Chapter 14 – A Night at the Races

A/N: I know, I know – I should have split this into two chapters but, after I finished it, I just couldn't do it. I don't know why but ever since I came up with this completely off-the-wall pairing for some reason I just can't help but love it; it just sort of works out so well whenever I sit down to write about it. Anyway, apologies for lateness and all that but this time I have an excuse, in fact I have a quartet of excuses and, without further ado, here they are: Christmas, New Year, work being a complete pain in the (insert favourite expletive) and, most importantly, getting prepped for an interview coming up at the start of January. Still aside from all that, got to give a quick word to a reviewer who really deserves one:

Ri2 - Senseless violence; I would hope that if someone insultedthe woman in my life like that, I'd be ready to defend her like Big did! As for your other, later comments, this chapter should answer those questions of yours with any luck. Hope you enjoy this last chapter and look forwards to seeing you in the next fic!

They'd virtually made it back to the very doorway of the Highland Steppes, in fact Big had placed one of his huge boot-soles on the lowest step leading up to the front entrance of the Scottish hostel when a sudden noise at his back, a gasp of sudden remembrance followed by the low thunk of hand meeting forehead at high speed. Looking over his shoulder at the commotion, the cat wasn't all that surprised to see Mighty suddenly peel her palm from the ridge of her shell and send it delving into the depths of her pockets, fidgeting to find something at the same time as speak directly to him,

"Big, sorry I meant to mention this earlier but it slipped my mind", the cat laughed, a reaction that not half an hour before he'd been certain he'd never be able to evoke again as he admitted to his partner that, yes, he had lost control and lashed out, injuring her father; dad always told me that blood was thicker than water – just lucky in Stefan's case that isn't the case;

"Now why doesn't that surprise me, knowing how slippery your mind can be at times?" The armadillo favoured him with a hang-dog expression before giving a triumphant gasp and pulling something out of her pocket like a hunter wrestling a rabbit from its burrow,

"Bulls-eye, knew it was in their somewhere – sorry it's a bit dog-eared but it'll do I'm sure". Big merely nodded politely, leaning down a touch to take the small slip of paper she passed him, smoothing it out to see the message it contained, only to find it was completely blank. Quickly checking the other side to make sure no words had escaped his notice, the purple tabby raised an eyebrow before looking back at Mighty,

"Sure this is the one? There's nothing on it".

"Of course not, you've got to write something"; you've completely lost me; she must have seen his nonplussed look and for that he was grateful – at least he hadn't had to ask her to explain, "it's a Christmas-wish card; what you do is write your wish on it, then sleep with it under your pillow on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we get them all together and set a match to them along with the Yule Log in the fireplace; just the thing to keep us warm while we're scoffing down the turkey and pudding".

"Christmas wish-card", Big parroted wistfully, noticing for the first time the pale illustration on the bottom-left corner of the card, Father Christmas alighting into the frozen sky atop his reindeer-powered sleigh, "neat idea that one; where'd that come from – surely not an old family tradition of yours?" Mighty thought about it for a second, finger tapping her bottom lip as she appeared to sink into a deep contemplation before, eventually, giving a slow answer,

"Well, yes and no", she paused again before explaining her choice of words, "no as it it's not strictly one from our family, but yes as in we adopted from someone very close. Bekka's mum, used to run the Steppes before she inherited it, it was one of her old beliefs and we all took a shine to it; it's just carried on every year, no-one's ever stopped it and, just occasionally, it works".

"Get away".

"I mean it", seeing the affronted look on her face Big lost his joking demeanour to pay closer attention, "Pockets swears by it; he said that a fair few years ago he slept on the wish to find the girl of his dreams, next Christmas he's got Lianne on his arm a month gone with their first, and when Roddy was three he wrote that he wanted a second and, well, nine or ten months later Santa delivered". Big stared at her agog – though he was certain she wasn't trying to pull the wool over his eyes, the cat couldn't honestly conceive of co-incidence striking so closely in succession,

"Right, well", he gave a chuckle, patting himself down as though searching for a pen, "guess there must be something in this after all – got anything to write with?" Mighty sniggered before wafting him towards the door,

