking up a storm, Zipper!" Chip nodded his agreement. "Yep, you’ll be a regular orator." Foxy was a curious soul if there ever was one, and now she had another thought on her mind. "I wonder what his new voice will sound like? Did your family have an accent like Monty’s, Zipper?"
       "Zip’s from me country, lass, but as far as the accent goes I don’t know if he’ll have it or not. Might be right confusin’ having two Australian accents in the house. Guess everyone but me’ll hafta check twice, right pally?" Monty said, elbowing Zipper gently. Zipper burst out laughing at the thought of speaking with an Australian accent.
       "All kidding aside, it will be a big change for the Rangers with you being able to talk, Zipper. Be patient with us," Chip said. "How do you figure that, darling?" Foxy asked. "Voice or not, he’s still Zipper." Chip finished his last bite of lunch. "We’ve gotten into the habit of us leading and Zipper following. But now with a voice he’ll have more input in our decisions and it may take some time to adjust to the new team dynamic. We’ve still not adjusted to you yet, you know."
       Foxy started to grin. "Oh, you mean if I gave you an order you’d find it strange?" Chip smiled back at her. "It depends on the order...uh, but as I was saying. I brought this up just so we all know what to expect if Zipper can get his voice back. We’re still a team, together no matter what. But as I proved, we can still have problems lurking about."
       Dale looked over at Zipper with a grin. "Well, I think we can handle Zipper getting a voice. He’s not going to turn into Captain Bligh or anything!" Zipper laughed at the comment and began pacing the table, pointing at the others like the dread captain. Dale saluted, "Aye, aye, Captain Zipper!
       Chip put his right arm on the table, and his head on his hand. "So, I hope you won’t hold it against me if we butt heads for a while, Zipper." Zipper flew up and tapped his head to Chip’s a few times, and everyone enjoyed the little joke. The rest of lunch went quickly, then Gadget cleared her throat "If I recall correctly, someone said that they were going to show me how to paint..."

       Dale took on a dramatic pose. "Ah weel teech yu tu bee zee finest paintair een all of Fronce!" Gadget rose from the table. "I’d settle for being able to paint something recognizable. Let’s go!" Gadget and Dale went to her workshop, where Dale had his painting supplies laid out along with a fresh canvas. Gadget took a seat in front of the easel.
       "Okay, Rembrandt, where do I start?" Gadget asked. Dale put a brush in her hand. "With a brush, a canvas and the universe..." Dale started out teaching her to paint a still life picture of an invention that sat nearby. Gadget daubed the colored oil on the canvas, finding it difficult to manipulate correctly. "Golly, this will never do. The consistency’s too thick!" Gadget got up and took a paint sample over to her workbench, where she began to analyze the paint’s contents. "30 percent petroleum, 35 percent chalk, 20 percent starch...."
       Dale could see that keeping her on track wasn’t going to be simple. "Uh, Gadget, I don’t think you’re quite grasping the idea here. Just take your time, let your imagination flow from the brush. Imagine that the canvas is an unwritten blueprint and the invention you are trying to create is what’s in your heart.
       Gadget didn’t look up from her analysis. "Oh don’t worry, this’ll only take a second. There!" Gadget poured up a colorless liquid that she brought with her in a thimble. "It just needed a counteragent to make it spread easier. Now it’ll be much easier to get right!" Gadget started painting again, and everything went well—for a whole five minutes. She’d managed to get the shape of the invention about right. Then she pulled out her tape measure and began comparing the length of her painted object with the real one
       "Huh, about two millimeters off. Guess I’ll have to start all over," she said, matter-of-factly. Dale took the tape measure and set it down. "In this case, Gadget, you’re too analytical. Let go of logic, and paint with your heart, not with your head." Gadget turned from her canvas and looked at him. "How do you do that?"
       Dale smiled widely. "Don’t think, do!" Dale placed a blank canvas in front of her. Gadget looked at the whiteness and then back at him. "You mean, just put pigment on the canvas without planning where it goes and try to bring order out of disorder?"
       "I couldn’t have said it better myself," Dale said. Gadget turned back around. "Oh, okay!" Gadget started again, and this time she glopped paint on the canvas, starting with a black background. Then Dale showed her to use the thinner she’d made to allow her new brushstrokes to cover the old. She did so, mixing the paint into dozens of colors. Once she formed an idea, Gadget was totally lost in the concept just as she would have been with an invention. Planets formed, stars appeared. Gadget was getting paint all over everything, and didn’t even notice when the thinned glops of paint got on her. She smudged the canvas with her fingers, added more paint, and when a spiral galaxy had formed in the center of the picture she stopped. Gadget rubbed her nose in speculation at the work, then turned to Dale—she was covered with color from stem to stern.
       "Well, what do you think?" Gadget asked. Dale surveyed canvas and artist smartly. "It’s a fantastic start, Gadget. You really get into your painting, literally!" Gadget was enjoying herself quite a lot. "Golly, do you really think so? You’re not just saying that?"
       "Gadget, I’m always serious when it comes to art," Dale said. Gadget jumped up and hugged Dale, getting paint all over him. Then she jumped back. "Great golly! I didn’t realize...where’d all that paint come from?" Dale laughed, "From you, silly!" Gadget looked in the mirror she kept in the corner of the workshop. "Oh, jeepers! It’s in my hair, in my fur, on my clothes! I look more like the painting than the painting does!"
       "It’s okay. It shows you put everything into your painting and that’s a good sign," Dale said. Gadget looked at herself again, and had to laugh a little. "Yeah, I sure did that! Guess I’ll have to make myself a smock for the next time, plus paint-proof the area." Then she looked at Dale again. "Oh, you’re all messed up! Here, let me get that paint off your face..."
       Gadget reached into her back pocket and pulled out a shop towel she kept there. Unfortunately, she didn’t look at it first, and the paint-soaked towel smeared Dale’s face in a frightful combination of colors. "There...uh, oh." Dale glanced at himself in the mirror, then laughed as he turned around and threw up his hands in emphasis. "Look! We’re modern art!"
       Gadget was caught up in the sheer absurdity of Dale’s face and her clothes, and she starting laughing with him. "If we get any more modern, no one would recognize us! Monty would say we’re using the art of disguise."

       Gadget recovered herself, and she and Dale started to clean up the workshop. It was a daunting task, but they didn’t care—they were still laughing when they got the last of the paint up. Then Gadget’s attention turned to herself. "I’ve developed a special enzyme-based shampoo and cleanser over the years to get grease and oil out of my hair, fur and clothes. I’ll give you a bottle of it to use, Dale."
       "You made it yourself? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re a chemist too. Wow, is there anything you’re not good at?" Gadget looked to make sure no one was lurking about the door. "Well, there is one thing...." Dale was instantly curious. "Yeah? What’s that?"
       Gadget looked self-conscious, and she leaned in close to him, and whispered the words. "I’ve never learned to dance." Dale gasped in genuine surprise. "You don’t know how to dance? Not even the chicken dance? But you did fine when we went to the costume party!" Gadget ducked her head a little. "I guess you don’t remember too much of it, but we never really danced there. I kept finding things to do besides that, and distracted you. Dancing just didn’t seem important to learn, and even Dad couldn’t force me to take lessons. I’ve tried to imitate others and draw out the steps, but it doesn’t seem to make sense."
       Dale had to admit, that night had been so wonderful it had just gone by like a blur. "Yeah, I guess I was a little light-headed that night. I was out on a date with Gadget Hackwrench, and it's easy to get lost in that fact." Gadget rubbed her left ear self-consciously. "Well, I was some too. But I was too proud to admit that I couldn't, and too ashamed to confess until now. I'm sorry, Dale. I should have been honest with you."
       Dale quickly took her hands and held them up. "That's okay, it's never fun to wear things like that on our sleeves. But don't worry, I'll show you how to dance. I can teach you." Gadget got a little nervous. "I..I don’t know. It seems hard and I wouldn’t want to step all over you..." Dale let his natural warmth come out. "Don’t be nervous. It’s me, remember? We’ll practice in the lair. I can teach you to waltz, tango, polka, you name it!"
       "Really? Where’d you learn all those dances?" Gadget asked. Dale almost took a seat, but then remembered the paint still on the chair in time. "I took lessons when I was a kid. Chip’s folks made him take lessons too, he just won’t admit it. But I can cut a rug with the best of them. Hey, remember when Chip and I were a couple of dancing fools at Fat Cat’s when we went to rescue Tammy?"
       Gadget smiled at the memory. "Uh, huh. You two were a riot in there!" Dale gave his best gentlemanly bow. "Gadget, I would be honored if you would allow me the honor of teaching you to dance." Gadget considered it for a moment, then nodded. "As long as we’re in the lair and no one can see all the mistakes I’m going to make!"
       "Gadget, you know very well that sometimes, great things can come from mistakes," Dale said. The technicolor mouse again hugged her equally-blessed partner. "Don’t I know it." Gadget gave Dale a spare bottle of shampoo and cleanser and politely shooed him out of the workshop. A half-hour later, the two Rangers had joined up again in the main room of headquarters and were looking like their old selves.

       During Dale and Gadget’s painting session, Chip and Foxy had journeyed outside and were enjoying an afternoon in the park. Foxy had been thinking over what Chip had said about the team still getting used to her, and it made her wonder. "Chip darling, do you think that I’ll fit into the team okay?" Chip took her wing in his hand. "Of course, Foxy. It’ll just take time for you to get to know us and us to know you. The Rescue Rangers are like a big machine, and you’re a new part that’s been added. We’ll just have to see how you fit in."
       "I want to contribute, to be an asset—I really enjoyed it when we went up against Winifred," Foxy said. "When I think about her now, it’s like it was all a bad dream or something. Like I couldn’t believe I’d do that. I guess I was just so lonely, that I did it without really thinking. But I’m not lonely now..." Foxy kissed Chip on the cheek.
       Chip appreciated the attention. "And neither am I. It’s a wonderful feeling, isn’t it?" Foxy was giving Chip her full attention, but then looked around sensing that someone was watching them. Then she saw the redheaded female squirrel staring at them. "Uh, Chip? Didn’t you tell me that Tammy was the girl squirrel that had a crush on you?"
       Chip’s concentration had lagged, but now he came back into focus. "Yeah, why do you ask?" Foxy pointed, "She’s standing ten feet behind you, and she doesn’t look too happy..." Chip stopped and sighed quietly, then turned to face Tammy.
       "Hello, Tammy," Chip said. Tammy had been out walking as they had, and when she came up on Chip with a stranger—and hugging her!—she turned up her pert little nose at him. "So Chipper, I’m gone visiting a month and when I come back this is what I find! I can’t believe you!" Tammy did a quick about-face and starting storming off.
       "Tammy! We’ve been over this a dozen times..." Chip said, but she was already out of range. "Why do I bother?" Foxy pressed up to him. "She looked pretty mad, Chip. You’d better go talk with her." Chip sighed again. "Just when I think my life is going good..."

       Chip rushed ahead of Tammy and stood in her way. Chip was startled for a moment to realize that she had grown quite a bit lately. She was now almost a full head taller than he was. "Tammy, cool down and let’s talk about this like rational adults. A lot more has happened in the last month than just me and Foxglove."
       "How could you, Chipper?! I thought you’d never go behind Gadget’s back, but I guess I was wrong! Maybe you aren’t the sweet guy I thought you were!" Tammy tried to walk around him, and Chip held his arms wide to block her. He found his next words difficult to say. "Tammy, Dale and Gadget...fell in love while you were away."
       Tammy stopped at those words, as if a cannon shot had gone off next to her. "Gadget....and Dale? How? Why?" Chip cast his eyes down reflexively. "I had a lot of trouble answering those questions, but it’s true. And they’re as happy as could be. Fortunately, Foxy came into my life at the same time and she kept me from going completely nuts, but it’s still something I’m still recovering from."
       The teenager was about to question all this, but she saw the hurt in his face. She looked at him apologetically, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, I’m so sorry about that, Chipper. But at least you’ve got someone to be with you." Chip was glad she was taking all this so well. "Yeah, that makes all the difference in the world. Oh, how was your trip?"
       Tammy folded her arms and rolled her eyes. "Oh, okay I guess. Mom hadn’t seen the family in a long time. There were a couple of cousins that I’d never seen. Everyone was making such a fuss over me, and how much I’d grown. Chip, I saw you cringe when you turned, and I guess you’re wondering why I didn’t make a play for you..."
       **Utterly relieved was more like it**. "Well, the question did cross my mind..." Chip said.
       "Oh, you’re still cute in my eyes, Chipper. And I know now that you’re waaaaay too old for me…" Tammy said, tilting her head with the teasing. "But let me show you who’s just right!" With that, Tammy grabbed Chip’s hand and dragged him through the underbrush. Foxy had walked up unobtrusively and had caught the last of this and found she had to really work to keep from laughing. No wonder Chip got nervous!
       "Uh... where are you dr..dragging me?" Chip asked between bumps. Tammy didn’t let up for a second. "C’mon, right over to the fountain!" Tammy had Chip hide with her behind the fountain’s base, and she pointed to a couple of male squirrels out playing a game of frisbee. Then she pointed out the one who was just catching the projectile. He was Tammy’s age, athletic, and looked to be clean-cut. He was also wearing a letterman’s jacket.
       "That’s Rob Roybrush, the best athlete in school! Isn’t he just the dreamiest?" Tammy said, sighing. Chip could see she was smitten. "I take it that since we’re hiding he doesn’t know you’re in love with him? Oh, and by the way—Tammy, meet Foxglove. Foxglove, Tammy." Foxy had caught up to them and found herself enjoying this little drama.
       "Hello, honey," Foxy started. "Yes, he’s a cute one. Why don’t you go say hello?" Tammy went into instant panic mode. "Oh, I couldn’t! What if he said 'hi' back?!" Chip had to work hard to contain the laugh. "Then you start a conversation with him—most likely about school, find out if you have common interests."
       Tammy threw up her arms in the air. "Chipper, that’s Rob Roybrush! You don’t just have a conversation with him! Every girl in school wants to go out with him. I nearly fainted the last time he even looked at me..." Chip studied the problem. "By the sound of it, he’s not attached right now. Meaning he could be waiting for that certain special girl to meet him."
       Foxy patted Tammy’s shoulder. "Tammy honey, Chip’s right. You’ve got to let him know you’re interested. He’s not going to read your mind from way over here. How about we find out?" Tammy’s knees started to shake. "Oh, I’m so scared he’ll say no! Chipper, would you and Foxglove come with me?"
       "Sure, Tammy. We’d be glad to help," Chip said. Foxy took Tammy’s hand as the three of them walked over toward the two guys. Tammy was so nervous she felt like she’d burst if anything went wrong. The guys stopped as the trio came over.
       "Hey Rob, look who it is! Chip Maplewood!" the other squirrel said. Rob did a double take. "The leader of the Rangers? Hey, cool! How’s it going, dude?" Chip shook Rob’s hand. "Pretty good. We were just out for a walk and thought we’d say hi. This is my girlfriend, Foxglove, and this is Tammy Chesnutt—she’s a Rescue Ranger in training."
       Rob said hello to Foxglove and then turned his attention to Tammy. The poor girl hadn’t been able to take her eyes off him or say anything. Rob’s eyes lit up in recognition. "Hey, I know you! You’re the one that always does so well in gym class, right?" Tammy managed a nod. "Uh, huh...." Rob was a real talker, especially when he got into a topic he liked. "Wow, so you’re a Ranger in training? They must think a lot of you, then."
       "Uh, huh...." Tammy said. Rob smiled slightly and looked a little shy. "Say, the senior prom’s about two weeks away and I don’t have a date yet. Would you like to go with me?" Tammy couldn’t believe he’d really asked her! She tried to say something, but nothing was coming. He looked, waiting for an answer. Then she fainted.
       "Oh dear! Is she okay?" Foxy asked. Chip checked Tammy’s vital signs. "She’s okay. I guess she was a little surprised by Rob’s offer." Rob bent down and lightly tapped her face. Tammy’s eyes fluttered open, and then she remembered what he’d asked. You could have heard the squeal all the way across the park.
       "YES!" Tammy cried, and she clamped him in a hug that Rob hadn’t been prepared for. "Wow...well, I guess the answer’s yes!" Rob said, chuckling. Foxy and Chip smiled at each other, and started to go.
       "Oh, Chip! Wait a minute!" Tammy said, running up. She gave Chip a big hug and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Chipper. I couldn’t have done it without you." Chip blushed a little, and pulled down his fedora. "No problem, Tammy. You’re a good friend." Chip made a move to leave, and Tammy grabbed his arm. "Chip, would you and Foxglove come to the prom as chaperones? I’m in charge of organizing it and I’d been meaning to ask you anyway, and this situation reminded me. Please?"
       Now how could he resist an invitation like that? "Okay, Tammy. Would you like me to ask Dale and Gadget, and the others?" Tammy was beaming. "Oh, would you? That would be so cool! I’ll need to lay out what you’ll be doing. If you all could come over to my house around a week before the prom, I’ll have all the details by then." Chip thought a moment. "Why not come over to headquarters instead, and bring Rob with you? I’m sure Monty would love having guests to show off his culinary skills for." Tammy gave a Chip a "are you sure" look and Chip nodded. She hugged him hard in appreciation. "Okay, Ranger headquarters it is! Oh, this is going to be the best prom ever!"
       Foxy took Chip aside as Tammy bounded back to Rob and the two squirrels started to get acquainted. "I think we’ve done a good thing today," Foxy said, patting Chip on the back. Chip watched them with a mixture of joy and sadness. Another friend of his was getting the love of their dreams—Dale, Tammy, Gadget, Zipper...but not Chip. He forced those feelings away and reminded himself how incredibly lucky he was to have Foxy.
       Chip took Foxy gently in his arms. "Yes, we have. Uh, let’s go, please." Foxy nodded her understanding. "Oh, right. Best leave them be." Foxy had enjoyed the hug, but noticed there was a slight edge to his last words. She sympathized with Chip—it couldn’t be easy on him having to relive or retell his experiences over and over. Still, it was very soon after it had all happened. Time would help make things better.


Chapter Three--You Dance Like a Dream

       Back in Ranger Headquarters, Gadget and Dale were sitting on the couch and watching the Cartoon Network. Dexter's Laboratory was on, and they were both getting a kick out of the diminutive boy genius' antics with his sister Dee Dee. "Golly, I haven't seen a show this funny in ages!" Gadget said, pointing at the screen. "Look, Dexter's created a hyderdimensional portal to another universe and didn't even use a fusion-based power source to do it! That's hilarious!"
       Dale was still surprised in some ways that Gadget liked cartoons, but he could certainly understand her getting some entertainment out of what was almost a parody of herself. "He once invented a machine that could alter his age, like Nimnul did with the F.O.G.E.Y. and it had the same effect, it made him really old."
       Gadget nodded, and remembered a favorite exchange from that episode. "Oh, I loved that one! Grandpa." Dale shifted his vision to her. "I am not grandpa."
       "I am not grandpa."
       "I am not grandpa!"
       Gadget giggled at their little game, and Dale did as well. "At least you don't have an annoying sister to bother you while you work," Dale said, grinning. "You’ll just have to settle for me bothering you." Gadget laughed as Dee Dee pushed a button and Dexter's giant robot exploded.
       "Jeepers, if I had someone like that around I'd never get anything done! I'm glad I've got you though, Dale. You've turned out to be very helpful to me." Dale basked in her compliment. "I like to think of myself as Igor to your Dr. Frankenstein."
       "And even better, I don't have any equally-gifted yet evil rival like Mandark. No wait, I do have one! Funny, Nimnul doesn't cause me half the trouble that Mandark causes Dexter. Then again, I doubt Nimnul would ever think to bring the Mount Rushmore statue of George Washington to life," Gadget mused.
       "Truer words were never spoken, Gadget," Dale replied. The Dexter show ended and Johnny Bravo came on. Gadget turned to Dale, while pointing at the screen. "Do you think that there are really males who are like this person, Dale, or is he merely an archetype of male behavior?" Dale blinked at the question. "Huh? Well, there were guys like him in high school. Big jocks and stuff like that. Hey, Gadget, do the ‘Monkey’ with me!"
       Dale jumped up, and to Dale’s surprise, Gadget jumped up too and did the ‘Monkey’. Gadget saw his look and knew what it meant. "Well, I don’t really consider the ‘Monkey’ dancing. It’s more like jumping up and down and pumping your fists. But from a philosophical standpoint I just can't figure this Johnny character out. Why would he spend his entire day chasing girls that he hasn't even met or been introduced to? The poor boy has no social graces. If he only had a friend to tell him so and help him be polite instead of pushy I bet he could get a date easily. What do you think?"
       Dale and Gadget ended their rendition of the ‘Monkey’ and sat down to watch. Dale couldn’t help but remember how Johnny had been chased around by Lady Cluck in what turned out to be a dual dream for them. "You're probably right, Gadget. If he's in our dreams again, we'll have to tell him."

       After their fun, Gadget left Dale to go pick up some new supplies for her workshop. With the easel at hand, Dale shut the door to the workshop again and respectfully set Gadget’s painting aside. She’d done quite well for a first effort, but then Dale had expected no less of her. Grabbing a fresh canvas, Dale thought a moment and then mixed his colors. Dale preferred using acrylics which dried much faster than the oils she’d used.
       "Well, my advice to Gadget works for me too. Follow your heart...." Dale began painting and then all those years of work took over and it was all second-nature to him. A smile began to form on his face as two shapes came into focus in the center of the picture. After an hour’s work Dale stopped and admired the result. He could have added more to it, but it certainly bespoke his feelings. Then he remembered he wasn’t in the lair, but in Gadget’s workshop. He wasn’t ready to let her see this.
       "I can’t chance goin’ upstairs. Gadget might have gone there first, or she might come back before I’d get down. And Chip...well, I’d better hide it quick!" Dale opened the workshop door slowly. Good, no one was there. He slipped out and into his room where Dale slid the painting under the bunkbed, deep in the shadows. Then he covered it with a blanket to further mask its presence and was relieved that no one had come in on him.
       As Dale exited his room, Monty and Zipper returned from the mouse’s daily check of the cheese traps. "Ahoy, mates! Anyone ‘ere?" Dale strode out in good humor. "Sure, guys. Just me. Good eating today?" Monty put away his rosewood toothpick. "Not so’s you’d notice. Bad year for cheese, I expect. A good cheese is like a good wine, mate—ya gotta wait it out till it’s ready."
       Dale chuckled, "That’s kind of a problem for you, isn’t it Monty!" Monty headed for the sofa. "Well, there’s something fer waitin’, and there something fer livin’ in the moment. But enough ‘o me favorite topic. My pal Zipper ‘n I have been talkin’ over what having a voice will mean for him. The little bloke’s getting mighty excited. I jus’ hope this doc that Gadget knows kin help him." Zipper and Monty exchanged hopeful looks.
       Dale had thought about it too. "It’s strange to wonder about a thing like that. What will you sound like? Squeaky like Chip and me, Australian like Monty? But then we’ll all get to be better pals because we’ll be able to talk easier about everything!" Zipper smiled, nodded and hugged Dale for the kind thoughts. But he had a look of worry in his eyes.
       "What’s wrong, Zipper?" Dale asked. Zipper pulled out his picture of Queenie and indicated that he was worried about what she’d think he’d really be like. "Don’t worry about it, Zipper. You’re a cool looking, suave kinda guy—just like me. You’ll sweep her off her feet…er, wings. She likes you now, so she’ll like you more then."
       "Aw, that’s right mate," Monty added. "Like I was jus’ telling ya, she likes you for who ya are inside." Zipper nodded, then also indicated that he was a little scared of the operation. Dale patted his friend on the shoulder, then struck a dramatic pose. "You must be brave, Zipper. For fair heart never won fair lady!" Zipper looked up in surprise at this, and was instantly heartened by the words. He saluted and squeaked his thanks to "Robin".
       "You’re going to be fine, Zipper. We’ll make sure of that. You’ll be serenading your sweetie in no time," Dale said. Zipper giggled and took up a pose, mimicking a crooner holding a microphone. "Zipper Sinatra, Zipper Jones...Zipper Presley!" Dale shouted. Zipper bowed and mouthed "thankyouverymuch".

       The trio sat down on the couch and the conversation began to take a different turn. "This is all so amazing. All these years we’ve all been alone and now suddenly everyone is falling in love, even you, Zipper. Your turn next Monty," Dale said, looking at him slyly. Monty wasn’t looking for that comment, and his face darkened a bit. "Uh, right. Well, maybe. Maybe. I think I’ll go on down to the docks and check the shipments comin’ in there."
       Monty headed out, trying not to appear like he was hurrying. Dale looked to Zipper curiously. "Boy, that was strange. Thought he’d have gotten enough cheese from the traps downtown." Zipper shot him a look, and Dale rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah. Forget I said that." Dale ran out after Monty and Zipper flew close behind. "Hey, Monty! Wait up!" Monty stopped, but only to turn his head around at them. "Sorry, Dale me lad. I’m not really feelin’ like talkin’ much more right now. I can’t really explain, but I’ve got me reasons. Coming, Zipper?"
       Zipper nodded, but gave Monty a strange glance. Then he looked to Dale and shrugged his shoulders. Dale shared an uncomfortable look of his own with Zipper. "Well, okay. But if you ever want to talk about it, you know we’re here for you. You sure helped me with my problem. I’d like you to believe that I’d be willing to help you with yours."
       "I know that, pally, an’ I’m grateful. I’ll be back by supper, mate," Monty said. Monty was relieved that Dale didn’t press him further, but he knew that Zipper was looking at him. When they were alone, Monty turned to his friend. "Aye, you’re right Zipper. I’m up in arms over something. When Dale mentioned marriage, it sort of struck a chord there. You see, I haven’t told anyone this—not even you. But....I’m married."
       "Buzzz?" Zipper said, almost disbelieving. Monty shrugged his shoulders. "I know I don’t look to be the marryin’ kind, but it’s true. It was a long, long time ago. Seems almost like it never happened some days—sometime it seems like just yesterday. I’d rather not go into it though—too many memories that don’t need dredgin’."
       Zipper patted Monty on the shoulder to show his understanding. Monty managed a shallow smile. "Thanks, mate. There’s some dreams that...just don’t get to come true." Monty walked off toward the docks, Zipper beside him as always. The little fly loved Monty like a father, and it hurt to see him worked up like this. Still, Zipper knew to keep his peace. If Monty didn’t want to talk, no amount of discussion was going to make the situation better. Still, Zipper wondered if that was fully true and whether if he had a voice now it would make a difference. The fly raised his eyelids in a mental shrug and followed Monty to the docks.

       The afternoon off was a good one for the Rangers, all told. Gadget returned first, loaded down with electronics parts. Dale was only too glad to help out, and as usual found out that Gadget was stronger than he was. After she freed him from the pile of metal debris he’d tried to carry, the others started coming in. Monty was quieter than normal, and Gadget commented on it when he went to the kitchen. Zipper indicated for Dale to keep silent and he did. Once the food was gone, the group settled into their nightly routine. Foxy had adjusted pretty well now to the Rangers’ schedule and found she was starting to enjoy being awake during the day as well as at night.
       "Chip, let’s go out and look at the stars tonight. It’s a clear evening, great for stargazing..." Foxy suggested. Chip had started for his room, but came back. "Maybe just a little bit later. I have something I need to take care of, then I’ll join you outside." Foxy nudged him and gave Chip a knowing look. "Okay, cutie. It’s a little cool out there tonight. We might need a blanket to keep warm."
       Chip kissed her gently and then headed for his room. Once there, Chip began making the day’s entry in the Ranger log, something as of late he had been neglecting. Since the day had been uneventful, he soon closed the book then walked to the bed and reached under for the spare blanket and found that there was something placed under it. He drew both objects out and saw that one was a canvas and the image on it made his blood run cold.
       Chip’s paws trembled as he gazed at the picture. His most cherished dream was on that canvas, but now another had taken his place. It was a picture of Dale in a tuxedo and Gadget in a beautiful wedding gown, standing in front of an altar, kissing. Chip suddenly felt as though all life and strength had left him. He was still rebuilding his life from enduring Gadget choosing Dale over him, but now this! The very idea was more than he could bear.
       He returned the painting and the blanket to their places under the bed and took the blanket off of his own bed and rushed outside. As he stepped out onto the veranda he looked around and saw no sign of Foxy. He began to feel a wave of anxiety flow over him. Chip had just opened his mouth to call her name when from above a shadow appeared and enveloped him. He panicked for a moment until he realized that it was Foxy hanging from a branch above him. He looked at her upside-down face and smiled with relief.
       "Foxy! You frightened me for a moment," Chip said. Foxy giggled at first, then her face changed to one of mild concern. "Are you all right, cute stuff? Your body doesn’t sound right." Chip was beginning to realize it wasn’t easy to fool a bat. "No. Sorry, I just had some things to think about." Foxy gave him a coy smile. "Well, here’s something happy to think about, Chip."
       Foxy wrapped her wings more tightly around Chip and kissed him from her upside-down perch. Chip felt part of the tension inside him fade away and the anxiety retreated. He couldn’t imagine what dealing with all of this without Foxglove would be like. The very idea made him shudder. After the prolonged kiss ended, Foxy swooped down and joined Chip on a branch. He put the blanket around both of them and she rested her head against him and they looked up at the sky, both lost in their thoughts—Foxy in her dreams of Chip and Chip in his dreams of what might have been.

       Gadget was hard at work in her workshop, the hours slipping by as she began a new project. It had occurred to her the day before, but she decided to keep silent about it all and let it be a surprise. The mouse inventor really enjoyed doing things for others, especially when she could see the look of pleasure on the faces of those she expended her talents on. The sound of drilling and hammering came from the room, but none of the other Rangers was overly curious about this. It was as normal to them as Monty’s voice resonating from the kitchen or Dale reacting to the television. Gadget finished the noisy part of her work, and retired to the lair. When she emerged the next morning, no one asked her what she had been doing. Today was the day Zipper was to determine his fate, and all the breakfast conversation was centered on it.
       "Sorry about the rushed meal, mates, but I didn’t have a lot o’ time to cook fer ya. We gotta hurry to the doctor," Monty said. Foxy helped him clean up. "Oh, this is so exciting! I really hope Doctor Batorious can help you, Zipper." Zipper was obviously nervous, but nodded in agreement.
       "You all have to think positive. I’m certain that he’s gonna fix you up, Zipper," Dale said. Chip gave Zipper a small poke on the shoulder. "That’s right." Gadget nodded at the sentiment. "Golly, I agree with Dale. I’m sure you’ll be talking in no time." Monty was as nervous as an expectant father. "We kin leave the rest of the cleanin’ up until later. I don’t want to miss that appointment!"
       "I’ll go too, Monty. Zipper, we’re all behind you," Dale said. Monty had so much nervous energy built up, that he actually started walking the wrong way and ended up in the hall instead of going toward the exit. Gadget walked over to Monty and put a hand on his arm. "Golly, Monty, you’re so nervous! Zipper’s going to be fine. We’ll all go, of course! This involves us all, and Zipper’s like one of the family. Well, not my family, but he’s but part of the cohesive team. Actually, we’re all like family but more through constant association than anything else really..."
       "Gadget, he’s family," Dale interrupted. Chip decided to get things rolling. "Okay, everyone. Let’s get this show on the road." Then Dale ran up and past him. "I get shotgun!" Chip led the way out, and they all piled into the RangerWing. When they reached the clinic, Dr. Batorious was waiting. He could see that it would do no good for him to suggest the others wait in the waiting room, so he allowed them to come on back with him. Zipper was understandably nervous.
       Gadget gave Zipper an encouraging hug. "Don’t be afraid, Zipper. We’re all here for you." Dr. Batorious grinned and adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses. "As am I. This is merely an examination to determine the nature of your problem and how it can be treated. Now, open your mouth and say "aaah".
       Zipper attempted to comply, but all that came out was a high-pitched squeak. Looking up at what in another situation could be a predator towering over him, Zipper was reminded why he was so afraid of doctors.
       "That’s fine," Dr. Batorious said. "Now, I’m going to put this tiny tongue depressor on your tongue and I want you to hum for me. Start as low in pitch as you can and then raise it up to as high as you can go." Dr. Batorious leaned close, using his super-sensitive ear
       Zipper followed the doctor’s instructions and hummed. Dr. Batorious leaned closer. "Louder, please. I need to hear some real vibration." Zipper paused and then hummed as high a pitch as he could. "Good. Hold that..." Zipper did so for as long as he could, then he started turning purple and had to breathe.
       Doctor Batorious started writing down notes in his notepad, muttering about "hertz" and "vibratory frequencies". Zipper looked nervously at the doctor, looking for some indication as to whether this test was good or bad. Dr. Batorious of course was as revealing as a stone. "Now, I need you to blow up a paper bag."
       The doc handed him a small paper bag, and Zipper looked at it dubiously. "Breathe out, but don’t pop the bag the first time. Then breathe in all you can then try to pop the bag." Dale let out a chuckle. "Are you sure candid camera’s not around here somewhere?" At Dale’s comment, Zipper stopped in a fit of giggles and once composed he tried again and managed to pop the bag.
       "Ah, very good. One last test...." Dr. Batorious said. The doc took Zipper to the X-Ray machine, with the others in tow. Monty looked the contraption over. "Nothin’ too candid ‘bout that camera. Better be ready fer the world to see all of ya, pally!"
       At this point Dale and Gadget were holding hands to comfort each other’s nervousness. Foxy was sweating bullets and clinging to Chip, but Chip hadn’t allowed himself to show any emotion. The doctor got in position at the X-Ray camera. "Okay, this won’t hurt a bit. Stand still now..." Zipper’s life flashed before his eyes the moment the doctor said that
       The hum of the X-Ray machine lasted only for a couple of seconds. After a few minutes, Doctor Batorious took a slide out of the machine and placed it on a clip with a light source behind it. The doc made varying pitches of "hmm’s". Monty looked at the doctor uncertainly. "I hate ta even ask...are those good ‘hmm’s’ or bad ‘hmm’s’?" Zipper flew up to the doctor’s side and looked at the pictures of his insides with great curiosity. Dr. Batorious made a few more notes on his notepad, then placed it on a nearby table..
       "Zipper, you have a malformed trachea," the doctor said. Zipper looked at Dr. Batorious and shrugged his shoulders. The doc pointed to the throat area of the X-Ray. "You see this small, narrow area extending down from your mouth? That’s the trachea. When you were born, your trachea was supposed to guide the development of your voice and allow you to speak normally. However, yours is wider than normal—it didn’t bring the two parts together that form the portion that allows you to enunciate properly. It’s really amazing that you can make coherent noises at all."
       Dale looked at the picture and then back to the doctor. "The $64,000 question is, can you rebuild him, better, faster, more understandable?" Doctor Batorious took a seat, and bade the others do so. "The short answer is yes. I have the ability to go in and make the proper adjustments so that you should be able to speak, Zipper. The long answer is that while I can do the surgery, I cannot make any guarantees that you will actually regain your voice."
       Doctor Batorious pointed at Zipper’s throat. "Nature’s going to have to do a lot of the work, and it’s going to take a lot of time for your trachea to heal fully. You will have to eat nothing but soft foods for two weeks, but if it works you will be able to talk within a few days. You would be on a regimen of constant checkups with me, and your speaking time would have to be limited to a few minutes a day at first. But within three months, you’ll be as normal physically as you are now and should the surgery go well, you will be able to speak as well as I within the month."
       Monty patted Zipper gently on the back. "See lad? The doctor’ll have ya ship-shape in no time!" Gadget smiled her copyright smile, and her eyes shone with the idea. "Golly! This is so exciting!" Foxy thought of so small a creature having surgery and she felt for him. "Can he come home right away, or will he have to stay here?" The doctor gave a knowing grin. "Despite the serious sound of it, tracheal surgery is considered outpatient surgery. He will have to be cared for during the first few days especially. No excitement, and he should be kept away from anyone with any kind of infectious disease. His immune system will be very vulnerable at first."
       Chip walked over to his smallest teammate. "Zipper, it’s up to you now. Do you want to go for it?" The Rangers gathered around their friend, and the doctor awaited his patient’s orders. Zipper indicated that he wanted the doctor’s notepad. He took it and a pencil and wrote out his reply so he could think it through and the others would understand his thoughts. He asked the doc to read it for him.

        For my entire life, I’ve wanted to be able to talk like other flies and bugs. As you know, mammals have long looked down on my kind and Monty had been the only mammal I’d known closely. When the Rangers formed, I didn’t know how you’d take me joining but you treated me as one of the group and that still means so much. There’s been so many times where if I’d had a voice it would have kept me or one of you out of trouble. As you also know, I happen to love a certain bee. I won’t go into the depth of my feelings for her, but it would mean the world to me if I could tell her I loved her and hear myself say it. I know this could be risky, and it may not work. But I want this—more than anything I’ve ever dreamed of, I want this.

       Gadget patted Zipper’s back. "That’s so sweet, Zipper. I’m sure Queenie will be so touched to hear you say that." Foxy was taken by his words. "Oh, he’s so eloquent!" Foxy hugged him, and that started the group hug. The doc could see why this group had stayed together so long. "I take it that’s a yes, then. We’ll do the surgery as scheduled, and I certainly wish to hear you thank me afterwards, Zipper." The doc offered his wing, and Zipper shook it and smiled up at him.
       Monty took a look back at the X-Ray. "So doc, when can ya start?" Dr. Batorious checked his calendar. "We’re slated for the morning of the 23rd, which would be three weeks from yesterday. That’s the soonest I can clear a complete morning. Until then, Zipper, don’t exert yourself too heavily and try to stay away from stressful situations. The surgery will be a heavy strain on your system, and you’ll need all your strength going in."
       Monty nodded. "Don’t worry, Doc. We’ll keep the lad nice and quiet till then." Dale chuckled, "Yeah, even if we have to tie him down!" Zipper chuckled as well and smiled at his friends. Chip tugged on his jacket with satisfaction. "It looks like another new era in the lives of the Rescue Rangers is about to take place."
       Gadget put her arm around Dale. "I don’t think it’ll come to tying him down, Dale. But I know it’s going to be tough waiting that long. Thanks, doctor. I know you’ll do your best." The doc walked them to the nurse’s desk. "That I will. Now you’d all best clear out. This old doctor’s got a lot of patients to see today. Send in the next one, Louise!" The Rangers started out, and could hear the doctor on their way out. "You again, Sid? You’ve got to quit roller-blading like that! You know snakes can’t use the brakes on those things!"

