Tales of the Foxtaur Clans #9: The Great Drought
Excerpts from the journal of Pandora & Karl, part 4
By Bernard Doove © 2006

25 June 2334

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strolling to the swimming hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swimming Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about your own mate?" Karl asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can you harvest now?" Karl asked.

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

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

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

"A well, maybe?"

"Wrong kind of terrain."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Pandora!" How went the market today?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl rather self-consciously joined Yuni up the front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To be continued in Miracles Can Happen.

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