"Not now dummy, it's your own wish, I shouldn't see it. Write it when you get a bit of free time, and remember to fold it up tight when you come down on Christmas Day, okay?" Big winked, carefully pulling open the sleeves of one of his gloves and slipping the card inside unfolded, such was the girth of his wrist,

"Suits me, now then, in we go before you freeze"; reminded of the cold by his words the armadillo shivered and raced past him, opening the door before her and slipping inside, sighing as the central heating of the building began to bite its way into banishing the chill in her fur – there was a second's worth of chill breeze at the beck before with a slam, it was banished and Big stood behind her, unaffected by the seasonal cold through his thick winter fur,

"Phwarr, bit of a nip out there isn't there?" Blinking forwards, both Mobians realised they weren't alone; Mighty's youngest uncle was propping up the reception desk of the Steppes itself, shaking his head from time to time and, from the look of things, trying to stay something like awake, "jus' the wake-up call I needed".

"And why do you need waking up?" Mighty queried, squeezing herself into the wall as she hung up her coat to let Big slide past her, the cat moving into the main area of Steppes itself and giving himself a brief shake-down, letting the warmer air of the hostel circulate through his thicker hair strands, "let me guess; Paula unloading some of those fireworks you mentioned last night on your tail?" Samson turned to face her despairingly, the bags under his eyes real as he squinted to focus on them blearily,

"I can wish; no it was the other one, Jess had a bad night", he explained tiredly, the strain on his face obvious as he tried and failed to keep his yawn in check, "she's over it now though, asleep upstairs with her mum".

"Why don't you join them?" Big's question was reasonable and not-altogether unexpected; you don't know how much I'd like to, but I know just what'll happen if I do; Samson gave a shrug,

"Sorry mate, much as I'd like to I can't; gotta give it a few more hours at least. If I drop off now I'll be fine until just after dinner tonight, then forget it, I'll be gone with the fairies and I am not missing the races this evening come hell or high water. I swear, this year I will win at least one hand", the elder armadillo complained, Big glancing around to see Mighty snigger at the same time as offer him a look that promised an explanation later, "I hate being the guy who always falls at the first year in, year out".

"Oh well, you know what they say don't you Sam?" As the armadillo looked up Big finished his saying, "unlucky gamblers get all the luck everywhere else". His only response was an undignified snort of laughter, Sam shaking his head before looking at him squarely,

"Yeah right, have you seen my other half?" Hey; Mighty glowered; I get on okay with Paula – no way am I letting you do her down; acting on her thoughts, the armadillo leapt to her aunts' defence,

"I think that was his point – you of all Mobians needed to be lucky to land a lady like Paula, never mind have a belle of a daughter with her". Sam uncrossed his arm, a half-smirking, half-thoughtful expression on his face as he answered his niece's cheek,

"I needed as much as you did to find someone like him", he motioned with his eyes, continuing to talk though, as Mighty went scarlet, he decided to take a little pity on her plight and let his attention drift back to the task at hand, "anyway, I came down here to decorate this front desk and I now intend to do so; reckon Derek might have made a start on your room Big but I know you're on your own this year Might – if I were you I'd jump to it before you take your seasonal cat-nap, cat optional this year of course". Big gave a slight chuckle as he rolled his eyes down, answering for the pair of them as Mighty seemed to have been stunned into speechlessness by the unexpectedness of her uncle's comeback,

"Not according to Bekka it's not; she did say the punishments for getting up to mischief were severe", quite what they were he also knew but didn't want to rake over now, instead giving a theatrical shudder as his girlfriend finally managed to jolt her shocked mind and manners back to full functionality, "and I certainly believed her; what about you Might?"

