Foreword:

This story takes place near the end of Forest Tales #30 and relates the events of Leanna and Forestwalkerís second visit to the Double H Club when they returned the following Saturday.

This story also gives cameo appearances to a large number of peopleís characters who have joined the Double H Club. These characters are used with their permission, and are not available for other people to use without getting similar permission.


 

A FOREST TALE 34: Musical Climax
By Bernard Doove © 2010





Forestwalker and Leanna gave their mates parting hugs and nuzzles before stepping into the coolness of the air-conditioned Public PTV that was waiting for them. It was one of those typical Melbourne February heatwaves, and the cubs were seldom far from the pool on days like this. Those adults who did not have any urgent chores to do were likely to found with them. However, Forest and Leanna had said that they would come for the poker night, and they had decided to make a full day of it instead.

As they drove off, Leanna said, "Thatís the only thing that bothers me about the club."

Forestwalker arched an eyebrow questioningly. "What do you mean?"

"Their policy of total exclusivity Ė herms only. How many members have non-herm mates or close friends that they might want to have socialise with them there? I know that it bothers me that weíve left Kris and Trina behind for this."

Forestwalker nodded. "You have a point, although I would never let the club come between us. In fact thatís one of the reasons that I stopped going years back. However, you donít know everything about the Double H yet. They are quite aware of the situation, and they cater to that to a degree."

"How so? All the accessible facilities are classified as herm-only."

Instead of answering directly, Forest said to Leanna, "Think of the entrance to the club. All the facilities were on the right side of the doors. What was on the left?"

"Just the door to the administration area, or so Francine told us. Then thereís only a solid wall between the club and the premises next door."

"And what are those premises?"

Leannaís eyes took on the unfocused look that Forest had learned to recognise as when the fennec was using hir eidetic memory to Ďseeí something that shi remembered. Because Leanna never forgot anything, it was like a perfect photographic record that was as good as the observerís attention to detail, and Leanna was very observant.

"A café," shi answered, "although it seems to be part of a larger entertainment precinct."

"Thatís right. Thatís a combination theatre, nightclub and function room in there. Do you recall seeing the sign?"

"Yes Ė it says ĎThe Double Dateí. Is that some allusion to the Double H Club?"

"On the face of it, itís supposed to mean that the place serves double duty, but yes, itís owned by the club. However, unlike the club, all those venues plus the café are fully open to the general public. Although itís never openly advertised as such, itís an open secret that herms hang out there. Members with non-herm mates and friends can meet for a cup of coffee, have a meal, or make a big night of it. Single-sexed people who have a preference for herm company hang out there also. The Double H Club uses its function facilities for major events for its members."

Leanna smiled. "I must admit that Iím glad to hear that. I might like to go to some of those events if I continue going to the club. Having herm friends is good, but not at the expense of our denmates. Iím a little surprised at how big the clubís holdings are though considering that they serve a minority group."

Forest laughed. "Oh, thatís nothing. They own the whole block! All the small shops from the convenience store to the clothing shops are leased from the Double H to herm business owners. Thatís part of how the club gets its revenue to cover expenses serving the needs of the herm community."

"You make it sound as if the whole area is a hotbed of herm families," Leanna remarked.

"Well, nobodyís ever named it ĎLittle Hermvilleí or something equally silly, but thatís basically correct. As typically happens with species, ethnicity or religion, like tends to attract like, and a large portion of herm families in Melbourne are concentrated in that area."

"Thatís another thing Ė for a group thatís supposed to be a minority, there seems to be an awful lot of them, both in number of different species and sheer overall population."

"I suppose youíre right. Few people realise just how prevalent herms are."

"But why?" Leanna insisted.

"It goes back to shortly before the start of the Gene Wars. One of the producers of slave morphs discovered how to make viable hermaphrodites and marketed them as exotic sex slaves. For some reason, owning a herm became a fad, and their competitors were soon producing their own. Humans being humans, they liked to have lots of makes and models, so they ended up making herm versions of many species and with several twists. Back in those days however, genetic engineering wasnít as sophisticated as it is today, so there were a number of problems with them. Hermaphrodism wasnít perfected until the Turners created the chakat species."

"Why didnít a lot of them die off during the Gene Wars like many other species such as fennec foxes did?"

"Same reason as why chakats were made to be herms Ė itís a survival trait. All herms are capable of being mothers, so that instantly doubled the species chances of survival. Also, if a herm interbreeds with a non-herm of its species, then the child is usually a herm also. Sometimes the child is single-sexed though, but the herm gene is still present as a recessiveÖ."

"And if two recessive parents come together, they can have a herm child like Mikel," Leanna finished.

"Exactly," Forest confirmed. "In fact the herm population has been steadily growing since the end of the Gene Wars. The general public might be surprised at how many there actually are Ė some unpleasantly so. Thatís one of the reasons that the club doesnít advertise but relies on word of mouth and referrals."

"So the club can be a refuge for some?"

"Yes. Some herms never tell anyone of their true gender for fear of persecution. At the Double H Club, they can relax totally. Thatís why itís known as Herm Haven. Herms are so varied in nature that itís hard to pin any preconceptions on them. People can just be themselves there."

Leanna mulled that over, then said, "It seems almost too good to be true. Whatís the catch?"

"The catch? I suppose that in the end, herms are just like other people. They have their share of rotten eggs, and some have their own interests more at heart than the clubís. I have heard of some branches failing due to internal politics. However overall theyíve had decades of experience at this sort of thing, and they have trouble-shooters from the head office to pull the troublesome branches into line. Nothing is perfect, but the Double H seems to be doing a pretty good job."

"I wouldnít have believed you if you had told me that there werenít any problems."

Forest acted deeply offended. "What? You doubt my word?"

Leanna snuggled up to Forest. "No, but even my beloved can be mistaken. Mind if I dig a little deeper? Iím curious."

"Do what you like, dear. You donít need my permission for that. Run for president of the branch if you want," Forest said with a laugh.

"Donít tempt me," Leanna replied with a grin. "But for today, Iíll settle for checking out that café, etcetera."

"Fine by me," Forest agreed.

Their PTV pulled up in front of the club a little after eleven a.m. They stepped out of the cool of the cab and were hit by the heat that had increased dramatically since they had left home.

"Phew! Does it always get this hot at this time of year?" Leanna asked.

"Melbourne is funny like that. You think summer is done, then wham! Ė summer has one last parting shot before a big storm hits and things cool down and itís all downhill into autumn. Sometimes it can stretch out into April, which is a bit too much for my liking."

"Oh well, itís a good excuse for ice cream," Leanna said with a lick of hir lips.

Forest laughed. "Well I donít think they serve that at the café, but we can have that later at the restaurant if you wish."

"You bet I will," Leanna said as they entered the café.

The premises were spacious, with tables and seating varying to suit groups of up to eight, or as few as one. The décor was both tasteful and functional, and gave the impression of quiet intimacy. Leanna liked it immediately.

They were about to seat themselves when Forest recognised a large panther seated in a booth. Shi inclined hir head in that direction and Leanna nodded agreeably. They headed over to the booth.

Rik tries to wake up with coffee

"Hi, Rik!" Forest said cheerily. "We didnít expect to see you here."

Rik looked up from the huge mug of coffee in hir hand, looking a little bleary-eyed. "Oh, hi ForestÖ Leanna. Take a seat. Donít mind me Ė Iím still trying to wake up."

"Itís less than an hour before noon!" Forest protested.

"Itís the crack of dawn to me," Rik replied. "I work as a bouncer at the nightclub, and Friday night is always the busiest. The sky was already getting light before I hit the sack."

"In that case, why arenít you still in bed?"

"Itís Saturday, and thereís usually a lot of fun stuff happening at the Double H on Saturdays. Then thereís the poker tournament later." Shi then looked at Forest with a cheeky grin. "And I knew you were likely to turn up today also."

Forest chuckled. "Donít mistake a casual fling for something deeper, Rik."

Rik sighed. "Ah well, a herm can hope."

"Youíre a fun lover," Forest conceded, "so Iím sure that you can easily find someone who would make a better partner than me."

"Maybe, but Iím not sure youíre right. Ah, food!" Rik said as a feline waitress came over with a tray laden with enough food to satisfy a starving chakat.

The waitress put the tray down in front of Rik and topped up hir coffee from the jug in hir free hand. Then shi turned hir attention to the others. "Can I get you two anything?"

Both Forest and Leanna could scent that shi was a herm, but neither was sure of hir species. Although shi seemed tiger-like, hir colours seemed to blend in a manner similar to a calico cat. Perhaps shi was a hybrid?

Leanna said, "Two cappuccinos, please."

"No problem. My name is Assiti. I havenít seen either of you here before, although itís obvious that Rik knows you. Are you new Double H members?"

"Yes and no," Leanna replied. "Iím new, but my mate, Forestwalker, is a returning member. Iím Leanna, by the way."

"Oh good. Will you be staying for the poker night?"

"Yes, we were intending to compete."

Assiti smiled. "I like to play too; I never do well, but I enjoy myself anyway. Iíd better get you your coffee. Can I tempt you with some oven-fresh muffins?"

Leanna was about to say no, but Forest interjected, "Got choc chip?"

"Of course," Assiti replied with a grin. "Iíll be back soon."

Leanna looked at Forestwalker. "Hungry already?"

Forest shrugged. "PeckishÖ and I canít resist a fresh choc chip muffin."

They spent the time waiting for their drinks and muffin by checking out the other patrons. Between wolfing down hir breakfast, Rik would point out and identify some of the regulars.

"That cat with four tits talking to the waitress is Mrilly. Shiís a herm, but shi identifies so strongly with hir female side that shi prefers to be addressed as such. Youíll notice that we will normally say Ďsheí and Ďherí when in Mrillyís earshot. The androgynous-looking silver fox is Tara. Shiís rather shy around strangers, but once shi gets to know you, shiís incredibly outgoing. That tod chatting with hir is Danny. Heís just a good friend. The human couple are Madeline and Robert Mason, and theyíre obviously not herms, but they are the adoptive parents of Tam, that river otter sitting with them. Theyíre over here on holidays and shi came by the Double H yesterday to check out the locals. Hir parents have been here while Tam was in the club, and they are very pleasant people."

Rik suddenly frowned as a white-tailed deer morph entered the café and headed for a table. Leanna noted the arrogant swagger of the deerís gait. "Whoís that?" shi asked.

"Trouble," Rik replied. "Hir name is Inman Carter, and shiís the kind of person youíd do well to avoid."

Leanna looked keenly at Inman. Shi was fairly tall, and seemed taller due to hir antlers. Hir body was lean and well-toned. Shi had average-sized well-rounded breasts, which were quite obvious due to the fishnet tank-top that shi was wearing along with the tight camouflage-style pants that clearly indicated hir maleness. Shi exuded a tough kind of femininity.

"I donít like hir smile Ė it has no warmth," Leanna declared. "Whatís hir story?"

"Iím not sure shi ever knew how to be nice. Shiís a racketeer, hit man, leader of an underground organisation that traffics in stolen weapons and goods. Owns several establishments, including a restaurant and a strip-club, most of which serve as a front for operations."

Leanna looked at Rik questioningly. "If you know all this, why isnít shi in jail?"

Rik shook hir head ruefully. "Because shiís very smart. Shiís given the law the slip in various ways, and the rest they canít prove sufficiently to get a conviction. Just take my advice Ė stay away from hir if you know whatís good for you."

"OK. How do you know all this anyway?"

"Iím a professional, Leanna. Itís my job to know these things," Rik said with deadly seriousness.

Leanna realised that shi was seeing a completely different side to playful and friendly big cat that theyíd gotten to know last week. Forestwalker was also impressed, and found hir a lot more interesting than previously. More than ever, Rik reminded hir of a two-legged version of Midnight.

Forest finished hir muffin and got up on all fours. "Ready to go, Leanna?"

