I'm Dreaming of a Rangery Christmas
By Indy and Chris Silva

Part seven of the saga is in one way a completion of the turn of events that began all the way back in part one, but don't think of this as the end. Rather, it's just the end of a new beginning. To all the Rangerphiles, we hope this Christmas season is the best you've ever had!

       The glow of summer and the color of fall were but memories now, and the cold embrace of winter had settled in for its long visit to the northern climes of the United States. In a particular tree in New York’s Central Park, a group of rodents and a fly were enjoying the warmth of their treehouse. Chip left the kitchen as breakfast ended and noticed that no one had turned the calendar. He put down his mug of hot chocolate and performed the little ceremony.
       “There...December first. Wow, this year’s sure gone by fast.”
       Chip tried to think of all the things that had happened in this amazing year, but there wasn’t nearly enough time before he entered the main room and sat on the sofa. The others walked in, and took their places. Gadget sat next to Dale, holding his hand and enjoying his presence. Monty and Eva—who was now close to her birth time—sat together as well.
       Theo took his usual post on the floor and Chip sat in a solitary chair, as did Lahwhinie. Fortunately for the Rangers, they had excellent in-house builders so the additional furniture wasn’t a problem. Monty settled into his new easy chair, right next to Eva's—early Christmas gifts from Gadget. “I’ve gotta say it pallies—this ‘ere has been the best year o’ me life. I’ve got me Eva back, an’ two of the most bonzer girls any father could ask for. I’m sure lookin’ forward ta this Christmas, ‘cause I’ve got so much family ta share it with!”
       Eva ran a hand over the large bulge in her stomach. “Monty dahling, you did not forget your newest little one, did you?” Monty realized he’d left one out and kissed Eva’s cheek, then leaned over past where Eva was seated on the sofa and looked at Dale. “‘Course I didn’t lass, and I ain’t forgettin’ a roight good son-in-law neither!”
       Dale responded with a thumbs-up. “And who could ask for a better father-in-law than Monterey Jack Colby Erskine?”
       “Too roight, lad. Now dearie, how could you think I’d fergit that wee nipper of ours? This ol’ mouse couldn’t be more pleased. You are all right, aint’cha lass? Need anything?”
       Eva waived off any concern. “I am as comfortable and content as could be, dear Monty.” Gadget was pleased for her mother, but knew that her age could make the birth a challenge. “Do you think it’ll be much longer, mom? The doctor seemed to think it could be any time...” Eva smiled over at her daughter. “This little one will be my most vunderful Christmas gift.”
       Chip’s concerns were chiefly positioned around his role as leader. “None of us Rangers has ever had a baby of our own to care for before-well, besides baby booby that is-but you can believe there’s going to be enough aunts and uncles to go around! I’ll make sure everything’s shipshape for when the new arrival comes!”

       Lahwhinie sat back and looked at her assembled friends and family. She remembered the bitterness she felt at this same time last year. She had been alone, just like every Christmas before that. Those that were around her were only there to use her or to be used by her. She had never looked forward to Christmas, or any holiday before...until now.
       Gadget peeked over at her sister. Lahwhinie had opted for warmer clothes, and Gadget had been teaching her some about sewing. She now wore a more appropriate winter outfit, complete with a light blue jacket fringed with white. “You’ve been awfully quiet today. What’re you thinking about, sis?” Gadget asked.
       “Well, Christmas in New York is certainly much different than Christmas in Hawaii,” Lahwhinie said. “It’s hard to string lights on a palm tree.” Dale agreed on that one. “My folks are going down to Florida this year to spend the holidays with my sister Mel and her family. I couldn’t imagine Christmas without snow!”
       Lahwhinie stood up, gesturing at her hands. “Normally for me it was a time to get the guys to buy me expensive little trinkets and then get drunk to make me forget how lonely I was. But now...” Lahwhinie started to say more, then rushed out of the room.

       Monty indicated for the others to wait, then followed his daughter into the kitchen. He found her at the table, and it was obvious she was running between nervous and embarrassed. He took her hand. “Hon, I’m glad ta hear ya say all that. I knew that if ya stayed with us, we’d rub off on ya. Gotta say, you’ve rubbed off on us some too, what with learnin’ all that karate stuff! I think I could go into Cat Alley and come out on the long end now. We all love ya, lass.”
       Lahwhinie hugged her father and started crying softly. “I love you...daddy. Please don’t ever let me go back to what I was before.” Monty enveloped her in a hug. “Awww, now that’s not gonna happen! Let me look at ya.” Lahwhinie looked up and Monty never had felt more like a father than this moment. “An Erskine kin see right down to a person’s heart, and the kind o’ heart that would do the things you’re talking about’s long gone. Yer heart’s in the right place now. But you ran out o’ the room for some reason besides that. What’s troubling ya, lass?”
       “I’m sorry, I just didn’t want the others to see me crying. Well…I don’t know. I just don’t feel right being here, going from what I was to what you all want me to be.”
       “Now lass, all we want ya to be is content. No one’s asking ya to be perfect or anything, you know that. Why, the place wouldn’t feel the same if we didn’t hear ya giving the delivery birds a piece o’ yer mind for sending us junk mail. And then there’s those neat foods ya make, an’ the stories ya tell, and you’ve been a big help ta Chip an’ all of us on our cases. It wouldn’t be home now without ya!”
       Lahwhinie paused and sighed, resting her head on her hands. “Maybe that’s it—home. This is the longest I’ve ever had a home since I ran away from RODENTS. I’ve never been in a place where I felt wanted or needed before. The idea that people want me to stay is a little strange, and to be honest it’s scary.”
       “Well lass, there was a secret with that. You had to learn how ta love by havin’ folks around that loved ya. It’s a simple thing, really.”
       “I’m sorry about running out like that. None of you are afraid of showing your emotions. Where I’m from, it was considered a sign of weakness, but here it seems it’s almost natural. You can trust each other with things like that and they don’t think less of you for it.”
       Gadget walked in, a look of sisterly concern on her face. “You okay, Lahwhinie? We didn’t do anything to upset you, did we?” Lahwhinie shook her head. “No, nothing like that. A lifetime of regrets just all caught up with me in a single moment, that’s all. I’m okay now. Dad’s teaching me to count my blessings these days.” Gadget gave her twin a quick hug. “He’s good at that.”

Christmas Wishes

       Monty escorted his daughters back in, and after a few moments of awkward silence the conversations began again as if nothing had happened. The Rangers had been talking of favorite Christmases in the past, and now Chip turned to Theo.
       “What about you, Theo? What do you think your favorite Christmas memory is?” Chip asked. Theo’s smile faded. “If I tell you, I’ll have to run out of the room too.” Chip realized he’d made a mistake. “I’m sorry, son. I forgot.” He reached down and rubbed his boy’s head, now his common sign of affection for Theo. “We’ll do our best to make this Christmas your best memory.”
       “It’s okay, dad. This is going to be the best Christmas for me. You gave me a life again and a home and family. I already got what I wanted for Christmas, and more.”
       Theo hugged his dad, and Chip never knew that a hug could feel so good. “Thanks, and I couldn’t ask for a better present than that. But I think you’re going to find your side of the tree a little top-heavy this year, especially when Foxy and Noel get here.” Theo liked the sound of that. “Bring ‘em on! The more family the better.”
       Eva broke in on the conversation. “When are they getting in, Chip? They said their first concert should be wrapping up soon.” As if on cue, the mail bird blew his whistle. Lahwhinie jumped up, but Chip headed her off. “It’s okay, really! We don’t mind the junk mail that much, and Gary’s starting to drop our letters instead of delivering them.”
       From outside, an amused voice replied. Gary had been delivering mail to the Rangers for years and knew them all well—including Lahwhinie now. “It’s okay, as long as she doesn’t use that front kick of hers.” Chip opened the door, and Gary the pigeon handed Chip a brown paper package. “Looks like it’s from your new brother, Noel, and that singer Foxy Fairmont. I heard about the concert she had in Austin. Is she really coming here?”
       Chip signed for the package. “Yes, we’re having a big family get-together this year.” Lahwhinie smiled knowingly at Gary. In truth, the junk mail issue was a game with them and both of them enjoyed it. “So, no Christmas catalogs?” Gary smiled back and produced them, handing them over to Lahwhinie. “I saved them just for you, warrior princess.”
       “Thanks, I’ll let you off easy…this time. So Chip, what’s in the package?”
       Chip opened the box, and found several items, including a letter. “Don’t worry, Gary. I’ll let you know when Foxy comes.” Gary tipped his mail bird’s hat. “I’ll know anyway—I’m here almost every morning. See you later!” Chip and Lahwhinie went back inside, and Chip put the contents on the coffee table—a framed picture of Foxy and Noel singing on stage, an audio tape, and a framed concert ticket.
       “Let’s see what Foxy has to say....” Chip said, opening the accompanying letter, written on Foxy’s own personal stationery.

       November 29th, 7 p.m.

       Dear Chip and Rangers,

       I can’t believe tonight’s the last night of our weeklong concert! It’s been so wonderful. Mr. Steadman did such a great job for us promoting and all, and the concert’s cleared enough to pay him back plus more! I don’t care about the money part, though. It’s just great being with Noel and singing!

       The first night, I admit I was scared. But my honey munk was up there with me, and just like you told me, Chip, the fear melted away and it was like singing to the Rangers all over again. Everyone had such a great time, and I hated for the night to end as much as they did! Every night since has been that way. Mr. Steadman’s hired a very nice agent for us, and he says we can have our choice of locations, now that we’ve proven we can draw a crowd.
       Right now, the only crowd I want to see is my family and my second family—you and all of the Rescue Rangers. I hope I’m in time to see Eva’s baby born! Oh, I’m tired but I’m so excited at getting to see all of you again! It took a lot more work than I’d have ever guessed to do this one concert. It’s made me appreciate all of my friends and family. As soon as we wrap up our affairs here, we’ll be coming up right away!

       Chip, I hope everything’s okay with you and—

       Chip stopped and looked a little uncomfortable. “Uh, that part’s personal for me. Let’s see, she goes on to say that she expects to be here in a couple of days and she’s made arrangements for all the Fairmonts to come up for Sean’s Christmas party, even little Foxy. ‘Send everyone my love, and I can’t wait to hug each and every one of you. Love, Foxy.’“
       If Lahwhinie suspected anything in Chip’s behavior, she didn’t show it. “It’ll be good to see them again. They’re nice people. So Chip, what do you want me to give you for Christmas?” The uncomfortable look returned. “Well, I’d rather you pick out something. It’ll mean more to me if you choose it.”
       Lahwhinie had genuinely hoped he’d suggest something. “Oh, okay. I’ve never gotten a gift for someone that I really cared about before...uh, yeah and I have to think of something to get for Theo too.” All conversations stopped short at Lahwhinie saying that. Chip blushed royally, and felt the spotlight.
       “Gee uh, thanks, Lahwhinie.”
       Chip quickly looked for a path to turn the conversation and Theo was the natural choice. “Why don’t you help her with the shopping, Theo? You know the local area and where things are.” Theo smiled on the inside, knowing that Chip needed a bailout. “Sure, I could do that, Aunt Lahwhinie. I don’t mind.”
       “Say, if we’ve got Foxy an’ Noel coming in a couple o’ days, we’ll hafta get their presents outta the way first!” Monty said. “Something tells me the sales clerks’re gonna know us by our first names this year.”
       Dale rubbed his hands gleefully. “That means present city!!!” Zipper nodded in ready agreement. “And that leaves me wondering…what do you buy a queen for Christmas?” Dale was about to suggest something when he realized his own dilemma. “Oh, man, what do I buy for Gadget? What’s the perfect gift for the greatest woman in the world? What am I saying—in the universe!”
       Gadget flashed him her world-famous smile. “Oh Dale, you’re so cute when you care. But dad’s right—we’ve got a lot of work to do before they come and even more before our own families get here. I’m sure glad Sean Maplewood’s got that big lodge. Zipper, I’ll help you find a present for Honey if you want. Or even make one, if we can’t find the right thing.”
       Zipper breathed a little easier. “Thanks, Gadget. I think we’re all novices when it comes to buying gifts for the people we’re in love with.” Chip had calmed himself now and sat down again. “Well, it is new, but since we’ve all got people like that to buy for, it makes it that much nicer. I’d hate to have no one around that I could give something to.”
       “So true,” Eva said. “It is nice to be settled down and have roots again. It’s so vunderful to be in a place where you can think about just making others happy. And making the world safe for others, of course.” Gadget returned to her notepad, now checking a list of errands to be done. “Chip, I think you should be in charge of helping us buy gifts for Noel since you know him so well. Well, at least you did know him well before you were split into two beings—wait, you did know him perfectly...”
       “I’ll be glad to help,” Chip said. “We’ll have to all put our heads together on what to get Foxy. I mean, she’s likely to be able to get anything she wants now.” Zipper tapped Chip’s shoulder. “That’s kinda the same problem I have with Honey. What do you get for the girl who has everything?”
       “Well, then get her something that’s personal from you. Something she’ll like no matter what the cost is—I guess that also solves the problem with Foxy. She’d rather have something that we all put an effort into rather than something off the shelf.”
       Dale’s creative streak lit up his eyes. “What she’d probably really like is a group photo, a photo of everybody!” Theo nodded in approval. “That’s a good start, Uncle Dale. But I think what she’d really like is a place here to call home.” Gadget eyed the treehouse, her engineering brain kicking in. “Well, we could make more rooms. There’s enough room in the tree to expand a little bit more.” Eva pointed to the package Foxy had sent them. “And ve could take the items she has sent us already and place them in there—perhaps make a trophy case for them and future honors.”
       “Good idea, Eva,” Chip said, liking the idea of planning for action. “When they get here they can see that they have Ranger quarters if they want them.”
       “Yeah, and it’ll be great having our own singing star around!” Dale said. “We won’t even have to pay for concerts!” Gadget began to mentally consider the in-house traffic with more Rangers in the house. “Golly, we’d have so many people here that we could start working in shifts! I think it’s a great idea, though. I’ll start working on the blueprints for the room right away!”

       With that point in hand, Theo turned the talk to something more along his personal thoughts. “Dad, I know you invited Tammy to granddad Sean’s party. Is Bink coming too?” Chip smiled knowingly. “Oh, I suppose she is. In fact, Donna and Bink are coming and Tammy’s asked Rob to come too, but he’s not sure if he can come yet.” Theo figured that would be the way it was. “So I have to get something for Bink too. What do you buy for a girl that says ‘I like you, but not in that way’?”
       Dale spoke up first. “Get her something fun, like between friends. I bet she’d like it if it was something fun you two could do together.” Theo considered that. “Hmmm, we like cartoons, martial arts and mayhem. It’s a tough choice.” Theo’s comment got a smile out of all of them, then Gadget looked over at the watch face on the wall.
       “Good golly! If I’m going to get anywhere with those plans and have time to get the rest of the work done I’d better jump in now!” Gadget hugged Dale, and headed for her workshop.

A New Room, and Old Problems

       Together, they all pitched in on creating the new room. After several trips to the junkyard, Gadget had enough glass and wood to make the trophy case. Eva supervised while the guys helped to select the proper size materials, then Lahwhinie and Gadget cut the pieces to size and beveled them for a proper look. At the end of the day, a completed case with glass doors and shelves surrounded by a wood frame stood in Gadget’s workshop.
       “Thanks for your help everyone,” Gadget said, cleaning her hands. “It’s nice to have so many people working together like this. I’ve got the blueprints for the room ready, and if you’ll all help with that too we can have most of it done by the time they get here!”
       Dale struck a pose. “Rescue Rangers away, then! Let’s get everything ready for them!”
       “I agree, Dale,” Chip said. “But let’s start in tomorrow—it’s already getting late, and we all need rest. Especially Eva here—you should be sitting down right now instead of standing around in Gadget’s workshop.”
       Dale couldn’t contain his natural excitement. Christmas was his favorite time, and he took Gadget in his arms and began dancing around the room with her. “So, what’s your Christmas wish, Gadget?” Gadget for her part loved Dale’s spontaneity. “I’ve already gotten so many, I couldn’t think of anything more. I guess just to have it be like this every day. I’m happy, Robin, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
       “I feel the same way. I never imagined that life could be so full of...life!”
       Chip put a hand on each of their shoulders once they’d stopped twirling. “We’ve all got lots to be thankful for this year. Now please come on, Eva—you really should go sit down! You know stress isn’t good for you at a time like this.” Eva knew a mother hen when she heard one. “Very well, Chip dahling, I will rest. I have spent so many years in constant activity, it’s difficult to change gears, as they say.”

       Chip took her back to the main room, and Monty followed right behind, grinning. He had been about to suggest the same thing, but Chip took everything in his domain seriously and over the past few months had become increasingly protective of the expectant mouse. Eva took it in stride, and Monty knew it was just Chip’s way of handling the situation. Chip guided her to her easy chair, adjusting the pillows to make sure she was as comfy as possible.
       “Now you’re sure you’re okay? You don’t need anything, do you?”
       Eva smiled and shook her head. “I’m fine, Chip! Now go, you have shopping and arrangements to be made for the holiday.” Chip lingered a moment more. “All right, but if anything happens don’t hesitate to ask for my help.” Monty patted Chip on the back. “Stop fretting now, mate. She and the little one are gonna be fine! With the way yer fussin’ over them, you’ll make a good dad when you have your own wee nippers ta take care of.”
       Chip hadn’t really thought of having any children besides Theo. The idea of babies wasn’t one that really appealed to him, but seeing to the care of someone else’s child was a different matter. “Well, we’ll see. Right now, I think I’m pretty happy with the one I’ve got.”
       “Yeah, that lad’s been a real blessin’ on this household. I really think we might’a lost Lahwhinie if he hadn’t been here to get through ta her.”
       Chip got strangely quiet at the thought. “We almost lost her anyway, because of me.” He motioned for Monty to step outside, and they did so. It was cool on the veranda, and both of them fastened up their jackets. “Monty, do you think she meant what she said about caring about me? That’s the first time since Hondo she’s said anything on the matter.”
       “Lad, Lahwhinie’s had every guy she’s met fall in love with her. She’s been the way she’s been with you because she wants ta make sure ya really are different than any o’ the guys she’s known up ta now. That’s why she hasn’t been encouraging or discouraging to ya—she wants to see if you’ll treat her the same as before, no matter what.”
       Monty gave Chip a friendly elbow that threw him off-balance. “An’ from that little slip she made earlier, I think that means ya been doing a good job of it.” Chip sighed, and his features were clear in the hard moonlight. “I guess. I’ve been intentionally giving her space, and only doing things with her when she asks. I know she’s treated me a little nicer since Hondo, and I appreciate it. But she’s still hard to read at times—should I just wait her out?”
       Instead of Monty, it was Eva poking her head out the door who answered. “Yes, dahling. She’s been deeply wounded by the men in her life, and she has no desire to be hurt again so she wants to be very sure of her feelings before she says or does anything to encourage you.”
       Chip hadn’t noticed Eva’s approach, but the intrepid mouse knew why Chip had wanted to talk with Monty. Chip pointed at her. “Eva, you should be inside! But uh...thanks for the advice. I felt it was something like that.”
       “You two should not be out there, either,” Eva chided. “It’s far too cold!” Monty had no problem agreeing with that. “Okay, luv. The lad here just dinna want to have a certain young lady walk in on him. C’mon, lad.”

       Chip and the Erskines went back inside and the rest of the evening was spent in the usual treehouse activities. Come bedtime, Theo and Chip were having a conversation in their bunks. “And so they told me that she’s probably making sure I’m honest about my feelings. Guess I can’t blame her for that.”
       “She’s probably worried that you’re just on the rebound. You were in love with Gadget, then fell in love with Foxglove, then with her. Maybe she wanted to make sure you stayed in love with her.”
       Chip put his fedora on its stand, nodding. “Can’t blame her. She’s had too many disappointments in her life to have another. It’s not been quite so bad as I thought—she does smile at me on occasion and we have some fun together. I’ve started sharing Sureluck Jones with her some, and now she can read it for herself. She told me she thought Jones really was smart because he kept women at a distance.”
       Theo leaned back in his bunk, feeling more like a brother than a son to Chip at the moment. “Then you need to show her how wrong Jones was for doing that. He was afraid of women, I think. He was just making excuses.”
       “Well, I don’t know that he was so afraid of them, as he simply had no use for them in his line of work. Don’t forget, he was impressed by the erudite Irene Hadler. But you may have a point—still, I don’t want her to feel like I’m pushing.”
       “You’re not pushing her,” Theo said. “You’re doing things just right. Just keep it up.” Chip made a note in his daily log, then stopped at Theo’s bunk before climbing up. “Well, maybe so. My next problem is, I’ve got to get her something for Christmas. And unlike your problem, it’s got to be something that says I love her, but at the same time I don’t expect anything from her for giving it. A nice little problem.”
       “Wow, that’s a toughie. Get her a book she’d really like. Maybe one called, I Love You and Please Don’t Punch Me For It.
       Chip laughed. “I dunno, but I want it to be really nice and something she’ll enjoy. I’ve already made two full lists and I can’t come up with anything that would guarantee there’d be no misinterpretations.”
       “I don’t know what to tell you, dad. It’s going to be years before I have to deal with a problem like that.” Chip wondered it that was true, but nonetheless he had other fish to fry right now. “I’ll have to come up with something. I just don’t know quite what it’ll be yet.”

What To Get and The Return of Jake Stone, Superspy

       Chip went to sleep pondering the problem, and it nagged him the next day too. He didn’t let it show though—they had too much work to do. Under Gadget’s direction, the guys including Theo carefully gouged out a new room using the tools she provided. All in all, it was a relatively simple task until they got to the problem of taking the wood chips out. They piled up very quickly and work had to stop while the area was cleared. Soon, the room took shape and then the fine detailed work began. The final touch of the day was disassembling the trophy case and bringing it into the room.
       Chip mopped his brow once the case was reassembled, grateful the work was done. “Whew! That’s a hard day’s work, Gadget. Maybe we should go looking for a case tomorrow. It’d be like a vacation!” Dale was more than ready to agree. “Yeah, like stopping an alien invasion or something easy like that!”
       “What’re you two complainin’ about?” Monty asked, flexing his muscles. “Exercise like this makes ya big and strong, like me!” Theo leaned against the wall. “It makes me hungry and tired, Uncle Monty. I’ve been thinking about one of your cheese soufflés for the last hour!”
       “A bloke after me own heart! I’ve had the same thing runnin’ through me mind. Come on, everyone. It’s cheese time!” Chip followed, muttering under his breath, “Any time is cheese time with him...”
       After all the toting, pushing, cutting and lifting, dinner tasted especially good. Monty and Chip had worked hardest, using the gougers to cut the solid wood away. Once dinner was over, the Aussie and the fedora-clad chipmunk were soon snoring on the sofa.
       Dale had been a little tired, but seeing his favorite television shows gave him a second wind. “Wow, it’s going to be strange having so many people living here, but it’ll be nice! There’ll even be little kids soon. Besides you that is, Theo—I don’t think of you as a little kid, though.” Theo beamed at that news, while Gadget caught her husband’s attention. “I know what you mean, Dale. At my age, I’m going to have a baby brother.”
       Theo smiled at the intimation of their words. “Yeah, you and Uncle Dale are almost ancient. Maybe you guys should adopt one now before you hit the retirement barrier.” Dale and Gadget both gave each other a slightly embarrassed glance. Dale spoke first. “Well, we talked a little about something like that, but we think it’s still a little too early to do anything like that yet.”

       Theo changed the topic. “Aunt Gadget, I’ve got sort of an idea of what I’d like to make for Bink but I’ll need help. Could I get you to design something for me?”
       Gadget was immediately interested. “Sure, Theo. What do you have in mind?” Theo got a mysterious look on his face. “I can’t mention it in public like this. It’s top secret, code red and scramble.” Gadget’s smile grew. “Golly, it must be extra special. Are you sure that this is just a regular gift and not something for a girl you really like?” Theo gave her a “are you kidding?” look. “Aunt Gadget, it’s just something I know she’ll like! Jake Stone’s not ready for permanent commitments yet—not until he’s saved the world a few times at least.”
       “Okay, Jake. I’ll keep your gift a secret. You’re so cute when you play spy...but not as cute as my superspy.”
       Dale raised his eyebrows once at Jake, and winked. “Stick around me, Theo, and someday you’ll be a superspy too!” Theo looked circumspectly at his aunt and uncle. **If being a superspy means getting to marry a girl like Gadget, sign me up!** “Being a superspy’s near the top of the list of things that I want to learn to do to make me the ultimate Rescue Ranger!”
       Gadget liked the boy’s enthusiasm. It reminded her of herself when she was on an inventing binge. “Well, remember that there are things more important in life than being a superspy.” Eva chimed in, agreeing. “She is right, Theo. Take it from one who knows, it is much more vorthy of praise to be a good person than to be a good shpy.” Dale thought he’d chip in as well. “Yeah, don’t forget to enjoy your childhood! You’re an adult a lot longer than you are a kid, and being grown up isn’t nearly as much fun.”
       Theo knew they meant well. “It’s okay, everyone. I like having fun and I think learning Ranger stuff is cool.” Lahwhinie motioned for Theo to come over and talked privately to him. “So, what should I get the sleeping wonder over there?”
       Theo looked over at Chip. “Dad? Well, I’m not sure. He’s really kind of content and the thing he does want...is none of my business. It all depends. How do you feel about dad?” Lahwhinie shrugged slightly. “Okay, I suppose. It’s not everyday someone says they love me and seems to mean it. I just don’t want to get him something and then have him think that’s an open invitation. Is there a gift list for that?”
       “Uh, actually dad’s having the same problem with you. He wants to get you something, but something that won’t seem like he wants to get something for it in return.”
       That piece of news set Lahwhinie to thinking. “Well, neither of us has an official karate outfit. And if he got me that, then I’d feel comfy kicking the loverboy around if he tried something.” Theo grinned in response. “Aunt Lahwhinie, you know he wouldn’t try anything funny.” Lahwhinie leaned in close and whispered. “I know it, and you know it...but don’t let him know I know it.”
       “Why not? If we all know it, why not tell him?”
       Lahwhinie looked flustered. “Because...well, just because.” Theo couldn’t understand this game of cat and mouse. “Just don’t keep him hanging there forever, okay? Or maybe one day he’ll move on and you’ll end up alone, forever.” Lahwhinie grabbed his hand and they went into the kitchen as unobtrusively as possible.

       Lahwhinie sat him down and pointed her finger in his face, the first edge of temper coming to her voice. “Look, I’m just not ready yet, and if he knows I know, then he’ll wonder why I don’t say something.” Theo wasn’t fazed. “He’s already wondering that. He just hasn’t said anything. I think the problem is, you aren’t talking to each other about this.
       “What’s to talk about? Loverboy told me the whole sweet tale back at the ranch.”
       “Give him some hope or let him off the hook.”
       Lahwhinie crossed her arms in a protective motion. “I don’t know. The Little Napoleon’s managed to control himself pretty well, but what if I give him some hope, and he changes?” Theo grinned, starting to enjoy the tete-a-tete. “What if he changes for the better?”
       Lahwhinie cast a glance down at Theo, annoyed. “Why is it I always end up talking to you about these things?” Theo was amused by all it, and showed it. “Because we both know what it’s like being alone and afraid. Don’t be afraid to not be alone.” Lahwhinie was already uncomfortable with the conversation, so she took the opportunity to talk about something else.
       “So what should I get you, kiddo?”
        Theo was good on giving gifts, but receiving was another matter. “Oh, I don’t know, you can get me anything. I’m happy just being here and around all of you. The only thing I can think...never mind.” Lahwhinie saw something go over his face and knew he wanted privacy, so she guided him outside to the veranda. “Don’t worry if it’s something private. I won’t tell anyone else.”
       Theo crossed his arms. “It’s not important. Just wishful thinking.”
       “Hey, don’t kid a kidder. If you’ve got something you really want, I’d like to take a shot at getting it.”
       Theo deliberated, then spoke, gesturing with his arms. “But the thing is, it’s impossible! What I’d like is, well, to see my folks again.”
       She put his hand in hers, and sat down with him. “Are you happy here?” Theo was shocked she would ask that. “Of course I am! I haven’t been this happy in years. This is everything I’ve ever dreamed of. But...I miss mom and dad. I don’t talk about them because I don’t want any of you to think I’m ungrateful for letting me come here.”
       Lahwhinie saw the sadness in his eyes, and it went straight to her heart. That alone scared her some, but she couldn’t help it. “My genius of a sister might could build you a time machine someday.”
       “Well, I didn’t mean seeing them that way. But the thing is, I don’t even have a picture of them or anything! Everything we had was lost in the fire. I barely remember what they looked like.” Lahwhinie watched the boy as he tried to keep from crying, knowing he was holding back to look like a man. Instinctively, she gathered him to herself and let him cry it out.
       “Even the toughest of us have to cry some. I won’t tell anyone else, and if I can find something I will.”
       Theo cried quietly for a little while, then wiped his eyes. “Uh, this is just between us, right?” Lahwhinie looked down at him, and smiled. “Just us. You can trust me.” Theo was relieved. “Thanks, Aunt Lahwhinie. You’re the best.” Theo hugged her again, and she patted his head, muttering under her breath, “Wish I was, but I guess I’ll have to do.”
       Lahwhinie didn’t say anything after that. She didn’t say much anything the rest of the night, either. When it came time for her to sleep, Theo’s words were still going around in her head. Her feelings of friendship for him were mixing with the maternal instincts she’d given into, and she wasn’t sure what to do about that just yet. **One thing I’m sure of though-that boy’s going to get something of his folks back this Christmas. I’ll find something, somehow.**

       “Surrender, Black Nightshade! For I, Jake Stone, will never let you be victorious!”
       Theo’s words sounded ominous, but in reality they were spoken in character. He and Bink were out in the park the next morning, playing one of their many games. This time, Bink—in the role of Black Nightshade—was carrying secret files she’d taken from the nearly impregnable Good Guys’ Fortress—actually, Theo’s makeshift home base. The object for Black Nightshade was to get the files to her base—the Dastardly Dudes’ Headquarters—without allowing Jake Stone to catch her. Now the squirrel had been discovered, and a tag from Jake would foil her vast organization’s carefully-laid plans.
       “I will never surrender, Jake Stone!” Black Nightshade vowed, gripping the file in her teeth and scurrying up a nearby tree. Theo, in the role of Jake Stone, good guy extraordinaire, struck a pose. “So, you think you can climb your way to freedom? Not today!”
       Theo was after Bink in a blur, the training they’d received from Eva making each of them even more agile and athletic. A merry chase began in the trees, with Bink leading the way and laughing every moment. Darting among the oaks, she reached the tree she’d been after and just a couple of feet from it was her base—a grouping of rocks with a snug area in the middle. She zoomed down the bark, her senses on full alert, but there was no sign of her opponent.
       She lifted up a rock and put the papers that were in the file underneath and quickly replaced them with pieces of newspaper that she had put around there for insulation. “Beware, Jake Stone. The way to my lair is filled with death traps!”
       Now it was Jake’s turn to recover the files. He was fast, but still not quite so fast as Bink. His time with Chip and Monty had helped him in developing a sense of strategy. Instead of chasing Bink, he’d simply gone to a secret spot not easily noticed from the ground where he kept a case, and in that case a pair of field glasses. The wily chipmunk watched his adversary pull the switch and then go into hiding, waiting for his arrival.
       “Very good, Becky. Very good, indeed. But not good enough...”
       Theo took his time, remembering his dad’s advice that it was best to make one’s opponent wait. Bink kept staring at the spot for which she knew Theo would have to go to. It was open ground, and there was no way she could miss him—at least she was pretty sure she couldn’t. After a while, Bink began to get nervous. Jake would show up any moment now... any moment...a sound came off to her left, and she ducked and rolled. As she came up, Bink was prepared for an ambush, her eyes searching for any movement.
       “What’cha looking at?”
       Bink’s head snapped around, and there was Theo holding the secret documents, pleased as punch. He had simply worked his way back through the same trees and out of Bink’s sight range, then distracted her with a rock he’d thrown while he got the papers. He now stood in front of her, holding his prize up in triumph. Bink wanted to laugh for falling for such an old trick. “Curses, foiled again! You’ve won this round, Jake Stone, but you’ve not seen the last of me!” Theo bowed ceremoniously and put the papers down. “You are a worthy opponent, Black Nightshade. So, what’ll we do now?”

       Bink returned to her normal persona. “I don’t know, I’m pretty cold. We better go in before we freeze.” Theo’s adrenaline was up, and he hadn’t noticed the cold too much. Now he saw that Bink was shivering a little. “Oh, okay sure. Say, are you looking forward to Christmas as much as I am?”
       “Of course, it’s my favorite holiday. How about you?”
       Theo smiled and nodded. “This is the first one I’ve really wanted to see come for a long time. I’ve had a lot of Christmases I didn’t enjoy, but now I’m on the top of the world! Uh Becky, I’m glad you’re going to get to come to the big party. It would be dull there without someone who knows what fun is.”
       Bink grinned in return. “Thanks, Theo. I’m glad that I’ll have a friend there my own age.” Theo was trying to think of a way to get Bink to tell him what she’d like, but he was slowly beginning to discover the reason for Chip’s trouble with talking to girls. “Uh, so what do you think you might like as a present this year? Anything high on your list?”
       “Not really. Some clothes, stuff like that. I really can’t think of anything special that I want. How about you? Is there something in particular you want?”
       “I’ve already got the best present in the world in being the son of a Rescue Ranger, and Chip Maplewood on top of that! I guess I’ll get lots of stuff, but there’s no one thing that would make it better really. I guess I’m just glad that I have a friend like you around that appreciates the finer things in life, like becoming an unstoppable force for justice.”
       Bink high-fived him. “I guess I feel the same way. Why wish for stuff that can get thrown away?”
       “Or broken, or something that no one above age ten can put together right.”
       Bink liked Theo’s thinking, but reality soon set in. “But everyone will be giving gifts, so I guess I’ll have to think of something to get you.” Theo shrugged. “Yeah, same here. I’ve got something in mind, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull it off. Hey, I’ve got an idea—maybe instead of giving each other something we might wouldn’t want, why not get or make something together? Then we’ll know it’s good!”
       “But if we make it together, it won’t really be a gift.”
       “Well, they always said down at the orphanage it was the giving part that counts, not what’s given. We could both give our time to it, and then we’d be giving it to each other.”
       “Well, I guess I can’t argue with that,” Bink said. “So, what do we build?” Theo’s train of thought ground to a halt. “Huh, I haven’t gotten that far yet. We both like playing spy and all, so we could make a real spy headquarters for ourselves. We could put it where no one else will ever see it and it would be just our place to come and plan our adventures.”
       “That sounds neat. But the grownups will still expect you and I to exchange gifts. Better face it, Theo, we’ve got to buckle under and get out there with the rest of the holiday crowd.”
       Theo stuck his hands into his jacket pockets in frustration. They were already nearing Bink’s tree. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Well, maybe we’ll put off the headquarters for now—but it would be so cool. Oh, man!”
       “What is it?”
       “Headquarters! Dad said I had to be back soon, because we were going shopping. Bye, Becky! I’ll try not to get you something dumb!” Bink waved goodbye as he lit out. “Bye, Jake! Thanks for spending time with me. It was a lot of fun. See you soon.”

A Day At the Mall

       Theo waved goodbye then turned his attention to getting home. He’d hoped the headquarters idea would get him out of his dilemma, but Bink was right. Theo had just decided to ask Lahwhinie about it when he saw her and the others waiting to go. Chip waved to him from above. “C’mon, you’re just in time! We’ve got to get out and do some major shopping today!”
       Theo ran up the tree. “Great! I need to get something for Bink.”
       The youngster hopped in the RangerWing with Chip and Lahwhinie. The others were in the RangerPlane, and both machines set off for downtown. As had been the case in Austin, New York had plenty of shopping choices for the rodent class, from the simple to simply luxurious. The Rangers chose a secluded alleyway to land in, and then it was a simple matter to access the shopping district, as most of them were located between floors at either Macy’s or Gimbel’s. Once they were inside, the presentation the stores put on was nearly as splendid as the one the human shoppers saw. Stores of every kind housed wares of every type imaginable from the mundane to the eccentric. For Theo, it had all the magic of the holidays.
       Theo pointed to a store display. “Wow! Dad, can I get a Red Ryder BBgun?”
       “I don’t think so, son,” Chip said. “Then we’d have to get Dale one, too, and we’d end up with a BB war.” Dale came to his own defense. “Hey! Dad said I could have my gun back when I was forty! After all, he was able to replace the vases.”
       “And don’t forget that you’d shoot your eye out,” Lahwhinie said. Theo grimaced. “I had a feeling someone would tell me that.” Lahwhinie shook her head. “No, not you. Dale.” Dale jerked in reaction to this, and Lahwhinie winked at him, which caused Gadget to laugh. The rest of them did too, though Dale pouted over it for a minute.
       Theo’s attention quickly turned elsewhere. “So what should I get everyone for Christmas? I can’t think of anything to get anyone.”
       Chip and Lahwhinie looked at each other for a moment and then back at Theo. “Oh, you don’t need to get us anything,” Chip said. “That’s right,” Lahwhinie said. “After all, you’re still in the receiving mode. I think you only really need to get something for Bink.”
       “Well, if you say so,” Theo said. “But I’d still like to get you two something at least. I’ll have to think about it.”