"Huh? Oh, um, yeah, something like that, though, let's face it"; face what exactly?; the cat began to feel a little heat under his collar area as the squat, powerful form to the side of him twisted to glance up at him for a second, wistful smile on her face before giving her attention back to her family member, "she'd have a hard time trying to evict either of us no matter how many locks she put on that front door of hers". Oh that's what you meant; Big's breath of relief wasn't quite as quiet as he'd hoped it could have been but, overall, he thought he'd got away with it as Samson chuckled, not paying him any attention as Mighty's answer made him nod,

"True enough, true enough, you both look like you could batter your way through a few inches of oak without too much hassle", he gave another yawn, stretching off as much as he was able to at the same time as covering his mouth with one free hand, "still, best be getting on; the sooner I can get this place up to speed the sooner I get to turf she-who-must-be-obeyed out of bed and get some shut-eye myself. Not sure if I'll see you again until tonight so if I don't see you then and I look forwards to it".

"Us too", Big nodded as Mighty answered for the pair of them, following in her footsteps as she led him towards the main hall of the Steppes, his hazel eyes roving around the place and noticing how much had changed in just the few short hours since he'd been away fishing on the loch with Reuben.

Though he'd have been the last Mobian on the planet to call the walls of the Steppes barren, especially as he didn't go in for interior decoration much, there was no denying the fact that compared to what they were now, bedecked with tinsel and decorations hanging from every conceivable crevice, they had certainly seemed a little plain. Now, as the soft ceiling light glowed from the roof and was reflected from reams of brightly-coloured metallic plastic streamers and hanging decorations, the cat found himself drinking in the spectrum of light and life all around him and slowly nodding his head at it all; they really do pull out all the stops at this time of year – Mighty sure got that right. With a smile, he glanced to the side of him, only to find it suddenly vacant; it was only when he hurriedly cast his eyes forwards that he realised Mighty was already moving towards the main hallway and he made to catch up, nodding to her uncle as he brushed past, the contact seeming to help stir the older armadillo from his encroaching slumber,

"Wait up a sec"; she looked back, eyebrows up,

"Oh sorry Big, thought you were behind me".

"Well I am now", the cat retorted as he came a halt just behind her, "anyway, what are we up to here; thought we'd got to decorate our own rooms, you have certainly at least". Mighty gave a slow nod, enlightening smile slipping over her face as she explained something he was still in the dark about,

"And we have to, you're quite right, but where are we going to get the decorations from exactly?" Good point; the way his eyes closed and he shivered for a second told her all she needed to know about how well her point had gone across and without another word she pushed the door open, striding inside as she did so,

"Take it from me they're always a box or two full in here", she spoke over her shoulder before turning to face the room in general; after a second of taking in the scene before her and the sudden stillness that had greeted her arrival, she slewed to a halt and folded her arms sternly, Big just about able to stop himself running into the back of her by pulling up sharpish, "and I'd be right, though if anyone else knew what else was going on in here, those boxes would be full of something else pretty quickly!"

XXX

Yeah right; though he could see the guilt etched clearly on every young face in the room Big knew, deep down, that of all people Mighty was going to be the last armadillo in her family to do any ear-chewing about youthful exuberance overcoming the need to take into account even basic health and safety legislation; though, give them credit, they've made an effort. That was certainly true – in fact even as he watched the armadillo that was currently in the air was hastily lowered to the ground by his compatriot, the foursome underneath him with the blanket making sure he landed with a whisper rather than a thump as, with what she must have hoped was a winning rather than worried smile, Mina raised a hand in a weak greeting,

"Uh, hi aunt Mighty", she took half a pace back as the armadillo's unflinching gaze suddenly bored into her before managing to rally briefly, "like what we've done with the room? All ourselves too", she said suddenly, a touch more pride in her voice than Big would have given her credit for as she stood a little taller, running a hand through her lavender hair before wafting it towards the rest of her supporting cast, the rest of the youngsters nodding in agreement with the mongoose's proclamation as she explained, "we bet Bekka we could get the whole great hall decorated before it was time for supper, said our pudding would be free if we could, and we'd do all the washing up if we couldn't".

"I see"; stop being evil; even as he fixed his eyes on the back of his girlfriend's head the cat couldn't help but smirk a touch as Mighty's folded arms travelled downwards, coming to rest on her hips, "so, how exactly have you been getting all this stuff hung; you haven't been standing on the tables or anything have you?"