       The Rangers went home and had what became a mini-celebration for Zipper. After an hour of general talk and well-wishing, the group split up to their personal duties. Foxy caught Dale in the hall as he was about to go see what Gadget was up to in her workshop.
       "Hey Dale! Guess what? We’ve been asked to chaperone at Tammy’s prom! You and Gadget too. Think she’ll want to come?" Foxy asked. Dale smiled knowingly at Foxglove. "I think I can talk her into it." Foxy was all a-twitter. "Oh, good! I’ve never been to a prom before, and it sounds so exciting! How are things between you and Gadget? I’m sorry I’ve not taken more time to sit down and talk with each of you. It just seems like everyone’s been in such a rush since I got here, including me!"
       Dale thought about Gadget, and a contented smile covered his face. "It’s like a dream come true. She’s everything I could have ever dreamed for and more. I’ve finally reached the point in our relationship where when I wake up in the morning, I no longer think that I was just dreaming that she loves me." Foxy wondered how such an accomplished chipmunk could ever have felt that way. "That’s so wonderful. And I can tell she’s happy too. Chip’s been great, and I couldn’t love him more. He’s still a little distant at times, but I suppose he’s probably always been that way. Like last night—he came outside and didn’t say anything at all, just looked at the stars with me. Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in that immense mind of his. But I guess some things should be left a mystery, right?"
       Dale looked toward their rooms. "Yeah, Chip can be hard to read. But don’t worry, you’ve got his heart. He’ll come around eventually." Foxy gave Dale a friendly hug. "Oh, I hope so! He’s still adjusting, but I wouldn’t have anyone else. He’s the greatest." Dale suddenly had a thought. "Chip will love going to the prom. He was the king of the prom at our school. I’m told the event was a wonder to behold."
       Foxy’s eyes danced with glee. "It sounds soooo romantic! I hope that Tammy and her boyfriend are chosen queen and king. That would top off the evening...well, that and the chance to dance with my cutie!" Dale found her enthusiasm contagious. "It’s going to be a blast, all right! I’m glad Tammy finally found someone—she used to put Chip into such a fright whenever she’d visit and flirt with him all the time." Foxy giggled at the memory of Chip’s reaction.
       "Yeah, I could tell. Well, I’d better get going Dale. Chip wanted me to meet him at the library. He’s such a sentimental guy!" Foxy waved goodbye and headed out. Dale rushed off to ask Gadget if she’d like to go, since it would be the perfect place to test the dancing that she would soon be practicing. Gadget had closed and locked the door to her workshop to keep her project secret. So when Dale knocked at the door, he could hear her moving things around in a hurry.
       Gadget’s muffled voice sounded from inside, "I’ll be right there!" The bustling sounds ended and Gadget opened the door. "Hi, miss me?" Dale dramatically moved forward and took her in his arms. "Every second of every minute that we are apart, my dearest love…well, kinda, I guess."
       Gadget giggled. "Daaaaaale, you’re such a tiger!"
       "ROAR!" Dale said, then burst out laughing. Gadget shook her head slightly in wonder. She never knew how Dale’s spontaneity would manifest itself. "So, what’s up?" Dale let Gadget up. "The real reason I’m here is to ask if you would be willing to go with me as a chaperone to the prom that Tammy and her new boyfriend are going to?"
       Gadget’s face showed her surprise at the question. "A prom? Jeepers, I’ve never been to a prom before. I guess the dancing lessons really will come in handy, huh?" Dale knew that meant she was leaning toward yes. "Well, we don’t have to go. Chip and Foxy are going and I just wanted to ask. But we’ve got a couple of weeks. I could have you cutting the rug with the best of them by that time."
       Then Gadget began to feel self-conscious. "Well, I guess as long as I look like I know what I’m doing it’ll be okay. All right then, I’ll go. Say, could we have that first lesson tonight? I’ve got something I’m working on right now, but I should be finished up in a few hours." Dale was more than satisfied. "That sounds good. I’ll meet you in the lair then."
       Dale began dancing with an invisible partner. "Gadget, you and I will be the new Fred and Ginger." Gadget looked at him curiously. "Fred and Ginger who?" Dale was amazed she’d never heard of them. "You’ve got a lot to learn! I’m going to have to rent some classic musicals. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the greatest dance team the world has ever seen!"
       Gadget nodded. "Oh, okay. I have heard of them, come to think of it. I was thinking of Fred Flintstone for some reason. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to dress up in skins and dance. Well, see you tonight!" She kissed him on the cheek and closed the door again. Dale smiled and danced his way down the hall.

       Gadget’s project went ahead smoothly, and by the time that Dale came to call at the lair she was finished. "Come on in, Dale!" Gadget shouted from inside. Dale slid down, and nearly tumbled all the way across the room. Gadget had wired the lair! There were lights in every room!
       "Double Zowie! Electric lights! Gadget, you’ve outdone yourself again," Dale said. Gadget blushed in gratitude for his thanks, and looked about at her handiwork. She was still in her coveralls and had just cleaned her face and hands up from the job. "It sure makes a difference in here. Your paintings look better than ever." Dale looked around and had to agree that she was right. It was strange seeing the place lit up so well after a lifetime of just natural lighting.
       "This is wonderful, Gadget. Thank you," Dale added, hugging her. Gadget hugged him back. "You’re welcome." A silence fell, then Gadget decided to voice her feelings. "Uh, Dale? I hope you don’t mind, but...oh, I know how this sounds. But would you mind if I don’t wear a dress for dancing, at least till we go to the prom?"
       Dale wasn’t surprised when Gadget asked, knowing how rarely she dressed up for anything. "I don’t mind a bit. If you don’t feel comfortable wearing a dress for the prom, I wouldn’t mind if you wore your coveralls." Gadget smiled in kind, but she was still somewhat troubled. "Thanks, Dale. You know why I locked myself away, and it’s also why I don’t get dressed up too much. But in all honesty I like getting dressed up. I just don’t like the attention that it gets me. But with you there, I think I could manage it."
       Dale began to chuckle. "If you don’t want attention you could wear a disguise. I would be honored to be in your presence there no matter how you looked." Gadget went to Dale’s closet and put on his RamDale headband. "The return of the orange Gadget, eh? ‘All right, who wants to find out if this thing works!?’"
       Dale smiled, remembering how she’d saved them all from Bubbles. "I really liked the orange Gadget persona." She laughed with an edge of discomfort, putting the headband back in place. "That’s a side of me that I don’t let out too often. I’ve known for years that I’ve had a fighting spirit inside of me, Dale. I don’t know where it comes from, but there are times when it comes out. It’s strange, because neither Mom or Dad was like that. But there have been a few times when I’ve...well…gone overboard."
       Dale had seen Gadget’s anger more than once. "The crooked baby impersonator case comes to mind...well, you keep it in check better than the rest of us." Gadget didn’t like to think about those times too much. "Baby Thaddeus...yeah, he seemed to know just how to push my buttons. I do try to keep it in check, but in case someday for some reason it comes out and I do something to you that’s not nice I just want you to know in advance that I didn’t mean it. Okay?"
       "No problem, Gadget. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of goofy things I’m going to do in the future that I know I shouldn’t do, so I’ll apologize in advance for them too," Dale replied. Gadget shook his hand. "Okay, apologies accepted. Hey, we’re supposed to be dancing! We can’t become the next Fred and Ginger standing around. Let’s see what’s on the radio...."

       Gadget turned on a small transistor radio she’d brought up to the lair and started working up the dial. The first station she came to was a classical music station featuring Strauss’ "Emperor Waltz". Gadget returned to Dale. "Okay, dancing teacher. What’s first?" Dale came closer. "The waltz sounds like a good place as any to start." Dale took her left hand and with a tinge of embarrassment he put his hand on her right hip and they slowly began to dance. Gadget was a little embarrassed too, and she couldn’t concentrate very well. She started stumbling on his feet.
       "Oops. I told you I wasn’t too good..." Gadget said. Dale found her uncertainty helped his. "It’s kind of silly that we’re both so nervous about this. We’ve hugged plenty of times, it’s just that dancing is so... so..."
       "Intimate. Yeah, I know. I used to dance with my father when I was very little. He’d hold me up in the air and it felt like I was dancing on clouds. He told me that dancing was something very special, but I had no idea what he really meant until now," Gadget said.
       Dale smiled nervously at her, and brought his eyes up to look at hers. "What do we have to be nervous about? We’re such good friends. Okay, let’s try this again." Gadget knew he was trying to set her at ease, but she could feel his nervousness at the same time. The first song ended, followed up by a lively gallop, which had the two of them moving quickly in step around the room. Gadget was getting better, which helped her to relax and now she only occasionally mis-stepped.
       "Well, at least they won’t call me tanglefoot. Why don’t we try something more modern?" Gadget asked. Dale agreed, and searched the airways until he found the Beach Boys starting up with "I Get Around". If there was one thing Dale loved, it was rock ‘n roll. He showed Gadget how to twist and shimmy, and then took her hand and spun her around a couple of times. All the anxiety was gone now, and they were both laughing and having a great time with it. As the song ended, Dale dipped her.

       The station announcer came on with a Barry White type voice. "That was ‘I Get Around’ by the Beach Boys. And now, a very special double feature for all you lovers out there..." Dale had just pulled Gadget back up when the slow sound of a background guitar started. Then the voice of Johnny Mathis started singing "The Twelfth of Never". As the words came flowing in their beautiful poetic dedication to eternal love, Gadget and Dale looked into each other’s eyes. They found they were slow dancing, and Gadget was amazed to find that she didn’t need Dale to tell her how to do this. She slid her arms around him, and put her head on his shoulder. She found she was liking dancing quite a bit.
       At that moment, Dale had to bite his lip to keep from uttering the words that were in his heart. There was nothing else in the world for either of them, just as it had been that first wonderful time they’d confessed their love before. Two hearts wished for the same thing—that the song would never end. But at last it did.
       "That was wonderful..." Gadget said finally. Dale could hardly contain himself. "Yeah…your dancing is amazing. Now there’s officially nothing you can’t do. You really are Mighty Gadget!"
       Gadget pulled away slowly and looked at him, smiling. "Oh, there’ll always be something. But I’m glad dancing’s this much fun—or at least dancing with you is." She suddenly felt even more vulnerable than she had, but it was balanced by the warmth in Dale’s eyes. "I…I guess it’s getting late, Dale. Do you think we have time for one more dance?"
       Dale was hoping she’d ask. "Uh, sure. No problem at all." As if on cue, another song began. This time it was "Devoted To You" by the Everly Brothers. They slowly began to dance and it turned out to be another slow romantic song which pledged undying love. Dale and Gadget shared a few shy glances as they danced.
       "Do you think it’ll be this wonderful every time?" Gadget asked. Dale’s words echoed his thoughts. "I sure hope so. A few more practices and we’ll be the king and queen of the prom." Gadget smirked some at that. "Well, better let Tammy and her boyfriend win it I guess. They’d be really disappointed if a couple of old folks like us came in and snatched the prize from them."
       Dale found that he was looking forward to the prom more than ever now. "This is going to be so cool! I always wanted to go to a prom." Gadget wondered at the coincidence that neither of them had gone to their proms. "I guess we’re both getting a second chance at what we missed." As the music ended, they both knew it was time for Dale to go. Gadget turned off the radio and came back and embraced him.
       "Thank you. For everything," Gadget said. Dale didn’t want to let go, but he did. "You’re welcome, Gadget. You know I’d do anything to make you happy." Gadget kissed him goodnight and whispered, "I know. Good night, Dale." Dale smiled and quickly departed, humming the tunes he and Gadget danced to. He climbed down the tree, feeling like one of the romantic heroes he’d watched or read about all his life.



Chapter Four--Dreams Clash Again

       When Dale got back to his room, Chip was sitting up in bed reading. "So, are you looking forward to the prom as much as I am?" Dale said, full of vigor. Chip didn’t look up. "I guess so. Foxy’s looking forward to it a lot." Dale finished changing and turned a curious face to his friend. "Aren’t you? You were the prom king at yours."
       Chip put down his book and looked up with a nonchalant face. "Oh, I’ll enjoy it I suppose. But the prom really wasn’t all that big a deal. Melinda Brooking was prom queen and she and I were supposed to be an ‘item’ but that never came about. All she wanted was someone with status to play escort service for her." Dale absorbed that news item, and got into bed. "Well, you and Foxy will have a great time. I’m looking forward to it."
       Chip started to reach for the light, then stopped. "Yeah, I guess so. Right now, I’m more concerned about Zipper. We’ve gotten so used to him being the way he is. I guess we’ll all have to make adjustments assuming he’ll be able to talk." Dale shrugged, "Yeah, that’s certainly going to be a big change, but we’ll handle it like troopers."
       Chip looked over at the ceiling, thinking out loud. "Seems like everyone and everything has changed. I guess it was silly to think that it would all stay the same forever, but we’ve had one change after another lately. I half expect Monty to come in and tell us he’s beaten the cheese cravings..."
       "Don’t go crazy Chip. Before Monty stops craving cheese, the sun will go dark and the moon will crash into the earth. Uh, Chip…how are you doing with all these changes? I mean, unexpected things could just happen suddenly…" Dale ventured. "Really surprising kinda things. I mean, we’ll be friends no matter what happens, right?"
       Chip sighed. He knew that Dale was concerned about him, and he appreciated that at least. "I suppose I’m all right. I just thought for so long that things were going to happen a different way. I thought I knew you, and I thought I knew Gadget....I thought I knew myself. Maybe all this is for the good—I mean, I enjoy Foxy and being with her. I guess I should be content and grateful. But there’s something, something more...I don’t know. Yes, you’re my friend Dale. You’re my friend." Chip turned off the light and put his book away.

       Chip tried to sleep, but Dale wasn’t making it easy. Every minute, the red-nosed munk was shifting above him. After ten minutes of that, Chip couldn’t abide it any more and turned on the light. "Okay, what is it?" Chip asked, a hint of testiness in his voice. Dale didn’t know quite where to start. "So much has changed in the last month and there are so many changes in the future. Do you think about the future much, Chip?"
       Chip tried to sense from Dale’s tone where this was going, but couldn’t reason it. Chip folded his arms under his pillow and stared up at Dale’s bunk. "Right now, I’m not thinking of much at all except I wish we had a good case on our hands. It’s been too quiet." Dale leaned over and looked down at his companion. "But maybe that’s it. Do we just want to run ourselves ragged for the rest of our lives and then drop over dead from the effort? Isn’t there more to life than that?"
       Chip considered the question for a few moments. "I suppose. The Rangers will eventually either retire or disband when we’re past the age of usefulness. I guess that’s not something I’ve given too much thought to, with the exception of reading about Sureluck Jones’ retirement years. Still, he had a full life."
       "But a lonely one," Dale added. That hit Chip where he lived. He knew he couldn’t tell Dale, but his greatest fear was being left alone without anyone to care about him. He was proud, and didn’t want to have to admit he depended on anyone, but deep down he knew. Chip blinked and let his eyes defocus.
       "Well, Sureluck did have Dr. Blotson. But he found female companionship out of the question—he reasoned it would foul his unique abilities. What’s this all about, Dale?" Chip asked. Dale still couldn’t bring himself to put it directly. "Well, Dr. Blotson was married and he was happy." Now Chip couldn’t figure Dale’s sudden desire to discuss Sureluck Jones. "Blotson married at least three times according to the canon. It didn’t really say whether he was happy or not, but he was enamoured with Mary Monstad—the woman he met and later married in ‘The One-Legged Man’."
       "But I heard that his having three wives was just carelessness on the part of the author who didn’t take time to remember the names of the characters and kept giving the wife a different name," Dale countered. "But that’s beside the point. There was more to his life than just fighting crime. I don’t want to end up like Jones...I want a family."

       Then it hit Chip—no ton of bricks could have hit him harder. The painting. The mention of family. Dale wanted to marry Gadget! Chip wanted to run right then, to get out and just let it all go. But he’d already done that and it hadn’t gotten him anything. So instead he just grimaced as he spoke. "And you want Gadget to be that family."
       Dale pulled back to his bunk. "Yes. Sorry, Chip. I understand if you don’t like the idea and I’ll understand if you don’t like me for wanting it." Truth told, Chip didn’t like it. There was nothing harder to kill or to lose than a dream and a part of him still blamed Dale for killing his. But then Chip thought on it, and knew that he’d jumped on, stomped, smashed, and ridiculed Dale’s dreams all his life. At yet he was willing to come back for more—Chip shook his head slightly in wonderment.
       "I guess I can’t hate you for wanting something that I wanted. But don’t you think you’re rushing things? I mean, it’s only been a month you know..." Dale had considered that, but to him it seemed like an eternity. "Well, I didn’t plan on proposing right away, but—I mean it’s magic when we’re together! It’s like it was always meant to be. I was afraid that I would just get, I dunno, bored with her after a while and I’m sure she’s worried that I would too. But that hasn’t happened. Every day I love her more and more and it gets more and more difficult to be away from her for even a moment. She’s my last thought at night and my first in the morning."
       It hurt Chip to hear this, but he’d felt that something like this must have been happening. He didn’t know Gadget like he should, but he did know now that she wouldn’t have just put up with Dale if there wasn’t something there. But was there really? Chip knew Dale could be impulsive and he’d never been in this situation before. "Dale, I guess I’m not the one to talk, but are you sure you’re ready for this? Are you sure she’s ready? I know you think that this is all wonderful, and it probably is. But you’ve got rose-colored glasses on right now. I know you’ve not been this close to anyone before, and I don’t want to see you get hurt. And I’m not saying I’m objective, because I can’t be. All I’m saying is make sure before you do anything."
       "But how can you ever be sure you’re ready for something like this? It’s not like you can just take a written test," Dale countered. Chip thought about saying, "good thing too, because you’d flunk it." But he held his peace and thought more on the reply. "I don’t know...maybe you can’t. But don’t rush into it without thinking. It’s like the time you just insisted on going to see Mutant Bagpipe Killers of Scotland when we were kids. You were certain you were ready to handle it, but then I had to drag you out when you started throwing up all over everything. Just be sure you’ve thought it out first."
       Dale leaned down again, his upside-down face in full view. "Hey! MBKoS is now a classic! I hear that they’re even making a sequel! But Chip, I got over that and now I can watch movies that would make MBKoS look like The Sound of Music.. I got over my fears. Yeah, I’m afraid of the idea of getting married, but the idea of sharing our lives with each other is something worth going for. I love her, Chip and I want to be with her always. And I ... I think she feels the same way."
       Chip realized that Higgins and Baloo had been right in that dream he’d had—she had her hooks into Dale, and now Dale was head over heels. The way he’d wanted to be. But why was he still jealous? Why? He had Foxy, who catered to all his whims. Chip had to admit that she’d done a lot for him that Gadget never would. But the thoughts still lingered.
       Chip crossed his arms. "Okay, you love her. And perhaps she loves you. I’m not going to say anything more, because to be honest I’m getting annoyed at it all. But I will say this—marriage takes commitment and a lot of sacrifices. Up until now, you’ve never faced having to do that. But you’d better be ready before you ask her because once you have, you’re committed." With that, Chip got up and snagged his jacket and fedora, leaving the room.
       A few bitter tears came to Dale’s eyes over Chip’s biting comments. But he refrained from saying anything else. He had hoped that just once Chip would be happy for him or encouraging to him, but he was wrong as he always was in these cases. At least he knew he had other friends he could go to for support "Goodnight…friend."

       The leader of the Rescue Rangers walked out on the veranda, now bathed in moonlight. He hadn't felt good about what he'd said. He didn't feel good about himself—about anything "What did I say all those things for? Okay, I was mad and frustrated but I thought I could handle myself. Come on, Chip! You're a leader, a hero who's respected by everyone—everyone save yourself that is..."
       Chip began to pace the veranda and the image of himself and Dale as children came into his mind again. "You're not a kid anymore, Dale. What happened to you? We used to have so much fun together and nothing mattered except having a good time. Now you want to get married, maybe have some kids. I didn't think you'd ever change. And now...and now..."
       Chip threw up his arms. "What does he think I am, a machine that can be turned on and off? Like my love for Gadget was just supposed to die when he beat me out?" Chip paced more, like an angry captain on the deck of his ship. "I don’t know why I resent it all. Maybe Gadget was right. Maybe I resent her for not having told me—no, that’s not it. I think I just resent life in general. I gave life everything I had, and then it just seemed to turn its back on me. Why?"
       Chip looked up into the multitude of stars shining in the blackness. "Yeah, why? Why did you lead me to think that I was something more than I was? Why let me make a fool of myself over a girl that didn’t love me? How could you let me get within an inch of the brass ring, only to throw me off? It’s not fair! It’s just not fair."

       Chip closed his eyes and for the first time that he could remember he thought about who he was and what he was doing. When he did, he tried to dismiss it, but forced himself to face facts. Now his voice was quiet, as if he didn’t want anyone else hearing. "The truth is, I'm no different than I was that day I cried as a kid and Dale comforted me. I'm still crying, and looking for someone else to come along and make me feel good. Dale was right about one thing—I've looked for that comfort in every girl that's come along. There's no fool like a consistent one."
       Chip couldn't go back inside, so he just took a seat in one of the lawn chairs and made himself as comfortable as possible. "Yeah, some best friend I am."
       The outer door to headquarters had been cracked open during Chip’s tirade. Now, a patient pair of eyes watched as Chip succumbed to the need for slumber and once Chip was asleep Foxy came outside. She looked down on the now-peaceful face of her beloved and wondered at how different it looked from the exasperated face she’d seen only a few minutes ago. She quietly approached him, a blanket in her wings. It was a chilly night and she noticed him shiver a little.
       The chair that Chip slept in was large, most likely to accommodate Monty. Foxy put the blanket over him, then mustering her courage she laid down beside him with the blanket separating them, "To keep him warm" she told herself. Then she gently wrapped a wing across Chip. She sat there quietly, listening to his gentle breathing and his strong heart beat, the soothing sounds eventually lulling her to sleep.

       During the night, Chip had a series of nightmares. All of them involved Gadget or Dale or both. One in particular was harrowing, as he was running from Dale, trying to get away. But then the Hawaiian-shirt clad chipmunk grew to the size of Godzilla. Chip was lost in the giant munks’ shadow, and he ran just as Jack did from the Giant. Then Chip was cornered, and his look was pure terror. As the giant Dalezilla let forth a deep and sinister laugh, reaching for him, Chip awoke with a start. Something had him! He jumped from the chair to escape the hand that was on him, and saw the delicate figure that had been next to him. Foxy yawned and looked up.
        "Good morning, cutie," Foxy said. Chip walked back over to the chair. "Were you out here all night? In the cold?" Foxy yawned and stretched her wings. "Yes, but so were you. I was worried..." Foxy said. Chip was troubled and he knew that she knew he was. And right now, she was the only one he could go to with any sense of security.
       "Foxy, I had a bad fight with Dale last night. I said some things I probably should have kept to myself, but I lost control," Chip said. Foxy patted him on the back. "Cutie, you’re having to deal with a lot of confusing signals right now. It’s not as bad as you think it is."
       Chip frowned, and stood up from the lawn chair. "Maybe…maybe you’re right. I don’t know," Chip said, crossing his arms. "Could you give me a few minutes to get my thoughts in order?" Foxy got up and hugged him. "Sure, Chip. I’ll be inside if you need me."

       Chip didn’t want to admit it, but he felt bad about his testy behavior toward Dale. He knew he’d hurt him, but right now he didn’t know how not to hurt him. Chip took a seat again in the lawn chair and was about to start reading the next Sureluck Jones tale when a noise from above caught his attention. Gadget was coming down from the lair, and was about to head inside. It was a golden opportunity, and yet he hesitated—he didn’t want to ruin things, but at the same time he knew he wasn’t an outsider to all this. Still, it had been nearly a week since he’d really said anything to her and he did have an excuse of sorts.
       "Good morning, Gadget," Chip said evenly. Gadget strolled over, happy as a lark. "Hello, Chip. You ought to go look at the lair. I put in lights!" Chip was uncomfortable already. "Uh, not yet. Maybe later. Say, before you go inside there’s something I need to tell you about…"
       Gadget sat on the edge of the lawn chair next to Chip. "Golly, what’s on your mind, Chip?" She looked so considerate that Chip thought about letting it drop and just talking to her. But he knew once she went inside that Dale would tell her if he didn’t
       "Dale and I had an argument last night. I won’t go into the details of it, but I didn’t treat him well toward the end. And I wonder if you wouldn’t mind passing it along that I’m...sorry about it," Chip said. Gadget looked kindly toward him. "Chip, you know it would mean more to him if you could say it him yourself. He’s your best friend. What are you afraid of? You know very well that he’ll forgive you."
       Why was she being so nice? Chip wished she would have gotten mad, at least testy. That would have made it easier. But no, she was as rosy as the morning sun. "I’m afraid I’ll only make it worse. You do really love him, don’t you."
       Gadget blushed a deep red. "Yes, Chip. I do…I’m sorry."
       Chip made sure not to look into her eyes, and stared into the morning sky. "You don’t have anything to be sorry about. I was the one that made the mistake." Gadget looked on him with sympathy. "But I still ended up hurting you, Chip. It’s my fault for not stopping this a long time ago. Maybe that way I could have prevented all your suffering."
       Chip couldn’t stand it anymore. He stood up. "No, you couldn’t. You weren’t the first girl I’d fallen for like that, and it’s not all just about that, either. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and this is just the end of a long line of mistakes I’ve made. I’ll probably make more. You made the right choice." Chip turned abruptly and started walking off
       Gadget rushed after Chip and hugged him gently. "Chip, you’re not the bad guy you think you are. You’re a wonderful guy! I may not have been the right girl for you, but maybe Foxy is. Maybe she could fill that void in your heart, if you let her that is."
       What could he do? Chip patted Gadget kindly on the back. "We’ll see. Thanks for the concern, Gadget." Chip started back inside and Gadget came with him. Dale was already at the table, as was Foxy and the others. Chip felt self-conscious, but took a seat. "Dale, about what I said last night...I shouldn’t have talked to you that way. It was wrong."
       Dale regarded Chip seriously for a few moments, then smiled. "Thank you, Chip. Your apology means a lot to me. You know I could never stay mad at you."
       "I know. And about what you said—good luck." Chip offered his hand and Dale shook it vigorously. "Thanks. This means more to me than you can possibly imagine."
       Breakfast went pretty normally after that, and the tension that had made everyone quiet when Chip came in gave way to lively conversation. It was an off-day, so once the food was finished everyone went in separate directions. Foxy went outside with Chip, and listened while he read the next chapter of Sureluck Jones. While he read, Chip thought back on what had just happened. He wished he could feel good about wishing Dale luck, but he didn’t. He’d said what he thought would defuse the situation and it had. As Chip finished up, Foxy suggested they go to the city aquarium. They left, and the fedora-clad chipmunk tried to put the nagging feeling of guilt out of his mind.

       The days passed quickly, and the morning of Zipper’s operation was upon them before they knew it. Headquarters was one big bustle of activity. Zipper had been instructed not to speak for the day leading into the surgery, so Gadget had provided him with a small writing tablet. It was good practice, for he’d have to use this medium for the first few days until Doctor Batorious gave the go-ahead for him to speak. Zipper scribbled a message, tearing off the note and handing it to Gadget.
       "Yes, we’ll arrange for a checkup schedule for you. Don’t worry, Zipper, we won’t let you down." Zipper wrote that he was just nervous. Gadget had figured that, of course. When the guys came into the main room, it was the sign that everyone was ready to go.
       Monty did his best to hide his nervousness, but his twitching tail gave him away. "You ready, Zipper lad? Time’s a wastin’." Chip gestured at the main room. "Better take a good look, Zipper. When you come back, you’ll be a new bug!" Dale grinned at the thought. "Yeah, the new improved Zipper! Now with sound effects!"
       Zipper nodded that he was ready, and the Rangers piled into the RangerWing. Doctor Batorious was waiting for them at the door of the clinic. "Welcome. Everything is ready. This is going to take some time, so once the operation begins you may wish to leave and come back." Dale shook his head. "If you don’t mind, doc, I’ll just pace nervously in the waiting room for a while."
       Chip walked up next to the doctor. "I don’t think any of us are going to leave while Zipper’s in there. We’re here for him." Gadget saw the concern on Zipper’s face, and took his little hand. "Don’t worry about anything, Zipper. We’re not moving an inch until your surgery is over." Doctor Batorious nodded. "I rather thought that would be your reactions. Zipper, you chose your friends well. You may come back with him until the surgery begins, but then I will need you to wait out here."

       The doc led the way to the operating area, where he and Louise—who doubled as nurse when necessary—prepped Zipper for the operation. The Rangers spoke more encouragements to him, and then it was time. Zipper gave them all a thumbs-up, then the anesthesia was applied and Louise walked them back to the waiting area.
       "If you need anything, let me know. I’ll be back with Doctor Batorious at first, but I’ll come out periodically to update you," Louise said. Dale immediately started pacing. Chip took a seat, and pulled his Sureluck Jones book out of his mapcase. "We’ll be okay, Louise. But thanks for asking." Gadget joined Dale in step and began pacing beside him.
       Louise nodded her understanding and joined the doctor in the operating room. The minutes began to tick by, and each one seemed to take an eternity. Chip opened his Sureluck Jones book, and he and Foxy were reading it. Monty flipped a yo-yo, and never took his eyes off the operating room door. After a half-hour, Louise came out
       "It’s going well so far. No major surprises, and the doctor believes he’ll be able to fix his tracheal problem," Louise said. Dale and Gadget stopped their pacing only long enough to listen to Louise and then continued wearing out the floor. Louise disappeared into the operating room promptly, and the waiting game began again. Another hour passed, then ninety minutes.

       Monty had sat in every unoccupied seat in the waiting room. "This is more bloomin’ nerve-wrackin’ than waitin’ for rain in the outback! I hope me pally’s doin’ okay..." Gadget turned her attention to him while still walking. "Golly, Monty. I’m sure he’ll be fine. The doc’s a bat operating on a tiny fly, so he’s got to take his time." Chip looked up from the third story he’d started. "Sure, it’s just the necessity of the operation. Why don’t you lean back and sleep? We’ll wake you if anything happens."
       Monty was tired, but tried not to show it. "Sleep? At a time like this? Why, I couldn’t even if I ...snxxxxxxx." Chip picked up his reading again. "About time. He was up all night fidgeting. Well, it’ll be easier this way." Dale kept his thoughts focused on Zipper. He was trying to act more mature now and he didn’t want to say or do something stupid at a moment like this.

       Two full hours passed, then Louise reported to them again. "It’s taking the doctor longer than he figured. Zipper isn’t in any danger, but your friend’s trachea had some deep scarring from the way he’d been forced to use it. I’d better get back. He’ll need me to help out." Louise walked back briskly as Doctor Batorious’ voice sounded, calling for her. Dale doubled the speed of his pacing.
       "Dale, you’re going to run a rut in the floor at that rate! Don’t worry, he’s in good hands," Chip said. "Wings, cutie," Foxy corrected. Dale threw up his hands. "I know that, Chip. But what else can I do but worry?" Chip knew Dale was in uncharted territory, but he had to start learning sometime. "Oh right, wings. Look Dale, I know you’re worried. I’m concerned for him too, but it’s out of our hands right now. You’ve got to believe that everything will be okay. The doc’s doing everything he can."
       Gadget woke Monty and filled him in. The Aussie joined Dale in the pacing parade. Chip sighed, and took up his book again. Gadget quickly rejoined Dale and Monty in pacing, and the time really seemed to crawl now. Every minute, one of the Rangers was looking at the old analog watch on the wall to see how much more time had passed. Gadget and Monty were in perfect sync, and Dale was outpacing them. As the wait neared its third hour, Doctor Batorious came out in his surgical garments and took his mask off.
       "I apologize for the length of your wait, my friends. Zipper is fine, and save for the scarring there were no complications," the doctor said. "The anesthesia will wear off in about another hour, and I’ll want to observe him when he comes out. If he shows no signs of trauma, you can take him home. Again, I do not know if he will be able to speak normally, but there’s no reason now that he can’t. Time and healing should do the rest," Doctor Batorious said.
       Dale shook the old bat’s wings enthusiastically. "Thanks, Doc. We owe you big time!" Gadget smiled in kind. "You’ve given Zipper a whole new chance at life." Doctor Batorious nodded his appreciation at their thanks. "I was only glad I was able to help. You Rangers are a credit to your name, and I’m only sorry that we citizens can’t do more for you." Monty slapped him on the back. "Well anyway, we’re mighty obliged to ya."

       An hour later, the Rangers were gathered around Zipper’s bed. They noticed the new stitches that he had on his neck. Zipper was awake now, but groggy. The doc and Louise checked his vital signs. "He came through this better than I thought he would. The stitches are holding, and his blood pressure looks good. You can take him home, but make sure not to jostle him. If any of the stitches come out, or he starts coughing let me know immediately." Monty saluted. "Don’t you worry none, doc. We’ll be taking real good care o’ Zipper."
       Monty took him like a parent would his infant—blanket and all—to the RangerWing and held him all the way back. They had prepared a place for Zipper in the main room, so that it would be easier for everyone to keep an eye on him. Dale was almost bounding in his enthusiasm. "We’ll have him up and flying in no time!" Chip watched Zipper breathe as he slept, then motioned the others outside so he wouldn’t be disturbed. "That we will. Say, speaking of flying, shouldn’t we let Queenie know about this now?" Dale hesitated at the suggestion. "I dunno, he seemed pretty set on Queenie not knowing about it."
       "But she’d want to know," Gadget countered. "She’ll feel hurt if she’s kept on the outside about this." Monty leaned his elbows back on the railing. "You know how ol’ Zipper is. He doesn’t want anyone ta know about the operation till he’s well, especially her."
Unknown to the Rangers, a drone bee who was gathering nectar happened to fly near enough to hear their conversation. At Monty’s words, the drone dropped everything and flew back to the hive. He knew the queen would want this news. Once the attendants gained him an audience, he flew in front of her throne and bowed.
       "What is it, Reginald?" Queenie asked. The drone stood up. "Pardon, your majesty. But I happened to be flying over the home of the Rescue Rangers, and I heard something you must know..."
       The Rangers were still outside fifteen minutes later, discussing the problem. "I think we should tell her. She’s going to find out anyway..." Chip said. "She already has found out," a voice sounded behind them. The Rangers swung around to find Queenie hovering in midair with several of her attendants. Dale took it in stride. "Well, this solves our little moral dilemma."
       Dale bowed dramatically and kissed her hand. "Your majesty." The queen bee was mildly angry, but allowed Dale’s homage. "Well, at least one of you does remember how to treat royalty. I must say, I find this breach in etiquette distressing! Why was I not told Zipper was having an operation?" Monty felt awkward, but knew there was no reason to sweat. "It’s really simple, Queenie lass. But I can’t tell ya why—it’s a secret."
       Queenie looked him over, then motioned to her attendants. "I suppose you were acting out of loyalty. But no matter. I have come to offer my help. Aliwicious!" An attendant bee in a butler’s outfit flew up and bowed to her. "Yes, my queen?" Queenie pointed inside headquarters. "See to it that my friend Zipper is well cared for. I owe him a debt of gratitude." Aliwicious bowed in obedience, and the bee queen returned her attention to the more immediate task. "Now, if you Rangers would be so kind as to escort me I should like to see Zipper myself," Queenie said.
       Gadget, ever the thinker, thought fast. "Well, maybe that wouldn’t be the best thing right now. He does have a good reason for not wanting you to see him." Queenie was not one to take no for an answer. "What? You would refuse the royal person? I demand an explanation!" Chip stepped forward. "We’re truly sorry, Queenie. But you’ll just have to wait till Zipper can explain it to you in his own words."
       Queenie appeared confused. "His own words? What do you mean?" Chip begged off, "I’ve said too much as it is. You’ll just have to wait till he’s recovered." Queenie crossed her arms in defiance. "Never have I been treated this way, and by mere commoners! If you had not assisted me in regaining my swarm, I would not hesitate to let my attendants force a way open. But in light of the service you performed, I will wait. However, I demand to know the moment he can receive visitors!"
       **What on earth does he see in her?** Chip thought. Dale was in a more equitable mood. "Sure, no problem." Gadget came closer to Queenie. "Golly, the doctor said that he might be able to see visitors in a few days if you want to come back then." Queenie stared at them for a few more moments, then nodded. "I will have Aliwicious check on his progress each day. When Zipper can receive me, tell my major domo when I may come. Royalty is used to coming whenever it wishes, yet my natural graces allow me to be forbearing."
       "We’re touched by yer heart, yer high and mightiness," Monty said as sincerely as he could manage. "Naturally," Queenie said. "You have my royal clemency—this time. Come, let’s return!" Queenie led the way, and her bees followed her home. Foxy watched them fly away. "That reminds me, I haven’t eaten all day." The rest of the group looked strangely at her. "What?" Foxy asked. As the others turned their attention back to the conversation they’d had, Chip found he was glad the talk hadn’t gone any longer than it did.
       "I’d forgotten how demanding she was. She’s royalty all right—a royal pain," Chip said. Dale turned to go back inside. "Well, we’ll have to put up with her for Zipper’s sake. But now, do we tell him that she was here and knows about his surgery?" Monty followed him in. "Guess he’s got a right ta know. We did hold up our end o’ the bargain, after all. None of us blabbed about the operation—one of the drones musta told ‘er."
       "He’s probably going to think that one of us told her," Dale said. Chip gathered with the others around the still sleeping form of Zipper. "If we don’t tell him, she’s bound to bring it up that she’d been here. Then he’d wonder why we didn’t tell him about her visit." Monty thought it over. "Well, it may as well be me."



Chapter Five--Someone Too Strange For Dreams/A Little Dream Has Its Moment

       Everyone agreed that Monty should let Zipper rest that first day, and keep the news for tomorrow. With the end of the next morning’s breakfast, Monty knew it was time to fill his pal in. The culinary expert peeked into the main room from the kitchen, and grinned at the sight. Gadget and Foxy were both tending to Zipper, who couldn’t have asked for a better pair of nurses. Once Monty had privately conferred in the kitchen with the girls and confirmed that Zipper was in a good enough condition to handle what he had to say, Monty strode into the main room
       "How ya doin, pally? The stitches not botherin’ ya to much I hope?" Monty asked. Zipper was still weak from the surgery of course, but he managed a smile for his old friend. He grabbed the pad and pencil Gadget had provided for him and wrote, "I don’t hardly feel it. I just have to avoid quick movements."
       "Well, I’m glad yer sittin’ down. We had a visit yesterday from a friend o’ yours. Before I say any more, just know that none o’ us said anything to anyone and how she found out is a mystery to us. I swear on me life that I didn’t tell. But, Queenie stopped by here yesterday to visit ya," Monty said. Zipper’s face twisted into a look of concern. He quickly scribbled, "Queenie? Is she coming back today? You didn’t let her talk you into letting her in, did you?"
       Monty read the message then shook his head. "Calm yerself, Zip. We told her ya weren’t in any condition ta have visitors, at lest fer a few days. She was real concerned over you, mate. She’s still Queenie though—that ‘I am royalty, do whatever I say’ kinda thing" Zipper gave him a sarcastic smirk and wrote, "She really was concerned?" Monty gave him a grin, knowing the point of his question. "She almost had her drones barge past us to get to ya."
       Monty could see Zipper’s appreciation for that information. Then Zipper looked toward the kitchen and wrote, "Thank Foxglove and Gadget for being so nice to me. I’ve done it on paper already, but since my voice isn’t ready I’ll let you do it. I’m so ready to thank Dr. Batorious too. I just know I’ll be talking soon!"
       Monty smiled at his friend. "And won’t Queenie be surprised?" Zipper smiled back and winked at him. His pencil scrawled the words, "I do wonder what my voice will be like. I was daydreaming this morning and trying to hear it in my imagination." Monty took a seat on the sofa across from him. "Ronald Colman, that’s what I think you’ll sound like." Zipper restrained a giggle over that, and then had to lay back. The energy he’d expended was too much for him, but already he was stronger than he had been the day before. He gave Monty a thumbs-up, then nodded off.