       Gadget meanwhile was fully absorbed in the glorious chaos that was the mall. “Golly, it’s strange actually buying gifts, rather than making them myself.” Dale was fully at home here, as it was one of the places he went comic book hunting. “Well, things have come a long way since the old barter system. Now we even have our own money and manufactured stuff.”
       “I just wish the humans would honor it,” Chip said. “It’d be a lot easier than having to just take things when we need them.” Monty waived off Chip’s frustration. “Aw, don’t let it worry ya none, Chip. It’s been that way since forever. But who knows? Maybe one day, they’ll understand us too. Drake does, and Nimnul—well I don’t know about Nimnul. Gotta say one thing fer those humans—they make moighty fine chee-eeeeze!”
       “And they make great TV shows,” Theo added.
       Soon, the group split up into teams. Chip, ever the organizer, had lists of things that he thought Noel and Foxy would like. Chip and Dale formed one team, Gadget paired off with Monty, while Lahwhinie and Theo went off in a different direction. Monty and Gadget made their first stop at a frame and picture shop.
       “I’m mighty glad we got Eva ta stay at home, Gadget luv, an’ it sets me mind at ease that Tammy’s over there with ‘er. So, do ya see a likely big frame we could set those pictures of Foxy’s in?” Monty asked.
       “I’m sure we’ll find something,” Gadget said, measuring the frames with her portable measuring tape. “We should buy some extra frames, because I have a feeling this will be a Christmas we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.”
       “Good thinkin’, lass.”
       Monty strolled in front of a full-length mirror. “Crikey, am I really that pudgy? Guess ol’ Monterey Jack’s gonna look like Jolly Saint Nick this year.”

       Chip and Dale were in a furnishings store, looking for a nice lamp to go in the new room. Chip decided to strike up a conversation. “So, have you thought about what you’ll get Gadget yet?” Dale put down the lamp he was looking at. “Maybe some new tools for the workshop, or some painting supplies or a foil of her very own. I’m not sure yet. Those things don’t seem exciting enough. What are you getting for Theo and Lahwhinie?”
       Chip considered a floor lamp for a moment, then dismissed it. “Theo loves his spy gaming so much, I thought I’d get him something along those lines. I talked to Theo this morning about Lahwhinie before he went out, and he said she’d like a real karate outfit. You don’t know how relieved I was—it’s nice having some insider information. Maybe you should get Theo to talk with Gadget. Still, I want to get her something nicer, too. But I don’t know what that’ll be.”
       Dale turned to his friend. “Is it gonna be the gift that says, ‘baby, I love you’ or one that says, ‘you’re my special friend’?” Chip blushed at the thought, which was par for the course. “That’s what I don’t know. Theo thinks I should talk with her one-on-one again and get a better grip on our relationship. Maybe he’s right.”
       “I gotta agree with Theo. If you talk, you won’t have to worry about mixed signals.”
       Chip took on a slightly amused look. “Yeah, just a left hook or a jump kick to the head. Even after two solid months of Eva’s training, she can still whip me every time.”
       “That’s ‘cause you’re a gentleman,” Dale said. “If you wanna win, fight dirty! She does, so you gotta fight her way.” Chip couldn’t believe he said that. “Dale, I couldn’t do that with a girl! It’s just...just not right.”
       Chip looked down at the latest lamp under consideration. “And neither is this lamp. Chartreuse clashes with everything.” Dale picked up one with a polka dot shade. “Get her something that makes her feel good about herself.” Chip spied a crystal-based lamp on the far side of the store and motioned Dale over. “This looks just right. But what you said’s a possibility—but what would make her feel good? She’s so hard to read at times.”
       “This is her first Christmas as an Erskine, her very first one with her family. It should be something to remind her that she’s loved and wanted.”
       Chip paid for the lamp and they headed out for the next store. “Well, that’s an idea. I’ll have to think on that one.”

       Lahwhinie and Theo had just finished coming out of a store that sold rugs and curtains. Lahwhinie had been given the task of picking them out, and in her typical style had run the clerks ragged before making a decision. Now, bags in hand, they descended on a quaint gift store run by a kind-looking old mouse.
       “So what should I get her, Aunt Lahwhinie?” Theo asked. “You know so much, I’m sure you could tell me what’s right for me to get Becky.” Lahwhinie did a double take. “I thought her name was Binky. Or do you have another girl on the side?” Theo grinned. “Well, I guess it’s okay to tell you—she doesn’t like being called Binky, so I’ve taken to calling her Becky. She likes that a lot more.”
       “Oh, I can’t fault her for not liking that name. Well Theo, do you want this to be something that reminds her of you?”
       Theo threw up his hands. “I just want it to be something she’ll like! We talked about it some today, but she didn’t seem to have anything in mind. I’ve got one thing in mind, but I’d better make sure I have something good to give her in any case. I’d just feel bad if I ended up getting her something and she thought it was dumb.”
       “Excuse me, young man, might I make a suggestion?”
       The old mouse smiled and handed Theo a small wooden box. When he opened it, it played a pretty little tune. The gray-haired mouse whistled along with the box. “Ah, ‘Clair de Lune’.”
       “That’s a good idea,” Lahwhinie said. “It will remind her of you, without reminding her of you.” Theo listened to the tinkly little tune. “Yeah, and I even sorta like it. Okay, thanks sir. I’ll get it—uh, it’s not too expensive is it?”
       The proprietor had that kind of face that always puts one at ease. “Well, since I make the music boxes myself, I set my own prices. How much were you planning to spend?” Theo showed him the money, and the old mouse nodded and gift wrapped the box. “A pleasure doing business with you, sir. Miss, I also have something you might be interested in.”

       He disappeared under the counter for a moment, then came up with a musical wind-up circular stand that had two dancers on top of it. When he wound the stand, the man and woman moved about the small dance floor to the tune of ‘Edelweiss’. “I just made that one, and hadn’t set it out yet. It’s my personal favorite.”
       Lahwhinie was captivated by the figures. “That’s beautiful. Do you think your dad would like it, Theo? He likes Sound of Music. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a music box that does that annoying, yodeling puppet song, would you?” The proprietor chuckled and his eyes glowed with merriment. “I could probably make one if you wished it. However, I have a feeling from that look that you like the stand.”
       “That’s one of dad’s favorite songs, all right,” Theo said. “I don’t know how much he likes dancing, though. He’s never talked to me about it.” Lahwhinie smiled. “Well, that’s something a guy usually talks about with a girl. Sound of Music is a little something special between me and your dad. You should ask Bink, er Becky to dance at the Christmas party, Theo. It’s fun.”
       Theo gave Lahwhinie a curious look when she mentioned that movie being special—as far as he could remember, they’d never watched it together. Then he let the thought pass at Lahwhinie’s suggestion. “Dance, with Becky? It’d be so weird.”
       “Only for a little while longer, kiddo.”
       The proprietor caught her attention again. “Well miss, shall I wrap this up for you? If you wish, I could hold it for you for a time if you’re not certain.” Lahwhinie was never to be mistaken for a patient buyer. “No need, I’ll take it. I think you just saved my neck.” The old mouse smiled, placed the musical stage in its box and gift-wrapped it. “Oh, and if those ever break I also repair them for a modest fee. My name’s Georg, by the way.”
       “Thanks a bunch, George,” Lahwhinie said. “This just may be the perfect Christmas gift.” The elder mouse went about humming the tune the stage had played as Lahwhinie and Theo left. Theo looked back at the mouse once in curiosity, then shook his head. **Had to be coincidence.**

       Meanwhile, the others had bought the gifts they were assigned to get and were now getting some early work on their friends and family. Gadget had no problem finding things for Dale, and Monty was already toting a hefty assemblage, what with the things he’d bought and hers as well.
       “I think we’re about at me weight limit, Gadget luv! Shoppin’s more of a strain on me than runnin’ through a herd ‘o wildebeest, carryin’ a wedge o’ cheese!”
       Chip and Dale joined them, then Lahwhinie came sauntering up with Theo in tow. “I didn’t think I could do it, but I think I found the ideal gift for you, Chip.” Chip could see she was pleased with herself. “Oh, really? I didn’t know there was an ideal gift for me.”
       “That’s what I thought too, but I think you’ll like it.”
       Theo was grinning too. “I even found something good for Bink at the same store!”
       “Good for you, son,” Chip said. “We did pretty well, too, but I’ve still got some more shopping to do. Still, it’s good that we’re ahead of the game.” Monty shifted his load, perspiring. “You moight be ahead...Chipper...but ol’ Monterey Jack’s laggin’ behind. Fer a lass that’s...not used ta buying stuff, ya sure got used to it fast, Gadget!”
       Gadget’s attention was elsewhere as usual, as she checked a name off her list. “Well golly, I have so many people to buy for this year—you, mom, Lahwhinie, Chip, Dale, Theo, Zipper, Tammy, the Oakmonts, Aunt Bianca and Uncle Bernard, Tammy and her family, the Maplewoods, the Fairmonts. It would take me months to make all the gifts myself!”
       “Guess we know now why ol’ Santa went commercial...” Monty retorted.

Love's Labor Revisited

       Chip decided to wait on the rest of his shopping until later, for Monty’s sake. Trophies of the shopping hunt in hand, the Rangers headed back for their vehicles and departed for home. Most of the remainder of the day was spent on wrapping the gifts for Foxy and Noel, or putting them into place in their new room. Once they were done, everyone agreed the effect was charming.
       “Oh, I just love the things each of you picked out,” Eva cooed. “Lahwhinie, that rug and curtain combination is perfect. And that lamp highlights the room vunderfully, Chip! Ah, and it was good to get an oversized frame to place the pictures in, like a collage. You all did so well!”
       Lahwhinie had to admit, it looked good. “Thanks, mom. I guess I have a little bit of taste, after all.”
       “Now don’t be modest, dahling. You simply have the Râboga touch when it comes to selection! I vish I could have gone with you this afternoon. I do enjoy shopping so, but it vould have been too much.”
       “Don’t worry. Soon you’ll be back on the move again, and I can look after the baby when you and dad can go out.”
       Monty and Eva shared looks of surprise. “Pardon me fer wonderin’ lass, but when did you get interested in takin’ care of a wee nipper?” Monty asked. “Don’t quite seem like your style, if ya know what I mean.” Lahwhinie grinned and shrugged. “He’s family. That makes him special to me.”
       Eva hugged her daughter gently. “Thank you, dahling, but I am sure you are bound to have the competitors for that assignment.” Gadget put an arm around her sister. “She sure will. We’ll share the responsibility. After all, it could be good experience if Dale and I adopt one day.” Eva’s eyes shined at the thought. “It vill be glorious, having little ones around. They are life, the future—something I had long ago given up on and that I thought I would never again know.”
       Monty loved it when his wife waxed poetic. “Well, Eva luv, it’s a grand thing. Here I’m about ta be a father again an’...” Monty’s eyes started to well up with tears, and he went off to dry them. The others understood—he was an old softie at heart. The conversation gradually shifted from baby talk to speculation on Foxy and Noel’s arrival.

       Chip checked everything to make sure the new room’s presentation was perfect. “If they’re on time, they could be here as early as tomorrow afternoon. I’m sure glad we got the room ready.” Zipper helped Chip measure from floor to ceiling, to see where the new picture frame should be hung. “Do you think they’ll sing some for us while they’re here? I’ll invite Honey over if they do.”
       “I’m sure they will. Isn’t Honey coming with us to my grandfather’s place for Christmas?” Zipper stretched the measuring tape. “Well, she says probably, but I think she’s wavering. Her sister’s about ready to assume her duties, and I think in a way that fact scares her.”
       Dale’s childlike joy was bubbling up, not that it took a lot to do that to him. “This is gonna be so great! Food, family and fun! My first Christmas as a married guy. Wow, I never would have expected that last Christmas.” Gadget hugged him. “You and me both, superspy. But Zipper, Honey’s got to come! She’s part of the family now.”
       Zipper appeared noncommital. “I’ll ask her again, but I don’t know. All her duties...”
       “That’s all the more reason for her to join us!” Dale said. “Let her forget her troubles for a few days. She can get to know us better this way.”
       “That’s what I’m hoping will happen, but Honey’s had the security of her throne to hide behind until now. Once Valeria’s ready, she’ll have to decide if she wants to step down permanently or not. Maybe a good time with everyone at the lodge will show her she doesn’t have to be afraid.”
       “’Course she has nothin’ ta fear!” Monty said. “Just let her know she’ll be welcomed with open arms, lad.” Zipper looked at the expectant faces around him, and made his mind up. “That I will. I just hope she’s ready.”

       With their work done, the group settled back into the main room for a leisurely evening. Tiredness claimed one and then another, until only Chip and Lahwhinie were left. Chip had just returned from carrying Theo to bed. “He never stirred for a moment. Guess today just wore him out.”
       Lahwhinie was curled up on the sofa, with the last of a bowl of popcorn. “He was really excited about the chance to do his Christmas shopping. This is going to be a very special Christmas for him, Chip. Do everything you can to make it the best it can be.”
       “I intend to. It’s my first Christmas with him, too, so it’s a very special one for me. And I can still remember how fun my folks made Christmas for me. I’d count the days until it came, but every year they’d be up as early as I was to open presents.”
       Lahwhinie gave out a laugh as she snagged some popcorn. “I don’t think any of us are going to be sleeping late that morning. A lot of us are still kids at heart.” Chip took a seat next to Lahwhinie on the sofa. “I know I’ll be up at dawn. But you know that Theo isn’t the only reason this Christmas will be extra-special for me. I'm glad to say I’ll get to share it with you, too.”
       Lahwhinie panicked for a moment. She’d been expecting this, but now it was here. She looked in his eyes, trying to be calm. “Thanks Chip, it means a lot to me to hear you say that. I’ve never been around anyone like you in my life, so it’ll be a bit strange for me.” Chip noticed Lahwhinie had tensed up, and knew she was in turmoil. “Lahwhinie, it’s okay. It’s Chip, remember? I’m not going to bite you.”
       **I’m afraid of being hurt a lot worse than being bitten.** “Chip, I’m sorry that...I haven’t been more clear about my feelings.”
       “Hey, I’ve understood. You’ve been through a lot these past few months, and to be fair the way I told you about mine would give any girl room for pause. I guess I’ve never been good at handling things like that.” Lahwhinie looked down, picking at her fingers. “It’s good that we have things in common. You really are different from other guys, Chip. I see it more and more every day.”

       Chip had never felt so awkward in his life. He’d taken on evil scientists, killer cats, and scores of other assorted villains and never broke a sweat. Now this one female had him tied in knots. “Well, I’m...very glad to hear that...uh—boy, do I feel weird! I’m sorry, Lahwhinie, I’m probably making you nervous because I’m nervous. After all, what’s there to be nervous about?” Lahwhinie looked up and stared at him. “We’re both thinking about the same thing and it scares us.”
       Chip let out a huge breath—at least she was feeling the same awkwardness. “You got that right. But you’re scared about it, too?” Lahwhinie nodded. “I’m used to being the master of my own destiny. The idea of giving that up and sharing time and space with another person is tough.”
       “Tell me about it. I know you use that ‘Little Napoleon’ nickname to kid me with, but I’m used to being in control too. It makes me feel—I dunno—vulnerable or something.”
       “We’re two turtles, afraid to come out of our shells.”
       Chip sat back up straight and moved his right hand toward the middle of the sofa, only to find that Lahwhinie’s had found its way there too. They just sat and looked at each other as hand touched hand.
       “How about a truce for now?” Chip asked. “We can’t go on being this uncomfortable around each other.” Lahwhinie looked from his face to his hand on hers and back to his face again. “That sounds good. Truce it is. We want to look good for the camera.”
       Chip had to chuckle at that. “Well, I think we both know that we need more time to get our thoughts and feelings in order. But I won’t be uncomfortable around you if you won’t be uncomfortable around me.”
       Lahwhinie relaxed, but just a little. “We both want to be happy, to be loved by someone. But we have to make sure that it’s with the right person. And I’m not just making sure you’re right for me, but whether I’m right for you.” Chip moved his hand so that he was now holding hers. “The same goes for me, too. I don’t want you to end up not being happy. That would hurt me more than anything else.”

       Lahwhinie gripped his hand tighter. “Being stuck with me for the rest of your life with me unhappy would hurt you more, loverboy?” Chip nodded, not taking his eyes from her. “Love’s not a one-way street, you know. I love you, but if you weren’t happy sharing that love, I could never be happy knowing that.” Lahwhinie leaned a little closer. “You were also in love with Gadget and Foxglove. Could you ever be happy with what I have to offer?”
       Chip felt the room getting warmer. “Actually, I still love both of them—just in different ways now. With Gadget, I was blind to the truth and only looked at my side of the picture. Foxy helped me to learn how to give my love to others, and I’ll always consider her a special friend. But what I feel for you...yes, I could be happy.”
       “Maybe I’m just nervous that you’ll meet someone else and fall in love all over again.”
       “No rival could handle your sweeping leg kick or your front punch. Besides, there’s the dream, and the song.”
       Lahwhinie hesitated. “Songs and dreams aren’t the same as real life. I need to know that you can be content with me and only me.” Chip took on a look of confusion. “Are you saying you want to know if I’m willing to marry you?”
       “Maybe. It’s what this would all lead up to, isn’t it?”
       Chip hadn’t been quite prepared to discuss marriage yet, but she was looking at him expectantly—in a way, almost pleadingly. “I...I didn’t know you’d want to talk about this so soon. But I’d never think of us being, you know, together except if we were married if that’s your concern.”
       “My point is, Chip, I’m your third girlfriend in less than a year. Are you in love with me or are you just desperate?”

       Chip really hadn’t been prepared to hear that. He let go of her hand and stood up, a level of ire entering his voice. “You really think I’m doing this because I’m desperate for your attention? My feelings for Gadget were my own fault. I chose to let Foxy go because it was the right thing to do. Before them, I had one girlfriend who turned out not to care about me at all. I meant what I told you before—I can walk away if it’s the right thing. But don’t ever think of me as desperate!”
       Chip turned around and starting walking out of the room. Lahwhinie realized she’d stepped over the line, and smashed his toes. “Chip, I’m sorry.” Chip stopped, and weighed whether he should turn around. He knew her eyes were on him, and he steeled himself to control whatever expression might be there. He turned around.
       “I understand, and considering your situation it was probably a fair question. It’s just the first time anyone’s ever accused me of anything like that.”
       Lahwhinie was glad he wasn’t angry. “I’ve made a career out of using and discarding people. I’m afraid now that someone might do that to me.” Chip came back and sat down again slowly, making sure she observed all his movements. “Now that I won’t have. None of us would throw you away, and I certainly won’t. You’ve proven yourself time and again, and if you weren’t here...well, things just wouldn’t be the same.”
       Chip took her hand again. “There’d be no one to scare the mail pigeon, or defeat me at karate. I’d have no one to critique every Sureluck Jones story and tell me the proper way he should have handled it. There’d be no one to teach us Hawaiian or make those neat foods. Theo would be devastated if you weren’t here, and, shmuck that I am, I’d probably be right in there with him.”
       Lahwhinie’s smile began to return. “Could you stand being with a cynical, jaded, and combative woman who won’t always let you have your own way?” Chip grinned. “As long as you could stand being with an egotistical, emotional neat freak and sometimes thoughtless guy who wouldn’t always let you have your way.”
       Lahwhinie hesitated again. “Would we be good parents for Theo?”
       “We may not be the perfect parents for him, but I don’t think he’ll find two people that would care about him more. He already thinks of you like a mother, if you hadn’t noticed.”
       “Yeah, I noticed. But I didn’t want to encourage it, in case things don’t work out between us.”
       Chip’s grin grew to a smile. “That was nice of you. Thanks.” Now Lahwhinie felt the room getting warmer. “And I didn’t want to encourage my own feelings, in case he ever finds out what I was really like.”
       “I think you’re going to have a pretty hard time convincing him that you’re a bad person. In fact, you’d have a hard time convincing any of us of that now. Even Gary knows that you attack him in fun.”
       Part of Chip wanted to just hug her right then, but sanity won out—after all, she was vulnerable and on top of that she could pound the fire out of him if she didn’t like it. Chip turned the television volume up some, and started watching the movie that was on. “I guess that’s all that needs to be said for now. I’m willing to wait.”
       Lahwhinie was relieved, and then again she wasn’t. “Yeah. Okay, we made some progress. Just bear with me, loverboy. We’re getting there, slow but sure.”
       “We’re both reasonable people, levelheaded and in control. No need to rush things.”
       “There you go. We both need to cool our heels.”

       With that, both of them turned their full attention to the screen. The movie was Rooster Cogburn, a John Wayne classic. Chip couldn’t help but think that the back-and-forth between the Duke and Katherine Hepburn was much like the exchange he’d just been through. He looked over at Lahwhinie and found she’d fallen asleep. The look of peace on her face reminded him of times when he’d seen Gadget like that in the field on a case.
       Chip smiled slightly and turned back to enjoy the rest of the show. As the movie was about to reach its climax where Rooster foils the plans of the dastardly outlaws, the action got loud. Chip was so into the movie, he didn’t notice that some of the noises weren’t coming from the set. Then he felt a movement on the couch and figured Lahwhinie was getting up to go to bed
       “You go ahead, I’ll turn this off when it’s over...Lahwhinie?”
       Chip turned to look, and his nonchalance instantly shifted to concern. Lahwhinie was dreaming, and she had her arms up as if to fend off some unseen attacker. She wasn’t yelling as loudly as the last time, but Chip knew she was terrified. He was caught, because he didn’t want to scare her waking her up but she was also moving around close to the edge of the sofa and if she turned over...
       “Well, I hope you take this the right way.”
       Chip decided to take the least intrusive path, and went to his knees on the floor so that his head was about the same height as hers. When she inevitably rolled over and was about to fall off, he stopped her and shook her slightly and spoke soothingly. “Lahwhinie? It’s okay.”
       Lahwhinie struggled in his grasp, still asleep and whimpering. “Please, don’t hurt me any more!” Chip tried to reach her. “Lahwhinie, he’s gone! He’s gone, Lahwhinie. You’re safe now.” Lahwhinie’s eyes popped open and she found herself in Chip’s grasp. “Chip, what are you doing? What happened?”
       “You were having a nightmare, and I kept you from falling off the sofa. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
       Chip backed away immediately, and stood up. Lahwhinie looked around nervously for a few moments to assure herself it was just a dream. When she was sure, she stood up and hugged Chip tightly. “Believe me, Chip, if you ever see me having one of those dreams, by all means, startle the daylights out of me, please!” Chip held her, and could feel her trembling. **She just needs comforting, Chip. It’s not affection. Stay rational.** He kept his voice calm and soft. “It’s all right, you’re okay. Calm down.”

       Lahwhinie’s heart slowed, and her voice returned to normal. “Sometimes the past refuses to die, no matter how hard you try to kill it.” Chip felt it was okay to let go and did so. “This is the first time in a long while you’ve had a nightmare like this. It was probably the stress that brought it on.”
       “Or the demons of hate that they drilled into my soul, resisting my chance for happiness.”
       Chip knew that he’d better not stay too much longer, so he took her hand again. “I’ll tell you what your sister’s told me for years—nothing’s impossible. I believe it. But you’re not alone anymore, and together we could defeat them. Good night, Lahwhinie.” Chip smiled at her, and then turned and headed for the hall.
       “Thanks, Chip. You’re a real friend,” Lahwhinie said. Once he’d gone in with Theo, Chip heard her go into her room and he stayed up for a while, listening. When no further sounds came from Lahwhinie’s room, the leader of the Rescue Rangers allowed himself to sleep.

Song and Merriment

       Come morning, Chip was awakened by a rather heavy object pouncing on him. It was named Theo. “Dad! Dad! Guess what? Guess what?”
       “What! Is the tree on fire?”
       Theo laughed. “No, but almost as exciting in a good way! We just got a call from Foxy and Noel! They’re in Boston right now and they’ll be here in an hour or so!” Chip jumped out of bed. “That’s great, Theo. You’re certainly excited about seeing them again. It’ll be nice to have them home. I better get mom and dad on the phone!”
       “Yeah, they’ll want to see Noel too. I can’t wait to see Foxy again and hear about all the music stuff she’s into!”
       In the kitchen, the conversation was quite similar. “Oh, and maybe she’ll have one of those neat karaoke sets with her!” Dale said, pretending to have a microphone in his hand. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. No, really, you’re too kind...” Gadget giggled. “Golly, you could be a supervillain, Lounge Lizard!” Gadget absorbed Dale’s dirty look good-naturedly and continued. “It’s so neat that in a way, Chip got to live his dream of being a musician.”
       “Oh, Chip’s always loved music. I remember getting to go with him once to Sean’s place as a kid and just being amazed like he was! But Chip had the musical talent inbred in him. He never did like to perform for anyone much, though. I think it embarrassed him.”
       Gadget sat down at the breakfast table. “Chip may have felt embarrassed, but I think Noel has found his true calling with Foxy.” Monty came over with a plateful of cheese waffles. “Yeah, that lass is a rare one, all roight. They make a plumb good team all their own. Sure hope they kin stick around these parts.” Dale struck a pose. “Maybe they can do ‘Rescue Rangers’, the musical!” Chip walked in, with Theo. “Oh not that again, Dale! First it was the movie, then the Broadway play. I think I could live with those, but a musical?”
       “Well, I think we’d make a great musical! Gadget could sing her own songs in the movie version of the play.” Gadget shook her head at the idea, laughing. “Oh Dale, I’d never be able to get up and sing like that in front of anyone! I only sing for special occasions—or people.” Gadget got up and hugged her husband, smiling at him warmly. Dale enjoyed the moment, then joined her back at the table. “I’m honored. Not every guy has a diva for a wife.”

       With the breakfast conversation off to a pleasant start, it gave everyone a good feeling about the day. Lahwhinie joined in a few minutes later, and both she and Chip stole some glances that didn’t go unnoticed. As timing would have it, they had just finished cleaning up when a knock came at the main door. Chip walked over and answered it, and he stood face-to-face with himself in a western outfit.
       “Don’t tell me they’ve already come out with a new model of myself?” Chip joked. “I thought I was just getting broken in!” Noel took off his cowboy hat. “A joke? You can’t be the original.” Noel hugged Chip. “How have things been going here, brother? How’s mom, dad, granddad and Theo?”
       “Smoothly, fine, fine, fine and excited. Say, where’s that cute little wife of yours?”
       Foxy ran to the doorway. “Right here, cutie!” Foxy rushed up to Chip and hugged him. “And where’s my cute little hero?” Foxy had made a grand entrance indeed. She had on a brand new outfit—a white material covered in rhinestones and other shiny apparel. Her matching cowboy hat and boots were similarly adorned. She had her emerald on, and jade earrings. On her jacket was written “Foxy“ in fancy pink cursive. She looked every bit the country-western star they’d envisioned.
       “Foxy!” Theo shouted. He ran to her, giving her a huge hug. “Wow, you’re glittery enough to light up New York all by yourself!”
       “What a wonderful guy you are, just like your dads. How are you, hero? Did you miss us?”
       “I’m great, and I’ve thought about you guys a lot! What’s it like being on stage? What songs did you sing? Did you bring me anything?”
       Foxy giggled at his enthusiasm. “Well, we’ve been singing a lot of songs—songs about love and happiness, friends and family, loneliness and heartache. About everything! Being on stage, it’s exciting and terrifying all at the same time, and so loud! I have to wear earplugs when I’m on stage or I’d go deaf. And yes, we brought something for you, but you’ll have to wait for Christmas, cutie.”
       Theo was nearly jumping with anticipation and he looked over at Chip for approval. “We’ve all got something for you too. Is it okay to show them now, dad?” Chip found having Theo around made him feel younger too. “Theo, you can do the honors. I’ll tell the others.”

       Theo took Noel and Foxy’s hands and led them forward. They were joined at the kitchen by the Rangers, and warm greetings were exchanged back and forth over and over. Foxy took extra time to talk with Eva, and then Theo just couldn’t take it anymore and insisted they go down the hall. When they arrived, Foxy gasped in joy at the new room and all the nice furnishings.
       “It’s beautiful! You did this just for us? Oh, you’re all such wonderful friends!”
       Noel was duly impressed. “I don’t know what to say, guys. This is great.” Gadget stepped up, modest as always. “Well, we all wanted you to have a Christmas present you could use, and we all wanted to get you something together.”
       “You gotta say one thing—it’ll always be useful,” Chip said.
       “Yeah!” Dale agreed. “And the room’s yours now, so you don’t have to worry about having a place to stay when you come here!”
       Noel hugged his wife. “Our place with the Rangers. Our real home!”
       “Oh, you’re all so sweet...” Foxy began to cry, and it was group hug time. Noel chuckled. “There she goes, stealing the scene again...”

       It was Monty who got things rolling once Foxy recovered. “Well lad, you’re gonna haveta keep a close eye on her, ‘cause she stole yer heart too. It’s roight grand to have the two o’ you here. You are gonna stay with us now, arent’cha?”
       “Of course!” Noel said. “We’d be fools to turn down treatment like this.”
       “Wow, almost the whole family’s here now!” Theo said. “I can’t wait to get back to the lodge.” Noel patted Theo on the back. “You and me both, pal. Yes, the tour’s over and we’re taking a break. After the holiday, we might be returning to Ranger duty for a while.”
       “If that’s okay,” Foxy said.
       Zipper buzzed right up. “Sure, set a spell. Take your shoes off. We’d like to have you here all the time!” Foxy wanted to talk to everyone at once. “How are all of you doing? We’ve missed you all so much! Oh, and there’s one more to miss now!” With Eva’s permission, Foxy put an ear to her stomach, and giggled. “The baby sounds good and strong, and what a heartbeat! He’s an Erskine already!”
       Eva took it all in stride. “I think the newcomer is about ready for his debut into the vorld any day now. I am very glad you could make it to witness the event.” Monty was proud as any father-to-be. “That’ll be a glorious day, lass. I can’t wait!”
       “Yes, it vill be glorious and very painful.”
       Gadget switched to inventing mode. “Golly, we’re going to have to make this place baby-safe and everything. We’re going to be needing a nursery too.”
       “We could convert part of the gym for that,” Dale suggested. “We’re not using all of the space in there now as it is.” Gadget liked that idea. “I’ll start work on that and have it ready in time for the baby.” She smiled, lightly punching her sister. “Our little brother, Lahwhinie.”
       “My nephew!” Dale added.
       “Remember, it’s not 100% certain it’s a boy,” Chip warned. “But we all know Kate well enough to take her at her word.”

       Lahwhinie hadn’t said anything, and frankly she didn’t feel like saying much. Unlike her sister, she didn’t handle groups or new situations too well. There was something else too, but with that she couldn’t put her finger on it. “Nice to have you two back, Foxy. Are you going to sing some, or did you fill your quota on the road?”
       Both Noel and Foxy hugged Lahwhinie. “We’ll fill the tree with song whenever you want, Lahwhinie!” Foxy said. Noel was right in there with her. “We’re still adjusting to this new life and for me, a whole new career path. But we’re always glad to sing.” Lahwhinie felt uncomfortable, but had allowed their affection. Chip saw her discomfort, and bailed her out. “Hey, come on in the main room and sit down. Tells us what’s happening!”
       They did so, and Chip for the first time took a good look at Noel’s outfit—he was wearing a designer outfit as well, which Chip noted in satisfaction still included a lot of brown. That color was mainly a vest over a cream colored shirt he wore. Noel also wore a red bandana and a cream-colored hat. The look was simple, but complimentary.
       “Well, you already know we were in Boston this morning,” Noel began. “Mr. Steadman asked us to contact our agent there, and he’s working on setting us up a concert tour of the northeast! Country-western’s catching on up here, so they both think we can do well.”
       “That would mean we’d be able to stay with you guys a lot more often!” Foxy continued. “We won’t be going on tour right away, but they’ll last a couple of weeks at a time. Then we can come home and spend time with the people we love.” Theo was all for that. “Great! We’ll all be a proper family then. You can teach me about music, just like dad’s been doing.”
       Foxy smiled at the boy. “I thought all you wanted to be was a Rescue Ranger.”
       “Music can help me pass the time between missions,” Theo said, winking.
       “An’ there’s nothin’ like appreciation the quality o’ good music,” Monty said. “Why, I kin remember that very thing saved me life once. There I was, out on the open ocean...” Monty went into an hour-long spiel of how he’d been shipwrecked, when a Chinese junk he’d been sailing on sunk. He’d entertained himself by singing songs from different operas, and his voice caught the attention of a boat that sailed past five days later.
       “‘Course, they said they’d only let me on board if I clammed up. Turns out they were Gilbert and Sullivan fans, and thought I was roight ruining the part of the pirate king. Fortunately, you and Noel don’t have that problem, lass. How’s about a song er two fer your old friends?”

       Noel stood up. “Sure, any requests?” Noel went and got his own custom-designed guitar and for the next hour Foxy and Noel entertained the group with various songs from their repertoire and others that the Rangers asked for. When they got to “Rescue Me, Rangers“ it became a sing-along and Gadget and even Lahwhinie joined in. After three reprisals of it, the song ended in a room-filling round of applause.
       Theo had been sitting in front of Foxy and Noel, and now had more questions for them. “Do you really think you can give up the applause and fame for Ranger work?” Foxy had been glad to sit down, and now that her adrenaline had left her, it showed. “Oh honey, the bright lights are only one side of it all. Like I said in the letter, it’s so much work. But it is fun—still, I like this life too.”
       “On stage you just entertain people, but the Rangers help people,” Noel said. Eva had been interested as well. “There are rewards to doing both, though. I think it must be exciting to have the opportunity to do both.”
       “Exactly. I can live both my dreams this way.”
       Dale’s face lit up. “Hey, I just realized! Now we’ll have two sets of twins in the house, sort of. Eva’s got a twin sister, too. I feel left out! Maybe I need to dial up Fleebrebrox and invite Ditz back. He’d feel at home!”
       “Oh no, you don’t, Dale!” Gadget said. “One Dale Oakmont is plenty. Maybe one day we could adopt twins to keep the tradition going.”
       “Oh, are you two thinking about adopting?” Foxy asked, intrigued. “Gadget, you and Dale would make wonderful parents! Noel and I have been talking about it too, but we’re so busy right now it would just be too big a strain.” Dale stole a glance at Gadget. “Well, we’re still thinking about it, but we’ll wait at least till Eva has her baby and things settle down.”
       “Yeah, and I think we both want to see what kind of demands this baby will have. Then maybe we’ll know if we’re ready,” Gadget added.

       Foxy turned to her favorite fedora-clad munk. “Hey Chip? How are things...” Chip knew what she was going to say, and mouthed to her to not ask. Lahwhinie caught it though, and knew he was just trying to spare her after last night.
       “So Foxglove, how is you family doing?” Lahwhinie asked. Foxy didn’t catch that it was a diversion. Besides, she was always happy to talk about her family. “Oh, they’re all great! Mom and dad send everyone their best wishes, and they’re both looking forward to seeing everyone. The kids could hardly talk of anything else! Uncle Bedivere’s coming too, and he says with him here it’ll a ‘real rip snorter’ of a party.”