"No", Roddy exclaimed, banging the butt of the long pole he carried on the stone floor for extra emphasis as he shook his head vigorously, "we'll show you how; Nick, get ready, you four, five even, JIC".

Big had just enough time to realise that Roddy was, in fact, carrying a window-pole before he let it drop suddenly, levelling it almost like a lance at the armadillo he'd pointed at first, still calling instructions as he did so,

"Right, get that little star, we'll do that next, no, not that one", the target of his attention froze, fingers hovering above the small box of decorations the kids had opened between them before, with a sudden determined huff, the youngster made his mind up and dived right in, emerging a second later with his choice of decoration, holding it up for all to see, "yeah, that'll do. I can see this not ending well if they're not careful; despite himself Big got ready just in case something went horribly wrong; even as Roddy lowered his makeshift weapon the cat could see exactly what he had planned and, a second later, was vindicated as the younger armadillo grabbed hold of the end of it. Roddy took a second to plant his feet before, with a grunt of effort, face contorted with strain, he hefted the end and, by degrees, began to hoist his relative up off the ground – as he did so, another quintet seized hold of the blanket that had lain on the ground and got ready to move, forcing Big to hide a chuckle; looks like they're running a tight ship here. Higher and higher the armadillo was lifted, as he went up, Big raised an eyebrow to see Roddy being given a helping hand as others, taller than he was mostly, grabbed further up the shaft of the window pole and stretched, easing his burden somewhat at the same time as help their companion gain the height he needed.

"Okay", at the shout from on high everyone stopped moving, a strange-looking conga line standing stock-still beneath the raised wooden stick as the JIC crew; Big recalled an instant later the acronym was short for 'Just in Case'; shuffled to stand right underneath Nick himself, blanket taut in case he slipped and fell. No-one moved, least of all the two adults present, as the little armadillo in the most precarious position began to call his instructions, measuring things such as distance and spatial awareness with his eyes alone,

"Forward a bit", the conga-line shuffled a touch, "bit more", another shuffle, "hmm, higher I think, 'til I say when", for an instant nothing happened before, with a collective heave, every Mobian at the floor-end of the window pole exerted the strength they had to gain another few precious inches from the grip of gravity, "keep going, keep going, smidgen more…good!" Such was the suddenness of his shout that Big was sure the jerk from the sudden stop would send him tumbling but, despite his worries, Nick at least had a good grip; slowly taking one hand off his safety bar, the youngster stretched forwards, star in hand, straining to reach the wall ahead of him – nothing moved for a minute before he gave a cry of triumph, letting his arm fall and showing the star now neatly tacked to the wall, almost glowing with pride at his achievement,

"I got it, now lemme down!" It might just have been his imagination but Big was almost certain he heard one of the crew supporting his vertical suspension mutter something along the lines of,

"With pleasure", before, slowly, the pole started to descend, the soles of the armadillo's shoes getting closer and closer to the floor until, about five feet up, he simply let go, dropping onto the blanket held up by the five youngsters underneath him. As he bounced for a second and then began flapping his way over to the edges of the safety net Roddy, having recaptured his breath and planted the butt of the pole on the flagstones, looked up at the pair of Mobians supervising the system he could, he realised with a touch of pride, take a fair bit of credit for coming up with,

"So", he took another deep breath, stretching one of his arms as it was finally starting to shows signs of fatigue after all the lifting he'd done; no good – have to get Mina involved soon, she's lighter than everyone else, I can lift her easily; "that's how we've been getting this place into shape. Any complaints?"

Big said nothing – after all, it had been Mighty who'd started this whole ball rolling when they'd come into the main hall so, going by that logic, it had to be her who finished it by an admission that yes, the idea this motley crew of the younger members of her family had come up with was both technically sound and surprisingly easy to implement. Well, that was what he would have said at any rate; Mighty, of course, wasn't feeling quite as forgiving as all that – as the silence stretched longer and longer he had to resist the urge to give her a sharp knock on the shell to remind her not to be such a git to these youngsters. I bet this was just the sort of thing she'd have done at their age – stop being rotten you; there was a sudden chuckle from in front of him, Mighty's shell traversing somewhat as she shook her head; wow, you heard me;

