The food was gone.

The food . . . was . . . gone.

RJ was having just a little bit of trouble getting his mind around the fact he still owed an enraged bear a wagonload of untouched, sealed and factory-fresh human goods in less than a day. The animals in his little group had stopped at his pad, deciding unanimously they'd be crashing there instead of the log. RJ watched Lou and Penny disinterestedly through a haze of other thoughts as they tried to explain the change to their young ones. Heather was talking to Ozzie in a low voice, and Stella had blocked everyone and everything out, flicking on the TV to distance herself.

RJ looked at them and realized then and there he was their leader. He had never felt so far out of his league before in his life. His throat grew dry and his stomach turned itself into a little knot of misery when Lou and Penny stopped talking to look at him expectantly. RJ stared at them blankly. "RJ?" Heather asked, shuffling forward. "We can still get back some of the food, right?"

RJ forced himself to think of an answer. "Sure we can," he croaked. "Just not . . . not right now." The other animals nodded and agreed amongst each other, just as they had when Verne spoke to them. It was still another two hundred seventy days until winter - they could easily fill the log. They had time. RJ felt like screaming.

They had time. He didn't have a chance.

He rubbed his temples with his paws and realized with a start that his paws were now empty. RJ looked to his side and then in every other direction for the little red squirrel. "Hammy?" he asked, plaintively. Stella looked away from the TV.

"Oh, jeepers, the poor dear," Penny said.

Stella looked down at the remote, looking angry. It looked like it was taking effort for her to keep a civil tongue.

"Hammy's kind of sensitive, you know?" Heather tried to explain. "I think he needed to go distract himself."

"Although, I'm sure he'd really like someone to talk to," Ozzie said, putting a hand on his daughter's shoulder.

"He took off that way," Stella muttered, pointing in a direction. "While you all were talkin'. Warp speed as usual." RJ figured Stella needed to talk to someone to. But she was pressing the remote buttons kind of viciously. RJ nodded.

"Well, you know I'm . . . I'm going to go look for him for a little while. You all just make yourselves comfortable," RJ grinned at them, edging off in the direction Stella had pointed.

"Thanks there, RJ. You're a swell guy. Okay kids, come on, we can finish a little of this popcorn for dinner," Lou called to his sons. RJ heard his voice trail off as he walked. He didn't know if he would find Hammy, but he was pretty sure he needed to get out of there and think. RJ knew it was selfish to leave them under pretense of helping the little guy, but considering he had Vincent after his blood it was hard to blame him.

He did look however. And when he eventually did come across Hammy he stopped in utter confusion.

There were holes. Everywhere. Hammy was currently waist deep, fur smudged and looking like he'd gotten into a fight with a thistle bush and lost. He was also muttering to himself. Great. He'd been crazy before, now Verne had gone and pushed him right over the edge. RJ briefly massaged the bridge of his nose and walked forward. "Hammy?"

The squirrel stopped and sat up, staring at RJ. He blinked and looked around at all the holes. RJ's appearance seemed to garner a sudden further attack of anxiety. Hammy clenched his paws and begun to wring them in agitation, folding them close to his chest and looking down as if he didn't want RJ to look at him.

"Uh. Hammy, what is all this?" RJ asked curiously, gesturing to the holes.

"I'm l-looking for food. The nuts I stored over th-the winter. I lost them. I always s-s-seem to lose them." Hammy shivered and reached to scratch at a speck of unscathed earth. "I just forget where I put them. Eat one, save two. So I should have so very many. Maybe if I find them all . . . ?"

RJ edged forward. "Then what, Hammy? What if you find them all?"

"I . . . I won't be so s-s-st . . . people won't think I am!" Hammy added, looking finally at RJ. The raccoon felt a little stab in his heart at the pained expression in those eyes. The squirrel covered his face at his outburst and turned away, ears flat against his head. "They won't," he squeaked faintly, breath hitching. RJ was moving again before he even realized it.

Hammy felt fur tickling his nose and looked up at RJ as the raccoon brushed the fur along his head, stopping to lightly scratch behind Hammy's ears. "Come on, Hamsquad, get those little ears perked back up," RJ said, grinning a little. Hammy couldn't resist a shaky smile of his own. But the ears stayed down. RJ kept him in the hug, ruffling the fur at the nape of his neck. Hammy had to admit it felt good. He sighed and hid his face again.

"You know," RJ said at length, still looking down at Hammy. "I don't think you should worry so much about what other people say."


"Or think," RJ added.


"Cause you are just fine as Hammy. Just the way you are. You don't need to do anything special for your family to care about you. All you need to do is love them and the rest will follow." RJ blinked at himself, not knowing what the heck kind of TV program he'd watched to get that from. He wasn't a family man. How would he know?

Hammy's paws, which had been clutched between his body and RJ's, spread out and hugged the raccoon. Well, maybe this was good? "So . . . So what Verne said . . . it means he doesn't love me?" Oh, right. Bad.

Hammy was back on the verge of crying.

"No, no, no, no," RJ said. He couldn't handle it if the animals started hating Verne. The little amphibian-reptile thing had a deep concern for the pull RJ had on his family. With good reason. "He was just angry. People do silly things, they say really hurtful things when they're angry."

"But what if he meant it?"

"Hammy," RJ said sternly, cupping the squirrel's chin and making him look up. "You are not stupid. You're a bit of a maniac and a very good friend, and I wouldn't have you any other way. You got it?"

Hammy stared up for a few seconds and nodded. Slowly he let go of RJ and folded his hands back over his chest and tried not to look as lost as he felt. RJ held out his hand and Hammy took it.

"Thanks, RJ," he said, slipping his paw into RJ's. "I-I just need to hear sometimes that I--"

"Hey, it's okay," RJ said, putting his other paw back on to of Hammy's head, flattening his ears on purpose. "It's what families do." RJ moved his hand back and watched Hammy's ears spring back to little points. He chuckled. "There go the ears."

Hammy smiled and this time, it stayed.