"Of course," shi replied. "If we stayed any longer, Iíd have been tempted to have another cappuccino, and you know what that does to me."

"Youíve not lived until youíve seen Leanna wired on caffeine," Forest explained to Rik.

The panther grinned. "It should be quite an experience, I imagine. Iíll catch you both a little later."

"Where to now?" Leanna asked as they left the café. As they passed through the subtle force screen on the doorway, they were blasted by the heat outside. "Wow! I canít believe that itís that much hotter already!"

"Letís check out the other shops. At least it will be cooler in there," Forest suggested.

"Sounds like a good plan to me."

The duo made their way around the block, checking out every shop along the way, spending as little time as possible out in the scorching heat. While Leanna was coping adequately, Forest did not feel too good if shi stayed out in it too long. Chakats thrived best in temperate to cool climates, and heat was one of their banes. At one sweet shop, they picked up some chocolates that they didnít want to have melt, so there was added incentive to move onto the next air-conditioned premises.

Leanna picked up some scented fur oil at another shop. They were served by a herm who looked mostly like a raccoon, but turned out to be a quarter fox also. When they struck up a conversation with hir, shi explained that was where shi inherited the double row of breasts from. Hir name was Kelly Feral, and shi was a full-time student, but worked in the shop part-time to earn money.

"Iím living in an apartment at the Double H," Kelly explained. "I prefer it to the dorm rooms. They donít seem to make any concession to herm students there, and I found that a bit uncomfortable."

"That seems a bit odd considering the high number of chakats in this city, many of whom would probably go to your college," Forest commented.

Kelly shrugged. "Chakats room with other chakats, and thatís about as far as it goes. One chakat offered to room with me, but I turned hir down."

"Why? Any chakat who would make an offer like that must have seen something that they liked in you."

Kelly looked uncomfortable. "IÖ There were reasons. Oh, nothing against the chakat! I just donít think it would have worked out."

Just then another customer made their way to the counter. Forest said, "Well weíd better let you get back to work. Maybe weíll see you later?"

"I live at the club, remember? Itís almost inevitable," shi replied before turning hir attention to the new customer.

When they stepped outside, Leanna said, "Shiís been hurt."

Forest looked at hir mate keenly. "I was going to say that shi had a deep need."

Leanna nodded. "That too, but I think it stems from the hurt. Did you see the way shi was looking at me? Shi tried to be casual about it, but I believe shi felt attracted to me."

Forest grinned. "I have no doubts at all that shi thought you were cute and sexually attractive. No wonder shi didnít want to pair up with a chakat Ė empathically speaking, shi broadcasts hir desires like a megaphone. Shi must have embarrassed hirself a few times."

"I hope shi finds someone more suitable. You know that I could make hir happy only for a moment. Shi needs someone to stop the hurting inside."

"Is that a subtle hint for me to find someone for hir?" Forest asked.

"Not really Ė just an observation. I donít expect you to play matchmaker all the time, even if you do it frequently," Leanna said with a sly smile.

"Cheeky fennec!" Forest chided, but hir expression belied hir words.

They completed their tour of the shops and made their way into the Double H Club. As they passed into the cool lobby, a very tall person emerged from the office on the left, barely clearing the door frame. Forest recognised the person as a Rakshani, and wondered why someone of that race would be visiting the Double H. Shi was even more startled when the Rakshani waved casually to the rabbit at the reception desk and headed through the double doors that opened into the clubís main rooms.

Francine smiled at the new arrivals. "Welcome back, Leanna. Whyís your mouth gaping, Forest?"

"Did I see right? Was that a Rakshani who just went into the club?" Forest asked.

"Yep, which means that shiís a herm too," Francine confirmed with an amused grin.

"I didnít think that they had herms."

"Then I suggest that you ask hir about it. Hir nameís Shamara, and shiís an inter-club courier. Itís only the second time shiís been here though. Youíll probably find a lot to talk about."

"Then youíd better get us our pass keys then," Forest urged.

"Whatís it to be then? Day passes again?"

"No. Leanna and I have decided that weíll join full-time. While we wonít be here every week, we think we will be broadening our social contacts a bit more. Besides, I missed seeing my friends."

"Both good reasons," Francine said as shi tapped on hir keyboard.

Two pass keys were soon produced and, after the two paid, they went through the double doors and emerged into the main lounge. They immediately noticed that it was a lot more crowded than it was the last time.

"The poker night must be a good excuse for people to come together," Leanna postulated.

"Seems like it," Forest agreed as they made their way amidst the crowd.

Forest was looking around for a sign of the Rakshani. Shi had to rear up on hir hind legs though to see over the crowd, but that made the tall alien stand out from the rest. Shi was standing at the bar apparently chatting to the bartender. Forest inclined hir head in that direction and Leanna nodded. They made their way through the crowd, encountering nobody familiar yet.

They made it to the bar where they saw Kira, the lion morph bartender, serving another drink to Shamara. Shi spotted the two approaching, recognising them from their visit the previous week. Shi gave them a big welcoming smile and said, "Whatíll it be, ladies?"

"Just iced tea for me," Forest replied. "We just came in from the heat. How about you, Leanna?"

"Lemon squash for me, thanks."

"Coming right up!" Kira said and headed for the refrigerator.

Forest then turned to the Rakshani and said, "Harran ekkidir sanrar." It was a phrase that literally meant ĎGreetings to one Iíve just metí, the Rakshan equivalent of ĎHowdy stranger!í

The Rakshani looked at the chakat in surprise, then replied, "Harran serret kannekar," which basically was the positive response to that greeting which meant, ĎGreetings new acquaintanceí, or more colloquially as, ĎHello friendí. Shi went on in Terranglo, "Iím surprised to hear Katang Low Tongue spoken here. How is it that you know it?"

Forest replied, "I donít really know it, but I have learned a few phrases from my co-mate, a Rakshani named Zhane ap Nashene na Zhane. Sheís a captain in Star Fleet and we are both mated to Admiral Boyce Kline, a human."

"A strange choice for a Rakshani," shi replied with a subtle sense of disapproval.

"Not really, considering that that human conceived a son with her."

"What?" Shamara was startled, then hir eyes narrowed in thought. "I sense the hand of the Deities in that."

Forest grinned. "Yep, the admiral and his Firstwife were on shore leave on Raksha during the Fertility Festival. They were visiting Zhane at the time because Rosepetal Ė thatís the Firstwife Ė had been sizing up Zhane as a potential Secondwife. Zhane had been lukewarm to the idea, but it was festival time and she went with the flow. However, when she discovered that she was pregnant, she took it as a sign from the Deities that this was her destined mate, and accepted Rosepetalís proposal. It has worked out rather well."

Shamara grunted. "It doesnít always work that way. By the way, my name is Shamara ap Karon na Makane."

"Iím Forestwalker, child of Desertsand and Longstripe. Just call me Forest if you like. This is my denmate, Leanna Fennec."

Shamara nodded in acknowledgement.

Forest continued, "Can I infer that the Deities were responsible somehow for you being a herm?"

Shamara nodded. "My parents were involved in a space freighter accident, resulting in the loss of my four and six year old brother and sister. During the salvage and clean-up, they were hit by radiation, resulting in fertility problems for my father after recovering from the radiation poisoning. Mother had been impaled on a shard of metal, damaging her reproductive organs. They had little to no hope of ever conceiving again. However, it seems the Deities decided to grant my parents their wish for another child during the Fertility Festival, and I was born. The Deitiesí motives for making me a herm are unclear; maybe they were making up for the loss of two children in one go. Maybe it was the Deitiesí strange sense of humour. My father wanted a son, my mother wanted a daughter. This way they both got their wish fulfilled."

"Does that bother you?" Leanna asked.

"The Deities made me who I am. I would be an ungrateful wretch to dispute their motives."

"Then you like being a herm?" Forest asked.

Shamara sighed. "Yes and no. While I do not regret being what I am, itís nevertheless difficult. Each gender has its problems Ė the males with their strong aggressive tendencies during rut, the females with their constant need to assuage the mating instinct. I need to deal with both. I also felt that I needed to prove myself, both as a male and as a female. It was a struggle, and I made mistakes. I decided to leave Raksha and head for Chakona, but made another colossal blunder and ended up on Earth instead. Made more mistakes before I discovered the Double H Club where they helped me out a lot, and even gave me a job. I even have a hobby now that keeps me out of mischief."

"Whatís that?" Forest asked curiously.

"Motorcycles Ė I love racing dirt-bikes and if I get good enough, I might even try to go professional."

"Sounds like fun," Leanna said, noticing the warmth of enthusiasm in the Rakshaniís voice.

"Itís the best! Would you believe they donít have motorcycles on Raksha? I never knew what I was missing until I got here."

Leanna decided that Shamara would probably bend their ears for hours on hir favourite subject if shi allowed it to continue, so shi said, "Youíll have to invite us to an event sometime. Right now though, we need to meet up with some of our friends. Maybe we can talk later; Iíll tell you about how I used to be a slave."

Shamara was intrigued enough by that to be distracted from hir growing enthusiasm for hir favourite subject. "Okay then. I will look you up later. Derra ko!"

As the duo walked away, Forest said, "Thanks, Leanna. I hadnít expected hir to become so suddenly fixated on that subject. At least we seem to have made a good impression."

Leanna grinned. "Weíll be hir best friends if we turn up to watch hir race."

"Ha! Youíre probably right."

They started looking for familiar faces again, but they were the ones who were found instead.

"Forest! Leanna! Itís great to see you again!" A very bouncy and enthusiastic husky pounced on them and hugged them enthusiastically, hir tail wagging happily.

"Hi Tavi," Forest said, happily hugging hir back. "Are the others here yet?"

"Some are, but most are up on the roof and enjoying the pool. Letís go up and join them!"

"Neither of us brought any suitable pool-wear though," Forest pointed out.

"Not a problem!" shi said mischievously as shi dragged them both in the direction of the elevators.

"Why not?"

"Youíll see!"

Forest looked at Leanna who just shrugged in mystification, so they both just had to wait and see. At the top floor, they emerged into a gymnasium with large windows that gave a great view over parts of the city and the bay. A tiger-patterned chakat with an all-black tail and green-tinted hair had hir forepaws on a safety step, while shi changed a light bulb. Shi had a saddle pack with various equipment in the pockets, and a uniform top with the Double H symbol on it. Shi grinned at them.

"Gíday! Iím Blacktail, Chief of Maintenance here. Iíve not seen you two before," shi said as shi got down from the step and tucked the dead bulb into hir pack.

"Iím Forestwalker, and this is my mate, Leanna." Shi stepped up and the two gave each other the traditional chakat greeting hug. Blacktail sensed that Leanna was amenable to a hug also and did so.

Leanna said, "So what is a Chief of Maintenance doing changing a light bulb? Donít you have staff to do that sort of thing?"

Blacktail grinned. "Yeah, but if I see something that needs fixing, I like to do it on the spot, and I just happened to notice this burned out bulbÖ." Shi shrugged in a Ďwhat can you do about it?í manner.

Leanna nodded. "Iíve known people like that."

Blacktail said, "Normally I get to do the more interesting stuff like repairing equipment throughout the club, but Iím not too proud to do the little things too if I have the time to spare. Well, Iíd love to stop and chat, but Iím on duty and a chakatís work is never done."

"Will you be around later so we can talk more?" Forest asked.

"I live here, so thatís a big yes," Blacktail said with a laugh. "Catch you later then."

"Thatís one happy person," Leanna commented.

"You donít need to be an empath to see shi loves hir work," Forest agreed.

Tavi resumed tugging the two in the direction of the sounds of water splashing and children yelling in pleasure. They exited the gym onto an open deck where a large pool was being enthusiastically used by a large number of adults and children of all species. The first thing that Forest noticed though was that most werenít wearing any bathing clothes.