"Not from around here you won't get any", there was a collective sigh of relief from the congregation before them, a lot of the juvenile members of his girlfriend's physically sagging with relief that their idea had met with official adult approval, "neat plan the lot of you – something tells me Bekka's going to be crossing a fair few names off her Christmas list when she figures out how much this is going to cost her for pudding and ice-cream". There were a couple of good-natured chuckles before Mina managed to speak again, enthusiasm evident in her tone as she strode forwards, arms and fast fingers pointing out the basic features of how the whole thing worked – nothing Big hadn't been able to figure out of course, but he listened in anyway to assuage the mongoose's need to flaunt the cleverness of her and her new friends,

"Thanks aunt Mighty, it's really easy to pull together you know; Wull got the old pole down from above the main fireplace and it went from there. We just get someone to grab the end, like you saw, then we can all lift them up in the air, well", she paused for a second, fingering her chin before glancing over her shoulder, apparently having to give credit where it was due, "Roddy does most of the lifting; he's the strongest out of all of us". The named armadillo gave an embarrassed chuckle at this, tugging one of his ears self-consciously with a free hand as he grinned sheepishly,

"Well, everyone else helps", he muttered softly before, apparently realising he was now the centre of attention, he stood up taller and carried on where Mina had left off, trying to braze through his uncharacteristic slip-up, "but, er, we get them up; they pick a decoration before they go of course, easier that way, and just to be safe we've got those four holding that blanket there, in case, you know, they slip".

"Nice idea", Mighty commented carefully before Big saw her attention held by something else; as he followed her vision he realised what, or, to be more accurate, who it was that did so, "but what's your job Ed? You're not holding the blanket are you?"

Even now, surrounded by others, it appeared that Roddy's younger brother couldn't shed his awful nerves; he shook his head vigorously at the suggestion before apparently dredging up some modicum of courage and, still not daring to look either his aunt or her massive consort in the face, managed to mumble,

"No". That might be all we'll get out of him too; Big thought with a pang of regret – it was only when he heard Mighty's voice again that he realised with a jolt that she'd obviously not heard enough and was taking it upon herself to bully some more words out of her shyness-stricken nephew,

"So, what are you doing then?" She never dropped eye contact as Edward scuffed the ground, still not able to look up and meet her gaze as he mumbled his reply, barely loud enough for them to hear,

"If they drop anything, I throw it back up to them", he explained, his hands making quick gestures to try and back up his explanations even as he continued his attempts to outstare the floor; no, that's enough now. Realising what was about to happen from the quiver that ran all through Mighty's back, the cat just behind her cleared his throat and quickly tapped her with one of his knuckles, the movement quick and hidden from the eyes of the children before her; she turned clumsily, upset at having her momentum upset before it could get going, looking into the cat's face with a raised eyebrow. What's your game then?; seeing the almost imperceptible shake of his head the armadillo knew what he meant and, suddenly itching with curiosity about why he was trying to dissuade her from trying to take the conversation forwards, decided to draw a line under it and withdraw; at least then I'll be able to find out quicker;

"Okay, sounds like a plan", she spared him a nod before raising her voice, addressing the assembled youngsters as a whole, "right you lot, sounds like you're not doing too badly but just, please, be careful, okay?" There was a desultory chorus of affirmation before she bade them all a silent farewell, following Big's tail as he was the first to leave the main hall, all the time wondering exactly why he'd stopped her from trying to talk as she had done – after all, Lianne had always said, if no-one tried surely Ed would only get worse?

XXX

"I know what you're about to ask"; typical; she'd opened her mouth to speak and Big had simply rolled right over her, the cat turning around with a hand upraised as soon as the door to the main hall had slid shut, one palm upraised and his voice soft, unable to be listened into by curious young ears from next door, "and take it from me if you'd have tried to get him to talk any more he'd have just clammed up even further".