       Monty wandered back into the kitchen. "Zipper just wanted me to thank the two o’ you fer the great job o’ lookin’ after him you’ve both been doin’. It really means a lot to the little fella." Gadget waved it off. "Oh, it’s nothing that any of us wouldn’t do for a fellow Ranger." Foxy grinned as she helped Gadget prepare Zipper’s lunch. "And it’s sorta fun playing nurse anyhow. Like taking care of a baby!"
       Monty thumbed back toward the main room. "Well, don’t say that around him—he might not like the comparison, bein’ as tough-minded as he is an’ all." Chip and Dale came in the kitchen then, and asked after Zipper’s condition. Once they were satisfied, the group all gathered around the table
       "I don’t know about you all, but I think Zipper’s being able to talk will be a plus for the team. I’ll…we’ll have to re-evaluate his role and see how his speaking will add to his contributions," Chip said. Monty sipped some coffee. "I think it can only be a good thing. But yer right, it will take a bit o’ gettin’ used to." Dale’s imagination took off immediately. "Hey! Maybe he’ll have one of those very neat mysterious voices, like the Shadow! Heh, heh, heh, heh!"
       Monty looked over the Rangers’ newest addition. "Foxy luv, I think we’re goin’ to need yer help a lot right now. Queenie doesn’t strike me as the patient type. We’ll need yer eyes and ears around the tree ta keep her and her lot from visitin’ Zipper on the sly." Foxglove giggled and gave them all a wink. "I think one look at me will keep them at a safe distance. After all, they wouldn’t want to get too close and end up a prisoner of my stomach!" Monty took another sip of coffee. "Good, lass. But remember, just scare ‘em, don’t eat ‘em." Foxy giggled some more. "Don’t worry, I’m strictly a moth eater. Zipper was happy to learn about that too."
       "Don’t let Cassandra hear you say that," Dale said. Foxy turned to Dale in curiosity. "Who?" Dale explained, "She’s a fortune-telling gypsy moth that we met." Foxy turned it over in her mind for a few moments. "Oh, okay. We’ll, I’d make an exception for anyone you know—at least anyone you know and like." She nudged Chip as she said it.
       Chip gave her a mock look of remonstrance, then put his arms around her. "Thanks, Foxy." Foxy hugged him back and the group appreciated the joke. Then Foxglove turned the conversation back to normal business. "Don’t you think one of us should be checking at the police station for casework?" Chip grinned at Foxy—she was thinking right along his lines. "Well... I guess. We have been a little lax in crime-fighting the last few weeks. But someone has to stay here and watch out for Zipper. You ready to go, Foxy?"
       "Up and at ‘em, cutie! But would you mind going with me? I don’t want to mess up on my first time..." Foxy said hesitantly. Chip hadn’t meant for her to go alone, but was impressed that she was willing to do just that. "Certainly. I’ll teach you everything you need to know and then Monty can one day teach you how to steal food off Spinelli’s desk without getting caught." Monty blushed as he endured everyone’s laughter. "Aww, that only happens every once in a while!" Dale chuckled, "Yeah, only whenever he has cheese around!"
       "Don’t worry Monty, it’s just another reason we like you," Gadget said lightheartedly. Chip stood up and motioned Foxy on. "We’ll check get back soon if nothing interesting comes up," Chip said. The idea of anything related to casework got Chip’s blood pumping.

       Chip and Foxy said their good-byes and headed out. Since Foxy could fly there and the distance was short, Chip decided to walk. They met up again just outside the police station building and entered through a small drainage access. Gadget had previously cut a door in an interior pipe to allow easy access to the station’s communications room. Foxy and Chip made sure to avoid detection and found a good vantage point on top of some metal filing cabinets.
       Foxy looked around excitedly at the bastion of crime-fighting. "This is so neat! Wow, there’s a lot of activity. What should we be paying attention for, darling?" Now, Chip was in his element. He assumed a professorial nature as he studied the officers below.
       "Now, as you can see there’s a great deal of information that passes through the ordinary law enforcement office. Some of it is routine, like the booking of that prisoner over there. Some is simply maintenance, as with the sergeant below us ordering a new holster for his gun. Then there’s the reports of criminal activity. The Rangers aren’t equipped to handle the cases that would call for sheer brute force, such as a hostage crisis or terrorist activity. We’re looking for cases that the police would call ‘overburdening’—those calls for assistance that are every bit as important to the person asking as those hostage situations are, but the police just don’t have the time for them. So in our own way, we fill in where the police leave off."
       Foxy tried to absorb what Chip was telling her. "But how do you decide what cases to take?" Chip kept a good watch on the activities below. "I’m glad you asked that. Sometimes a case finds us, like the time Dale found a piece of piece of meteorite and turned into Rubber Bando and we had to stop a human who’d also found one. At other times, we’ll go looking for criminal activity around the city in hotspots where we know criminals hatch their dastardly plots. With the police station, we listen for cases that involve other animals, children, or other humans who don’t seem to rate much attention by the police. For example, one case we took on here involved a boy whose toy train had been stolen. It turned out that Fat Cat had taken it, and was using it to rob a bank. So even what sounds like a little crime can turn out to be a big case."
       Foxy looked out over the busy police station. "I just had no idea there was so much crime. Is it this busy every day?" Chip nodded. "As the saying goes, ‘crime never sleeps.’ This is a little busier day than normal, but I’ve seen it a lot more hectic." Then Chip focused Foxy’s attention on two officers as they walked in.
       "Anything from the regular beat, Muldoon?" Kirby asked. Muldoon took a seat opposite Spinelli’s desk. "Nah, the big boys have been quiet for days. Only a couple of misdemeanors, and an attempted robbery at a shoe store." Chip pointed to the two officers. "That’s Kirby and Muldoon. If there’s a case for us, most of the time they’ll be the ones who will provide it. Sometimes Sergeant Spinelli will be the one. He’s the guy they’re reporting to now at the desk." Spinelli had been filling out reports but now gave the officers his attention. "Pretty quiet, huh? Well, maybe they’re getting tired of breaking the law out there." Muldoon crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. "I doubt it, Sarge. Just the calm before the storm, most likely."
       Foxy was entranced by all this. "How long do you think it will be before the ‘big boys’ start breaking the law again?" Chip kept listening. "Hard to tell. Criminal activity usually happens in cycles. They can be quiet for weeks, and then suddenly..."An officer interrupted Chip’s talk, running into the room..

       "Sarge! We’ve got an armed robbery downtown. Second national bank!" Spinelli jumped up. "Let’s go, people! I’ll handle communications from here!" The officers ran out, and Spinelli pulled out a walkie-talkie and walked away from the Rangers’ perch. Chip strained to listen to the sergeant. "He’s too far away now. I can’t hear the conversation."
       Foxy pricked up her super-sensitive ears and began relaying the conversation to Chip. "...and a suspect was seen fleeing the scene of the holdup in a giant mechanical spider." Chip pounded his fist into his other hand. "Sounds like Professor Nimnul! We’ll need the others! Did they say which way the spider was going?" Foxy shook her head. "No, they lost him. And Spinelli just asked someone to bring him a BLT."
       Chip turned to leave. "Okay, good work Foxy. That super-hearing of yours comes in handy! Let’s go!" Chip led the way to the roof, where Foxy helped set the catapult. Chip was launched into the air, and Foxy flew along beside him. "Pistachio!" Chip cried as the big oak tree grew larger beneath him. The adventuresome chipmunk landed safely and within a minute he and Foxy were telling the others.
       "A giant spider? Jeepers, we’d better stop him!" Gadget said. "But we can’t leave Zipper alone. Who’s going to stay behind and watch out for him?" Monty stood by Zipper’s bed. "You blokes go on ahead. I’ll watch out fer me pally." Foxy was brimming over with excitement. "Oh! Can I say it?"
       Chip patted her on the back. "Knock yourself out, Foxy." Foxy smiled and said with a flourish, "Rescue Rangers away!" The Rangers, sans Monty and Zipper, made for the RangerWing. Foxy flew alongside, and Gadget steered the plane toward Nimnul’s hideout. They were just in time to see the large mechanical spider crawl up the hill and enter his geodesic dome.
       "Looks like the right place all right..." Chip said. The RangerWing landed, and the Rangers entered the building through the air conditioning vents. Nimnul was inside, laughing maniacally over his ill-gotten gains. "Hoo hooooo! Money! Lots of wonderful green money! And not a single rodent or icky fly to get in my way!" The Rangers watched Nimnul do a victory dance around the room, then Foxy looked at Chip. "Is he always that weird?" Dale answered her first with a resounding, "Yes." Then she turned to Gadget, who had tapped her shoulder. "And often weirder," Gadget added.
       Chip studied the situation, then turned to his team. "All right. We need a way to let the police know where he is. Gadget, think you can play some havoc with that mechanical spider?" Gadget gave the contraption a professional look-over. "Appears to be hydraulic in operation. It shouldn’t be too hard to shake things up." Foxy was confused over something, and when she felt that way she spoke her mind. "Why weren’t the police able to spot him from miles away and just follow his giant mechanical spider here to this big building on top of the hill?"
       Dale shrugged. "Well, the police always lose sight of Nimnul or Fat Cat like that. We figure they’re nearsighted." Foxy wasn’t entirely satisfied but accepted Dale’s explanation. "Oh well, is he afraid of bats? It seems like a lot of humans panic when they see us."
       "He’s afraid of flies—well, of course that comes from Zipper being the size of a house once. So I guess that’s all relative," Gadget said. Foxy looked to Chip with a curious look over that information, and he nodded. "Not to mention that Nimnul and Zipper traded heads once," Chip added. "Okay, Foxy. You, me and Dale will distract Nimnul while Gadget works on his machine. Let’s go!"
       The triple distraction swung into action as the crackpot scientist started counting his dough. Foxy flew straight for Nimnul, screeching loudly to get his attention. Nimnul wasn’t just afraid of bats—he was terrified of them. Once before, Zipper had made fake wings and had used a lamplight to project a bat’s shadow. Nimnul had run around like a nut afraid the bat would bite his neck. Now he was faced with the bona fide article. The reaction was predictable.
       "YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! A blood-sucking bat! Getawaygetawaygetaway!" Nimnul yelled. The pontificating professor ran around like his pants were on fire, and Foxy chased him all around the room. She just floated lazily over her "victim’s" head, and waved to the boys. Chip laughed and pointed, "You know, I don’t think we needed three of us for this distraction after all!" Then Foxy darted around Nimnul, not sure if she should be doing more.
       "What now, cutie?" Foxy asked. "Just keep him terrified and give Gadget time to come up with something!" Chip said. Gadget climbed into the mechanical spider and began checking out its control panel. "Hmm....looks like it’s powered by multiple hydraulic lifts that work in tandem. If I cross-wire the circuits, they’ll all go off in unison!"
       Gadget crawled into the board and a minute later crawled back out and jumped clear. The spider stood to its fullest height on its eight legs, which all began jumping up and down in unison. The spider jumped higher and higher and soon broke through the dome and was jumping 50 feet high. Needless to say, that sight did attract some slight attention. Muldoon and Kirby responded to the call of a giant spider jumping up and down on a hill outside the city, and found it was strangely true.
       Chip and Dale had found a length of wire and with Nimnul petrified—er, distracted—they began running circles around his ankles, causing him to fall. "Say, isn’t this where that wacko professor lives?" Muldoon asked. Kirby watched the giant arachnid. "Yeah, Nimnul. He’s the one they locked away that time when he said a fly was after him. Looks like he built something to catch it with." Nimnul hopped out the door, his arms flailing. He fell, then crawled like a worm up to the officers’ car.
       "HELP! Bats! They’re everywhere! Arrest me! Get me away from the vampire bats before they drink all my blood!" Nimnul shouted, gesticulating wildly. Muldoon put the cuffs on him. "Don’t worry, professor. We’ll find a nice safe cell for you where the bats won’t get you." Nimnul hid his neck as best as could. "Good! Hurry, before it gets dark!"
       Kirby helped to get the crazed professor in the car and gave Muldoon the loony sign. Muldoon nodded his agreement, and the police car sped off. Chip laughed wildly as the car disappeared, then hugged Foxy appreciatively. "Well, that’s a typical on-the-job day for us Foxy. What did you think of it?" Foxy was all pepped up. "It was amazing! I just helped stop a bank robber! He sure was strange, though."

       Foxy gave Chip a very appreciative smooch. "Thanks, cutie." Gadget cleaned off her hands from the grease. "I’m glad it wasn’t any tougher than that. We’re shorthanded without Monty and Zipper. Maybe we could get Tammy to watch after Zipper if another emergency comes up." Chip was about to interrupt, but then he remembered and caught himself in time. "That’s a good idea."
       Chip looked at Gadget, and he had an uncomfortable look on his face for a few moments before he spoke. "Gadget, thank you. Your rewiring of the spider was brilliant. Dale, good job. Foxy, thanks for your excellent diversion."
       Dale and the others were still distracted by the large jumping monstrosity. "Uh, Gadget? Shouldn’t we do something about that giant spider?" Dale asked. Gadget watched the mechanical arachnid begin another jaunt into the ionosphere. "Oh, don’t worry about that! Its fuel supply will run out in an hour or so. He really should have made it solar-powered with a battery backup system. Of course, if he had the spider would’ve had enough power to crack off the tip of the hill it’s on and his whole lab would be wrecked. I wonder if he thought of that problem in the design stage..."
       At that point Gadget stopped, once she realized what Chip had been saying. She turned with real surprise in her voice. "Did you just thank me, Chip?" Dale was similarly affected. "And compliment me?" Chip looked genuinely hurt "Is it that unexpected?" Gadget looked embarrassed. "I’m sorry, Chip. You’re welcome of course."
       Dale rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, you’ve got to admit it isn’t something you do that often. But it was nice to hear." Chip tipped up his fedora. "Yeah, I know. I’m sorry about that." Foxy sensed he was in an awkward position, and came forward to bail him out. "C’mon, cutie. Zipper will be eager to hear what’s happened." Chip was grateful for the chance. "Yeah! Good thinking, let’s go."
       The Rangers flew for home, but Chip’s mind was a mix of thoughts. He’d meant the compliments he said, but now he almost wished he hadn’t said them. It had felt good getting back into casework for a while, still. Now the triumph of it all had left him. He could sense that Dale and particularly Gadget were uncomfortable around him, and that was enough to make Chip uneasy. He was very glad Foxy had been there to defuse the situation. As they landed, Chip headed in with the pretty bat at his side. "What’s the matter, cutie? Aren’t you happy we stopped that guy?" Foxy asked. Chip nodded, distracted. "Change never is easy."

       The next couple of days were strictly routine. Zipper continued to improve, then on the morning of the fourth day since the operation Dale came into the main room. He was still a little groggy from staying up and re-reading the latest comic books he’d gotten yesterday. Dale flipped on the television and flopped down on the sofa.
       "Good morning, Zipper!" Dale began looking around. "Now where in the world is that TV remote?" Zipper was groggy too, and he leaned up only half-awake. "It’s sticking out from under the couch." Dale reached under the couch and picked up the remote and changed the channel. "Oh, okay. Thanks, Zipper."
       Dale’s body went numb and the remote dropped to the floor, then he slowly turned toward Zipper. "Zipper, you spoke! You can talk!" Zipper blinked, not having realized he’d said what he was thinking. He felt of his throat. "It worked...I can talk. I can talk!" Zipper cried for joy and had the biggest smile on his face that he’d ever had. The others had just gotten up when they heard voices in the main room.
       "Hey Dale, what’s going on ‘round ‘ere?" Monty asked. Dale began jumping around the room in sheer delight. When Gadget came in a minute later, he grabbed her hands and they began dancing around the room. "Golly, Dale. What’s all the excitement?" Gadget asked. "Zipper spoke! He can talk!" Dale shouted.
       Monty broke out into a grin. "Me little pally?! Zipper, say somethin’, mate!" Zipper looked over at his friend and said, "Hello, Monty..." Monty’s eyes watered over. "He can! He kin talk!" Chip and Foxy came in, and Dale tackled Chip in his enthusiasm. "Dale, what in the world are you doing?" Chip asked. Dale was shaking with emotion. "Acting crazy with joy! Join the fun, Chip! Zipper can talk!" Dale continued with his giddiness. "This is a whole new era in Rangerdom! The day Zipper talked! Future Rescue Rangers will look back on this day with joy!"
       "He can talk? You mean you heard him?" Chip asked. Foxy clasped her wings together in happiness. "Oh, how wonderful! How do you feel Zipper?" Zipper was enjoying being the center of attention. "All right, I’m..." The fly paused, feeling his throat. "Sore..."
       "You’d better rest, Zipper," Gadget said, "Remember, the doctor said you shouldn’t strain yourself. I’ll go get Dr. Batorious—he’s supposed to be checking by this morning anyway." But before she could open the door, Dr. Batorious was there. "And how is our little patient doing today?" Batorious asked. Dale grabbed the doctor and began dancing around the room with him. "He spoke! He can talk!"
       The old bat started getting dizzy fast. "Whoa there, youngster! I’m not foxtrot material anymore! Did you say he spoke?" Dale emphatically answered, "Yes! Yes!"
       "We all heard him!" Gadget said.
       "Me little pally...." Monty said, beginning to brim over with tears. Foxy was already crying tears of joy. Chip came up to the doctor. "He was starting to sound hoarse, doc. You’d better look him over." Doctor Batorious turned to his patient. "One thing you’ll learn about us grumpy old doctors, Chip. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do." The doc turned his face to Chip and winked. "Now, Zipper, let’s see how that throat’s doing..."
       The doctor took out a small light and after Zipper opened his mouth the doc examined his windpipe. "Some redness, but that’s to be expected. No hemorrhaging. The stitches look to be in place. I’d say you’re doing just fine, Zipper. Just keep to a couple of minutes of talking per day at first." Dale gave Zipper a knowing grin. "Yeah Zipper, save your strength for what you have to say to you know who." Zipper picked up his notepad and wrote, "Okay, doc. Thank you."
       "No need for that, young fly. You just rest up, and I’ll be back to check on you in a few days. Keep him on the soft foods for another week at least, then he could try something like crackers. Don’t rush it, and everything will be fine," Batorious said. Gadget shook his wing. "Roger that, doc. And thank you so much again!" The Rangers gave the Doctor a group hug.
       "Oh watch it, you youngsters! This old bat’s not built for crunching!" the doctor said. They backed off a bit, then the doc chuckled. "Thanks. It’s not often I get some appreciation in this business. If any of you need medical care, you know where to call." Doctor Batorious shook their hands, paws, and wings and left for his next call.

       Chip turned his attention back to Zipper. "Your new voice is great, Zipper. I know you can’t wait to talk to Queenie, but you should wait at least until tomorrow. You have to let your voice rest." Zipper nodded reluctantly and continued his rest. The others gathered in the kitchen.
       "In all me born days, I thought I’d never hear me pal speak. It’s a bloomin’ miracle..." Monty said. Foxy rubbed her chin. "Should we tell Queenie that she can visit tomorrow or should we wait?" Chip tipped up his fedora, in thought. "That’s something to consider. Well, the doc did say he could talk for a few minutes. But he might want to wait until his voice is stronger, not to mention the rest of him."
       Monty walked back into the room and sat next to Zipper. "Now that you can talk, mate, what’re you gonna do about Queenie?" Zipper picked up the pad, then wrote, "I want to talk to her right away, but I’ve got so much to say. And I don’t want to mess it up. Guess I’ll wait until I can talk better."
       "Tomorrow? Or do you want to wait longer?" Monty asked. Zipper thought about it, then added, "I didn’t sound too good today, so tomorrow probably won’t be all that much better. But I won’t wait more than a week. I’ve just got to tell her!" Monty patted his old friend’s head. "Just give us the word and she’ll be here with bells on ta see ya." Zipper reached up and grabbed Monty’s hand, shaking it. Then he settled back down. Monty checked him over, then straightened up. "Just rest, Zipper. A whole new world has just opened up fer ya, and ye’re gonna need all the rest ya kin get."
       Zipper wasn’t ready the next day, or the next. But when Monty walked in the third morning—one week after the operation—and asked him "are you ready to see her yet?", Zipper said yes. The Rangers contacted one of Queenie’s drones to relay the news, and the meeting was set up for just after lunch. That was where the Rangers were currently, with the patient taking center stage. Zipper was strong enough now to sit up some, so they’d moved his bed to the table to let him join in.
       "Don’t be nervous, Zipper," Monty advised. "Just be relaxed, be calm and you’ll be fine." Gadget was all excitement. "Golly, the big moment. Just like it was with Dale and me!" Zipper was anything but relaxed. Gadget was having a hard time feeding him, because he wasn’t holding his head still. The fly wrote on his pad, "I think I’m going to be sick."
       Dale took hold of Zipper’s left hand. "Just be cool, Zipper, like me when I told Gadget how I felt." Gadget smirked at that. "Cool, Dale? I seem to remember someone who couldn’t even look at me a few short weeks ago..." Dale ducked his head a little. "Okay, perhaps I was just the teensiest itty bitty bit nervous."
       Gadget giggled and hugged him. "I know, sweetie. I was too." Dale looked back over at Zipper. "See, Zip? It’s okay to be nervous on the inside. She’ll probably be just as nervous." Zipper grimaced and wrote, "But she won’t let it show. She’ll cover it up with that attitude of hers and act cool as ice." Foxy gave Chip a gentle nudge in the ribs.
       Monty knew what Zipper said was right, but it was only part of the truth. "The two o’ you are from different worlds, and yer gonna haveta be patient with her and she with you. You’ll both be speakin’ the same language, but not speakin’ the same language if ya know what I mean."
       "Just tell her how you feel and you’ll see, she’ll feel the same way," Foxy added. Chip put his hand around Zipper’s back in an advisory mode. "Now, don’t let her throw you. I know she can put an act on, but remember that she did send you that heart message, too."
       Zipper smiled at Chip’s words and wrote, "Yeah, that’s the main reason I have hope." Then he thought on what Monty had said and added, "I know we’re different. At first, she and I didn’t get along at all. She treated me like a subject of the crown, and I was head over heels. But she was starting to let some of herself show through." Then he listened to Foxy and wrote, "I’m just afraid that when we really get to know each other, the magic won’t be there."
       Gadget held Dale’s hand. "That’s what I was afraid of too, but it didn’t happen." Dale smiled at her comment. "Me too—if anything, the magic only grew stronger." Chip averted his eyes as they embraced again, and Zipper saw it, filing that information away for later. Then a knock came at the door.

       Monty jumped up. "They here already? Get ready, Zipper ol’ pal!" Gadget gingerly hugged the fly. "This is it, Zipper. Your ‘date’ with destiny!" Monty opened the door, and a drone carrying a trumpet came in. He stationed himself just inside, and stood aside as a red carpet rolled in and ended about halfway inside the room. The drone blew his trumpet.
       "Announcing her royal majesty, Queen Honey Regina the third...." The Rangers all reacted as one. "Queen Honey?" Dale giggled and whispered to Gadget, "A bee named Honey!" She came in, attendants on both sides of her. The bee queen was wearing her royal amber jewelry and looking as regal as was possible for a queen to be. She approached Chip first as the leader of the Rangers, her head up and eyes closed and she held out her hand to him.
       Monty welcomed her first. "Howdy do, yer majesty! Glad ya could stop by." Honey kept her eyes closed and her hand outstretched. "I am pleased that I could find some time to come today. You may kiss the royal hand, Mr. Maplewood." Zipper gave Chip a pleading look. Chip sighed and swallowed his pride—something he had found himself doing a lot lately—and kissed her hand.
       "Greetings, your majesty," Chip said as mannerly as he could. Honey was as haughty as, well, as a queen. "Ah, very commendable. Your manners have improved since last time. Now, I should like to speak with Zipper." As Chip worked to hide his annoyance, the attendants flew in with a soft, velvety chair for Honey. She seated herself there, facing the couch.
       Monty looked at his teammates and raised his eyebrows. "Looks like we’ve been dismissed. Come on, everyone. Let’s give them some alone time, if ya know what I mean." Zipper waited till the others had left and then sat on the edge of the couch across from her and stared at her for a few moments. He had forgotten how beautiful she was, and the anxiety began to build but he steeled himself. Now that he could speak he found he couldn’t think of what his first words to her would be.

       Honey spoke first. "Zipper, I am glad to see you looking so well. Those stitches look uncomfortable though. Are you uncomfortable? You can just nod you head or something for yes." Zipper opened his mouth, "I can say ‘yes’ just fine."
       Honey gasped, and looked in utter disbelief. Zipper could talk! So that’s what it had all been about! She recovered herself as fast as she could. "Well...that’s...that’s very nice, Zipper! I didn’t think you would ever speak. I’ve never heard of anyone of the insect class having such an operation! How was this possible?" Zipper started to explain but realized that doing so would wear out his voice so he wrote a quick synopsis and handed it to her.
       "I admit I am surprised that a mammal would perform such a task on an insect, with the ancient separation between our kind and theirs. Perhaps if this Doctor Batorious comes while I am here, I could thank him for what he has done. But why did you have this procedure done, Zipper? Was it necessary?" Honey asked.
       "I reached a point in my life where I needed to take a chance, Queen Honey. Being able to talk will be a big help to my being a Ranger and it allows me to finally say something..." Zipper said, looking at her longingly. Honey was all attention. "Yes, what is it?" Zipper said, "Queen Honey, I think I love you."
       Honey blinked a couple of times, as if trying to convince herself that he’d said it. Then she smiled a bit. "Well, that’s very sweet if a little forward. I have good feelings toward you too, Zipper." Zipper knew she didn’t understand. "I don’t know how long my voice will hold out so I have to get this across fast. I know you have people telling you that all day long. They do it because they have to, but I say it because I want to. I’ve never met a woman like you before, your majesty. You’re extraordinary."
       Honey looked uncomfortable. Whatever she’d expected, it wasn’t this. Still, she blushed at the compliment and looked at him, smiling a little more. "I...I don’t know what to say, Zipper. I think I know what you are telling me, but this is...rather unexpected. For a commoner to really love royalty is a rare thing indeed."
       Zipper grimaced at her "commoner" remark. "You have to stop looking at people as common and nobility. People are people." Honey was about to offer her hand for Zipper to salute, but pulled it back in at that remark. "Yes, they are people. But nobility have to maintain a different standard. I made a great effort to come here to this tree, Zipper. Normally, I would receive no one anywhere but in my throne room."
       "That says to me that I am more than just a commoner in your strikingly beautiful eyes," Zipper said. Honey took the compliment in stride. "Yes, because you aided me so nobly in our last encounter I consider you a special ally to the realm. That requires extra efforts. And it was good of you to notice my eyes."
       Zipper was growing bolder. "Your majesty…uh, may I call you Honey?" The bee queen nodded courteously. "When we are alone like this, you have my permission. Otherwise, you should refer to me as Queen Honey or your majesty." Honey again extended her hand for Zipper to salute and Zipper kissed it. "If only you knew more about the outside world and the people in it. I know I’m just a fly and a common one at that, but you already know that there’s so much more to me."
       Honey looked appreciatively at him. "Yes, you have a brave heart. As for getting outside, this has been my first venture into the world since that nightmarish time when I lost my swarm and you and the others had to rescue them. Oh, I didn’t sleep well for weeks after that! Aliwicious suggested that I should venture out more often, but with my royal duties I can barely get through the day."
       A bizarre idea began to form in Zipper’s mind. "Now that I can talk, perhaps you could use that as an excuse to get away from the hive and visit. I’m sure your people could keep things running." Honey looked at him in shock. "WHAT? Me, leave? Why, they’d be lost without me! You saw what happened when that evil human got hold of them. Robbing, harassing, attacking. They need me to maintain order and stability! As my mother said, "Without the queen, the hive will collapse."
       **It was worth a shot**. "My voice is starting to go. I love you, Honey, and if you are willing, I’d like us to explore those feelings, to know if you feel that way about me." Honey snapped her fingers and an attendant flew in fast with a calendar. "Let’s see...very well. I can return here in four days. Will we need the whole evening?"
       Zipper gave her a wink. "That’s up to you." Honey held her head up in regal fashion. "Very well. I shall arrive at seven, then. I am glad to know such an important ally of mine is doing so well." She stood up from her chair, and the attendants whisked it away. Honey walked to the door, another drone rolling up the carpet behind her. She smiled again at Zipper, and then she flew off. Zipper put his hands behind his head and leaned back on the couch, and sighed contentedly. "It’s a date."



Chapter Six--Two Little Dreams Tossed To and Fro

       The other Rangers had been waiting outside, with Chip holding Dale back from peeking. As the entourage left, the Rangers headed inside. "So how’d it go, pally? Did she take it okay?" Monty asked. Zipper smiled big time. "We have a date! She’s going to be coming back in four days and stay for the evening!"
       "That’s great news! Way to go, Zipper!" Gadget said. Foxy nudged him friendly-like. "Sounds like she really fell for you!" Dale followed suit. "Ho, ho! Lady-killer!" Chip shook his hand. "You did great!" Monty pulled on his coat lapels. "That’s my pally, always a great one with the girls. Jus’ like me."
       Gadget gave a curious look Monty. "That coming from Mr. Confirmed Bachelor for life?" Monty squirmed and grabbed his flight cap and twisted it. "Aw, now Gadget luv! Just because I’m alone right now doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the company of a fine lady. Many’s the time I remember the romantic feelin’ coming over me. Why there was that time...." Monty spent the next ten minutes telling them about the marmoset he met in Marseilles. They’d all heard it before, but they were all too polite to say anything.
       "Now I can start telling my stories!" Zipper said at the end of it. Monty smiled at his partner. "That’s right, pally. And you’ve had one o’ the best ta teach ya all this time." The rest of the Rangers looked at each other with dread.
       It was Chip who broke the train of thought. "Well, it’s good to finally hear your voice, Zipper. And what’s more, you have a lot more enthusiasm than I realized. When you’re all better, your talking will be a big asset to us."
       "Did you tell her you loved her?" Foxy asked.
       Zipper nodded, "Yes, but she didn’t understand that’s what I meant at first. She’s so...oh, I’d better stop talking...." Zipper pulled out his tablet and wrote, "She’s so used to being coddled by her subjects that she didn’t realize that I wasn’t just paying her homage at first. But she seemed to appreciate it. Like I told you all, she masked her true feelings behind that aristocratic shell of hers"
       Dale sauntered over to him slyly. "Then you’ll just have to be the suave dude to melt the ice queen’s icy heart." Zipper frowned and replied, "That’s just it. She’s not really an ice queen or anything like that. She’s nice, but she’s so proud she’s determined to only be nice as long as she’s treated superior! I did the best I could with her this time, but maybe with a full evening I can get her to see that I have to be an equal in this thing."
       Gadget was concerned for her friend, and knew that Zipper wanted to happy. "Just don’t give up, Zipper. It’s worth the wait." Dale smiled over at Gadget. "Yeah, what she said." Zipper nodded, and wrote, "I’ll wait, but it’s going to be a challenge. At least I still feel I love her. That helps."
       Foxy nudged Chip again. Chip rolled his eyes at her, but in good humor. "Yes, and she may likely be difficult. The important thing to find out is, does she share those feelings you have? If she does, then you’ve got something to build on. But she may not...may not be willing to just accept you on your terms."
       Zipper wrote on his pad, "I know, Chip. But I have to take the chance." Monty winked at his buddy, "We’ll do everything we can to make the night just right. A romantic meal, maybe a little romantic music and then we’ll see."

       Queenie returned home to her hive, receiving the usual fanfare and warm welcomes. She was always appreciative of such treatment, but she found somewhat less so this evening. Zipper’s words were still in her mind as she retired for the night. Her private royal chambers were at the exact center of the hive. She was surrounded with lace, silk, plush pink carpets, and a canopied bed with the royal symbol on top and carved into the cherry wood foot of the bed. Once she had changed, taken off her crown, and slipped into her solid silk nightgown, she settled into bed and the thoughts began to take over.
       "He loves me? I’ve never had a suitor before. Well not since...but a commoner is something I’d never considered. Still, he is gallant and all. But if I did, that would mean...oh, it’s all too much to think of now." Honey turned off the light and settled into bed. After all, she had four days to think about it.

       The next four days sped by for every Ranger except Zipper. He counted the hours, and it seemed like he was in a separate time frame from the others. When the big night arrived, Monty had kept his promise to his friend, and then some. They’d laid out a very nice table for the occasion, with Monty personally supervising the fare. Zipper had let them know that he didn’t want anyone else around, and he thanked them sincerely when they agreed. When the knock on the door came, the food was ready, the fly was spiffy and the music was playing.
       Zipper was wearing a dinner jacket and he adjusted his tie, then he opened the door. He gasped upon seeing Honey. It would seem she had also dressed up for the evening—a silken purple-colored evening dress with white edging, puffed white sleeves, and sporting her amber earrings and her royal diadem on her head.
       "Your majesty, you look amazing," Zipper said, and meant it. Zipper kissed her hand. As he looked up, Zipper also noticed that she wore an amethyst necklace, and the effect was very good. She smiled at his greeting. "Aliwicious, once you have served us you may leave and tell the others I will be escorted home tonight by Zipper."
       Aliwicious was flabbergasted. "B..b..but your majesty....." Honey turned and snapped at him, "You heard me! Now serve us." Aliwicious bowed and obeyed. Soon, they were dining on the best "high-falutin’" food as Monty had put it. Honey found the meal very agreeable, much to her surprise. "My compliments to the chef. Who did you hire to cook this?"
       "I didn’t need to hire anyone. It was Monty that did the cooking. He’s a great chef," Zipper said. Honey looked up from her soup in further surprise. "The large mouse? I had no idea a common mammal could cook so well. His culinary ability rivals that of my royal chef!" Zipper’s brow knotted a bit at her backhand compliment. "Monty’s as uncommon as they come. He’s been doing all the cooking here since the Rangers started and he’s cooked for me and him for as long as I can remember."
       "Perhaps I’ve misjudged mammals. I was taught from an early age that mammals were not to be trusted or even associated with. But your friends have always treated me well. Perhaps times have changed since the great rift of my grandmother’s day," Honey mused. This term was new to Zipper, and the curiosity on his face showed it. Honey saw it, and almost instantly reflected it.
       "Surely you’ve heard of the great rift? All of us bees are taught of the time when mammals and insects had great distrust for each other. It was seen as ‘a logical progression in the separation of the various insect species from those who were not,’" Honey noted, quoting from memory. Zipper had been aware of such prejudices existing, but he wasn’t aware that they still existed. Still, he had spent most of his life among mammals.
       "Well, look at the Rangers—two mice, two chipmunks, a bat, a squirrel and a fly. And Dale and Gadget are in love and so are Chip and Foxglove. Differences in appearance don’t matter much to us," Zipper countered. Honey delicately cleaned her mouth with her napkin and set it down. "I’ve been around my own kind all my life. In fact, until I met you I’d never really spoken to another insect outside my hive. I’d said hello to a few butterflies, but my nannies tended to keep me away from anyone while I was growing up. I had so much to learn—etiquette, commands, posture. It’s hard to be a queen, you know."
       Zipper was glad that Honey was finally beginning to speak candidly, and decided to press the point. "How did you like that first taste of freedom when you were away from your hive?"
       Honey finished her repast and Zipper rose and escorted her from the table to the sofa. "At first, I was terrified. I had never been alone—I mean really alone—since I could remember. Then you were there. I was glad to see a fellow insect, even though you weren’t a bee. If I had met your friends when I had my swarm, I might would have ordered an attack. But they treated me okay, if a little roughly. It was… interesting seeing what was in the world beyond the hive, but scary too. I didn’t know what to do out there. At the hive, I feel safe and secure."
       "Maybe being isolated for so long just among your own people has made you afraid. Perhaps it’s time you saw the world from the other side," Zipper suggested, a twinge of hope entering his voice. Honey got up and walked to the window. The moon was up now and cast a pallor of pearly light on everything. "I’ve been taught to fear and not want that world. I’ve had only one responsibility in my life and that’s to be queen. To walk away from that would be..."
       Zipper joined her at the window and took her hand. "I didn’t say you should walk away, just know that there is a whole wide world out there—wondrous things, both beautiful and frightening. And wonderful people..." Honey felt his hand, and wanted to pull away and grab it tighter at the same time
       "I don’t know. What I saw before wasn’t too pretty," Honey said uncertainly. Zipper looked outside, and thought aloud. "I admit that life can be ugly sometimes. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people you know and trust, like the Rangers. They’re like family to me and I am to them."
       "That’s why I feel so attached to the hive. They love me, and care about me and I feel needed there. When I was out here, I didn’t really feel needed. I felt alone, angry, and scared all at once," Honey said.
       Zipper decided to go on step further. "Do they love you or your status as Queen?" Honey turned, a cross look on her face. "How could you ask such a question? Of course they love me! I’m the most beautiful person in their lives. I’m the one the makes their day run right. Without me, the hive would fall apart! Without me…."
       "Without you they would find another queen," Zipper said bluntly.

       Honey pursed her lips and stomped outside. She walked out onto the veranda, and leaned her back against the bottom of a railing. Her arms were crossed and she was agitated. Zipper followed her and knew that their relationship hung in the balance. Still, he didn’t want one if it wasn’t honest. Honey gave him a condescending look as he approached.
       "I shouldn’t have expected anything else from a commoner. You don’t understand how my subjects feel about me! I am Queen Honey Regina the third, and I am the only one who can rule!" Zipper’s dander was up now. "The reason you didn’t expect anyone to say it is because it’s the truth, something you’ve been protected from all your life! Sorry Honey, that was harsh."
       Honey blinked at his statement, disbelieving. "What? Are you insinuating that my subjects don’t love me and that I’m living in a fantasy world? Is that what you think!" Honey was still angry, but her eyes were beginning to moisten. Zipper took her hand, and he deliberately softened his tone. "Yes, Honey. Their job is to tell you what you want to hear and do whatever you command. That’s what they’d do for any queen."
       Honey’s emotions were teetering between rage and despair. "No! No, you’re lying! They do love me, and I’ll prove it! You’ll see!" Honey flew off, crying and Zipper raced off after her. "Honey! Stop, I’m sorry!" Honey flew faster, and the turmoil was already building in her. "Just go! Leave me alone!"

       She flew on toward her hive alone, while Zipper hung his head and flew back to HQ. He felt like the world had just collapsed and the onus was on him for it. "So now that I can talk, I now have the grand ability to put my foot in my mouth. Good going, Casanova."
       Honey flew back into the hive at a fast speed, and didn’t even stop to listen to the lauding of her attendants. She just went to her room, plopped on the bed and cried. She had hoped that the crying would make the feelings that Zipper had planted in her go away, but after an hour they were still there. She changed for bed as before, but found she couldn’t sleep. New ideas had been given to her, and they challenged everything she’d taken for granted all her life. He couldn’t possibly be right, could he? She decided that come the morning, she would find out.

       Monty hadn’t been able to resist peeking in on his friend, so he’d stole back to Ranger headquarters a little ahead of schedule. He was anxious about Zipper, the way he would have been for a son. He seated himself in a nearby tree and looked—but there was no sign of anyone. Monty wondered if maybe Zipper had decided to take Honey out somewhere, when he heard a familiar buzzing. Zipper had returned! Monty jumped down and went over to the treehouse just in time to catch Zipper in the main room.
       "Hey, pally! Date broke out kinda early, didn’t it?" Monty asked. Zipper looked up at him morosely. "Broke is the right word for it. I guess I insulted her and she flew off. What was I thinking? She probably hates me now!" Monty, a veteran of many an affair de coeur, smiled down at love’s latest victim. "Hate you? Can’t see how, mate. She come all the way over here just ta be with you. What’d you tell her?"
       "I told her that she was living in a fantasy world and that her people didn’t really love her and that she should leave the hive," Zipper said. "Bad move on a first date, huh?" Monty blinked a couple of times. He was truly impressed with the boldness of his little comrade. "Well, you’d have to tell her the truth sometime—that or treat her like they do or just let it drop. I know ya, mate. You’re the kind what likes ta face the world as it is. That’s why I like you so much. But she’s never had ta do that. I’m sure she’s mad or sad right now or both, but what you said may have done her a world ‘o good. Jus’ don’t press her for a bit, mate. Let her make the next move."
       Zipper eyes took on a note of panic. "But what if she never speaks to me again? What if I made her hate me? Look what happened to Chip when he was told the truth." Monty knew Zipper had a point, but still it was different here. It always was. "Don’t worry, pally. You don’t know female-types like I do. If she ran off when you said those things, then she’s considerin’ over it right now. She’s likely never questioned whether those workers ‘round her really like ‘er. But she’ll talk to ya again, have no worries about that."
       "I hope you’re right, Monty, but she was pretty steamed. All I can do now is wait, and hope," Zipper said.