"What happened to the dress code?" Forest wondered aloud.

Tavi grinned. "The cubs were always taking off their bathers despite the rules Ė you know how it is with cubs, water and fur. Eventually the staff gave up on trying to make them wear bathers, and then the adults said that if the children could, then so could they. So now the pool is unofficially a clothing-optional area. So take off your clothes and jump right in!"

The pool was one of the favourite activities back home, and this much bigger pool was just too tempting. Leanna and Forest smiled at each other and started stripping off. There was only a momentís hesitation when Forest asked Tavi, "What do we do with our stuff?"

"Lockers over there," Tavi pointed out.

"Arenít you going to join us?" Leanna asked.

"Canít; gotta watch out for others in our group and drag them up here. Iíll join you later." With that, the husky bounced off in the direction of the elevators.

"I donít believe that herm can walk normally," Leanna observed.

"No argument from me there," Forest agreed.

They found a vacant locker and put their clothes and pouches inside. Forest keyed it with hir thumbprint and they both headed for the cool water. The water was deliciously cool in comparison to the furnace-like heat on the rooftop, and they soon joined in the pool games. It took only a few minutes before one of their circle of friends to discover them.

"Hey, Forest!" came a voice from behind the chakat.

Shi looked around to see a big splash of water coming at hir, swept up by the hand of Camphor. After hir vision cleared, shi could see the marmalade tabby being dunked by Peta and Darla. "Hey! Thatís what I wanted to do!" shi scolded them.

The mouse duo just grinned and splashed hir instead.

With an exaggerated growl, Forest took off after the giggling duo.

Leanna noticed their high jinks but turned back to the game with the beach ball. Suddenly shi was rising out of the water, two strong hands pushing hir legs up until shi flipped over and splashed down again. Shi didnít come up for air though, but instead quickly swam under water to hir surprise assailant and dragged hir under. Shi practically climbed the person to get hirself back above water while pushing the other down at the same time. It didnít take long for a hyena head with short-cropped hair to emerge and laugh.

"Ha! You sure react fast, Leanna," Gabriel commented.

"I had to be able to think fast in my previous career, Gaby," Leanna. Of course by career, Leanna meant hir life as a slave, but it wasnít something shi was going to shout about in the pool.

Gabriel grinned. "Then letís see how well you deal with Jonniís kits!"

That was all the warning that Leanna got as shi realised that Gabriel was just a diversion. Shi was suddenly pounced on three sides by fox kits. As shi struggled to cope with the giggling youngsters, shi caught glimpses of Jonni chuckling at the effect of hir ambush. Hir kits had been home with a babysitter last week, so Leanna didnít know what they looked like, so Jonni was able to set hir up. However, weeks of dealing with hyperactive cubs at home soon gave Leanna the upper hand. Shi carried a squealing kit under each arm over to their mother, while the youngest clung to hir back.

"I believe these are yours?" Leanna said, dropping the two in the water.

Jonni smiled. "I thought I should introduce you to my children. Iím sure youíll remember them well."

"Oh, Iíll remember this introduction very well!" Leanna replied with a mock glare.

Jonniís smile just grew wider. "Okay kits, time to let Leanna alone."

The two older kits said, "OK, Mum!" and headed off to play some more, but the youngest just clung stubbornly to the fennec, playing with hir long ears.

"Seems like youíve got one fan at least," Jonni remarked.

"Whatís hir name?" Leanna asked.

"Sindy."

"Well, Sindy, Iíd like to play with you more, but it will have to be later, okay hon?"

The kit reluctantly nodded and Leanna lifted hir off and handed hir over to Jonni. "Whereís Lisander, by the way?"

"Delayed by work. Shi told me to bring the kits and shiíd meet us all here later. Shi expects to be here in about an hour."

"Great! So are we all getting together for dinner later?"

"Everyone said theyíd try to make it, but weíll just have to wait and see. Iím glad you decided to come back again."

"I signed up for full membership, and Forest renewed hirs also."

"Hey, thatís good news. Whoops! Gotta go. My kits are getting a bit carried away."

Leanna grinned. "I know what you mean. Seeya!"

Meanwhile Forest was wrestling with a horde of giggling miceÖ and losing. Peta and Darla had brought their children also, and when the mouse pups had seen their parents being chased, they had soon joined in. While their youngest was in a kiddie pool under supervision, that still left three of them plus the adults.

"Aargh! I should have brought my cubs today. Cats eat mice, yíknow?" Forest growled at hir assailants. They just laughed and continued their attack until the chakat cried out, "I surrender!" and dived to the bottom of the pool after filling hir lungs. Such was the capacity of the double set of lungs that shi could easily outlast any of the others under water, and shi stroked away out of their range. Shi saw what shi thought was a familiar pair of black-furred legs and surfaced next to a cat. "Hi, Jo!"

"Forest! I thought that was you in that mêlée over there."

"I seem to be the target of all the cubs in this pool," Forest noted.

"Youíre not the only one. Look around you; chakats seem to be very popular objects of childrenís playfulness. Toni is on the back of Onca over there." Jo pointed out a dark grey chakat with light grey leopard spots, and with green-dyed hair and stripe down hir back to the full length of hir tail. As Forest watched, Toni was suddenly lifted up into mid air by an invisible force where shi squealed and demanded to be put down.

"What the heckÖ?" Forest said.

Jo grinned. "Oncaís sire is a Bluepaw skunktaur, and shiís inherited hys ability. Shiís a full T5 telekinetic. We donít see hir much because shi works for the Star Corps, but shi likes to visit the Double H when shiís on Earth and hangs out with the other chakats a lot." Then shi pointed out another snow leopard patterned chakat with two cubs playing Ďcatch-the-tailí with hir. "Thatís Aneko. One of the cubs is hir daughter, Sable, who got a friend to help hir drag hir mother into the pool. Aneko is a little subdued, but shi dotes on hir cub."

Jo looked around and pointed out another chakat who had white fur with black, jaguar-style rosettes, and silvery-white hair. "Thatís Winterrose. Shi works for Star Fleet, but this is hir home away from home. Hey! You said like going on bushwalks, didnít you? Shi likes doing that too. You should invite hir along sometime."

"Iíll ask hir if shiís interestedÖ just as soon as I can untangle hir from those cubs. Are any of those hirs?"

"Nope. Shi doesnít even have a mate. Shiís a very carefree type of character, but shi has plenty of casual companions with children who treat hir like a favourite aunt because shiís so fun-loving."

"Iím really going to have to bring my cubs next time," Forest said fervently.

"Didnít you know that the poker nights are always preceded by a family day?" Jo asked.

"Obviously not. They didnít have these poker nights back when I was originally a member."

"Hmmm, thatís right, they only made the informal games a formal event a couple of years back. Must have been shortly after you left. Oh well, thereís always next time."

"Whereís Lil?" Forest asked as shi looked around for Joís mate.

"Shiís looking after Marky in the toddlersí pool. Actually I think itís about my time to take over from hir. Talk to you later, Forest!" Jo said as shi heaved hirself onto the edge of the pool.

"Later!" Forest replied. "Now whereís that mate of mine disappeared?"

Leanna had decided to climb out of the pool and chat with some of the other lounging under the large umbrellas. With hir fur all wet, shi figured that shiíd be kept cool enough for a while. Shi saw two people apparently watching the antics in the pool with amusement and shi stepped up to introduce hirself. Both were obviously wolves, but the one on the right appeared to be an Arctic Wolf and very much out of place in this summer heat. Despite that, shi was one of the few actually wearing a bathing costume, but with those full E-cup breasts, Leanna figured shi appreciated the support. On the other hand, the person on the left was young and athletic, but hir most outstanding attribute was the bright blue-dyed hair that colour-coordinated with hir bikini. Hir breasts were a tad smaller, and Leanna figured that the clothes were worn for effect rather than practicality.

"Hi thereÖ" Leanna started.

"Wait!" said the arctic wolf excitedly. "Youíre a fennec fox, arenít you?" At Leannaís nod, shi continued. "I heard about you. Youíre Leanna, the one who used to be a slave."

"Guilty as charged," Leanna admitted.

"Sit down with us, please! Weíd love to talk with you a while. Iím Anastasia Frostbite, by the way. This is my friend, Lillian Emerald."

Lillian held up hir hand and gave a little wave. "Hi!"

Leanna sat on a vacant chair next to them. "Iíd like to chat with you too, but seeing as you already seem to know a little about me, how about you telling a little about yourselves first."

"That seems fair," Anastasia agreed.

Thatís where Forest found them still chatting, and shi quietly went off in search of a refreshment for both of them. Shi returned just in time to see a fox morph with strikingly rust-red fur approach Leanna. Shi was dressed in a wet, tight-fitting, grey T-shirt that clung to every curve of hir B-cup breasts and wore a crimson bikini bottom that was too small to hide half of hir sheath. Forest knew that this person was aware of hir sexuality and wasnít afraid to flaunt it.

The fox said, "Hi gorgeous. My nameís Vanny. I heard that you were a former sex slave from the Non-Aligned Worlds?"

"Thatís right," Leanna replied, completely unashamed of admitting hir past.

"Care to show me some of your moves?" Vanny asked with a grin.

A blunt approach like this might have been a turn-off from most people, but the fox also seemed to ooze genuine friendliness and interest at the same time. Shi just seemed to have a strange way of flirting. Leanna gave hir a friendly smile. "Thanks for the invitation, but I donít think so."

"Maybe I could show you some new moves?" Vanny added.

"I very much doubt that," Leanna said with a shake of hir head.

"Maybe you could show me some new moves?" Vanny said with an exaggerated leer.

Leanna had to laugh. "You almost got me there, but I have loving mates enough, thank you. Speaking of whomÖ" shi said as Forest stepped up to hand hir a drink, "this is Forestwalker, my denmate."

"A threesome then?" Vanny said impudently.

"Excuse me a moment, hon," Forest said as shi put their drinks down on a table. Shi stepped over to Vanny and picked up the fox as if shi weighed nothing.

"Hey! Lemmedown!" Vanny yelped. "What are you going to do-o-o-o-o-o-oÖ?" shi cried out shi went flying into the pool.

"Time to cool off that ardour a little," Forest told hir as the fox came coughing and spluttering back to the surface. Shi then rejoined hir mate and the two wolves who were killing themselves laughing.

"Does that happen a lot?" Forest asked the two.

Anastasia replied, "All the time. Vanny likes to try anything new at least once, and Leanna is the newest Ďattractioní, so to speak. But shiís a nice person, really."

"Whatís hir story then?" Leanna asked.

"Thatís an excellent question. Despite the way shi flirts and jokes, shiís actually a little reclusive about hir past. Maybe itís insecurities, or maybe shi just wants to forget about hir past. If you find out, please let us know. All we can say is that shiís a nice person to know, as long as you can put up with hir flirting and so forth."

"Iíll keep that in mind," Leanna said, and of course with hir memory, that was a certainty.

They chatted about various things for a while, with people coming and going from the group at intervals. First another wolf joined them Ė a striking seven feet tall with silvery grey fur. Shi was nude, and it was clear to see that shi looked entirely female, but this being the Double H Club, shi had to have hidden male equipment. Shi introduced hirself as Legna and confirmed that fact after giving both Forest and Leanna an enthusiastic greeting hug each.

Others that joined them were an arctic fox named Seralyn Shaw, a maned wolf named Shanoa Frostpaw, a silver fox named Tara Reina, and finally a sixteen year old chakat with a reverse tiger pattern of orange stripes on black who appropriately enough was named Reverse. Anastasia and Lillian had dried off and gotten too hot by then, and they excused themselves to head back into the pool. Reverse however was gushing over with enthusiasm because shi was meeting Forestwalker whose write-ups shi had read as a biology student. Shi was especially engrossed by the rediscovery of Eastern Barred Bandicoot and shi wanted to ask Forest for advice.