A Quiet Talk and The Prodigal Father

       While Foxy hadn’t caught the diversion, she had noticed Chip’s look of discomfort when she tried to mention Lahwhinie. The compassionate bat’s heart went out to Chip, and she made a point of talking to him alone. The opportunity came late that night, when she walked into the kitchen on a snack raid and found him there, similarly employed
       “Hello, Foxy,” Chip said. “What brings you out here at this time of night?” Foxy found what she was after and settled down at the table. “I guess that quick lunch Noel and I had wasn’t enough. Have you had any big cases since Hondo?”
       Chip chuckled. “Not an official case, but Lahwhinie and Theo captured two of our most notorious enemies while we were visiting a museum.” Foxy had gone back to the fridge for some milk, and bumped her head getting it clear to see if Chip was serious. “Really? Lahwhinie defeating someone doesn’t surprise me, but Theo? I didn’t think you were going to let him get into any dangerous situations.”
       Chip realized he’d part himself in an awkward situation. “We were just sightseeing when we encountered them. They were casing the place for a robbery and grabbed Theo and Lahwhinie, and were threatening them if I did anything. Then the two of them put to good use the martial arts training that Eva’s been giving them—they threw Rat Capone and Desiree De Lure to the ground and pinned their arms behind their backs. It was a wonder to behold!”
       “But Theo could’ve been hurt!” Foxy said, shocked. “He is okay, isn’t he?”
       “He’s fine. He found the whole thing very exciting. As for me, I was terrified—as scared for him as he’d felt when I was stabbed.” Foxy instinctively touched where Chip’s wound had healed. “Noel still talks about his wound from time to time. It sounds like Theo’s growing up even faster than you thought he would.”
       “It seems that all this was the destiny that he was born for. He’s been instrumental in helping Lahwhinie open up to everyone, he’s filled a void in my heart and in a way he’s trying to help fill a larger void. Theo’s been torn between the desire to have Lahwhinie and I get together and not wanting to interfere in our lives too much.”
       At the mention of Lahwhinie, Foxy’s face took on a different tone. “I was so glad when Theo hugged me when I came in and showed so much enthusiasm, but I noticed most of the evening he stayed pretty close to Lahwhinie. I’m not complaining, Chip. I already told him we’d be friends. But does he consider her...like his mom?”
       “Yes. I’m sorry, Foxglove.”
       Foxy nodded. “It’s okay, Chip. Right now, I couldn’t be as good a mom to him as she can. She’s here all of the time for him, and I’ve got my career tugging at me. If he didn’t have you and her, I’d either quit singing or take him with me. I know this life is what he wants, so as long as he’s happy that’s all that matters.”
       She paused, and then decided to breach the other matter. “And what about you, Chip? Are you happy?” Chip couldn’t blame her for asking. After all, he almost married her. “Yes, I’m happy. I have a wonderful son, wonderful parents, wonderful friends, a wonderful career and the hope that I may have a wonderful woman as my wife. Life couldn’t be better.”

       Foxy looked at him while he counted the wonderfuls, but still she knew all wasn’t right. “Chip, talk to me. Why did you avoid my question earlier today about you and Lahwhinie?” Chip should’ve known he couldn’t evade the issue with her. “Lahwhinie and I are at a turning point, and she’s hesitant to take the next step. It’s very uncomfortable for either of us to talk about.”
       “I figured you were protecting her. You’ve changed quite a lot, you know. I can still remember how you tried to run over everyone back when you thought Gadget loved you and not Dale. Now...now you’re comfortable.”
       Chip never thought that anyone would use that word to describe him. “I’m not the person I was then. I have the perspective that I didn’t realize I needed. You helped so much in bringing that to the surface, Foxy. I don’t know what would have become of me if you hadn’t rescued me—I owe you my life and more. If not for you, I might never have met Theo and then neither he nor I would have been happy.”
       Foxy hugged him gently. “You were worth it, Chip. Every minute. I just hope you can end up as happy as me and my honey munk. Chip, do you think it’ll be okay—you know, us staying here and all? Noel and I may not be able to contribute that much, honestly. I don’t want you to feel you have to take us in, although I’m really happy about that room.”
       “Foxy, you and Noel will always be welcome here. Whether you’re here with us as visitors or as Rangers, it makes no difference. You’re both family and there’s always a place for both.”
       “Thank you Chip. I’ll never forget you for this—then again, I’ll never forget you anyway!”

       Noel had gone in to check on Theo. He too had gotten the run-down on Theo and Lahwhinie taking down Rat Capone and Desiree. The cowboy chipmunk was duly impressed. Theo sat on his bunk, happy with the world. “It’s great that you got to be here for my first Christmas as a Maplewood, dad.”
       “I wouldn’t have it any other way, son. No matter what else happens, I want to be around for you. How’s that brother of mine treating you?”
       “Dad’s been great...uh, dad,” Theo said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m learning so much stuff. I just have to wait till I’m old enough to do anything with all the stuff I’ve learned.” Noel gave out a laugh. “Kind of hard thinking of both me and Chip as dad, I guess. It’s strange to me, too. Now what’s this I hear about you and Bink? Do you think you like her?”
       “Ack! We’re not dating or anything. We’re just friends. You grown-ups like to play matchmaker too much.”
       “I just want to know what your life’s like,” Noel said. “I’ve already missed a good bit, being on the road. I hope now I’ll get to share some more of it.” Theo relaxed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that as a criticism, dad. I’d love for you to be here so we and Foxglove can spend some family time together. I’d like to get to know you both better.”
       Noel rubbed his son on the head, just like Chip. “That would be great, Theo, but at the same time, we don’t want to complicate your life too much. I think I’m right when I say that you’re used to Chip being your dad now. I sure don’t mind hearing you say it, but I can tell he’s taken to the role pretty well.”
       Theo knew it was a problem that needed to be settled. “Yeah, he’s everything I wanted a dad to be. So, I’m halfway there. I think I know what you’re saying, that eventually one of you will be ‘DAD’ and the other will be ‘dad’.”
       “I think it’s best for you that way, son. I’ll still treat you like my own, as will Foxy. I think that your calling is to be the son of a Rescue Ranger—and maybe two before it’s over. I noticed Lahwhinie giving Chip some looks this evening. She’s hesitating, isn’t she?”
       “Yeah, she’s scared of a real relationship. I don’t know what to say or do. I’m worried that I might do something wrong.”
       “Just be her friend for now, Theo,” Noel said. “She’s likely sizing up the situation and deciding what to do next.”
       Theo put his chin on his fist, looking up at Noel. “Well, you’re Chip too. Do you think you’d handle this right?” Noel knew a loaded question when he heard one. “I am Chip, but he knows her better than I do now. He seems to think that she needs space, and he’s giving it to her—or at least that’s what I read in his expressions. I can still read him, but not as plainly as before. There is some difference now.”
       “You don’t have to worry about winning over your girl.”
       “Right. I’ll talk to him and maybe Lahwhinie if she gives me an opening. But I think in the end she’ll have to be one to make the move.”

       Noel and Theo looked up as Chip and Foxy came in, “Just reliving some old memories and catching up on new ones, Chip. I see you’ve brought the prettiest girl in the house with you.” Chip jokingly took a fighting stance. “You got that right, you lucky skunk.”
       Foxy laughed at the scene. “Oh, what am I going to do with you two? I think I’d better take mine and get out of here while I’m ahead. Theo, I heard about your exploits with your Aunt Lahwhinie. Sounds like I’d better hire you on as a bodyguard!”
       Theo flexed his muscles. “Yeah, people should call me Mr. T!” Chip smiled at the display and shared those of the other two onlookers. “Well, if you’ll excuse us I have to get Mr. T to bed. We have to spring Murdock in the morning, and round up Face and Amy. I love it when a plan comes together!”
       Theo lowered his voice as far as he could. “Okay, I’ll go to bed. But I ain’t flyin’ on no airplanes!” Foxy loved it. “Oh, you’re as cute as your father..uh fathers are. Good night, Theo!” Theo hugged Foxy. “Goodnight, Foxglove. Love you.”
       “I love you too, dear.”
       “So do I, son,” Noel said, joining the hug, then shook Chip’s hand. “Thanks for everything, Chip. I don’t know if I thanked you properly until now, but you deserve it.” Chip took it in stride. “Hey, could I do any less for my brother and his wife?” Foxy hugged Chip good night as well. “You could’ve said no singing in the house, but this place is so cheerful, singing just seems to go along with it.”
       “Anything to make you happy, Foxy..uh, sorry.”
       “What for?” Foxy asked.
       “It’s nothing,” Chip said quickly hugging Noel and Foxy this time. “Good night, you two. Sleep well.” Foxy gave him a curious look as she and Noel left and Chip closed the door. Theo had a similar expression. “Just what were you sorry about? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
       “This is just between you and me, Theo. But I still love Foxy just as much as Noel does and it hurts me knowing I’ve lost her.”
       Theo looked in the direction where Foxy had just left. “I know dad. I saw how torn you were, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help her to be happy, and be her friend.” Chip was looking in that direction as well. “I know, and I will be her friend. I’m sure in time these feelings will subside.”
       “Well, I think they’ll be better, once they have another person to share them with. Noel and I talked some, and he agrees that Lahwhinie’s considering you now. I don’t want to push you or her into something fake, but I think you could be happy again with her. I’ve seen things in her that show me she’s able to give of herself now, but she’s not sure that she should.”
       Chip knew all that of course, but Theo realizing it too was something he hadn’t totally expected. “Sometimes it seems you’re really a very old man who merely looks like a child. Where did you get this intuition about women and all the other things? At times it seems you’re a philosopher and at other times a psychiatrist.”
       Theo looked modest. “When my heart hears something I listen, instead of trying to bury it. I’ve always been able to tell what people are really feeling or thinking because I’m honest with myself. When you’re an orphan, you learn to either hate life or embrace it.” Chip hugged Theo with more emotion than normal, then got into his bunk. Theo followed his example. “I sure hope it works out. Good night, dad.”
       “Good night, and I love you, son. Always remember, you’re the most important thing in the world to me.”
       “You got it.”
       Theo turned his little blue light on as Chip turned the lamp out. **Lahwhinie Maplewood—it does have a certain ring to it. She’d be a great mom. I wonder if she knows that...**

Special Delivery

       At about four in the morning, a light tapping sounded on Chip’s door. With a creak, someone opened it, allowing the hall light to flood in. The room’s inhabitants were still asleep and unaware as a figure padded silently into the room. A hand gently nudged Chip, and he began to stir.
       “This better be important, Dale,” Chip muttered.
       It was Lahwhinie. “It is, Chip. Mom’s gone into labor. Dad, Dale and Gadget are already in the RangerWing with her and headed out. I volunteered to stay behind and wake you and the others. You can fly the RangerPlane, can’t you?”
       It took a few moments for the information to sink in, then Chip sprang awake. “Baby! Whoa! Yeah, I can fly the Plane. Come on, Theo! We want to be there to greet the newest Erskine.” Theo jumped up, pulling his clothes on in seconds. “Oh boy! Let’s make like a tree and leave!” Lahwhinie went to wake Foxy and Noel, while the chipmunks got dressed. Within five minutes the second team was assembled, if drowsy, and boarded the RangerPlane. “I hope she’s okay,” Chip said. “Hang on everyone!”

       “Hang on, everyone!” Gadget shouted. “I’m going to land at their helipad!” Monty put a protective arm around Eva in the back seat as Gadget descended and the RangerWing touched down on top of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Hospital assistants with a gurney rushed out, and helped Monty to get Eva out of the plane as quickly and safely as possible.
       Dale ran alongside the gurney with the others. “Glad we were able to phone Dr. Mavel! Hang on, Mrs. Erskine! The cavalry’s here!” Inside, Dale was as nervous as he’d been when he had to give a speech in front of his entire high school. The only difference this time was, everyone else around him was that nervous too. Eva cried out as a contraction came, and the assistants quickly wheeled her inside toward a waiting hospital elevator.
       “Golly! Don’t worry, mom, we’re right here!” Gadget said. Monty held Eva’s hand. “Yeah, don’t worry, luv. You’ll do fine!” Gadget held her mother’s other hand as they entered the elevator.
       Eva could only nod through the pain as the elevator descended quickly to obstetrics and gynecology. As they got off, a nurse told the assistants where to take Eva and that Dr. Mavel had arrived and was waiting. Only Monty would be allowed to go in with her, so he stopped just outside the swinging doors. “Thanks fer bein’ here, both o’ you. Let the others know we got in okay, and I or someone’ll come out an’ keep you updated.”
       Monty hugged Gadget and Dale. “Don’t worry none, you two. Yer mom has pulled through tougher scraps than this. She’ll be right fine in no time.” Some nurses quickly helped Monty into his hospital scrubs and mask. “I’m right behind ya, luv!”
       “Tell her we’re rooting for her!” Dale said, nervously excited.
       “That I will, mate. We’re all rootin’ for her.” Monty patted Gadget gently on the head. “Soon, you and Lahwhinie’ll have a bouncin’ baby brother.”

       Above the hospital, Chip was nearing the building. He was understandably nervous, and the Plane was heading first this way then that. Lahwhinie grabbed his hand, which was trembling. Her taking his hand made it tremble even more.
       “Chip, get a grip!” Lahwhinie shouted, pointed at the quickly-approaching building. “We’re going to maternity, not the emergency room!” Noel thumbed at Chip from the back seat. “I always overreact in these kinds of situations.” Theo craned between the front seats to get a better view, obvious to it all. “Aren’t you excited, Aunt Lahwhinie? You’re going to be a big sister!”
       “I’ll be more excited when we’re safely down. Nose up, Chip!”
       Chip managed to concentrate enough to get them down, but it wasn’t the prettiest sight. They all jumped out, and Noel make a joke about ‘if Dale had been with us, he’d be kissing the ground now.’ Chip grimaced a bit, but ignored it as they rushed forward as one and went to the elevator. Chip was too shaky even to remember the floor they were supposed to go to, but fortunately Lahwhinie thought to ask. They found Dale and Gadget looking out for them in a nice waiting area, and the newcomers ran up.
       “Am I an uncle yet?” Theo asked. Chip caught up a moment later. “How’s Eva doing?” Gadget welcomed them both. “You’re not an uncle yet, Theo. Eva got in okay about ten minutes ago, and so far no other news. We’ll just have to wait for someone to come tell us.” Zipper landed on Chip’s shoulder, and like the others Chip could feel his little body shaking with nervousness. “I just hope all goes well.”
       “Could be a long wait,” Noel said. “You never know how long these things take. Could even be a false alarm.” Foxy hadn’t even thought of that. “Oh, I hope not! I don’t know if I could take all this happening again. I hope your mom’s going to be okay, Gadget. No, I know she will!” The discussion continued for several more minutes, when Monty came back out. He looked as nervous as any of them, but relatively calm.
       “Only got a minute or so, mates. The doc says she’s doin’ jest fine, and at this rate the grand event shouldn’t be that long off—two hours, tops. Eva managed to say thanks for all o’ you coming, and I’m roight there with her on that one. I’ll be with her the rest o’ the time, an’ one of the nurses will be coming out to tell ya what’s up.”
       “Thank you, Monty,” Foxy said, hunting up a box of tissues. “We’ll all be here for you two!” Chip shook Monty’s hand. “Good luck, Monty.” Zipper patted Monty on the back. “She’ll be fine, Monty. Don’t worry. You’ll have a baby boy to bounce on your knee in just a few hours.”
       “Yeah! We can’t wait to celebrate!” Dale said.
       “Send her our love, dad,” Gadget added.
       “Let her know we’re thinking about her,” Lahwhinie said.
       Theo wondered why they were all so uptight. “Thanks, Uncle Monty! You’d better hurry back in before she misses you!” Monty smiled at his friends and family. “You’re all too much, you know that? See ya soon.”
       Theo sat back down next to his dad. “Okay, now I can be nervous.”

       Monty nodded his thanks and headed back into the delivery area. With that, Chip and Dale both got up and started pacing. Gadget couldn’t help smiling, remembering Dale’s pacing woes when they waited on Zipper’s operation. Now Chip was outwalking him, and acting every bit like he was the expectant father.
       Lahwhinie and Gadget struck up a conversation with Foxy and Noel, which managed to hold Zipper’s attention as well. Theo dove into the pile of children’s books on a nearby table and amused himself as well as possible. Another thirty minutes, and a nurse appeared from the delivery room. “Mrs. Erskine is in heavy labor now. Mr. Erskine says she’s ‘as tough as a warthog’s tusks’. It should be soon. If any of you needs breakfast, feel free to head for the cafeteria. Our hospital food’s actually quite good.”
       “I’m too nervous to eat!” Dale said. Chip left, grateful for the opportunity to take his mind off of everything. The cafe food was good and Chip found he was hungrier than normal due to the nervous tension and getting up so early—it also didn’t hurt that most of the food wasn’t covered with cheese. He’d just finished his dessert and was about to put his tray up when a nurse waved him over.
       “Chip Maplewood?” she asked. Chip rushed over. “Yes, that’s me. Something wrong?” The nurse showed some relief. “Good, it’s you. The others told me what you looked like. Mrs. Erskine’s doctor should be coming out any moment. The baby’s come!”
       Chip thanked the nurse and raced toward the waiting area. “I’m here! Where’s the baby?!” Dr. Mavel had already come out, and there were looks of pleased relief all around. “Ah, there you are. As I was just telling your comrades, Mrs. Erskine gave birth to a 0.7 ounce son. Both of them are fine, and as soon as the staff’s finished checking him, you can see the baby.”
       A cheer went up among the Rangers. Dale hugged Gadget. “You’re a big sister now, Gadget! Congratulations!”
       “And you’re a big brother-in-law too!” Gadget said, returning the hug.
       “Plus we’re all aunts and uncles!” Theo added. “This kid’s certainly going to have more than his share of attention.” Lahwhinie sidled up to Chip. “It will be great to see him. I’ve never really been around little kids. I won’t know what to do.” Zipper buzzed in agreement. “We’re all in that boat, pretty much. But we’ll learn as we go. Besides, Monty and Eva are veteran parents. I’m sure they’ll teach us a lot.”
       “But neither of them have actually raised either of their children,” Lahwhinie pointed out. Gadget came over and put a hand on Lahwhinie’s shoulder. “Then we’ll all just have to pitch in and help them get it right this time.” Lahwhinie liked the sound of that. “I guess with enough of us helping, we won’t make too many mistakes.”
       Foxy was shaking with excitement. “A baby! I can’t wait to see him!” Someone flagged Dr. Mavel’s attention from behind one of the two small windows in the delivery room’s double doors. “None of you has to wait any longer. Follow me.”

       Dr. Mavel led them through a short maze of corridors to the ward where the new babies were kept. The nurse pointed out Eva’s child—a tiny little mouse with a cute face sticking out from the soft blue blanket in his bassinet. Foxy was too choked up for words and just held Noel’s hand tightly and wiped away her tears with her other wing.
       Dale was moved too, and found himself whispering. “Isn’t that the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen, Gadget?” Gadget had tears in her eyes as she held her husband’s hand. “It’s so tiny...so precious.” Dale stood up next to the window, and tried to get the baby’s attention. “Oochy woochy coochy coo!” Chip couldn’t help but think his old partner would make a good dad. “I knew that personality of yours would come in handy someday.”
       Chip looked at the child and privately found his own fondness for it. He noticed Lahwhinie was smiling at the tiny face as well, and then Monty came in and hugged everyone. “Ain’t he a bonzer lad? He’ll grow ta be as tough as his dad someday! Eva’s restin’ now, but she says she wants to see everyone soon.”
       “Congratulations, Uncle Monty,” Theo said. “I’m glad that Aunt Eva and the baby are okay.” Lahwhinie and Gadget both hugged their father.
       “That’s a fine baby,” Chip said. “You’re both going to be great parents for him.”
       “And he couldn’t ask fer better family an’ friends,” Monty said. Zipper gave Monty a thumbs-up. “Right on, old friend.” Dr. Mavel appeared again. “Eva’s awake and asking to see you all. She’s still weak, so only a few minutes for right now.”
       The doctor and Monty led the way, and Eva was sitting up in one of those mechanized hospital beds. Her voice was weak, and she looked like she’d been through one of the world wars, but she had a pleased smile on her face. “Oh dahlings, thank you all for being here with me. It means so much.” Lahwhinie was instantly at her mother’s side. “Mom, how are you feeling?”
       “I am tired, precious. It is not easy bringing life into this vorld, but it is worth the struggle.”
       Theo felt a little intimated, but Eva motioned him forward and he came up next to Lahwhinie. “Aunt Eva, that baby is cute!”
       “Thank you, Theo. I think he is the most beautiful child I have ever seen—as beautiful as his sisters.” Eva held out a hand, and both Lahwhinie and Gadget took one and gently kissed their mother. Eva looked to Doctor Mavel. “Doctor, may I hold him again?”
       “Certainly, Mrs. Erskine. Beatrice?”

       In a minute, a nurse brought the littlest Erskine in and handed him to his mother. It was a moment that none of them would forget. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group as they got to see the baby close up. Even Theo and Lahwhinie had moist eyes.
       “He’s a treasure, luv,” Monty said, “just like his mum.” Eva looked over at Gadget. “Gadget dahling, would you like to hold him too?” Gadget reached out and took the child from his mother’s arms. “Hello, Colby. I’m your big sister, Gadget. I just know that you and I are going to be good friends.”
       She held the baby for a few more moments, then handed him to Lahwhinie. She didn’t have time to protest, and looked down at the small life in her arms. “You’re so tiny, I’m almost afraid I’ll break you.” Then little Colby reached out and grabbed his sister’s finger. That was all it took, and Lahwhinie smiled and laughed a little. “I think I’ll have to watch out for you. You’ve got my number.”
       Lahwhinie looked to her mother and indicated if it was okay for Foxy to hold him too, and of course she nodded. Foxy was overcome with joy to get to hold him. Tears were just streaming down Foxy’s face as she lovingly cradled the baby in her wings. “He’s so precious! What a wonderful man you’ll grow up to be, just like your dad and granddad.”
       Monty took his son in his arms, and his large face smiled down at him. “Someday, I’ll tell ya about the Erskine family history an’ how yer dad came to know that wonderful lady who helped ya ta be here. You’ve got a lot of livin’ ta do, Colby, and every day of it you’ll have folks around that love ya. I love ya, son.”
       Monty handed Colby back to Eva, who held him a little while longer. Then it was time for mother and son to rest. “You are all the best people I could ever hope to have around to raise my son. I am just glad that some of you are family as vell. But even those that are not feel that way to me. Thank you all for giving me another chance at life.”
       “And thanks for giving me the same chance,” Lahwhinie said.
       “And me,” Theo chimed in.
       “Me too, me too!” Foxy said.
       Dale looked around at the crowded room. “It’s fitting all this happened right before Christmas.” Gadget had to agree. “Sort of a Christmas Carol, but without as much pain, so that we could sort of skip to the happy ending where everyone gets a new lease on life.”
       “And God bless us all, every one,” Theo said, right on cue.

Baby Talk and A New Addition

       In lieu of a group hug, all of them came over to Eva’s bedside and either gave her a hug or kiss. It was a time that none of them wanted to see end, but they knew they had to go. Once they were outside, the talk remained on what had happened inside. They went to breakfast, and then at the doctor’s request they went home except for Monty, who was given an adjoining room to be near his wife. It was now around ten in the morning, and to everyone it felt like the middle of the night.
       Theo stretched and yawned as they entered headquarters again. “Wow, I even got to stay up all night! This is one of the best days ever!” Chip sank down on the sofa. “Don’t think you’ll be making a habit of this, Theo. This was an exception to the rule. It’s been one for the books, all right. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think I’m going to catch forty winks and get my system back to normal.”
       “I’m fine!” Dale said, rearing to go. “I’m used to staying up late.”
       “Well, I’m not,” Gadget said, in the middle of a yawn. “It’s been so exciting, but now it’s like the feeling when I’ve finished testing one of my more dangerous inventions. I’m going to lie down too, but then we all need to think about making a place for Colby. I’ve done most of the work on clearing the gym and preparing it, but there’s still some things that need doing.”
       Dale chuckled. “He’ll need his ‘Baby’s first mad scientist lab’ and ‘Baby’s first personal aircraft’. Chip blinked, trying stay awake. “Just remember, he might be as brilliant as you Erskine ladies.”
       “He might be dyslexic, too,” Lahwhinie said. “We should have him tested for it at the first chance.” Theo smiled mischievously. “And he might have mutant powers that will only show up when he’s about my age. We should watch out for super strength and stuff like that.” Zipper flew lazily over to the sofa. “It’s a good thing that crime’s been down so much lately, what with Fat Cat missing and his gang in disarray. We’re going to need every minute to handle this newcomer, I expect.”
       “Well, we’ll all help them look after Colby,” Dale said. “We can work in shifts so Eva can rest.” Chip stood, mainly to keep his adrenaline going. “Good idea, Dale. I think it’s only fair we take turns, but it might take a while to train us all on what has to be done. I’ve never handled a baby before. In fact, the only person that I know of that has is Tammy. And her mom, of course.”
       “Maybe it’s time to think of hiring a Rescue Nanny,” Lahwhinie suggested. Noel headed for the phone. “I think Lahwhinie’s got an idea, there. Donna or Tammy should be able to help us along. I’ll be glad to give them a call and ask them for some assistance.”
       “Good. That will help us all,” Chip said. “It’s better than trying to learn by trial and error.”

       Noel made the call, and a couple of hours later all of the Chesnutts came over. Tammy was bouncing with joy. “Chipper, it’s so exciting! I can’t wait to see Colby!” Donna gave the room a professional once-over. “You’ll have to change a few things once Colby starts crawling around. I’d recommend a safety gate to keep him out of the hall or any of your rooms. Babies can get places that you’d never expect. It’s also a little cool in here for a baby, so make sure you have extra blankets around. Where are you going to keep him?”
       “We’re going to keep him in the gym!” Gadget said. Donna was more than a little dubious of that idea. She went in there and Gadget showed her what her plans would be. “The tones in here are all wrong for a baby, dear. The walls should be a soft neutral color and it should be someplace peaceful where the child feels secure.” Gadget was confused. “Golly, with all of us around, how could he ever feel insecure?”
       “What I mean is, you’re still going to be using the gym, and the noise could upset him—babies sleep most of the day, you know. It might would be better to build him his own room, or give him one that’s quieter, away from the action.” Gadget thought about it. “Well, I don’t think we’d keep him in here all the time. He’d sleep with mom and dad and this is where he’d be during the day. If we needed to use the gym, we could take him into a different room.”
       “Okay, I just want to be sure you’ve all planned it out. Now, all of you need to know the basics—how to feed and burp a baby, how to change a diaper, how to give him a bath and so on. There’s a lot of work to taking care of a baby, but if you’re all going to pitch in, it shouldn’t be too bad on any one of you.”
       Gadget was eager to learn. “Will you teach us? None of us really knows what to do.” Donna returned with Gadget to the main room. “I’ll be glad to, and Tammy can teach you as well. I taught her all I know when she started babysitting.” Tammy turned to the others. “None of it’s really hard, but it’s just knowing what to do. Don’t worry, I’ll come over and make sure you’re doing things right.”
       “And I’ll make sure that you’re not bossing them too much!” Bink said.
       Chip came over to Tammy. “Would you have any desire to come on board as a full time nanny?” Tammy gave it some thought. “Well, that would mean I’d have very little free time. It’d be great being here with you guys, though. I’d have to have a day off a week to go out and do things with Rob, but if mom says it’s okay...”
       Chip turned hopefully to Tammy’s mom. “Donna, what do you think?”
       “I’d certainly feel better knowing you had Tammy looking after Colby. She’s finished school, for now at least, so she’s free to make her own decisions.”
       The Rangers looked back to Tammy and she nodded. “I think you just hired a nanny!” Theo summed up the Rangers’ feelings for them. “Yay! Tammy, Nanny Ranger!” Chip shook Tammy’s hand. “We’ll still expect to help you of course. I know that even with your abilities you can’t handle everything every minute, so we’ll all learn what needs to be done.”
       “And this will help you adjust to Ranger life if you still want to join us as a Rescue Ranger,” Noel added.
       “I agree,” Donna said, “and I think young Colby’s going to be in good hands. When does he come home from the hospital?” Chip fielded that one. “Two or three days perhaps. Then it’s baby time.”
       “If you want my advice, rest up now. Even with Tammy’s help, it’s going to be a different world. You’ll have the sounds of a baby crying in the house, and none of you are used to that. You’re going to have to adjust your habits to having him around. That means no loud noises when he’s sleeping, and no harsh words when he’s awake. You’ll also have to keep anything he can put in his mouth off the floor or out of his grasp.”
       Dale hadn’t realized how many changes this would make. “Oh uh, we’re going to have to lock up Gadget’s workshop.” Gadget wasn’t too concerned. “Well, I keep the door closed most of the time anyway, but it’ll be all the time from now on. Everyone, make sure to clean up after yourselves when you’ve been eating on the couch. Especially you, dear.”
       “I’ll make sure that I eat every crumb that I take with me!” Dale vowed.

        Donna made a few more immediate suggestions, which the Rangers carried out with haste. The Chesnutts left, and Tammy promised to come back tomorrow and begin teaching them all so they’d be able to help or substitute for her if necessary. Chip followed through on his idea and went for some rest, as did Gadget and Lahwhinie.
       In the evening, Lahwhinie helped to fix supper and added in some of her special Hawaiian recipes. Everyone loved the change of culinary pace she brought, and it made a nice topping on the day. After the meal, Chip and Dale found themselves on the sofa talking about how things had changed.
       “I’ve got to admit,” Chip said, “when you gave Colby the goo-goo eyes, you were pretty convincing. Maybe once you’ve had him around some, you’ll be ready to get one of your own—assuming we survive this one.”
       “I dunno. Gadget hasn’t said much about kids, and I’m not sure she wants one. Maybe once Colby’s here we’ll know what we want.”
       Chip could understand that. “I’m not sure Lahwhinie would either—uh, I mean if we ever got serious about each other.” Dale knew Chip wanted to talk about Lahwhinie, so he decided to let him. “It’s been a long time since I saw her that choked up. That baby really made an impression on her.”
       “Yeah, I noticed. When Colby grabbed Lahwhinie’s finger, I think he grabbed a lot more. She has a lot of love to give, if only she’ll learn to trust.”
       “If a baby can’t win her over, she’s got a heart of stone.”
       Chip leaned back. “I know her heart’s real, but she’s afraid. I can’t blame her for that, because she’s never felt comfortable allowing anyone to share her life. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea myself, but recently I’ve begun to think I could.” Dale found himself amazed that Chip would talk to him like this. Just a scant few months ago, he was calling him names. Now, they were like the old friends they’d really always been. “Chip, you were always up to any challenge. You’ve seen what might be there. Are you going to storm the gates of the castle or stand afraid before you even step inside?”
       “Storm the gates—sounds like the games we used to play when we were kids,” Chip said, remembering. “I was always Sir Lancelot and you were Sir Galahad. We had great times fighting ogres and dragons and all. But a girl’s not any of those things, especially not this one. She’s more like Guinevere, and I have to rescue her from herself. I’m willing to take the chance, but it’s got to be on her time and not mine. I know that much.”
       Dale grabbed some snacks, which he always had close to hand. “Then just cool your jets, Chip. You’ve got the rest of your lives to get together.” Chip wondered if that was so. “Maybe, but what if she moves on? She could, you know. None of us has any claim on her, and she can leave if she wants.”
       “Yeah, she could walk out that door at any moment. But she hasn’t.”
       Chip paused a moment. “Can you blame her? For the first time in her life she’s around people that love her and care about her. I guess that’s enough to keep most people around. But I still don’t know if she loves me—though that look she gave me this morning gave me some room to hope.”
       “Chip, stop worrying! Relax and enjoy the holiday.”
       “Might as well. At least she’s here now, and that’s better than her not being here. Say, how are you and Gadget getting along? Are you adjusted to married life now?”
       Dale was glad to talk about one of his favorite topics. “It’s great! Until you experience it yourself, there’s really no way to describe what it’s like to be married. It’s like you’re no longer two people, you become parts of each other. There’s nothing like it.”
       Chip grabbed a few pretzels himself. “I’m glad it all worked out, Dale. I’ll admit I had my own misgivings, considering how little experience either of you had with relationships, but you both found ways to make it work.”
       “That’s one of the joys of it, Chip. You work together, like a team.”
       Chip stood up, ready for sleep. “Maybe I’ll get to do that yet. Speaking of that, your teammate’s likely waiting for you upstairs. Won’t do to keep that up.” Dale stood up as well. “Yeah, you’re right there, Chip. Don’t give up. I’ve got a good feeling about the two of you. I think it’s destiny.”

       Chip shook Dale’s hand and bid him good night. For what seemed the first time in a long while, Chip Maplewood was alone with his thoughts. It surprised him in a way, but he found the solitude appealing at the moment—surprising since his own personal fear was being alone. Still, one had to have balance in all things and sometimes for a quiet moment to be cherished, it has to be a rare commodity. Chip saw it for what it was, and turned off the television. He found a pencil and paper and began to write, something he hadn’t done for quite a while.

       My life is changing
       Just how, I’m not sure
       Still I think it’s something
       I can endure

       Is she worth it?
       Or do I even know the cost
       Of what I’m contemplating
       I could so easily be lost

       In her eyes so warm
       Her hair so fair
       But most of all
       The kindness that’s there

       That she doesn’t want
       To let show
       She can hide it from the world
       And yet I know. I know

       That she can love
       And wants to know its touch
       Can you understand, Lahwhinie,
       Why I love you so much?

Talk of Change and the Baby Blues

       The next day, anticipation of the new arrival at headquarters had everyone extra-busy. Tammy and Gadget both worked everybody, making sure the place was as clean and baby-safe as possible. The girls had more fun with it than the guys, laughing and talking about Colby in ways that the young men couldn’t relate to. Chip was walking off a weary day of scrubbing when Noel motioned for him to go outside.
       “What’s up, Noel?” Chip asked, flexing his muscles. “Thinking about a mutiny too? Those two sure did give us a time getting everything right for Eva and the baby.”
       “Noel motioned Chip over to one of the lawn chairs, then he sat on the one next to it. “Yeah, I’m beat. Foxy’s really excited about the newest addition to the Ranger family. It’s nice that Monty and Eva are going to get the chance to be parents again and be able to see their child grow up.”
       “It’s nice that any of us are. I was beginning to think we were all going to stay single all our lives until Gadget and Dale married. So, what did you want to talk to me about?”
       Noel didn’t know just how to put it, but knew he had to ask. “Chip, how would you feel if I became a bat?” Chip had been rubbing his sore arm muscles, but now he looked over at his newfound brother with a curious glance. “Became a bat? You haven’t been reading Dale’s vampire comic books on the sly, have you?”
       “I’m serious, Chip! I’ve been talking to Gadget. The device she’s built is based on Nimnul’s shapechanger.”
       Chip couldn’t believe what he was hinting at. “The metamorphicizer? Noel, are you serious! You’re a chipmunk. Why would you want to be a bat?” Noel pulled out a picture of Foxy. “Then I could be with Foxglove always, soar with her in the night sky, and be finally close to her in the way she wants. I can truly have a new identity, Chip! I can break with the past and be a totally new man...then Foxy and I can start a family of our own—and I know she desperately wants to.”
       Chip’s eyes opened wide. “You mean...you and Foxy, together? Noel, you’ve got to admit that’s a little strange. I mean, what happened with you and me was an accident, but you’re talking about doing something like that on purpose. Are you sure that’s wise?”
       Noel knew what Chip would say—after all, he’d already said it to himself. Still, he needed to argue it out. “Chip, if I stay like this there will always be a reminder of what I once was. I see Chip in the mirror, and I’ll always be Chip. I need a change that deep, to give me a new sense of identity. Otherwise I’ll always just be a copy, another Chip. And like I said, Foxy wants children and as much as she’d love children we’d adopt, there’s an emptiness in her that can only be filled by her having a child of her own.”
       Chip paced back and forth some, wrangling with the idea. He stopped and looked straight at Noel. “Is it what you want?”
       “I want to be with her always and to raise a family with her. I never want to be apart from her.”
       Chip sighed and sat down. “I guess in some ways those thoughts were on my mind too. You’ve had to face it directly, though. It’s going to be strange, having a bat in the family. You’ll need to tell mom and dad about this, of course. They may be harder sells than me.”
       “How well I know it. I’m a late addition to the family, though, so it won’t be too bad. They still have you after all.”
       “Noel, if you want, I’ll come along and try to smooth things along. I think mom’s going to be the one you’ll have to convince, but then you probably knew that. What does Foxy think about the idea, or have you discussed it with her?”
       Noel knew Chip had to know the answer to that one. “Well, I haven’t mentioned it to her yet. I wanted to find out first if it was possible and I didn’t learn that till we got back here. Now I have to think about how to break it to her and our folks.”
       “You might better talk to mom and dad first. I’m not exactly sure how Foxy will react. She could either be tremendously happy or totally put-off by the idea. You’ll have to let her have her say about it, since it means a big change in the shape of your relationship.”
       “It’ll be a big change, all right. Learning to fly, learning to travel by hearing rather than sight, sleeping upside down and other stuff—eating bugs.”
       Chip wondered if he’d have been that cuh-razy in Noel’s place. “Well, just make sure you don’t eat Zipper or Honey. I’m going to turn in, but not into a bat or anything else. Good night, Noel.”