       The night passed, and with the dawning it was clear to see that Zipper was agitated. Monty had told the others what happened when they came back, and they all agreed to take it slow and easy. So when Chip and Dale came into the main room from breakfast, they looked at each other with uncertainty as their fly friend was sitting on the couch with his arms crossed.
       Dale felt self-conscious, and voiced it. "I’m sorry, Zipper. I guess I shouldn’t have been giving you advice on women." Zipper waved it off. "Oh, don’t trouble yourself. It’s not your fault." Chip wanted to cheer him, even a little. "Don’t worry, Zipper. I’m sure it’s not the end of the world."
       Zipper stared at the television screen, almost trancelike. "I made such a fool of myself with her! But I’m so used to saying what I think. It just came out."
       "Don’t you mean you’re used to speaking your mind since you got your voice?" Dale asked. "I’ve been speaking my mind for years, Dale," Zipper replied. "It’s just that you guys haven’t been able to understand it all. I guess I was spoiled in a way, but with Monty it didn’t matter what I said. Now that everyone understands me, I guess I’ll have to start reining it in some."
       Chip broke in again. "Well, she does have pride issues that need to be addressed before any kind of meaningful relationship can begin. As for reining it in, that’s something we both have to learn, Zipper." Zipper gave his buddy a smirk. "Nothing like a couple of old dogs learning new tricks, right? Well, you’ve done okay so far and better than I thought you would. You’re usually a lot more stubborn."
       Chip was about to make a blunt comment, but glanced at Dale and changed his mind. "I used to be, but that’s what got me into this mess in the first place." Zipper also gave a look to Dale, and Dale quickly made an excuse and left the room. Zipper had wanted an opportunity to speak with Chip and now seemed the time.
       "Look, I’ve known you for a long time, Chip. And I know that you’re fighting an inner battle. Many’s the time I wanted to talk with you like this, because I consider you a kindred spirit of sorts. We both believe in what we’re doing, and I know Dale’s revelation hurt you more than you’ll admit. But I want you to know whatever comes, you can always talk to me."
       "Thanks, Zipper. It may take a little while for me to take up that offer. It’s still so strange hearing you talk, it’s going to take some adjusting till we get used to the new, improved Zipper. But I’d appreciate being able to talk to you about this," Chip said.
       Zipper knew that about Chip, and was glad he was in a place where he could talk to him like this. "I know. My speech problem forced me to use gestures much more than normal, and I can read people’s gestures pretty well. I know what you’ve been thinking, and when you’re ready I’ll listen. I’m blunt as a board, but you can take heart from knowing that I won’t lie to you. I take honesty very serious."
       Chip squirmed on the couch some. "Thanks, Zipper. I just wish I could be honest with Dale. He more than anyone deserves my total honesty, but I just can’t bring myself to do it."
       "You will, Chip. You will. When the time comes..." Zipper said.
       Zipper had to stop talking again, and wrote on his pad. "Just remember that emotion can lead you to say things you may regret. You may not be able to stop yourself, but once the damage is done it’s done. I realize that now in my own situation and I’m not going to let it beat me. You don’t let it beat you, either." And once Chip had seen it, Zipper tore the message up, indicating he’d keep it private
       Chip smiled at Zipper. "Thanks, my friend."
       Zipper nodded as Chip left the room. The talk had been good for both of them, and now Zipper knew that he would do something about his situation with Honey. He didn’t know just what yet, but he would do something.

       Honey stretched as a bee-sized trumpet announced the coming of day. Assuming her royal raiment, Honey flew slowly into the throne chamber. Attendants fed her, polished her wings and updated her on the news of the hive. She was just starting to feel normal when Zipper’s comments came to her mind again. She cleared her throat, and her major domo Aliwicious flew quickly to her side.
       "How may I serve you, my queen…" he said, oozing adoration. She heard his tone, and had never questioned that he was sincere. "Aliwicious," she began, "do you like me?" In all his years of service to Honey and her mother, he had never heard that question. "What do you mean, my liege? Of course I like you!"
       Honey knew he didn’t understand. "No, Aliwicious. I mean, do you like me as a person?" The butleresque bee still looked confused, so she drew a breath and added, "If I weren’t the queen, would you still like me?" Aliwicious didn’t say anything at first, then replied, "I have served you and your mother Arabella with honor. For you to ask me to separate you from the throne, that I cannot do. I have been a royal servant all my life."
       Aliwicious flew off once his queen dismissed him, and Honey weighed his words. She decided that he was telling her he couldn’t give an honest opinion, and he was probably right. But who could? She had to eliminate all her regular attendants. The drones? None of them really knew her that well. Honey frowned, realized that there just wasn’t anyone she could go to for an objective opinion. Then it hit her—she didn’t have one real close friend among them. Not like Zipper anyway. There was only one person who might tell her anything, and that was Justina. Justina was a nearby queen in a hive closer to the city. She hadn’t visited Justina since they were children, but now seemed a good time for it.

       Honey called two of her attendants to her and made arrangements to leave the hive. It was quite an undertaking in the business of the day, and no one wanted her to go out again so soon. Still, her word was law in the hive and they obeyed. As she flew, guarded by her attendants, Honey thought more on Justina. She had enjoyed the few times they had played together, before the pressures of queenhood were placed on them both. As she neared the other hive, the guardian drones challenged the newcomers’ presence. Once Honey stated her name and her business, she was shown into Queen Justina’s royal chambers. Justina looked very similar to Honey with her short blonde hair done up in similar fashion.
       Honey held out her arms. "Greetings, Justina. How are you, old friend?" Justina rose from her throne immediately. "Oh, it is you, Honey dear? Oooh, I haven’t seen you in years! How is my little fellow queenie?" She giggled and hugged Honey lightly, in formal fashion.
       "I am troubled, Justina, and I needed someone who could give me an honest answer about something." Justina adjusted her crown and primped in a large mirror. "Well, if you can’t ask another queen, whom can you?"
       Then an attendant bee came in, on his knees. "Pardon, your majesty! Pardon, but I regret to tell you that the pollen collection has risen no more this week..." Honey flinched as Justina turned in red-faced anger on her subject "Didn’t I tell you they were getting too many breaks? Now you see to it that they bring in more pollen or..." She assumed a probing smile and a mock kind voice. "Or your dear queen will just have to find herself a new head attendant."
       The drone flew out quickly and then Justina resumed her sunny appearance. "Now what’s troubling you so, my old friend?" During that whole interlude with the drone, Honey had mentally placed herself in Justina’s place and could unfortunately believe she would have acted the same way. "Justina, do our people love us or do they just obey us?"
       Justina let out a "humph", and adjusted her crown again. "What does it matter if they love us or not? Obedience is the main thing. We’re queens! It’s the law! They’ll obey it or they’ll pay the penalty. It’s always been that way. I remember you talking as a girl about how you’d rule different. Are you being soft on those laborers of yours?"
       Honey felt she was under scrutiny now. "No, it’s just that I’ve met someone and he raised some disturbing questions in my mind." Justina perked up at this news. "Oh, you have a suitor?" Justina bounded over, thinking of a gala event and meeting with all the uppercrust in the area. "Is he one of those Russian prince bees that’s come over in the last few years? I’d just love to meet one of those? What’s his pedigree?"
       Honey was embarrassed at first when she thought of Zipper. But then she realized she had no reason to be. After all, Zipper was not someone to be ashamed of. "He’s a heroic fly, of no pedigree except that of being one of the mighty Rescue Rangers."
       Justina was taken aback, and sneered at her. "A fly? A common FLY? Why, they’re no better than the refuse we throw out! What could you be thinking? If you married him, then you’d have to abdicate your throne! As for those Rescue persons, I’ve heard of them. Mammals are never to be trusted! It’s best that you just get those thoughts out of your head and protect your crown! After all, it’s not good for the laboring class to think that their queen would dare contemplate a liaison with such a common insect."
       Honey was angry now, but she didn’t know what to say at first. Then she remembered Zipper’s words in defense of Monty. "Zipper is the most uncommon fly there is! He and his friends saved my hive from destruction. What good is a crown if it only means insincere words and mindless obedience? What of true love and respect for fellow beings?"
       Justina took on an advisory mode, and led her a plush seat as Justina remounted her throne. "Now Honey, I know that you’re upset. Our lives can be very demanding ones. You’re undoubtedly under a lot of stress, or you wouldn’t have said those things. You asked a while back if any or our laborers love us. Well, I don’t know about yours, but mine loathe me and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Fear is the only way to keep them producing! Believe me, if they didn’t think you’d use your authority on them, they’d kick you out or leave you in a second. That’s just the way things are, sweets. So you’d better keep a good eye on them. As for your "uncommon" fly, I’ll be sure to come by and visit you and him both—when you’re married and in the depths of poverty!"
       Justina laughed mockingly at her, and signaled for Honey’s attendants to show her out as she returned to her primping. Honey’s mind and body felt numb as she flew out of her "friend’s" hive. She looked at her attendants—they would fight to the death to protect her, but it was their place to do that for their queen. Would they do that for her if she were just a drone?

       Eight more days passed by, wherein Zipper’s voice got continually stronger. He could now talk for a couple of hours a day without stopping, and Doctor Batorious proclaimed him ahead of schedule at the end of his next visit. Zipper was also starting to fly further, and that afternoon Foxy had gone with him while he exercised. She had come to like Zipper, even though she had to admit that feeling was strange toward what could be a possible meal. After flying into the park, the twosome rested on a tree branch near one of the park benches
       "Feeling okay, Zipper?" Foxy asked.
       "I’m fine, just a…little out of practice from the last week or so of almost no flying," Zipper replied, catching his breath. "Thanks for coming along and keeping me company, Foxglove."
       Foxy gave him her patent smile. "Oh, that’s okay. I haven’t been getting much flying in myself lately. I mostly walk with my cutie. You’re a really fast healer, aren’t you?" Zipper smiled back. "I’m Superfly!"
       Foxy giggled, "You must be! Say, I haven’t gotten to ask you about your girlfriend much. I know what Monty said, but do you think Honey’s coming back? I mean, a girl sometimes expects a guy to make the move you know."
       Zipper’s eyelids lowered halfway as he looked down from their branch toward the ground. "She’s so hard to read. Did I fatally injure her pride? Is she waiting for me to apologize? Will she have her people chase me away for insulting her? I think I doomed our relationship before it even started."
       Foxy looked very sympathetic.
       "Well, if I was in her place I wouldn’t think so. You may have hurt her feelings, but that only lasts for a little while. Frankly, I’m surprised that she hasn’t sent you some kind of message by now. If she didn’t receive you, I’d be even more surprised," Foxy commented.
       Zipper barked a laugh. "You really think I should just go to her? Are you cuh-razy! I can’t believe I just said that..." Foxy laughed at his remark. "Yep, that’s just how Chip would say it! But sure, why don’t you? I bet if you went over there and just showed that she’s still special to you, she’d really like it. Can you sing?"
       Zipper laughed again at this idea, mainly at himself. "I can hum, but I never had the ability to sing until now. I don’t know, maybe." Foxy was building an idea quickly. "Well, let’s find out. Don’t tell the others yet, but I like to sing. I’m just...well, a little shy about letting go with it. But see if you can do this..." Foxy sang the musical scale up and down, her voice sounding strong and pure. Zipper attempted the same scales and looked to her for her reaction.
       "Hey, you’re pretty good! Your lung capacity is good, so the more you sing the better you’ll be. You know, what you could do is serenade her. That’s so romantic! I wish Chip would do something like that for me." Zipper’s bug-eyes bugged out wider. "Me? Sing to Honey? Well, it does sound like something a guy would do for a Queen bee. What should I sing?"
       Foxy tapped her chin with her wingtip in thought. "Well, it should be something special, and something that you can sing from the heart. Do you have a favorite song, or have you written anything about your feelings that you could sing?"
       Zipper smiled. "Funny you should say that..." Zipper pulled out a piece of paper, and starting reading a poem he’d written and ended up singing at the end. Foxy closed her eyes while he read it, and she just basked in the lyric poetry. When he was finished, she opened them again and smiled broadly.
       "Oh Zipper, she’ll love it! You wrote those lyrics based on that song from Phantom of the Opera, didn’t you? The pacing is exactly the same as ‘Music of the Night’!" Zipper smiled again. "It’s my second favorite play." Foxy’s interest was piqued. "Oh? What’s your favorite?" Zipper looked around then got close and whispered. "Don’t tell Monty, but it’s Cats."
       Foxy giggled, and then broke in the refrain from ‘Memory’. Zipper began giggling, but was soon impressed with Foxglove’s singing. "Have you ever sung for Chip?" Foxy looked uncomfortable and her eyes left Zipper. "Uh, noooo....I haven’t." Zipper flew up and gave her a friendly tap on the cheek with his elbow. "You should give it a shot some time. You never know what might topple his defenses."
       "It’s not just that, Zipper. I get so emotional around him—it’s like being nervous and joyful at the same time. I try to control it, but if I started singing I might lose it. I mean, singing has to come from the heart and my heart just wants to be with him. Plus, Chip can be so critical at times—I know it’s part of him and I’ve become used to it—but my singing is special to me and I don’t always take criticism that well."
       "Go for his ego, sing about him," Zipper suggested. Foxy had to grin at that. This fly was not only perceptive, he was openly honest. "Well, I guess that would be one way. So you have a song suggestion?" Zipper did a lip curl. "How about, ‘Hunka, hunka burnin’ love’, pretty momma!" Foxy laughed so hard that she fell off the branch and had to fly to get back on. She wiped tears from her eyes, and it took a while for her to get control again.
       "That imitation was neat! But I don’t think it’s really the song I want. I guess I’ll have to think it over. But thanks for listening, Zipper. It’s nice to have someone like you to talk about things with," Foxy said. "You’re welcome, Foxglove. I’m glad to finally be of help to my friends," Zipper replied. "Oh, I have a feeling you’ve been a help before," Foxy said. "Maybe it’s just that now you’re more of a help."

       Honey had been so surprised about what she’d learned from Justina, that she hadn’t dared venture outside for days. She couldn’t believe how shallow her old friend had been, and how Justina had seen the behavior as "natural". She could certainly see Zipper’s points with Justina. But at times, she’d done similar things. Honey found herself in an ongoing mental argument with herself, and not knowing what to do next. Finally, she decided that she needed to talk to someone again and even though Aliwicious had refused the last time, he was still her most trusted assistant. When she flew out to the throne chamber, he was there and waiting to serve
       Honey flew up to him. "Aliwicious, I have a question for you..." The major domo bowed low before her. "I am your most humble servant, my Queen. I shall do my best to answer." Honey indicated for the other drones to leave the room, to give them privacy.
       "Aliwicious, we’re alone now so I want you to be honest. What is my greatest fault?" Aliwicious looked at her blankly for a few moments, as though unsure that he had heard her correctly. "Only that you are too wonderful to grace the mortal world, the likes of a Queen like you must surely have descended from the heavens to condescend to be with us."
       Honey heard the words, and saw the bowing and scraping in his face and form but she suspected now what Zipper had said was true. Still, she had try again. "I’m not asking you to compliment me, Aliwicious. I really want an honest opinion. Don’t worry, I won’t get angry or do anything to you."
       The servant now began to feel alarmed by these questions and began sweating. Was this a test of his loyalty? "Uh, I can’t think of anything, your majesty. You are without flaw!" Honey actually came over and took his hands. "Please, Aliwicious! No one else would dare say anything to me. Are you so conditioned to being my servant that you can’t be my friend?" Aliwicious dearly wished he were dead, rather than be here at this moment.

       Zipper had taken heart from Foxy’s conversation. He knew he couldn’t let her go back, or the others would blame her for leaving him alone. So she went along most of the way with him, and perched on the tree near the hive in question at a discrete distance. Foxy spoke some last words of encouragement to him, then Zipper went on alone. He’d never thought of visiting Honey at her hive, so this was as close as he’d been. The guardian drone challenged him, but fortunately it was one of the attendants that had been with Honey so he let Zipper alone and the serenader stopped just inside the entrance.
       "Well, here goes everything..."
       Zipper had long since memorized his song—the poem he’d written to Honey. The fly had been enchanted with the idea of the Phantom in the musical he enjoyed, and had seen a lot of himself in the character. He had long worn a mask, and now he could finally remove it and show his love without hesitation. He warmed up first like Foxy had shown him in order to clear his throat. The guard only turned a curious eye to him and then took up his dutiful vigil. Then Zipper began to sing—softly at first, then louder as boldness came upon him

       Gentle mem’ries
       Call to mind
       Your goodness

       Your bright sun-shine
       Fills my heart with pure bliss

       Won’t you come and tell me
If your heart is filled with yearning

       And bless me with the gleam in your eyes so bright…

       That will see the love
       I feel for you tonight…

       As Zipper was about to begin, Aliwicious had been sweating bullets. "Uh, of course I can be your friend, my queen! I’m anything you need me to be..." The drone stopped as from above both he and Honey could hear a voice, singing from above. It rose in volume and emotion as the song began.
       Honey’s whole countenance changed when she realized who it was. "Zipper...he’s singing to me! I didn’t know he could sing! I’ve got to..oh, but should I? Oh, I’ve got to!"
       Aliwicious said a very silent and heartfelt "thank you" as Honey flew out and emerged near the opening in time to see Zipper sing the last sentence of his first stanza. She stood there, smiling at him. Zipper couldn’t have asked for it to be better, and he silently congratulated himself that he’d written a second verse to sing. Her eyes were locked on him as he flew closer to her and began again, softly.

       Love has ways of
       Pulling us together

       If you feel it
       Don’t put me off forever

       My life is just a quandary
       Of waiting for your your presence

       Of wanting to know my heart’s delight

       And to show the love
       I feel for you tonight….

       Honey smiled warmly at him, walked up to him and offered him her hand. "Welcome to my hive, my friend." Zipper heard the word clearly, but it was the way she said it that mattered. "I am pleased to be here, Honey. Did you enjoy the song?"
       "It was wonderful! No one has ever sung to me before," Honey said. "I had no idea you were so talented. I wonder what other secret abilities you have yet to share." Zipper flew up to where he was face-to-face with her. "We could have a lifetime to find out, if you wanted. I’m glad you think of me as a friend, Honey. I consider you a very special friend, too."
       Honey was momentarily startled by Zipper’s comment about "We could have a lifetime together". Marriage?! She’d have to be much surer about him and herself before she’d make that momentous decision. She led him to her throne room and dismissed Aliwicious, who was more than happy to leave.
       "Zipper, may I ask you a very important question?" Honey asked speculatively.
       Honey took a seat at her throne and leaned forward. "Zipper, what is my greatest fault? Please be honest." Zipper looked at her curiously, but he could see that she really did want a straight answer. That in itself was surprising, due to what had happened at Ranger Headquarters. Maybe Monty had been right after all. Maybe it had done good and not bad. Zipper decided to chance it.
       "Your greatest fault is that you’re self-centered. I don’t think it’s entirely your fault to be honest, because it’s a result of the way you’ve been brought up. One of the problems is that you’ve had everything given to you," Zipper said.
       Then Zipper waved his arms around, indicating the hive. "You’ve earned none of this—you were born into this life. You’ve never had to work for anything. If this were all taken away, you wouldn’t even be able to eat because you wouldn’t know how to find food. But that’s all been hidden from you by your people making you feel powerful, and since you didn’t have to earn the power you don’t know how to use it right," Zipper said. He paused and waited to see her reaction, but when she didn’t say anything the fly continued.
       "So, you tend to be self-centered and feel like you can do anything. But the truth is, this is all pretense—maybe, maybe I said too much...." It pained her to hear him confirm the suspicions that had already begun to form in her mind since her meeting with Queen Justina.
       Honey looked into his eyes. "Zipper, do you dislike me because of those faults?" Zipper had seen the pain in her eyes, and knew that now she knew it was true. "No, not for a second. I know you’re hurting over this, and that says it all. But now you know what the problem is. That gives you the chance to correct it, and make a better life for yourself."
       The bee queen stood and caressed her head with her hand. "This is all so confusing and there’s no one I can talk to about this. It means a lot to me that you’re willing to put up with me." Zipper smiled at her. "You may have faults, but no more than the next person. You have good points too—one of which you’re showing right now. You’re intelligent and willing to admit when you’re wrong. Not too many are like that. You have a natural kindness that has survived despite your conditioning. I know the last few days must have been hard on you, with the feeling that you couldn’t really trust anyone here. You can trust me—I’ll always be honest with you."
       Honey stepped down from her throne. "I know I can always trust you, Zipper. But this is my world, my destiny. I can’t change what is meant to be." Zipper raised his brows. "It is your world, but it doesn’t have to be your destiny. If you stay here, you might could... But you do have another choice. If you come with me, I’ll always be at your side, and I’ you always."
       Honey was flabbergasted. "Zipper, what are you proposing?" Zipper blinked at her words. He was proposing, and he hadn’t even felt nervous about it. He felt it rising in him now with the realization, but he was still grateful he’d said it. She could either say yes, no, or wait a while but at least she’d know his heart.
       Zipper drew a breath and continued. "I know that this is all that you’ve known and all you’ve wanted to know. But there is a world out there that would welcome you. It’s not as bad a place as you’ve heard—granted it’s not perfect, but what is? What I’m asking is, would you…Honey, I don’t ask that you marry me right away although I’d be honored if you chose me. But I love you, and I want you to have a chance to live your life to the fullest and I really think you could be happy with me."
       Zipper didn’t know whether he wanted to hear the answer or not, but he stayed rooted to the spot. Honey was bewildered by Zipper’s proposal. Could she, dare she? "I don’t know, Zipper. It’s too sudden. I know you love me and... and I love you as well. But I don’t know if I can just fly away from all of this. I know you wouldn’t be happy here with me and I don’t know if I can be happy with you where you live. I just don’t know."
       Zipper felt some relief at the answer and walked up and took her hand. "Take all the time you want to think about it. If you decide to stay, I can accept that. It’s your life, and you have to decide how to live it. But I don’t want you to say yes or no to me unless you’re convinced it’s right." Honey knelt down in front of Zipper so that she was eye to eye with him. "Thank you, Zipper."
       Then she kissed him.
       Zipper felt like he was on planet happiness. He kissed her back, and then knew it wasn’t fair to take too much advantage of her confused emotions. "I’ll go now, Honey. When you’ve made a decision either way, you can send for me. Don’t rush it, and whatever choice you make know that I will always love you and cherish what we’ve just shared. Thank you for that, at least."
       Honey had always imagined what the kiss of true love would feel like, and it was every bit as wonderful as she had imagined. No one had ever stirred her heart the way this handsome fly had. She only wished she were bolder and make the choice that her heart screamed for her to make.
       "I promise I will, Zipper. I know you would prefer a straight answer, but now I will put all my energy into this decision. Farewell... my love," she said softly.

       Zipper kissed her hand, then flew off. He didn’t want to go at all, but he felt that it wouldn’t be right if he stayed. He could be too strong an influence on her. Once he was outside, and a safe distance away, the sheer wonderfulness of it all hit him and for the first time in his life Zipper lost all composure.
       Zipper did loop-de-loops, barrel rolls and whatever came to him. When Foxy saw him and tried to ask about it, he just whipped around her and kept on going. He was like that all the way back.

       Aliwicious had been relieved at first, but now a nagging fear was growing in his mind. He came immediately upon her summons, and that feeling grew as he saw how moved she looked. "Yes, your majesty?" Honey was positively brimming in happiness. "Aliwicious, how would feel if I married Zipper, abdicated the throne and lived with the Rescue Rangers?"
       Aliwicious’ face turned pale, and he looked as if he would faint. "Abdicate? Butbutbutbut....your majesty, it’s unthinkable! No queen has abdicated her throne in over ten generations! You have a heritage to uphold—you can’t consider flights of fancy! Your life’s not your own—it belongs to all of us! Without you, we would be lost until we..." Aliwicious didn’t even want to say "until we find a new queen", but he knew it was possible. It just had never entered his thinking before.
       "Until we what?"
       The major domo got on his knees, pleading. "Please, your majesty! The royal line has been a point of pride since my grandfather’s time. I know that you think you share some feelings with this fly, but you owe it to us to stay! Think of your duty! Think of the scandal if you left and we were forced to...forced to choose a new queen."
       Honey was unfazed. "Aliwicious, haven’t you ever dreamed of a life free of bowing and scraping? Master of your own destiny? Please, be honest." Aliwicious just stared at her. "With no queen to serve? I was raised to serve your mother Arabella, and now you. I haven’t known anything else. If you were not here, then....we would just be living for ourselves! How could we find fulfillment in that? The other hives would accuse us of….anarchy!"
       "But even if there was scandal, the hive would continue, the same as always. You would serve the new queen as faithfully as you served me. But why couldn’t I serve the world better with the Rescue Rangers?" Honey asked.
       "Your majesty, you are not being reasonable! You are a queen, and that is all you are. We are your servants—command us and we obey. That is the way of things among us. What could you do out there? You would be lost, and who knows if the fly will be faithful? And what of your reputation...marrying a common fly who is not worthy of your regal blood..."
       Honey buzzed in anger. "I will not stand for any such insults to Zipper! You and the rest of the hive would have been destroyed by that human if not for Zipper and his friends! I have grown up a prisoner of my status and heritage. I have everything but happiness. Doesn’t that matter?"
       "Your happiness is in maintaining your honor and the honor of the hive. Your personal feelings do not enter into it, your majesty. You have a duty to perform, and you had best find your happiness in that. If you cannot, that is none of our affair. We live to serve, but we are not required to make you happy," Aliwicious said frankly.
       Honey crossed her arms. "At last, true honesty. Would you hate me if I followed my dreams?" Aliwicious knew that it was no use balking further and sat down in the floor. "You would soil my honor, and that would not give me reason to treat you fondly, your majesty. I would not hate you personally, for you are like a daughter to me. You have always been kind and good to me and you have treated the drones better than most queens. Your mother instructed me to drill you in being more strict and tough with us, but I could not bring myself to do it. You were different from the beginning, and I suppose fate has brought this about. Go then if you must, your majesty. It will be a hard blow to the hive, but are right. We can survive until another is found."
       Honey helped Aliwicious to his feet then hugged him. "Thank you for your honesty. I would never abandon the hive, but if I do choose Zipper I will stay with you until another Queen is found." Aliwicious breathed a little easier, but not much. "Thank you, your majesty. Has he asked you to decide now?" Honey shook her head. "No, he asked me to consider his proposal, but demanded no answer."
       "Then he thinks of you first, at least. I was concerned that he was coming here, wanting to just take you from us. You know that I am speaking to you not as a servant to his queen now. I speak as one who has known you and cared for you all your life. If you stay here, you will have all your needs and wants provided for. If you go to him, you may have a chance for true happiness. You’ve made all our lives better for being who you are, and if you stay I shall try to speak to you more in this manner if you wish it. But he is right—you must carefully consider it."

       Back at headquarters, the Rangers had been holding supper for Foxy and Zipper. Monty was starting to get worried about his little pally and wondered if he’d gotten into trouble. At the moment he started to go toward the door, Foxy opened it and Zipper flew in. He promptly grabbed Monty’s flight cap and started zinging around the room with it, pleased as cherry pie.
       "Spill the beans, Zipper! What happened?" Dale asked. Foxy watched the fly buzzing overhead. "I’ve been trying to get him to tell me all the way back, but he just giggled and flew on!" Gadget had her head tilted up, trying to follow Zip’s flight path. "Golly, I’ve never seen him this happy, even when he first spoke! Something special must’ve happened."
       Zipper dropped the flight cap on the couch and attacked a vase full of flowers next. He bombed Chip with them, decorating his fedora. Monty found a grin coming onto his face, watching his pally’s silliness. "Come on, lad! Calm yerself and let us know what happened!"
       Chip pulled the flowers out of his hat brim. "What’s going on with you?" Zipper caught his breath and flew down to the Rangers’ level. "She said maybe!" Zipper flew around Chip, and zinged and zanged. "She kissed me! She kissed me! And she told me she loved me!"
       "Oh, Zipper! That’s wonderful!" Foxy said. Now she was gladder then ever she’d talked Zip into it. Dale was caught up in Zipper’s exuberance. "Zipper, that’s great! But what do you mean she said ‘maybe?’ Did you…did you pop the question?"
       Zipper flew to Dale next and grabbed his hands. "I never knew it was like this! Oh, yeah I asked her all right. She was all head over heels about it, so I thought I’d better give her some time. Wow, I feel like dancing!" Zipper started dancing in the air, and Dale caught the beat and was dancing with him, glancing longingly at Gadget as he did.
       Chip was amazed at this turn of events. "Zipper, you mean you just went over there and asked her? I’ve got to admit, that was pretty bold!" Zipper flew right up to Chip’s face. "I’m tired of keeping silent! From now on if I have something to say I’m going to say it!" Then Zipper came closer to him in a confidential mode. "Plus, I got a few pointers from your girl there. You’d better watch out, fly-boy. She’s got some surprises in store for you!" Zipper elbowed Chip and winked at him.
       Foxy blushed bigtime, but couldn’t help giggling. Chip glanced curiously at Foxy. She’d tell him when she was ready. Monty got Chip off the hook. "Well mates, let’s turn this ‘ere supper into a vict’ry celebration!" Monty went to the table and raised his glass. "To me pal Zipper. I hope all yer dreams come true."
       "Hear, hear. To Zipper!" Chip said.
       "Yeah, go for the gold!" Dale added.
       The Rangers all gathered at the table and toasted their happy comrade. He was almost too excited to eat, but managed to get some food down before it was over. As they were finishing up, Zipper spoke again. "I’m getting a little hoarse now, so I’ll keep it short. All of you, thank you for what you’ve done. I never thought I could be this happy! I hope Honey comes to me and marries me, but even if she doesn’t I’ve already got my dream. I know she loves me, and I feel like a whole new fly inside! Everything I went through, every struggle in life was worth it, just for that. Anything else is icing on the cake."



Chapter Seven--Just Plain Good ol' Fun/A Little Dream Takes Root

       The Rangers wished Zipper well, and the evening was a quiet one after that. Gadget and Dale sat together, watching the television with their heads touching each other’s. Chip and Foxy were reading from Murder on the Orient Express in Chip’s room, and Monty made sure that Zipper got to bed and rested. The next couple of days were routine, and then with ten days to go until the prom Dale got up feeling spry and realized that he hadn’t done anything special for Gadget in days.
       "Hmm, I wonder what kind of mischief we can get into today?" Dale thought out loud. Dale was still thinking it over, when Gadget came down from the lair. "Good morning, my beloved super-intelligent vision of glory!" Dale said. Gadget smiled and blushed.
       "Good morning, my flippant flatterer. Sleep well?" Gadget asked. Dale’s eyes were dancing with enthusiasm. "Very well! I was thinking you and I should get out and have some fun today. We’re both a little shy about being seen in public, but we should go out before the prom so it won’t feel so strange. What say we go roller-skating? It’ll be neat!"
       Gadget rubbed her chin for a moment. "Sure! It sounds like fun!" Dale started moving around the floor, pretending he had skates on. "Oh, great! I know you said you had some things to do this morning, so we’ll go right after lunch. Need any help in there?"
       "Sure, I can always use your help." Gadget took Dale’s hand and led him into the workshop. She had been retooling her plunger popper and Gadget instructed Dale on how to manipulate the tension while she adjusted the trigger mechanism. She was pleased to see that Dale was slowly learning a little about machines, just so he could be of help to her in her work.
       After that, Dale worked a drill press while Gadget moved a piece of flat metal underneath it. Dale sang out merrily to the tune of "Loch Lomond"... "You use the me-tal and I’ll use the drill press and I’ll have the holes cut before ye!"

       The work went quickly, and after they’d cleaned up Dale and Gadget joined the others for lunch. Once they told of their plans, the duo headed off to the skating rink. Like most rodent facilities, it was built within a human skating rink in an area not used by the humans. The interior was pleasant and lit from a combination of overhead windows and interior lights.
       When Gadget and Dale entered, they were bombarded by the sounds of happy children, talkative adults and the pleasing sound of skates on wood. "Golly, I haven’t been skating since I was little. I hope I can still skate without looking silly," Gadget said. Dale knew this mood in her now, and didn’t let it bother him. "Aw, don’t worry. You’ve got great coordination. C’mon, let’s get our skates!"
       After a slight wait at the counter, a friendly old guinea pig brought out skates for them both. They proceeded to a bench next to the polished skating floor and laced up their shoes tightly. "Ready, Gadget?" Dale asked. "Just remember to keep your knees bent slightly and your weight under you and you’ll do fine! Now, let’s get out there and show ‘em how it’s done!"
       This was the very same rink Gadget’s father and mother used to take her to when she was little. She missed those times, but she smiled at being here again with someone she loved and making new memories. She held Dale’s hand as she skated. "Thanks, Dale. I’m glad you suggested this."
       Dale was enjoying himself so much, he thought he might burst. He was a roller-skater from way back, and he was thrilled that Gadget was with him. It still seemed like a dream in some ways—this wonder of a girl was willing to go out with him and just have fun! He smiled at her, and his concentration slipped...
       Dale was off-balance, and let go of Gadget’s hand. But he was nimble on his feet, and before he could fall down Dale remembered to go to his knees. He got his center of gravity under him, then used the momentum to spin around on one skate for a couple of revolutions. Then he was upright again, and took Gadget’s hand again without hardly missing a beat
       "Well, I didn’t mean to do that, but it sure would have been cool if I had!" Dale said. Gadget laughed. "Dale, you’re too much. So, are you looking forward to the prom?" Dale was in his element now. "You bet! If it’s half as much fun as this it’ll be a blast. How about you?"
       Gadget’s eyes panned down a bit. "Well, I’m a little nervous, dancing in public. But with you there I’m sure I won’t be nervous for long." Dale chuckled, "Hey, you’re skating in public right now and you’re doing great! There’s nothing to be nervous about, really. If people look at us, it’s either because we’re doing so well or we’re a nice-looking couple. Either way, I’m fine with that."
       "Nice looking? I’ll have a handsome chipmunk in my arms all evening. They’ll be jealous," Gadget said slyly. Dale knew he could just lose himself in her presence, but he decided another mishap wouldn’t look good. Instead, he took her other hand and they moved toward the center of the rink. As they clasped hands, they spun around and around while looking into each other’s face. Then Dale slowed them, and they came over to the side as a few of the onlookers applauded.
       "See? I told you we were good!" Dale said, catching his breath. Gadget hadn’t had this kind of fun in a long time. "Yeah, you’re right, and it’s fun. You surprise me, Dale. You’re good at a lot of things that I never would have expected. I’m flattered that you’re sharing all this with me," Gadget said. Dale was starting to slip away again. "And I’m so grateful that I’ve got someone as wonderful as you to share it with. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be right now..."
       Dale had a thought go through his mind, but he caught himself before he gave it utterance. Instead, her covered himself by kissing her on the cheek. Gadget blushed, but didn’t respond. For a moment she felt as though she was looking into Dale’s mind and saw what was in his heart. She smiled widely and kissed him and then whispered in his ear, "I love you, Dale."
       "And I love you, Gadget. More than anything," Dale whispered back.

       They started to kiss again, when a noise snapped them out of their bliss. It was a young girl mouse, giggling. And she wasn’t alone, by any means. Gadget and Dale hadn’t really realized it, but with their attention so on each other they’d left the rink and were standing next to the bench where they’d tied on their skates. The kids had gathered around, in curiosity at first. Now they were snickering some, and the two lovers blushed in sudden embarrassment. But once the moment of discovery was over, Dale’s attention shifted to his audience.
       "Hiya! How is everyone today?" Dale asked. The kids quit giggling, and a conversation started up. The little girl mouse that had been giggling was by far the most vocal.
       "You and she are Rescue Rangers, right?" the girl asked. Dale was surprised. "Yeah, but how’d you know? And what’s your name?"
       "Katrina." Katrina looked up at Gadget. "Are you the Gadget that Tammy’s always telling us about? You look the way she said you looked." Now it was Gadget’s turn to be surprised. "Golly! How do you know Tammy? Is she a friend of yours?"
       "She and Rob come here all the time! Tammy is our skating instructor here in the summer. Can you really build a plane out of nothing but junk and spare parts?" Katrina asked, full of expectation. Gadget grinned. "Sure! I even built a rocket ship out of a garbage can once."
       The kids all "ooohed" at that. Then a boy mouse pointed at Dale. "Hey! That must be the one that Tammy talked about so much!" Katrina shook her head, and spoke with authority. "No, that’s the one who wore the flight jacket and hat! The one she used to have the goo-goo eyes for. This one must be Dale, right?"
       "Dale Oakmont, the one and only!" Dale said, bowing. "And some would say that that’s a good thing." The kids laughed some, but already most of them had eased up to Dale. He was the more approachable of the two, and the kids sensed it. The boy mouse came right up to him.
       "Hi, my name’s Billy. What’s it like being a Ranger? Tammy says you guys fight it out with mean old villains all the time!" Billy said. Dale had never experienced an ego trip before, but he was really warming up to his first time. "Yeah, we beat them constantly. It’s great being a Ranger!" He took Gadget’s hand. "I’ve never enjoyed my life more."
       One of the other boys pointed to Dale and Gadget’s interlocked hands. "Do you like holding her hand or do you just have to?" Dale and Gadget both blushed. "I love holding her hand," Dale said. "It’s up there with eating and breathing and other things essential to life."
       Billy grimaced. "Eww, sissy stuff!" Katrina was eating it up. "I think it’s marvy. He’s cute!" The kids laughed some more and Dale and Gadget laughed along with them.
       "Well kids, I hate to say this but we’ve got to get going..." Dale said. The unison was disappointment of course. Katrina came up to Dale. "Aw, do you haveta?" Gadget smiled, and emulated Katrina perfectly. "Aw, do we haveta?"

       The kids took up the challenge, and Dale knew he was licked. "Okay, okay! I give up!" The cheer went up, and they all went on the rink floor. Gadget and Dale got to know the kids pretty well, and in the next hour the two Rangers spoke with almost all of them. When they finally did leave, the kids begged them to come back soon and of course they said they would. As the twosome left, they both felt it couldn’t have been nicer.
       "That was swell, wasn’t it?" Dale said. Gadget nodded. "It was wonderful. We’ve spent so much time over the years with our work, I’d forgotten what recreation was like. I forgot what the world was like without fighting and crime solving."
       "I knew you’d love it. And those kids were a nice bunch. They made me feel like I was the President or something! I think if we’d stayed, none of them would’ve gone home," Dale mused. Gadget pressed his arm. "Well, you were like that yourself once, recently even. Remember Flash the Wonderdog? But you’re no actor. You’re the real thing!"
       Dale turned quickly to look at her and see if she was serious. "You mean a hero? But I’ve never thought of myself as one of those—well, except for when I was Rubber Bando...and Double-O-Dale..and of course the times I’ve fantasized about it too." Gadget quit walking, and turned Dale fully towards her. "Stop hiding, Dale! You’re a hero inside and out. You don’t need the costumes anymore. Now you can be Dale Oakmont, Superspy! Or SuperDale!"
       Dale thought back on the kids’ reactions to him, and a laugh came up. "I don’t think I even need to be that. They were in awe of me and I was just plain old me. Gosh, am I a role model now?" Gadget chuckled, "I guess so, Dale. After all, who wouldn’t want to be you?"
       Dale stopped at her saying that. He’d never thought anyone would say that to him, ever. He was just beginning to realize how much things had really changed. He started to cry, then and there, and held her close. "It’s so wonderful to hear that, and know it’s true."
       Gadget smiled warmly and let him see it when the hug ended. "Dale, I’m glad you finally understand." Dale dried his eyes, and offered her his arm. "I understood it before, but I just didn’t believe it till now. C’mon, let’s go home." Gadget took his arm and together they headed for home.