Eventually Forest had to beg off and head back to the pool also, and Leanna joined hir. They jumped together and sighed in relief as they came up. Leanna then climbed onto the chakatís lower back and laid down with hir limbs dangling into the water.

"This is the life," Leanna said contentedly.

"Yeah," agreed Forest as shi laid hir head on hir arms on the edge of the pool.

"I thought Rev was never going to run out of questions though."

Forest chuckled. "Shi reminds me of me at that age. Shi should go far with that kind of enthusiasm."

"Time to relax now Ė no career counselling," Leanna said as shi sternly waggled a finger at the chakat.

"Yes, dear!" Forest replied cheekily.

They lazed for a few minutes until they were inevitably disturbed by someone else in the pool. This one was different though by the way shi leaped out of the water, went right over the two of them, then dived back into the water and was gone in a flash.

"What the heck was that?" Forest asked.

"I barely saw hir-eek!" Leanna was startled by a face that popped up out of the water right in front of hir nose. Shi saw that shi was an otter Ė no wonder shi was so fast in the water. Shi also recognised hir as the river otter whom Rik had pointed out in the café earlier.

"Hi! Iím Tam Mason. Sorry if I startled you, but I just couldnít resist the temptation.

Leanna slid off Forest and the chakat turned around to face the otter also.

"No problem," Forest said. "A surprise never did anyone harm.

"Iím an American River Otter, in case youíre wondering. Iím just visiting; I normally live in Portland in the Oregon district of the GNA, so you wonít have seen me here before."

Leanna said, "Actually I saw you in the café this morning, but yeah, I would not have seen you before that. I just came here for the first time last week, so I wouldnít have realised that youíre just visiting."

"And I just re-joined after a long hiatus," Forest added.

"I see. So you wouldnít know if there are any other otters here currently?"

"Sorry, no," Forest replied.

"Oh well, plenty of time to look later. Time to swim now. Catch you later!"

With that, Tam was gone like a shot.

"Remind me not to challenge hir to a swimming race," Forest told Leanna.

"No kidding," Leanna said fervently.

The two enjoyed the water and a bit more play for a while until they decided that theyíd had enough. They climbed out of the pool and headed back to the locker room where they had noticed a couple of shower stalls and fur-drying booths also. They washed the pool water from their fur, dried themselves to the point where they were still a bit damp for coolness, then headed back outside to get the attention of Tavi who had belatedly joined them in the water.

"Weíll meet you down in the lounge when youíre ready," Leanna told hir, then they headed inside to the clubís lounge room.

The crowd had grown since their arrival. It was becoming apparent that the poker night was a popular social event.

"Can you see any of our group?" Leanna asked. Shi was far too short to see over the crowd.

Forest reared up on hir hind legs to look around. "Nope," shi said as shi came back down to all four paws. "Letís mingle while we wait."

"Fine by me. I hope the others come soon though. Weíll all be going off to dinner when weíre all here, and Iím feeling a bit hungry."

"Should have had a muffin earlier," Forest said with a grin.

Leanna just stuck hir tongue out at the chakat.

They did order some drinks however, and were unsurprised when Ashley was the waitress to deliver them because this was the same time as hir shift last week.

"Hi there! Iím happy to see that you decided to come today," Ashley said as shi put their drinks on the table.

Leanna replied, "We had a lot of fun last time, and we have other reasons to come too."

"Good, you can tell me about that later when I get off shift, although the way that things are going, they might ask me to stay on a bit longer. Itís quite a crowd."

"Plenty more up at the pool," Forest remarked.

"Iím not surprised. Oh well, have fun!" Ashley headed back to the bar, rapidly disappearing behind the number of people filling the lounge.

They were soon joined by Lil who gave them both a greeting hug. "Sorry that I missed you earlier. Joís taking the cubs to the games room and making sure that the supervisor knows that theyíre supposed to stay put for now."

"Do they tend to wander off?" Forest asked with some concern.

"Not really. Thereís plenty to keep them amused up there. I just believe in preventative measures."

Gabriel was next to turn up, chatting with Lisander whom shi met as shi came out of the elevator. Lisander was especially pleased to see Leanna. "Iím so glad that you decided to come back. I must admit that Iíd like to talk with you some more about a few things."

Leanna had a fair idea what Ďthingsí they were. "Iíll try to find a bit of free time later, okay?"

"Fine by me, Leanna."

Jo and Jonni came down together after they had both dropped off their children. Jonni said, "Peta and Darla were just bringing in their pups when we were leaving, so theyíll join us soon."

The mice werenít the first to show up though. Tavi arrived with Camphor, both looking a bit damp still after reluctantly leaving the pool. Then as they watched the entry, they saw Nichelle arrive with Jacqui on hir arm. They spotted the group waving at them and soon joined their friends, giving them hugs all round, then a couple more when Peta and Darla finally arrived.

As soon as Forest got the chance, shi took Nichelle aside. "Would you and your mates be free to come over for dinner tomorrow?" shi asked. "We have someone weíd like you to meet, and weíd like your opinion based on your personal viewpoint."

"Well, Jacqui, Ashley and I are always up for a free meal, and tomorrow is free. Seeing as thereís nothing particularly unique about my viewpoints except my gender change, Iím going to guess that you have a member of your own family with similar feelings to mine?"

"Good guess," Forest confirmed. "My sister has a foxtaur vixen denmate who seems to fit your description very well, and we were wondering if youíd have a chat with her."

"Sure! It would be interesting seeing this from the other side this time also."

"Great! Would six oíclock suit you?"

"Fine by me," Nichelle confirmed. Then the two continued conversing about Forestís extended family.

They were chatting for about ten minutes before Rik turned up, looking a lot more lively than shi had when Forest and Leanna had seen hir at the café. Shi looked ready to relax, dressed in snug-fitting jeans and a brief top that didn't quite cover the bottom of hir large breasts. "Hi everyone! Am I the last?"

"Not quite," Jonni replied. "Ashley is due to come off hir shift any minute, and Francine needs to be dragged away from the front desk, as usual. Has anyone seen Myst today?"

There was much shaking of heads. Rik said, "I wouldnít be surprised if shi doesnít turn up. Shiís not the kind of person who likes big crowds. Not like me Ė I love seeing all these people, especially anyÖ newÖ facesÖ." Rikís eyes opened wider as shi caught sight of someone who took hir breath away.

Forest felt an emotional spike from the big cat, and turned to see what had caught Rikís eyes. Shi was staring directly at Shamara, but the Rakshani was oblivious to hir gaze.

"I think Iíve fallen in love," Rik said with a goofy smile. Shi started moving in Shamaraís direction, but was halted by Forestís grip on hir arm.

"Rik, thatís Shamara ap Karon naÖ naÖ"

"na Makane," Leanna supplied.

"Thanks, Leanna. Rik, shiís not a tiger; shiís a Rakshani, and Rakshani donít banter and court like we do. If you try using the same approach that you used on me last week, youíre going to get shot down in flames."

Rik frowned. "Then what do you say to a Rakshani?"

"Itís not so much what you say as what you do. Rakshani try to impress potential mates by besting them at various activities. They are a highly competitive species, and are usually only interested in a suitor if they prove their worth. If youíre going to go chasing hir, the onus is on you to impress hir, and not with your bad jokes either."

"Youíre not making this easy, Forest."

"I never said that it was. Iím just giving you the facts that Iíve learned from my co-wife, Zhane."

"Then what do you suggest I do?"

"Introduce yourself. Tell hir about yourself and ask about hir. Just normal stuff. Just be alert for something that you might have of mutual interest and that could be opening. For example, shi likes motorcycles and races dirt bikes."

"Great! Iíve got a Kawasaki ATR450X. I wonder what shi thinks of that?"

Forest grinned. "Go get hir, Rik! Just donít forget about dinner with the group."

Rik said over hir shoulder as shi moved off, "Iíll invite hir to join us!"

Ashley turned up just then with a tray of drinks, but out of uniform. "Iíve brought everybodyís favourite drink. Whereís Rik going?"

"To meet the love of hir life for the first time," Jacqui replied as shi gave hir mate a hug.

"Oh? Who?" Ashley asked as shi looked about curiously. Shi spotted Rik approaching Shamara, the only person in the lounge who was taller than the big black panther. "Ooh Ė shiís going after Shamara? This ought to be interesting!"

"You think Rikís going to fall on hir face?" Jacqui asked.

"Not if shiís careful, but Shamaraís moods are pretty powerful, whatever happens. Shiís only been here twice, but shiís pretty memorable for what shi does."

"I tried to give Rik some advice," Forest said. "Hopefully shi listened."

"Amen," Ashley agreed.

They all tried to watch Rik as shi talked to Shamara. Apparently the Rakshani liked what shi saw in hir initially and the conversation got off to a good start. When they realised that Rik hadnít blown it with one of hir awful jokes, they lost interest for the time being.

Nichelle announced that shi was going to fetch Francine. "Iím hungry, and no bunny is coming between me and dinner!" shi announced with a grin. Shi soon returned not only with the rabbit in tow, but also a vulpine morph who looked to be about mid-term pregnant.

"Hi guys," Francine said. "Sorry to hold you up. I was trying to persuade Voxanna here to come join us. The poor dear lost hir mate recently and could do with some cheering up."

Forestwalker stepped up to give Voxanna a hug that was part welcome and part consolation. There were murmurs of sympathy amongst the group, and Voxanna nodded in acknowledgement. "Thanks. Lifeís been a bit hard lately, but Francine has been doing hir best to make this place feel like a new home since I arrived yesterday. Shi even managed to drag me out here."

"Best not to dwell on the sad parts and remember the good," advised Forest. "Iím sure your mate would have enjoyed this social event."

Voxanna couldnít help smiling. "As Daniel was just male, Iíd be very surprised if he attended."

Forest felt chagrined. "Oops! I should have considered that possibility."

Francine said, "I asked Voxanna to join our group for this evening. However, Iíve also got some bad news Ė Myst phoned in and said shi wonít be joining us tonight."

"Sounds like Rik was right," Jonni commented.

"Well if somebody can drag Rik away, we can go get started on dinner," Nichelle said.

"I volunteer," Forest said. "Shamara knows me, so I should be able to interrupt without a problem."

"Iíll save you a place at the table," Leanna said.

Everyone else moved en masse towards the dining room where they had a table reserved. Leanna Ďsavedí a place for Forest by removing the chair that was next to hir and replacing it with a floor cushion so that hir taur mate could squat there. Forest soon arrived with both Rik and Shamara following.

"Shamara has agreed to dine with us tonight," Forest announced, then introduced hir friends to the Rakshani.

Shamara nodded politely and seated hirself in the only vacant chair, which by no coincidence was next to Rik.

Francine said, "This is our own little circle of friends, and weíre pleased to have you join us, Shamara. I know that Iíve said this to you before in my official capacity as this branchís vice president, but on a purely personal level, weíre very happy that youíre here with us today."

"Thank you, Francine. I try to fit in with the people and culture here, but Iím always most comfortable at the Double H Club. Rik was extolling the virtues of your group to me, so I had to accept hir invitation and find out for myself."

Rik gave Forest a surreptitious wink and Forest had to grin. Shi had been quicker on the uptake than Forest would have guessed. Of course shi still had a bit to go. Forest resolved to keep one eye on them. Discreetly of course. Shi didnít want people to think shi was meddling. Again!

The meal went well, with excellent food and service. Their waiter was a folf Ė a red fox-grey wolf hybrid named Cindy Greypaw. Shi charmed them with hir British Isle accent and took their orders quickly and accurately. Despite a large crowd at the restaurant, the chefs prepared their food with great skill and everybody enjoyed every last morsel.

At one point, Leanna asked with a little concern, "What about your children? When do they get to eat?"