       Chip left, and Noel was lost in thought for some time before someone clearing their throat caught his attention. Foxy alighted on the veranda from where she’d been roosting outside, the concern evident on her face.
       “Cutie, I know you didn’t mean for me to hear any of that, but I’d been out feeding and I fell asleep on one of the branches up there. When you and Chip started talking, I woke up.”
       Noel groaned. “How much did you hear, Foxy?” Foxy flew down and put her wings around Chip. “Enough, dear. Darling, you don’t have to be a bat for me if you don’t want to! I love you like you are, and I knew what I was getting into when we married. It’s okay, really.”
       Noel knew her better than that. “But it’s not okay for me. I’ll always be in Chip’s shadow as long as I wear his body. I need this, and being a bat would allow us to be together in a way that we could never have otherwise. Just think, Foxy, our children flying beside us in the night—think of how wonderful that will be.”
       Foxy took her wings off Noel and folded them in front of her. “I have thought about it, Noel. I’ve thought about it even since we saw little Colby in the hospital. It’s just that, well, what you’re thinking about’s not natural. It scares me some. What if something happened to you? What if when you become a bat you’re not the sweet guy I feel in love with anymore? I’d fall apart if that happened!”
       Noel shrugged and smiled. “My very existence isn’t natural. It’s not like the Rangers have never had any genetic manipulation done to us before. I trust Gadget with my life and I trust her work. If she says it’s safe, I believe her.”
       Foxy hugged Noel tightly. “I’m going to ask you the same question Chip did, darling. Are you sure this is what you want? You’re not just thinking of doing this to make me happy, are you? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be a mother, but I’ve got to be certain that you’ve thought this through.”
       Noel looked into her eyes. “Foxy, I need this. I need to be a new person or I’ll never have any sense of self or individuality. I need to start over.” Foxy pulled him to her, enjoying his embrace. “My poor darling! It’s been harder on you than you’ve told me, hasn’t it? Don’t worry, we’ll get through all this together, and we’ll go talk to Gadget in the morning. My cutie, a bat? It just doesn’t seem real. I’ll have to see it first, I guess.”
       “I’ve had a little practice flying by ear, but you’re gonna have a challenge teaching me the real thing. But when I get the hang of it, the sky’s the limit.”
       Foxy giggled at the idea. “Well, we’ll see. It’d sure be a surprise to mom and dad and the others back home. Darling, will you always be a bat once this happens?”
       “I’d have to wait and see what it’s like first, and if there’s any side-effects. But if I like it, I’m never looking back.”

       With Tammy helping, the Rangers spent the next two days in basic baby training. When Eva and Colby arrived, the troops were ready and waiting. It was a grand homecoming, and no one could remember Ranger Headquarters being happier. Donna was right, though—it did take some adjustments and while everyone pitched in, a baby was a whole new ball game for them.
       For the first couple of days, Colby behaved himself pretty well and the trainees were thinking this baby business was overblown. Around three in the early morning of Colby’s third day at home they all learned what new parents must endure. Colby started to cry. Loudly.
       Monty’s eyes cracked open as if the lids were trying to hold themselves together. “I would haveta have called first watch t’night...” Monty stood up slowly and let his hearing guide him to Colby. He rubbed his sleepy eyes and shuffled across his room toward the crib, gently picking up his son. The tiny baby it seemed could fit in his cupped hands.
       “Okay, mate. I got ya. No need ta make a fuss. Daddy’s here ta look after ya.”
       Monty rehearsed the normal problems in his mind, and checked for each. No dice. The weary father knew that sometimes a baby just has to cry, so he mentally shrugged and stood there, comforting him. Then a tapping came at the door. It was Gadget—and the rest of the house.
       “Good early morning, Gadget, luv. What ya doin’ up at this hour?” Monty yawned.
       “Monty, what’s wrong?” Gadget asked. “Is Colby hurt? Did he fall out of the bassinet?”
       “He won’t have to go to the hospital, will he?” Dale asked.
       Monty chuckled, and came out of his room with Colby, shutting the door behind him. “Nothin’ ta worry about. He’s just getting used to the outside world and he just needs ta have someone hold him and let him know that it’s safe.” Lahwhinie couldn’t believe all that screaming was over nothing. “That’s all? You mean, babies’ll cry just for no good reason?”
       “They do that all the time, luv. It’s just their way of gettin’ attention.”
       Chip rubbed his eyes. “Well, it sure works. What can we do to calm him down?” Monty handed Colby to Chip. “Just hold him nice and close and let him feel secure.”
       At the moment, Chip didn’t feel all that secure himself. He looked down at the crying mouth attached to a baby and began to realize what his parents must have gone through with him. Noel whispered to Foxy and she came over next to Chip and softly began to sing a lullaby to Colby. Her sweet voice instantly registered a change in matters, but Colby didn’t quite calm down all the way. Lahwhinie pushed Chip’s arms gently, whispering, “Rock him.”
       Chip raised his eyebrows as if to say “what can it hurt“ and rocked Colby back and forth. The combination of Foxy’s serenade and his rocking did the trick at last and Colby fell to sleep in Chip’s arms.
       “Nice going, you three,” Zipper said, relieved. Theo yawned and nodded. “Yeah. I just hope it works the next time.” Monty studied the sleeping face. “Well, sometimes he’ll be hungry, sometimes he’ll need to be changed, and other times he’ll just want the company.”
       “Too bad they don’t come with indicators for each one,” Gadget said. “Maybe I could invent something to help.” Monty wasn’t too keen on the idea of Gadget’s inventions getting around his son. “Uh, better not tamper with nature, luv. We’ll figure it out well enough.”
       Tammy had come in with them during this, but had chosen to hang back. **They’ve got to learn how to handle the pressure jobs, ‘cause I won’t always be here**. Tammy was sleeping in the gym for the moment, on a cot she’d brought from home. Her bed would soon follow, as soon as the guys helped her to move it. For now, it was enough. Tammy came forward and gently took Colby without waking him, then spoke softly. “You guys did fine with your first emergency. Monty, I’ll take the rest of your shift if you want and watch him in the crib in the main room.”
       “You sure, luv? I kin wait up here with him.”
       “It’s okay, Monty,” Tammy said. “I’m used to it, and after all you’re paying me. You go ahead and rest.” Monty gently patted Tammy on the back. “Yer an angel, luv. If ya need a break, just wake me up.”

       Tammy was a veteran, and it showed when she managed to get Colby into his crib by the sofa without his stirring. She made sure he was well-covered, and then sat on the couch. The bleary-eyed Rangers thanked her for her services, and went to bed. All but Chip, that is. He sat next to her, some questions going around in his brain. At Tammy’s reminder, he spoke softly. “You sure are great with Colby, Tammy. You’ll probably make the best mother in town when the time comes.”
       “Thanks, Chip. That’s sweet of you to say, but I learned the ropes from a master. I’m probably as much a mom to Bink as mom is.”
       Chip and Tammy hadn’t talked since Hondo, and now seemed a good time. “Tammy, I was wondering—are you still planning to go to college? I mean, this is a big job and all. I guess we’ll be able to manage if you go, but if you want to, you shouldn’t feel that you can’t.”
       “I still have time to go to college. I don’t have a date for when I’ll start, and I want to keep my options open. I can stay here with you till Colby’s older and others can look after him.”
       Chip looked at the little sleeping mouse. “Do you still want to be Ranger, Tammy? It’s okay if you don’t, but I’m just concerned about you, now that you’re at the crossroads.” Tammy crossed her arms. “There’s no hurry to make a decision. I can be a nanny, then a Ranger, then a college student.”
       Chip smiled a bit, and patted her shoulder. “Well, you’ve always been a good friend. The other Rangers and I think a lot of you, so we’ll all help you to get where you want to go. We’ve got a lot of connections.”
       Tammy grinned, her eyes full of fun. “Can you help me...take over the world!” Chip chuckled. “Okay, with most things then. How’s Rob doing these days?”
       “He’s started working for his dad some. I think Mr. Roybrush wants Rob to take over the family business, but Rob wants to go to college and work out his own career. Rob wasn’t too keen on me taking this job, because it means we’ll have less time together. He said he’d drop by some, and I still have Thursdays off so we’ll do something fun then.”
       “We’ll give you whatever time you’ll need, Tammy. Your mom even said she’d babysit for us, and my folks and Dale’s folks are in line as well. When you need the time, just say so.”
       Tammy smiled in thanks. “Thanks, Chipper. It is okay that I still call you Chipper, isn’t it? I mean, I saw the way you and Lahwhinie were looking at each other and all.” Chip sighed, wasn’t there anyone who didn’t know? “Yes, you can call me Chipper if you want. And yeah, Lahwhinie and I are at the rocky start of a possible relationship.”
       “I think she’s so cool, Chipper,” Tammy said. “She looks like Gadget, but with attitude! And she really seems to like you.”
       “Well, I’m hoping she does, but it’s too early to say where this is going.”
       Tammy leaned over and checked on Colby then turned to talk with Chip again. He was looking off into space, with a small smile on his face. “I know that look, Chipper. I used to have it every time I thought about you when I was younger. Seems like the tables have turned, Romeo.”

       Chip stuck an admiring pose. “Oh Lahwhinie, you’re so heroic!” Tammy giggled, and pushed Chip playfully. “I wasn’t that bad—not every day anyway.” Chip laughed a little more. “True, but it felt like that every time you were around me.”
       Tammy giggled, remembering. “I just couldn’t help myself. You were my knight in shining armor, like every girl hopes will come along someday. Some days I still wonder what might’ve happened if I’d been older when I met you, but Rob’s more than made up for things with me. One thing’s for sure, Chipper—if I’ll make a good mom, then you’ll make a great father.”
       “Well, we all change as we get older. The time had come to take the next step of maturity and be a parent. I was lucky with Theo—he’s already old enough to care for himself. I don’t know how I’d fare if I had to care for a newborn.”
       “You’d do great, and I’ve got a feeling that Lahwhinie’s going to give you a chance. She’s a fool if she doesn’t. After all, who’s got a cuter nose on Earth than you do?”
       Chip gave her a mock put-out look. “I hope she does. This emotional roller-coaster that I’ve been on all year is really wearing me out.” Tammy poked him, playing again. “Aw, izzu getting tired, Chipper? Did the tough lady beat you at karate again?”
       “First the thing with Gadget, then Foxy, now Lahwhinie. I don’t know how much I can deal with all this love stuff. It’s almost more trouble that it’s worth.”
       Tammy let the playfulness go, and got serious again. “How can you say that? You’ve got to believe in her, Chip. She needs someone like you, or she wouldn’t have stayed.” Chip shrugged. “She’s got her entire family and all of us as friends. I have my parents and a son, and good friends. Maybe that’s enough, and I should just cut my losses. Maybe Sureluck Jones was right.”
       “If you do, you’ll regret it. I saw the look in her eyes, Chip. It said, ‘I want to, but...’. Something inside her’s holding her back, or I think she’d have responded by now. Do you know what it is?”
       “She’s a loner and has always been. A future with me means sharing, being a partner, being part of a family, a wife and mother. It’s completely different than the life she’s had.”
       Tammy patted his hand. “Chip, if she can’t commit to you that’s one thing. But that’s not the vibes I’m getting here. She’s fighting something, and she won’t win unless she has someone who cares enough about her to stick it out. Chipper, I want you to be happy. Keep trying, for her sake.”
       **When is someone going to do something for me for my sake?** “I hope you’re right, Tammy.”

Making a Visit, Making a Scene and Making a Purchase

       With everyone now busy with Colby, Zipper found himself increasingly wondering about his own matters. He’d visited Honey and Valeria on a regular basis, and was quickly becoming a hive favorite—even with the prim Aliwicious. Now, Zipper decided the time was right to ask Honey to the Christmas party, and perhaps if he was bold enough, he would...but he was already there. That could wait until he saw her.
       A sentry stepped forward. “Good day, Zipper. The queen is nearly finished with her affairs of state and bids you wait momentarily in the anteroom.” Zipper nodded and headed in to wait for his beloved. He paced nervously, hoping she’d accept his invitation. In a few minutes, the large amber double doors opened and Aliwicious stepped out.
       “Ah, Zipper. Her majesty is in a good mood this morning. I take it you have come to continue the trend?” Aliwicious asked.
       “I hope so, sir,” Zipper said. “I come with an invitation for her.”
       “Very commendable. You have done a superlative job by allowing her majesty to reign unimpeded by her feelings for you. If I might have a moment of your time, though...” Aliwicious led Zipper into a private little alcove near the throne room. “Zipper, I believe that Valeria is sufficiently prepared to assume Honey’s duties. Honey knows this, or at least is aware of it. That knowledge is making her feel vulnerable, because she knows that Valeria is the only thing keeping her from being able to step down.”
       Zipper was curious at Aliwicious being so frank with him. “What do you want me to do?” Aliwicious spoke with a father’s voice. “Talk to her, and let her know that if she leaves she will still have a life. Up until now, she has been able to avoid the issue internally, but recently she has expressed certain misgivings about stepping down. She is afraid of the unknown, and despite her love for you she is worried that she may not be happy. I think she is concerned that you may not either. It is a big step for her, and not knowing what life away from the hive will be like is making her hesitant.”
       “Well, one of the reasons I wanted to offer my invitation is so that she could meet and get to know the people she’d be around if she did leave the hive. I want to invite her to the Ranger Christmas party.”
       Aliwicious’ eyes brightened at the idea. “The very thing! Yes, and I think she would do that. Zipper, I know that you and I have not always seen things the same. You may wonder that I now seem to advocate her leaving, but in reality I only want what is best for Honey. In her heart, she was not meant to have this life. We are fortunate that she has trained Valeria and now everyone accepts her as well. Honey was meant for someone like you, and if you are the one and can show her that, then you will have my blessing.”
       Zipper shook hands with his apian friend. “Thank you, Aliwicious. I promise that I’ll live up to the faith you have in me.” Zipper and Aliwicious left the alcove and a page announced Zipper’s arrival as he entered the now-open amber doors. Honey was in a good mood today, and it showed in the sparkle in her eyes as Zipper approached. She extended her hand in regal beneficence.
       “We welcome you, Zipper. Your presence makes our day happier.”
       Zipper bowed and kissed her hand. “Thank you, Your Majesty. You make my day brighter with just your smile.” Honey looked away and smiled at the compliment. Valeria was now seated beside Honey, and she smiled as well. “Hello, Zipper. What news from the outside do you bring us today?”
       “A Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!” Zipper said. “I bring season’s greetings to you and your hive.” Valeria checked the calendar. “A little early yet, don’t you think? Still, the sentiment is appreciated.”
       “Very appreciated,” Honey said, not bothering to disguise her pleasure. “Now Zipper, you have the look of someone with a question. What did you come to ask?” Zipper advanced. “Queen Honey, I’ve come to invite you to spend Christmas with the Rangers at Sean Maplewood’s home by Lake Flacid. All the Rangers and their families will be there.”
       “Oh, what a generous offer!” Honey said, immediately interested. “Aliwicious, what does my date calendar like for the time in question?” Aliwicious rushed up with a tiny date book, and put on a pair of spectacles. “Only minor duties, Your Majesty. I believe your sister could easily handle them.”
       Honey turned to Valeria. “Do you feel ready for the responsibility, sister?”
       “Yes, sister,” Valeria said. “I can handle it.” Honey returned her attention to Zipper. “Then I accept your kind invitation. Will we be gone just the one day, or should I make preparations for an overnight stay?”
       “It will be an overnight stay—Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
       “Very well, then. I will have preparations made accordingly.”

       Honey dismissed the court, and soon everyone had left but she and Zipper. She walked down and took his hands. “I’m looking forward to it very much, Zipper! I have been wanting to spend some time with your friends. Will they or their friends mind sharing their Christmas with me?”
       Zipper was so excited, he was having trouble remembering to fly. “Not at all, they’re looking forward to meeting you. They encouraged me to ask you. I was worried that you wouldn’t want to leave the hive. Are you going to be okay being away from royal treatment?”
       Zipper followed up before she could answer. “Everyone will treat you well, but it’s not going to be the same.” Honey had a momentarily look of uneasiness move across her face. “I know that I will be treated like any other commoner. It is not an easy thing for royalty, but I like your friends. If it were not for them, you would never have been in this park, and I would never have met you. I will be eager to see how they interact together, and I am curious to know what a family gathering is like.”
       “What kind of holidays did you spend with your family?” Zipper asked.
       “We rarely celebrated anything. The life of the royal family is privileged, but planned,” Honey said, putting her crown on the satin pillow that housed it. “We almost never left the hive, and we certainly never did the things you and your friends do. I was aware of things like Christmas, but we never really celebrated it. The birthdays of my father and mother were like what you’ve told me about it before—and mine of course. But giving of gifts to each other was not something we did. Tell me again, should I bring everyone a gift, or just one for you?”
       Zipper hadn’t thought that far ahead. “You can just bring something for me if you want. If you’d like to get some things for the rest of the group, that would be okay as well.”
       “Okay. Etiquette is important to me in such situations, and I would not wish to make a faux pas.”
       “You don’t have to worry about formality,” Zipper said. “This is a family get-together, so it’s going to be very casual. Let out that side of yourself that you’ve had to keep hidden behind tradition and formality. Not Honey the queen, Honey the wonderful woman.”
       Honey blushed, the crimson showing plainly against her amber-colored cheeks. “I’d like to think I was wonderful, but I am not very comfortable being informal. Perhaps when I am around the others, I will be able to do that. Will there be singing? I like to sing some.”
       Zipper knew that part was covered. “Funny you should say that. Noel and Foxglove are professional singers now and Chip’s grandfather’s a musician.” Honey was surprised. “Really? I had no idea there were professionals among your ranks. I will be most interested in meeting all of them.” Honey reached over and pulled Zipper to her, kissing his cheek. “Thank you, Zipper. You’ve made my life a lot happier.”
       “And you’ve made my life like a fairy tale. One of the happy ones.”

       Zipper headed home, knowing that he and Honey were one step closer to possibly being together. He knew what Aliwicious said was right—she was afraid, but she was facing it boldly like he knew she would. In a way, Zipper felt sorry for his dream girl—she’d never been around people like the Rangers and known the good times that they took so for granted. **In that sense, she’s like Eva, Theo, and Lahwhinie too.** The amazement Zipper had at that sudden realization had him thinking all the way back to headquarters. When he got there, he found Dale and Gadget on the sofa in a spirited discussion.
       “What’s wrong with painting it?” Dale asked, rather loudly. “It would make the whole place brighter!” Gadget was standing toe-to-toe with him. “Yeah, and smelly! Look, I know you’re trying to be nice but I have it that way for a reason!”
       Zipper couldn’t believe it—Dale and Gadget fighting? “What’s the trouble, you two?” Gadget walked right over to Zipper in a huff. “Oh, Dale wants to paint the walls of my workshop.”
       “Yeah! I was thinking about a neat forest scene or a cool space scene or something!” Dale said. “Wouldn’t that look great?” Gadget returned her attention to her husband.” Dale, I like my workshop the way it is! I don’t mind you being in there at all, but it is mine you know. It’s special to me.”
       “Well, I just wanted to make it specialler...”
       Zipper buzzed over to Dale. “She is right, Dale. It’s her workshop. Personal space is very important to people, right Gadget?” Gadget nodded emphatically. “And I like mine a certain way. You wouldn’t want me to start making inventions to handle your swords for you would you?”
       “Well, no...” Dale said. Gadget kissed Dale, and let her natural optimism take over. “I appreciate your offering, and it was sweet of you. Maybe you could help me with an invention I’m working on?” Dale recovered immediately. “Sure! Anything to help out.” Gadget and Dale headed off for the workshop.

       Monty had been in the kitchen, but now he came out. “Were they arguin’ just then, Zipper mate?”
       “Lovers’ quarrel, really. Nothing major. Anything happen while I was gone?”
       The big Aussie plopped down on the sofa. “Not so’s you’d notice, pally. Eva an’ Colby are both sleeping and everyone but Tammy’s out somewheres. How’d it go with Queenie?”
       Zipper’s wingbeats picked up. “Things went great. She’s going to join us for Christmas! I just hope Mr. Maplewood won’t mind having to deal with royalty and their special needs.” Monty tapped his insect friend on the shoulder. “Figured she would. She’s a bonzer lass, an’ having a bit o’ pomp around’ll be a good influence on those lads. Think she’s gonna come join up eventually? That sister o’ hers outta be ready by now.”
       “I think she’s almost ready, but it’s still tough to break away like that. She’s giving up a lot for this.”
       “Oy, I’d reckon so,” Monty said, downing a cheese puff. “Still, I think she could be useful ‘round here. I wouldn’a mind having her around fer little Colby’s sake. We Erskines ain’t exactly the grandest when it comes ta polite-type manners and all. Maybe she could help polish up the lad.”
       Monty went back into the kitchen, and Zipper followed as the brusque Australian worked to get Colby’s formula ready. “Plus, she’ll have a certain fly I know that loves ‘er too. That’s gotta count fer something. Have ya thought about what you’ll get her for Christmas?” Zipper wished he knew. “What do you get for a monarch that they don’t already have?”
       “It doesn’t haveta be something grand or anything. Maybe even get her something fun. I bet she hasn’t had much fun in her life.” Zipper thought on it, then smiled. “How about a gold-plated rubber chicken?”
       “Well, maybe a mite more on the normal side. Something that would spark her interest, like one o’ them Rubix Cubes, or maybe somethin’ as simple as jacks, or...” Colby broke up the discussion by demanding his two o’clock feeding. “I’ll say one thing fer the lad, he kin shore tell time by his tummy! Coming, Colby!”

       Zipper thought on it a little while longer, and he decided Monty was right. He might as well get her something she’d enjoy, and just hope she’d like it. That was also the sentiments of two chipmunks as they returned from another shopping spree.
       Noel held the door open for Chip. “I hope Foxy likes these. It’s not easy finding earmuffs for ears as large as hers.” Chip set his bundle down, then helped Noel with his, closing the door after them. “I’m sure glad you got Foxy to take Lahwhinie and Theo to go out with her. I just had to go ahead and find something for Lahwhinie.”
       Chip opened a hand-sized box, exposing a nice pearl necklace with matching earrings. “I hated to see my old genuine two-cent Goofy collector’s piece go, but it’ll be worth it if she likes them. They’re not too forward, are they?”
       Noel started. “You sold off part of my...your coin collection? Wow, this is serious. They’re nice though. She’ll like them.” Chip had forgotten the collection essentially belonged to both of them. “Sorry about that, but there was no other way short of selling part of the jewelry off and I wanted to save those in case she...well, you know. I figure she’ll like them, but what I mean is...well, she’s so touchy about feeling obligated to anyone. It’s not too big a gift, is it? I know that she likes nice things, and misses her home. This seems like a way to satisfy both of her needs at once.”
       “Well, I’d say it’s on the borderline of too much, but I think she’ll accept it without much fuss.”
       Chip studied the baubles. “Maybe I should just give her the earrings, and save the necklace for later. Or vice versa.” Noel admired the pearls’ luster. “I’d say, give it all to her now. Otherwise you’ll spend all that time worrying about whether giving her the other part would be too much.”
       Chip nodded and put the box away in the bag it came in. “Nice being able to converse with yourself every now and again. Yeah, I’ll risk it. She’s becoming better about such things, and after all it’s not like I’m giving them to her after a date or something. I think she’ll understand—I hope she will. So do you really think that you and Foxy’ll be able to locate here now? I mean, and handle doing tours and records and all?”
       “We’ll give it our best shot,” Noel said, reclaiming his packages. “But I think in our heart of hearts, Ranger duty is our greatest love.” Chip was glad to hear that. “Well, with that album of hers out I doubt you’ll be able to put all of your time in with us. Still, it’s nice having you two back. Did you ever think headquarters would be like this, with children and all?”
       “Not in a million years. Now that we’re all going in different directions, what is the future of the Rangers? Is there a future for the Rangers?”
       Chip and Noel sat down on the sofa. Noel knew that Chip had to have been thinking about this, since he had been. “I think that if the Rangers were going to disband, it would already have happened,” Chip said. “I was afraid it might would happen when Gadget accepted Dale’s proposal, but they both wanted to stay. Then I thought that Monty might would leave when Eva came back, but she’s like an auxiliary Ranger now. Theo certainly wants to keep it going, and it looks like we’ve already got a corps of youngsters coming up that could take our place when the time comes.”
       Noel rubbed his feet, victims of the shopping ache. “Well, Theo will make a great Ranger one day. Tammy and Bink too, maybe even Colby.”
       “I have a feeling they may not be alone, either. Gadget and Dale have been hinting at adopting sometime and if Lahwhinie and I do get together we might take another child. What about you and Foxy? Have you discussed it?”
       Noel nodded. “I’ve talked about it, and the metamorphicizer, too. I think she’s warming up to the idea, but I still have to run it by mom and dad. It wouldn’t be business as usual, that’s for sure. But hey, if we stick around we could always sing the songs for your new movie that Dale’s always kidding you about.”

       Chip was about to reply when Foxy, Lahwhinie and Theo came in with several packages. “Hey, dad! Hey, Noel!” Theo said. “You should’ve seen Foxglove in those department stores. She had them at her beckon call!” Noel winced when Theo called him by his name. “I’m sure she did. She’s a star now. Did you all have fun?”
       “We sure did!” Foxy said, hugging and kissing her husband. “But actually, Lahwhinie was the one that gave me some pointers on that. Still, it was fun having them bring out half the store for us, and I found some pretties for my favorite honey munk!”
       Noel pushed his bag shut. “Well, Chip and I were shopping too. I got some nice things for you too, and no peeking!” Foxy looked the two of them over. “Oh, with you two plotting together I just bet you did, dear! You both have excellent taste.”
       “We’ve got very good reasons to plot, this holiday.”
       Foxy giggled and then Theo came over and hugged Noel. “You’re still my dad too, you know. I just decided to try out calling you Noel to see what it was like.” Noel was relieved, and it showed. “Well, it’ll take me some time getting used to you calling me that, but it’s okay. You’re still my son, no matter what.”
       “Noel,” Theo said, trying it again. “I think it suits you.” Noel and Chip reached for his head at the same time, and looked up each other. Chip smiled and shrugged, and they went ahead and rubbed his head fur together. Chip noticed that Lahwhinie had been silent all this time, and now she was standing just off to his right.
       She was waiting her turn, and now Chip gave her his full attention. “How about you, Lahwhinie? Did you have a good time?” Lahwhinie acted nonchalant. “Yeah, it was a lot of fun and an interesting change, not being the center of attention. It’s tough buying for everyone on my list, but luckily I had Theo and Foxy here to give me some gift-getting advice.”
       “I didn’t do that much, Aunt Lahwhinie,” Theo said. “You knew pretty much what everyone wanted, and all you needed was a little confirmation. I was more glad to have you and Foxglove along to advise me on what to get the others.”
       “Yeah, we make a good team. Any wondrous or magical adventures happen while we were away?”
       “Not so much,” Chip said. “Say, shouldn’t Zipper be back by now? He was going to visit Honey.” Zipper heard his name and came out of the kitchen. “Hi, everyone! Guess what? Honey’s coming with us!” Theo gave him a thumbs-up. “Great! Maybe I’ll get an “Aunt Honey“ for Christmas too!” Zipper blushed and chuckled a little. “Well, one thing at a time. At least she’s coming. Wow, you all’ve been busy! This is going to be the most present-laden Christmas we’ve had in a long time.”
       “That’s always a good thing in my book, the more the merrier. Uh, what should we get Queen Honey for Christmas?”
       Zipper knew the feeling. “Well, the only person I know for sure she’s exchanging gifts with is me. Still, she’ll likely get the group something as a token of her appreciation. Maybe we could all get her something to present to her so she’ll know she’s welcome among us.”
       Chip thought that one over. “That’s a toughie, all right. Honey’s used to having all the privileges of a queen. Maybe we could get her something or make her something so she’d still feel special if she did decide to come live with us.”
       Lahwhinie eyed Chip. “How about her own leather Rescue Ranger jacket?”
       “Or maybe her own chair for the kitchen?” Foxy said.
       “Well, we’ll be at granddad’s place, so it should be something that we can give her there,” Noel said. Chip could see it would take some thinking. “We’ve still got over a week to go. Let’s all think about it, and I’m sure we’ll come up with the perfect thing.”

A Pep Talk, Tough Talk, and Tammy Gets A Letter

       The group went their separate ways, and Chip was extra-careful to keep the contents of his bag secret from Lahwhinie. Theo noticed it, and knew what that meant. He followed Chip back to his room. “So what’d you get her, huh?”
       Chip produced the box again. “A pearl necklace with matching earrings. Don’t breathe a word of this to her, please.” Theo broke out in a wide smile. “Whoa, ho, ho! Dad, you do know how to pick a gift. You don’t have to worry about me telling her—that’s too good a secret to give out. I’ll have my eyes on her face Christmas morning when she sees those.”
       “I hope she has a good reaction,” Chip said, putting them away in a safe place. “I hope she doesn’t read too much into the gift and won’t get offended.” Theo helped Chip with his bag. “With pearls, I think you’re safe. Now if it was diamonds, you’d have a reason to sweat. She’ll like the pearls, I’m sure. That’s more her style—simple, but elegant.”
       “Did you get anything for Bink?” Chip asked. “I seem to remember you mentioning something about a secret project.”
       “Sure did. Well, I got something for her several days back when Aunt Lahwhinie got something for you. As for the secret project, it’s still in the works and I’ve sworn Aunt Gadget to secrecy. If we can’t get it done by Christmas, I’ll finish it later and give it to her for her birthday.”
       Chip finished putting away the “can’t-see“ items. “Good. I’m glad that you’re making friends.” Theo sat on Chip’s bunk. “Well, it’s sorta nice. At the orphanage, you never knew if a kid was going to be around the next week. Bink’s nice, and she’s always around. Makes things easier.”
       “Life’s a lot easier with friends.”
       Theo didn’t say anything for a minute, but then he spoke again. “Dad, do you think that Noel was upset with me because I called him Noel and not dad?” Chip sat down next to him. “Not upset. Surprised would be a better word. I think he expected it at some point, but not this soon.”
       “It’s just that when I think of him, I don’t think of him as my dad. He and Foxy are great, and I enjoy being around them. But to me, you’re my dad now. It’s kinda tough, since he’s also you, but that’s just how I feel about it.”
       “Just call him dad for a while, till he gets used to the idea.”
       “Yeah, I guess so. It’s gotta be hard on him too, and they both probably feel guilty at going off and leaving me. I’m where I belong, though. But maybe now they are too.”
       Chip rubbed the boy’s head. “Given time we’ll all be one big happy family. Hopefully by marriage.” Theo grinned up at his dad. “Does all include a certain girl who’s getting pearls for Christmas?” Chip squirmed a bit. “Perhaps just wishful thinking at this point. But hopefully all will go well.”
       “Hey, if nothing else you’ll likely get a free shot at a kiss. There’s that neat tradition called mistletoe.”
       Chip imagined how many fists to the face he could get over that. “I’m not holding my breath. I’ll keep it nice and subtle. She sets the pace, if there’s any pace to set.”
       **Boy, I’m never going to get those two married at this pace.** “Good thinking, dad. Now don’t you dare peek at anything I got you! Jake Stone knows when his gifts have been trifled with!”
       “Okay, Jake. No superspying on the other presents, either.”
       “I wouldn’t dream of it...dad.”

       Preparations for the big holiday bash when on pretty smoothly, and the lack of crime helped in that regard. With one week to go, everyone felt pretty good about things, and then Monty got a telegram which he read to everyone in the main room. “Hey, mates! Me dad says that he’ll be able ta make it after all! He expects ta be in by the 18th—hey, that’s...”
       “Today! Season’s greetings to one an’ all!” The group turned as one to see Cheddarhead and Kate at the now-open door, their arms full of presents. Gadget raced up to help them. “Grandma, grandpa! Oh golly, it’s great to see you!”
       “The feeling’s the same here, Gadget girl,” Kate said. “And where’s me other darlin’ granddaughter?” Lahwhinie came out of the kitchen. “Right here.” Kate put down her seabag and kissed them both. “Oh, it’s good to see kin! And what about this handsome lad here? Dale, are you behaving yourself?”
       “Sure am, Kate!” Dale saluted. “Glad you could make it for Christmas!” Cheddarhead walked over and gave his son a huge bear hug. “And now we hear we’ve got a third grandchild, and a boy at that! Where is the little tyke, son?”
       “Right this way, but ya gotta be quite as a mou...well, be real quiet ‘cause he’s sleeping.” Monty led them to the bedroom where the crib sat in the corner with Colby sleeping soundly. Cheddarhead and Kate both gasped in admiration, and kept their voices low. “He’s a roight grand sight ta see,” Chedderhead said. “Good ta know the Erskine line’ll continue fer sure.”
       “He’s such a pretty little nipper,” Kate said. “Wish he were awake so his grandmother could hold ‘im.” They left Colby to his nap, and now Eva came out of the kitchen and both Erskines congratulated her warmly. “That’s a darlin’ tyke you have there, Eva. A fitting third to go with these two beauties,” Kate said.
       Eva hugged them both. “Thank you, dahlings. I’m so glad that you approve. He is such a vunderful child.” Cheddarhead pulled on the sides of his black leather vest. “Couldn’t help but be! He’s an Erskine, through and through.” Foxy and Noel came into the room, and Cheddarhead rubbed his eyes. “Cor blimey! An’ here I thought there was only one o’ them black-nosed chipmunks. Chip, you been hiding a brother from us or something?”
       Noel removed his cowboy hat. “Uh, yes, I’m Chip’s twin brother, Noel.” Cheddarhead walked over and shook Noel’s hand with vigor. “Well, ya never know what today’s gonna bring! I see there’s only o’ you yet, lass.” Cheddarhead turned on the charm and kissed Foxy’s wing, gentleman-like, making her giggle and blush. “It’s nice to see you both again,” Foxy said. “This is going to be such a wonderful Christmas, too! My parents are going to be up here soon. Did you get to see little Colby? He’s so cute!”
       “Aye, a chip off the ol’ Erskine block fer sure,” Chedderhead said. “Me son told us about the lot staying here, so we’ve got us a place nearby. It’s roight comfy, so if yer folk’re lookin’ fer a place ta stay we’ve got one nailed down.”
       “You’re settling down here!” Noel asked.
       “Not quite, Noel,” Kate said. “Cheeser just told us that with so many folks in the tree, it’d be easier this time if we rented space. There’s several good spots in and near the park, you know.” Monty came up behind his parents. “Well, if ya ever do wanna settle down, you’ll always be welcomed here with open arms. I’ve lost the urge ta travel, now that I got so many wonderful folks under one roof.”
       Cheddarhead wondered about the boy sometimes. “Oy, but it’s diff’rent with yer mum and me. We was born ta travel, the both of us, so settlin’ down is just something that wouldn’t do. Still, if we did, it would here all roight. Well, jest wanted ta drop in and get a good look at everyone. Katie an’ I are going to go catch cats.”
       Monty nodded, all the while thinking about his boy. **Don’t worry, Colby. Yer dad’s gonna stay around fer yer growin’ up. No more o’ this Erskine “I was born ta travel, no matter what“ nonsense**. “Okay, but I’m sure Colby would like ta see his grandma and grandpa now and then.”
       Kate gave her boy a good hug. “Don’t worry, lad. We’ll be around lots yet, but we’re both too energetic ta just sit around and all.” Dale had popped into the kitchen for the last of the conversation. “Mister Cheddarhead, Cats isn’t being shown on Broadway anymore.”
       “Who said anything about a show?” Cheddarhead said. “We’re gonna play Aussie rules football with the first group o’ alleycats we kin find!” Monty knew it wouldn’t do any good, but he had to try. “Maybe it would be wiser not ta risk yerselves so much right before the holiday?”
       “Risk? Boyo, I’m beginning ta think you’re getting spoiled ‘round here! Why, an alleyful of alleycats ain’t nothing compared to the dingo wrestlin’ back home! Still, if they’re not enough sport we moight just go on downtown and see the sights.”
       Gadget had come in with Dale, and decided to try changing the subject. “Did you do all of your Christmas shopping yet? Maybe we could help you with that.” Kate thumbed back toward their bundles. “Already handled, Gadget. We pick up things on our travels, and we got a few extras on our last stop in Argentina. Cheddarwheel an’ I have learned never to put things off.”
       “So, are you going to stay long here in New York for the holiday?” Dale asked.
       Cheddarhead adjusted his neck. “Oh, we moight stay long as New Year’s. Gotta get to San Francisco by the middle o’ next month fer the Old Salt’s boat race from Alcatraz to the Golden Gate. Anyone comin’ downtown with us? We’ll save a few cats fer ya!”
       “No thank you,” Gadget said. “Have fun, but please be careful.” Kate patted Gadget’s shoulder. “Oh, now don’t worry none, dearie. We won’t cause the kitties any permanent damage. Just a little sport to keep things equal. Now Cheddarhead, you can’t go using your roughhouse moves this time.”
       Cheddarhead looked shocked. “What? Well if I can’t rough it up, I think we’ll jest go see the soights. A good scrap requires full use o’ me skills. Come on, love o’ me life!” Cheddarhead and Kate waved goodbye and headed out for downtown. Monty watched them go. “What a pair. Still, wouldn’t trade ‘em fer all the cheese in France.”