"Huh?" Wind well and truly taken out of her sails by that curt explanation, Mighty had only one avenue to direct her query down, "how'd you know that?" Big shifted from foot to foot, looking a little uncomfortable; oh; immediately she regretted her question; something tells me I should be able to make a pretty good guess;

"I used to do the same a bit, at school like", he explained; he'd meant his speech to be delivered in a breezy tone but, instead, found himself trying not to wince as to his own ears it sounded mangled and contrite – trying to make the best of it, he soldiered on, "but still, that's past and I'm not going there – believe me he'll grow out of it over time, just gotta give him the space he must think he needs". Capitulating to his superior and, she admitted with a pang of regret for his sake, hard-won knowledge in this field, Mighty forcibly thrust the issue of her virtually-mute nephew from her mind and instead concentrated on the next issue they both had to deal with,

"Fair enough, I think Pockets has said something similar before now – pointless trying to get him to talk if he doesn't want to. But anyway, enough of that, we've still got jobs to do before this evening…"

"…and, as before, we still don't have the tools to do them", as Mighty, mouth still open from where she'd been expecting to finish talking before her boyfriend cut in, eyes twinkling with a roguish smile on his lips, "forgot to pick up the Christmas decorations didn't you?" Oops; yes, yes she had – Mighty shook her head for a minute before something else tugged at her mind and she suddenly found herself looking at the cat once more, a more challenging glint in her eyes this time,

"Yeah, I did; you could have reminded me though you barrel-bellied fluff-bucket". Oh so it's like that is it?; Big's eyes flashed dangerously at both her insult and her tone,

"Could've", the cat answered slowly; Mighty braced herself for what was probably coming, "but if you don't train that memory of yours it'll never get better. Though maybe I shouldn't be surprised", he commented airily with a shrug as the armadillo glowered, "much like your sense of direction, your memory's so feeble that remembering to breathe and eat probably knackers it completely". Okay, I'll shut up now; he hadn't quite meant to be as cutting as that but, seeing the blood in Mighty's face start to rise, he realised he'd probably put one of his size-fourteen feet over the line and decided to withdraw before the armadillo could pounce and reduce it to pulp,

"Yeah, something like that", the armadillo growled, though Big was cautiously optimistic that the corners of her lips were upturned as she did so and, despite her voice, she wasn't actually all that angry with him, "in fact it's so bad I sometimes forget who my friends are, you catch my drift?" At his silence she drew one of her terrifying fists back and, seeing it, Big dropped his dumb act, smiling engagingly in the hope of diffusing her anger,

"Well and truly caught hook, line and sinker", the cat assured her; at this, Mighty likewise lost her false temper and smiled once more, jerking her head towards the foot of the stairs behind her,

"Good; now assuming I can winch in and land that massive bulk of yours, we can cadge a couple of lines of tinsel and a few decorations from someone upstairs I'm sure. That'll let us get this whole thing under wraps and we'll sort ourselves out from there; now, you might have guessed but we're all going to be up late tonight, the adults here are anyway…"

"Oh, you want me to tuck you in at seven then"; knew that was a mistake; from the second those words had left her lips Mighty had regretted not picking them with a little more care – trying to soldier on as best she could, the armadillo carried on where she'd left off,

"…so you might want to get a bit of kip before then. And no, I can put myself to bed I assure you; even my feeble memory can recall how to do that much".

"Just as well", the cat grinned at her slyly, "though going on the number of times you've half-keeled off my chair at Mystic Ruins I was starting to wonder – you know I prefer that chair if you're over, the blanket on the heather's about the only thing that keeps you warm". Yeah but I can think of something I'd prefer…what the hell are you saying!

The thought had slammed straight into her mind, she had no control over either it or her reaction to it – even as Big suddenly settled his weight onto his back foot, no doubt concerned at the racing fire suddenly consuming her face, the armadillo was trying frantically to fight back her blush and pour the oil of logical thought onto the raging oceans of her previously unchecked desires; stop it, stop it right now!

"Umm, well, be that as it may, the blankets here are pretty thick enough for me", it was a mangled, garbled speech even by her own admission but it was the best she could do; suddenly and almost for the first time since she'd ever been partnered with her boyfriend Mighty found herself wishing she was away from him, a million miles removed from this creature who made her forget her normal thoughts and uncaged wild, impassioned wants from deep within her; gotta get away, gotta get somewhere calm and sort my head out; "so, if you don't mind, I'll be on my way to my room, alone if you don't mind".