Lisander answered, "You havenít seen all the facilities here yet, have you?" When Leanna shook hir head, Lisander continued, "The games room floor has a crèche and full child-minding facilities, including a cafeteria. The children order what they like there and it gets charged to the parentsí account. Our kits actually keep asking us to come to the club more often so they can play and eat what they like. I give them a show of reluctance, but in fact itís one of the few times that Jonni and I can sit down to a quiet dinner with friends. Donít tell them that I told you that though or else they might start using it against us!"

Forest laughed. "You sure donít have to tell me that. Iíve got cubs of my own who would take advantage like a shot!"

Leanna said, "Then Iíll probably have to take my children there too. I love looking after Forestís cubs, but even so I want to be able to spend as much time with hir and my co-mates as possible."

Conversation continued for a while after they had their dessert course, until a soft double-chime muted conversation and a voice came over the public address system.

"Attention please! This is a reminder that the poker tournament starts in fifteen minutes in the meeting hall on level three. Please ensure that you have registered for the event by then so that we can get the tournament started promptly. Once again Ė please register now if you have not already done so. Play starts in fifteen minutes. Thank you."

"Oops!" Forest said, "I never thought to do that. Weíd better get up there now, Leanna."

"Weíll be right behind you, Forest," Francine said.

That was more easily said than done though as the announcement had caused an exodus from the lounge and dining room towards the elevators. Naturally a queue developed, and it was several minutes before they got up to the hall. Fortunately only a few of those people had not registered as yet, and Forest and Leanna did so with a couple of minutes to spare. They handed over their entry fees, then they rejoined the others and waited for the event to start.

The meeting hall had circular tables set up, with cards and chips all ready for the players. There was a stage at one end of the hall with a banner that had been put up over it. It read: "THE DOUBLE H CLUB INTER-BRANCH POKER TOURNAMENT". Someone mounted the steps onto the stage and walked over to the centre. Shi looked like some kind of fox, but hir fur was a dark cream colour with orange Ďglovesí and Ďsocksí. Forest could see a touch of light cream on hir throat and chest where hir top did not hide it. The same light cream tipped the long bushy tail which had several bracelets segmenting it. Shi had long rich red hair over which shi had a wireless microphone.

Forest asked Francine curiously, "What species is shi?"

"Corsac Fox," Francine replied. "Asian in origin."

The fox looked at the clock on the wall and checked that the people at the registration desk were done. Then shi nodded to someone and a short blare of music announced the beginning of the ceremonies.

"Welcome, everybody, to the bi-annual inter-branch poker tournament," the Corsac Fox began. "My name is Miranda Touchtail and I will be your master of ceremonies tonight. My job as a starship technician prevents me from getting to many of these events, so I really wanted to get involved when I found out that this tournament coincided with my shore leave. I asked the club officials if I could be MC, and they told me no. Then I bribed them with my stash of Voxxan Jandesian mead, and here I am!"

There were laughs and a few cheers, and Miranda grinned. Shi then continued, "Anyway Ė for those of you who have never been to one of these tournaments, it is of course not just a big social event and an excuse to stash away the children so you can have a good time. Not that that isnít a good reason, but the better one is that these events raise money for the Double H Club to provide services to those herms in need. Some of you out there may even have been beneficiaries of those services in the past when you most needed them. Tonight you get to pay that forward to the next people who need it most. While the winner of the tournament gets a free all-you-can-eat meal in the clubís restaurant, all the balance of the profits go towards these servicesÖ except for this teensy-weensy plaque that we reluctantly give to the winner." Shi held up the little wooden plaque with a brass plate attached. "I tell you it gets harder and harder to polish out the previous winner each time!"

There was more laughter as Miranda handed the plaque to a helper who handed back a sheet of paper.

"Okay, this is a list of all the registered players. We have 108 contestants, and they have been randomly mixed by the computer and sorted into sixteen groups of five, and seven groups of four. That gives us a total of 25 groups whose winning players will be sorted into five groups for the second round. I will call out your names and the table number that you have been assigned. We will be playing Five Card Draw. Please remember that this is a social game and not a high-stakes game. Spectators are allowed but must be quiet during play. Double H staff in uniform will be watching for any sign of cheating." Then Miranda looked down the list and started reading off names.

After about two minutes, Leannaís name was called and shi went off to join the players at table four. Various other members of their group started drifting off as their names were called. Forest was kept waiting until table nineteen. Shi took a place at the table and hir opponents and shi started introducing one another.

Opposite hir was a raccoontaur Ė the first that Forest had ever seen before today, although shi had heard that they existed. Hir name was Ambereyes, and shi was short and a little bit pudgy, with D-cup breasts held firmly by a simple tank-top.

On Forestís left was a spotted hyena. Shi was moderately built but tall for hir species. Shi had no head-hair, but had a short ruff of fur instead. Although shi was rather busty, shi had narrow hips that were more like a maleís. Shi introduced hirself as Rhea and shi was visiting from the GNA. Shi was searching for more of hir kind with the aim of building a new clan, but had timed hir visit to coincide with the tournament so as to kill two birds with one stone.

On Forestís right was a most unusual person. Basically shi was a spotted black panther with white hair. Shi wore a red dress with a plunging neckline that showed off the cleavage of hir full D-cup breasts. However, what made hir exceptionally unusual were the dragon wings that shi had folded neatly behind hir. Forest had occasionally seen odd morphs like hir whose ancestors had been modified in odd ways. Apparently shi had inherited that particular oddity and unlike some, chose to keep them. Shi introduced hirself as Taila Sillanpaa and added, "In case youíre wondering, I canít really fly with these, but I can glide a bit, enough so that I donít have to worry about falling off a cliff or something."

They drew for high card to see who dealt, and then their game commenced.

It quickly became obvious that none of the players were exceptional at poker. Taila was the first person to bust, followed the next round by Ambereyes. Rhea gave Forest some good competition though, but eventually lost out when shi bid boldly but Forest got very lucky. The hyena was disappointed to have been eliminated so early in the competition, but philosophical about hir loss.

Despite being one of the latest to start, Forestís game was completed when half the others were still going. Shi took the opportunity to get a drink and then find Leanna. Shi found hir seated with a chakat, a black-footed ferret, and Jacqui. Apparently the first two had already been eliminated as they were both just watching the play. Judging by Jacquiís chips though, shi wouldnít be far behind. Nevertheless shi was grinning and seemed to be enjoying hirself. Leanna soon finished hir off though, and the players got up from the table.

Leanna beckoned the chakat and ferret over. "Iíd like you to meet my denmate, Forestwalker. Forest, this is Pepe Ferret and Onca, child of Shadowhunter and Dante."

Pepe was slim and lanky, with a modest bust, and shi dressed in a rather tomboyish fashion. Shi rather shyly held out hir hand to shake Forestís and said, "Hi."

Onca, on the other hand, gave Forest the typical chakat greeting hug, hir C-cup breasts squishing firmly against Forestís own D-cups.

Forest said, "I saw you in the pool earlier today playing with the cubs. That's a great telekinetic Talent that you have!"

Onca grinned. "It does come in handy occasionally," shi admitted.

They moved away from the games still in session and chatted a bit while they awaited the finish of all the others. Forest asked Jacqui why shi had been smiling so much although shi lost.

Jacqui laughed. "Oh, Iím a lousy poker player, but I kept on getting lucky draws and giving Leanna such a hard time. Shi plays really well, but there I was frustrating hir so often. I just had to grin."

Eventually the final game was done and Miranda got up on the stage and called everyone to attention again.

"Okay, folks, weíve eliminated the wheat from the chaff and itís time to get serious. Same deal as last time Ė Iíve got a list of the winners of the first round randomly grouped into teams which Iíll call out like before. However, just to make things interesting, youíll be playing Texas Hold ĎEm this time. If youíre not familiar with the rules of play, I suggest that you find out fast because after a fifteen minute break, we start the next round. Meanwhile, I have been asked to point out that the restaurant will be staying open late tonight, so if anybody wants to have a late supper or a celebratory drink, donít hesitate to take advantage of it. And while youíre there, buy a raffle ticket or two and try to win Chef Lovettís masterpiece dessert. Chef only makes those for these special occasions, and those who have tried it have always wanted more. Donít let them hog the pleasure though! Okay, the clock starts now. Be back in fifteen minutes!"

Many people availed themselves of the refreshment stand that the club had set up at the back of the hall, while others headed for the rest room. Forest and Leannaís friends gathered around to find out who had won and who had been eliminated. Rik still managed to have Shamara join them, and both had won through to the next round. The only other though was Tavi, and the husky was happily wagging hir tail.

"You donít seem to be the kind of person whoíd make a great poker player," Forest commented.

"Are you kidding?" Peta asked. "Look at that poker face of hirs!"

"What poker face? Shiís radiating happiness like a beacon."

Peta grinned. "Thatís just it Ė shiís always happy. Shi could have the worst poker hand in the world and shiíll be wagging hir tail in excitement anyway. How can you tell what shiís thinking when shiís like that all the time?"

Tavi said, "Why not? I play for the fun of it. Sure, I often lose, but itís only a game, and games are meant to be fun, right?"

"Canít argue with that logic," Forest admitted.

When it came time to announce the teams, Forestís name was the second to be called. Shi went to table one and met the cat who was already there. Hir fur was an attractive light tan with creamy white fur on hir muzzle and throat. Hir short-cropped hair was a bold scarlet, as was hir tail. Shi was dressed attractively in a blouse and slacks.

"Hi, Iím Connor Reese," shi said to Forest, hir green eyes alight with pleasure. "I hope youíre ready to lose."

Forest grinned back. "Not without a fight!"

They were soon joined by another feline Ė a grey-furred Siamese cat, but shi could hardly have been more different from Connor. Shi was fairly androgynous despite D-cup breasts. Hir dark hair was spiked with red and shi wore a red halter and trousers that barely hung onto hir hips. Shi also wore square black-rimmed glasses. "Hi, Iím Riley Costello. This is my lifemate, Zatanna," shi said, smiling at the lop-eared rabbit who had hir arm around the cat.

Zatanna had light brown fur, full C-cup breasts, and was slightly on the chubby side. Shi gave the impression of a feminine personality to Rileyís masculine bias. "Nice to meet you. Iím not playing Ė I was eliminated in the first round. Iím just here to support my lifemate."

The final member of their group was a skunktaur in male phase, wearing only a light-blue see-through vest. The chakat-kin gave Forest a welcoming hug, but settled for a handshake with the others as hy introduced himself. "Iím Razel of House Bluepaw, child of Kaylen and Rosetip."

"Youíd better not use your telepathy to cheat," Riley warned.

Razel tapped the blue pawmark on hys chest. "Bluepaws are telekinetics, not telepaths." By way of demonstration, hy lifted the pack of cards from the table telekinetically and waved them under Rileyís nose.

"UmmÖ right. Got it," Riley conceded.

They settled in to play, and the game started pretty evenly. Very quickly though, the balance shifted and Forest was thoroughly trounced. Shi was the first to be eliminated, hir lucky streak apparently having abruptly ended. Connor was the next to go, but it was a hard-fought battle between Riley and Razel to decide the ultimate. Finally Riley triumphantly produced a full house, and Razel was defeated. Zatanna gave hir lifemate a congratulatory hug and kiss, while Forest gave Razel a consolatory pat on the back.

"You did well, but sometimes itís just the luck of the draw," shi told hym.

Razel shrugged. "Oh well, I had fun. So, did you have any mate here that you can cheer on?"

"Yes I do. Leanna Fennec is hir name, and I can see hir over there."

"Mind if I join you? Iím here by myself tonight. My lifemate, Nightstar, wasnít interested in the game and stayed home with our cub."

"Sure! Why not?" Forest led the way over to Leannaís table and settled down to observe the play. Shi was soon joined by several of hir friends.

"Did you get through again?" Francine asked hir quietly.

Forest shook hir head. "Nope. Shot down in flames. Looks like Leanna is doing better though."