       Later that day, Tammy had come in to perform her duties. She got lunchtime off every day, which was why she missed seeing the Erskines’ arrival. Right now, she was watching over Colby when Chip came into the main room.
       “Hello, Tammy. How’s Colby doing?”
       Tammy was giving the infant his afternoon bottle. “Oh, he’s fine. Good as gold.” Tammy waited until he finished and burped him, then she wrapped him securely in his blanket so he could sleep. Soon the little mouse was content.
       Chip was about to head for the kitchen when Tammy called to him. “Chip, do you have a few minutes? There’s something I’d like to discuss.” Chip returned. “Sure, Tammy. What’s on your mind?” Tammy pulled a letter out of her pocket and walked over, handing it to Chip. It was postmarked from Copenhagen. “I wrote my dad, and the letter finally caught up with him. I didn’t know exactly what to say, except that I missed him and wanted him to come to the party. You can read the reply for yourself.”
       Chip opened the letter, and the hand-written reply was brief but to the point:

       Dear Tammy,

       I received your letter today that was postmarked last month. I had been thinking of coming home, since I haven’t seen you, your sister or Donna for quite some time. The situation over here’s pretty stable right now, so I asked for leave time and got it. Expect me to arrive on the 23rd, and I would be most interested to attend the party you mentioned. I regret that you won’t know your father any better than your friends will. Perhaps I can rectify that now.

       Oscar Chesnutt

       Chip returned the letter to the envelope. “That’s great news, Tammy! I’m glad he’s going to be here for you and your family this Christmas.” Tammy was worried. “Chip, I haven’t seen my dad for years. I don’t even really know him, except for the pictures we have. What do I say to him?”
       “You say, ‘hello dad’, and go from there.”
       Tammy plopped down on the sofa. “Okay, but what about after that? I don’t know anything about him, and he sure doesn’t know anything about me.” Chip sat beside her. He knew Tammy thought of him as a father figure, and he was more than willing to take that role. “He’ll probably have a lot to say to you and your family. Just give him a chance.”
       “And then he’ll go away again! Chip, why couldn’t you have been my dad? You’re always here, and dependable. He sends presents for us that never come when they’re supposed to, and he almost never calls! I suppose if I glowed in the dark, I could get his attention.”
       Chip decided to remain as neutral as he could. “Maybe he’s changed. This could be an important turning point. He needs to be reminded of what he’s missing.” Tammy stopped a moment to comfort Colby, who could feel the tension in her arms and wasn’t liking it. “I’m just afraid I’ll blow up at him or something. I’ve got all these feelings wanting to come out, but I don’t know what’ll happen when I see him. I hope he’s nice.”
       “I’m sure he’ll come in expecting the worst, and I’m sure he knows you all have have hostility toward him. But this letter says to me that he’s willing to face it.” Tammy felt trapped, but she felt better for talking with Chip. “I’ll try to give him a chance, Chipper. It’d be so much easier if I knew he was coming home for good, but I know the minute there’s an emergency he’s out the door.”
       Tammy took Colby to his room, and came back. “I’m sorry, Chip. He’s sleeping soundly now. I think I’m scared of meeting dad, scared of getting attached to him and having him leave again.” Tammy grasped Chip in a tight hug. “Thanks for being my friend...and my surrogate dad.”
       Chip knew she needed that hug, so he hugged her back. “I’m glad I could help you, Tammy. No one should ever have to be alone.” In many ways, Chip now thought of Tammy like a daughter. He knew her father could mend a lot of fences in her life if he wanted to. **I hope that’s why you’re coming, Oscar, because there’s three ladies that sure need your love.**

Swords Cross, A Leadership Test, and Horatio Hornblower

       The day faded into night, and this night found Theo in the exercise room of Dale and Gadget’s lair. He’d been practicing with Dale on his fencing, and now Theo was ready for his first freeform duel. Dale had put the safety nubs on the end of the epees to keep his sparring partner—and himself—safe.
       Dale put his mask in place, zipping up his uniform. “Okay, Theo. Take your stance and remember what I showed you. It’s all about skill, not strength.” Theo had on a uniform as well, a scaled-down version that Donna Chesnutt had sewn for him at his and Dale’s request. He placed his mask on. “Okay, Uncle Dale, I’ll take it easy on you.”
       The two munks took their places, and the swords rubbed together. “All right, then. En garde!” Dale shouted.
       Theo had been a patient student so far, and Dale liked his spunk. Still, Dale had known what this first fight would be like. He’d been so eager when his father began teaching him, and when his own first fight had begun, Dale was just so sure he could win that he became totally reckless with Duncan. It didn’t take ten seconds for him to lose his sword and his bravado. Just like then, Theo came in hard and fast. Dale took it easy on him, but when Theo started to lose form and went for the kill, Dale disarmed him with a lightning-quick move.
       Theo picked up his foil. “Okay, I’m just lulling you into a false sense of security before I defeat you.” Dale smiled and saluted. “Take it easy, Theo. Fight within yourself. Don’t try to bring the fight to me.” They started again, and as Dale had hoped Theo was more patient this time. Dale purposefully let up on his defenses, to reward Theo with a touch to his shoulder.
       “Come on, Uncle Dale!” Theo said, knowing Dale was going easy. “Don’t let me win! I need to learn to fight against someone who won’t cut me any slack.” Dale pushed his mask up. “I’m taking it easy on you for a reason, Theo. I don’t want you to get discouraged and forget your form. If you want to go full-bore, then we can.”
       Dale went into the adjoining room and came back with two red headbands. He tied his own, then affixed the other to Theo’s head. “It’s always cool to look the part. Now, have at you, ye scurvy dog!” Dale started in with a will, and Theo was very hard pressed to keep up, let alone keep his sword. Still, Dale’s treatment of him as an equal and his encouragements during the fight kept him coming. Dale verbally guided him through the fight, helping Theo to improve as they went along. Finally, Dale had him cornered.
       “Will ye say yield?”
       Theo lowered his weapon. “Well, since it seems you have me at a slight disadvantage, I’ll yield—for now.” Dale stepped back and swiped his sword through the air, a gesture of respect. He took the two epees and put them up. “You’re already much better than when we started, Theo. Another month’s coaching, and you’ll be giving me a run for my money!”
       “I can’t wait,” Theo said, not a bit discouraged. He was honest with himself, and knew he was training with a master. “Then I’ll get my own sword and I’ll be Theobeard the Pirate!” Dale laughed heartily at the moniker. “Arrgh, and Dale the Rednosed’ll be challenging ye for the rule o’ the seven seas!”
       Theo liked Dale. In a way, they were kindred spirits, although he’d always put his dad first place. Still, there were things he knew his dad would never do that Dale reveled in. “How long did it take for you to learn how to fence so well?”
       Dale removed his uniform, helping Theo to put his up too. “Well, dad worked with me from before the time I was your age. It took me a couple of years to get really good, but I didn’t have much motivation. Guess you’ve seen there’s not a lot of sword-carrying villains around. But when I joined the Rangers, I secretly started to train again because I knew it would come in handy. I can still remember how good it felt to defeat that Sewernose de Bergerac! C’mon, let’s go into the day room.”

       Dale led Theo back into the lair. The place had changed somewhat since Dale and Gadget had been sharing it. The living quarters next to the exercise room was now clearly delineated as to which side was Dale’s and which was Gadget’s. Each room had ample electrical lighting, and Gadget had added in a private bathroom. The big circular room now held some of Gadget’s blueprints, as well as new paintings by both of them. Gadget had also added a handrail and guardrail to the spiral slide and in a decidedly feminine touch had added some area rugs.
       “Gadget sure did a nice job improving this place,” Dale said. “Never thought it would look this good.” Theo readily agreed. “I’m gonna need a swingin’ bachelor pad when I’m older. I wonder if there are any more hollow places in the tree I could use.” Dale looked at his nephew, amused. “I dunno, Theo. I think they’re all about used up. Still, if you’ve got a date or something I’m sure we can work it out.”
       Theo could just imagine his own place. “Superspies always need a cool place to live and there has to be all kinds of neat spy stuff lying around.”
       “Like this?”
       Gadget had just come up to check on them, and she aimed the plunger gun she’d brought and fired. The dart found one of the few bare spaces on the wall, as she’d planned. Dale and Theo looked first at the dart and then back at her, amazed.
       Gadget grinned at the effect. “Superspies have to be ready for any contingency, too. Perhaps once you’ve had enough schooling I can show you the ideas behind some of my inventions.”
       “That would be great!” Theo said, always ready to learn more. “Then I can build cool stuff like you do. I want to be a one-munk Rescue Ranger team!” Like Dale, Gadget enjoyed Theo’s enthusiasm. She liked everyone of course, but Gadget found Theo to be particularly likeable. She sat down at the table beside him. “Well, remember that no one can get the job done alone all the time. You’ve got to have teamwork, which means picking the right people and treating them well. Who would you pick to be on your team?”
       Theo hadn’t really thought in these terms before. “Well if I had to make a whole new team from scratch, I’d say...” Theo stopped, trying to choose. “Well, I can’t think of anyone besides Bink that I’d want on my new team. I guess I’d better start putting some thought into the future Rangers. Colby’s a possibility, but I have to wait till I see what abilities he has.”
       Gadget was testing him of course. She felt that if Theo was going to be a Ranger, and possibly the leader, he should be able to think things through. “So you think Bink would be a good Ranger? What abilities does she have that would allow her to contribute?”
       “Well, she thinks on her feet, she’s fun to be around and she’s a good friend just to have around.”
       Gadget and Dale shared some knowing looks. “So, you like her as a friend. It’s important to have friends on your team. Do you think you’ll ever ask her out, or go on a date with her?” Theo held up his hands. “Ack! Don’t you two start playing matchmaker too! Well maybe, but that’s years down the line.”
       Gadget smiled at him. “I was just curious. You’ve done such a good job talking to Lahwhinie and all, that you just seem a natural around girls. Not every guy’s like that, you know.”
       “I’m just supersuave,” Theo said, flashing a debonair smile. “I don’t know why I can be at ease around girls. It’s that way at school, too. People don’t bother me.” Dale could see his overconfidence didn’t end with swordplay. “Well, maybe you’re cut out for the superspy life. I was just lucky I found the right superspy girl.”
       Dale hugged Gadget fondly, and she returned the favor. “Well, we were both lucky we found the right person,” Gadget said. “I’m sure you’ll find the right girl, be it Bink or someone else.”
       “I’m in no hurry. Jake Stone’s a lone wolf right now, but it doesn’t hurt having such good role models.”

       Theo sensed it was time to give them some privacy and he made his timely exit. He came down to find Lahwhinie holding Colby and watching an old movie. “Hey, Aunt Lahwhinie. Looks like you’ve got an armful.” Lahwhinie had mastered the fine art of keeping Colby’s head cradled and digging into the snack bowl with her other hand. “Yeah, I wanted to give Tammy a break. Grab a seat, this is a great movie.”
       Theo sat down next to her, and they both quickly got lost in the exploits of Gregory Peck in Horatio Hornblower. The sea battles and the romance were enough to entertain them both. Theo looked over to see Lahwhinie smiling down at Colby. “You like having him around, don’t you?”
       “I’ve never held a baby before, it’s so strange—an innocent, uncorrupted life with a future where he’ll be surrounded by people that will love him and care for him. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of this little guy.”
       Theo wasn’t all that interested in babies, but the movie was entertaining. “He’s sure got a good life to look forward to. But you can happy now too, like Lady Barbara in that movie. You’ve been through more than your share of tough times. Now it’s time for life to deal you some breaks.”
       Lahwhinie knew what this was leading up to. “Yeah, but I’d give anything to have had those breaks when I was your age. Then I wouldn’t have had to be the way I am now.” Theo took hold of her free hand. “Now’s your chance for a new start. Think of it as starting over and getting the life you were supposed to have all along.”
       Lahwhinie gave Theo’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I know I’m not counting my blessings. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for—I have a home, a family and everything I really wanted. But it still hurts, all that ugliness.”
       “But it’s not who you are anymore. Can’t you let it go?”
       “How can I let it go?!”

       Colby woke up and started crying. Lahwhinie cringed and began to rock him gently. Theo decided to try again. “By facing it—acknowledging it for what it is and choosing not to let it be a part of you anymore. You’ve already chosen to live a better way, but you haven’t faced up to what’s been in you. The day you can do that, you’ll let it go.”
       “You don’t know what my life was like Theo. There are scars that will never heal.”
       “You’re not the only one who’s had scars, you know. I used to have the nightmares like you did, dreaming about the fire. Trying to save my parents, but knowing I couldn’t. I used to be eaten up with anger and fear.”
       Lahwhinie peered over at him, skeptical. “How can you remember all that? You were only four at the time.” Theo looked right at her. “Four’s old enough when your entire life’s burning up in front of your face. If it hadn’t been for dad, I’d have died with them. He saved me, and from that moment on our lives were linked. But the pain and the guilt stayed with me.”
       This wasn’t doing anything for Lahwhinie’s comfort zone, so she cut him off. “Yeah, okay, maybe we do have that in common. But there are other differences, one at least you’re too young to know or understand about. How can I just pretend I’m not what I was before and act like all those terrible things never happened?”
       “You can’t, but you can let the past be the past. That’s what Father O’Flaherty told me one day. He saw I was sad and we talked a long time. He reminded me that my parents loved me, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty because I couldn’t help them—or angry because they’d left me. Then he said, ‘if you let the past be the past, then you can turn around and live in the present and see the bright future ahead of you’. It took me time, but I eventually did it. You’ve got to forgive yourself, and live for now. It’s the only way to be at peace.”
       Lahwhinie wished this kid wasn’t so smart. “Maybe so, but I have a long way to go before I can ever put those things behind me.” Theo squeezed her hand back. “You can do it. I believe in you.” Lahwhinie looked at his hand, and back at him. She let out a small smile. “Thanks, kiddo.”
       Theo headed off then, but turned back at the last moment. “You know, if I was dad’s age I’d be in love with you too. Good night, Aunt Lahwhinie.” Lahwhinie shook her head. “Goodnight, Theo. Thanks for listening to my complaining. With you and the others, I think I can be free one day.”
       “I know so.”

       Theo went on into his room. Chip was already asleep, and Theo had by this time gotten used to moving silently enough not to wake him. Theo Maplewood got in bed, and the image of Lahwhinie was still in his head. **Yeah, if I was dad’s age I’d be in love with you. But what I wanted to say was how great a mom I think you’d make. I don’t love you the way dad does, but I love you anyway.** Theo hoped that she knew, and felt she did. Those thoughts filled his being as sleep gently claimed him.

A Surprise Inspection, Lahwhinie Gets an Idea and The Luck of the Irish

       Chip was up early as usual the next morning when a light tapping came at the outside door. The chipmunk was still groggy and in his bathrobe when he opened the door. “Yes, who is...Madilyn?”
       Chip stopped short as he realized it was indeed Madilyn Algood, the head over the animal division of Morningside Orphanage. She was in a full business suit and held a pad and pencil in her hand. “Ah, Mr. Maplewood. Pardon the early morning visit, but as you may recall I am required to check on the progress of all our children.”
       Chip was instantly awake and alert. “Uh, what can I do for you? Anything wrong? Come in, won’t you?” Madilyn strode in, apparently oblivious to Chip’s nervous reaction. She gave the place a look-over that would have done a general proud. “Hmm. I see you have an infant living here as well, now.”
       “Yeah, Monterey Jack and Eva Erskine’s child. They became parents again just a week ago. Is that a problem?”
       Madilyn kept walking and checked the kitchen. She mumbled as she seemed to be counting items that Chip couldn’t discern with her pencil-laden hand. Then she spun around to face him in a manner that reminded him of his old teacher Miss Spelling. “Has Theophane made progress socially since his breaking-in period?”
       Chip felt himself perspiring. “Theo’s become such a part of us that all the Rangers think of him as family and he loves all of us just as much. He’s made a good friend with a girl his own age and he’s doing well in school.”
       Madilyn showed no emotion, but scribbled down some notes on her pad. “I will need to interview each of the treehouse’s residents in turn, for the follow-up. I would also like to observe your normal routine, Mr. Maplewood. Do you get sufficient exercise? Simply a health department concern, you understand.”
       “I get enough exercise,” Chip said, wondering what she’d ask about next. “Eva led the exercise course until she gave birth. We’ll continue to work out under instruction till she’s ready to take it up again. Is there some kind of problem? Are you having second thoughts?”
       “Simply routine, Mr. Maplewood. Madilyn Algood does not play favorites, even with a person of your high reputation. I have a job to do, and it will be done right. I’m sure you can understand that, since you are the leader of this group.”
       Chip was glad he wasn’t in a courtroom where she was the judge. “I understand, but I confess your unexpected visit makes me nervous. Theo means as much to me as any biological child ever could.” At that moment, Theo came in and saw Ms. Algood and the look on Chip’s face. “You’re not...not going to take me away, are you?”
       Madilyn walked over to Theo and knelt in front of him, smiling. “No, child. I’m simply here to gather information on the health of your environment and suggest changes if any are needed. I always like to come early and unannounced to shake up the parents. It’s the best way to see if there are any problems that they might try to hide otherwise.”
       Madilyn looked hard over at Chip, then winked. Chip let out a sigh of relief. “Well, did HQ pass inspection?”
       “So far, Chip. I see a great deal of care has been taken in the upkeep of this place, but what I said still goes. I will need to interview everyone one-on-one, starting with Theo here. Don’t worry, it’s simply required by law. I’m sure everything will be fine.”

       Theo decided they might as well get it over with. “Well okay, what do you want to know?” Madilyn took Theo’s hand. “A few things. This won’t take long. We’ll just step outside.” Madilyn led Theo outside and each took a seat on the lawn chairs. “Very nice place, this is. So, what do you think of being Chip Maplewood’s son? Is it all you anticipated?”
       “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how great it is! It’s like I was born to be his son. I think this is destiny. He saved my life as a little kid, so that one day he could become my dad, a son that would follow in his footsteps and be just as great a Rescue Ranger as he is. Now I can help others and save lives, just like he did for me.”
       Madilyn made a few notes. “So you wish to follow in his footsteps. Have Chip and the others been helping you toward that goal?”
       “Boy, have they ever! I want to learn as much as possible, so that when dad lets me go on Ranger duty, I’ll know how to do everything!”
       Madilyn scribbled some more. “And this girl your father mentioned, Bink. Would you consider her a good friend, Theo? Do you two have fun together?”
       **He would have to tell you about her.** “Yes, Bink and I are good friends, but it’s not like we’re in love or anything. We’re pals, like Goslyn Mallard and Honker Muddlefoot. She wants to be a Rescue Ranger too.”
       “Very well. One more question. Has you father shown any interest in considering anyone as a wife?”
       Theo hoped this wouldn’t get back to Chip. “Yeah, he’s been dating. He and Aunt Lahwhinie are...some kind of couple. I think they’ll get together. That’s one of the things high on my Christmas list.”
       Madilyn stood up. “Thank you, Theo.”

       Madilyn led Theo back inside and was promptly invited to breakfast—Chip had awakened the entire house in the interim, of course. Madilyn chatted with each person a little, then after breakfast the interviews continued. A full hour later, Madilyn called for Lahwhinie, who she’d been purposefully saving for last. Lahwhinie was understandably nervous, but Madilyn instantly felt a liking for her and her voice changed to a soothing tone once they were outside.
       “Thank you for you patience, dear. Now, I would like to know your opinion of Theo. What do you think of him?”
       Lahwhinie folded her hands in front of her. “I wish he was my kid. What parent wouldn’t be proud to call him their son? He’s brave, resourceful and compassionate. Even though life’s dealt him a bad hand, he’s still cheerful and optimistic. I wouldn’t have handled his life that well. With him and Chip as a father/son team, the bad guys of the world are in for some real trouble.”
       Madilyn wrote down a few notes. “I noticed at breakfast he sat next to you and gave you most of his attention. Do you feel a special bond with him? Don’t worry, dear. I’m the only one who sees these notes.” Lahwhinie blushed. “Yeah, he’s like...okay, I’ll admit it, he’s like a son to me and I think he looks to me as a mom, but he’s also one of my best friends and he really helped me a lot to fit in here. Not many people would reach out to an depressed cynic and try to see the best in them and bring it out.”
       Lahwinie thought, then added, “He takes after his dad in that respect.” Madilyn smiled, and put the pad down. “ I’m glad he has such a person like you around. I was often concerned he wouldn’t find someone he could care for like his dear mother and father. When he came to the orphanage, he didn’t speak at all. He just drew pictures, which is how I first learned of his desire to be a Ranger. He wanted Chip for a father, and I’m glad he got him. But I’m just as glad he has you.”
       Lahwhinie didn’t want to mislead. “Well, it’s not a done deal or anything with me and Chip. We’re friends—friends that maybe might like each other more than that. But I’ve never felt this way about a guy before, so I have to watch my step.”
       “Oh, don’t worry about that. I didn’t imply you had to marry him or anything. It’s not a requirement for Theo to stay here. I simply meant that I’m glad he has you for a friend.”
       Mrs. Algood’s mentioning the orphanage gave Lahwhinie an idea. “I’m glad he’s my friend, too. Say, Theo mentioned that he lost everything in the fire. Do you have any idea where I could find a picture of his folks? He was just a little kid then, and he doesn’t have anything to remember them by and I’d like to give him something to keep their memory alive.”
       Madilyn thought for a moment. “As I’m sure you know, the fire destroyed their home along with all their belongings. We had nothing to give Theo of theirs. However, there might be something of help in the files. You realize that we normally do not allow this information to be accessed due to its private nature. Still, his file is different in that even he himself had sneaked into our records room and we caught him going through his own file looking for clues.”
       “He’s made that kind of impression on you too? He’s just got that something special that you just can’t help liking him. Chip’s his dad and I’m kinda like his mom, but I don’t want him to think that we’re afraid to let him remember his real folks. They’re a part of his life and they shouldn’t be forgotten. He really misses them, and he’s just really good at hiding it. I think he just doesn’t want us to think that he doesn’t appreciate us, so he keeps it bottled up.”
       Madilyn returned her notepad to her purse. “Come downtown this afternoon, and I’ll see if there’s anything that can help you.” Lahwhinie shook her hand. “Thanks a million, you won’t regret it. It will mean the world to him.”
       “I know.”

       Madilyn walked back in with Lahwhinie, and she singled out Chip. “Well Mr. Maplewood, you certainly have a unique and diverse set of friends. I believe Theophane is in the best hands he could hope for. Now, as to my recommendations...”
       “Yes?” Chip asked nervously.
       “Keep up the good work.”
       Madilyn shook his hand and bid everyone farewell. The Rangers breathed a collective sigh of relief. Chip looked over at Theo, grateful nothing had gone wrong. “I’m glad that’s over with.”
       “She sure had me scared there for a minute,” Theo said. Monty patted the young munk on the head. “No worries, mates. She said we’re doing a great job lookin’ after Theo here! That’s her seal o’ approval.” Eva came over and put an arm around Theo. “Yes, and vhat objection could she have possibly have, anyhow? Theo is the constituational gentleman, and has the finest friends and father.”
       “Yeah!” Dale said. “Chip and Theo, two good things that go great together, just like bananas and peanut butter!” Chip eyed his friend curiously. “Okay, we’ve still got a few things to cover before the big party gets here. Do I hear a volunteer to pick us up some more wrapping paper?”
       “I’ll do it,” Lahwhinie said quickly. “I have to go into town for...uh, for some stuff...and other stuff.” Chip nodded, not noticing her verbal stumbling. “Good. I’ve got to get some more food supplies to take up there. Sean won’t have enough for everyone, of course. Theo, Dale, Monty, I could use your help with that. The rest of you can take inventory of the other Christmas things. We have to be sure we don’t come up short when we start wrapping and putting tags on things. Okay, let’s make this a Christmas to remember!”

       The group went its separate ways, and Lahwhinie was grateful for the built-in diversion. She quickly went to a neighborhood gift store and picked out the best paper—or rather led the manager around getting it—then had him hold it for her until she would return. With that duty done, the Hawaiian mouse got directions and headed for Morningside Orphanage. She wasn’t overly surprised when more than one child mistook her for Gadget and wanted her autograph. Explaining the difference didn’t change their exuberance, and she ended up signing several before Madilyn showed up. “Thank you for waiting, Lahwhinie. I was detained in a meeting with a prospective parent. I have some information for you, come with me.”
       Madilyn led her to a private office and opened up a small folder. “There isn’t much, but I can give you an address. Apparently, they were in their last home less than a month when the fire came. The city records still had their original address, and possibly it could lead you to something. I’m giving you their last name, which is normally against the rules, but I’m trusting you. I hope you find what you’re after.”
       Lahwhinie took the slip of paper from Madilyn. It read simply, “Sergei Vaclav. 543 Cherrytree Hill, New York“. She put it away and pressed Madilyn’s hands. “Thanks, Madilyn, you’re going to be a hero to a certain kid this Christmas. I owe you one for this.”
       “Not at all. I think you’re the hero, dear. I can see why he loves you.” Lahwhinie was unused to compliments, at least about internal things. “Thanks, I’m doing my best to be a good role model to him.”

       Lahwhinie again got directions, and covered the distance in nearly twenty minutes. Cherrytree Hill was a pleasant grouping of human and rodent homes in a middle-class section of town. Lahwhinie found the home the old address led to easily enough, but the mice currently living there knew nothing of the Vaclavs. It took another ten minutes and six more houses before one squirrel recommended she visit Mrs. Pendergast, an elderly mouse living across the street. Lahwhinie did so, and found the area around the house swept and very well taken care of. There were little blue flowers surrounding the mousehole door, which was cut into the wooden foundation of an old Victorian home. Lahwhinie knocked and after what seemed too long a time Mrs. Pendergast appeared.
       “Oh, hello there young lady. I wasn’t expecting visitors today. The boys usually come to clean the yard tomorrow.”
       Mrs. Pendergast was a white-haired, brown-eyed Irish mouse of at least eighty. She was slightly stooped, and wore a large white silk scarf over her head which came around in front to give her a slightly angelic appearance. She also wore a nice dress of blue with a pattern of white animal shapes in it. Around her neck, she wore a silver pendant.
       Lahwhinie offered her hand. “I’m Lahwhinie Erskine, and I’m not here about the yard. I’m looking for anyone that knew the Vaclav family a couple of years back.” Mrs. Pendergast brightened immediately, and bid her come in. “The Vaclavs! Oh yes, I remember them quite well. Katrina Vaclav and I used to share recipes all the time, God rest her soul.”
       The elderly matron slowly ambled into the house, Lahwhinie at her side. The home was well-kept and full of antique furniture and momentos. Mrs. Pendergast noticed Lahwhinie’s interest. “My husband Paul was a collector. He traveled the world, and for a time I got to travel with him. We went to Madrid, Paris, Rome—all the great cities. Paul was a self-made man, and one of the most honest I’ve ever known. Come, see here.”
       Mrs. Pendergast showed Lahwhinie a large black-and-white framed photo of herself and her husband in their wedding outfits. They appeared happy and ready to face the world. “1942. It was a very good year.” Lahwhinie had never seen a photograph that old. “Wow, that was a while ago. Did you enjoy being married? Does love really last or do you get tired of each other after a long time together?”

       The old Irishwoman gave the youngster a knowing smile and guided her to a settee. In a minute, she’d wheeled out a tea service cart. “Maybe I knew you were coming after all, because I’d just put the tea on to boil. A cup of darjihli gets me through the afternoon. Did I enjoy being married? Oh yes, child. Paul wasn’t a perfect husband by any means, though. He’d forget my birthday at times, or our anniversary. But he had ways about him. He had ways.”
       She got up and went into a back room. When she returned, she was holding a pearl bracelet made up of very valuable teardrop pearls. “Paul got this for me, one pearl at a time. It took him fifteen years to complete it, but every year he’d say ‘that’s one closer, precious’. He loved doing things like that, giving me something to look forward to. But he was the greatest gift, himself.”
       Lahwhinie took the bracelet when she offered it, admiring it. “I haven’t met too many people that have had long and happy marriages, so I’m a bit nervous about...well, the reason I came here is that I’m trying to find a picture of the Vaclav family. You see, my...er...boyfriend adopted their son, Theo, and the little guy misses his folks and he doesn’t even have a picture of them to remember them by. I was hoping you might have one you could spare or could possibly point me in the direction of someone who might have one.”
       The old mouse thought for a minute, then got up. “I get Christmas cards from all around the world. I keep most of them in this old sideboard next to you, and some of the most touching were from Katrina and Sergei. They were from Bavaria, you know. Oscar came over here with his new bride twenty years ago. Nine years later, they had the boy they’d so wanted.
       “Theophane was a joy to them both, and he was every inch as kind as them. I used to babysit him at times, and he was so thoughtful even as a toddler. He always behaved. Ah, I believe this one will do...”

       Mrs. Pendergast handed a Christmas card to her. It showed Oscar and Katrina waving, with a three-year-old Theo on her lap waving as well. Lahwhinie held the picture reverently. “They were a cute couple, and Theo was too. Heck, he’s still cute. He’ll be a real heartbreaker in a few years. It’s a shame a kid that nice had to get such a raw deal in life.”
       “How is the boy now?” Mrs. Pendergast asked, sitting next to her. “Does he have people that love him?” Lahwhinie nodded. “Theo’s doing great. His dad is Chip Maplewood of the Rescue Rangers, and he lives at HQ with the rest of us. He’s fitting in great, and he wants to be a Rescue Ranger, just like his dad. He’s adored by all of us.”
       Mrs. Pendergast sipped her tea and smiled. “Bless his heart. That boy surely deserves a life like that. When you give him the picture, would you tell him about me? I would like to see him again, and I can tell him several stories about his parents I think he would appreciate.”
       “Maybe I can bring him around after the holiday. We’re all going up to Chip’s grandfather’s place for Christmas.”
       “Oh, sure and that sounds lovely. Bring as many of your friends as you’d like, too.”

       Mrs. Pendergast put down her cup of tea. “Earlier, you asked me if love really lasts. I learned a secret early in life, and I will share it with you. I found that no matter where I went, if I looked hard enough I could find someone who needed help. Usually, it was no more than someone who needed the money to buy food or help with a simple task. But if you help someone, they will open up to you. My Paul taught me that when he helped me one day. The love he had in his simple, helpful attitude came over on me and it’s never run out to this day. He loved me in the way you’re thinking about as well, but it’s that helping I cherish more than anything.”
       Lahwhinie felt comfortable with the old mouse, and found herself opening up to her. “Well, I have helped the Rangers to help some people and it was...different than the way I’m used to dealing with people, but I guess it felt good.”
       “Of course it did,” the old lady said, her smooth Irish brogue coming through. “It’s because you gave a little of yourself away. But when you do that, they give you a little of themselves in return. Soon, you have pieces of more lives than you can keep up with! I mentioned my Christmas cards—I get greetings from people I’ve helped in countries all over, and we keep up a correspondence. I’m never lonely, because I have those lives tucked away inside me. When you get to be my age, you can think back on Anna Pendergast and what she said. If you’ve helped the people that you could, you’ll have more pieces of life in you than you can fit in your heart.”
       Lahwhinie was stunned for a moment at the thought of living to the age that Mrs. Pendergast was. She had always imagined that her life would end a lot earlier than that. Could she stand living with Chip till they were old and gray? “I’ve never really thought about what it means being with someone till death do you part.”
       “My Paul was like that in a respect. He was honest as I told you, and he came to me one day in County Cork when the May blossoms were falling by my father’s front porch and found me on the swing. He says to me, ‘Anna, I love you and I think we could be a good couple. I will be frank with you, though. I am a man of moderate habits. I require my pipe, and I am not the most orderly of people’. Well child, I thought about it. Then I said, ‘Paul, I will make a bargain with you. I will keep your house clean, but you will keep that odious pipe of yours out of my house’. He laughed, and never smoked a day after that.”
       Lahwhinie thought about that. “I’m sorry to be dredging up all these bad memories for you, ma’am. I came here just to ask about the picture. I didn’t mean to pry into your personal life.”
       “Not at all, my dear! Not at all! And please, call me Anna,” Anna said. “Those memories are my life, and it’s rare to have the opportunity to share them. But let me tell you, if you’ve found a young man that loves, see you don’t take it lightly. A man who truly loves you is much more rare than these pearls around my wrist. It’s said we each only get one or two made for us in our lives, and most of us just one.
       “I can see myself as you are now, and thinking you have a lot of time to find someone. If you could see your whole life as I see mine now, you’d know that these chances don’t come often. You’ll not always know when the most important points of your life come, but when you feel inside that you have an opportunity it’s high time to take stock.”

       Lahwhinie sipped some of the darjihli and found it to her liking. “Yeah, I’m kinda at a crossroads now. He’s a nice guy and all, but I don’t know if I’m ready or even if I know how to have a meaningful relationship.” Anna poured her some more tea. “Give yourself a chance, child. I can see the caring in your eyes for him. I hear it in your voice. You won’t lose yourself if you give yourself to him. You’ll gain yourself and him as well. Cherish every day that you’re loved, dear, and you’ll never have cause for regret.”
       “I don’t give myself to any man. He just better get used to me as me and then I can get used to him as him, or something like that.”
       Anna stood up, and escorted Lahwhinie to the door. “If he is what you see in him, you will. He’ll open the door for you, and you won’t be afraid. That’s what Paul did for me that day he helped me. Well, listen to me rattle on! Send my best to young Theophane, and it was certainly pleasant to have you visit, miss...miss...dear me, I don’t think I caught your name.”
       **I didn’t throw it.** “I’m Lahwhinie Erskine.”
       “Oh, yes! You said so before. Pardon an old lady’s memory. Lahwhinie—such an exotic and lovely name. Feel free to visit as often as you like.”
       “Thanks, Anna. Oh, my name, it’s Hawaiian.”
       “Hawaiian, of course! Just like the group that performs at the performing arts center each month. Oh, they are very good.”
       Lahwhinie put the Christmas card away safely. “Thanks a lot for everything. Theo’s going to really appreciate this.” **I hope.**
       “I am sure he will. Oh, one moment...” Anna walked back inside and came back with a homemade banana cream pie for her. “Here now, this will get you where you’re going.” Lahwhinie didn’t know that anyone cooked anymore besides she and her dad. “A pie? Well, thanks even more. Merry Christmas, Anna.” Anna smiled in return. “Thank you, child. Now you’d best be off. It looks like it could rain soon. Be careful crossing the streets on your way home!”

The Crooner of the Treehouse and A Father Comes Home

       Lahwhinie nodded goodbye to Anna and headed for home via the gift wrap shop. The sales clerk gave her a box to keep the pie in, and then she continued on home. The others were all there, and Lahwhinie had to hide the Christmas card to keep it from being seen. However, nothing could hide the aroma of a homemade banana cream pie. Dale’s sniffer led him right to it. “Hey, watcha got in the box? Smells goody good-good!”
       “Hands off, Dale,” Lahwhinie warned. “This is for Theo, and he’ll decide if he wants to share it or not.” Dale looked disappointed as Lahwhinie handed the box to Theo, who opened it. “Oh, wow! Banana cream! I haven’t had one of these since I was real little! Yeah, c’mon Uncle Dale. But uh, I get first dibs.”
       The pie went quickly, and everyone enjoyed it. Lahwhinie did too, as it reminded her of her old home in a way. Chip savored every bite. “That was great! Supper won’t be able to match that.” Gadget found a little bit of cream on her face, and licked it off her finger. “You know, we might should’ve waited to eat it until after supper.”
       “Nuh uh!” Dale said. “Like I always say, ‘Life’s short. Go for the dessert’!” Theo hugged Lahwhinie tightly. “Thanks, Aunt Lahwhinie. You’re the greatest!” The others echoed his thanks. “Thanks, kiddo,” Lahwhinie said. “I thought you might like that.”
       “A bonzer treat, that was,” Monty said. “Reminds me o’ the time...”
       “Uh, Monty? Let’s move on to supper first,” Gadget said. Monty’s story train was derailed, which was actually the goal. “Oh, right-o, Gadget luv. I moight not be able ta match that culinary masterpiece, but I kin certainly top it off!”

       Over supper, the Rangers filled Lahwhinie in on how their individual trips had gone. As the night moved on, Lahwhinie found an opportunity to slip into her room and hide the card with the photo. She came back out to find that Chip had brought out his guitar and was playing Christmas songs on it while the others gathered around him on the sofa. “Hey, Lahwhinie! Just in time. Got a request?”
       “How about ‘White Christmas’ seeing as how this is my first one.”
       Dale jumped up. “Oh, goody! I get to do my Bing impression!”
       “Oh, boy...” Gadget said, rolling her eyes.
       Chip tried to keep a straight face as he started up the melody. Dale had long had the idea he could sing like Bing Crosby, and now he stood up, and make his expression as “Bingish“ as he could. When Dale started, he’d shake his head slightly to accentuate every note and sounded nowhere close to Bing but more like Dale with a sore throat. “Ah’m dreamin’....”
       Theo was already laughing so hard has stomach was hurting. Dale always got this kind of reaction, and in times past it had bothered him. Now he reveled in it, and took Gadget’s hands and helped her up as he serenaded her. “tohear...sl..aa..aa..ay...bells in the snooooow...”
       Gadget’s face was a mixture of giggles and laughs as Dale kept an absolutely stoic look. He took his turn with Foxy, and left her crying with the giggles, and then turned his attention to Lahwhinie. She was the pillar of toughness, but even she had to smirk some at Dale’s antics. When he finished up, he got a round of applause.