       Just after Gadget and Dale had left for the rink, Chip and Foxy had left for a day in the park. Chip wasn’t the mechanical genius that Gadget was, but he could handle things like the hang glider he was hefting. Since the crash he’d had over a month ago, he’d rebuilt the glider and strengthened it. The chipmunk detective enjoyed the mental diversion of making and repairing the craft, and when he had the time he enjoyed getting to fly. Now he had an even better reason to, with a girlfriend who had wings.
       "Okay, Houston. We’re ready for launch! What’s the flight conditions?" Chip asked. Foxy was delighted that Chip had taken such a keen interesting in flying with her. She had worried at first that her being a different species than her cutie would cause problems, but she knew now that she had, if anything, found a kindred spirit.
       "Light easterly wind, good visibility. I’d say you’re clear for take off, cute stuff," Foxy answered. Chip got into position. "Okay, here we go!" Chip ran and allowed the glider to catch the wind. He took off, and the breeze carried him up into the sky. The city soon was sprawled out in front of him, and the park looked no bigger than the lawn did from their treehouse. Chip’s heart was pounding with the excitement of the moment
       "It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s SuperCutie!" Foxy giggled. Chip looked over and Foxy was there beside him. He smiled at the joke, then decided it was time to give his contraption a real test. He angled the glider toward her.
       "No, it’s the Brown Baron! And I’m on your tail!" Chip shouted. Chip imagined he was piloting an old bi-wing airplane, fighting another monolith of the air. Foxy giggled some more and decided to give Chip a real run for his money. She began evasive flying.
       "Catch me if you can, Chip!" Chip angled the glider up and down, following her through spirals and dives. Foxy was far more maneuverable than the glider of course, and she could easily get on his tail. The bat loved the game, though, and she gave Chip a fair "shot" at her. The next time Chip was the chaser, he pointed his fingers and made gun noises.
       "Better watch out, I’m right behind you!" Foxy quickly dipped and hovered while Chip’s momentum kept him moving forward. Now Foxy was behind him. "Now the hunter has become the hunted!" Foxy said with relish. Chip tried to shake her, but Foxy stayed on him hard. Now she was making the machine gun noises! Chip craned his neck to see where she’d gone but couldn’t find her. Then all of a sudden she appeared right beneath him—in easy smooching distance.
       Foxy gave him a quick kiss. "Bullseye!" Chip laughed, enjoying the unexpected way he’d been "shot down". Chip was really enjoying himself for the first time since…well, since. "You should have been a flying ace! With a kiss like that, you’d have been devastating!"
       Foxy blushed, moving to fly beside him. "I’m glad you like flying so much, Chip. We’ll have to try it at night some time. I can guide you, with my voice. Using just our ears to guide our way." Chip thought about the idea, and despite the danger it posed it thrilled him nonetheless. "Sounds neat! Foxy, do you ever get used to flying? I mean, do you take it for granted?"
       "I guess so. It’s just like walking would be for you. I couldn’t imagine being earthbound. Your fun little game is something like I used to do…" Foxy stopped, as if she hadn’t realized what she said. "What is it, Foxy?" Chip asked. Foxy shook her head. "I don’t know, darling. It just seemed like I’d played like this with someone a long time ago…"

       Over the next couple of minutes, Chip guided the glider down for a safe landing. He was glad it had passed muster this time, and allowed for the good time he’d had. Chip stowed the glider safely at the trunk of a nearby tree as Foxy landed next to him.
       "Thanks, Foxy. I always like to fly! It’s like a freedom that you can’t get any other way. I was thinking about what you said a minute ago about being earthbound. I think in some ways I envy you," Chip said. Foxy enfolded him in her wings. "What could you possibly envy about me?"
       "Well, you can fly anytime you want to. And it’s not with a glider—it’s like you’re just out there. You and the wind. That must be great." Foxy shrugged her shoulders. "It is wonderful, I guess. Well, at least you can fly with me on the glider. Most land-based animals would never even want to do something like that."
       Chip led her to a nearby hill, where they could watch some of the other animals at play. "I’ve always been a thrill-seeker. Just before Dale and I met the other Rangers, we were testing out a paper airplane we’d made. Dale went along for the ride, but I was the one that enjoyed doing it. I’m glad we’ve got something that we both like doing so much. You know, it’s occurred to me that you and I haven’t talked all that much about you yet. Do you have a family?"
       Foxy looked pained and her voice went down to nearly a whisper. "No, none that I know of." Chip could see that he’d hit a sore spot, so he put his arm around her. "Do you know what happened to them?" Foxy shook her head slightly. "No, I’ve always been on my own."
       **No wonder she was so lonely,** Chip thought. To be without a family and not even know them—he couldn’t even imagine it. He held her more tightly. "Well, you’ve got a family now. The Rangers are as good a family as you’ll find. I know they all care about you, and I do too."
       Foxy looked up to Chip, and she had tears in her eyes. "Thank you, Chip. You all are the family I’ve always dreamed of and I’m humbled and proud that I’m considered one of you." Chip grinned at her. "From what I’ve seen, you’re every inch a Ranger."

       Foxy was very uncomfortable with the topic of family, so she changed the topic. "Are you looking forward to going to the prom?" Chip was caught off-guard, and he really hadn’t been giving the dance much thought. "Well, my first prom wasn’t much to brag about. Maybe with you there, this one will be better."
       Foxy’s mood turned from somber to perky in a moment. "I’ve never even been to school, so this will be my first one! I’m so excited!" Chip smiled at her exuberance. "Tammy’s going to my old school near the pond over on the far side of the park. I haven’t been back since I graduated. I wonder if any of the old crowd are still around...our science teacher was a cranky old squirrel by the name of Hattie Spelling. We always called her Miss Spell—well, not to her face. She was tough, but I did end up learning a lot from her."
       Foxy patted him on the back. "Instead of being a student, now you can return to your school as a great hero! The school should be proud to have had you as one of its students." Chip shook his head. "Considering all the trouble I’ve had over the past couple of months, I think I’d settle for someone just remembering my name correctly."
       Chip looked around then, and made sure no one was in hearing distance. "When I was in school, they gave me the nickname ‘Stumpy’ because of my last name. And no, you can’t tell anyone!" Foxy failed to conceal her giggles. "That’s okay, Stu..I mean Chip. I won’t tell anyone." As they collected the glider, Chip’s memories flowed back to his school days. He realized that for him this prom would be like a visit to the past. Silently, he wished that it would be a good one.


       While the couples had been out enjoying each other’s company, Monty had gone on a solo adventure—if you could call cheese raiding an adventure. Zipper had opted out, preferring to rest up some from all that had been happening. Monty understood, of course. It was as if his friend had hit the ground running, and now he needed time to think—think, and plan for the future. Of course, planning wasn’t Monty’s strength, but he understood the need for it from time to time. Take now for instance: Monty was waiting for two guard-cats on the wharf where he was standing to turn leave his area. When they did, the big mouse moved in on the cheese crates they’d been guarding.
       "Ah, nothin’ like scorin’ a wedge of provolone when it’s fresh off the ship! Now for some cheddar, fresh from Cheshire!" Before Monty could start on the second course, he felt someone tap him on the shoulder. He turned, ready to fight, but it was just a bee. Monty thought he recognized him as one of the ones that had been with Queen Honey.
       "A moment of your time, sir?" Aliwicious asked. Monty closed one way and squinted the other. "Say, ain’t you that right hand bee o’ Queenie’s?" Aliwicious bowed ceremoniously and spoke with the refined voice that had been drilled into him. "I am Aliwicious Fortenoy, major domo to the Queen. She requests kindly that you would come with me so that she may speak with you, if you please."
       Monty took off his flight cap and scratched his head for a few moments, thinking the situation over. "Well, anythin’ fer the lady love o’ my little pal, Zipper. Lead on, Al!" Aliwicious started leading the way back. "Very good, and that’s Aliwicious, if you don’t mind. By the by, how is the fly doing?"
       "He’s getting’ better by the day. Say, just between us, what’d she think o’ Zipper’s offer?" Aliwicious hesitated, not sure how much he should say. "The queen was...not entirely unreceptive. However, I should allow her to speak on that matter, for it is part of the primary reason of her summons."
       Monty picked up his pace, and Aliwicious came alongside him. "If you do not mind the question, how did you come to form an alliance with an insect like Zipper? It seems somewhat strange," Aliwicious said. Monty slowed his pace again to speak. "I found the lad when he was just a little nipper. His kind don’t have families like us—yer born and yer on yer own. An’ where I found him he wasn’t goin’ to have much chance, so I looked after him. He’s like a son to me."
       The bee stopped and looked at Monty in surprise. "A son? I never thought I would hear a mammal say such a thing!" Monty smiled at the bee’s surprise. "Well, ya need ta get outta the hive more. Live a little! There’s all kinds o’ strange and wonderful things out ‘ere."
       "I suppose the times have changed, more than I’d been willing to admit. Come, she is waiting just outside the hive," Aliwicious said. The major domo led Monty to a large poplar tree, where the hive hung majestically. Monty didn’t have a way of climbing up, so Honey flew down to him. She came to rest on a medium-sized rock next to the trunk, so that she could sit and be at eye-level with Monty. Aliwicious flew back into the hive to give them privacy.

       "Hello, Monterey," Honey said. "I assume Aliwicious explained the reason for my summons?" Monty walked over near to her. "Well, he said ya wanted to chew the fat about me pal, Zipper. So I’m all ears, yer majesty." Honey shook off her initial reaction to chide his common speech, and continued. "As you know, Zipper came here and spoke with me about leaving the hive. I have been giving the matter some thought and I will send back a reply through you. But first, I wished to meet with you privately to ask some particular questions that I have."
       "Ask away, Queenie," Monty said.
       Honey straightened her dress, as she gathered her thoughts. "First, I would like to know what your group the Rescue Rangers actually does, and what is required and expected of each team member." Monty rubbed his hand on his chin at the question. "Well, the Rangers are a group that helps first an’ foremost those who wouldn’t get help otherwise. You’re a right good example, with you losin’ yer swarm that time. We’ve helped dogs, cats, birds, mice, humans, and yes insects. No case too small for us—that’s our motto."
       Monty took a seat on a rock neighboring Honey’s and continued. "As far as what’s expected and required, each of us decides how we’ll pitch in fer the team. Gadget, she does the inventin’ and complex-type thinking as well as manning her machines. Chip, he’s the leader. He does the plannin’ and all the deductive-type work to find out who did the crime. I’m more or less the muscle o’ the team. Dale up ta now has been more or less a moral support, but now he’s startin’ to come out o’ his shell an’ he has creativity an’ spunk on his side. Zipper’s been in the same predicament as Dale fer the most part, too."
       Honey gave Monty a curious look at this comment, but said nothing so Monty kept on. "Now that the lad has a voice his role’ll be changing too. Foxy’s new to the team, but her flyin’ skills and hearing have already come in handy, ta hear it from Chip. So what would you be required ta do? Jus’ use the skills ya got and be willin’ ta contribute with ‘em. Help the team ta do its job."
       "To be equal or even subordinate to others?" Honey asked pointedly. Monty shrugged. "We’re all an important part of the team, and you would be too. But yeah, you’d be an equal member ta the rest of us. I know ye’re used ta others bowing and scrapin’, but with us we all treat each other as friends."
       Honey’s countenance lost some of its normal zest, and her eyes focused on the ground. "Oh dear, this will be more difficult than I thought. Monterey, Zipper loves me for me and not just because I’m a queen, right?" Monty chuckled some at that, knowing his pally’s thoughts.
       "Too right he loves ya fer you, Queenie! Zipper’s not the type ta be impressed by titles and puttin’ on airs and such. He can be too honest fer his own good at times, but the main thing is he’s honest. You kin trust anything he said to ya was on the level," Monty said. Honey seemed to relax some with that news. Still, she had concern in her eyes. "I’ve gotten so used to everyone doing what I say and others taking care of me, I don’t think I could survive on my own. I’d be helpless outside of the hive."
       "Don’t worry lass. If you came ta us, we’d all help you ta adjust. We wouldn’t push ya beyond what ya could handle at first, but we would expect ya ta learn and have an attitude o’ helpin’ the team. Long as you’re willing ta learn, you can do anything you set yerself ta do," Monty said.
       "Monterey, what do the other Rangers think of me? Do you really think that I could make such an adjustment?" Honey asked. Monty could see that her question about the Rangers was the more pertinent, so he thought it over.
       "Well, I’ll be up-front. We’re not used ta someone who expects ta be treated the way you do. None of us has anything against you personally, mind. We’re just used ta folks what speak their minds and don’t act so formal-like. If ye’re worried about Chip, don’t be. He’s just the kind that has a bit of an edge, but he’s a fair and right person when it comes to the important things. Dale’s a bit playful and such, but I know he wouldn’t mind having ya around. Gadget would be glad to have another female in the house ta talk with. And I think you’ve got a good heart, lass. An’ yes, I do think you could adjust. Like all else, it’ll just take time and will," Monty said.
       "Now, my biggest question. Zipper has great regard for you, so how would you feel if we were to wed?" Honey asked. "And how do you think the others would feel?"
       Monty smiled a bit at the thought of Zipper getting married. "Ever since I found the lad as a nipper, all I’ve wanted fer him is a good and happy life. I took on the responsibility o’ looking after him as a father, and as a father I kin say that I’d be glad if you two tied the knot. I think it’d be a good thing fer ya both, long as you were both dedicated ta making it work. The others? Well, they’re all Zipper’s friends and they’d want him ta be happy too. I suspect they’d be glad as I was."
       Honey folded her hands and placed them on her lap, looking at them. "I just don’t know if I can go from being queen to being…nothing." Monty got up and patted her gently on the back. "Aw, now ya wouldn’t be nothin’! You’d be a Rescue Ranger, and you’d be loved an’ cherished by Zipper. Ya wouldn’t be queen in title, but he’d treat ya better than one! I hadn’t thought about you havin’ to give up yer title an’ all. What all problems would ya have if ya did decide ta leave?"
       "I’d have to find a successor before I gave up my crown, and it’s possible I would be exiled by my people for leaving them. I’d have to learn to care for myself and to put others first. It’s just such a monumental change. I...I am afraid," Honey said.
       Monty realized now why Zipper had left to give her time. It was a big decision she was making, and a tough one. "I guess I kin right understand yer being afraid. The unknown’s the one thing that gives us all the willies. One thing about it though—if ya do decide ta go, my advice would be jus’ take it one thing at a time. I know it looks like a big ruddy mountain with all those things piled up high like thet, but no one’d ask ya ta change overnight. We’d all be there ta see ya through—ya won’t be alone."
       Honey turned her face toward him. "Zipper seems to think of all of you as family...would I be allowed to be part of that family as well?" Monty gave her a reassuring grin. "That depends on you, lass. We’ve all come from diff’rent places and situations. Some of us have family close by, some far away like me. Gadget’s family is gone, an’ I don’t know about Foxy’s. But I feel that the Rangers are a second family ta me—they’re all part of me life and I wouldn’t trade any of ‘em for anything. If you’re willing ta accept us, and all our faults and whatnot, then I’m sure we’ll accept you too."
       "Thank you, Monterey. You have helped to allay some of my concerns. Please tell Zipper that I will need more time... but not to give up hope," Honey said. She flew over to Monty and he kissed her hand with a gentlemanly touch that pleased her. "I’ll tell him, lass. I guess you’ve got yer load o’ problems ta think through. An’ if you don’t mind me askin’ a question, what do ya think o’ Zipper?"
       A warm smile came to Honey’s face. "He’s like no insect I’ve ever met. Brave, handsome, heroic, kind and loving. But, we really hardly know each other. We met on that adventure and we had one date, and I left in a huff. Perhaps we need to spend more time together before I decide."
       "Sounds reasonable, lass. I’ll tell him how things stand right now. And whatever happens, I’m right glad he ran into you, Queenie. You’re a good influence on the lad, and I know he loves ya," Monty said.
       "As I love him. But I must be sure of its depth before I contemplate giving up everything for him," Honey replied. Monty nodded his understanding, and as Honey stood and flew up to her hive he waved goodbye to her. "She’s a right plucky lass, an’ hardier than she thinks she is. Got a good head on her shoulders too—she’s right though, she does need a good bit more time."

       Monty headed back to Ranger Headquarters, where Zipper had awakened from his nap. The big Aussie went into the kitchen and started preparations for supper. He found that cooking helped him to settle his thoughts, and he needed that comfort now. Monty was grating cheese when Zipper flew into the kitchen
       Zipper flew up to Monty and sat on his shoulder. "How was the cheese shipment?" Monty continued to grate the cheese. "It was a right bonzer lot, mate. Fresh from the best cheese makers in Italy and England! I didn’t spend me entire time at the docks, though."
       Zipper looked for fresh scars and scrapes on his friend, but there were none. "Really? A good battle with some cats?" Monty’s eyes turned apologetic. "Well uh, no. In fact, I got invited to a palaver with yer girlfriend. She sent that butler-type bee for me."
       "Honey! What did she want to talk to you about? Did she decide?" Zipper asked expectantly. Monty knew he was going to be excited, but he had to try to keep neutral in all this. "She wanted ta know what bein’ a Ranger was like and what all we’d expect of her if she did leave. She was also wonderin’ what the rest ‘o the group thought of ‘er. I think she was a mite more relieved after I talked thinks out. And yes, she did make a decision."
       Zipper was brimming with emotion. "What? What did she say?!" Monty smiled at his friend’s nervousness. "She loves ya, mate, but she needs more time. She explained ta me all the problems she’s facin’ right now. It would be mighty tough for her just ta cut cables an’ leave without bein’ sure her hive was goin’ ta be okay. She’s also scared ‘o leavin’, knowing that she’d be expected ta give up bein’ queen in title and in duties. And, she thought it might be better if you two spent more time together social-like to make sure it was the right thing."
       Zipper sighed. "It all sounds reasonable. She’s wise for waiting. I just have to be patient. Social things together…she could visit us and just talk to everyone, or maybe I could take her to a movie. Monty, what should I do?"
       Monty went back to grating his cheese. "Right now, I’d jus’ give her a little space. The lass has a lot on her mind right now, and I’d let her keep workin’ the idea over for a bit. I think she was mainly concerned ‘bout how she’d fit in, so I think yer best bet would be ta bring her over ‘ere and let her get ta know us all. I don’t think she’s ready ta be alone with ya just yet, but she will be. In time."
       "Thanks, Monty. I just have to show her she can fit in and that she can change. Then... then maybe she’ll be mine. Wow, I still can hardly believe I asked her to marry me! Me, a lowly little fly asking for a Queen Bee’s hand in marriage. Bet you never thought I’d want to settle down!"
       "Gotta admit, I hadn’t thought of ya getting hitched this early. But don’t let her title an’ all throw ya, mate. She’s a female, same’s any other and that’s how you’ve got ta see her. ‘Course, I know you’d treat her special, and that’s only right. But remember that she’d be part ‘o the team same as any other and you’ll be mostly responsible for helping her become a Ranger if she chooses ta come."
       Zipper felt troubled at this idea, and it showed. "I’ve never taught anyone anything. It looks like it’s going to be a learning experience for both of us." Monty closed the lid on the pot he was using. "Most relationships are that way, ya know. That’s part o’ the fun too—gettin ta know each other and all. You’ll do fine, pally." Zipper gave Monty a hug. "Thanks, Monty. I can always count on you."



Chapter Eight--You Can't Dream Forever

       At that moment, Dale and Gadget returned. Zipper and Monty could hear them talking in the main room, then the outer door shut again and Dale came into the kitchen alone, looking nervous.
       "Hi, fellas! What’s cookin’?" Dale asked. Zipper flew up to Dale as he came near. "Honey is still trying to decide if she wants to join us, but it seems she’s still favorable disposed to the idea. But only time will tell."
       "Hey, that’d be great if she did! Then I’d have someone who didn’t know all my jokes!" Dale said.
       Zipper cringed at the very notion. "Well, take it easy on her. I’m sure it will take her a while to develop an ...uh, appreciation of your sense of humor."
       Monty could see that Dale look troubled, and suspected his coming in the kitchen wasn’t just a food raid. "What’s up, pally? You look like you’re tryin’ ta decide somethin’." Dale was wringing his hands, and seemed like he didn’t really want to talk, but knew he had to. "Yeah, I got a lot on my mind, Monty. I got something big that needs to decided."
       "What’s this all about, Dale?" Zipper asked. "Something to do with the prom you and Gadget are goin’ to?" Dale suddenly seemed very nervous. "You could say that." Monty left his cooking for the moment. "Why so nervous, mate? A prom shouldn’t be a problem for ya. After all, you and Gadget’ve been getting along grand. That’s nothin’ ta get nervous about, mate."
       Dale starting shifting his weight. "It’s not the prom that I’m nervous about. It’s just that... uh..." Monty could see Dale wanted to talk privately, and he gave Zipper a silent message. Zipper flew toward the door. "I’ll just go in the living room a while. See you guys soon..." Monty returned his attention to Dale. "All right, pally. Just us. What is it?"
       "Monty, you were a really big help and if it weren’t for you, me and Gadget might never’ve gotten together. I know you’ve become like a dad to her and I know you’re a real good friend to me. But now I gotta ask the ultimate question from you..." Dale became very nervous again, as the thought of what he was about to do weighed in on him fully.

       "C’mon mate. If ye’re about ta ask what I think ya are, I don’t think we want ta get surprised in ‘ere," Monty said. Monty and Dale went to his room, and Monty closed the door. "You want to know if I approve of you takin’ the next step, right?" Dale took a seat on Monty’s hammock and looked at the floor, then took a deep breath and faced Monty. "Monty, I ask for your permission to marry Gadget."
       Monty looked at that face, and his mind flashed back to all the times he’d spent with Dale. He remembered the seemingly carefree boy he’d met a few years ago, and the times he’d called Dale such things as "comedy relief". Then this boy had shown flashes of manhood in his dreams of being a superhero and a spy. Monty thought he would never come to be confident just in himself, but now the chipmunk that stood before him was a totally changed person. He’d faced up to Chip, and his time with Gadget had done him a world of good. He wasn’t surprised that Dale would come to him to ask for Gadget’s hand, but he was surprised how quickly it had come.
       "Dale, you’re right when ya say that Gadget’s like a daughter ta me. Since Geegaw died, she’s come ta depend on me for advice and consolin’. But over the past while, I’ve seen her start ta change and not need consolin’ so much," Monty said. He paused, thinking about how to phrase his next words.
       "She’s happier than she was, and you’ve played a right big part of that. I’m grateful for that, and I’m glad fer you ‘cause in some ways ye’re like another son ta me along with Zipper. But marriage is a big step, pally. Are you sure you’re both ready fer that?" Monty asked.
       Dale got up from the hammock and looked his friend in the eyes so that there would be no mistake of his sincerity. "Monty, Gadget and I have been in love for years, we just couldn’t admit it to each other ‘til recently. We’ve worked together, fought side by side. We’ve saved each other’s lives, we know each other’s moods and habits and since we’ve gotten closer we’re more in love than I would have ever imagined possible. I think we’re ready to make this step. I think we were always ready."
       Monty could see that Dale was very serious about it, and it allowed him to soften his approach on the next question. "I’m not goin’ ta ask ya ta prove you’re worthy of Gadget, because I know ya are. But what I do ask is, have ya thought through what all you’ll be getting inta with this? There’s a lot o’ things ta handle with weddings, and especially what comes after—living as a married couple. Me mum told me that even with someone you love, it can be a strain. And there’s still Chipper, too. I know that the bloke’s stepped aside fer ya, but it’s gonna hurt ‘im. Still, he’ll have ta face it sooner or later."
       Dale looked deeply pained. "I really wish I could have talked to Chip about this. I wish he could be here for me. I really wish he could be my friend for this. Monty, I know that being married can be tough, but I’ve changed a lot. You once asked me if I was willing to grow up to be with Gadget. I now can say yes to that question. If I can be…with her, then it’s worth the price."
       Monty paced for a moment or two, then stopped and put his hand on Dale’s shoulder. "All right, I accept ya at yer word, Dale. Do ya want me ta talk ta Gadget, and get her ready fer this or are ya gonna spring it on her?"
       "I want to surprise her. I was thinking of asking her at the prom," Dale said. Monty wasn’t expecting Dale to ask her that quickly. "Have ya got a ring ta give her for the engagement? You know it’s expected ta get one when ya ask a girl..."
       Dale’s face flushed some. "No, I didn’t even think of that! Well, for Gadget it can’t just be any ring. I’m gotta get her something special!" Monty looked dubious. "Rings cost quite a bit, pally. How are ya gonna get it?" Dale took up the pose of Rodin’s Thinker. "Well, I’ve invested everything I had in my comic book collection... I suppose, if I sold that I could get her a pretty neato ring!"
       Monty never thought he’d hear the day when Dale would part with his prized comic book collection. When Monty had been to Dale’s lair, he’d seen the framed number one issues that had been proudly displayed on the wall. For Dale to sell his comic books…that meant the ultimate sacrifice. Then again, the look on his face didn’t make it seem such a loss. Monty offered his hand.
       "Dale, ye’re a bloke after me own heart and I give you permission...and me blessing," Monty said. Dale beamed and shook Monty’s hand. "Thanks, Monty! You don’t know how much it means to me to hear you say that. You must really feel I could be a good husband to Gadget, ‘cause you really trust me."
       "You can be, pally. Whatever she says, I’m in yer corner on this. Jus’ remember if ya do become her husband ta be a good listener an’ to respect her space jus’ like ya been doin’. Take things slow, and let her have her say in things. I know the lass, and those’d be her concerns."
       Dale smiled up at him. "I know, she’s her own woman and I do respect that. She’s shown that she’s willing to adapt to my ways and I’ve been trying to adapt to her ways. I think that we’re ready. I just hope that she feels the same way. The big problem is, what do we do about Chip?"
       Monty frowned some and thought about it. "He’s gonna be a problem, no matter how ya go about it. Up ta now, he’s been pretty well in check, but that’s because you haven’t gone ta this stage yet. It’s gonna be like stabbin’ a wound that’s only begun ta heal. I know this is gonna sound strange, but I don’t think ya should talk it over with ‘im. Get Gadget alone at the prom, an’ ask her. Then you kin both tell him later, and I’ll do what I can ta help."
       "Yeah, I know. I just wish he could be here for me, I’d like him to be happy for us, but I know that’s not going to happen," Dale said. Monty put a fatherly hand on his shoulder. "Chipper’s sufferin’ inside, mate. He’s got problems ta work out yet, an’ he can’t think o’ others before he gets himself straightened out. I think we can trust Foxy ta help, though, and I’ll see if she’ll help us ta keep Chip out of the way when your big moment comes."
       Dale sighed and jumped off the hammock. "He’s my best friend and I have to go behind his back to propose to Gadget." Then he looked up at Monty’s face expectantly. "Monty, do you think that Gadget’s Mom and Dad would have approved of me? And approved of her marrying a chipmunk?"
       Monty was about to answer, when Dale stopped him. "I know this is all so premature. I haven’t even proposed to her yet! She still might say no, but I’m so used to expecting the worst…I have to finally expect the best for once in my life."
       Monty smiled, and a long-abandoned memory came up inside himself. "Aye, I think they’d approve of ya, mate. I didn’t know Gadget’s ma too well—I spent most o’ my time out adventurin’ with Geegaw. He was an adventurous soul, but you’re a lot like him in a lot ‘o ways. He always had a joke handy in conversation, an’ he never met anyone he couldn’t talk to. An’ he loved Gadget so much—jus’ like me. Neither of us would let anyone ask Gadget who didn’t love her like that. Yer bein’ a chipmunk wouldn’t have made a bit ‘o difference ta him—he’s the type that judged a bloke by his heart, not his hide. So yeah, he’d approve all right."
       The Aussie put an hefty arm around Dale. "You’ve got a right ta expect the best, mate. You’ve proven to me and everyone that ya are the best—now all ya gotta do is keep livin’ that way. You’ve made a good start, though." Dale gave sigh of relief. "Yeah, it’s time to start living life, rather than just imagining it."
       Monty walked to the door with him. "Do you want some help with gettin’ those comics out? Gadget’s gonna figure somethin’s up when she sees ‘em missing." Dale considered it. "Maybe what I could do is move them out of the lair and tell her it’s part of a big surprise I’m planning for her. After all, it’s true!"
       "Sounds good, pally. That’s a right noble thing you’re doin’, and she’ll know it too soon enough," Monty said. Dale appeared modest, but took on a wistful smile. "Well, when you meet a woman who means more to you than your entire comic book collection, you just can’t let her get away!"
       Monty laughed and slapped him on the back. "You’d better get goin’ mate. Yer girl’s bound ta be lookin’ fer ya pretty soon, and I’ve got a supper ta fix." Monty grabbed the doorknob to open it. "Best wishes, Dale."
       "Thanks again, Monty. And I swear I’ll always love, honor and cherish Gadget no matter what," Dale said. Monty’s eyes started to brim over. "I know, mate. I know."

       The large mouse patted Dale on the shoulder, opened the door, and headed back to the kitchen. Monty had been there no more than five minutes when Gadget came in. Monty quickly began cutting up an onion to hide his tears.
       "Hi, Monty! Have you seen Dale around?" Gadget said, full of her happiness as always. "‘Ello, Gadget, luv. Dale was in here just a little while ago, but he took off. I’m not sure where he took off too though. Anythin’ I can help you with?" Monty asked.
       Gadget peeked in the main room, then came back. "Well, actually there is something I wanted to discuss. When Dale and I were out skating today, I think at one point he was actually thinking of asking me to marry him!"
       Monty dropped his ladle into the soup. **Crikey, here we go again!** "Really? What gave ya that idea?" Gadget flashed a sideways grin at him. "Oh, I can read Dale pretty well now. I could see it in his eyes, and feel it. But Monty, I’m scared."
       Gadget hugged her surrogate father, and squeezed his hand. "I’m not scared of him asking, though. I love Dale, and I know that he loves me. And when I thought he’d ask me, I was caught been surprise and awe. But he didn’t ask, and now I’m wondering if he’s having second thoughts and I’m sorta scared of the idea of being married. Will he change? Will I? Oh Monty, help me...." She clasped him tighter.
       "Calm yerself, Gadget. If Dale did ask ya, what would ya say?" Gadget rested her head on Monty’s shoulder, as she’d done so many times with Geegaw when she’d needed such comfort. "Strange you should ask it that way. That’s just how Bianca asked me if I was in love with him. She’s the only one besides you I can go to. Oh, sorry. I guess I’m so nervous I’m babbling. Dale—he’s everything I could ask for or even dream of, Monty. I think I want to marry him, but if I did would he still treat me the way he has? Would he insist on being the ‘head of the household’? I still need to be me, even if I’m married. I trust your judgement, Monty—will it be okay?"
       Monty put his hands on her shoulders, so she could get a good look at the sincerity in his eyes. "Gadget luv, Dale loves you with all his heart and soul. He’d rather die than let you be unhappy about anything. You know he’s not the controlin’ type. He’d be a partner in the marriage."
       "I feel that too, but I know that you can see more objectively than I do. He’s come so far in so short a time, it’s been wonderful. I feel so good when I’m with him and I even was able to be playful in public today and not feel insecure! I think I’m ready for marriage, but what do you think?" Gadget asked.
       Monty passed some dishes to Gadget and they began setting the table. "Well, normally I might say that it’s a little soon, but the two o’ you have known each other fer years and have been secretly in love almost as long. Ya knew each other well before, so now it may finally be the right time ta take the next step."
        Gadget appeared much more relaxed now, and took a seat at the table. "I’m sort of concerned about Dale, though. Did he back out because he’s not ready to commit? Is he having second thoughts about me? Would it have helped if I’d gargled this morning?"
       "Maybe he’s musterin’ the courage. He’d only found his courage a month or so ago and now he might be thinkin’ o’ askin’ his dream girl to be his wife. That’s a mighty big step fer ol’ Dale. Maybe he’s just waitin’ fer the right moment," Monty said.
       Gadget took Monty’s hand. "Thanks, Monty. You know how paranoid I can get about things like this. Well, not things just like this since this has never happened to me before.’s not happened yet, but it could happen soon and...."
       "Gadget, you know he’ll ask, just be patient," Monty said. Monty then gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. Gadget appreciated his attention as always. "I’ll try to be patient. At least we’ve got the prom coming up, and that should be fun. I’m dancing pretty good now, too. Oh, and thanks...for everything." Gadget hugged him again and left the kitchen.
       "Yer welcome, luv…" Monty turned back to dinner and wiped his eyes.

       Chip and Foxy returned soon after, for they were all expecting guests this evening. Then there was a knock at the door. Chip opened it and found a young couple waiting. "Tammy, Rob! Glad you could make it."
       "Hi, Chipper! We were held up a while at the school, but I just can’t wait to tell you about the prom!" Tammy said, talking mile-a-minute. Tammy tugged Rob inside, who was a little awestruck at being in the Rangers’ home. Tammy on her part didn’t miss a beat. "I’m on the decorating committee, and you should see how pretty the stuff is we’ve got! Our theme is ‘romance in the country’! We’ve got all these hay bales and a wagon too. And we even have the Memphis Munks coming in to play for us! It’s gonna be so neat!"
       Dale stood up as did Gadget and the others when Tammy bounded into the room, Rob following behind. "That sounds great Tammy!" Dale said. "Gadget and I are really getting eager to go." Foxy came over to Chip. "Me too! I can’t wait to cut a rug with my cutie!"
       "Is it still a formal, Tammy?" Gadget asked. Tammy spun around in a pirouette. "Oh, yeah! I’ve got my prom dress all laid out, and it’s gorgeous! Oh, meet Rob, guys! Rob, meet Gadget, Dale, Monty and Zipper." Tammy elbowed Rob, which finally got him speaking. "Oh, hello there. It’s really neat meeting you all like this."
       Monty leaped up and gave Rob a powerful slap to the back. "Welcome, Rob! I ‘eard the others mention that Tammy’d found Mr. Right. Well, you take good care o’ her—a bonzer princess she is and you’d be smart to treat her like it."
       Zipper could see Rob was more than somewhat intimidated, and decided to change the mood. "Hello, Tammy. It’s nice to meet you, Rob. Don’t let Monty worry you—he’s just overprotective sometimes." Tammy hadn’t even given Monty’s comment a second thought. "Hi, Zipper! How are you do—"
       Tammy stopped in mid-sentence and blinked. "Did you just talk?" Zipper suddenly realized that they’d forgotten to tell Tammy, and he could understand her surprise. "Yes, I recently had surgery to fix my voice. Isn’t it great?" Tammy went from total surprise to total merriment in one second. "WOW! I didn’t know that you’d ever be able to talk! That’s the coolest!"
       Zipper nodded, enjoying Tammy’s enthusiasm. "A whole new world has opened up for me. So, once you graduate, are you going to be joining us full time?" Zipper asked. Tammy was still getting used to the idea of Zipper speaking to her. "Well, I’ve been thinking about it. Oh, like this is so weird talking to you! I’ll either do that or continue my studies, but right now I am leaning toward becoming a Ranger. You don’t mind that, do you Chipper?"
       Chip may have had a thought or two on the matter, but he knew times had changed. Rob was evidence enough of that. "No, that’s no problem. We could always use another courageous and brave Ranger to help us save the world." Tammy flashed over and caught him in a tight hug, then came back to Rob. "Thanks, Chip. I’ve been talking to Rob about joining up too. He’s been a fan of yours for some time now!"
       Rob blushed, feeling he was on the spot. "Well uh, I didn’t think she’d blurt it out like out. But you guys are tops." Dale was starting to get used to this idea of being a role model—almost. "Well, someone has to be the heroes that the whole world looks up to, the pillars of justice, the epitome of virtue, the crusaders of truth—and besides it’s fun not have to have a real job!" Gadget cleared her throat. "What Dale’s trying to say is, if you’re really willing to be part of the team we’d be glad to have you. Just be sure it’s what you want."
       "Tammy knows from experience how great the risks are for this job, and I’m sure she’s told you some of it. You’ll have to be ready for that day in and day out," Zipper added. Tammy and Rob looked at each other and Tammy responded. "We’ll both talk it over. And when we’ve made a decision, we’ll let you know. Oh, make sure to get to the prom about a half-hour early! It’s going to fill up fast in there, and I want to get to see both of you couples before the real festivities begin! And be sure to get your pictures taken, too!"
       "You can be sure of it," Foxy said. "I want that night to be one I’ll remember forever." Dale stole a look at Gadget. "Me too." Gadget stole one back. "Me three."
       Chip covered up his anxiety. "We’ll be there, Tammy! Ready to eat?" Tammy looked self-conscious, realizing that she’d just barged in. "I know you said we were invited, but are you sure it’s okay?" Monty showed her to a chair. "Sure? Of course, lass! I made me special cheese-covered acorn surprise just fer you! C’mon everyone! Supper’s ready to go!"

       Tammy did most of the talking at supper, rattling on about the prom and Rob. Monty broke in now and then to tell Rob about pertinent cases that paralleled the topics—for the most part. Gadget looked up from her plate. "So, Rob, what are majoring in?" Rob was still getting over the wonder of being here with these people, but his normal talkativeness was starting to come out. "I’m taking some advanced credit courses in international business and culture. I’ve also got some credits in computer science."
       "Sounds like you’re a good student," Chip said. "How are you at athletics?" Rob smiled a bit, thankful that Chip was making the conversation easy for him. "I run track and play football and do some gymnastics. You look like you’re done some of that in your time." Chip got a little ego hit. "I did a little sports in school, but I decided to pursue intellectual avenues instead."
       "Yeah, I know. I looked up your records. You were all-state at quarterback your second year and then you dropped out. I wondered why, ‘cause it looked like you were on the way to breaking some career records there," Rob said. Chip was flattered, and surprised. "You looked up my records?!" Rob tried not to look too much the hero-worshipper. "Well, when I met you I thought I recognized your picture on the wall in the locker room where the past greats are kept. I knew you were a Rescue Ranger, but I didn’t know that you led the Fighting Badgers to their best two-year record ever! And you led all quarterbacks in the state in passing efficiency. You were a real ace!"
       Chip was enjoying the attention, but then he remembered how much trouble his ego had caused him. "Uh, yeah, but that was a long time ago. I don’t care at all about sports any more." Rob shook his head a bit. "That’s a shame, man. I mentioned you to our coach, and he said that when he retires next year he wanted someone from the old school to take over. You’d have been perfect."
       Chip went back to his food. "I think celebrity status rather than athletic ability might have something to do with that recommendation. I’m flattered though, that he would think of me as a worthy replacement." Foxy placed a wing on his elbow. "That sounds like a fun thing, Chip. And you’d be a good role model for the kids, too. There sure aren’t enough of those these days."
       "But we are role models," Chip countered. "The Rescue Rangers are more important than being a sports hero." Rob could see that Chip was interested, at least with the novelty of the idea. "Well, the offer’s open if you want it. Like I said, it’s for next year so you’ve got a lot of time to think about. Even part-time help would be nice." Chip was interested, and the very fact troubled him some. "Well, it’s an option I’ll keep open."