"No kidding! Thatís quite a pile of chips in front of hir."

Forest looked at Leannaís opponents. To hir left was another raccoontaur, and Forest noticed that Ambereyes was watching nearby. This one was a bit more full-figured, had DD breasts held in by a black halter-top, and no head hair. Shi also wore two heavy-looking metallic bracelets. Forest nudged Francine and asked about the two.

"Thatís Blackheart, Ambereyesí mate," shi informed hir.

"What about Leannaís other opponents?"

"On hir right is Chakat Sneakpaw. Hir sire was a skunktaur of House Blackpaw, although itís hard to see the pawmark on hir chest because of hir solid black fur. Hir winter coat though is more like hir sireís and then you can see the mark against the long white fur that grows then."

"And the otter opposite hir? Something seems odd about hir, and Iím not referring to hir clothing." Forest had noticed that hir attire consisted of a halter top and a stylised loin cloth.

"Thatís Brianna, a Eurasian River Otter, and shiís deaf and mute."

"It obviously doesnít stop hir from playing a good game of poker."

"I suspect shiís adept at reading body language," Francine opined. "You need to be really good to not show hir any Ďtellsí."

"Looks like shiís caught the eye of our visitor from the GNA," Forest said, pointing out Tam Mason who was also watching from the sidelines.

"Hmm, you could be right. Maybe shiíll give Brianna a consolatory drink. Leannaís just busted hir."

"Tam did say shi was looking for other otters, so if I were hir, Iíd sure take the opportunity."

While the players were setting up for the next deal, Forest checked out the next table. Around it were seated Shamara, a greyhoundtaur, a fox, a chakat, and a wolf, although the latterís tail indicated that shi might have some mixed ancestry. Forest asked Francine for a brief identification of the players whom shi didnít know yet.

The clubís greeter looked them over and said, "The dogtaur is Kendal Twintails and shiís a police officer. The one next to hir in the pink dress is Gabriella Fawkes. Shiís a folf Ė a fox-wolf hybrid. The chakat is Azurenight, and the silver fox dressed like a Japanese schoolboy is Tara Reina."

"Tara looks very focused on hir cards," Forest commented.

"Actually shiís rather shy in large groups like this. Shi copes with it by concentrating on the game, which probably helped hir get to the second round.

Forest allowed hir empathic sense to reach out touch Tara gently. Francine was right on all counts, shi decided, then shi turned hir attention back to Leannaís game.

This round went faster than most, with Sneakpaw boldly bidding and then being busted. It took four more rounds though for Leanna to finally triumph over Blackheart. Forest smiled proudly at hir mate.

"Youíve really gotten good at this game. Iím betting that youíre going to be the champion."

"Thanks, Forest, but donít bet yet. Iíve learned enough about the game to know that chance still plays a role, and I still need more experience."

"I know, but the best players can make the most of a bad hand."

"Iíll soon find out. The last table looks like itís finishing," Leanna commented as the spectators around that table gave cries of disappointment or delight, then some applause.

Miranda had apparently been waiting for the result upon the stage because shi immediately announced, "OK folks, we have our finalists. Iím sure youíll all be disappointed to hear that I did not make it to the final round." The crowd gave hir a collective ĎAwwí in exaggerated disappointment, and shi smiled back at them. "Nevertheless, we have some great players to excite you. Just finished on table three, Inman Carter. From table four, Leanna Fennec. From table five, Shamara na Makane. From table one, Riley Costello. And our fifth and final player is Sandy Puma from table two."

There was applause from the audience before Miranda continued.

"Ten minute break while we rearrange the tables so that people can watch the finalists better. Please let the final five get refreshments first so that we can get the game under way promptly."

Most people were only interested in the final game, and everyone was back at the table promptly. Forest noted with interest that Rik was hovering close to Shamara; the big black panther seemed to be very smitten with the even bigger Rakshani. Forest of course stationed hirself nearby Leanna so that shi could see hir plays. A nudge on hir elbow brought hir attention to the person next to hir and shi smiled in recognition.

"Hello again, Queznal. I didnít notice you playing. How did you do?"

"Knocked out in the first round," hy admitted, "but not by much. I lost out to Sandy Puma. Shiís got nerves of steel and shi psyched me out."

"I bet it was a temptation to use your telepathy," Forest said as shi looked at the headband that hy wore.

"Oh, I wished that I could, but my training wonít let me even get close to following that thought through."

"I never doubted it. So are you hoping anyone in particular wins?"

"Sandy, actually." When Forest gave hym a quizzical look, hy added, "If I have to be beaten, why not have been beaten by the best? Makes my loss more understandable."

Forest smiled. "I suppose thatís one way of looking at it."

The players drew to see who would be dealer, and Inman held up an Ace of Hearts. Nobody could match that, so shi shuffled the pack and started dealing. Three rounds were played with no large gains or losses by any of the players. On the fourth round though, Inman won big, much to the annoyance of Shamara who had a very strong hand that was nevertheless beaten by Inmanís. Several more rounds went by and Inmanís pile of chips grew while everybody elseís shrank. It was beginning to seem to be an inevitable win for the deer when on hir next winning round, Shamara slammed hir fist on the table, spilling all the neatly stacked chips.

"Youíre a cheat!" shi roared at Inman.

The deer looked at hir disdainfully. "Down, kitty. Donít be such a bad loser."

"Donít try to fool me, Carter. I saw you palm a card!"

Francine stepped forward. "Thatís a strong accusation, Shamara. Did anybody else see this alleged palming?"

Nobody had, but Queznal stepped forward, pulling the headband from hys head. "I can verify whoís telling the truth."

Inman sneered at him, but Forest sensed a well-hidden spike of worry as the deer said, "Mind your own business, stinkface! You have no authority here, and no right to poke around other peopleís heads."

Queznal said, "Iím not the police, so I donít need to follow procedure, and Iíll use my ability if a staff member gives me the go-ahead."

"You do, and Iíll sue you for invasion of mental privacy," Inman threatened.

Francine said, "Everyone was warned that we would be looking out for cheating, and if Queznal can determine the truth, then I will authorise hym, and you can try suing the club. However, the clubís by-laws specifically state that any illegal act can and will be investigated by any and all means, including the use of Telepaths. By signing up as a member, you agreed to those by-laws."

Shamara gave Inman a feral grin. "Iím willing to let hym scan me. How about you, cheater?"

Inman just glared at all three malevolently.

Francine said, "Queznal, if you wouldnít mind scanning Shamara first, please."

Queznal nodded and concentrated. Shamaraís mind was open to him and hy quickly nodded. "Shamara is telling the truth when shi says that shi believes Inman to be cheating. Shi truly believes that shi saw hir palm a card."

Francine nodded. "Your turn, Inman."

Queznal concentrated again. This time hy met with a great deal of resistance. Inman had obvious gotten some training in obfuscating surface thoughts to evade a casual telepathic watch, but hir abilities were no match for hys level of skill. "Shi did cheat. Shi has done so several times this evening."

There was a murmur of anger from the crowd, and Shamara said to Inman, "Get lost, cheater."

"Make me, pussycat!" Inman challenged, not intimidated by the way the Rakshani towered over hir. After being humiliated by being caught out n front of the crowd, Inman was spoiling for a fight.

"My pleasure," Shamara said, and grabbed the deer morph by hir upper arms and lifted hir effortlessly.

Inman just grinned nastily and threw hir head forward, slamming hir antlers into Shamaraís face. The Rakshani howled with pain and dropped Inman to clutch at hir injured face.

"Anyone else want to try?" Inman taunted. A moment later shi was knocked off hir feet from behind and slammed to the ground. Although shi was an experienced brawler, Inman was surprised long enough to be caught in a hold that shi couldnít break.

"Yeah, happy to take that challenge," Rik said. "Iíve been wanting to do this for a long time, you piece of shit. Somebody call the police, please."

"Will you be alright, Rik?" Francine asked.

"No problem, Francine. If this slab of bad venison gives me any grief, Iíll be happy to demonstrate a few far more painful holds on hir."

Inman was furious, but not stupid. Shi knew what the panther was capable of doing, and didnít give hir a reason to do it.

"Iíve called my station to send a couple of officers" Kendal said as shi stepped forward. Shi pulled a pair of cuffs from hir hip pouch and snapped one end onto Inmanís wrist, and then shi pulled the arm back and lifted one leg up so that shi could snap the other end to an ankle. "Youíre a little too dangerous with those antlers to let you stand up, so just relax down there until the officers arrive."

Rik got up now that shi was sure that Inman was safely immobilised.

The police arrived within ten minutes and took the deer into custody. The poker game was held up while statements were taken and questions asked, but eventually the police left and things quietened down.

Forest was both pleased and amused to see Rik with a big happy smile plastered on hir face. However, while kicking Inmanís butt had been very satisfying, that wasnít the reason for Rikís grin. Shamara had hir arm about the panther, and despite a swollen eye and torn cheek, looked contented. Rik had unexpectedly found hir way of impressing Shamara, and beating the person who had injured hir was an excellent way of winning the Rakshaniís affections.

"Are you okay to continue, Shamara?" Francine asked.

"I concede, Francine. Iíd like to recuperate a little."

"Okay. Iíll give you the use of one of the accommodation rooms if you wish, but first I think you should go to the first aid room and have your injuries attended to."

Rik said, "Donít worry about it, Francine. Iíll take of everything." Shi then led Shamara away in the direction of the elevator.

"Somehow I get the feeling that Shamara isnít going to get much rest," Francine said quietly to Forest.

"Ha! Iím wondering if they even make it to Rikís room before they start," Forest replied. Both of them were radiating enough amorousness that it was a wonder to hir that the whole room couldnít feel it, empaths or not!

The poker game restarted with just the three remaining players. It took several hands, but eventually Sandy Puma was knocked out of the game. That left Leanna and Riley, and both were playing skilfully. Leanna had learned well, and made up for a lack of experience with hir other skills.

The dealer slowly laid out the cards with a distinct "fwip" noise like any other freshly minted deck. Leanna stared down the Siamese sitting across from her, their eyes never leaving each other until the last card was laid out. Sitting face up between them lay the Ace of Spades, the Jack of Diamonds, the Jack of Hearts, the Ten of Hearts, and the Nine of Hearts. The fennec slowly peeled up the corners of the two cards before hir, hir heart suddenly jumping up hir throat as the Ace of Hearts and the Queen of Hearts looked back at hir. It wasn't a straight flush, it could have been a royal straight flush, but, even still, it was a flush. The crap on the table was rubbish.

"Pair of Jacks showing," Miranda called out, narrating the final hand as the whole club stood with bated breath. "Opening bidding starts with Leanna Fennec who won the last hand."

Leanna was careful about hir ears and hir tail Ė canine genetics made them both huge signal flares of hir emotions, so shi kept them still. Shi calmly picked up two orange chips, tossing them onto the table. The plastic discs rang as they bounced off each other on the velvet surface. "Two hundred!"

Riley was calm. You didn't make it to the final two by being a Nervous Nelly, but the tension between everyone was thick enough to cut it with a plasma saw. "I- I see that, and raise three hundred fifty," shi declared, tossing in hir chips.

Bingo! Leanna's large ears were not just for show, and they picked up the initial hesitancy. The cat had lost hir cool and now the wily nature of the clever fox was to reign supreme. Not to showboat, Leanna let hir lips curl into a cool smile. "I see your raise, and I'm going all in."

A look of surprise came onto Riley's face. If shi backed down, shi'd only have one hundred seventy five to play with, barely enough to cover ante next round. The cat decided that the fox was bluffing. Shi nodded and pushed hir stack to the middle of the table as well. "All right, I call."

"Here we have it, folks, the final hand of the evening! Both players are all in on this final reveal!" Miranda purred, clearly enjoying the drama. "Leanna, you made the final raise, so, you show your cards first."