       Chip put down his guitar. “Okay, Dale. Now it’s my turn for that song. Feel like singing along with me, Lahwhinie?” Lahwhinie looked at him like he was kookier than Dale. “Me? Sing? Are you nuts?” Foxy dried her eyes. “It’s easy, Lahwhinie. I bet you can sing really nice. Why not give it a try?”
       “Yeah, go ahead sis,” Gadget said. The others encouraged her as well. Lahwhinie stood up tentatively. “Okay, but I’m no opera star or anything, so don’t laugh.” Chip starting playing the guitar again, and when he began to sing Lahwhinie joined in. Her voice was very low at first and out of sync with his, but she gradually came up in volume.
       It wasn’t perfect, but that wasn’t the point anyway, as Lahwhinie was beginning to figure out. Eva brought Colby in and Monty held her while she held their son. Their eyes misted up some at the sight of their reserved daughter singing in front of them for the first time. Gadget and Dale held hands and smiled as they listened. Zipper smiled too, and wished he’d invited Honey over for this. Theo was enjoying it more than anyone. He looked first at Chip and then Lahwhinie with a look of absolute bliss. When the song finished, there was a peaceful calm left over from the first melding of the two voices.
       “Beautiful, lass. Roight beautiful,” Monty said. Eva smiled at her. “It was vunderful.”
       “Yeah, with some practice maybe you can go on tour with Noel and Foxy!” Dale added. Zipper clapped. “You two can be on the Christmas special!” Gadget encouraged her more. “I hope we’re going to get another song...”
       Theo chimed in. “How about ‘Joy to the World’? That’s one of my favorites.” Chip glanced over at Lahwhinie and saw she really wanted to sit down. “Okay, but everyone join in this time. ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’...”
       Lahwhinie gave him a look telling of her thanks as the entire group started to sing. It was a warm, family moment—Dale moving his arms to “conduct“ everyone, Gadget looking at everyone and sharing in their happiness and Monty and Eva doing the same. Foxy and Noel put their country lilt on the melody, singing for the pure pleasure of it. Theo was sitting up on his knees and singing next to Chip, while Lahwhinie joined in and managed not to feel too weird doing that. Zipper looked at little Colby and wondered if one day he’d have a son of his own. And Chip enjoyed the music around him and having such good friends and a girlfriend that was quite unlike any other.
       “… and Heaven, and Hea-ven and nature sing...”

       As with all things, the joyous Christmas season rolled by quickly. Soon, it was December 23rd, and Tammy was more nervous than when she’d first approached Rob. She, Donna and Bink had cleaned the Chesnutt house from stem to stern getting ready for Oscar’s arrival, and Donna had repeatedly thanked Tammy for writing the letter. It had been too long for her as well, and she was eager to see her husband. Eva had kindly given Tammy the day off, and now they were all waiting for him with great anticipation.
       Donna was checking herself in a full-length mirror. “Tammy, do I look all right?” Donna had put on her best dress, and was nearly shaking with the anticipation. “You look fine, mom,” Tammy said. “You’re so nervous, you’re acting like it’s a date.”
       “It feels like one,” Donna said, taking her daughter’s hands. “It’s been six years since I’ve had the chance to hug him and kiss him and tell him what he means to me. Six long years.”
       “I hardly remember him,” Bink said flatly. “I hope he stays this time. He prob’ly won’t even recognize me.” Tammy bent over, straightening Bink’s dress. “Sure he will, don’t worry.”
       “Well, we’ll see about his staying,” Donna said, trying to keep things peaceful. “Don’t push him too hard on it, though, until we know his mind on the topic. Oh, I think I hear him coming! Is everything straight? Did I remember to slice the carrots? Oh Tammy, you’ll have to answer the door when he gets up here.”
       A figure appeared at the door, and a moment later there was a light knocking. Tammy built up her nerve, fighting back a little anger as she approached the door and opened it. Before her stood a squirrel, sporting a gray hat and business suit. His hair was dark brown, so much it was nearly black. His grayish sideburns and beard stood out in contrast and gave him somewhat of a scholarly look. His face was ruddy but rounded somewhat, and he’d put on a few pounds in the tummy. Overall, he had a friendly appearance, like a person who was used to striking up a conversation and carrying most of the load. Now his brown eyes opened wide and likely his arms would have too if they hadn’t been filled with presents. When he spoke, it was with a soft but deep voice.
       “Tammy...oh my, but you’re beautiful.”
       Tammy showed no emotion at all. “Hi, dad. Come in, won’t you?” Oscar walked in, and Donna was there with her hands clasped in front of her. Oscar put down the gifts and gave her the gentle smile that had won her over all those years ago. “I can see it in your eyes, dearest. It’s been too long.”

       She ran to him, kissing him long and lovingly. Oscar held her and hugged her, “It shouldn’t have taken our girl’s letter to pull me away, but you know how I am. There’s always someone else to help.”
       “There’ll be time to talk about that later, honey. Let’s eat first.”
       Bink looked at this person who was virtually a stranger to her with the same lack of emotion that Tammy had. “Hi, dad.” Oscar looked down to see a girl that had been little more than a toddler the last time he’d seen her. “Becky, you’re practically grown already! Soon, you’ll be off to college like your sister’s about to be.”
       “Will you be here to see me do that?” Bink asked pointedly. Oscar saw the expectancy in her face and glanced over at the near-defiance in Tammy’s. **Something tells me no matter what answer I give, it’s not going to be good enough.**
       “Yes, dear. Against perhaps the largest protest that anyone’s ever received, I applied for early retirement from the Commission on Animal Nuclear Energy Safety. I told them to get me a stateside job here, and after several days of argument I convinced them that I’d be of more use to them training new diagnostic engineers than spending a few more years in the field. I’m going to organize a department of nuclear engineering at N.Y.U. and I’ll be the department head and teach part-time.”
       Bink wasn’t buying it. “You’re not just lying to make us believe you’re staying here, right?” Oscar went back over to where he had the presents, and pulled out a small attaché case. He opened it, and brought out a letter. “I know I’ve made promises in the past and not kept them, but I knew it was now or never. Tammy’s letter gave me the leverage to get the wheels moving. Here’s the letter from the regent of N.Y.U., approving my request and stating my salary and all. I’m finally coming home to stay.”
       “Good,” Bink said. “Now I can stop telling people my dad’s dead when they ask me why you’re never around.” Donna was overjoyed and hugged him repeatedly. She was so happy, she didn’t even notice Bink’s snide comment. For her, it was a dream come true. “Oh, how I’ve wished for this day.”
       “Even as I tried to postpone it,” Oscar said. “But now, I can finally slow down and let someone else take the point, and learn what it is to be a husband and father.” They went in to supper, and Tammy and Bink both ate quietly. Donna was still reeling with the joy of her husband’s homecoming, but she could feel the tension building. She traded some looks with Oscar, and he nodded.

       After supper, Donna intentionally left the room to clean up. When she didn’t ask the girls to help, they knew what was up. Oscar turned to them, and found their looks tougher than any collection of board members he’d had to face. Oscar steeled himself for the whirlwind he’d reaped, and started in. “I know that neither of you has much of an opinion of me, and I can’t say it’s not warranted. You’ve had to grow up without a father’s love, while I was out solving the world’s problems and trying to keep it safe for you and every family. I don’t expect either of you to accept me right away, but I want you to know I do care about you both. Your pictures were always with me, and I kept every letter you wrote. I was just on a road that had no stops, unless I stopped myself. Finally, I did.”
       Tammy looked him in the eye. “You stopped long enough to have us. Why didn’t you stay?”
       “Donna and I fell in love while I was in school. Neither of us knew at the time how illustrious—or demanding—my career would be. I graduated top of my class, and then I went into the advanced degree programs, completing them in record time. Several companies had already noticed my potential, but it was CANES that offered me the opportunity to do the most good. At first, I was in charge of inspecting the areas in this region so I could stay with your mother.”
       Oscar loosened his tie, letting the tension go. “Then there began to be problems, big ones. Three Mile Island was one that required particular care for the animal population and as a junior field leader I earned quite a reputation on that job. Once they saw how skilled I was, CANES offered me a higher position if I would head up their new overseas hotspot division. You were both still very young at that stage, and your mother said that I should wait. I told them that, and they doubled the offer. They made it clear I was the only one qualified for the job they needed. The work was important and the money meant a lot to us, so I went.”
       “Your work here was important,” Bink said. “You should have stayed.”
       Oscar looked at them both, and knew now she was probably right. “I was young, Becky, and full of drive. I felt I had a calling to go out into the world and protect animal-kind from the constant danger that nuclear plants represent. Over those years, I helped to establish local radiation response units in Russia, France, Pakistan, India, and several other countries.
       “I found ways to improve the detection of contamination of radiation in groundwater and avoid disasters for the animals living in those areas before it became serious. I worked with medical teams who were treating victims of the Chernobyl disaster and developed new medical protocols to give victims a better chance of living. I won’t lie to either of you, my life’s been very fulfilling and I’ve helped to save thousands—perhaps millions. But it came at a cost. Your mother gradually came to accept that cost, but you were the ones that were left out. I have regretted that and still do. Perhaps now, I can finally begin to make it up to you.”
       “Well, maybe some day,” Bink said. Tammy didn’t back down either. “It’s going to take a while just getting used to how you look and the sound of your voice. It’ll be a long time until you’re ‘dad’.”
       “I know, Tammy. You and your sister are as much a mystery to me as I am to you. Your letter so caught my attention, I could no longer justify what I was doing. I’ve neglected my responsibilities here for far too long.”
       “Yes you have,” Tammy said, trying to keep her voice calm. “It wasn’t fair to mom, Bink or me. If you didn’t want a family, why did you even bother starting one?”
       “I did want one, Tammy. I’ve never stopped loving your mother, and when you and Becky were born it meant the world to me. I know you’ll find this hard to understand, but part of the decision I made was with you two in mind.”

       Oscar stood up and went to the window. “I didn’t want my girls growing up in an unsafe world, when their father could do something about it. But even I didn’t count on the demands the job would make on me. It’s paid well, but whatever vacation time I had was scheduled around nuclear accidents and plant inspections. Gradually, I started being pulled into my work more and more. I’d become indispensable, and they would never let me go. Visits home became more and more difficult. I should’ ve found a better way, but instead I let my work take first place.”
       “We’ve moved on without you, “ Tammy said. “We’re not the same people you knew then. Frankly, I don’t know if the damage can be repaired.” Oscar turned back to them. “In my line of work, I deal with damage repair crews all the time. When a bridge can’t be repaired, then it’s time to build a new one. Maybe neither of you can think of me as your father, but perhaps you can think of me as your friend. I’ve supported you, but I didn’t give you support. I’ll do whatever I can from this day on to help you, and give you every opportunity I can.”
       Bink got out of her seat and gave her dad a half-hearted hug. “Okay, dad. We’ll give it a try.” Oscar knew they’d already given him better than he deserved, but he accepted Bink’s hug gratefully. “Thank you, Becky. Tammy, I know you’re still angry with me. Can you tell me about it?”
       “I grew up without a dad. We grew up without a dad. At least she’s young enough to still enjoy some of her childhood with you, but I’m not a kid anymore. You were gone most of my life! You’re right, I don’t think of you as my dad. That honor belongs to someone else.” Tammy paused, trying to keep in control. “You don’t know anything about me or my life—you weren’t there to show me how to do things as a kid, you weren’t there to help me or guide me. You were just a name, a photograph and an occasional disembodied voice on the phone. You were never there for me when I needed you!”
       Oscar saw and felt the pain he’d caused Tammy, and it stunned him how deep the wound was. He got up and tried to touch Tammy’s hand but she pulled it away from him. “I can’t do anything about that, Tammy. Many’s the day I thought of moving all of you over to Europe to be with me. Most of the places I stayed weren’t too nice, though. It wouldn’t have been any kind of life for you, or the others. I’d have never forgiven myself if something had gone wrong and you’d died. You’re a grown woman now, and you’ll have to decide what to do about your own feelings, Tammy. Once you’ve decided, I’ll be here for you either way.”
       Tammy toned down the emotion in her voice and met his gaze again. “I’m sorry. This has been building up over a lifetime and I just had to say it. I’m glad that you came back for the holiday, and I do hope you’re staying.”
       Oscar reached for her hand again, and this time she let him take it. “You look so much like your mother when I first met her. It was a sparkling spring day, and she was visiting relatives for the summer in Boston. I was at M.I.T. at the time, and I was dressed to the nines. She came walking into Boston Common and caught every man’s eye. I can remember losing all concentration on the book I’d brought with me, and from somewhere I had an impulse to walk over and say hello. I was nervous, but she actually seemed to like my company. We walked around, and after a half hour I mustered up the courage to ask her out.”
       Tammy hated to admit it, but she was curious. “When did your love of work become greater than your love for us?”
       “I don’t know that it ever did, but I started giving my attention over to it after I’d earned my doctorate. I sold into the idea of following my talents wherever they led me. I wasn’t wise enough to consider the consequences, and I certainly didn’t foresee this happening. It was a gradual process, and eventually I came to rationalize it as normal.”
       “And we accepted the fact that we we’re nearly as important to you as your work,” Tammy said. Oscar sat down at the chair next to her. “When I got your letter, for the first time in long while I sat back and reviewed my life. I realized that none of the people around me had a family life, either. We were like soldiers or doctors. The difference was, I could’ve left my job much sooner than I did.”

       Oscar waited to see what reaction he’d get from them on that confession, then continued. “My personal clout was sufficient to allow for early retirement several years back. The sad fact was, I was addicted to the power and to the push of it. I knew that coming back here would mean that life would slow down, and I wouldn’t have that daily demand on me that I’m come to expect. When you’ve done that for almost twenty years all day every day, Tammy, that’s a scary thought. I put it off time and again, but the words you wrote chastised me—I was being selfish, and I admit that to you. Your father’s a dedicated man that loves to feel needed, but in the end he realized that he also needed to feel loved. That’s what your letter told me, and you were right.”
       Tammy hadn’t expected him to be this straightforward. “It’s almost Christmas, so maybe there’s a chance for a miracle.” Oscar was grateful that at least they were giving him a chance. “I’ve seen miracles in my time—towns that should have died, people that should’ve given up. In the end, they didn’t because someone cared. You never gave up on me, so how can I give up on you? How will you feel taking me to this party your letter mentioned?”
       “Well, you’ll be as much a stranger to them as to us, but you’ll get to meet the people that mean the most to me outside of the family.”
       “I’ve heard of the Rescue Rangers some in my circles and from your letters, but I’ve never met them. Tell me about them.” Tammy began naming them off with no problem until she got to Chip. “Chip’s the leader of the group—he’s brave, handsome and cool under pressure. He’s really great...he’s the guy that’s been...uh, excuse me.” Tammy got up and rushed out of the room.
       “Tammy? Tammy what is it?” Oscar followed Tammy to her room, but she’d locked the door. Bink had gone outside, so Oscar returned to the living room and Donna. “Dear, Tammy seems attached to this young fellow named Chip. What can you tell me about him?”
       Donna knew, of course. “Oh, Chip was Tammy’s first real crush. She had it bad for him, but over time their relationship became one where she looked up to him...like a father.” Oscar looked back toward her room. “That explains it. She loves Chip as a father and now I’ve come and she doesn’t want to trade me for him. Well, that’s understandable under the circumstances. Maybe I should talk with Chip when we all get together and learn what he knows. It’s time I knew my daughter.”
       “Don’t forget to talk to Rob Roybrush then, too. He’s her boyfriend, after all,” Donna said. Oscar began to see the size of the mountain he had to climb. “I remember her mentioning him in one of her letters. The Roybrushes are a good family, as I remember. I went to school with his father.”
       Oscar sat down, letting the weight of twenty years go. “Donna, do you think they can ever accept me back into their lives? Can you?” Donna brought him a snack. “I’ve had you in my heart all this time, dear, but it’s going to take time for them to let you into theirs. Be patient.”
       “I will, Donna. I’ve got so much to learn and catch up on.”

A Texas Invasion and Another Batty Conversation

       Over at Ranger Headquarters, its denizens were also expecting arrivals. Foxy was bouncing around the room in nervous excitement. “When are they getting here?! They should’ve been here already! I can’t wait any longer!” Noel watched his wife, wondering just how long she could keep it up. “This is going to be great, our first Christmas together. I can’t wait till they get here either. I just hope they don’t mind the snow and ice.”
       Foxy’s ears perked up, then she squealed in happiness. “I hear them coming!” Foxy nearly ran Dale over getting to the door. When she opened it, everyone could hear the far-off sound of Bedivere Fairmont singing ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. He flew right in and swooped Foxy off her feet. “Look out, New York! The Fairmonts’re heah! YEEEE-HAAAW!”
       Little Foxy Fairmont quickly flew in behind her big sister and swooped down on Noel. “Merry Christmas, Unca Noel!” Noel hugged her back. “I’m glad you could make it, little Foxy. I hope you didn’t have trouble finding us. How’s my little sparkler?”
       Just behind them, Galahad and Daisy landed. They each had one of the infants clutching onto their backs. “Nary a problem, Noel,” Galahad said. “All we had to was ask where the Rangers were and we always found someone who knew.”
       “Noel, Foxy!” Daisy shouted, embracing them both warmly. “Oh, I’ve missed you two so much! Where are your parents, Noel?”
       “On their way. They’re probably picking up a few extra things.”

       Foxy hugged her father hard, and led the parents over to the sofa where they held the bright-eyed infants. Eva came out with Colby, and the next several minutes were spent on child-talk. Then Bedivere went outside and retrieved a large sack he’d brought. “Where can we be stowin’ the Christmas loot?”
       “I don’t know, but you’ll have to make room for more!”
       Roger and Jennifer Maplewood walked in. “Hello, everyone! Noel, Foxglove, it’s wonderful to see you again.” The introductions went around between the Maplewoods and Fairmonts, and then another mouse poked his head in the door.
       “Say, what’s all this action?” Cheddarhead asked.
       Cheddarhead and Kate had come back from their excursion in the city, and now more introductions went around. Bedivere and Cheddarhead were two of a kind and spoke each other’s language. The others joined in the camaraderie, and soon the treehouse was abuzz with conversations.

       As evening moved into night, supper was just as talkative with two tables full of people. Everyone got their turn in the spotlight, and there were plenty of laughs to go around. When things began to break up, Roger and Jennifer invited the Fairmonts to stay over with them but Foxy had pointed out that the ceiling of the gym would do as well. Once they’d inspected it, the Fairmonts were agreeable.
       “Thanks, all of you, for being so nice to us, and especially our girl,” Galahad said. Chip shook Galahad’s wing. “She’s the one we need to thank you for. She’s a great person.”
       “She sure is!” Dale said. “Zowie, what would we do without our famous singer?” Gadget pointed toward the gym. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay sleeping on the ceiling?” Bedivere put a wing around her. “No problem, gal. That there’s luxury livin’ fer us!”
       Daisy caught the others’ attention. “Since we’re leaving for Mr. Maplewood’s place tomorrow, we’d better get some rest.” Jennifer agreed. “And we’d better be getting home. It’s been great talking with you all.”
       “It’s been great for us, too,” Galahad said. “There’s nothing so important as family.”

       Once the goodbyes were said and the Erskine and Maplewood parents had left, the Fairmonts settled into the gym. Foxy came in and told them good night. “Thanks for coming, all of you. I love you all so much.”
       “We love you too, dear,” Galahad said, looking upside-down at her from above. Little Foxy flew down and hugged her—her common trait with everyone. “You’re my fav-o-rite singer!” Foxy giggled. “I think you’re a little biased, sister.”
       Daisy helped little Foxy back to the ceiling. “You should see how famous we are back home now. People stop by because we’re Foxy Fairmont’s family.” Bedivere took hold of his vest. “Mah beetle business has tripled!”
       Foxy flew up and kissed them all good night, paying particular attention to the little ones. She headed back for the main room where Noel was on the sofa and she joined him. “It was so great of them to come. Aren’t those infants darling?”
       “They’re wonderful, Foxy. It almost...uh, it is great to see them all again. The little ones seem to have grown just since the beginning of the tour.”
       Foxy looked over at Noel in curiosity. “What it is, darling? You were about to say something.” Noel faced her. “How do you feel about kids...the idea of maybe kids of our own, Foxy?”
       “Oh, I love the idea personally! But if we keep singing, it’s going to be hard to raise a family too. I guess we could hire nannies and such. Do you think we could get as fortunate as Chip and find a child to adopt the likes of Theo?”
       “Foxy, “I’m still thinking about that device of Gadget’s. We could have a family of our own.”

       Foxy didn’t know just what to say. “Darling, it’s a nice thing to think about I guess, but I couldn’t let you risk yourself. If you weren’t a chipmunk, it would take some getting used to. You know, you don’t have to be a bat if you don’t want to. I could become a chipmunk.” Noel shook his head. “How could I ask a creature of the air to give that up? It would affect your voice and your hearing. You’d lose so much, too much. I could never ask you to give up that.”
       “But could you be happy living life as a bat? I admit, the idea’s appealing to me in a way but you’d suddenly be something totally different from what you are.”
       “But remember, there isn’t just me, there’s Chip. It would be a way for me to totally break with my past and to help me to create my own identity. I wouldn’t be losing anything, and I’d be able to be with the woman I love, flying forever together.”
       Foxy took his hands. “I thought you’d settled that, dear. Do you still feel his shadow on you?” Noel lowered his head. “I think I’ll always feel it. It’s just a matter of getting used to it.” Foxy hugged him tightly. “I’m sorry, Noel. I keep forgetting that you were once the same munk. Have you talked to Gadget about this? Can it be reversed or is it once and done?”
       “Well, it should be reversible. The original design was built that way, but it may have been built for only temporary use. I don’t know if the effects would be permanent.” Foxy suddenly had a wave of fear go through her. “But if the effects may not be permanent, it could have side-effects or something! What if you ended up a half-chipmunk, half-bat or something? What about the children we’d have?”
       Noel shrugged. “Being a flying chipmunk wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.” Foxy gave a wry laugh. “But I just couldn’t let you do that. We’ll talk to Gadget about it, and if she can convince me that it’s totally safe then we’ll think about it. But I won’t let my cutie take a chance on something that kooky professor guy made without being sure.”
       “Fair enough. I’d never go through with this if you were against it. I only want you to be happy.”
       Foxy got a small smile on her face. “But if it did work...that would be beyond anything I’d ever thought about. But what would the others think? What would your parents think?” Noel knew the problems there. “Well, they’d be surprised, but I think they’d accept it.”
       “I guess they’ve seen their share of weird in their time. Sorry darling, I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. It does sound strange, come to think of it. Oh dear, this is going to take getting used to.”
       Noel pulled her to him. “Well, you knew you weren’t marrying an ordinary guy.”
       Foxy ran her wingtip over his ears. “That’s true. C’mon, let’s get some rest. It’s going to be a big day tomorrow. We’ll talk about it more once I’ve had some time to think.”
       As Foxy and Noel went to their room, she was already deliberating. Part of her was afraid for her husband, but another was secretly joyous at the idea that she and Noel could have children. It was taking a shortcut around nature, true, but Noel did also have a point about making a break from Chip. **If he was a bat, there’d sure be no way to confuse them.** Foxy let the thoughts continue as they entered their room, until the peace of slumber took all thoughts away.

Head 'Em Up, The Lodge and A Piano Trio

       The morning of Christmas Eve was extremely busy, to say the least. A good deal of time was taken up in wrapping presents that hadn’t been wrapped yet, and almost no one was seen in the main room until near lunch. Monty spent his morning getting foodstuffs into containers to take with them up to Sean’s place. When lunch did come, it was a quick and casual affair with much anticipation of the trip to come. Then Chip, ever the organizer, started getting everyone ready to go.
       “Okay, let’s keep these gifts separated by who’s giving them for now. Gadget, you’ve got some foam padding in your workshop—let’s break that out and use it to keep the presents from being messed up on the way up there.”
       “Roger, Chip,” Gadget said.
       Gadget went off to her workshop, and Dale followed to help her. Chip started counting heads. “Okay, there’s me, Noel, Foxy, Gadget, Dale, Lahwhinie, Monty, Cheddarhead, Kate, Eva, Colby, Theo, Bedivere, Galahad, Daisy, Little Foxy and the baby Fairmonts. With the Chesnutts coming, that makes a grand total of 22!”
       “You left out two, lad...” Monty said. Chip rechecked his list. “I did, who?” Lahwhinie took the pad from him and pointed. “Those two behind you, mister organizer!” Chip turned and there were his parents. He gave out a nervous laugh. “Okaaay, 24 then.”
       “And two more,” Zipper said, escorting Queen Honey in the door. Chip raised his eyebrows, and snatched his pad back. “All right, 26. Anyone else I forgot?”
       Eva made sure she had everything she needed for Colby. “It’s a good thing ve called upon that nice Mister Orville Junior to come again and bring his brother, Vilbur Junior. It would not be possible to make it to Lake Flacid in one trip otherwise!”
       “That’s for sure,” Chip said. “Okay everyone, let’s get ready to fly! Monty, you’re in charge of your family. Foxy and Noel, check on the Fairmonts. I’ll check on everyone else. Say, where’s Tammy and her family? They should’ve been here by now.”
       From outside, a familiar voice called “coming, Chipper!” and the Chesnutt family arrived. Oscar naturally received the lion’s share of attention and he got introduced around to the 22 other people in the travel group.
       “You’re quite a bunch,” Oscar said at the end of it all. “Quite a bunch.”
       Monty slapped him on the back. “We try, Oscar me pal. Glad ya could come!”
       “As am I. Well, shall we be off?”
       Roger pointed outside. “We’re still waiting on our auxiliary transport. Son, are you sure those albatrosses you mentioned know how to get here?” Chip checked his list again when Lahwhinie had a question, then replied. “Pretty sure, dad, but getting here isn’t the crucial part. It’s what happens after they get here that’s the problem.”

       High above Ranger Headquarters, two young albatrosses were scanning the ground. One of them pointed at a particular tree with a note of triumph in his voice. “Whoo-hoo!” Orville shouted. “There’s the place. I’d recognize that big oak anywhere. You ready to show ‘em the full Albatross Air team, Wil?”
       “Sure am, Orville! Though I got the feeling that this one’s gonna put a crick in my back, flying all these folks around.”
       “Aw, you’re always saying that! Look, just because your dad had that little problem in Australia’s no reason to worry.”
       Wilbur huffed at him. “Well, he always told me after that to avoid lady mice with funny accents.” Orville rolled his eyes. “‘Lady mice with funny accents’...c’mon pardner, dive bomber time!” Orville went vertical and dived straight down for the park. Wilbur followed suit. “Look out, below!!”
       Inside the treehouse, all the Fairmonts’ ears pricked up. “Either there’s a herd o’ crazed jackrabbits a comin’ or I think our rides are heah!” Bedivere said. The group ran outside and crowded at the veranda just in time to see Wilbur and Orville streak down from the sky majestically—and pound into the dirt and roll over several times.
       “All roight! That’s for me!” Cheddarhead shouted. Wilbur dusted himself off. “The Christmas express to Lake Flacid has arrived, folks!” Orville stood up, laughing. “Hey, I got four rolls on that one, Wil! Ha, ha!”
       Eva greeted them. “Hello again, Orville. Ah, and this must be Vilbur. My, that was an exciting entrance! But you vill be careful of us now, won’t you? We have several little ones along for the trip.” Wilbur got nervous in a hurry. “Uh,oh. A pretty lady mouse with a funny accent! Uh, are you folks ready ta fly? We gotta busy schedule to keep fer the holidays, can’t dawdle too long. Time’s a wastin’!”
       Bedivere took his hat off to Eva, gentleman-like. “Don’t worry yore little head, darlin’. We Fairmonts can pluck ya outta danger if’n there’s a problem with these ya-hoos.” Chip checked the baggage against his list, making sure everything was there. “Okay, let’s get moving! I’ve got the Erskines except for Gadget on Wilbur, along with me and Theo. The Chesnutts and my parents will be on Orville, along with Honey and Zipper. Gadget’s flying the RangerPlane with Dale, and all the presents. Noel asked to fly the RangerWing, so it’ll be him and Foxy and the Fairmonts there.”
       Theo bounded up to Wilbur. “WooHoo!!! Christmas city, here we come! Last one there’s a rotten egg!” It took about ten minutes to get everyone loaded and strapped in, not to mention the luggage. Once they’d double and triple-checked, Chip gave the high sign and Bedivere waved his ten-gallon hat from his auxiliary seat in the Wing. “YEE-HAW! Head ‘em up and move ‘em out! We’re a-burning daylight!”

       Orville went through the pre-flight check. “Flaps down, goggles down, wind from the northeast at ten...you ready, bro?”
       “I’m ready and able, Orville! Let’s make tracks!” Wilbur said, giving his brother the thumbs-up. The albatrosses began their lengthy take-off sequence while the RangerPlane and Wing took to the skies. The two vehicles circled, waiting until the big birds had enough momentum to get up. Finally they did after some exasperating effort, and within a minute a large convoy formed and pointed its way north. Chip leaned forward and spoke to Wilbur.
       “Hey, you’re getting better at your takeoffs! You guys are gonna have to land in the water at the bottom of the hill where my dad’s place is. There’s not enough room for you two to land at the top.” Wilbur nodded. “I’m sure it’s all ice by now, fella. It’s no problem, except that I didn’t bring my ice skates.” Orville, flying right next to them, raised an eyebrow. “Whattaya mean there’s not enough room? We albatrosses can land on a dime, right Wilbur?”
       “As long as it’s a really big dime.”
       Chip felt a knot growing in his stomach. “I’d rather you didn’t try it, guys. There really isn’t much room.” Theo was more laissez-faire. “Don’t worry about it, dad. I’m sure they’ll look it over good. After all, they’re both experienced flyers.” Orville gave him a thumbs-up. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, kid. We’ll get you down, guys!”
       “That’s right,” Wilbur said. “No matter what you say about our flying, there’s no possible way we could miss the ground!”

       Chip sighed, and sat back. The day was beautiful, and from their vantage point they could all see for miles. Some of the Fairmonts got out of the Wing and stretched their own wings from time to time, then returned. Soon, the waters of Lake Flacid were in sight. The Plane and Wing headed down, and the albatrosses were right behind. Despite Chip’s warning, they flew right in and headed for the 50-foot patch of green clearing on top of the hill.
       Lahwhinie moved in closer on Chip. “I guess now we know why humans build their air transport.” Chip’s knot was now the size of a bowling ball. “Yeah, so they can put someone in them with some bra..aa..aa..aains!” The birds swooped down and Theo was loving every moment of it. “Man, people’d pay just for this if they knew about it!”
       Lahwhinie put her arms around Chip as they prepared for landing. “I hope we don’t end up in the hospital for Christmas!” Eva held on tightly to Colby, wrapped up in her arms, but like Theo she was loving it too. “Vhee! Isn’t this fun, Monty?” Monty had his eyes covered. “I’ll let ya know when we get there!” Cheddarhead had his arms up. “Ho, ho! This is better’n shooting the rapids down Niagra Falls!” Kate did too, of course. “Not ta mention dryer!”
       Orville and Wilbur came in at tree level and quickly descended once they were in the clear. They touched down and it was bumpy from there. Near the end they both lost their footing and skidded on their bellies to stop within a couple feet of the huge lodge. Sean had witnessed all of this from the rocking chair on his porch. “My, my. I would never have wagered on that. Is everyone all right out there?”
       Theo hopped off of Wilbur. “Let’s do that again!” Cheddarhead was right with him. “Yeah! Again!” Lahwhinie slowly opened her eyes. “Once is enough for me, thank you very much.” Then she noticed she was holding Chip and with a little embarrassment she let go. “Sorry about that, Chip.”
       **I wasn’t**. “That’s okay, Lahwhinie. I don’t think anyone would’ve acted different. C’mon everyone, let’s get unloaded!”

       The Plane and Wing landed neatly and their occupants got out and everyone began to bring something into the lodge. Sean welcomed them all and was greeted in turn. Once everyone had found their rooms and was settled in, twenty-six happy faces were gathered around Sean at his piano.
       Sean loved being the center of attention, and made no effort to disguise it. “I’m very pleased to have you all here. When Chip and his friends visited the last time, I found myself missing something I’d long forgotten about—loving companionship. Now, he’s back and there’s a whole lot more new faces. You’re all welcome here anytime, but particularly now as we’ve gathered to celebrate this wonderful time of the year.”
       With that, Sean began to play “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year“. Foxy immediately started singing with him and the others joined in. The atmosphere was just what each of them had thought it would be—fun and rewarding. Sean finished up that song and looked around. “Now out of this huge, huge bunch, there’s got to be a request...”
       “Hark, Harold angel sings,” Lahwhinie said, not knowing any better.
       Sean smiled, and obediently started to play. Everyone spread out—the kids and some of the younger adults on the floor, the older ones on chairs and benches. Fortunately, there were places abounding in the conservatory. People went from group to group, talking and commenting on the wonderful decor and each other. Theo and Bink were already off in a corner, in their own little world.
       Theo was overjoyed at having his friend with him. “Didn’t I tell you this place was neat? It’s like the best clubhouse in the world!” Bink had been looking everywhere at once. “Yeah, this is so neat. We never get to go anywhere. Thanks for inviting me, Theo.”
       “Aw, don’t mention it. It wouldn’t be the same if you...I mean if you and your folks weren’t here.”
       Bink looked over at her father and mother. “I was worried that this would just be another boring Christmas, but this looks like one to remember.” Theo couldn’t believe she was so calm. “Are you kidding? Up here, boring’s been outlawed! C’mon, I’ll introduce you to my great-grandpa and maybe he’ll teach us some musical stuff.”

       As the kids headed for Sean’s piano bench, Zipper and Honey had taken up residence on top of one of the high-back chairs in the room and were surveying the surroundings. “I’m glad you could come, Honey. Are you having a good time?” Zipper asked. Honey was still trying to take it all in. “It will take me quite some time until I am comfortable around so many strange people, and mammals at that. But yes, I am enjoying myself. I am glad that I joined you here.”
       “How did Valeria take the news that she’d be sitting in for you?”
       Honey smiled and thanked Monty as he brought her a thimbleful of nectar. “She was thrilled and perhaps a little scared, but I have little doubt that she can do the job.” Zipper got a little self-conscious. “Uh Honey, if Valeria does well do you think, well, we could start seeing more of each other?” She put her hand on his. “I hope that with all my heart.” Zipper began to melt inside and gave her a gentle kiss. “Wow, I guess you do!”

       Zipper and Honey’s antics had caught the attention of several of the others and they smiled in kind. Chip did in particular, then headed for the kitchen for a glass of water. Oscar saw the opportunity he’d been waiting for and excused himself. He got Chip’s attention and they went into the library for privacy. “I wanted to thank you for what you and your friends have done for my daughter. Tell me, how do you see her?”
       “Tammy or Bink?” Chip asked.
       “Oh, I’m sorry. I’d actually like to hear about them both, but let’s start with Tammy.”
       Chip had known who he was asking about, but he wanted to remind him he had two daughters to look after. “Tammy’s a very dear friend. She’s kind, understanding, loving, and a generally wonderful person. So is Bink. I’m particularly grateful to Bink for making friends with Theo. You have two wonderful daughters, Mr. Chesnutt. I feel sorry that you don’t know how lucky you’ve really been.”
       Oscar sat down. “I’m sorry too, and it’s Oscar, please. I think for Tammy, you’ve assumed the role I should have. Since no one but myself is to blame, I will make no demands on that relationship. I think for Becky I can be a father, but for Tammy I will likely be no more than a person who shares the same last name.”
       “Give her some time, maybe she’ll come around. She’s not the type that keeps grudges, but you have to be very certain that winning back your family is what you really want. If you try to rebuild and decide to go running off again, then more than likely it’ll all come to an end. They need to see that they’re the focus of your life and energy, that they’re first in your life.”
       “I’m through running, Chip. As I’ve already told them, I’ve accepted a position to teach at N.Y.U. I want to be around for the rest of my family’s life, and try to make new ties with them if possible. It’s strange—I can handle a nuclear accident scene and coordinate hundreds of people without thinking about it. But there’s nothing I have that can win over those two girls’ hearts. And I want to win them over, but as you say it will take time. What about their aspirations? What do they want to become?”
       Chip took a seat across from him. “Tammy’s not sure yet what she wants to be, but Bink is determined to be a Rescue Ranger.” Oscar didn’t wonder about that. “With the examples she has, I could see why Becky would make that choice. Plus, she has your boy as a friend. He seems like a nice lad.”
       “Theo’s one of the very best things that’s ever happened to me. I just hope that I can be the kind of father that he deserves.”
       “My exact concern with the girls. I know how to be a diagnostic engineer, but not a father. How did you manage it?”
       Chip shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s either something you have or don’t have. You need to be there for them, but at the same time, don’t spoil them, trying to buy their love.” Oscar gave a wry smile. “I wish I could buy a kind word from them, but I’ll take your advice to heart. If you ever need advice on radiation or helping people in a “hot“ area, feel free to ring me up.” Chip stood up. “Will do. And if you need help, I’ll do what I can for you.”