       Gadget changed the topic. "So, what will we be doing during at the prom? What does a chaperone do?" Tammy finished up her helping of cheese-covered acorn, and took over the conversation. "Mainly, you just keep an eye on everyone and make sure no one misbehaves. We’re a pretty good group, but there’s a couple of guys that might want to party too much. Oh, and you’ll need to make sure that no one goes into the cafeteria. That’s where we’re keeping all the awards, and we don’t want anyone carting them off."
       Zipper saw an instant opportunity. "Could Honey and I tag along as well?" Tammy also flinched, forgetting her friend’s power of speech. "Hey, the more the merrier! Who’s Honey? Do you have a girlfriend?" Zipper giggled nervously. "She’s a Queen bee that we helped a while back. Now that I have my voice, we’ve been seeing more of each other and going to prom might be a nice opportunity for her to get out of the hive and have some fun. I’ll have to see if she’s interested. Uh, I should warn you that she is a little…well, uppity and would expect to be treated like royalty."
       "Well, I guess if she is a real queen we can make allowances. It’s great what’s happened with you, Zipper. You’re one cool fly!" Tammy said. Zipper aimed a thumb over at the red-nosed chipmunk. "That’s because I’ve been taking suave lessons from Dale." Dale blushed and giggled.
       Tammy enjoyed the moment, then turned to Chip. "Oh, there’s one other thing I forgot to mention, Chip. When I told the prom committee who was going to be chaperoning, one of the faculty recognized your name!" Chip was curious, yet hesitant to ask. "Really? Who would still be on staff all these years later?"
       "She said you’d remember her. She was your science teacher, Miss Spelling," Tammy said. Chip winced at the name, as did Dale. Chip shook his head. "She probably wants me to repay her for the time I spilled acid on the chemistry lab’s floor. She was tough, but she was a good teacher." Tammy beamed knowingly. "That’s okay, I’ll tell Aunt Hattie that you’re looking forward to meeting her again." Chip winced again. "Aunt Hattie? You mean…" Tammy nodded and winked, "Yep, old mis-spell is my aunt!"

       The group got a laugh out of that, and the rest of supper went along with normal conversation—though Foxy could notice that Chip had been nervous at the mention of his former teacher. Still, she wondered if that was the whole story. Foxy knew she couldn’t discuss her concerns with anyone else, so when Chip went to bed and Dale uncharacteristically joined him she saw an opportunity to talk alone with the mouse that had advised her so well before. Monty saw the look on her face as she sat down on the couch and thought, **another one?**
       "Monty, could I talk with you for a little while?" Foxy asked. Monty considered charging by the hour, but let the thought go from his mind. "Evening, Foxy. Sure thing, lass. What’s on your mind?" Foxy’s eyes were full of concern. "Monty, do you think that Chip really loves me?"
       **I did have to guess right**. Monty decided to let her do the talking. "You’re in a better light ta know that than I am. Whatta you think?" Foxy shrugged. "I just don’t know, he’s so distant now. Some days he can’t stand to be apart from me and other days he acts like I don’t even exist."
       Monty wondered if he should be giving out all this advice, but then who else did the youngsters have to go to besides their parents? And this bat didn’t seem to have that luxury. "Aye, I’ve seen that too. But he’s been that way at times, even before you came. It’s jus’ worse now, ‘cause it’s all at the surface." Monty patted her wing. "Lass, he’s fightin’ with himself. He had a whole lot ‘o emotional investment made in Gadget, and now he’s trying ta make a new investment, but part of him’s afraid ta do that. It’s hard ta let go o’ something you’ve built up for that long, even if it is a fantasy. But he is tryin’, lass."
       "I know he’s trying, Monty. I really do. But I don’t know how much more of his "I love you, now I don’t love you" attitude...I can take," Foxy said, starting to cry. Monty comforted her. "I can’t tell you whether to stay with him or not. That’s your decision, Foxy. But I kin share some ‘o my own insights with ya. Chip’s spending more time with you than I’ve ever seen him devote ta any of us, with the possible exception of Dale."
       "But why isn’t he showing me as much attention as I’ve given him? Isn’t it right that I should expect the same amount of attention as I give?" Foxy asked. Monty shook his head. "I’m afraid it don’t work that way, lass. Everyone’s got their own ideas on givin’ and receivin’ attention. Take Chip now—he’s going to need his independence and room ta think, ‘cause that’s the kind ‘o munk he is. He’s not the touchy-feely type an’ I can right see where you’d be frustrated on that part. Where’d ya get the idea that he should be payin’ ya more attention?"
       Foxy dipped her head a bit in discomfort. "Well, at the library I guess. I read all the great classic romances, like with Rhett and Scarlett." Monty smiled, and patted her shoulder. "Lass, no book kin tell ya how ta treat someone or how they should treat you. Chip’s actions tell me he loves ya, but he’s not free to express it better because of all the damage. Chip’s a tough lad, though. He’ll come back."
       "I sure hope so. Hopefully, the prom will be a nice change and maybe I can get him to enjoy himself," Foxy said, wiping the tears away.

       Monty grimaced at that, and knew now was the time to tell her. "It might be, Foxy. But there’s something you should know. A couple hours back, I talked ta Dale and he asked me fer permission to ask fer Gadget’s hand at the prom. I gave that permission, an’ I agreed ta tell you about it at the first opportunity. We need to keep Chip from findin’ out about the proposal until it’s over and done with and they can discuss it with him proper-like in private."
       Foxy smiled, but her smile quickly turned to a frown. Monty knew where her concerns laid, and he put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I know it’s hard. You feel his pain and wish it would stop, but it won’t until this business is settled. I’m hopin’ that once Dale and Gadget are engaged that Chip will finally be able to let it go. I don’t like the idea o’ him cryin’ any more than anyone else, but I think it’s time that Chip started to move on with his life, an’ grow up. He’s got to face the world around him square in the eye, or he’ll never be able to be happy. Jus’ don’t be surprised if he gets angry as well as sad—but he’s gonna need you and yer strength now more than ever."
       "I’ll try, Monty. This isn’t easy, I’ve never had someone need me this much before. I don’t know if I can be that strong for him," Foxy said. Monty didn’t know if she could be either, but he also knew that she’d be the one Chip would turn to. "You’re not alone in this, lass. We’ll all try ta help ‘im, but you’re the one he’s gonna turn to fer comfort. You’ve gotta love him, but you’ve also got to be tough. Don’t let him focus just on himself and how bad he’ll feel. You’ll need ta remind him of who he is and who his friends are. He can overcome it, ‘long as he can get his mind off himself long enough ta see his duty and obligations. "
       Foxy breathed deep. "It won’t be easy, but I’ll do my best. But it hurts to know that I’m going to have to see him hurt again. It was unbearable to see him like that before." Monty hugged her gently. "I know, and it’s hard on all of us. Dale will take Gadget aside ta propose, and I’m gonna suggest that he take her outside. Just be aware of it, an’ keep Chip with you. Hopefully, he won’t learn about it until we kin all sit down with him and break it to him gently."
       Foxy gave Monty a gentle hug. "Thanks for being so nice to me, Monty. I don’t know what I’d have done without you." Monty got up, and helped her up too. "You deserve as good a chance at happiness as Dale and Gadget do. I’ll do all I kin fer you."
       Monty patted her on the shoulder, and left for his room. He was beginning to get very concerned about all this. Could Chip handle it, and would this engagement—assuming it happened—really give him closure? He hoped so. Monty reflected that there was no more unpredictable force on the planet than love, and it could affect a person in ways that no one could fathom. Monty uttered a silent prayer as he closed his door and looked at his clock—2 a.m. A week from now, they’d know either way.



Chapter Nine--A Friend in Dreams is A Friend Indeed/Dale's Secret Mission

       The next day found Gadget Hackwrench in the middle of downtown New York. She’d told Dale that she needed to scout for some more parts for her latest invention, and she had grabbed a couple of things at the junkyard to ease her conscience. Still, Dale hadn’t minded her going, and had even seemed encouraging. Gadget was glad that Dale seemed so accommodating, and it gave her some assurance about him. Now she was approaching the United Nations building via an underground tunnel that had once been used by humans as a pneumatic mail tube. The mail container stopped, and she crossed a dimly-lit corridor to a small elevator, which was open.
       The elevator attendant held the door open as Gadget approached quickly. "Where to, miss?" Gadget caught her breath. "R.A.S. headquarters, please." The elevator shut, and Gadget began the ride up to the top of the U.N.’s west tower.
       Monty’s counsel had helped Gadget, but she had some questions that she felt only a woman could answer. Bianca Râboga was the first person she’d thought of, and now she was going to see her. Gadget knew she could talk over anything with her, and Bianca was the closest thing to a mother she had. The female Ranger sighed at that thought, then the small car stopped.
       "R.A.S. headquarters, miss. Take your first left," the attendant said. Gadget stepped out. "Yes, I know. Thank you." Gadget took the left, and the big brass "RAS" acronym stood large over the double doors as she entered. A male mouse was at the main desk, a large circular thing of wood and glass. His nameplate read Gary.
       "Yes, may I help you?" Gary asked. Gadget let the bad feelings go and her natural character took over again. "Hi there! I’m Gadget Hackwrench of the Rescue Rangers and I need to see Bianca Râboga." Gary’s ears pricked up. "Rescue Rangers? Seems I’ve heard of you, and that name. One moment please..." Gary plugged a headset into a receptacle marked with Bianca’s name and spoke quietly for about half a minute. Then he looked back at Gadget.
       "She’s busy at the moment with the ambassador from China, but if you would like to wait she will be finished in a few minutes. There’s a comfortable bench just outside of her door. If you haven’t been to her office, I’ll be glad to escort you..." Gadget smiled, but declined the offer since she already knew the way.

       Gadget walked purposefully through a short maze of hallways that were plush with carpeting and attractive paintings on the walls. Then Gadget stopped at Bianca’s door—almost twice her height—where she took a seat and waited. She picked up a copy of Newssqueak that lay nearby.
       "Golly, I guess these things are pretty old. I mean, isn’t Elvis dead?" As Gadget perused the magazines, an older male mouse walked through the corridor toward her. He sat down on the bench, and actually had to clear his throat before Gadget realized she wasn’t alone anymore.
       "Hi, are you waiting to see Bianca too?" the mouse asked. Gadget was glad to have something besides an old magazine to hold her interest. "Yes, but I didn’t have an appointment so I’ll have to wait a while. You probably have an appointment so your problem is probably more important, but I don’t mind. These magazines are fascinating. I mean, who would have imagined back then that people these days would have computers small enough to be in the home?"
       The newcomer fidgeted somewhat with his business suit, which didn’t really seem to suit him. Gadget wondered if his nervous behavior was because of her or if he was just like that and asked him as much. "Oh, it’s no wor..worry. I just decided to drop by for a minute to uh, to settle on where we’re going to be having dinner tonight. Oh, Bianca’s my wife."
       Gadget had met Bernard before, but it had been some time ago and then only briefly. "Golly, I’m sorry, Mr. Bernard. I didn’t recognize you in that suit." Bernard fidgeted some more. "Oh, this was Bianca’s idea. We’re going to be entertaining the Chinese and Russian delegates tonight and she wanted me to look my best. I really..really don’t like suits. They itch. Oh, you know my name? Sorry, I’m so distracted today. You do look familiar though. What’s your name?"
       "I’m Gadget Hackwrench of the Rescue Rangers," Gadget said. Bernard snapped his fingers. "Gadget, that’s right! Bianca’s kept me up on you and your friends. Yes, you’ve been over to our house before. I remember you fixed our wiring when our refrigerator shorted out—I never thought the Bulgarian ambassador would quit laughing at that. You really impressed him and everyone that time. So, how have you been? It’s been a few months since I’ve heard…heard anything about you or your team."
       Gadget was getting used to Bernard’s seeming self-conscious behavior. "Well, it’s been pretty slow lately and it seems we’ve been using work to suppress a lot of hidden emotions and now they’re all coming to the surface all at once." Bernard quit tugging at his collar and gave his attention to Gadget. "Is there a problem? I guess uh, I guess that’s why you came to talk with Bianca." Bernard waited to give her an opportunity either way.
       "Yeah, I needed a woman’s perspective and Bianca’s the only woman I know that I could feel comfortable talking about a subject like this with…." Gadget replied, not wanting to say too much. Bernard backed off. "Okay, I understand. Bianca’s really good at talking things out. I’m sure she’ll be glad to help."

       Just then, the door opened and Bianca came out with the Chinese ambassador. She was wearing a summer dress of pink chiffon with a hat to match, and the ambassador was in traditional clothing. They were both speaking Chinese, and then the ambassador bowed to her and left. Bianca then turned her attention to Gadget, hugging her warmly.
       "Gadget, dahling! It is so good to see you again!" Bianca cooed. Gadget hugged her back. "Golly, thanks for letting me visit you. I’m sorry that I’m interrupting your dinner date with Bernard. But you’re one of the few people I can talk to about something like this."
       "Oh nonsense, dahling! The dinner date is for tonight. Bernard, ambassador Ming suggests the Sunken Gardens at the World Trade Center. I know you like their desserts..." Bernard starting remembering his suit again. "Yeah, sure. That...that sounds good. I’ve been getting reacquainted with Gadget here."
       "Reacquainted? But dahling, you’ve seen her lots of times!" Bianca countered. Bernard never liked feeling at a disadvantage. "Oh I know, but I just haven’t, that is I haven’t talked to her one-on-one as much as you have. I know she’s a very nice person from what you’ve said. Now I’d better get going and make the reservations. I wish I didn’t have to wear this suit, though."
       Bianca walked over and kissed him lightly. "I know you do not like the suits, but you look ever so handsome in them. And we must put our best foot forward with our fellow delegates, yes?"
       "Oh, all right. But you owe me a day off at Central Park," Bernard said. Bernard winked to Gadget, then turned around and started walking away and scratching all the while. Bianca giggled at the spectacle, then faced Gadget.

       "Poor Bernard! He is, how do you say, the simple folk. But I can always get him to dress up. Now what brings you here, dahling? Come inside and I must hear about all the goings-on!" Bianca led her into the plush office. It said "Bianca" everywhere—plush pink carpeting, a white French antique desk, paintings on the wall and an overall cheery feeling. Gadget took a seat in the Louis Quinze chair directly across the desk from Bianca as the warm-hearted Hungarian seated herself delicately and came to full attention.
       Gadget had difficulty looking directly at her. "Golly, I hardly know where to start, Bianca. Things are going good. Crime has been down lately, giving us more free time than we’re used to and that’s kinda the problem. Now we have all this free time and things have been happening between the Rangers, important things..."
       There were few people to whom Gadget was transparent, but Bianca was one of them. She could almost read her thoughts. "You are in love now, dahling? Are you going to get married?" Gadget nearly came out of her seat. "Golly and a half! That’s just what I came here to ask about. What’s it like being married?"
       Bianca talked with that gentle way she had about her. "Well, you saw how Bernard and I are. He is a little rough-housed around the edges, but I would not trade him for all the rubles in Russia! I loved him long before we got married, so that made it easier. It vhas simply a matter of being patient and finding how we would fit together. We have been happily married now for two decades, and I could not imagine life without him. It is Dale, is it not? He is the one you said you vanted..."
       Gadget blushed at the question. "’s Dale and I think he’s going to ask me to marry him. What’s being married like? Is it worth it?"
       "If you make it worth it, it is worth it. If you are asking me to tell you it’s okay to be married, that I can’t do. I can tell you that marriage is like anything else in this world—you vill get out of it what you put in. Are you willing to be Dale’s wife, and for Dale to be Gadget’s husband?"

       Gadget took it as any problem she faced, except that this one was much bigger. "That would make me Gadget Hackwrench-Oakmont. Mrs. Oakmont. Dale’s wife. It just sounds so strange. To be with someone for the rest of your life, a partner in all things."
       "But you are partners with the Rangers now, dahling. You know what partnership requires. It is give and take, but remember that this partner loves you. Do you think Dale would give his life to save yours?" Bianca asked.
       Gadget looked curiously at Bianca, then she nodded slowly. "Yes, I know he would." Bianca’s smile increased. "And vould you give your life to save his?" Gadget nodded. "Of course I would, but I’d do that for any of the Rangers and so would he."
       "Then let me put it this way—if you had to give up inventing to be with him, would you do that?" Gadget wasn’t prepared for that question. "I don’t know. Inventing to me is like eating and breathing. It’s part of life, like the sun rising and setting. Could I give it all up for Dale? I don’t know...I know he’d never ask me to do that, but does he mean more to me than anything? I’m in love with him, but would I let him be the most important thing in my life?"
       Bianca smiled at her, tilting her head. "Listen to what you said. ‘I know he’d never ask me to do that.’ What does that tell you, dear?" Gadget sighed. "It means I know his heart well enough to know that he’d never ask me to give up something that’s so dear to me. He’d be willing to put my happiness before his own."
       Bianca tapped the table in agreement. "And that is just vhat Mr. Bernard did for me as well. He knows that I am the social person, and I need to meet people and talk to be happy. Bernard did not try to change me, and even though I ask him to wear a suit on occasion, we have our own little system for that. When one of us has to do something we don’t like, that one gets to pick vhere we’ll spend the weekend on our outing. It helps to keep things balanced. Now let me ask you something else—have you yourself been doing different things since you two have become amorous?"
       Gadget blushed heavily at the word amorous. "Yeah. Dale’s teaching me how to paint and we went roller-skating recently and he’s been spending time with me in the workshop learning about machines." Bianca entered some notes into a ledger on her desk, pretending to be busy. "Did you miss your inventing when you were painting and roller-skating?"
       "Golly, no! It was a lot of fun doing those things. Dale said I’m a natural at painting and I hadn’t been skating since I was little. It was a lot of fun doing those things." Bianca turned the page. "But if inventing is like eating and breathing to you, how were you able to have fun when you could have been spending that time in your workshop making an important new invention?"
       "Maybe I’ve been using using my inventing to fill the emptiness in my life—until now, that is." Bianca’s eyes were warm with understanding when she looked up. "And now your life is not so empty, is it? And you said he has been spending time with you, learning the machines. How do you feel about that?"
       Gadget looked aside, rubbing her hands. "Well, I was nervous at first. Dale used to be kinda clumsy and he’s caused some disasters in my workshop in the past. But now he’s much calmer and confident and he’s been a real help. It’s nice that he likes working with me."
       Bianca got up and took her hand. "Gadget, dahling, I think you have already made the changes you are afraid about! You are sharing the most important parts of your life with Dale, and you are able to have fun when you are with him."
       Bianca put down the ledger, looked at Gadget and her voice changed to that of a person sharing a confidence. "I will make a little confession to you. Bernard chooses Central Park for a reason—you see, vhen Mr. Bernard and I were married I could not ice skate at all. However, our first compromise was his and he chose to go ice-skating. I could not bring myself to tell him, so when we walked out on the ice I was wobbling around like a baby trying to walk! I was so embarrassed, but then Bernard put his hands on me to keep me steady and showed me how to put my veight correctly on the skates. We went back there for three weekends straight after that. We both still laugh about it, and that is what being married is like."
       Gadget was still concerned. "Well, don’t you have bad times or fight?" Bianca took a seat again at her desk. "Oh, there are times, there are times. But they were mainly at first, when we were getting settled. That was when we decided to do the compromises. It made it easier for one of us to give in, because we knew that we’d get to do something we liked if we did. And now, it is just part of our lives. But if you get mad, just remember that it won’t last. You have always had the ability to see the other person’s needs, and that will help you a great deal. And be willing to let Dale be the one to compromise too. He vill, and he’ll be glad to. You wait and see."
       "So, compromise is the key to a happy marriage?" Gadget asked, hoping she understood. Bianca closed her ledger. "Compromise is a key to our marriage, and part of every marriage. I know enough to tell you that every marriage is different, because every person is different. Neither of you may feel compromised, and neither of us does any longer. There is no one who can tell you how to make your marriage vhork, Gadget. But if you both love each other and are willing to listen, then any problem you will face can be overcome."

       Gadget stood up and paced a little. "I guess I’m just making excuses because I’m nervous. I really love Dale... and I would gladly be his wife." Bianca came over and hugged Gadget, like she would a daughter. "I knew that as soon as you started talking, dahling. I just wanted to make sure you knew it, too. It is okay to be nervous, but never forget that he loves you and vhould do anything to make you happy. If and when he asks you, check inside yourself and if you know it’s right you’ll say yes. You still have the right to say no, but telling him to vait would be better—and if you do not know for certain at that moment it is right, then tell him so. If Dale is the kind of chipmunk you say he is, he will be willing to vait until you are sure either way."
       Gadget smiled and whispered, feeling like she was sharing a secret. "Yeah, but when I really think about it, I’ve already made up my mind." Bianca understood her reason, and whispered back. "Okay then. Does this mean I may be getting a wedding invitation in the near future?"
       Gadget’s bubbliness came out again. "Of course! Actually, would you be willing to be a bridesmaid? I don’t have many girl friends—you, Foxglove, Tammy, that’s about it." Bianca’s eyes lit up. "Oh, a bridesmaid! I just adore weddings! I can help you plan it if you like. I have connections all over town and we can make it a special event that everyone will remember!"
       Gadget was taken aback. "Golly! You’d do that for me? Well, I guess we should wait till Dale actually proposes. It would be a little embarrassing if we get the ball rolling and he says he wants to date other girls..." Bianca laughed and grinned the more. "Okay, dahling, We vill wait until the time is right. But I would be more than glad to help you, Gadget. You are like family to me in a way, and I have precious little of that. And if he says he wants to date other girls, I will eat my best hat!"
       Gadget hadn’t fully considered the idea of family. "I haven’t met Dale’s parents yet—at least not with the idea of marrying their son. I don’t know what they’ll think of him marrying a mouse, and since we’re different species that means no you and Bernard have any children?" Bianca turned back toward her desk. "We have a son, who is grown up now. Edvard is in college now, and has shown interest in following in our footsteps. I also have a niece that I love very much."
       Gadget hadn’t really asked Bianca about her family before, but she was surprised to learn of this. "You do? Gosh, that’s nice. I bet your son must be a great guy. What about your niece? Maybe I could meet her sometime?" Bianca took a seat again. "Maybe some day. I don’t get to see her or Edvard as often as I’d like to." Gadget was sympathetic as always. "Aw, that’s too bad. I guess your work keeps you pretty busy, huh?"

       Then Gadget looked at the clock on the wall. "Oh, jeepers! I’d better be getting back before he..they miss me! Thanks, Bianca. You’re the best." Gadget walked over and hugged her tightly.
       "Farewell, Gadget dahling. I look forward to hearing good news," Bianca said. "And don’t vhorry too much about the family. They are going to want their boy to be happy, and when they see he is that vill make the big difference. Bernard’s parents joked that they were happy that he found someone who could make him speak up for himself. Don’t put on airs, and just be the nice person you know you are and they will accept you."
       "Just be myself...hmmm, I wonder what they’re like? Dale doesn’t talk much about his family, but then neither does Chip, or Monty, or Zipper, or Tammy’s mom a widow, divorced, separated? Golly, I don’t really know anything about the others’ families. I hardly knew my own mom. I guess that’s why the Rangers are like family. For some reason our own families just didn’t fill the void we felt," Gadget said.
       Bianca felt like saying something, but decided not to. Instead, she just hugged Gadget again. "Well, from now on may your days only be happy ones. Goodbye, dahling, and best vishes!" Gadget walked to the door. "Goodbye, Bianca. Have a nice dinner!"

        Dale had waved goodbye to Gadget when she’d left that morning and had waited until Gadget had disappeared over the horizon in the RangerWing, then whistled up to Monty and Zipper. They were putting Dale’s comics in a small wooden box and letting them down by rope. Dale then transferred the comics to the storage bin on the RangerPlane. Dale was full of nervous excitement as Monty finished the last load and came down to help pack the collector’s items.
       "Boy, it’s a good thing the others believed us!" Dale said. "I thought Chip was never gonna quit asking questions at breakfast!" Monty closed the lid on the RangerPlane’s cargo hold. "Too right. Well, ya gotta admit that you don’t exactly volunteer fer manual labor that often. ‘Specially when it involves moving heavy stuff..."
       "But the idea of cleaning up the lair was all yours, Monty! It needed it, after all the construction that we’ve been doing in there. I never knew the shelves had gotten so dusty until Gadget put the lights in. And with having to pick up everything and dust, it’s a perfect excuse for the missing comic books! Thanks Monty, you’re a real genius!" Dale said.
       Monty picked up a dust rag. "Well, almost. I’m the one stuck ‘ere doing the cleanin’ while you’re off ta yer friend the comic collector’s place. Still, if it’ll make Gadget happy it’s worth an afternoon o’ workin’."

       With grim resolve, Dale powered up the RangerPlane and headed for "Ed’s Cavalcade of Comics"—a place Dale had long considered to be a second home. With the others at the police station, Dale had been free to execute his plans without fear of discovery. An hour later, he stood outside a nearby jewelry store, holding up a gorgeous four-carat diamond cluster ring with a good amount of funds left over.
       "Wow, still amazing to think that Kablammo Man and Sponge Boy could bring in that kinda dough! I sure hated to see ‘em go, but it’s gonna be worth it to see Gadget’s face when I put this on her finger!" Dale took one look back toward the comic book store and watched as the happy manager began to display the rare comics Dale had just sold. He thought it would have made him sad, but instead Dale was so happy that he started humming. He was so content that he tilted the RangerPlane back and forth all the way home. He ended up taking a very roundabout route, and lost all track of time. When he got near to the treehouse, he could see to his dismay that the RangerWing was back! Gadget had beaten him home.

       Contentment went to panic in seconds. "Oh, no! What’ll I do? I hope Monty’s covering for me...." Gadget entered the lair and to her surprise saw only Monty. "Hi, Monty! Say, where’s Dale? I thought he was going to help you clean up?"
       Monty nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Gadget’s voice. He’d been waiting for Dale, and when he heard someone come down he thought it was him. Now he was glad that he hadn’t said anything. "Oh, Gadget! Er, hello! Say, could you help me in here a minute luv? Got some polishin’ ta finish up..." Monty turned and walked quickly, trying to think of anything reasonable to tell her. Gadget looked around the room.
       "Say, is something different in here?" Gadget asked. Monty began to sweat, and it had nothing to do with the work. "Diff’rent? Aw it’s probably just the way the light is now, Gadget. Right bonzer job ya did on putting those lights in too, luv!" Monty handed her a dusting cloth and kept at it himself. What could he tell her?

       "What can I tell her?" Dale wondered as he went into headquarters. Dale ran into Monty’s room. knowing the ring would be safe in there. He hid it in an old earthen jar that Monty kept on his dresser.

       "Comic books, that’s it! Where are Dale’s comic books?" Gadget asked. Monty tried to keep from showing how hard he was thinking. "Well, those shelves were kinda dusty and all, so Dale figured we should take the comics down a while so we could dust ‘em proper...." **Where are ya, Dale?!**

       Meanwhile Dale had a situation of his own. "My hand’s stuck! I’ve gotta get this off! They could be down here any moment!" Dale was in full panic mode and looked like a mariachi shaking a large maraca as he jumped around Monty’s room, trying to shake the narrow-necked pot off his hand.

       "Oh! So, do you need any help?" Gadget asked.
       **You don’t know how much...** "Er, no Gadget luv. Not with them. But I could use some help cleanin’ off Dale’s swords in ‘ere..." Monty about-faced and headed for the exercise room. **Dale, you’d better get ‘ere in the next five minutes or your goose is gonna be cooked!**

       Dale had panicked so badly, that he hadn’t realized that all he had to do was let go of the ring and the jar would slip off. Fortunately, he’d rested it on the bed in frustration before doing that. Dale removed his hand, then grabbed the jar and set it back in place. He bolted outside, thankful that none of the others were in sight yet

       Gadget picked up a sword and swished it several times. "Dale’s been teaching me how to fence, you know. It’s fun! I wonder who taught Dale how to fence? He sure is good at it." Monty was ever-so-grateful for a change in topic. "Oy, that lad’s full of talent. There’s no tellin’ what he’s likely ta do next." **Not much would surprise me at all at this point...**
       Dale slid down the slide and walked quietly into the gym room, tapping Monty on the shoulder. "Yaaaah!" Dale jumped back at Monty’s reaction. "Whoops! Didn’t mean to scare you like that, Monty! Say, you managed to finish up already! Nice job."
       Gadget smiled and welcomed Dale warmly. "So, where did you run off to, leaving poor Monty to do all the work?" Dale knew the secret hadn’t come out then. The situation could still be salvaged. "Well, I could tell ya. But then it’d spoil the surprise!"
       Gadget gave him a coy look. "Am I going to have to wait long for this surprise?" Now Dale found himself perspiring, for reasons totally foreign to Monty’s. "Uh, a little while. She didn’t get it out of you, did she Monty?"
       Monty held up his hand in salute. "‘Course not, pally! I didn’t breathe a word about it." Gadget turned to Monty with a smile. "So, you’re in on it too. Well, I guess I’ll just have to be patient." Gadget wrapped her arms around Dale and gave him a big kiss. "Whatever the surprise, I’m sure I’ll love it."
       Dale nearly lost all resistance with that kiss, but just managed to hang on. "I sure hope so! C’mon, let’s go downstairs and help Monty with supper. He’s been a big help today!" Monty led the way. "Now don’t you two touch anythin’. You may be great at other things, but the two o’ you are a menace in the kitchen."



Chapter Ten--Living the Dream

       The rest of the Rangers returned from the police station to report a quiet day. Fortunately, Gadget didn’t say anything about the RangerPlane or Dale so no one else’s suspicions were aroused. When the others had gone to bed, Dale met up again with Monty and explained what he’d done
       "You had me jumpin’ around up there avoidin’ her questions like a bloomin’ flea on a hot griddle! Good thing you got that hand o’ yours free when ya did. Don’t worry, I’ll guard that ring with me life." They headed for Monty’s room and Dale tipped the jar and the ring slid into Dale’s hand, he then held it up to Monty.
       "Take a gander at this!" Dale said. Monty had to admire Dale’s taste. "Toooo-raaa-looooo! I haven’t seen a sparkler like thet since the time I was in South Africa chasin’ down a bunch o’ wildebeest that got loose. They ran right into this diamond mine, and there they were rough, but diamonds big as day. But they couldn’t hold a candle to that one right now! Did you haveta haggle quite a bit fer it?"
       Dale put the ring away. "Well, I’m not a good haggler, so I probably paid more for it than I should have, but it just looked so right. Gadget’s gonna love this ring! The funny thing is, I don’t regret selling my comics the slightest bit."
       Monty felt pleased for his friend. "It’s a right noble sacrifice, all right. That’s how it feels when ya done it that way. Known many a bloke that’s said it. I think you kin feel real good today, mate—today, ya showed that ye’re grown-up fer sure."
       Dale grinned at the words, but the grin left as another problem surfaced. "Monty, should I tell my folks about Gadget? Before I propose, I mean. Or should I surprise them?" Monty could just picture that meeting. "Seems like ye’re gonna surprise ‘em no matter what ya do. But it’s pretty customary ta introduce the prospective bride to the parents before the wedding, not necessarily the proposal. And in this case, might be better ta wait since ye’re about t’pop the question. If ya take her over there before that, she might guess what you’re at and beat ya to it."
       "You mean that Gadget might actually be eager to marry me?" Dale said, as if the idea hadn’t even occurred to him. "You’re right, I guess I should wait till afterward. Hey, we could invite them over for dinner and spring the big surprise on them!"
       Monty hoped he hadn’t given too much away with that, but kept a cool face. "Sounds good, mate. That way, they kin meet us all again! Been a while since any of us ‘ave seen them, includin’ you. Why don’t you go see yer folks more often, mate? They’re right nice folk."
       Dale cast his eyes down. "Well, I’ve always felt I was kinda a disappointment to them, seeing as how I was just a clumsy dummy and I didn’t like reminding them of how useless I was...but now, I’m the new improved Dale! Just wait till they see me now!"
       Monty couldn’t believe it. Even with his parents? "But pally, they always treated ya good, ta hear ‘em tell it. Why, I remember the last time they came they spent most ‘o the time talkin’ about all the fun memories they had o’ you. You already mean a lot ta them."
       "I know, Monty. But they’re my folks, so it’s they’re job to put on a happy face and smile and tell everyone how great their kid is. But let’s be honest. Up till recently, I didn’t think anything of myself," Dale said. Monty knew that Dale still had things to work out, but he needed perspective. "Gadget was just as hesitant, and you sure didn’t think she was a waste ‘o anything."
       Dale got defensive. "No, but she could do cool stuff! I just watched TV and read comic books. Not exactly something your folks can boast about at family gatherings." Monty could see that Dale’s and Chip’s problems were more similar than he’d thought. "You’re a right good painter and a good munk with the sword. I know ya kept that from everyone else, but ya knew that you were more than what you’d showed. Jes’ you remember that, and that you don’t have ta feel proud ‘o yerself ta feel ye’re worth something."
       Dale shook Monty’s hand. "I’ll remember, you can bet on that Monty. I’ve changed for the better and I’m never looking back!"
       "Now, have ya worked out what ye’re gonna do come prom night? Remember, ya can’t let Chip see ya. Best you take her outside or at least far enough away so he won’t suspect," Monty advised.
       Dale nodded in agreement. "Good idea. Maybe I should talk to Foxglove and see if she’ll keep Chip occupied long enough for me to pop the question without him hearing...oh, Monty, about the wedding—if it happens—if Chip flips out, can I count on you being my backup best man?"
       Monty hoped that was one role he never had to assume, for Chip’s sake. "Yeah, I’ll be there for ya. I really hope he doesn’t, mate. I really hope he doesn’t. But right now, I wouldn’t give a plugged nickel fer knowin’ what’s going on in that brain o’ his. He’s messed up on the inside, and who knows how it’s gonna come out? I don’t think he’d do anything nasty, but he can be right rebellious at times."
       "Don’t I know," Dale said. He turned to leave and tossed the ring up casually and caught it. Monty drew in a breath. "Mate, don’t take a chance like thet! I know those are diamonds, but that ring kin still be quite fragile ya know. Didn’t it come in a box?"
       "Yeah, and it’s neat! The thing even lights up when you open it," Dale said. Monty eyed the ring again. "Bring the box by later on an’ I’ll keep it in there for ya. No use takin’ chances."

       Dale thanked Monty again for his help and advice and left Monty’s room for the main room. Chip and Foxy had returned from their outing and were watching television with Zipper. The fly took advantage of Dale’s return to go see Monty and caught him just as he was coming out of his door
       "Monty, I’ve got a problem too," Zipper said. Monty was beginning to think he should put out a "the doctor is in" sign over his room. "What’s on yer mind, Zipper?" Zipper looked aside of Monty, obviously in a quandary.
       "It’s Honey. I want to ask her to the prom, but I’m afraid that she’ll think I’m being pushy. What do I do?" Monty shrugged. "Only one way to find out, lad. Just ask her." Zipper knew he’d say that. "Yeah, I guess so. At least we’ll have a chance to get out and know each other better, so she’ll probably go for it. I hope she does anyway. How did your talk with Dale go?"
       "Pretty good. Expect fire works at the prom, though. Dale’s gonna pop the question ta Gadget there. So be ready for damage control if Chip reacts bad," Monty said. Zipper whistled. "Hoo, boy. Chip’s got a temper like a volcano—you never know when it’s going to erupt. He did seem to be in a pretty good mood tonight, though. He actually asked how I was doing first thing. Maybe he won’t blow his top."
       "I got me fingers and toes crossed, but just be ready just in case," Monty said. Zipper buzzed and sighed. "I hope it doesn’t come to that, Monty. I’ve been friends with Dale for so long now that he means more to me than most people. I knew he was in love with Gadget, and I was as happy for him as anyone when she returned his love. I think they’ll make a good couple. Chip and Foxy on the other hand have a lot to work through. Foxy’s what Chip needs right now, but I feel for her when Chip learns about the wedding. She may get in over her head."
       Monty found that Zipper was reflecting his thoughts as usual. "You said it, Zipper. But she knew the risks when she set her sights on him. We’ve just got to do our best for them and help them through the rough parts."
        Zipper chuckled and shook his head. "Well, I think I’ll leave my own problem for tomorrow morning though—that’ll give her a full day to think about it. I sure hope she says yes, Monty." Monty gave Zip a thumbs-up. "Sounds good, mate. You’ll sweep her off her feet."
       "I’ll do my best!" Zipper said.

       Zipper joined Monty in the main room until it was time for bed. As the next day began, Zipper was up early and flew to Honey’s hive. He knew they still had a long way to go, but perhaps now they could really begin to know each other. The sentinel recognized him, and Zipper was allowed access to the throne room. He was stopped again at a portal just outside the chamber by another drone. It was his first time being announced at court, and it gave him a slight hesitation as he was told to wait until Queen Honey would receive him. After five more minutes, the drone returned. "You may enter," the drone said.
       Then a page said in a loud voice, "Announcing Zipper, of the Rescue Rangers." The door opened, and Zipper walked forward. The amber and wood throne seemed more imposing than it did the last time, with all the royal guards and court surrounding it. Honey was seated upon the throne, clothed in her royal finery. Aliwicious was standing nearby, and by his look seemed to be encouraging. Zipper gulped, approached the throne and bowed.
       "Thank you for seeing me so early, your majesty," Zipper said. Honey bade him rise. "You are always welcome here. Your visit has made my day brighter."
       **So far, so good**. "I have a request to make of your majesty. Tomorrow evening, several of my friends will be attending a dance at the high school. I’m going with them, and if it is possible I would enjoy the honor of your presence. Would you honor me by allowing me to escort you?" Zipper asked.
       Queenie gasped. "Attend a dance with a horde of adolescent mammals?" Zipper thought fast, and decided it was better to appeal to her nature this time. "I know you aren’t used to the idea, but you would be welcome. It would be a good opportunity for you to show your skills in diplomacy. After all, most of those attending haven’t mixed with us insects. You could help them to overcome their shortcomings by your example."
       Honey found herself faced with a very good argument—from her perspective anyway. "Well, that’s very true. There aren’t many people who have had the honor of being in the presence of one of my birth and bearing. Perhaps this may be good for them to see that we insects are as good if not better than any mammal."
       Zipper thought again, and decided that Honey could be her own best persuader. "What would you suggest, your majesty?" Honey gestured to her attendants. "I will have the royal chef’s have some of the finest honey to be given to the mammals as a gift for the dance. I will have a platoon of drones come with us, for my people would be very concerned if I did not have any soldiers to protect me in such an environment."
       "That sounds wise, though I suspect none of them would want to hurt you," Zipper said. "Will you be able to go around six tomorrow evening? That will give us ample time to arrive at the dance." Honey looked to Aliwicious, who nodded. She smiled and nodded to Zipper. "I shall be there at the appointed time. I will see you then... my love."
       "As will I, dearest," Zipper said.
       Honey approached him, and allowed Zipper to salute her hand in front of everyone. Then the fly bowed again and left. He was so relieved! She’d not only said yes, she’d actually seemed eager to go. With a heart full of anticipation, Zipper flew back to headquarters.