Leanna nodded, calmly using one card to flip the other, displaying her queen and ace, hir smug expression bubbling out as shi crossed hir arms under hir breasts, "Flush, ace high." Forest's whistles and cheers could be heard over the rest of the crowd clapping. Riley frowned, looking beat.

The cat turned over a card, the ace of diamonds, having only two pair. Leanna nodded Ė shi had been bluffing. Riley's face then contorted to that of a kitten who managed to catch its first mouse, turning over the Jack of Spades, "Full house, WOOO!" The cat leapt out of hir chair, sending it backwards as the audience's applause became deafening, especially to the sensitive chakat and fennec ears.

"We have our winner!" Miranda announced from the stage. Come on up here, Riley, and collect your prize!"

Riley very quickly made hir way to the stage, tugging Zatanna along with hir. Miranda held out the special coupon for the restaurant and Riley took it and waved it triumphantly in the air.

Miranda continued, "Congratulations, Riley Costello, on being the winner of the first quarterly interclub poker tournament for 2332. Thank you everybody for participating and making this a successful fund-raising event. I hope that you will join us again in May for the next tournament."

There was a rousing cheer from the audience. After a few moments, Miranda held up hir hands and gestured for the crowd to quiet down. "Before you go, we have one last treat for everybody. As a way of offering thanks on behalf of the Double H Club, Lyle Catamount has agreed to play hir latest composition for you all tonight."

Forest was startled by the sudden enthusiastic cheers and applause that announcement generated, applause that only got louder as a cute cougar dressed in a form-hugging blouse and a short skirt mounted the steps onto the stage. Shi waved and grinned to the audience which elicited whistles and shouts of pleasure.

"Whoís this?" Forest asked Francine. "Iíve never heard of hir before."

Francine smiled enigmatically. "Actually, you probably have, only not by hir real name. Most people here have heard hir play at least once in person here, but since you havenít been here since shi joined, youíve missed the experience."

"So who is shi then?" Forest persisted.

"I think Iíll let you figure that out for yourself."

Forest poked hir tongue out at the cheeky rabbit, then turned hir attention back to the stage where Lyle was seating hirself behind the grand piano that had been set up there.

Shi waited for the audience to quiet down, then said in a beautifully clear voice, "I am going to play for you for the first time tonight my new song. Itís entitled The Dream of Life."

There was more applause which quickly died out as Lyle began to play.

From the very first chords, Forest was hooked. As the cougar played, the chakat knew shi was in the presence of musical genius. Then shi started singing. Forestís jaw dropped.

"Itís Symphony!" shi whispered in awe.

"Uh huh," Francine agreed, too distracted by the song to comment more.

Symphony was the stage name of a talent that had burst on the scene a couple of years ago. The artist had already sold millions of downloads and won stacks of awards, and yet nobody knew who that person was aside from a very few people in the recording industry. No live performances were ever given. No publicity photos were ever distributed. All the listening public knew of the musical phenomenon was the music and the voice.

And shi was playing here in front of Forest in a private club for herms. Shi would never have believed it without seeing and hearing it for hirself.

The music was inspired, the words poignant, and the crowd was enraptured. Forest was also, but there was something else impinging on hir empathic senses. The passion that the cougar was putting into hir playing was growing and manifesting itself unexpectedly. It was more than rapture with the music Ė it was physically stimulating. It wasÖ sexual! Forest was startled to realise that shi could sense that Lyle was becoming intensely sexually aroused. As the song progressed, that feeling became more prominent. Tearing hir eyes from the stage, Forest looked around at the other chakats in the audience, and realised that they were feeling it also. Unlike Forest though, not quite as intensely, and definitely not with the puzzlement that shi was feeling. They knew something shi didnít. They also werenít as E-sensitive as Forest. Shi turned hir full attention back to Lyle. There was no mistake Ė Lyle not only was becoming sexually aroused, hir male member was tenting hir skirt. Still shi played on, and now Forest was becoming similarly aroused. Shi tried to block the cougarís emotions, but it was so difficult when all shi really wanted to do was lose hirself in the rapturous melody and passionate singing. Despite hirself, Forest soon had a full erection, matched by the one that Lyle was now displaying. The song built to a crescendo, and Forest felt Lyleís pleasure climb exponentially. Symphony hit the final notes as shi orgasmed right there on the piano stool, and only strong self-control stopped Forest from doing so also.

With the song concluded, the audience was respectfully quiet for a couple of long seconds before bursting out into wild cheering and thunderous applause. After a minute, Lyle seemed to recover enough to get up, try to straighten hir skirt over hir erection, and bowed a bit wobbly. Sandy Puma had stepped up onto the stage the moment the song had ended, and shi put hir arm around Lyle and steadied hir. Shi then tenderly helped hir down the steps and headed for the exit.

Sandy said, "Please let us through, folks. You know Lyle needs to recuperate. Shiíll be back a little later down in the lounge."

The audience parted and the couple soon were gone.

Forest was left squatting on the floor, hir forelegs drawn in front of hir to hide hir persistent arousal. Shi noticed Blacktail quietly get up onto the stage and start wiping down the piano stool. Forest could scent why; it was a wonder the floor under hir didnít need the same treatment. Shi turned to Francine who was just standing there waiting for Forestwalkerís reaction, a grin plastered on hir face. "Okay, what just happened?" Forest asked. "And for a club that bans sexual matters in public, that has got to be one of the most flagrant abuses of the rules!"

Francineís grin just grew wider. "Lyle is a special exception, and that reason is why youíve never known the true face of the artist known as Symphony."

"Care to tell me about it?" Forest asked earnestly.

"Iím just as curious," Leanna commented as shi hugged hir mate. Shi sensed that something was bothering hir, but could only guess at why. Shiíd enjoyed the music and singing immensely, but it was obvious that the chakat had felt something more Ė something that the fennec wasnít equipped to sense. "Did it have something to do with how Lyle orgasmed on stage?"

Forest smiled; Leanna missed nothing! "Yeah. Shi was broadcasting sexually charged emotion by the bucketful. Iím horny as hell!"

"Come on down to the lounge and Iíll explain on the way," Francine said.

"No, letís just stay here for the moment until I can walk without Ďsalutingí the other members," Forest insisted.

Francine just grinned again. "Okay, we can do that. First of all though, everything Iím about to tell you doesnít go outside these walls. Lyle told us about hirself in exchange for total confidentiality. Only members of the Double H Club know hir secret."

"Fine by me," Forest said.

"I know how to keep a secret," Leanna added, "although Iím surprised that the whole club knows and that secret hasnít leaked out yet."

"I think it has something to do with us wanting to keep this special thing to ourselves. However, youíre still right, but Lyle made the decision to tell us and shiís lucked out so far. Shi started off life as a fairly normal young herm with some musical talent. Shi had lessons on various instruments, and did especially well on piano. Shi was good enough to look at music as a career, and hir studies were focused around that. Then shi hit puberty."

"Uh-oh," Forest said in anticipation. Shi knew that that was when physical problems frequently manifested themselves.

"Yeah, uh-oh. As you well know, most herms are descended from exotic sex slaves. At the end of the Gene Wars they, like all the other morphs, were treated to deal with their physical problems, and most could live normal lives afterwards. However, genetic engineering was still not perfected, and some mistakes were made. Mistakes that manifested in Lyle. Shi is a throwback. Hir body is keyed to give and receive sexual pleasure. The first time shi went into heat, shi nearly went insane with the sexual need it caused. Shi actually begged hir parents to fuck hir. They didnít, but they did get a medic to come over and sedate hir and take hir to a hospital where shi could be treated. After they had diagnosed hir problem, they gave hir drugs to keep the sexual desire under control, and referred hir to a genetic engineering expert."

"This sounds a lot like what I went through," Leanna commented.

"Probably much the same," Francine conceded. "However, unlike you, shi would have to pay for the treatment, and that wasnít cheap. In fact hir family wasnít very affluent, and what spare money theyíd saved had gone towards buying instruments and lessons for Lyle. They simply could not afford the treatment then, and as it was considered elective treatment, their basic medical insurance didnít cover that. Lyle had to rely on the drugs for a long time while hir family saved up the money."

Forest said, "Itís sad that even today, people canít get treatment for such things that affect their lives so drastically."

"I know, but in a way, itís a good thing that shi couldnít."

"Why is that?"

"Because while hir life continued relatively normally with the drugs to help hir, everyone soon noticed a change. Hir playing, while already very good, suddenly took a leap forward into excellence. Shi was putting more into it, and getting far more out of it also."

"The pleasure feedback!" Leanna stated in realisation.

"Exactly!" Francine confirmed. "As I said, shi was now keyed to give and receive pleasure, but the stimulating pleasure did not have to be sexual in nature. In fact, anything at all that gave hir pleasure Ė a tasty meal, a funny TV show, a good book Ė they all would stimulate a pleasure response, but the thing that Lyle enjoyed the most was hir music. The more shi played, the more pleasure shi got, and the more pleasure shi got, the better shi played. Soon hir music was so powerful that it would drive hir to orgasm."

"And thatís when shi started hitting the airwaves and music net," Forest guessed.

"Yes. Shi sent samples of hir work to the recording studios and one of them soon snapped hir up. Hir contract stipulated that shi would never be seen in public, and definitely no live shows. Not only didnít shi want to humiliate hirself in front of an audience, who would want to go to a concert where the feature act lasted only one song?"

"What about here though?" Forest asked. "You donít need to be an empath to tell what happened while shi played up on that stage."

"Thatís true, but unlike a general audience, many of the herms here have had one problem or another due to their nature. We can empathise with hir on a non-psionic level, and we will keep hir secret. Lyle let us into hir secret because shi craved recognition. Shi receives millions of fedcreds for hir music, but shi plays for us for free because we give hir something that money canít buy."

"I can understand that, but if shiís earning that much money, why hasnít shi gotten that treatment that shi couldnít afford before?"

"Isnít it obvious? The sexual energy that goes into hir playing might be lost. Shiís afraid that shi would lose that special edge that makes hir music and singing so unique. Besides, shiís learned to cope in hir own way, and it was also responsible for bringing love into hir life. Shi joined the Double H Club specifically to be able to have people to talk to about hir problems, and here is where shi met Sandy. They fell in love and have been mated for the past seven months. Sandy is now hir assistant manager also, and theyíre nearly inseparable."

"I thought I sensed something like that, but I was still a bit too distracted byÖ other things," Forest said.

"Speaking of which, are you ready to go down to the lounge now?" Francine asked.

"Yeah, Iím decent," Forest said as shi stood up. The three of them headed for the elevator to meet up with their friends.

As they waited for the elevator, Leanna asked, "Lyle and Sandy arenít just resting, are they?"

Francine shook hir head. "Nope. Sandy is probably working off some of Lyleís sexual energy right now. Otherwise shiíd still be too keyed up to rejoin us for hours."

"Wouldnít that make things worse?" Forest asked.

"Youíd think so, wouldnít you? However there are apparently also other factors, and besides Lyle isnít insatiable, unlike a certain fennec ex-slave."

"Hey! Iím not insatiable Ė I just have a huge amount of stamina!" Leanna objected.

Francine and Forest laughed, and Leanna grinned along with them as they stepped into the elevator.

They rejoined their friends and elected to have a late supper. The restaurant was still open, as promised, and several others taking advantage of that, including Riley who was sharing hir free meal with hir mate. They were still sitting there when Lyle and Sandy strolled in. A waiter promptly attended them and they ordered coffee and cake.

"Iíd like to talk with Lyle about hirself and hir needs," Leanna said after a few minutes. "I think we may share some common ground."

Francine said, "Go ahead, but if shi turns you down, donít bother hir any more."

"Of course not!" Leanna got up and marshalled hir thoughts as to how to persuade the cougar to talk about hirself. Shi stepped up to the table to introduce hirself. "Pardon me. My name is LeannaÖ."