       Oscar shook Chip’s hand and they returned to the conservatory together. Theo, Bink and Sean were entertaining the others with a piano “trio“ that had the group laughing. They were playing Hungarian Rhapsody #2, a common melody used by Bugs Bunny and others when playing a classical piece.
       Eva naturally loved the tune, and Sean had the kids stationed by the high notes, where he’d signal them at the right moments. His playing got faster and faster, then it ended with a flourish and “bom, bing, bom“ from the kids. They all stood and took their bows as the audience clapped and whistled. The rest of the afternoon was spent on similar sport, then it was time for supper. There wasn’t nearly enough room in the kitchen, so the conservatory was employed again. Once everyone had their fill, it was story time.

Story Time, Counting Your Blessings, and Private Talks

       With Monty and his dad, Bedivere and Sean there was no shortage of material. The end of the first hour found Monty about to take over from his dad. “That reminds me o’ the time I was in the Bermuda trapazoid. Or maybe it was more like the time I was in Saskatoon, huntin’ for Bigfoot...”
       “Chicken feed!” Bedivere said. “That don’t sound like nothin’ compared to the ramblin’ ghost of Lost Canyon!” Cheddarhead pouted. “Oy now, don’t be puttin’ down an adventure by an Erskine!”
       “I warn’t puttin’ anything down, but the whole world knows there ain’t nobody can tell a story like a Texan!”
       Daisy interceded before it got out of hand. “Easy, Bedivere. Mister Sean, how about you tell us one?” Theo was sitting next to him, and prodded him. “Yeah! Tell us another one about the Maplewood family history!”
       Sean indicated the row of paintings and pictures high on the wall above them. “Well, there’s been many a Maplewood with many a tale throughout the years. But this being Christmas, there’s only one that comes to mind. Chip, have I ever told you about my great-grandfather, Stamford Maplewood?”
       “No, you haven’t.”
       “Well, now that’s strange. Stamford wasn’t the kind you could forget too easily. Big for a chipmunk, and said to be as strong as a small bear in his prime. He was the first of the Maplewoods to be born an American. An adventuresome soul he was, and always longing to see what he hadn’t. I think you get a lot of your adventuresome spirit from him, Chip. That made him a good companion for a human who went all about that new land, a fellow by the name of Johnny Appleseed. It was in the year 1810, and by then Johnny and Stamford were always seen with one another. Johnny loved animals, and he gave Stamford the nickname Bobtail for his short little tail.”
       Theo was already hooked. “But what does that have to do with Christmas?”
       “Oh, quite a lot. Quite a lot. Now, you’ll know from your history that Johnny was a ‘God-fearing man’ as they called them back in those days. He always looked to do a good turn for someone, and everyone remembers the good turn he did for lots of folks by planting his apple trees. So, he was known around the rural parts really well. They’d let him stay a while and he’d trade stories of other pioneers he’d met, and maybe a recipe or two.
       “Still, it could be a mighty long spell sometimes before he or Stamford would see another human’s face. And for the year I’m thinking about, that was a bad thing. You see, they had an awful winter in 1810. Those who saw it say it was the worst ever. And there was Johnny, working his way through Kentucky and nary a soul around but little Stamford.”
       “What happened then?” Bink asked.
       “Yeah, I need to know this stuff!” Theo said.
       Sean scratched his ear. “Well, Johnny tried to find a place to keep warm but it just wasn’t any use. A blizzard to top all blizzards was blowing and Johnny had to climb a tree to keep from being buried. Now Stamford, he knew that if he didn’t find some help that Johnny wasn’t going to make it. So, off he went and scampered his way through the trees. Now it so happened that they weren’t all that far from a settlement. A little town called Frankfurt was trying out its legs, and Stamford could see the warm fires inside their cabins. But how to get those folks to come and help Johnny? Well, that was a problem.”
       Foxy leaned forward. “What did he do?”
       “Yeah, what?” Dale asked.
       “Well, it occurred to him that it was around Christmas time and that set ol’ Stamford to thinking,” Sean said. “Most folks like to put out bells for Christmas, and sure enough he found a ring of old sleigh bells around the knob of one of the family’s doors. With a leap, he up and knocked the bells off! They jingled and jangled, and Stamford ran through that little town making more racket than a backyard band on a Saturday night!”
       “So he got the people to come after him?” Lahwhinie asked.
       “He wasn’t going to let ‘em sleep, not with Johnny in trouble! He rang and rang until out the people came to see what was making such a stir. They tried to catch Stamford, but he was too crafty for that. He began to lead them. Soon enough, they figured that something was up, because this chipmunk would come back to them then go off in a certain direction. When they found Johnny, he was half-frozen.”
       Gadget gasped. “Oh golly! Was he okay?”
       “With a warm fire and good food, he was fine come morning. And were those people ever glad to see Johnny! You see, they’d stored away food for the winter, but they didn’t have anything to plant for next year. So Johnny gave them all the apple seeds they’d need, and promised he’d send other seed by friends of his along the way. So it was that Stamford saved Johnny Appleseed and that group of people and gave them a grand Christmas. Now there’s one other thing, but I can’t prove it. Still, it’s said that someone in that town on that very day wrote a song, and it goes like this...”
       Sean went to the piano and played “Jingle Bells“. Bink immediately caught the connection, “You mean, when they sing ‘bells on Bobtail ring’, it’s really Stamford?” Sean grinned and shrugged. “That’s the way I heard it. If it’s not so, I’d like to know a better explanation.”

       Foxy immediately started singing the song and everyone joined in. Theo found a couple of sleighbells over in the corner and began shaking them to the rhythm of the tune. Now, everyone was in a festive mood and the songs came fast and furious. Sean went into the kitchen and returned with a surprise—some of his famous hot toasted acorns and walnuts. That plus some punch made for a pleasant evening and the atmosphere was ripe with singing and spices that gave each person a memory they wouldn’t soon forget.

       Sean had returned to the piano by this time, and turned around on the bench to face the others. “When I was your age, Chip, on Christmas Eve the family would get together like this. Seeing all these faces brings back so many good memories of times past. One thing we would do was have each person say what they were glad about that happened during the year. I think we’ve all had something in that manner, so I think I’ll start. I’m glad that all of you are here, and that my family’s alive and well—including me. I’m glad that I got to share this Christmas with so many great people and I hope next year will be just like this. What about you, Theo? What are you glad about?”
       “Wow, they’re too many to name...for dad, my new home, my new family, my new friends, the chance to be what I’ve always wanted to be—it’s just about the best Christmas I could ever have.”
       Monty patted his tummy. “I’m roight glad ya didn’t make any more o’ them spiced nuts! I couldn’t put another one away—course if there was one more...” Everyone laughed while Eva gave him a look and he smiled back. “I’m jest glad I got me family—all me family. Mum an’ dad, my lovin’ wife Eva, me two grand lasses Gadget an’ Lahwhinie and a roight fine new son. There’s me son-in-law Dale, an’ not forgetting me ol’ pal Zipper. An’ I’m glad I’ve got the rest o’ you Rangers an’ your families ta make me loife complete.”
       “I think you said it for me, dahling,” Eva said. “I too am glad for all that, and for a second chance at life.”
       Dale went next. “I’m thankful for the love and support of my friends and family during the most amazing year of my entire life! And for my wife who brought out the best in me, the best that I never even imagined could possibly be in me.”
       “And I’m glad I found the happiness I wanted, and the family I’d dreamed of. And the nicest husband any girl could want,” Gadget said as she kissed Dale, and the crowd gave an “aww“ in appreciation.
       Zipper buzzed to get their attention. “I’m glad I’ve got a voice so I can say what I’m glad about! I’m glad I’ve got the best girl in the world here with me, and that she thought enough of me to come. I’m glad for my friends and the happiness they’ve found. And I’m glad tomorrow’s Christmas, because it’s the most fun day of the year!”
       Honey hesitated, but Zipper urged her on. “I am grateful to finally see that the world outside the hive is not the horror that I had been led to believe, and that there are warm and loving people that exist out here too. And I am glad that I was given this chance to be with Zipper and to finally meet the people that mean the most to him.”
       “And we’re glad you could, Honey,” Chip said. “I’m glad that the Rangers are much closer now than we used to be. That Gadget and Dale are happy, that Monty’s found his family and that Foxy’s found the person she needed all along. I’m very glad to have a son who’s been the best thing that’s happened to me in my life...and I’m glad that I found someone as special as Lahwhinie to care about.”
       Chip glanced over at Lahwhinie, concerned she might be embarrassed and not knowing what her reaction would be. Lahwhinie looked right back “And I’m thankful for lots of stuff—getting my family back, new place, new start, new guy...and other stuff like that.”

       They kept going around like that, the parents mainly reflecting the thoughts of their children. It was getting late now, and Sean noted they’d better get the kids to bed so Santa could come. Theo noted with satisfaction that Sean was one of the first ones to retire for the evening. Gradually, the crowd began to dwindle until it was just Chip, Tammy, Gadget and Lahwhinie. The two sisters went to the kitchen together, leaving Chip and Tammy to talk for the moment.
       “This has been the best Christmastime I can remember,” Chip said, drinking some hot cocoa. “So Tammy, how are you getting on with Oscar?”
       “I wish it could be as wonderful as Gadget, Lahwhinie and Foxglove felt at meeting their long-lost families. Bink doesn’t let on, but she’s hurting a lot more than mom or me. Dad’s just a vague memory to her—he was out of the country when she was born and he didn’t come back till she was over a year old. He’s just not a part of her life. He’s not been around much for me or mom either, but at least we remember him...somewhat. You can’t make up for lost time and you can’t heal every wound, and no amount of good intentions can make everything right.”
       “That’s what’s going through his mind too, believe me. He’s wondering if it’s going to be worth the sacrifices he made to come back here. It took a lot of courage for him to come, and more yet for him to commit to staying, knowing all that. Don’t push him away, Tammy. Give him a chance to start over.”
       Tammy’s eyes were like stones. “Yeah, I’ll give him a chance. But if he runs off again, there are no second chances.” Chip walked over and hugged the girl he’d come to know as a daughter in spirit. “If there were no second chances, Dale wouldn’t be married, Gadget wouldn’t have her mother and sister here, and I wouldn’t be the leader of the Rangers right now. Tammy, don’t keep that anger in you. It’s not worth it.”
       Tammy wanted to cry, but didn’t feel like it. “For you, Chipper, I’ll give him that chance. I want to have a family too.” Chip looked up at her, and grinned. “Remember, you’ve got a boyfriend who I bet’ll be asking for your hand pretty soon. Rob’s a great guy.”
       “Yes, Mr. Detective, you’re right,” Tammy said, her face brightening a little. “Rob’s been dropping hints about wanting to get more serious about our relationship and has been hinting at future plans. I wish he could’ve come, but he’s invited us all over to the Roybrushes when we get back. I’ve already started talking to mom about Rob and me. What do you think about it, Chip? The sad thing is, I don’t know my own dad well enough to even talk to him about this.”
       “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere. He’s going to figure out something the first time he sees you and Rob together. I’m glad you both found each other—you’re both responsible and when Oscar sees that, I’m sure he won’t mind.”
       Tammy huffed. “He’d approve anyone just to make a good impression on me, so I can’t really trust his judgment.” Chip could see that Oscar had a hard hill to climb. “I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Tammy. He cares about you a lot, and he strikes me as the type of person that’s used to evaluating people. I don’t think he’ll approve Rob on sight. Once he’s talked to him and his parents, I’d figure he would. Oscar’s the type that pays attention to details.”
       Tammy was about to make a sarcastic retort, but bit her tongue. “We’ll see what happens.”

       Chip hugged her again and Tammy went on to her room. Lahwhinie had started to come back in, when she saw the tail end of their discussion and held back. Now, she came on in and Chip invited her over. “Sorry about that. She’s upset about her dad, and it’s going to take time for her to get over the resentment she’s built up over him.”
       “Oh, I know all about things like that,” Lahwhinie said, sitting down with a mug of hot chocolate. “I endured and caused plenty of it over the years.” Chip saw Gadget wave goodnight to him from the kitchen and go on to bed. He took a seat and faced Lahwhinie, now free to speak his mind. “You didn’t mind that I said I cared about you, did you? I started not to, with everyone in here—I didn’t know how you’d feel about being in the spotlight, but I also didn’t want to not say anything. Boy, I’m starting to sound like Gadget.”
       “I don’t mind. It’s not like it’s a secret or anything.”
       “I guess not, but I can tell that something’s still not right. Is it anything you can tell me about, or should I just let things be?”
       Lahwhinie sipped some of the hot chocolate. “Chip, do you think about the future? I mean, the two of us? Yeah, I’m a fantastic-looking babe now, but what about forty years down the line? Guys can still look handsome at that age, but we women don’t hold our outward beauty well over that kind of time. Are you sure you’re not just in love with the way I look?”
       Chip gave her a “this again?” expression. “You are beautiful, but that’s not why I love you. It happened over a period of time. I think it started the day you first trusted me, and shut your eyes and let me show you left from right. I was so happy for you when you got it right, I just wanted to pick you up and kiss you right then, but I didn’t dare.”
       Chip took her free hand. “Then there was the way you treated Theo—he needed someone like you to care about him. I’ve seen the looks you give him when he smiles up at you and it means more to me than you’ll know. The time we’ve spent together doing casework’s been great—even with the accident. We’re both going to get old and gray, Lahwhinie. I don’t want a pin-up girl to feed my ego—I want you, a person who I feel needs me, and more I need you. So does Theo.”
       Lahwhinie got a crafty grin on her face. “ So, you’re saying you’ll still love me, till death do us part?” Chip wondered a bit at that look, but nodded. “Until death, and far beyond.”
       “Ack! Don’t get weird and mystical, now. Till death do us part is fine,” Lahwhinie said. For a moment, neither of them knew just what to say, so Lahwhinie tried again. “So, anything on your mind, Chip? Besides me, that is,” she asked, fluttering her lashes.
       “I’m thinking how amazing the changes have been over this past year. Great-grandpa’s little ritual did that for me. I never thought you’d be here in this place that’s so special to me, or that I’d feel this way about you. I can remember being a little boy and climbing onto that piano stool and banging away at the keys. Sean was patient with me and started guiding my hands. I remember thinking ‘I really can play this thing’, and that’s when my love of music started.”
       Lahwhinie had a question about that. “Why do you call your grandfather by his first name? That doesn’t sound very familyish.” Chip chuckled, drinking more of the cocoa. “That was his idea, actually. On that first visit, my folks must’ve told me a dozen times to only call him ‘grandpa’. I did, and after an hour of it, he put me on his lap and said, ‘Chip, you call me Sean’. Then he went on with his piano playing. He never explained why he did that, and dad only calls him father or sir. But for some reason to me he’s Sean—maybe it’s because we’re so similar in a lot of ways.”

       Chip went over to the piano and began to play a quiet melody on the keys. “Lahwhinie, are you happy here, now?”
       “Are you kidding? Compared to where I was a year ago, this is heaven on earth,” she said, walking over to lean against the baby grand. “But if you mean what I think you mean, yes, I am happy—happier than I would’ve thought possible.”
       “That’s all I need to know. We’ve both still got things to work out, and I won’t push you. But if you’re happy, that’s all that matters right now.”
       Chip kept on playing. “Like the tune? It runs through my head whenever I think of you.” Lahwhinie didn’t, but that didn’t stop her sarcastic humor. Let’s see...‘Devil Woman?’, ‘She’s as Cold as Ice?’, or maybe ‘Send in the Clowns?’“
       “I guess you’ve never heard of it. It’s called ‘Stranger on the Shore’. That’s what you were to me at first, just a stranger on the shore. But the melody’s not about a stranger, and you’re not one to me now, either. Whatever comes, I’m glad I got to know you as you are now.”
       Chip finished up the song and closed the keyboard. “Well, I guess we’d both better be moving along. Sean makes the best Christmas breakfast of anyone, and your nose will let you know about it in the morning. Good night, Lahwhinie. Or rather, aloha.”
       “Good night, Chip. And Merry Christmas, loverboy.”
       Chip smiled at her usual appellation for him. “Merry Christmas...Peaches.”

The Final Dream

       Chip headed off for his room after waving good night to Lahwhinie. He knew they still had things to work out, but it had been nice to talk with her again. Now he settled down in a single bed next to the one where his son was sleeping and the music he’d played drifted through his mind for some time. Eventually, it lulled him to sleep.
       Almost instantly, he found himself in a place he didn’t recognize. It was a compound of some sort, with electric wire fencing on the outside and a rather old-looking stone fortress beyond that looked like a medieval castle. He could hear the waves of the sea lapping upon the shore behind him.
       “What...where am I? What’s going on?” Chip asked, looking around.
       “Why don’t you know, brave warrior?” a familiar voice said behind him. “It’s time you proved all those noble and gaudy words you’ve been spouting to your lady fair the past few days.” Chip spun around to find Higgins and Baloo. “Oh, you guys again. Now what do you want?”
       “It’s not what we want, little britches,” Baloo said. “It’s what she wants. You said you’d help her face it. Well, now’s your chance.” Chip looked back at the compound. Even though it was dark, the searchlights on top of the buildings made it clear that this was an island he was on. His attention returned to his cohorts. “What do you mean? I am helping her now! What more can I do?”
       From within the fortress echoed a familiar voice, crying out in such a tone that it sent chills up Chip’s spine. He knew who it was instantly, and began to put the pieces together. Higgins continued talking. “This is where she’s not been able to let anyone come, Chip. Now, it’s up to you to help finally quell what’s been plaguing her. Here—you may as well look the part.”
       A flash surrounded Chip, and he was instantly in knight’s armor and holding a shiny broadsword. “Oh, brother. Are you sure this is necessary?” Higgins stared him down. “I told you that you’d have to be willing to give everything. Are you willing, Chip? She needs you.”
       “But these are just dreams we’ve been sharing! What good will it do?”
       Baloo knelt down by Chip. “Hey, don’t you understand it yet? This is more than just a dream. Very few people get this kind of chance, and fewer still are capable of it. Now, are you gonna help the lady or not?”
       Chip looked at his armor and sword. He’d always sworn to fight for those in need, and this cause might would be the best he could hope for in his career. He centered himself on the inside, facing the encampment again. “To rescue her tortured soul, I will fight for my lady fair with my last breath.”
       “Ah, now that’s the fighting spirit I’ve come to know!” Higgins said. “Keep your guard up, Chip. This place isn’t safe by any means. Remember that you’re not alone, and in the end you can only win the battle together. You have to help her to believe, lad. Now go!”

       Chip turned toward the dark and foreboding castle. As a child, he used to pretend that he was a knight of the round table. Now it was time to prove that he was worthy of such an honor. He pulled down his helmet’s guard and approached the castle. “Fear not, Lady Lahwhinie. I’ll free you from your captors!”
       The gallant chipmunk swung the broadsword, and the gate to the razor wire fence fell open. Instantly, alarms sounded and guards approached. “Stop! You are invading private property!” Chip pointed his sword at them. “I order you to release the fair Lahwhinie or feel my steel, vile scum!”
       “Lahwhinie is the property of the RODENTS, and no affair of yours. Why should we let you pass?”
       “She doesn’t belong to you! You stole her from her mother. She’s of the noble line of Erskine, the likes of which you aren’t worthy to even look upon!”
       Chip swung his sword and slew the guard—or rather, the guard simply vanished. Then Chip pointed the broadsword at the others, and they vanished before he could make an offensive move. Chip would have taken a moment to consider that, but he heard Lahwhinie’s screams again and rushed to the main door. Using the broadsword as a lever, he worked the door open and ran inside. He was surprised to find not more resistance, but twin human girls standing there before him—and his size to boot.
       “Oh, you made it!” Sharon said. “Good. Oh, you are simply marvy in that outfit!” Susan walked around him, admiring the presentation. “Simply the living end!” Chip brought his sword up defensively, with no idea what the twin Haley Mills from The Parent Trap had to do with Lahwhinie’s nightmares.
       “Where is Lahwhinie and what are you doing to her?” Chip demanded.
       “Oh, we aren’t doing anything to her at all, you big silly!” Susan said. “You could say we’re a part of her that’s on her side—and yours.” Sharon stood by her sister, in agreement. “Yes, and she wants to be helped, but you’ve got to keep doing what you just did. She’s in control of all this, you know.”
       “You mean she’s holding herself prisoner in this horrible place?”
       Susan clapped her hands. “Oh, he is quick! She’s been here before she was our age—well, the age we are in her memory anyway. She’s afraid to let go of the past, but at the same time she wants you to help. You’ve just got to keep pressing on! She’s at the top of the fortress at the East Parapet.”
       Chip still didn’t trust them. “If she is so full of self-loathing, why are you two here? Do you represent that part of her they couldn’t corrupt?” Sharon waved at him with both her hands at once, nixing that idea. “Oh, that’s just her big talk! Deep down she’s really nice, but she just uses that to protect herself and all—or that’s what she calls it anyway. Hey, you’d better get going!”
       “Yes, you’re right, she needs me,” Chip said. “I hope you girls are telling me the truth, because I’m going, even if it is a trap!”

       Chip hurried along a dark corridor and up a flight of stairs. He forced another wooden door open with a resounding crack, and walked into a room made of stones fit loosely together. A large, burly mouse stood there behind a desk, wearing a uniform. When he spoke, it was with a German accent.
       “So, you have come to help zee wench? Well, it is no use, because she is a spineless, brainless idiot. You are simply foolish for coming here!”
       Chip saw he wore the RODENTS insignia, and figured him for the island’s commander. “Who are you to judge a person’s worth? You trained her well all right. She’s so messed up, she’s believed that a person could only be judged by what they’re like on the surface! You almost crushed her spirit, but now she’s a beautiful flower, ready to bloom into life. But only if you and your kind can be destroyed.”
       The Commandant rose from behind the desk he was sitting at, and grabbed a sword of his own. “Dummkopf! There is no freedom in zee world! None! We made her strong by teaching her to hate! She would never have survived without it!”
       “Without you, she wouldn’t have needed hate to survive. She would’ve grown up happy and loved, like her sister did. I’m here now to remove your stain from her soul. You owned her body, but now I’ve come to set her soul free.”
       The Commandant yelled in anger and made a threatening move toward Chip, but the chipmunk stood his ground and simply used the broadsword. The ugly image disappeared before his eyes. “Lahwhinie, if you can hear me, you can fight me all you want but you can’t beat me because you know I’m right. All this is what you were, not what you’ve become! I know that this is how you see yourself inside, but if only you could see yourself as I do—the way Theo sees you! Give us a chance, Lahwhinie. Don’t let them win! They’re your past, but we’re your future.”

       Chip proceeded to go behind the Commandant’s desk, where an exit lay with stone stairs going up. He went up another floor, and here he found something entirely different—a harsh-looking female mouse dressed in black. “So, you think to save her? She knows the truth about men like you. All you wish to do is use her, and then you will leave her in the gutter where she belongs!”
       “She’s a beautiful person inside and out, and you’re just a creature of filth and dirt. I’m sending you back to the filth where RODENTS found you!” Chip used his sword, the image vanishing as with the commandant, and again Chip proceeded on.
       Now he was at the third floor and the screams were noticeably louder. As he entered, the sounds of the screams ended and he found the setting very pleasant. Suddenly, a finger tapped him from behind. It was Lahwhinie, in a very exquisite dress of black velvet. She wore jewelry and long black velvet gloves past her elbows. Lahwhinie handed him a flute filled with champagne. “Now, isn’t this pleasant? Just you and me, alone.”
       Soft music started from somewhere, and Lahwhinie put her arms around him. “Isn’t this just divine, Chip? Now, we can have some fun.” Chip knew something was up. “Lahwhinie, why were you screaming? What’s wrong? What’s gotten into you?” Lahwhinie took off his helmet and traced the outline of his ears with her finger, smiling in a way that gave Chip room for pause.
       “Oh, don’t worry your cute little nose about that. That’s long over. You’ve found me, Chip, and I’ll do whatever you want me to. You’ve won me, and now you can have me! That’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it?” She walked toward the entrance to an adjoining room and stood there, waiting for him. Chip knew in his heart it wasn’t right—nothing about it was. “No! I want your heart, not your body. Beauty’s skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone. I thought that of you once and I was wrong.”
       “No, you were right Chip! Come to me, and you’ll know pleasures you never thought possible!”
       He approached her, the temptress smiling in triumph. Her victory was cut short when Chip stopped before she could reach him and brandished his sword instead. “Lahwhinie, there was a time when I might have given into something like this, but I’m not the person I was then, and now, neither are you.”
       Chip swung the sword at the tempestuous image and it vanished. The helmet she had taken fell to the floor and he quickly retrieved it and replaced it on his head. Chip could now see that if he’d gone into the room it would have meant his doom. A pool of hot lava had appeared just past the entrance.
       “Just as I figured. Now, where are you really?”

       From behind, a light shone and a secret panel pulled back from the stone wall. Chip tentatively walked down a long and narrow passageway that reminded him of the walkway to the chambers of the Wizard of Oz. The screams started again, and Chip raced ahead. He’d reached the East Parapet.
       Chip turned a corner, and Lahwhinie was there, chained hand and foot to a giant stone pillar. She was a pitiful figure, with her hair unkempt and her Hawaiian dress dirty and tattered in places. She looked like she’d been here for quite some time. Before her was a masked torturer, threatening her with first one object and then another.
       “Lahwhinie!!” Chip ran forward but ran into an invisible barrier between them and bounced back. “Lahwhinie, what are you doing? Let me in! I can help you!” Lahwhinie had a look of terror in her eyes, and her voice bespoke years of agony at this horrible game. “Oh no, not you too!”
       She turned to face her tormentor. “Please, anything but this! Isn’t it bad enough you’ve used everyone else against me? Now, you even use the image of the guy that I love!” Chip heard the words that he’d so longed for her to say. Even if was just a dream—which he greatly doubted at this point—he’d fight now to his last breath. “Lahwhinie, this is no trick! Just like when we danced at the gazebo before, I’ve been allowed to come again. This time, it’s to fight for you, and with you.” Chip raised his sword toward the masked figure. “She’s no longer yours, whatever you are. I’ve come to set her free or die trying.”
       Lahwhinie looked back at Chip, and realized she’d never seen him in a getup like that. The surprise of it made her forget the dark being before her. “Chip? You mean it’s like—but how did you get here?”
       “I don’t know, but would singing Edelweiss convince you that I’m the real McCoy?”
       Lahwhinie’s features seemed to brighten some at that, but then she pointed and screamed as the torturer turned its attention to Chip. “LOOK OUT, CHIP! He’ll kill you!” Chip stared down the mercurial creature. “Do your worst, accursed specter. I don’t fear you.”

       The torturer increased in size to over twice that of Chip, and laughed deep and haughtily. From nowhere, it produced a mace and began swinging it at Chip. Chip blocked the weapon with his sword, but he was barely able to defend himself. In a free moment, he called to the prisoner. “Lahwhinie, listen to me! This thing is the burden you’ve carried with you all these years! Only you have the power to put an end to this! I fought the things you put in my way to stop me from forcing you to face this enemy. I can’t beat him alone, but I can give you the encouragement to destroy him.”
       Lahwhinie’s face still had terror written all over it. Her eyes welled up with tears, and the desperation was strong in her voice. “I can’t, Chip! I can’t! He’s too strong!” The torturer knocked Chip across the room with his mace, but Chip was only dazed. He got up and came again. “You can do it, Lahwhinie! You’re not their slave anymore. You’re the daughter of Monterey Jack and Eva Roboga, and sister of Gadget. You’re not a worthless lackey, you mean the world to us! You can be free and happy, but you’ve got to believe it and love us more than you fear them!”
       “Shut up, you!” the torturer said, in a voice that vibrated the entire castle. The dark figure produced a broadax in his other hand and sent it hurtling down at Chip. He had to jump like a fly on a hot griddle to keep from being split in two.
       For a time, Chip held his own but then the inevitable happened—Chip was hit by the mace trying to dodge the broadax, and ended up against the energy field in a seated position, unconscious. The torturer cackled with glee and raised his weapon to finish his opponent, but then found to his utter confusion and amazement…he couldn’t. He tried again and still couldn’t. The sinister eyes turned toward the only possible answer.
       “I can...”
       It was the tiniest whisper at first, but when she saw Chip lying there she couldn’t let him suffer what should have been her fate. The torturer was immediately joined by all the other images Chip had fought to get to her.
       “You are worthless!”
       “He is just using you!”
       “All he wants is pleasure!”
       From deep within, Lahwhinie growled at them, and all the images went silent. Now they were the ones that were uncertain, and Lahwhinie stood up, rattling her chains. “No, no! I don’t believe you anymore! I won’t believe you!” The energy field began to fade, and the apparitions tried to threaten her again. “You’re not going to harm ANYONE...EVER..AGAIN!”
       The fetters fell from her and the clang of the chains echoed. “I’m free, do you hear me! I’ve made my choice, and it’s not gonna be you jerks anymore. NOW GO!” The images screamed in wails of torment and then vanished, as if they’d never been. The energy field was gone, and Chip slumped to the floor, unconscious. Lahwhinie didn’t notice it, but she now was clean and had on a sparkling dress like a princess would wear. She ran over to Chip, and gently slapped his face.
       “Hey, hello? Are you in there? C’mon, Chip!”

       Chip’s head was still whirling from that mace when he woke up again. “Not the annoying yodeling puppet song again...can’t we fast forward past this part, mom?” Lahwhinie smiled down at him, and tears began to come. “Sorry, sonny boy. You’ve got to wait like the rest of us until Edelweiss comes up.”
       “Good mom, I like that one...huh? What? Lahwhinie, what happened? Where is everyone?”
       “I got rid of them.”
       Lahwhinie helped Chip to his feet, and his armor disappeared to be replaced with princely raiment. Chip jumped back a little when he saw the effect and looked at himself. “Hey! Where’d this come from?” Lahwhinie grinned, studying the effect. “Yeah, not bad even if I did dream it up myself.” Chip gasped in surprise and impulsively hugged Lahwhinie, then once he realized what he was doing, the chipmunk quickly released her. “Sorry! That’s great news, Lahwhinie. I knew you could beat them.”
       From somewhere, ethereal music began to play and the entire place began to get brighter and brighter. Lahwhinie took his left hand in hers, and placed his other on her hip. They began to dance, and her smile was glorious. “It’s okay now, loverboy. I think for once it’s gonna be a great day.”
       They’d won. Chip looked at her now, and was amazed by the transformation. “Your future belongs to you now. It can be filled with anything or anyone you want.” Lahwhinie rested her head on his shoulder, and the music to Edelweiss began. “This is one time I hope that this is one of those oddball kooky dreams. Chip, do you think when we wake up we’ll remember it?”
       “I sure hope so. I want you to remember how it feels to have victory over your fears and pain, and so you can remember how if feels to be free.” The music stopped, and Lahwhinie started to give him a kiss, then thought better of it. “If this is one of those oddball kooky dreams, then if I kiss you we’ll both wake up. I’d rather stay like this for a while, and kiss you later.”
       The music started again, and Chip doffed his plumed hat and bowed. “Whatever you desire, Your Majesty!” Lahwhinie actually giggled and the dancing went on. Unknown to them, Higgins, Baloo, and the twins were watching. They were all-smiles, and once they’d nodded their agreement to each other they slowly faded away in the shine of the ever-increasing light.
       The fortress was now a lovely castle, surrounded by a beautiful greenwood. And on one of those green hills, a white gazebo appeared and the two dancers appeared in it as well. They shared each other’s happiness in dance and song for what seemed hours to them, and then the rays of morning awoke Lahwhinie Erskine. For perhaps the first time in her life, she awoke with a smile.

Christmas Morning, Presents Galore, and The Best Gift of All

       On that favorite morning of the year, Sean was up first, wanting to have everything ready for the large contingent when they woke up. Lahwhinie walked into the kitchen, the aroma of the baking nuts guiding her. She seemed tentative and even a little timid walking in.
       “Well, hello there!” Sean said. “Now, which one are you? I don’t see Dale, so I’d guess Lahwhinie.” Lahwhinie looked around, but only Sean was there. “Yeah, that’s me. Say, that’s some great-smelling breakfast. When do we eat?”
       “Well miss, it’s first-come first-served. And I think you’re about to be served.” The oven timer dinged, and Sean took out the freshly-roasted and seasoned nuts, humming a tune. The aroma really filled the room now, and Sean placed the first helping in front of Lahwhinie as she sat down.
       “They’re a little hot at first,” Sean warned. “I’m glad I got to talk with you now, because I missed out last night. Where are you from?” Lahwhinie sampled one of them, finding it delectable. “I’m from Hawaii, from a little village that no one’s ever heard of.” Sean’s interest was up immediately. “Hawaii? I’ve been there many times in my life. Wonderful place, and great people. I like the language—it’s melodic in nature.”
       Sean ate a few nuts, then started humming a tune that Lahwhinie wasn’t familiar with. “When I was a boy, there was a song about a beach in Hawaii that everyone sang the music to. It was called ‘Ka-lu-a’. I went to Hawaii the first time just to see that beach, a gorgeous thing. Did you used to frequent it?”
       “I lived on the beach most of my life, if that’s what you mean. I had an old boyfriend who loved to surf. The beach was nice, but if you’re around it constantly it’s just a big pile of sand. It’s only interesting if you’re visiting, really.”
       “Well, that’s true. A place can become common if one’s used to it. So, what are your plans now? Will you stay with my grandson Chip as a member of the Rangers, or do you have different aspirations?”
       Lahwhinie remembered the dream, and it sent her feelings into turmoil. “I don’t know, but in some strange way, I feel different about him today than I did yesterday. Maybe it’s a Christmas thing. I love Chip a lot, but I don’t know if it will be right being together. He deserves a girl much nicer than me. I’m trouble and always will be, no matter how much I change.”
       Sean got out a second batch and put more nuts in. “You know, I thought there was something troubling you last night, but when I look in your eyes, I don’t see trouble there. It’s certainly not in your voice. Are you afraid that he won’t live up to the way you see him?”
       “That’s not the problem. If anything, he’s a completely different guy than I had believed he was. I’m worried I can’t live up to the way he sees me, and that I won’t be able to live up to what Theo wants me to be.”
       Sean took a seat. “My dear, listen to an old munk. We all have that fear when we’re young. I’ve seen it in myself, my wife, my son and his wife, in you, and yes in Chip. I can read that grandson of mine pretty well. He loves you dearly, and I don’t think you could ever disappoint him or the boy. It’s your choice what you do with your life, of course. Are you concerned that life as a wife and mother might be ordinary?”
       Lahwhinie looked down and away from him. “Well, there is that too, but being with the Rangers will be exciting and being Theo’s mom would certainly be an adventure all in itself. But what if I get bored? I’m used to being totally independent, and I don’t know if I can fit into such a close family circle.”
       “Well now, you don’t strike me as a mouse that allows herself to get bored. Remember, relationships go two ways. They’ve got to be willing to allow for your likes and dislikes too. If they aren’t doing enough of the things you like, then maybe it’s time you took the initiative and started suggesting group activities. Have you done anything like that before?”
       Lahwhinie smiled, remembering. “Yeah, we’ve done some stuff. We had a luau.” That brought back memories for Sean as well. “A luau? Oh, I bet they had fun with that! I remember going to one when I was around your age. It was before I met my dear Katherine, and those hula girls had my full attention. I still have fond memories of those times. You should plan some beach activities when the weather warms up again, and get my grandson away from those books of his every now and again.”
       Sean placed a hand on her arm. “You’ve got a lot of bring to them—you’re an active person and used to going and doing things. I think you’ll help them all learn to be more comfortable in getting out more.”
       “But I’m not like them! I did terrible things, and I was a terrible person. What can they really think of me, knowing what I used to be like?”
       “Listen to yourself, child—you did, you were, you used to be. I didn’t see one person in there last night that thought of you as a terrible person. I’m a pretty good judge of character, and the girl I’m talking to is kind, but not used to being treated kindly. She likes being with people, but has difficulty placing trust in them. She loves, but has never allowed herself to express it. Do I hit pretty close to the mark?”
       Lahwhinie’s voice lowered to a whisper. “The sad thing is, I don’t know.” Sean set out another batch, and noises from the far end of the house caught their attention. “Then it’s time you found out. The others will be here pretty soon now. The scent of these nuts has a way of drawing a crowd. I’ll keep our conversation between us, Lahwhinie. You can always feel free to talk with me.”
       “Thanks, Sean. You’re a pal.”