       As he arrived back home, he was just in time to go in the door with Tammy. The teenage squirrel had a big package with her under her arm, and her arrival instantly caught everyone’s attention. Foxy ran up to her in full anticipation
       "Is this it? It’s ready?!" Foxy asked. Tammy gave the package to Foxglove. "You bet! Mom has been working overtime to have it ready for the prom!" She handed the package to Foxy as Monty came into the room.
       "What’s all the hubbub about, Foxglove? What’s all the secrecy?" Monty asked. Foxy opened the package, but kept the contents hidden from view. "Donna…uh, Tammy’s mom made me a prom dress! I want it to be a surprise when Chip sees me in it!"
       Dale had just come in the room with Gadget. "Then you’d better run for cover!" Dale said. "I just saw him coming back from the police station!" Foxy dashed out of the room and hid the box under the bed in her room and rushed back out and sat on the couch as though nothing had happened.
       Chip had needed his trip to the police station. It was prom day minus one, and he’d been looking for something to get his mind off of it. Foxy had been talking of little else lately, and Chip was ready to get the thing over with so life could begin to return back to normal. Chip came in somewhat flat, and it showed in his voice.
       "Hi, everyone. Nothing new in the crime reports today—still slow out there in the city," Chip said. Chip took a seat on the couch, and the girls started giggling. Chip didn’t think he’d said anything funny, and found himself checking his jacket to make sure there wasn’t something on it. They giggled all the more.
       "Uh, would someone mind letting me in on the joke?" Chip asked. Tammy was beaming with delight. "Just wait’ll you find out, Chipper!" Chip was not sure he wanted to know. "Find out what? Did something happen?" Foxy gave him a look. "Not yet, cutie, but soon. I think you’ll appreciate it."
       Chip was confused and curious at the comical looks he was getting. "Dale, spill the beans! What’re they so hyper about?" Dale chuckled mischievously. "I’m keepin’ my mouth shut! This is between you and Foxy." Chip looked back at Foxy, and she was just brimming over with excitement.
       "So, what’s it all about? Don’t keep me in stitches!" Chip said. Foxy stood up. "Just wait here and close your eyes." Foxy got up and rushed out of the room.
       "Close my eyes? Why?" Chip asked. Gadget smiled at him. "Aw, c’mon Chip! Be a sport!" Tammy came over and picked up his fedora off his head, looking down at his face from behind. "Yeah! Trust me, you’ll love this!"
       Chip snagged his fedora, then shrugged his shoulders and put his hands over his eyes. He couldn’t imagine what had them all so peppy today, but he decided it wouldn’t hurt to go along. Chip was so curious, he began to wonder if they were playing some sort of practical joke on him. Dale was on tenterhooks. "Oh, this is gonna be good!"
       Foxy rushed into Gadget’s room and put on the dress, then she slowly returned to the room. From the sounds and exclamation of the others, it looked good on her. It was floor length black satin with wide sleeves. She stood in front of Chip.
       "Okay, cutie. Open your eyes," Foxy said.
       Chip opened his eyes, expecting some sort of joke. What he saw was anything but that. He’d never seen Foxglove in a dress before, and Donna had done a masterwork on her. The black provided a perfect contrast for her fur, and accentuated her figure while giving Foxy a sophisticated look. All Chip could do at first was stare, and Foxy drank it up.
       "It’s, it’s a very...very nice dress Foxy!" Chip stammered. Tammy and Gadget were still giggling over the effect, and Chip’s face shined in his patented blush. Foxy beamed at his compliment as she took his hands and pulled him to his feet and embraced him.
       "Now I won’t feel so out of place dancing with such a handsome chipmunk," Foxy said with satisfaction. Tammy winked at Chip. "You’d better be ready to fend off some of those seniors, Chipper! She’s a knockout in that dress!" Chip was still getting used to seeing Foxy this way, but now his composure was returning.
       "That dress is great, Foxy! I had no’s beautiful on you," Chip managed. Foxy giggled, "Thank you, Chip. I hoped you would like it. I can’t wait to see you in a suit!" Dale smiled at the scene with satisfaction. Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to distract Chip at the prom after all. "He’s a wolf in that tuxedo! Aroooo!" Dale said. The mention of formal attire brought Gadget’s attention to Dale. "So, Dale, what suit are you wearing to the prom?"
       Chip was relieved that the limelight was off of him, but he found that Foxy looked totally different in a dress and he found himself liking it. Chip gave her his arm and they sat on the couch and began talking while Dale took center stage.
       "Well, I was thinking I’d go as the Red Badger and you could go as my brave assistant! You never know when the lurking face of danger might raise its ugly head!" Dale joked. Gadget grinned. "How about Mighty Gadget? Or maybe go as my cousin…." She gently nudged Dale, who blushed at the idea.
       "Well actually, I’ve got the complete tux outfit from that costume I used to play Double-O-Dale, Superspy. I did get rid of the stink-and-smoke cufflinks, though. Uh, you were just kidding about going as your cousin, right?" Dale asked. Gadget rolled her eyes. "Maybe not exactly like that, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by my attire, superspy."
       Dale looked at her in total curiosity. What was she up to? "I’m looking forward to it. This is gonna be the most fun any of us have had in ages!" Gadget played with his shirt lapels. "Well, just remember when you have all those beautiful girls crowding around you and wanting to dance, just don’t forget about me." Dale smiled mischievously. "Wellllll, maybe if I had a reason to remember...."
       Gadget grabbed him and held him in her arms, taking on that sultry voice she’d used as the femme fatale in the Double-O-Dale adventure. "I know you won’t let me down, superspy...." Gadget gave him such a kiss that Dale thought he could die happy right there and then. He slumped down on the floor.
       "Uuuuuh, what other girls?" Dale said weakly. Tammy cried for laughing, and Foxy joined in as Gadget smiled down at her superspy demurely. "My hero!" Chip looked on amazed—sure, he'd seen her spy act for Dale when it happened and remembered how she kissed him, but he never imagined that she could or would talk like that. He really didn’t know her, and found this new revelation quite amazing.

       The afternoon’s frivolity led into the evening’s chit-chat. Everyone seemed upbeat, even Chip for a change. That dress seemed to have done it for him, and Gadget’s display of affection didn’t appear to bother him too badly—besides the shock of how it manifested itself. Dale was glad about that, because he didn’t need anything else on his mind at the moment. He’d waited until the others had gone to bed, then tapped lightly on Monty’s door. They went outside, so they could speak unimpeded
       "It all still seems like a dream, somehow. I’m almost afraid to go to bed tonight, for fear that I’ll wake up and find out that everything’s changed back. On the other hand, I’m also afraid to get up tomorrow, ‘cause it’s the big day. That kiss was so awesome today. Gadget’s all I could ask for here or any other time. I just hope I’m doing the right thing."
       Monty straightened his jacket—it was cold for a summer evening—and rubbed his hands. "Dale, I told ya before that Gadget was the most wonderful girl in the world and I wasn’t exaggeratin’. Ye’re a great fella and you’ve shown that ya were willin’ to grow up and be a man. It looks to me that the two o’ you have just been waitin’ for the right moment."
       "I know, but it’s all so...I don’t know, scary. I feel like I did in school before a big exam or something. I think I’m ready, but I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve got an idea of how things will go, but what if they don’t? I want everything to be just right for Gadget, and for her to be happy. It’s the least she deserves after all the hard times she’s had," Dale said.
       Monty grabbed Dale by the collar, though not hard. "Don’t you go startin’ to bear the burden of past events. She loved her folks a lot and misses them terribly, but you have to realize that it’s time Gadget grew up too. She’s been livin’ in the past fer a long time now, jus’ like you did. Gettin’ married should help to heal those wounds and allow her to love someone as dearly as she loved her mom and pop. And who knows, one day maybe the two o’ you can adopt a few little ones and have the whole family thing."
       Dale grinned and his eyes shone warmly. "Gosh, me a father? Zowie that’d be great! I always wanted kids, but I guess I never really thought about it for real. Would Gadget want kids around, though? She’s so independent—maybe I’d better leave it up to her. I couldn’t ask her to raise kids if she didn’t want to."
       "I can’t rightly say what she’d think o’ the idea, but yer right, yer gonna be partners in this marriage. But Gadget’s surprised you in the past, Dale. Whoever the little nipper would be, they’d be the luckiest kid in the world to have Gadget and you fer a mom and dad," Monty said
       Dale slapped himself, and threw up his hands. "What am I saying? I haven’t even asked her yet and already I’m talking about kids! I think I know what she’ll say, but what if she doesn’t? I don’t know if I could take that kind of rejection..." Dale looked at Monty with a measure of worry.
       Monty looked him right in the eyes. "Dale, do you believe that Gadget loves you?" Dale was so glad Monty was here to keep his head on straight. "Sure, I do! But does she love me enough to marry me? I think she does, but I don’t know! I wish I could talk to her about this, but it’s the one thing I can’t talk over! I feel so confident when she’s around, that it’s like…cutting an arm off when she isn’t."
       "Dale, relax. You said you think she does love you, there you go. You know she loves you and you know you love her. Just relax and enjoy the prom and tomorrow night you’ll be the happiest guy on the planet," Monty said. Dale’s eyes got big as he thought about it. "If I don’t throw up, shake Gadget apart or faint away first. I know it’ll be different once I’m there though. I just wish it would get here! I’ve got so much nervous energy built up, I feel like I could run a marathon! But thanks, Monty. You’ve been great all this time, and I just wanted to say that I couldn’t have done any of this without you."
       "I’m glad I could help. Playin’ matchmaker has been a new experience though. Why don’t ya come in the kitchen and I’ll make you a snack. That might help settle yer nerves," Monty offered. Dale tried to hide the fact his hands were shaking. "Thanks, I’ll try anything at this point."
       The two of them went in, and Monty fixed Dale some warm milk and cheese. Dale calmed down some and slipped quietly into the room he shared with Chip. He was used to moving around in the dark from his years of late-night TV watching that he gained his bed without making noise. Then Dale laid there and stared at the ceiling. It seemed to take forever, but finally sleep claimed him and he nodded off.

       The day of the prom began in high gear. The Rangers had already agreed to take the day off so they could enjoy that evening. Chip had just opened his eyes when he heard Monty and Dale talking in hushed tones about "hiding it" and "can’t let her see it". Chip turned over and looked down to see Monty holding something under his jacket and sneaking out. Dale went with him, so Chip was free to indulge his curiosity. The chipmunk detective hopped down from his bed and looked under it—sure enough, the painting was gone. **They must have been concerned that Gadget might come in and find it by accident**. Chip dressed and crept up to the cracked door in time to observe Monty and Dale coming back from the direction of Monty's room. They passed by on their way to the kitchen. Chip shrugged, walked out and wasn't going to give it another thought, when Gadget emerged from her workshop.
       "Oh, good morning, Gadget," Chip said. Gadget had almost bumped into him, because she was fussing with some material she was holding in her hands. "Hi, Chip! Have you seen Monty?"
       "Yeah, he and Dale just went down the hall a little while ago. Anything I can help you with?" Chip asked. Gadget was preoccupied and a little frustrated. "Oh, I'm trying to sew this smock together and I laid my sewing needle down to get a button. When I did, it went somewhere, because it was gone when I sat back down! Well, I know Monty won't mind if I borrow his spare needle. I'll just slip in his room and get it."
       Gadget started down the hall, careful not to mess up the sewing she'd already done. Chip didn't know if Monty and Dale had concealed the painting. He felt torn—did he want to help Dale keep his secret? "Uh, Gadget... wait," Chip said.
       "I'll be right back, Chip. This will only take a second..." Gadget said, not even looking up as she headed for Monty’s room. Gadget approached the door. Chip ran up to her. "Wait! You can use one of mine. Chip took her by the hand and pulled her toward his room.
       "Iknowwheremineareitwillsaveyoutimelookingsaywhatisthatyou’remaking?" Chip said as he went to get Gadget a needle. Gadget didn't know quite what to make of Chip's offer, but she came with him anyway. Chip went to his writing desk and pulled out a small packet that contained needles and thread that matched the colors of his jacket lining. He pulled out a needle and gave it to her.
       "Golly, thanks Chip. That was very...nice of you," Gadget said. Chip felt her discomfort, and decided to let her off the hook. "No, problem, Gadget. I'm glad I could help you and..." Gadget half-smiled and went out, involuntarily glancing back at Chip again as she left. Something about his offer didn't feel right to her, and she had to admit that putting the word "nice" in a sentence with him felt strange. Gadget decided not to dwell on it, and returned to her workshop and her sewing.
       Chip didn't know what to think. Should he be mad or glad that Gadget hadn't seen Dale's surprise? "That's my munk scout duty for the day, anyway. Now back to the real world..." Chip left the hall and joined the others for breakfast.

       The talk was lively all day, and as evening drew nearer the feeling of anticipation grew. They were all in preparations, making sure to look their finest. Dale and Chip were in their rooms, putting on their tuxes. Dale watched as Chip adjusted his black tie.
       "Like I said, aroooo! You’re quite a looker in that tux, Chip!" Dale said. Chip had to admit, he’d always liked dressing up—except for having to sacrifice his fedora. "Thanks, Dale. You know I always try to look my best". Dale stuck his face in the mirror that Chip was using. "Foxy’s going to go wild when she sees you in that! Speaking of which, she really surprised you with that dress, didn’t she?"
       Chip blushed and tried to hide it. "Yeah, a little." Dale giggled and nudged him. "A little? She’s really pretty, you know. I’m glad she found someone like you to be with. She’s really fortunate." Chip’s eyes followed Dale as he went about the room, getting ready. **Are you just saying that because she got rid of your competition for Gadget or do you really mean that?**
       "Thanks, Dale. Yeah, she really lives up to her name," Chip said. Dale turned and saw the thought that was written on Chip’s face. "Yes, I mean it Chip. I know we fought over Gadget, but I never wanted you to be sad. I was happy when Foxy showed interest in you because it means that you can be happy too."

       Chip only nodded, and Dale knew that Chip needed a moment alone. Dale checked himself over once more, then stepped into the main room. Monty was the only one out there at the moment "Sharp, pally! Mighty sharp! The others are still dressin’ and Zipper’s gone to pick up Queenie..uh Queen Honey." Monty walked up to Dale and slipped something in his inner jacket pocket
       "I kept it safe as me cheese stash, mate. Make sure not ta lose it," Monty said, with a wink. Dale felt the ring box in his pocket. "Oh, yeah! That’s not something I want to forget, tonight of all nights. Thanks, Monty. Do I look all right, is my suit okay? How about my breath? What if she says no? What if aliens attack the high school? What if the dam bursts?!"
       "If if's and but's were cheese and nuts, you and I’d both look like me! Don’t worry pally, it’ll turn out all right," Monty said. Dale checked his jacket for the umpteenth time, and then got Monty’s attention again. "Of course, if she says ‘no’ then it’s going to be a bit embarrassing for her to see that painting...but I can’t be a worrier anymore. She’s gonna say yes, I just know she will!" Dale said. Monty slapped him one on the back, nearly bowling him over. "That’s the spirit, lad! I’ll be thinkin’ of ya every minute, mate..."

       Monty walked back to his room, and Dale was left to contemplate his situation alone. Meanwhile, Zipper was nearing Honey’s hive. He was wearing the tuxedo that he normally donned when he went to view the cheese ship from Paris with Monty. The drone formally announced him, and Zipper went inside. This time, he was shown right into the throne chamber. Honey was there, bedecked in a splendid gown of light purple silk. Zipper was in awe, and smiled as he approached.
       Zipper bowed deeply before Queen Honey. "Your majesty is indeed exceptionally beautiful tonight." Honey blushed slightly and smiled in return. "Thank you. I am pleased that you were punctual, Zipper. Your outfit is very becoming."
       "Thank you. I hoped it would meet with your approval. Are you ready?" Zipper asked. Honey stood up and flew to Zipper’s arm. "Yes, we are. Aliwicious!" The major domo flew out, with the legion of drones following. They were all bedecked in military uniform, and each one carried a sample of the honey that Honey had promised.
       "You’re leading, Zipper. Everyone follow us!" Honey said. Zipper was surprised at her statement. "I’m honored, Honey."
       "No, I am the one who is honored tonight. I am with you tonight, and I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to it. You have thought of me first in everything, and that...means a lot. Thank you," Honey said, and plainly meant it.
       "You’re welcome. They’ve never met royalty before and won’t know how to act and they may be rude, unintentionally." The large bunch of insects flew toward the high school. Honey gave Zipper a kind smile. "Don’t worry, Zipper. I remember what you said. If they have shortcomings, then I will meet the difference. It is time the mammals got a taste of having royalty around. Perhaps it will help their behavior."
       Zipper took her hand. "This is going to be a great night."

       Foxy was speechless for a moment when Chip walked in. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him look so handsome. She rushed up to him and gave him a kiss that made his fur stand on end. "Chip, I didn’t think you could look more handsome than you already did!" Chip had that satisfied smile on his face, and put his arm around Foxy’s waist.
       "Well, that’s what I thought about you before seeing you in that dress! We look like the Vanderbilts or something!" Chip changed to a posh voice. "Perhaps we should have Jeeves bring the sedan around so we can repair to the outing..."
       "Yes, my dahling. The gala awaits our presence," Foxy replied in kind. Dale had viewed this entire spectacle, and was overjoyed that Chip was having a good time. "Oh, you two are rich?! Say, could I borrow a few hundred thou? We could use a new mansion!"
       "How do I look, Dale?" came a familiar voice at the door as it opened.

       Dale heard Gadget’s voice, and turned. The world stopped. Time stopped. He was scared for a moment his heart had stopped! Gadget had just appeared in the door, and it was like an angel coming among them. The first thing that was obvious was that she was wearing a dress. It was a full-length white satin gown that wasn’t showy, but complimented her well still. Dale thought she looked taller, and it wasn’t just the matching white heels she was wearing. Gadget wasn’t wearing makeup, but she did have a small gold necklace around her neck, and she had fixed her hair so that her front tresses were swooped back which accentuated her facial features. She had the grace and bearing of an Amazon, and the innocent charm of youth. Dale couldn’t say anything at first—he just stood there, as did everyone else
       " look incredible," Dale said, echoing the thoughts of the others. Gadget giggled and blushed, then walked up to him and took his hands. "Thank you, Dale. I was worried you wouldn’t like it. You look so handsome in that suit, Dale." Gadget leaned in and whispered, "Or should I say, Double-0-Dale, Superspy?"
       Dale felt more like Supermunk than Double-O-Dale at the moment. He felt like he was able to fly, like he could do anything. He couldn’t believe she’d dressed up this nice just for him! "Not like it? If I didn’t, I’d have to be the hardest munk in the world to please!" Then he leaned in and whispered back, "Thanks, Gadget. You’re the best."
       Gadget gently hugged Dale, making sure not to mess up her dress. "Golly, that’s sweet. I always feel my best when I’m with you, Dale." Then she kissed his cheek. Dale’s face lit up like a Christmas light, and he fell to the floor in pure pleasure. Foxy and Gadget both giggled as Gadget helped him up.

       Chip had been amazed as anyone—awed was more like it, but his sense of leadership was still in place. "Well, we’d better get a move on if we want to be there on time! Since this is sort of like a date and social thing for us, let’s take both planes. Foxy and I’ll go in the RangerWing, and you two can go in the RangerPlane. Monty, you’re welcome to come with us if you want..."
       Monty looked up from the book he was reading. "Naw, I think I’ll sit this one out. I’m a bit old fer proms and the like. You youngsters go and have fun. I’ll wait fer the after-prom report from ya all." Chip was sort of surprised that Monty wouldn’t want to come, but there wasn’t time to try to convince him. "Well, if you’re sure. Let’s get a move on, everyone!"
       Chip escorted Foxy out the door, while Monty got up and put an arm around Gadget and tears began to fall. "Gadget luv, yer dad would be so proud ‘o you tonight! I know he would, ‘cause I am!" Gadget was suddenly very glad she wasn’t wearing makeup. "Golly, thanks Monty. But having you around is like having him here again."
       Monty put his hands on both their shoulders. "Have a great time, you two. Oh, and part ‘o that surprise that Dale mentioned to ya will be waitin’ at the lair when ya get back." Monty winked at Dale, and then waved goodbye as Dale linked arms with Gadget and together they left HQ.
       Gadget turned to Dale with curiosity in her eyes. "So what is this surprise? You’ve been keeping it hushed up for days now!" Dale smiled, still in wonder at the vision he was with. "Just wait a few more hours, Gadget. Then all will be revealed." Gadget couldn’t hide her excitement. "Oh, golly I can’t wait to see what it is! Jeepers, we’d better hurry Dale! Chip and Foxy are already gone."
       Dale helped Gadget into the RangerWing and Gadget uncharacteristically made no move to fly it, letting Dale do it instead. Dale couldn’t help but notice that Gadget had let him pilot the Wing without fear or chiding. Dale started it up, and shouted, "Up, up and away!"

       Central Park High was one big decoration as students, faculty and guests entered the large gymnasium building. Tammy was on the welcoming committee in addition to her other duties, so she was there when Zipper and Honey plus her entourage arrived.
       Zipper bowed to Tammy with a flourish. "Tammy Chesnutt, I have the singular honor of introducing to you my good friend Queen Honey Regina, the Third." Honey nodded to her and gave a queenly wave. Tammy caught the look in Zipper’s eyes, and understood. She courtsied in reply.
       Honey motioned her drones to come forward with the containers of honey. "To honor your gathering, we bestow upon you this gift of our finest honey." Tammy smiled in kind. "How kind! We’re glad you could come, Queen Honey!" Tammy said. Tammy recruited a colleague to show the drones where to place their gift
       Honey was impressed with Tammy’s welcome. Maybe all mammals weren’t so bad. "Thank you, Tammy, and I am grateful for your invitation. The honey is the finest our hive has produced." Tammy tasted some and her eyes lit up. "Wow, you didn’t have to go to all that trouble but thanks!"
       "You’re quite welcome. I have also commissioned my drones to guard your awards. Zipper informed me that you were concerned about their possible theft. With my soldiers around them, no one will dare take them before the awarding ceremony. They will defend them to the death!" Tammy smiled gleefully at this information. "Oh, thank you! I was afraid that we’d have no one to constantly watch them, what with all the fun going on. Say, speaking of awards I just had an idea..."
       Tammy whispered to Honey, and she nodded her approval. "Great! That’ll be a kicker to the evening! Go on inside, you two. The music will be heating up real soon!"

       Chip had been grateful that Dale and Gadget had agreed to go in the RangerPlane. He had sorely needed to get by himself after he’d seen Gadget in that dress. She had been beyond beautiful, and Chip had been grateful for everyone else’s reaction to cover his own. Watching her kiss Dale and looking like that had stung him right in his dreams. He still had them, though he felt guilty about it. Chip looked at Foxy, and she smiled at him with endearment. She was beautiful too, and he appreciated her beauty. So why couldn’t he let go of Gadget? Why? The question was still plaguing him when they landed. Chip got out first and helped Foxy out.
       "My, what a gentleman. Are you excited about being here, Chip?" Foxy asked. Chip shook off the feelings as best he could. "Hey, it’s already better than last time! You’re here." Chip offered his arm and they walked to the door of the gym where Tammy was waiting.
       "Chipper! Foxglove! Hey, you two look really good together!" Tammy said. Foxy smiled at the compliment. "Thanks, Tammy! We’re going to give you and Rob a run for cutest couple." Chip shook Tammy’s hand. "Glad we could come. Where do you need us to be?"
       "Just mingle and keep an eye on things for now. When everything starts up, you’ll be in charge of the far side of the gym, where the locker rooms are. Just make sure no one slips in there, okay?" Tammy asked. Chip saluted. "No problem, Tammy. We’ll make sure there’s no goofing around."

       Then Tammy turned her attention back toward the outside, and went outside when she saw Dale and Gadget coming. "WOW! Gadget, you are breathtaking! Did you make that dress yourself?" Gadget picked up the sides of the dress slightly as she walked over the grass to the building’s entrance. "Golly, thanks. Yes, I made it just for the prom. I’m glad you like it."
       "Oh, you’ve got to let me see the pattern for it!" Tammy said, oozing adoration. "I love it! Say, and who’s the charmer with you?" Gadget held her head up a bit more than normal. "He’s a supersuave chipmunk I happen to know. One of his many secret identities is that of Dale, of Rescue Ranger fame."
       Tammy reacted in mock surprise. "Dale? That’s Dale in there? You’d better hang on to him, honey. The girls are gonna want to dance with him! I’m tempted to myself!" Dale lapped up the flattery. "Ah, the burdens of being irresistible."
       "Oh, get in there you hunk!" Tammy pretended to chide. "You two will be stationed on this side of the gym when the prom gets rolling. Just make sure that no one sneaks into the main office. Oh, and you don’t have to worry about the awards now —Zipper’s friend Queen Honey brought a bunch of her bees along to guard them! So just keep an eye out and have a cool time!"
       Dale could barely take his eyes from Gadget. "We’re going to have a great time, Tammy." Tammy watched them go in and then followed at a short distance. "Yeah, I bet you will..."

       When Dale and Gadget got inside, Foxy saw them and pulled Chip over. As she did, someone else came over. She was an old gray squirrel with white hair on top. "Chip Maplewood and Dale Oakmont! You two, again! I thought I had seen the last of you both years ago."
       Dale gasped. "Miss Spelling, our science teacher! Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared!" Chip instinctively reached to take off his fedora, then realized he hadn’t worn it. "It’s good to see you again, Miss Spelling. You’re looking nice tonight."
       "Your flattery and charm didn’t work then and still won’t work now, Mr. Maplewood," Miss Spelling said flatly. Foxy and Gadget both giggled at this lady’s forwardness with Chip. Chip started fidgeting with his jacket. "Well, it’s good to see you anyway. Your teaching’s come in handy lots of times when I’ve been on cases with my team the Rescue Rangers."
       "Yes, the Rescue Rangers. The two of you couldn’t find real jobs, I see. Then she turned suddenly and pointed a finger at Dale. This caused Dale to jump. "And you, Mr. Oakmont, what do you have to say for yourself?" Dale thought for a moment.
       "Ethane, methane, propone, butane, pentane, hexane, heptane, octane, nonane, and decane?" Dale said. Miss Spelling ignored his recitation. "So, Mr. Oakmont, you and Chip and your friends have become quite the heroes over the last few years. Chip’s accomplishments don’t surprise me... much. But yours...yours do. The last I remember of you is a silly little boy who cared more about being a class clown and who thought he would never amount to anything. Now look at you, a famous hero. All of life is a test, Dale, and you finally passed." She reached into her pocket and withdrew a small plastic box. From it, she withdrew a small gold star sticker and placed it on Dale’s lapel.
       "You’ve earned it Mr. Oakmont," Miss Spelling said with a slight smile forming on her face. Dale couldn’t have been more surprised or grateful. For years, he’d tried to earn a gold star and never had while Chip had earned them coming and going. Now, to have Miss Spelling—the Test Terror—give him this recognition! Dale smiled humbly and took his teacher’s hand.
       "Thank you so much, Miss Spelling. You’ll never know how much this means to me!" Miss Spelling quickly resumed her hard line. "I think I do know. You know that I never gave credit unless it was due, young man. Then she turned to Chip and pointed at him, causing Chip to jump. "Mr. Maplewood! What’s the scientific name for your lady friend?"
       Chip was caught off-guard. "Uh...uh...oh it’s on the tip of my tongue..." She began tapping her foot. Foxy answered first. "It’s chioptera, isn’t it?" Chip slumped down a bit. "Oh yeah, that’s it. I’d have had it in a minute." Miss Spelling pulled out another gold star and stuck it on Foxy’s dress. "Excellent, young lady. No credit for you, Mr. Maplewood. It shows good judgement that you found a girl with intelligence, not like most of the girls you dated during your school years."
       Chip blushed, and slumped a little more. He wanted to be anywhere but in the limelight he was in right now. Miss Spelling decided to move on. "Well, you didn’t come here for me to embarrass you both in front of your girlfriends. Just don’t forget to do what you came here for. My niece Tammy seems to think you can handle the job, but we’ll just have to see, won’t we?" Then she turned away, but turned back so suddenly that everyone jumped. "And stand up straight for heaven’s sake, Mr. Maplewood! Stop slouching! Your posture is terrible."

       Chip’s head popped up, and his back straightened like he’d done so many times in the past when she’d done that very thing. Dale did the same, and Gadget and Foxy chuckled as their jumpy dates led them to the dance floor. In a few minutes, the Memphis Munks took the stage and the prom was on. Dale bowed to his partner and had to shout above the speakers.
       "May I have this dance?" Dale asked. Gadget courtsied. "Why certainly, Dale. Now we get to see if all of those dance lessons are going to pay off." She took his hand and walked with him onto the dance floor. The pair had the attention of the majority of the teens there as they began dancing. The song was "Hickory Nut Stomp", a lively tune and one of the group’s best-known hits. Dale and Gadget started off, and they were smooth as silk. The fiddles and cello provided a constant beat that had everyone moving lively.
       Chip and Foxy were dancing now too, and Chip found he was starting to enjoy himself some. Then he saw a sight that confounded him. **Gadget can dance?** In the direction of Chip’s amazement, Dale was having the time of his life. "I’d say we’re a hit, Gadget! Isn’t dancing great?" Gadget was enjoying it too, despite all the looks they were getting. "It sure is! We really are like Fred and Ginger, Dale!" Dale strained to hear her as the band had suddenly kicked up the decibels even more. "No, I don’t think they serve ginger ale at these things! Guess we’ll have to settle for punch!

       Back at headquarters, the silence was a total contrast to the roar and splendor of the prom. Monty had taken the painting he and Dale had moved there and set it up in his lair on a stand. He looked at it, and touched the image of Gadget in the wedding dress with strong feelings surfacing in him
       "Geegaw, Sarah, yer little baby’s all grown up now. Any time now Dale will pop the question an’ she’ll likely say yes. I wish ya both could be here fer the big moment, ‘cause she’ll rush into HQ all excited and she’ll probably give me a big hug and tell me that Dale proposed and she’ll show me that great big ring Dale gave her. Dale will be so excited that he’ll be in a daze. You two would have loved Dale. He’s a great guy, an’ he loves Gadget more than anything, literally. He’ll make her happy."
       Monty paced a little in the snug little room, and his brow knotted. "I jus’ hope Chip can control himself. Hopefully, the bloke won’t find out until they get back here an’ we kin all deal with him in private. I feel bad for ya, Chip—I know that you were havin’ a pretty good day up to now. But you haveta face it, jus’ like we all do. It’s time all three of you grew up, and I’ve a feelin’ that Chip’s goin’ ta be the one that’s going to put up the most fight."
       Monty looked back to the picture. "I hope this won’t break up the team, Gadget luv. We’ve all been friends fer so long and we all need each other. But if Chip can’t take it, then all I’m concerned about is your happiness and I’ll do whatever needs doin’ ta see to it. I owe that to you and to yer parents." Monty left the lair and went downstairs, trying not to think about the minutes slowly ticking by.

       Across the park from the treehouse, the noise of the prom had settled into a constant rhythm. The couples danced to the country tunes, and groups of boys and girls talked incessantly. When Tammy wasn’t dancing with Rob, she was introducing the various Rangers to her friends. Right now, she was introducing Zipper and Honey to her female friends
       "Queen Honey, you’ve got to tell us who made that dress of yours! It’s so cool!" Tammy said. Honey looked at all the eager young faces, and felt she was in her element. "The royal tailor worked all through the night to create this dress. I must say he did a magnificent job."
       "And he had a great subject to work with," Zipper added. "Are you enjoying yourself, Honey?"
       Honey accepted a small glass of punch from one of her drones, who had brought the crystal goblet along for just that purpose. "Yes, this is quite an experience. I have never been among mammals in a social setting before. I am grateful that you chose to invite me."
       Zipper couldn’t have been more pleased with how things were going. "And I’m having a great time with the prettiest girl here. Would you care to dance some more?" Honey passed her goblet to the waiting drone. "Zipper, I could dance all night."

       As Zipper danced—or rather flew and danced—with Honey, Chip and Foxy were taking a breather on the far side of the gym. Chip looked around at his old haunt. "Wow, this place sure brings back a lot of memories. Did I tell you about the time I led the Central Park basketball team to the state tournament?"
       Foxy began to wonder if Chip might not be related to Monty somehow. "No, Chip. I bet you were a terror on the court. From what Rob said, you’re a champion sportsman." Chip stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and let the memories flow back to him. "I can remember it like yesterday. We hosted the state finals here, and we were slated against Prairie Grove in the championship game. They were undefeated and we’d lost our one game to them earlier in the year by two points. The gym was one big yell as the game went on—we were down by five at halftime, then we began to rally. It was a fight down to the last minute, and they were up by two again! Then they fouled Sky Morgan and he hit his foul shots. They come down the court and I stole the ball! I was running and...."
       "And what, cutie?" Foxy asked, all attention. However, Chip’s attention had been suddenly drawn to a movement he’d seen in his peripheral vision. "The story’ll have to wait, Foxy. I think I just saw someone sneak into the boys’ locker room."
       "Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go stop those nefarious fiends!" Foxy said. She giggled as they left the dance floor. Chip turned to her, his face a question. "What are you giggling about, Foxy?" Foxy pointed to herself and Chip. "We’re the authority now, cutie. The kids have to do stuff behind our backs!" Chip had to admit, it was a strange reversal of things. "Well, it just goes to show you how things change. But you don’t need to go—I’ll handle it. It’s probably some kid looking to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong."
       "Where your cute nose goes, mine goes too!" Foxy said with vigor. Chip led the way. "All right, but stay close." Chip opened the door to the locker room. It was dark, and smelled of locker room smells. Then they went inside and the blackness enveloped them.

       Gadget had chuckled to herself at Dale’s misunderstanding of what she’d said, but now she really was thirsty. "Say Dale, why don’t we take a breather and you could get us some punch, okay?" Dale was never one to refuse the food table. "Sure thing, Gadget. I’m parched. I’ll be right back!" Dale began making his way through the throngs of dancing teens toward the refreshments.
       Gadget looked fast, and waved Tammy over. "Tammy, I’ve got a big favor to ask you..." Tammy was only too obliging. "Sure thing! What do you need?" Gadget quickly explained what she wanted, and Tammy had to hold back a laugh at the cleverness of it. "You got it, Gadget! We’ll spring it on him when the time’s right!"
       Dale somehow managed to return to Gadget without spilling any punch. "Here ya go, Gadget. Wow, I just can’t believe how great this all is! I’m having a blast!" Tammy took on a look of concern. "Dale, I was just telling Gadget that I thought I saw someone going into the lobby. Would you mind checking it out?"
       "Certainly, that’s what I’m here for," Dale said. "Rescue Ranger away!" Dale barged his way through the crowd again. "Step aside, munk on a mission. Oops, sorry about that, ma’am! Official business, comin’ through!"
       Gadget gave Tammy a quick hug. "Thanks, Tammy! I owe you one!" Gadget began to follow Dale, and unlike her munk the people tended to get out of her way. Tammy smiled mischievously and ran up to the stage, getting the attention of the lead singer.

       In the locker room, Chip and Foxy walked slowly. Foxy’s echolocation proved useful, since she could tell if anyone was in the immediate area. There was no one in the room, but as their eyes adjusted they could both see a flicking light coming from a door at the far left end of the locker room. "Just a little further, Chip, and then we’ll nab the perp," Foxy said.
       "Perp? You stayed up for that Dragnet marathon, didn’t you?" Chip asked. Foxy blushed. "I guess I’ve been spending too much time at the police station." Chip approached the light slowly, keeping himself between it and Foxglove. "Stay close, and stay quiet. No telling who they are or how many..."
       "But Chip, I can hear how many are in there..." Foxy countered. Chip and Foxy crept quietly toward the door. The flickering light was coming from a cigarette lighter, being held by a tux-clad teenager. He and another guy who held a sports trophy were snickering as the one who held the lighter prepared to set off a fire-extinguishing fixture on the ceiling.
       "This’ll set off the entire system in the gym!" the one with the lighter said. The other boy looked on. "Oh man, this is gonna be good..." Foxy spoke out, "Now why would you two want to ruin the prom for everyone?"
       "We’ve been spotted!"
       Chip flipped on the light switch, and the two teenage boy mice rubbed their eyes at the sudden light change. "And why were you trying to steal the basketball team’s championship trophy? Who are you two?" The two guys backed up a bit, but there was no place to go and they knew it.
       "Jim Turk and Bruce Yates. Hey man, we were just out for a little fun!" Jim said. Foxy crossed her wings. "Your fun was going to ruin everyone else’s! Do your mothers know you two are up to no good?" Bruce didn’t like the sound of that at all. "Aw, c’mon! Don’t tell them! We would have given back the trophy once we’d kept it a while!"
       "Stealing is still stealing!" Chip said. "You’re lucky we found you first, and not the principal. If you put the trophy back and don’t try this again, you can go. But consider this a final warning." Jim and Bruce looked at each other, and nodded. "We’ll need some help putting the trophy back. Do you mind helping us?" Jim asked.

        Dale had found no problems in the lobby and he and Gadget had resumed dancing again when Gadget spotted Chip and Foxglove coming out of the locker room with two teenagers. Chip talked to them for a minute and then the teens shook his hand and rejoined the party. Foxy took Chip's arm and they walked back into the crowd, where Gadget and Dale came over to them. "What was that all about, Chip? Some kids up to no good?" Gadget asked.
       "Yeah, but they were no match for the dynamic duo. Right, Foxy?" Chip said. Foxy gave Chip a love tap on his cheek. "You got that right, cutie! They never stood a chance." Gadget watched as the teens returned to their dates and started dancing again. "Golly, I'm glad they didn't cause any trouble. Were they apologizing to you, Chip?"
       "Uh huh. They were caught and they knew it, and I told them that if they did it again their parents would be told. That seemed to work pretty quick," Chip said, with a satisfied grin. Dale gave Chip a high-five. "It's good to know that that still works on kids these days...Oh, no! I said it...I said ‘the kids these days’. I'm old!" Chip shook his head and gave a soft chuckle. "No older than I am, grandpa!"

       The band played on, and the two couples were lost for a while in their own private worlds. Then Tammy came forward and the band got everyone's attention. "Hey, everyone! It's time for the awards ceremony, gather around!"
       The crowd came up close, and Zipper felt like prom king himself escorting Honey onstage, Tammy adjusted the microphone on the old portable speaker, which immediately gave feedback causing her to back off. Then she approached again and started the ceremony. "We've got a real queen to help us give out the awards tonight! I'd like to introduce Queen Honey Regina the third..."
       The crowd applauded and whistled as Honey took center stage. Awards were given out to several students for such things as best-dressed, most popular, and most spirited. Then came the big moment. Honey had been struggling all evening with the idea of bestowing royal titles on peasants, and mammal ones at that. However, Zipper had assured her that the title would only count for that night and it was a ritual rather than official coronation.
       Honey took her place at the podium with all the regal pomp she could muster. "I have been granted the honor this night of bestowing the titles of King and Queen of the prom." Honey opened the envelope and withdrew that card inside. "The crowns will rest this night upon the brows of Rob Roybrush and Tammy Chesnutt!"
       Tammy put her hands up to her mouth in surprise and she started crying. The drones brought the queen's crown over and put it on her head, then bowed in kind to her. The crowd was already cheering and clapping, but it was doubled when Rob joined Tammy on stage. The drones crowned him king, then Rob took Tammy in his arms and kissed her as the crowd went wild
       "And now, the King and Queen will have a dance to themselves..." Honey read off the card. Rob escorted Tammy onto the floor as everyone backed up to make room. The Memphis Munks started up again, and the couple of the moment danced while everyone looked on.
       Rob held Tammy close. "Well Tammy, was tonight everything you thought it would be?" Tammy looked up at him, her eyes still moist. "It's more than I dared hope for, Rob."
       "It's been great for me too. And your friends are the coolest," Rob said. Tammy saw the Rangers in a group, all looking on. "Yeah, they are the such good friends. Not many people would have put up with an annoying, overexcited, infatuated teen like I was when I first met them."
        Rob had to laugh. "Oh, I think that's because each of them was probably the same way at some point. Say, do you think you'll be free this weekend? We could go play tennis." Tammy turned her attention back to Rob and perked up at the idea of another date. "I'd love to, Rob, but you'll have to teach me. It's so strange, we were crowned king and queen by real royalty."
       "Yeah, neat huh? I'll be glad to teach you though. With your athletic skill, you'll be giving me a run for my money in no time!" Rob said.