That was as far as shi got before Lyle burst out, "Oh Makers! Youíre the former slave fennec that I heard about! Iíve really been wanting to meet you! Please Ė sit down! Iíd love to chat to you if you can spare the time?"

Leanna smiled and mentally discarded all hir unneeded opening gambits. Shi was a little nonplussed by the way the situation had totally turned about 180į, but shi wasnít going to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Sure, Iíve got the time. My mate is still chatting with our friends over there."

"I hear that shi had a big part in rescuing you. Why not have hir join us too?" Lyle cuddled hir mate and Sandy smiled indulgently. Although they were both cougars, they were so different physically and personality-wise. Lyle was smaller than Sandy, and very cutely feminine in appearance. Sandy had a much more powerful build, and a definite masculine bias despite hir female curves. Those differences probably helped make them so attractive to each other.

"Thatís true. Iíll go ask hir to join us." Leanna walked back to the table, catching Forestís eye as shi did.

Forest said, "Donít tell me you struck out?"

"No, theyíd like us both to join them. Apparently Iím even more fascinating to Lyle than shi is to me."

"Ooh! Iím not going to pass up the opportunity to chat with Symphony!" Forest said enthusiastically as shi left the table and started walking back over with Leanna.

They stopped next to Lyleís table and Leanna said, "Iíd like to introduce you to Forestwalker, daughter of Desertsand and Longstripe, and my beloved denmate."

"A pleasure to meet you," Lyle said. "As Iím sure you know by now, Iím Lyle Catamount, although you might know me better by the name Symphony, and this is my mate, Sandifer Puma."

Sandy held out hir hand to shake Forestís, and said, "Just call me Sandy. Lyle just likes teasing me with using my full name, as I donít really like it."

Lyle giggled. "Even I didnít know that was hir real name until we went to register our mating. You should have seen hir ears blush then!"

"A pleasure to meet both of you," Forest said. "But especially you, Symphony. Iím sure youíve heard this a lot from the people at the club, but Iím a big fan of your music."

"Thank you, Forest. How did you like the performance? What did you think of the new tune?"

"Outstanding, and unexpectedly arousing."

Lyle laughed a little self-consciously. "Thatís right, I forgot. Chakats have told me how my performances affect them. Sorry if it bothered you at all."

Leanna said, "Forest is more empathically sensitive than the average chakat. Shi almost matched your performance just from being so in tune with you, if you pardon the pun."

Forest briefly wondered why Leanna would tell Lyle something so personal like that, but quickly realised that the cougar was very self-conscious about that aspect of hir performance, and Leanna was making an effort to make light of the situation. "I was caught by surprise, but it gave me an intimate insight into your nature and what drives your creativity. I donít regret a thing. However, I will be a bit better prepared next time!"

"Good, Iíd hate to think that Iíd spoiled it for you, Forest. And what about you, Leanna Ė how did you like it?"

"Iíve heard your songs played by Forest many times. You definitely have made a more than worthy addition to your repertoire. Iím sure Iíll be listening to it many more times with pleasure."

"Thank you, Leanna. And now, can I be a little bit selfish and ask you about your past life as a slave? Or donít you like talking about that?"

"Most things donít bother me at all. Usually they end up bothering the listener long before they bother me."

"Iím wondering if any of your past experiences matched mine," Lyle explained.

Leanna thought a moment, then said, "Maybe. Iíll make you a deal Ė Iíll talk about any aspect of me and my past life, as long as you tell me as much in return. Iím curious what problems you had and how you coped with them."

Lyle grinned. "Deal! So, is it true that you have a huge cock, or were the others exaggerating?"

"Totally true. I was made to be able to pleasure just about any female, not to mention my former master with the cock fetish. My turn Ė do you have any other unusual physical traits?"

"Yeah. My species of herm has the genitalia reversed. My penis is mounted behind my vagina. When it is flaccid, itís totally out of sight and I can wear female panties and pass as a female any time."

"Why would they engineer a herm like that?" Forest asked curiously.

"Thatís easy," Leanna said. "As Lyle mentioned, shi can pass as a female. Many people who have herm sex slaves donít like to admit that theyíre not completely straight, and with morphs like Lyle, they could indulge their fetish without it being noticed. If that isnít enough reason, some like it that way just for the looks. And finally, there are the sexual fetishes not possible with normal herms."

"Such as?" prompted Forest.

"For one, a reverse herm and a normal herm can simultaneously penetrate each other fairly comfortably. That was good for a show. They can also fuck themselves. As their penis erects, they guide it into their own vagina. It was considered very amusing to watch a reverse herm writhing in self-induced pleasure."

"Iíve said it before and Iíll say it again, those slave-makers had warped minds." Forest noticed that Lyle looked a little uncomfortable. "Is this bothering you, Lyle? Should we change the subject?"

Lyle shook hir head. "No, itís just that it hit a little too close to home. Sandy knows what Iím talking about. Shiís the only one whom Iíve ever told outside of my family and doctors."

Leanna said, "Iím thinking that I might guess some of it. I tell you what, Lyle Ė Iíll tell you my most private secret in exchange for yours, something that I didnít even tell my group of friends here. That way weíll be even."

Forest could sense the cougar torn between embarrassment and curiosity, but finally the latter won. "OK, Iíve gotta know. What is so bad that you want to keep it a secret?"

"You may have heard that before I was treated, whenever I went into heat, I became sex crazy." Lyle nodded, and Leanna continued. "I became the ultimate slut; I would literally do anything for sex."

"That would be embarrassing, but still something that you could share with the people here. They would understand," Lyle commented.

"Youíre right, but that wasnít the part that truly humiliated me. Lyle, I was engineered to be exceptionally intelligent because not only was I a sex toy for my master, I was also his industrial spy. I used my smarts and my perfect memory to glean vital secrets from his competitors. However, when I went into heat, I turned into a moron. I could barely do anything for myself because I was too stupid. I wouldnít even eat or drink unless told to because I was fixated on sex. The worst thing is that when the heat was over and my intelligence returned, I remembered every embarrassing thing that I did, every humiliating and disgusting thing that I was made to do. And I never, ever can forget any of it."

Lyleís mouth was hanging open with surprise. "Oh wow. ThatísÖ disturbing. You must be so happy not to be a slave any more."

"I got lucky," Leanna admitted.

"It puts my own problem into perspective, thatís for sure. When you mentioned how a reverse herm can fuck hirself, it reminded me of an event in my past. I wonít tell anyone about your secret, Leanna, and I hope youíll do the same for what Iím about to tell you."

"You have my word," Leanna replied.

"Would you like me to leave?" Forest asked.

Lyle shook hir head. "No, if Leanna trusts you, then so will I. This goes back a few years. It was about a year after my first heat, which is the age where many youth are experimenting sexually. Like any other teenager, I masturbated. I did it a lot because of the intensity of the pleasure and the stamina that I got due to my condition. Then one day it occurred to me that I could put my own penis inside of my vagina, and did that ever blow my mind. Itís like a positive feedback loop. My cock would stimulate my vagina, and that would stimulate my cock. I kept having orgasm after orgasm. Because my species was made to give pleasure indefinitely, the orgasms just never stopped. I laid on my bed in total bliss for hours. However, it takes a lot of energy to maintain that sort of thing, and eventually it got through my ecstasy-addled brain that I was close to exhaustion. It took a huge effort of will, but I decided that it had to stop."

"Let me guess," Leanna said. "You couldnít?"

"You guessed right. My body just kept on stimulating itself, and no attempt at thinking calming thoughts worked in the slightest. I even tried to pull my cock out of my vagina, but all I managed to achieve was hurting myself and tiring myself even more. Then I knew I needed help. Unfortunately I had chosen that afternoon to try that stunt because my parents were away for the day, so I was alone in the house. I decided to call the paramedics. I tried to get up from the bed, but the exertion actually caused me more stimulation, and I was immediately hit with another orgasm and I collapsed back on the bed. Every time I tried, the same thing happened. It must have been twenty attempts before I stopped trying to stand up, and instead I slumped onto the floor. I crawled slowly across the room, orgasms wracking me all the way. My comm was on my dresser, and all I had to do was to reach it and call for help. I finally got there and tried to get up, and failed like I did back at the bed. I tried to reach for the comm from the floor, but Iíd left it at the back of the dresser out of reach. No matter how hard I tried, I couldnít get to it. Eventually I was too weak to try any more."

"So how did you finally manage to call for help?" Forest asked with extreme curiosity.

"I didnít. My parents returned home a little earlier than planned and found me there on the floor, barely conscious but still orgasming. They called the paramedics who gave me a sedative which finally broke the cycle. I woke up in hospital two days later. Iíd slept all that time due to exhaustion. The doctors told me that I could have even died if my parents hadnít found me when they did. I was so embarrassed when they came to visit me. They were very understanding though. Theyíre both reverse herms like me, and they assured me that theyíd done the same thing several times, only they werenít throwbacks like me, so they could not orgasm more than a couple of times before theyíd get flaccid. Actually I found them telling me this just as embarrassing, which I suppose was a good thing. They just didnít want me to recriminate myself for doing something that they had no problems with. Of course I never did that again, at least not deliberately."

"You mean you did it accidentally?" Forest asked in surprise. "Howíd you do that?"

Lyle stood up and indicated hir skirt. "See this? Skirts and dresses are the only thing that I ever wear now, but once upon a time I loved to wear those skin-tight slacks that were in fashion at the time. I had the figure for it, and I liked the way others looked at me in them. One day though, I was sexually aroused byÖ heck, I donít remember any moreÖ something anyway. I started getting an erection, but those slacks just gave my penis nowhere to go short of bursting out of the material."

"The slacks forced your penis into the path of least resistance," Leanna deduced.

"Yes, right into my vagina," Lyle confirmed. "Right there in public, I collapsed on the floor as I started having the feedback loop orgasms. However, this time I was prepared. I called the paramedics immediately and I had my medical data stored on my comm. They treated me and I was back to normal within half an hour. Iíve been afraid to wear pants of any kind since then though. Hence why you got the display during my performance."

"That was fascinating, Lyle. In fact that was more intimate than my own story. Thank you for telling us," Leanna said fervently.

Lyle replied, "No, thank you, Leanna. Do you know how often Iíve wanted to talk to people about my problem, but was afraid to tell? Only Sandy knew up until now, but you had the background where such things were not only common, they werenít even that unusual. Iíve really just been using you to unburden myself."

"Then Iím glad that I could help. Now I think itís my turn. Let me tell you about a few of the really weird casesÖ."

Leanna and Lyle were soon deep into their conversation, and it amused Forest to realise that shi and Sandy were pretty much left out of it. Forest looked at Sandy and asked, "Does shi get like this often?"

Sandy smiled indulgently at hir mate. "All the time, usually when shiís composing. Shi gets very focused on whatever is fascinating hir at the time. I suggest that we get ourselves coffee and snacks. Itís going to be a long evening."

"Good idea. Iím in the mood for a muffin anyway. Come on over to the other table and join my friends." Forest got up onto all four paws as Sandy got up from hir chair. As they headed for the table, Forest said, "You know, you remind me a lot of my older sister. Shiís cougar patterned."

"Tell me about hir, Shir Forestwalker. Iíve got a feeling that Iíll be meeting hir in the not-too-distant future. My darling mate has found hirself a new best friend, so I think youíll be seeing more of us both soon.

Forestwalker smiled happily. "Iím always delighted to talk about my family, Sandy. In fact, Iíve got lots of tales to tell!"

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Garrek's problems come to a head, and he seeks a solution in What You See Is Me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Play-by-play dialogue for the final game was provided by Gildedtongue, who obviously has a greater knowledge of poker than I do!

All cameo characters were used with permission. For more details on them, see the Double H Club membership page.



Link: Return to the Forest Tales main page.

 

Link: Return to the Chakat's DenTM main page.