       Within a minute, Lahwhinie and Sean were joined by the Fairmonts, plus Noel and Foxy. Bedivere traded Sean the recipe for his triple-hot chili to get the recipe for the nuts, which led to a general talk on food. Naturally, the Erskines joined in with them at this point, and the conversation covered every bit of the world before it was over.
       “I think between us all, we’ve been to every major city on earth,” Sean said. “That’s quite an accomplishment. I can remember growing up and not having any idea of what was going on outside my little area of the world. The world’s gotten smaller, but still retains its flavor.”
       “I never cared much fer cities,” Monty said. “I like the big wide open places—deserts, great plains and tundras and stuff like that.”
       “Ah, but Paris an’ Rome change a bloke once ya been there. Right, Katie me darlin’?” Cheddarhead asked. Kate elbowed him as he pinched her cheek. “Well, you did learn about five new words, I must admit. Gouda, Brie, Provolone...”
       “Aw, goes with the territory. Still, it helps to have a rounded picture of the world.”
       “And you’ve got a rounded picture all roight, Cheddarwheel…“

       Gadget and Dale were next in, quickly followed by the family Chesnutt. The squirrels were particularly fond of the nuts, and let Sean know it in no uncertain terms. Bink found herself looking around. “Hey, why aren’t Theo and Chip up? Want me to go pound on their door?”
       “Don’t worry, they’ll be up soon enough,” Sean said, glancing at Lahwhinie. “On Christmas morning, we let everyone get up as they please. Oh, that reminds me. Merry Christmas, everyone!”
       The group shared the greeting with each other, and a short time later, Chip shuffled into the room with Theo next to him, bounding in with excitement. “Good morning and Merry Christmas!” Chip said.
       “Yeah! It’s Christmas!!!” Theo said, jubilant. They got Christmas greetings in return and joined in the holiday breakfast. Soon, they all went into the conservatory where they found Sean had been at work again. A freshly-decorated tree stood in the middle of the room, and a garland wound its way around the room’s exterior. He’d even managed to get some mistletoe, which hung from the small chandelier near the piano.

       Everyone thanked him for making the extra-kind effort, then Sean started up the Christmas music and the singing followed naturally. After that, it was present-opening time. Representatives of each family went to their rooms and brought back the gifts which were laid at the foot of the tree—an impressive pile before it was over. Chip and Noel were recruited to distribute, and soon the noise of wrapping paper filled the room along with laughter and pleased surprise.
       Theo opened a box that he had gotten from Dale and Gadget. Inside was a white tuxedo. “Every superspy needs a white tux,” Dale said.
       “That’s just a training tuxedo,” Gadget said. “You’ll have to wait till you’re older for one with spy gadgets built in.” Theo slipped it on, liking the fit. “Hey, it’s neat! I can pretend I’m Dirk Sauve or that Jake’s Stone’s gone classy.” Theo was about to go creative when Bink tapped him on the shoulder. “Can I open yours first? I’ve just gotta know what you got me!”
       “Sure, Be...nky...” Theo handed his gift to her and hoped with all his might that she’d like it. Bink tore the paper off, and opened the white container box to reveal the music box within. Her eyes widened with surprise and delight as she wound the box and it played “Clair de Lune.”
       “Oh, it’s wonderful!” Bink hugged Theo’s neck and went around showing everyone her new present. Donna took a moment out to thank him. “That was a very thoughtful gift, Theo. She’ll never forget it.”
       “Thanks, ma’am,” Theo said, looking modest. “I was hoping she’d like it, but it wasn’t an easy choice finding just the right gift for a girl you like...but not like that, she’s my friend.” Bink came back from her tour of the room, and carefully put her box aside. “Here, Theo. I hope you like it.” Theo opened the package Bink gave him and found she’d gotten him a red silk handkerchief and had embroidered the initals of Jake Stone on it in white. She took and folded it neatly, placing it in his new jacket’s breast pocket. “I sorta asked around what you were getting and decided to make you something to top it off.”
       “Thanks! Man, do I look cool in this tux or what?”
       Eva smiled at the young boy’s enthusiasm and she responded playfully. “Ve ladies had best watch out. There is a highly-cultured young man in here. Do treat us kindly, Mister Stone. Your charming vays could have our husbands after you.”

       Theo enjoyed the attention, then Gadget handed him another box which he gave to Bink. “I didn’t know if we’d have this ready by Christmas, but Aunt Gadget and I finished it up a couple of days ago and I just couldn’t wait for your birthday.” Bink looked at him curiously and opened the box. Everyone instantly shifted their attention to Bink, because she screamed in absolute merriment. “A real Goslyn Mallard shirt!” Bink slipped it over her own shirt—a gray polo with pink piping and the number 01 on the front in white—and twirled around, happy as she’d ever been. Then she remembered who’d given it to her.
       “Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!” Bink shouted, tackling Theo, then pulling him up and dancing around, holding his hands. “This is the coolest!” Theo was laughing, joining in his friend’s appreciation. “You’re welcome. I knew you’d love it.” Bink reached for him and kissed him on the cheek.
       “Binky!” Donna said. That brought Bink down from cloud nine. “Oh, sorry. I guess I got a little carried away.” She ducked her head, now noticing that all eyes were on her. The group laughed in response, and Bink sheepishly smiled back.
       Monty laughed at Bink’s playfulness, then returned his attention to his wife. “I’d best be givin’ you me present now, Eva an’ git yer mind off that suave-lookin’ lad. Here ya go, luv.” Eva opened the box to find a gold necklace of native African design. “That was the last thing a got before I left ol’ Gabarah an’ Africa once an’ fer all. Been savin’ it all these years and I’d plumb fergot about it till you came back. Merry Christmas, luv. Now open this here, too.”
       “Another one? Oh, dahling, you shouldn’t have,” Eva said, opening a small, giftwrapped box. Eva could detect some sadness in Monty’s eyes as she unwrapped the box and saw a ring inside—two large diamonds with twenty four smaller blue stones on the band. “Monty, it’s beautiful!”
       “Them two diamonds is fer our twice gettin’ married and the blues stones are fer the years we were blue while we were apart.”
       Eva put the ring on, while Monty helped her with the necklace. “Monty, dahling, you are the romantic! I shall treasure it always.”
       “Jes’ loike I’ll treasure you, me treasure.” Then Eva gave Monty his gift—a new set of cooking tools complete with chef’s hat. “ There, now you vill look like the master chef in the kitchen.”

       Dale handed Gadget a small box. “ I hope you like it, Gadget. It’s quite a lot in a little package.”
       “I’m sure I’ll love it, Dale, don’t worry.” She unwrapped it and saw a gold locket on a chain. She put it on and then opened the locket to find pictures of herself and Dale that he had painted by hand, with very small brushes. “Dale, this must’ve taken ages to paint, they’re magnificent! Thank you, Dale,” she said, hugging him tightly.
       “You’re welcome, dear. Now wha’d ya get me?! What, what, what?” Gadget giggled at his boyish charm and handed him a long box that Dale mistook for being light and he nearly fell on the floor with it. “Wow, I can’t wait ta see what’s in this!” Dale tore open the wrapping to find that most of the weight was a solid oak box that Gadget had made to house the present inside. When Dale opened it, he whistled in admiration. Nestled in a felt container was a beautifully-crafted sword that glistened in the light. Dale picked it up and found it balanced perfectly to his hand. “Just like the one my ancestor Lucien D’Oakmont had! Gadget, did you make this from that painting I did of him?”
       Gadget blushed. “Well, that was most of it. But for some, I just used my imagination. I hope you like it—it’s not just steel, it’s titanium, so you’ll never have to sharpen it!” Dale gave the sword a practice swing. “Wow, I could cut through about anything with that!”
       “Oh, and here’s something else.” Gadget handed over a smaller package and Dale tore it open to reveal a new red shirt. He fluffed it to show the full shirt. “All right! Red with…Yakko, Wakko and Dot?! Gadget!”
       “I thought you’d like that,” Gadget chuckled. “I think that you’re an Animaniac at heart, Dale.” Dale then handed another package to Gadget in return. She opened it and immediately started giggling.
       “That’ll be handy for the rest of us,” Dale said. Gadget read the sign that Dale had made for her. “ ‘The genius with the mind-bashingly high I.Q. is in’. Dale, that’s so sweet. I can hang that on the workshop door!”

       Now it was Zipper’s turn. “I hope you’ll like this, Honey. Like Theo, I had some help.” Honey took the tiny box—well, not tiny from her perspective—and opened it slowly. “Oh!” she exclaimed, taking out a golden tiara, with the Ranger symbol on front. “It’s beautiful, Zipper!” Honey kissed him, then Chip brought over another small package. “This is something from all of us, Honey, to let you know that you’re welcome with the Rangers anytime.” Honey opened the gift to find a matching outfit not unlike Gadget’s coveralls, except this had a separate top and bottom and was light green. “This way, you’ll have something that can stand up to Ranger duty!” Gadget said.
       Honey couldn’t believe they’d gone to so much trouble, and a few tears fell. “Thank you, each one of you. Oh, and I have something for all of you as well.” Honey flew over to a package and opened it, revealing a type of pastry. “These are honey cakes, made in the hive’s royal kitchen. I brought enough for everyone, at least I hope so. And this is for you, Zipper.” Honey brought him a finely-wrapped package that when opened revealed a stunning outfit of red with white sleeves made of silkworm thread. Zipper couldn’t believe it. “It’s incredible. Thanks, Honey.”

       Since the personal gifts seemed to be going around the room, Noel gave Foxy hers next. “I think this’ll come in handy, Foxy.” Foxglove opened it to find herself holding a custom-made silver belt buckle, hatband and pen. “The first two you can wear, and the last you can use for signing all those autographs!” Foxy handed Noel a package and he quickly opened it. “I hope you like them, they’re Gila skin boots.”
       Noel had been staring at the boots, but when she mentioned ‘Gila skin’ he laughed out loud and stuck them right on. “Now this is a gift I’ll relish! Oh, and here’s your other present.” Noel handed Foxy a rather large wrapped gift. When she opened it, Foxy pulled it on with delight. “A stage cape, complete with rhinestones! Oh, how did you know I wanted that?”
       “Like my brother, I’m a good detective,” Noel said, winking.

       On that note, all eyes turned to Chip. He knew that in a way they’d been saving he and Lahwhinie for last. Chip brought out a box a little bigger than his hand and gave it to her. “I think you’ll like them, Lahwhinie. They reminded me of you the moment I saw them.” Lahwhinie wasn’t sure what to make of Chip’s comments, but she hoped it was meant as a compliment. She opened the gift and gasped when she saw the pearl necklace. “Chip, are you nuts? These must’ve cost a fortune!”
       “No, just two cents,” smiling and catching Noel’s wink. “Oh, and for that two cents they threw a little extra into the bargain.” Chip handed her another smaller box which she opened and found pearl earrings mounted in gold. “Wow. I’ll look like the pearl goddess or something.”
       “My thoughts exactly,” Chip said.
       Lahwhinie gave him a hug, then handed Chip his present. “Compared to what you gave me, this will be really lame, but I hope you like it.” Chip opened the rather large box to reveal a musical stand, with a finely-crafted couple on top holding each other as they danced. Chip smiled at her as he wound it up, and smiled more as the dancers began to move around to the tune of Edelweiss. “My favorite...Lahwhinie, I love it! C’mon, let’s dance!”
       Chip took her hands and pulled her up. She hesitantly followed, but was swept up in Chip’s enthusiasm. “Okay, but I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” Chip was starting to lead her across the floor when Bedivere stood up. “Hey, you two! Don’t get carried away too much yet, there’s still another batch o’ presents ta go!”

       Bedivere went into his room and came out with another bundle he’d been saving. He started distributing the gifts, which were all in expensively-wrapped packages. “These here are from Mr. Steadman, with his compliments. He made me promise that Gadget an’ Lahwhinie’d be the first ones to open theirs. He seemed ta think that they’d find their gifts pretty special.”
       Lahwhinie opened her gift and was surprised to see the pearlish silk designer dress and matching shoes that she’d worn in Houston. “Hold that thought, Chip. I’ll be right back!” Lahwhinie rushed out of the room, and Gadget opened her gift, smiling when she saw the shimmering blue dress, also with the shoes. “Golly, that sure was nice of Mr. Steadman to give us these!”
       Gadget got up and went to try on her dress. “I’ll be back in a minute Dale.” When the two sisters returned, the only way to tell them apart was the color of their dresses. While Gadget went over to Dale, Lahwhinie walked up to Chip, who couldn’t take his eyes off her. With the pearl necklace and earrings on besides, she looked even more lovely than she had in their dream at the gazebo. “That’s the dress I had in mind when I got the pearls, or rather the one from our dream. I’d forgotten how much that one looks like it.”
       Lahwhinie slowly approached him. “Well, that dream really stuck in my mind, for a lot of reasons. Chip, thanks for everything. Of course, there’s also another dream we had, one with unfinished business.” Chip began to back up toward the piano, still not able to look away from her. Lahwhinie kept him from bumping into the piano, as he’d had the notion to tell Sean to play Edelwiess for them, when Bink giggled. “Look where Chip and Lahwhinie are!”
       Chip looked up, and sure enough, they were under the mistletoe. Chip didn’t know if he should even look back down. **Oh, no. Is she going to be mad? Will she storm out of the room? Will she throw me to the floor and dig those heels of hers into my spine?** It was too much, and, with a tinge of trepidation mixed with hope, Chip looked down into her face.
       She gave Chip a seductive smile, but it showed genuine warmth. She stepped up to him and gently put her arms around his neck. “This time, loverboy, I really mean it.”
       Then she kissed him.

       For Chip, all existence came to a halt. In the room, all conversation stopped as they viewed a kiss to remember. Theo was beaming with joy as he looked on. Finally, they separated. Chip could only think of one thing to say. “Wow...I’m glad you saved the kiss for later. That really would have made me wake up.”
       Lahwhinie’s eyes widened some in surprise, but she revealed nothing. “You’d better remember that one, loverboy. That’s the first time I ever kissed someone that I was in love with.” Chip couldn’t believe it. She’d said it, right in front of everyone! “Remember it? How could I forget it? That was better than any dream I could have asked for. And so are you.”
       Then Lahwhinie realized where they were. “I can’t believe I just kissed you in front of everyone! Uh, show’s over folks, you can return to your regularly scheduled gift unwrapping.” She grabbed Chip’s arm and led him out of the room quickly, leaving a trail of smiles and appreciative laughter behind.

Lovers Talk, Ring In The New Year and A Wish Granted

       When they got to the library, she closed the door behind her. “You have to tell me something. Did you get in my dreams again last night?” Chip was still trying to recover from that kiss, but managed to answer. “If you were being tormented by a giant dude with an axe and a mace, and you saved me from him and danced with me for hours, you did.”
       “You’re so weird,” Lahwhinie said, laughing a little. “How can you be in my dreams? It’s like we’re linked somehow.” Chip walked to her, taking her hands. “I asked the guys who were with me about that, and they said it was more than a dream. It was something special, and only a few people get the chance I did. I noticed you had a couple of weird characters helping me, too. Strange that they’d be the twins from The Parent Trap.”
       “I watched that movie after I met you guys the first time, I don’t know why. Maybe I wished I was with the family I’d been separated from.”
       Chip touched her face gently. “I’d say you got your wish, then. Maybe your wish got me, too. In any case, what happened was real. You’re free from that past that’s been haunting you, and now you can start to live your life. I’d be more than honored to live that life with you.”
       Lahwhinie took Chip’s hand in hers. “Chip, do you really want to be with me? If we get together, you’re stuck with me for life.”
       “I know your heart, because I was there last night. You know mine. Neither of us is perfect, but I couldn’t imagine a finer thing than going through life with you. And you only got it half right—we’re stuck with each other. I didn’t really appreciate how much Dale gained by being with Gadget at first, but now when you’re near me I...I’m more than what I am by myself.”
       Lahwhinie felt the room getting warm. “You wouldn’t be ashamed of me and what I’ve done before?” Chip sat her down at one of the chairs at the table. “I don’t think you were aware of it, but to get to you I had to literally face your past. I saw every person that made your life what it was. I even had to face the way you used to be, and if I had bought that lie I’d have died right then and there. I know why you were what you were, but you’re no longer that person. What’s there to be ashamed of?”

       Lahwhinie began to cry. “Chip, just because I’m not the way I was before doesn’t make me feel any less guilty about the things I’ve done in the past.” Chip pulled her to him. “Easy, now. You’ve learned from your mistakes, and there’s no sense torturing yourself. The best thing you can do is to be glad you’re okay now. If you want, we’ll go back to Hawaii and you can make amends with Hubba-Hubba, Shaka-Baka and the other tribemice.”
       **Among the host of others who hate me.** “That might help a little. Can you accept me as a mom for Theo? And any other kids we may take care of in future?” Chip hugged her protectively. “I accepted you as that long ago, and Theo did before me. As for other children, I don’t know. I’m happy with the one I have. But whatever happens, you won’t have to face it alone. You’ll never be alone again.”
       Chip brushed her blonde locks back and kissed her, letting her feel the love he had for her. Lahwhinie kissed him back, and for a time they were peaceful in each other’s presence. After a time, Lahwhinie spoke again. “I’m afraid that this is all just a dream and that I’m still who I used to be, dreaming I was someone different.”
       Chip started guiding her to the door. “Well, if all this is just an elaborate dream, then you’re the best dreamer I’ve ever come across. Come on, let’s get back to the others before they begin to worry.”
       “I don’t think they’ll be worrying. Theo’s probably jumping for joy in there.”

       Chip escorted Lahwhinie back into the conservatory. She was embarrassed with the attention, but the contented smiles on every face welcomed them both back in. Nothing had changed since they’d left—no one had even opened another present—they’d all waited for them. Now Sean got their attention from his place at the piano.
       “There’s nothing like sharing the happiness of two people who care about each other like you both obviously do. From your words earlier, it sounds like you each were the answer to the other’s dream. There’s only one song I can think of to go with that, and I’d like to dedicate it to you both. Chip, Lahwhinie, may you both be happy together.”
       Sean didn’t wait for a reply, but began to play and at the same time sing a favorite song of his. His voice was still good, though not as strong as it was in his early days. Still, it carried the full meaning

       Long ago, and far away
       I dreamed a dream one day
       And now, that dream is here beside me
       Just one look and then I knew
       That all I longed for long ago was you…

       Lahwhinie drew Chip back under the mistletoe and kissed him again. “Okay Chip, I tentatively accept.” Now it was Chip’s turn to cry. “You mean, you will? You’ll marry me?” She nodded, laughing. “Yes, you sentimental Little Napoleon. I’ll marry you!” Chip cried and laughed, as the others around them did some too, congratulating them both. Well, except for Theo, who let out a victory shout.
       “I feel like shouting myself, but all that’s coming out is a whisper. Do you really love me? Can I be that fortunate?” Chip asked. Lahwhinie held him tightly. “Chip, for being able to see the real me and still love me after that—well, that takes a very special, not to mention nutsy kinda guy. Just don’t rush me, there’s still a lot of work to be done. But if you can see it in your heart to accept me, then I can meet you halfway.”
       “I’ll be waiting for you, Lahwhinie.”
       They kissed again, while Sean slid over to the end of piano bench nearest them and tapped Chip on the shoulder. “Here, I think you might need this.” Sean handed him a lovely antique engagement ring, with emeralds and diamonds inset into it. “My dear Katherine wore it every day she lived. She couldn’t bear to part with it, but now I think she’d approve.”
       Chip took the ring, and found his hand was shaking. He took Lahwhinie’s hand, and placed the ring on her finger, and everyone clapped. “We’ll take it a day a time. As long as I know you’ll be there for each of them, that’s all that matters for me.”
       “Don’t worry, loverboy. I’ll be around for you, and for Theo.”
       The group broke into spontaneous applause again, and Bedivere let out a Texas yell. Theo ran over and hugged them both. “I knew there was something about you the first day I saw you, Aunt Lahwhinie! Now I get a friend and a mom! Say, you haven’t gotten my present for you yet!”
       Theo rushed to get it, and gave her a thin rectangular package. Lahwhinie opened it tentatively, and then she could see what it was—another collection of Dr. Seuss stories. “You never know when you might be called on to read Yertle the Turtle,” Theo said, grinning. Lahwhinie chuckled. “I’ll need to know them for when your dad and I are babysitting your children, when you’re off on some adventure somewhere.”

       A while later, after the euphoria of the proposal and everything had passed, Lahwhinie remembered that she still had one special gift left to give. She got Theo’s attention and motioned for him to follow her out of the room.
       Theo came with her and she shut the door to the library. “Why so hush-hush, Aunt...well, I guess I’ll have to call you Aunt Lahwhinie for a little while more anyway,” Theo said. Lahwhinie handed Theo a gift-wrapped box. “I wasn’t sure how you’d react to this, so I wanted you to open it in private in case you didn’t like it.”
       Theo looked up at her curiously, then walked over to a chair and sat down. Lahwhinie came over by him as he slowly opened it. When he slid the paper away and he saw the picture, he gasped in utter surprise. “It’s..it’s my mom and dad! But how? How did you ever get this?!”
       “It took me a while to track it down. That lady from the orphanage gave me your old address, so I started knocking on doors, asking if anyone knew your folks and if anyone had a picture of them. Eventually I found a little old lady named Mrs. Pendergast. She had that picture there, and said she used to baby-sit you when you were little. She made that pie that I brought home the other day.”
       Theo took the picture in both his hands and hopped off the chair. He walked to the far end of the room and just stared at it for a bit. “Mrs. Pendergast...yeah, I think I remember a name like that. The pie was real familiar. But this...I never thought I’d get to see mom and dad again or have anything to remember them with.” Theo started to cry, and ran to Lahwhinie. She knelt down as he came, and she held him close to her. “You’re the best mom a kid could ask for...thank you...”
       “And you’re the best son any mom could ask for...I love you, son.”

       Theo hugged her tight, letting the rest of his pent-up emotions come out. They stayed there like that for a while—she rocked him back and forth, letting him know she was there for him. For Theo, it was the first time since the fire he’d truly felt whole. He had Chip, and now he had Lahwhinie. “Now I wish I’d gotten you something better. You got me the best present of all.”
       Lahwhinie backed up a little, letting him see her smile. “You did give me something wonderful, Theo. You’ve given me a place in your heart. I can’t promise that I’ll be a perfect mom, but I’ll give it my very best shot.”
       Theo hugged her again. “I know you will, and I’ll try not to cause you any trouble. Well, at least not too much…“ Lahwhinie smirked at his joking remark. “And I’ll try not to make too much trouble for you. All right, son, let’s get back out there. There’s still lots of Christmasy type stuff to do yet tonight. So, are you gonna kiss Bink under the mistletoe?” She nudged Theo playfully.
       “Not unless she catches me and holds me down or something. She might be faster than me, but I’m sly and crafty.”
       Lahwhinie smiled. “Just wait a few years, Theo. You’ll be begging her to go out on a date with you.” Theo gave her a “wanna bet” look. “Me, beg? Jake Stone begs no one!” Lahwhinie patted him on that back. “Well, she’s an independent young woman, she’ll probably ask you out.” Now Theo gave her an entirely different look. “Are you serious? You think girls will be coming over trying to make me spend time with them?”
       Lahwhinie looked at him in his tux. “A handsome, suave guy like you’ll have to beat the girls off with a stick. Don’t worry, I’ll help you separate the good from the bad.” Theo breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s a load off my mind. With you around, I won’t have to worry about any girls until I’m 30! I’ll be too ancient then for them to care.”
       “Thirty? Ha! Chip and I will have to start worrying in two years, tops. I’m sure you’ll find a nice girl, and I’ll show you how to read a woman so you can see through the façade and get a better understanding of what she’s really like.”
       “Sounds like a good skill to add to my training. So tell me, what’s Bink really like then?” Lahwhinie wondered if she should tell him, but concluded that she should be honest. “Well, she’s afraid of becoming a housewife like her mom, so she’s more adventurous than she would be otherwise, just for the sake of being different. She’s genuinely fond of you, but it’s too early to tell if that’ll turn to romance in the future. She has a bit of anger against guys in general, but your friendship has been helping in that area.”
       “I sensed that too. She’s a little stand-offish, but we have good times. Hey, we’re missing the party! There’s still more gifts to open.”
       Lahwhinie smiled. **Wait a few years and you won’t be able to change gears so fast when you’re thinking about girls, kiddo.** “Yeah, let’s see what kind of loot we have that’s still waiting for us.”

A Few Presents More and Dreams Fade

       The two of them went back in to find most everyone talking with Chip. Words of congratulations were still going around, and amidst it all more gifts were being opened. Theo ran over to Chip, and pulled him over to a particular present. “Hey, dad! You haven’t seen what Mr. Steadman gave you yet.”
       “Neither have you, for that matter. Okay, I’ll go first...” Chip opened the box, and found himself holding the very bullwhip he’d used to thwart the criminal at the store in Austin. Attached was a note that read, “The manager insisted you have this, Chip. Hope it’s always as useful to you as it was in Austin.”
       “A real David Morgan...I’ve wanted one of these since I was a kid...” Chip flipped the whip slightly and the cracker on the end snapped the air. Theo liked that one too. “Wow! I’ll have to borrow that sometime. I wonder what he got me?”
       Theo tore open the box. “Gila skin cowboy boots, just like Noel’s!” Then he noticed a smaller box inside that one. “And a sterling silver sheriff’s badge!” Noel walked over, inspecting Theo’s bounty. “Well, we know who the law is around here, anyway. Look at what he got me!” Noel pulled out a designer guitar, complete with his name inscripted on the front.
       “And he got me the fur I wore it that other store! He must’ve gone down to Austin himself and asked what happened.”
       “Golly, that sure was nice of him,” Gadget said. “I hope they’re having a great Christmas.” Dale had just returned in his new Animaniacs shirt. “I’m sure Sweet Melissa and him’re having a ball! I sure am. Say, we’d better thank ‘em for all this stuff!”
       “We’ll do that first thing when we get back to New York,” Noel said. Sean held up an ivory-and-gold conductor’s baton he’d received from the Steadmans. “Most certainly. Such men are rare to find.”

       As the party inside continued, unseen to the others, several faces looked in from the outside on the happy festivities. Higgins sighed with contentment. “Ah, it’s been a rousing success to my thinking. The shrew is now a lady and our charge had found his love. I suppose it had to happen, but at least we were able to help him.”
       “You got that right, Higgy,” Baloo said. “They got just what they needed, each other.”
       “And doesn’t Lahwhinie look fab in that dress!” Sharon said. Susan grinned widely. “Simply the...”
       “Puh-lease don’t say ‘living end’ again, sixties girlie!” Johnny Bravo said. “It’s creeping me out.” Elvis strummed his guitar. “Well, it looks like thangs worked out for everybody. Dale got his pretty momma and now Chip did too. I think we owe ourselves a pat on the back and a ‘Thankyouverymuch’.”
       Johnny fell to his knees at once. “Oh, the man! I am so very humbled by your approval!” Johnny began kissing the King’s ring-laden hand. “Stop slobbering on mah hands, fan boy, and don’t step on my blue suede shoes neither. So, who’s next on our list to help? I hope it’s not that Urkel guy.”
       Charlie Brown pulled out a list. “No, according to the boss it’s two people named Shaggy and Daphne.” Johnny did a dope slap. “Oh man, are we gonna have our work cut out for us with those two!”
       “Well, no time like the present, gang!” Baloo said, jukeing around to his own brand of music. “Look for the bare necessities...”
       “Will you stop that infernal catterwalling!” Higgins said. Baloo grabbed Higgins around the waist, still singing, and pulled him on with him as the onlookers waved goodbye and disappeared. Inside, the joys of Christmas reigned. New families were coming together, as were new loves. As the music drifted from the lodge, it reflected the feelings of the season for them all—peace on earth, good will toward men.


       Shaggy Rogers walked into the malt shop, with the craziest look on his face—it didn’t involve food. He walked right over to his friends, and addressed an attractive young girl named Daphne. “Like, Daphne, I just like had this crazy dream...and I, uh...wanna tell you something.”
       “Oh, Shaggy! I love you too! Kiss me, you hunka, hunka burnin’ love!”
       “Ro roy,” Scooby said, reaching for another sandwich. Fred’s attention was elsewhere. “Velma, now that Daphne’s out of the way, I can finally tell you how much I love you...”

       Okay, the real Epilogue

       The day after Christmas found Anna Pendergast at home. That was nothing unusual, but she was fidgeting with nervous excitement because she was anticipating some visitors. She’d just finished decorating some gingerbread when the doorbell rang. The elderly mouse came as quickly as she could to check the window next to the door and found two chipmunks and a mouse standing there, dressed in their best. Her eyes shone as she opened the door in greeting.
       “Lahwhinie, you remembered!” Anna said. “Oh, I am so glad you brought them.” Lahwhinie gave her a welcoming hug. “Thanks for inviting us, Mrs. Pendergast. Yeah, the gang’s all here. This is my fiancé, Chip Maplewood, leader of the Rescue Rangers. And you remember Theo, future leader of the Rescue Rangers.”
       Anna greeted Chip, who took off his fedora as he entered, then she gave her attention to the young munk. “Theophane, do you remember me? I used to play all sorts of games with you and tell you stories. I’m Anna Pendergast.”
       “Let me do this first.” Theo gently hugged her, then smiled. “Yeah, I do remember. I missed you, ma’am. I’m sorry that I’d forgotten or else I would’ve visited you.”
       “That’s okay, precious. It was such a long time ago, and I’m sure your memories lumped me with those terrible times. Oh, it’s so good to have you back here! It’s good to have you all here. Come, and sit down!”
       Anna wheeled in her teacart and offered Theo first go at the gingerbread, which pleased him no end. She took a seat in her comfortable chair across from the three of them. Anna scrutinized Chip, which made him a little uncomfortable. “So, he is the one. Dear, I think you chose well. He reminds me of my Paul in several ways—the quiet confidence, the automatic manners, and the look in his eye.”
       Lahwhinie took a sip of tea, smiling. “Yeah, Chip’s a pretty good catch. He’s a nice guy, a good leader and fortunately doesn’t hold a grudge.” Anna watched him blush. “I can see those things, dear. And I don’t have to ask to know that you’re happy with her at your side, young man. Have you set the date yet, Lahwhinie?”
       “Noooo, not yet. I still have cold feet, but it will happen.”
       “And when it does, you will certainly be invited,” Chip said. Anna sipped her tea and smiled back in kind. “Take your time, dearies. There’s no hurry now. You both know how you feel inside, and that’s the thing that matters. Now Theo, shall I tell you some about your parents? They would be very pleased to know that you’ve come into the company of two such fine people.”
       “Yeah, tell me about mom and dad! Please!” Theo shouted, launching himself into a chair and listening with rapt attention.

       Anna sighed, closing her eyes. “I can remember the aroma when I’d walk into your family’s house, Theo. Katrina would take peppermint and violet and boil it in water in a pot on the stove just to have that atmosphere. She and Sergei both were used to good cooking. Oh, you get your exuberance from him, lad! Sergei Vaclav was a tireless man, and the kind who’d go ten miles out of his way for you. Before Paul died, they’d both work on Paul’s sailing boat, the Blarney. We four would go out on weekends and sail up and down the coast, having the grandest time! Then you came along, and they were both very happy.”
       “A boat? I don’t remember that,” Theo said.
       “It was before your time, unfortunately. We eventually had to sell the boat because we couldn’t keep it up. Paul missed that boat ever so much. He was a man of the sea, and of the world. Still, the Vaclavs were our close friends and we both got to baby-sit you at times. Paul died when you were only a year old, so you wouldn’t remember him. I was afraid you might not remember me. You were such an inquisitive boy, insisting I read the words in the books and skip the pictures. I could tell you were going places.”
       Theo was overwhelmed. “I had forgotten about all this, but just being here again is bringing a lot of it back.” Anna sipped some tea and ate a small piece of gingerbread. “You are welcome here anytime, Theophane. I have many pictures and souvenirs from your family that I will pass on to you when it’s my time. You may not believe it, but I was a spry young girl myself once in county Cork in the old country. Aye, there’s nothing like the joys of childhood. I’ll do my best to give yours back to you. Will you visit me from time to time?”
       “As often as dad and mo... La... mom and dad will bring me here.” Chip and Lahwhinie traded nervous smiles. “All you have to do is ask, Theo,” Chip said. “It’s fine with us.”
       “Thanks, and it’s nice knowing there’s still someone that remembers mom and dad besides me.”
       “Indeed I do, Theo,” Anna said. “Would you be so kind as to bring me the scrapbook lying over there on top of the sideboard?” Theo retrieved the book, and gave it to Anna. She opened it to a particular page. “Ah, there we are on the old Blarney. That’s your folks there sitting down, and that’s Paul waving at the wheel. I was quite a seaman in those days, myself, with my life preserver and sou’wester.”
       Theo looked at the faces he’d nearly forgotten. “Maybe if we ever go to Hawaii, we can go out on a boat.” Anna closed the book. “Hawaii? Oh, it’s a beautiful place. Paul and I were there forty years ago. I can still remember the songs of the instruments and the jade-green waters. Well now, I’m taking up all of your day! You must have more important things to be doing than talking to an old Irishwoman. Theo, there’s a selection of gingerbread and cookies I’ve got ready for you on the kitchen table. Would you be helping me and go and get it?”
       “Sure, ma’am!” Theo rushed off. Chip didn’t want to seem pushy. “It’s no problem, Anna. We wanted to come here, and it means so much to Theo to visit you.”
       “And it means a lot to me, but I had something to say to the two of you. You’ve eased my mind with that boy, and done a kindness that I won’t forget. Paul and I never had children, we weren’t the type for that. I’ve got a few things in mind for you and your sweet girl here when I pass on. But one thing I want to give her now while I’m alive. Lahwhinie, you already know what this means to me.”

       Anna brought out her bracelet of teardrop pearls. “Oh, they’ll look fine with that necklace and those earrings!” Lahwhinie looked at her in surprise. “Are you sure! These mean so much to you.” Anna took her hand and put the bracelet on her wrist. “My dear, I want someone who knows what they mean to me to wear them when I’m gone. I may live to be a hundred or I may not see the dawn come next week, but I’ll be glad knowing they’re in the hands of someone like you. You’ve got a kind heart, and I know that Paul would approve too. He would say, ‘she’s got the look of love in her eyes, and that’s all I need to see’. Take them dear, and be happy now that you’ve got a loving heart devoted to you.”
       Lahwhinie had to fight back tears at this point. This life she was living now was so alien to her old life, it didn’t even seem real. “Thank you, I’ll treasure it always.” Anna hugged her gently. “ I know you will, I know.” Anna saw that Theo had been standing at the doorway to the kitchen, watching. “It’s a grand lady you’ll be having for a mother, Theo. Don’t be causing her too much trouble now.”
       “We’ll be a great family, ma’am. We were all friends before we became a family.”
       “Yes, and you’ll be friends still. Well, I’d best let you be going. Young people always have things to be doing.”

       Chip escorted her to the door and she kissed him on the cheek. “That’s so you know you have the blessing of an Irishwoman, lad.” Chip kissed her cheek in kind. “Thank you, Anna. Bless you, too. We’ll be back soon.” Lahwhinie hugged her. “Thanks for everything.”
       “And thanks for filling in some of the empty places for me,” Theo said, hugging her as well. “I can’t wait to visit again!”
       “I’ll be waiting for you with bells on, Theo.”
       Chip took Theo’s hand in his left hand and Lahwhinie’s in his right, turning to Lahwhinie. “You know, you’re amazing.” Lahwhinie looked at the bracelet she now wore. “Hey, I have to keep up the family tradition.”
       “Which one is that?” Chip asked.
       “Both, I guess. I’m an Erskine, so I’m bound to succeed. And then there was Ilsa’s prediction that I’d have the most success. Gadget, Colby and me got the best of both worlds.”
       “I’m glad you’re in my world. I’ve got the best son in the world, and the best girl. I couldn’t ask for more.”
       “I guess we’re all pretty lucky.”

       Anna watched with a smile from the window as the three of them walked down the street in the direction of the setting sun. They were no longer three people, but one family. The elderly mouse stayed at the window until they’d disappeared down the hill and then returned to her scrapbook. She touched a picture of herself and her husband, and made a silent wish for her new friends. She sat down to her knitting and hummed an old Irish tune, gradually falling asleep to the memories of today and long ago.

Orville Jr., Wilbur Jr., Sean Maplewood, Roger Maplewood, Jennifer Maplewood, Noel Maplewood, Theo Maplewood, "Uncle" Bedivere Fairmont, Daisy Fairmont, Galahad Fairmont, "Little Foxy" Fairmont, Eva Erskine, Oscar Chesnutt, Anna Pendergast and Gary the Pigeon are original creations of Indy and Chris Silva. Cheddarhead Charlie, Camembert Kate, Lahwhinie, Foxglove, Queenie, Tammy, Bink, Tammy's mom and the Rescue Rangers are copyright Disney and used without permission, but with the utmost respect.

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