       Their dance ended, and then the other couples came over and congratulated them. The music didn't stop for long, and soon everyone was back to dancing. Then Gadget indicated for Dale to stop
       "I'm parched again, Dale. Could you go get me some more punch?" Gadget asked. Dale saluted. "Sure, anything for you, Gadget." Dale began making his way through the crowd to the refreshments. Foxy spotted Dale on his way, and decided Gadget had a good idea in asking. "Chip, would you get me some punch, pretty please?"
        Chip let her go, then studied his route. "Okay, Foxy. Back in a minute!" As Chip left, Gadget went over to Tammy and got a private moment with her. "Congratulations, Tammy! You and Rob make a great couple." Tammy beamed at the compliment. "And you and Dale look great together. I never realized how cute he looked before. Good thing, huh? I’d have been after your boyfriend too!" Tammy winked and Gadget laughed good-naturedly.

       While the two girls spoke, Chip was approaching the refreshments table. He saw Dale there, scarfing down a doughnut and a brownie while he waited in the punch line. Chip was about to get in line himself when he saw Dale finish the brownie and put his right hand in his inner left jacket pocket. The hand barely came out of the pocket as Dale looked down, but Chip's sharp eyes spotted a black jewelry box. Dale put it back in his pocket and patted it. Chip joined the line, and then brought back punch for both he and Foxy.
       Foxy noticed the change on Chip’s face. "Are you okay, Chip? You look like you've seen a ghost." Chip looked around to see where Gadget was, and once he was satisfied both she and Dale were occupied he returned his attention to Foxglove. "Something like that. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to step outside for some fresh air. I don't think we'll have any more troublemakers tonight."
       Chip offered Foxy his arm and Foxy took it, her face showing great concern at Chip's sudden change in mood. "I wouldn't mind at all, Chip." **Looks like you need it**. Chip led her outside, then stopped once they were clear of the building.
       Chip sighed, and looked his date in the face. "Foxy, I wanted to get outside because I saw that Dale has a jewelry box in his pocket and that means a ring—an engagement ring. He's going to ask Gadget to marry him, and I wanted to give him the floor so neither of them will have to worry about me. Both of them deserve to have that moment to themselves."
       Foxy hugged Chip so tight she nearly crushed him. "Oh Chip, I'm so sorry. But that was really very gallant of you." Chip looked back at the gym. "It's okay, Foxy. Really it is. I could see it coming, and it's not worth fighting over anymore. In a way, it's a relief that he finally got around to asking her. Now I don't have to keep worrying about when it's coming. I just have to deal with it now that it has."
       Foxy kissed Chip, and took his arm again. "You don't have to deal with this alone, Chip. I'll always be here for you, always." Chip responded to her touch, and they turned away from the building. "I know you will. Now let's get out of here and leave them to it. Come with me?"
       "To the ends of the earth, cute stuff," Foxy said. Chip escorted Foxy back to the RangerWing, and they rose into the air.

       Inside the gym, the dance was winding up. Tammy was thanking everyone for coming and for their congratulations on her being named Queen. Then Dale and Gadget came up, and Tammy instantly gave them her attention. "Dale, the band's going to need some help. Would you mind going back in the gym and giving them a quick hand?"
       Dale looked back inside the gym to the bandstand. "Sure, it never hurts to help." Tammy smiled and gave him a quick hug. "Oh, thank you Dale! You're such a gentleman!" Gadget came up alongside her date. "I'll come along to keep you company."
       Gadget looked back over her shoulder and winked to Tammy as she accompanied Dale back inside. Tammy gave her a thumbs-up, and then ran and got Rob who was waving good-bye to some of his friends
       "What is it, Tammy? What's up?" Rob asked. Tammy was almost jumping. "Something awesome, if I'm reading between the lines right. Come on, but let's keep a good distance."

       Tammy and Rob set up watch at the door to the gym, looking in as Dale and Gadget walked over to the far side of the gym floor where the band was stationed. Larry Waters, the lead singer for the Memphis Munks, came over as they approached.
       "We understand that you two helped out a lot here tonight, so before we shut things down we'd like to play a special song just for the both of you," Larry said. Without giving them a chance to reply, Larry went up on stage and the band began playing "Devoted to You", in their own unique country fashion
       Dale was totally surprised and realized he’d been set up. He looked at Gadget, smiling. "I suppose you had nothing to do with this?" Gadget smiled back, and pretended to fan herself with an imaginary fan like a Southern belle. "Who, lil' ol' me? I just had to have one more dance with the best munk around."
       "Well then, I now crown ourselves as king and queen of our own little prom," Dale said, offering her his arm. "Shall we dance?"
       Gadget took him in her arms. "I thought you'd never ask, your majesty."
       The band continued to serenade them as they danced happily together. It was a moment so perfect that neither could say anything for fear of breaking the intimacy of the moment. Gadget looked into his eyes, then rested her head on his shoulder as she’d done before. She couldn’t imagine a better time. Dale on the other hand was beginning to realize that the crucial moment was almost upon him. Would he be able to ask her? He decided to wait until the song was over—then it was over
       "That was wonderful," Gadget sighed. Dale was getting lost in those eyes again. "It was. There’s only one thing that could make this even better."
       Gadget suddenly felt excited and nervous. She’d thought of the song as an excuse to be alone with him, but now she saw by the look in his face that she’d also given him an opportunity too—at least, if it was what she was thinking it was. Gadget looked at him, curious.
       "What would that be, Dale?" she asked.
       Dale reached into his pocket and grabbed the box. He opened it and its inner light made the diamond cluster sparkle almost as much as Gadget’s eyes when she saw it. Dale removed the ring with his right hand, replaced the box, and then he took her right hand. Dale knelt on one knee in front of Gadget, and slipped the ring onto her finger. He looked hopefully up to her face. "Gadget, will you marry me?"
       Gadget knew it was happening, and even though she thought she knew how it would be, she didn’t. She looked at the ring on her finger—it was so gorgeous! How could Dale afford such a thing? Then she knew—the comic books. He’d sold those comic books that had been so precious to him. Gadget was amazed that he’d given up what was his greatest possession for her. She looked from the ring to Dale’s face as he asked her. It was a grown-up face, and one with love and sincerity in it. A smile slowly grew on her face, and she started to cry. She didn’t know what to say at first, but the thought from her heart came out of her mouth.
       "Yes! Oh, yes!" Gadget said. Gadget helped him up and gave him such a kiss that Dale would still have fond memories of recalling it, even when he was a grandfather. Dale lifted Gadget into the air and spun her around. "Do you hear that, world? She said YES! Gadget, I love you!!!" Gadget laughed and cried with the joy of the moment. "And I love you, you big wonderful munk!"

       The band watched appreciatively, then quietly gathered their things and left. A couple of minutes later, Dale and Gadget looked around, not even noticing the band had exited. Tammy was beside herself with joy at the other end of the gym. "Oh Rob, this is so incredible! Dale and Gadget are getting married!" Rob put a hand against the near wall. "Yeah, Dale did a great job of it too. I couldn't imagine being in that situation without my knees buckling."
       Gadget took Dale's arm and they headed back toward the cafeteria where the two youngsters were waiting. Tammy quickly pulled Rob out of the building and into the shadows. As Dale and Gadget came out, Tammy's eyes were full of endearment for them. Once they were out of range and headed for the RangerPlane, Tammy hugged Rob for pure joy. "Wow, this is such big news! Who'll I call first?"

       Dale helped Gadget into the RangerPlane, then he looked quickly about and started it up. Gadget smiled next to him. "Oh Dale, it was so wonderful. I never thought that anyone would give up something so valuable like that just for me! You're still surprising me, and I thought I knew you already."
       "I didn't need comics anymore. My life is more exciting and amazing than anything I could have ever read about in a comic book," Dale replied.
       "Golly, I never thought about getting married before, and now here I'm going to! I was afraid of making myself dependent on anyone at first. Poor dad—he'd try to get me to go out, but I just never could bring myself to really trust myself with anyone before. You're the first person besides Monty that I've been able to talk to about dad, and even with him I didn't feel entirely comfortable. I guess that makes you comfortable, huh?"
       Dale patted her hand. "Gadget, you can talk to me about anything. I don't mind." That brought up another thought. "How soon, Dale?" she asked. Dale returned his attention to his flying. "That depends. We have to make arrangements, contact my folks, make a guest list, sedate Chip, lots of things have to be done yet." Then Dale did a double take. "Good grief! I have to tell mom and dad about this!"
       Gadget had been momentarily distracted by the mention of Chip, but tried to refocus. "Why does that bother you? Your parents are great." Dale sighed, "Yeah, but I don't think they ever expected me to do something like this. It's going to be a big surprise." Gadget tried to picture their meeting and had to smile some. "Have you thought about what you're going to tell them?"
       Dale took on a country accent. "How about, ‘Ma, Pa, me and Gadget are gettin’ hitched!’" Gadget gave him a coy look. "How about we just skip that and smooch right in front of them? Actions speak louder than words." Dale was surprised to hear her use the word "smooch". "Well, the smooching part sounds good, but we should make sure they're sitting down first." Gadget was reveling in the game. "You mean they might have a fit when they find out that after 20-plus years of not even going on a date that suddenly you're marrying, and a mouse on top of that?"
       "Well, mom and dad haven't seen the new ‘me’ yet. They're still used to the old dummy Dale. I think at this point they'd be happy to see me married to anything," Dale said. "Uh, I didn’t mean it like that, Gadget." Gadget nodded, but she felt self-conscious and vulnerable at the same time. "Dale, do you think they'll mind that I'm a mouse?"
       "Not at all. My Aunt Agnes is married to a mouse she met during her travels. Gadget, it won't matter to them. They'll probably thank you for the changes that you brought about in me. They'll love you, so it won't matter one bit what you look like," Dale said. Gadget still wasn’t satisfied. "Well, I meant more than that. Do you think they'll mind that we won't be able to...have kids?"
       Dale blinked at the idea. "Well, even if we could have kids there's no guarantee that we would have kids. So no, I don't think it will matter. We could adopt, you know. Aunt Agnes and Uncle Percy did, and they’re happy with their son."
       "I guess so. I just don't want to seem like a disappointment," Gadget said. Dale reached for her hand. "Gadget, there isn't anything about you that could be a disappointment to me. If anything, I worry about not being good enough for you. But would you want to raise kids? Would you want to have a family someday?"
       Gadget looked into the evening sky. "I've thought about it some. The Rangers have been my family for so long, but what if we disband someday? I know I spend a lot of time inventing and tinkering, but I do miss what I had with dad too. Maybe it's too soon to be thinking about something like that, but perhaps."
       "Yeah, I guess it is a bit early to be thinking about that. The guest list is going to be, like, about a mile long. We gotta invite everybody!" Dale said. That snapped Gadget back to reality. "Well, we'll get some help there. Bianca offered to handle the arrangements for us, and she's the best when it comes to these kind of things."
       Dale was relieved by that news, then realized the full extent of what she’d said. "So you knew I’d propose that far in advance?" Gadget nodded, admiring her ring. "I didn’t know it was going to be tonight, but yes I knew. I share most things with Bianca, and she’s the greatest when it comes to helping out."
       "That sounds great. We could use all the help we can get. I wonder how long after the engagement you’re supposed to have the wedding?" Dale asked. Gadget looked up from the ring to Dale. "I'm not exactly sure, but I think it's usually customary to wait a couple of months due to preparations and allowing for guests to make arrangements and all."
       "Sounds good. Man, I can't wait. Getting married..." Then Dale turned and their eyes met. "Up until a few months ago I didn't think I could ever grow up, but now with you... it's all been worth it."
       "Yes. All of it," Gadget agreed.
       She laid her head on Dale’s shoulder as they continued toward home, and her thoughts drifted. She knew she couldn't face Chip anytime soon. Gadget hoped he hadn't found out yet, and that they still might have a chance of helping him to take it calmly. But she was also realistic—this would hit Chip and hit him hard, like someone cutting into a wound just as it's begun to heal. Gadget closed her eyes, and tried to re-center herself. It wasn't easy, and she knew that there could be no true peace for her and Dale until Chip's problems were settled. When she considered that, she wished she hadn't because she knew just how hard it would likely be.



Chapter Eleven--Living With the Dream

        A small swarm of bees and one fly buzzed through the night sky and stopped at a particular beehive. The drones entered along with Aliwicious, and then Honey turned to Zipper. "I must admit, I did not expect to have such a good time this night. Thank you for asking me, Zipper." Zipper bowed deeply. "Thank you for honoring us all with your royal presence, your majesty."
        "To think, those mammals actually applauded me. And they truly seemed impressed. Perhaps I have been too hard on your friends, Zipper. Tradition has a way of clouding one's impressions," Honey said. Zipper knew she was trying to be gracious so he decided to help her along. "That is true. But as you've seen, the world is a much different place if you enter it with your eyes wide open."
        Honey took his hand. "Or if one has it thrust upon one's self. I would...not be opposed to your calling upon me at your convenience. As you know, the duties of the hive constrain me, but I will make time." Zipper gasped at the notion. He was being given royal permission to ask her out on dates! Zipper kissed her hand. "Your majesty, I would be honored."
       Honey put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a kiss to remember. Then she backed up, blushing, and she allowed herself to be informal with him again. "The hive knows you now, so don't be concerned about gaining an audience. I may not be free every time you come, but any time you can come you will be welcome." Zipper was so elated—the night’s events couldn’t have gone better for him. "And if it should ever suit you to visit me, our door will always be open to love."
        Propriety demanded that Honey remain no longer, so she allowed Zipper to salute her hand again, then waved a queenly wave while giving him a coy glance as she went inside. Zipper hovered there in a daze for a while. Then the smallest member of the Rangers smiled and began flying for home, humming, "I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more..."

       Dale began his conversation with Gadget anew as he landed the Plane. "The only bad thing I can see on the horizon is Chip. Look, he's going to be pretty steamed tonight. Maybe you should turn in early and let him vent at me. I'm certainly used to that."
       Gadget turned to him as they left the RangerPlane. "This just isn't fair. I feel bad for Chip, but it's not right that you should bear the burden alone. Still, I don't feel good about seeing him tonight. It's partly my fault, and maybe it'll be easier on him if he doesn't have to see me, either."
       "It's not your fault, it's his. He's got to accept that or he's never going to get over this," Dale countered. Gadget took Dale’s hands. "I don't know that he's going to, Dale. Chip's strength is his determination, but when it's used wrongly like this it's dangerous. Make sure that Monty's standing by in case a fight breaks out. Oh Dale, I can't believe I'm even talking this way! What's happened to us all? Everything used to be so great, and then..." Gadget eyes began to fill with tears and she found Dale's arms. Dale knew. He knew all too well. "And then we all grew up."

        Chip piloted the Wing and was halfway home before he realized he really didn't want to go there yet. He angled the plane away from the direction of the treehouse. Foxglove immediately noticed the change in direction. "Where are we going, Chip? Well, I guess I can understand why you don't want to go home yet."
        Chip didn't reply, but kept on in the new direction. Chip landed the Wing among some bushes in the park, and helped Foxy out. Then they came upon the spot where they'd left the glider. Normally, Chip would have thought it was a cuh-razy idea, but now he reached down and picked up the craft
       "It's time I started making memories of my own. How do you feel about a little night-gliding?" Chip asked. Foxy was surprised that Chip would suggest it at a time like this. "If you feel you trust me that much, we can."
       "I've got to start trusting again, Foxy, and this is the best way I can think of," Chip said. Chip picked up the glider, tuxedo and all. Then he held it up with one hand and pretended to have a microphone in the other. "Pilot to navigator. Ready on runway nine." Foxy copied him, pretending to be his traffic controller. "Ready when you are, Chip!" Foxy flew into the air and waited for Chip to join her.
       Chip felt the cool breeze on his fur as he pushed off. The full moon was the only light, and it gave mere ghostly hints of the world around him. He found himself more dependent upon his sense of hearing once he was in the air and discovered that he could detect Foxglove's wingbeats as she approached his height
       "You know, I think I really should've thought more before doing this!" Chip said nervously. Foxy could tell his heart rate was way up. "Trust me, Chip. You know I will never steer you wrong. Let me be your eyes and ears."
       In a daring move, Chip closed his own eyes and now he could concentrate on the wind whipping around him. He knew exactly where Foxy was, and that helped some. "Okay, you've got the controls on this one. Which way do I steer?"
       Foxy was flying directly above him. "A little to the left, then gently pull back." Chip obeyed and felt like a pilot flying blind. He'd heard about the pilots of the early biplanes flying night missions, where you had to fly by feel more than anything. **If they had a co-pilot like mine, it wouldn't have been so bad**.
       "Where are we now?" Chip asked.
       "Use your ears, cutie. You tell me," Foxy said. Chip listened intently and could hear the water of the fountain to his right. "Sounds like we're just to the west of the fountain, about 150 feet up I'd guess."
       Foxy was amazed at how accurate his guess was. "You're getting the hang of this now. This is how a bat gets around. How do you like being a bat, Chip?"
       Chip thought on the question—he felt alive. His adrenaline was pumping, and the only thing keeping him from falling was a bit of wood and cloth. "You know, it feels great! It's like you're the only thing alive when you're up here this way. Do you find it so?"
       "I love flying, and at times I feel sorry for those of you who have to walk everywhere. There's nothing that can compare to the sensation of flight," Foxy said.
       With his eyes shut, Chip could imagine that the glider was gone and he was flying by his own ability. "Up here, you can forget everything. It's just you and the wind. I wish I could just stay up here forever," Chip said. Foxy knew that was a loaded statement. "Well, even we bats have to roost sometime, cutie. It means a lot to me that you’re trusting me to guide you."
       Chip was glad that he could trust someone—anyone. Foxy continued to guide him, and Chip began to let his other senses grow stronger. He smelled the sweet-smelling grass and the dew in the air. He could hear things that he'd ignored before—crickets chirping, the fountain bubbling and the leaves being blown by the wind.
       "It’s great to be alive," Chip said. Then he tried to listen for Foxy and couldn’t make her wingbeats out. "Foxy? Foxy!" She’d gone behind him, and now Foxglove came up beside him and from deep inside her she began to sing as she flew past the soaring munk and guided him.
       Chip was startled by the angelic voice he heard. Of all her gifts, he would never have imagined that Foxy could sing so beautifully. Chip kept his ears tuned carefully to Foxy, following the sound of her voice as they flew.

       We meet,
       And the angels sing...

       The angels sing the sweetest song
       I’ve ever heard...

       You speak,
       And the angels sing...

       Or am I reading music
       Into every word?

        Foxy continued to sing and guide him, then they pivoted toward the ground and landed near the fountain. Chip put the glider aside and gave Foxy a hug when she landed beside him. "Thanks, Foxy. I've never had an experience like that before!" Foxglove was just relieved he was happy. "I hope it was a good experience. I hope I didn't scare you up there." Chip straightened his tuxedo. "No, you didn't scare me. Foxy, what would you think about getting married?"
       Foxy stopped in her tracks and gasped. "What?! Are...are you asking me?"
       Chip knew it might not be fair to ask now, but he felt like it anyway. "I know I've got a lot of things to work out, and you probably do too. But if things go our way, I couldn't imagine a better thing than going through life with you at my side. You don't need to answer right now, but it's a promise you can take hold of."
       Every fiber of her being wanted to accept that proposal, but something deep within in held her back. "Chip, I would give almost anything to be your wife, but it's not the right time. I think you're still sorta in shock over Dale proposing to Gadget."
       "I dunno, maybe I am," Chip said frankly. "Maybe we'll both feel different later on. And maybe time will change things. But if nothing else you know that tonight there's just you, me and the moon." Chip caught her in his arms. "Baby, you're the greatest." Chip kissed her, the moon highlighting their features.

       Monty had been ready to expect anything, and he wasn't too surprised to find that Gadget was drying her eyes as she came in leaning on Dale. She had the ring on, so Monty knew she'd accepted. As for the crying, Monty could guess the reason. Still, these two deserved a warm greeting and he gave them one.
       "Welcome back, you two!" Monty said as he smiled and pulled them both into his arms.
       Dale was glad for the friendly welcome. "Monty, we sure are lucky to have a friend like you." Gadget looked up at her Aussie friend. "Monty, you'll walk down the aisle with me, won't you?" Monty looked down at Gadget tenderly. "I know you'd like to have Geegaw ta be the one, but I'll be right honored to walk in his place. No father could love you more than I do, luv."
       "And no daughter could love you more," Gadget said, smiling and crying.
       Dale wiped his eyes. "This is the happiest day of my life. Monty, is the other surprise in place?" Monty thumbed upwards. "Ready and waitin', pally." Dale nodded his appreciation. "Thanks, pal."
       "Oh yeah, the surprise. What is it? It’s not as if it’ll outshine the first surprise tonight," Gadget asked. Dale’s warm smile returned with Gadget’s curiosity perked again. "Well, you'll have to wait. This is a secret, but I think you'll like it. It's from the heart."
       Gadget had thought about tickling it out of him, but that last part satisfied her. "Okay, Dale. I'll wait. This is all so amazing! I never thought that I'd be standing here with you and Monty talking about me getting married! It still doesn't seem real, somehow."
       "I expect to wake up at any moment and find out that it's all a dream," Dale said. Monty patted him on the back. "Don't worry on that account, mates! It's real enough, all right. Both o' you should know that life is always stranger than fiction."
       "I think the notion of Gadget being willing to marry me fits under ‘fairytale’," Dale said.
       "And my Dale having the courage to do what he did was legendary! Golly, do you think someone will write a story about all this someday?" Gadget asked. Dale shook his head. "No, the idea of a Dale-Gadget marriage is too unbelievable."
       "Why? It wasn't too unbelievable for us. Maybe someone should write the story and give hope to all those people," Gadget said. Dale slid his arm around her waist. "Well, we can write it together when we're old and gray." Gadget chuckled, her eyes shining.
       "Well, it's been a wonderful day—better than any I've known before. I wish it didn't have to end, dearest, but I'm all worn out from it! Do you need to show me the surprise now, or can it wait for later?" Gadget asked. Dale didn’t want her to go, but knew she’d better. "You'll see it, it's in the lair. I hope you like it."
       "I'm sure I will," she said. Gadget pulled Dale close and kissed him like she'd never let him go. "Thank you, Dale. For everything." After hugging Monty, Gadget left and headed for the lair.
       Monty watched her go. "That's one bonzer lass you've got there, Dale. Never fergit it." Dale was too dazed from the kiss to hear his comment. Monty didn’t mind. "Nevermind, pally. Now that we're alone, do ya know if Chip's found out yet?" Monty asked. Dale breathed deeply. "I'm sure he knows by now. I was hoping Gadget would go to bed before he got home. That way we can have it out without him upsetting her."
       "If he tries anything, you know I'm right 'ere. I won't let him get out o' hand with ya again," Monty said. Dale sat down on the sofa. "I really hope it doesn't come to that again. I was really steamed the last time, but I don't think I could beat him a second time."

       A knock at the door surprised the both of them. Monty started to go over, but Dale waved him off. Monty’s voice had a measure of warning in it. "Wouldn't think it'd be Chipper knockin', but be ready just in case." Dale opened the door, and Zipper looked at them both in a dreamy gaze.
       "Hi, guys!" Zipper said, obviously in a good mood. Dale had primed himself for Chip, but now he relaxed. "Oh, hi, Zipper. How'd you and Honey like the prom?"
       Zipper came in, all smiles. "Honey was so flattered by the kids’ reaction to her that she actually offered to do it again for them next year! We danced, we talked, and when I got her home..." Zipper giggled.
       "Well, things went okay I guess between Gadget and me. We danced, we enjoyed the refreshments, I proposed, she accepted, no big deal," Dale said nonchalantly. Zipper's eyes grew even larger than normal. "You asked her to marry you?! And she said yes?! Whoa, way to go Dale!" Zipper shook Dale's hand. "Wow, that's awesome! That gives me some hope that maybe someday Honey and I will get together. I mean, you and Gadget? Who'd a thunk it?"
       "Thanks, Zipper. I hope things work out between you two as well. Man, the tree's gonna fill up quick!. I hope things are still okay between Chip and Foxy," Dale said. Zipper took a seat when Dale did. "Yeah, me too. She's been so nice to him and Chip's so messed up. I think Foxy will deserve the Ranger MVP award when all this is over." Dale pointed at the door. "Uh huh, but I'm waiting for the storm to hit when Chip walks in that door and explodes at me."

       At that moment, the door opened and Chip walked in with Foxy at his side. He didn't say anything, he didn't look at Dale. He just went right past the main room, saw Foxy off to her room, then he went into his and got into bed without making a peep. Dale just looked to Zipper and Monty and shrugged his shoulders.
       "Well, I'm not quite sure what to make of that," Dale said. "Maybe he doesn’t know."

       Upstairs, Gadget had changed for the evening and was about to get in bed when she pulled back the blanket and found a painting on the pillow. It was her and Dale in wedding attire, with that look of love they'd both shared with each other just a short time ago.
       "Oh Dale, you were right. I do like it."
       Gadget took the painting and made a place on a nearby stand so it would be the first thing she saw in the morning. Now she laid down, and looked at it for a long time. The details of the clothes were exquisite—white lace for her and his white tuxedo for him. The whole scene was about happiness and belonging, and Gadget was beginning to feel that. As she reached for the light switch, she turned back to the painting again so she could keep the image in her mind.
       "Good night, my love."

        Chip was in bed, but he was anything but asleep. Thoughts ran through his mind at a blistering pace. He'd more than enjoyed his time with Foxglove, but now he knew that Dale would have to come in sooner or later and then Dale would explode at him. Chip couldn't entirely blame him, but he knew it wasn't going to be an easy night.
       After Dale had said goodnight to Monty and Zipper, he headed to his room. Without changing his clothes he climbed into bed. Dale didn't know what to do. Should he say something or let Chip speak first. Either way things were going to get ugly.
       "Hi, Dale."
       "Hi, Chip."
       So far, so good. "Nice night, wasn't it?" Chip asked. Dale sighed contentedly. "Yeah, it sure was. Did you and Foxy enjoy the prom?"
       "We ended up having a good time. We missed some of it, though," Chip said. Dale was almost cringing. Was he going to lead into it slow, and then lower the boom? "Good refreshments they had. I loved the brownies. I must have eaten a dozen at least."
        "And at least one doughnut," Chip added. "I saw you eat one just before you brought the engagement ring out and looked at it." Dale gripped his covers and waited for Chip to explode. After a prolonged silence he spoke again.
       "I'm sorry, Chip," Dale said, not sure what else to say. Chip was glad that Dale wasn’t looking for a fight over this. Chip’s voice never wavered. "Why? Didn't she like the ring?" Dale was shocked that he’d asked the question without any sarcasm in his voice. "She loved the ring. But I figured that you'd be steamed at us for getting engaged."
       Chip couldn’t blame him for thinking that. "I thought I would've been. But when I saw her dressed up like that, and the way she looked at you...well, when I saw the ring I decided that you deserved a break so I left and took Foxy with me."
       Dale was beside himself—no, not like that—and silently gave thanks. "Thanks, Chip. I could always count on you, no matter what. Even when I thought I couldn't, I knew I could." Chip knew he was giving up a dream he’d had, but in the end it had been the only decent thing to do. "I hope everything works out, Dale. I've still got healing to do, but Foxy's helping me."
       "No more hoping and dreaming for me. Now it's time I stop hoping and dreaming and make my dreams into reality," Dale said. Chip sat up, and reached up with his hand and Dale rolled over on his front side and shook it "When did you grow up, Dale? Too bad I missed it when it happened."
       "On the day I suddenly realized there was something... someone worth growing up for," Dale said. Chip looked upward in the direction of the lair. "Yeah, I guess she is at that. So when are you getting married?"
       Dale shrugged his shoulders. "I haven't got a clue. My mind is a complete blank for what we do next." Chip stood up and stared at him. "You mean you've proposed, she's accepted and you didn't plan for anything? You had to know she'd say yes!"
       Dale took on an apologetic look. "It took all my faculties and energy just to get myself to ask her, Chip! I couldn't spare anything for worrying about the future." Chip couldn’t believe this. "Well, you'd better start thinking then. You've got the wedding ceremony to plan, and the honeymoon to think about. Have you even considered how you're going to have to change your living habits?"
       Dale blushed, thinking about Chip's observations. "Uh, I've been too nervous to think about anything like that. Like I said, Chip, it took all I had just to ask her! Now I can turn all that energy to getting the wedding together. Besides, I don't have to do it alone. I'm sure my folks will help me get things in order and Gadget said that Bianca offered to help her get the ceremony set up."
       "Well, that's a partial relief anyway," Chip said. "But Dale, it's okay to think about those things when you're going to marry the girl! It'll help Gadget to know that you've put some thought into it."
       Dale grinned down at him. "Don't worry, Chip. How big can it be? Gadget, me, you and the rest of the Rangers, Donna and company, your folks and some other friends and family. Gadget doesn't have any relatives that I know of. And my mom and dad too, of course. Something nice and small, maybe here at HQ even."
       Chip tried to remain patient. "Dale, I'm not talking about the ceremony. I'm talking about your life! You are about to be a married munk, and you've got to plan for it some. You know, you won't be bunking with me anymore."
       Dale sat up, and put his fisted hands on his hips. "Oh, and why not?" Chip slapped his face in frustration. "Why do I bother?" Chip got up and put on his jacket and fedora. Dale didn’t understand this move. "What is it, Chip? Where are you going?"
        Chip stopped at the door and faced him. "I'm not mad at you, if that's what you're thinking. I just need to think, and I'm not going to get it done in here. I'll be outside if you need me." Dale didn’t believe for a second that that was all there was to it, but it wouldn’t pay to press him. "Uh, okay Chip. Goodnight then."

        Chip walked through headquarters and headed outside into the night. The troubled chipmunk walked out on the veranda, now bathed in moonlight "What has he gone and gotten himself into? Okay, so he's in love...they're both in love. They'll just have to muddle through, and find their own way. Good gravy, I feel like an anxious father whose son is getting married!"
       Gradually his thoughts turned to other matters, and Chip began pacing while he mused them over. "Yeah, I probably shouldn't have promised Foxy, but it seemed like the right thing. I do love her, and she loves me. But she's right—we're not ready. And who knows what will happen next? We both might find other people to love. I just wish I knew..."
       Chip took a seat in the lawn chair, and remembered how he'd been awakened there before with Foxy's wings around him. It was nice having some security in an unsecure world, and now his thoughts returned to her and her melodic voice. He replayed the song she’d sang in his mind, and stared up at the stars.
       "We kiss, and the angels sing…and leave…heart…"
       And with that, Chip was asleep.

        With the dawning, Chip stretched and felt a blanket over him. When he moved, there was also a wing over the blanket and Foxglove was lying beside him separated by the other half of the blanket which she'd rolled under herself and then back over. Chip smiled inwardly. **Deja vu, all over again**. Chip nudged her, and Foxy slowly awakened.
       "Haven't we met before?" Chip joked. Foxy blinked and gently kissed him "Good morning, cute stuff." Chip took up the blanket and folded it. "Morning. Do you comfort every chipmunk you find in this particular lawn chair, or am I just a special case?"
       Foxy was used to his teasing mode now. "Only you, Chip. Only for you. Did you sleep well?" Chip had to admit, he felt good. "Better than I have in a long time. And what about you, my little pink blossom of compassion?"
       Foxy giggled at the words. "I slept wonderfully. But seriously, do you feel okay after what happened yesterday?" Chip put the folded blanket down on the chair and sat down, as did Foxy. "It's strange, Foxy, but once I got past my own jealousy I began to see things clear for once. I don't say that I'm happy by any means, but I think I know how to get there. The first few steps are going to be the hardest, though."
       Foxy wrapped her wings around Chip again. "I'll help you with those difficult steps, Chip. If you want me to." Chip looked into her eyes. "You can help some, but I've got to go part of the way on my own. You've still got steps to take too, like finding your family." Foxy looked away briefly, and nodded. "But I know with your help, I'll find them, Chip. I know you can find them."
       As Chip continued to talk with Foxglove, he saw Gadget come down from the lair, and Foxy noticed the change in his face. As they both turned, she gave him a quick smile, a slight wave and a look that said "hope you aren't mad" and then walked in
       Foxy could sense the hesitation in Chip. "I bet she's really happy right now. The ball's in your court, Chip. They're probably worried how you're feeling right now. How about going inside and making peace with them?"
       Chip started to get up, but then sat back down. "I want to, Foxy, I really do. But Dale's so used to me ragging on him, I don't know if he or Gadget will believe me if I'm suddenly nice to them. But I want them back—Foxy, I feel so miserable about what I did to them!"
       Chip was going to hide his tears at first, but instead he hugged Foxy and let it out Foxy hugged Chip tightly. "Chip, they're the luckiest bunch of people in the world to have you for a friend. You know they'll forgive you."
       "Thanks, Foxy. Again," Chip said. He stood up yet again, and dried his eyes the best he could. Then he walked toward the door, stopped, and looked back at Foxglove. He motioned toward the door with his head. "The catillion awaits. Shall we?"
       Foxy fluttered her invisible fan and held out her arm to Chip. "Ah am ready, Rhett darling." Chip held out his arm and Foxy took it as they proceeded inside. The Rangers were gathered on the sofa, and as one they stood up.
       Monty was already twiddling his thumbs. "Mornin' mates! Glad ta see ye're up an' about...uh..". Dale was hesitant, so Gadget tried to break the ice again. "Well uh, did you two sleep okay?" Foxy blushed—it was obvious that the others knew that she and Chip had slept outside.
       "Yes, we slept well. Congratulations, you two! I'm sorry I didn't get to tell you yesterday," Foxy said. Gadget was relieved that at least Foxglove didn’t seem to be holding a grudge. "Golly, thanks Foxy. We had a wonderful time."

       Dale had remembered Chip’s words from the previous night, and wondered if he’d meant them. It was time to find out. "Chip, I'm sorry about what I said last night." Chip blinked at Dale's statement, then took off his fedora. "Dale, you don't have anything to be sorry about. If anyone does, it's me. I didn't know what the two of you meant to each other, but I do now. I blinded myself to it all, and I'm sorry it cost me a shot at seeing the both of you accept each other. I hope you can believe me when I say that I'm happy for you, and I...wish you the best."
       Dale and Gadget both looked at each other in surprise and Dale walked up to Chip and looked him in the eye. "Look me in the eye and say that you're happy for us." Chip closed the short gap and actually touched his nose to Dale's. "I'm-happy-for-you-and-Gadget, you red-nosed prank-playing super spy!" Then Chip grabbed Dale’s nose and made a honking noise. Dale’s face broke into a wide grin. "Yip-eeeee!"
       Dale grabbed Chip and began dancing around the room. "Chip's happy for us!" Chip lost his fedora out of his hands almost immediately and Dale sent him spinning along. Dale was his old self again, and was laughing and cavorting as usual. Chip had to laugh some too, despite himself. Then he turned to Gadget, whose eyes were moist with happiness.
       "When I saw you there in that dress and the way you beamed at Dale, I knew then what a fool I'd been. I am happy for you and for Dale. My own happiness will come later, but with friends like you I know I'll find it," Chip said. Gadget wiped the tears from her eyes as she witnessed the phoenix-like renewal of her dear friend. She hugged Chip gently.
       "Thank you, Chip. You don't know how much your approval and happiness mean to us," Gadget said. Chip looked down at her. "Yes, I think I do. Because as badly as you both need me, I need the both of you all the more. I couldn't stand a life without my friends in it."
       Dale was overcome, and ran in and joined the hug. "Good, we're one big happy family again!" Monty came over and patted Chip on the back. "Aw, I knew nothin' could keep this bunch apart fer long!" Zipper took a dramatic pose. "As the Bard said, ‘All’s well that ends well.’"
       Chip was more grateful than he could say. "Thanks, everyone. I know I've been a pain, and it'll take me time to get my head on completely straight. But I'm going to do my best to be the leader I should have been all this time."

       Dale gave him a friendly nudge. "That's the spirit, Chip. Now, to official business. Will you be best man at the wedding?" Chip hadn’t even considered going to the wedding before, but now he knew he wouldn’t miss it for anything. "Someone's got to make sure you don't lose the ring….that is, of course I will, and I'll be glad to stand with you."
       Dale hugged his best friend. "I was so down last night, thinking you weren't gonna be there. I'm so happy I was wrong!" Chip backed up a bit, getting a good view of the future bride and groom. "Dale there's just one other thing that you need to do..."
       "What's that, Chip?" Dale asked.
       Chip got a mischievous grin on his face. "Wellll, I sorta wondered what Gadget's reaction was when you gave her that big engagement ring and proposed. Think you two can show us a replay?"
       Gadget smiled as she removed her ring and handed it to Dale. Dale got down on one knee in front of her and slipped the ring on her finger. "Gadget, would you marry me?" Gadget remembered the moment fondly as if it was only yesterday—then realized that it was. It sure seemed longer now to her, but she knew what she’d said to him. That she would never forget. "Yes. Oh yes, Dale."
       Gadget helped him up and gave him such a kiss that it nearly matched the one she'd given him at the time. Foxy had come over and put her wing around Chip and they both watched as did the others. Dale had a crooked grin on his face. "Gosh, it's almost as good the second time!" Gadget smiled and blushed in response.


        A warm feeling returned to Ranger Headquarters, as laughter and friendship again filled the small treehouse. Time rolled on, and the late afternoon found Chip Maplewood outside, reading with Foxglove. Sureluck Jones had just taken up residence in the abandoned building opposite his flat, awaiting the notorious Colonel Morgan Storan, when Foxy stood up
       "Getting tired of Sureluck?" Chip asked. "No cutie," Foxy said. "It's just that last night's rest wasn't enough for me. I think I'll go inside and hang on the gym bar. I still like it better than a bed." Chip stood up as she left. "All right, Foxy. Sweet dreams." Foxy beamed at him. "Oh, they will be. Thanks, Chip."
       Once he was alone, Chip returned to his book for a few moments and then looked up. "Well, I know it's been a wild ride so far, but I think overall things have gone okay. Now, don't worry about me. I know that you were concerned about me after the fight with Dale, and I really appreciated your sympathy. And yes, I meant what I said to Gadget and Dale. I can’t help but think that there’s more in store for me, and that some good days are ahead."
       Monty yelled from inside, "C'mon, Chip! Dinner’s waitin’!" Chip closed his book and turned to go inside. When he got to the door, he turned his face around and winked. Then the leader of the Rescue Rangers went on inside to his friends and closed the door behind him.


The Rescue Rangers are copyright Disney and used without permission, but with the utmost respect. Dexter and Johnny Bravo are copyright The Cartoon Network and used without permission. Johnny Mathis and the Everly Brothers happen to be the authors' favorite romantic singers. If your favorite is different, by all means imagine them in the place of ours. If you've never heard of either of the songs in chapter 3, then by all means get a copy! "And the Angels Sing" was written by Johnny Mercer and Ziggy Elman and is copyright Warner Brothers—the lyrics are used without permission.