She could only hope he mistook the concern in her voice as a flirtatious tease rather than the drawled plea it actually was, and only hope even more that having mistaken it he didn't try to act on it; her relief when he brought a hand to his face, stroking his lower lips, was so great that it took all her meagre acting talents to avoid letting out a massive breath of relief,

"Hmm, well much as I'd like to mind I suppose I'd better abide Bekka's rule, though not for my sake I assure you; in fact you should thank me".

"Thank?" The armadillo looked up even as one foot slid backwards away from the other, down the corridor; please Big, just let me got for now; "what for?"

"Well I could survive a night on the doorstep I'm sure but for you", he shook his head and Mighty felt her already burning need to be away from this place step up to a fever-pitch vehementing to be gone, "I'm also sure you'd wake up like an ice-cube and I certainly don't want to have to wait for you to thaw out before I get to presents".

"Me neither, too much fun I'd miss out on; anyway", the conversation as brief as she could make politely make it, Mighty quickly made to terminate it, "I've got a room to decorate, then I'm getting some kip; see you in a few hours, just remember to wake me up!" Big grinned at the sudden spark in her eyes and inclined his head low, appeasing her suddenly sharp demands,

"As if I'd forget; still, got work of my own to do now. See you later Mighty"; as always one arm extended for her and she had no choice but to go into its welcoming embrace. This last hold was exquisite torture for her, twin desires to remain where she was as long as possible and rip herself away as quickly as she could pulling her equally in opposite directions – she remained locked in this limbo for far, far too long; when the cat finally let her go she ran, no, more than that, she sprinted down the hallway towards the sanctuary of her rented hostel room, not daring to look back over her shoulder for fear of what might happen if she did, for whether she would break down into sobs or hysteria she was unable to say.

XXX

What was all that about?; Big watched her go, his eyes on her until the last vestiges of her boot heels disappeared around the kink in the corridor, his hand back on his chin as he replayed her strange behaviour for the last minute over in his mind; she was definitely not right just then – why though? Hope it wasn't anything I did – no, we were both okay walking back from the loch… unless, it might have been…; nothing changed in his expression but he clicked his fingers as he came to the most logical conclusion he could compute in his mind; …what happened slightly before that – why else would she have thought she needed to apologise for his behaviour? Obviously arguing with her father had taken a lot out of her and for that Big had nothing but respect for his partner; no wonder she wanted a little breathing space to sort her head out right now after some of the things Stefan must have said to her, how hard he must have pushed her if he'd been anything like as obnoxious as he had at the loch itself; calling her nothing – how dare he!

Once more the cat had to stifle a growl at the mnemonic insult, but fortunately his naturally placid nature allowed him to keep a lid on his temper; calmly, reasoning things through in his head as he paced towards his room, he decided the best thing to do would be to give his girlfriend a bit of time on her own for now, let her come to terms with things in privacy – it would probably be easier for her that way. Just do as she says, wake her up at dinner time or so – still, until then; thrusting the conundrum of both Stefan and the rift his ill-tempered words had opened in his daughter's normal thoughts to the back of his mind, Big went back to his own room at his own leisurely pace, brightening at the thought of the happy chore awaiting him when he got there; got a spot of feng-shui to look forwards to, and all in the Christmas spirit too!

XXX

Never before had Mighty been so grateful that one of her family was absent from the celebrations this time of year; as she reached the room she'd been given in the rented hostel the armadillo was certain that, had her aunt managed to make it this time around, she'd have certainly been perturbed by the expression of her niece as she slammed the door shut and vaulted onto her bed, feet barely touching the carpet as she buried her head in the pillow, mid all over the place. What the hell is going on?!; the answer she demanded was the one she was unable to give herself; rolling over with the pillow clasped to her face, the armadillo couldn't even remember exactly what she'd been thinking that had meant she had to get away so fast; but I had to, I know that much – what was it? Again, try as she might she couldn't think of the reasons that had echoed in her mind scant seconds before; only the lingering traces of her fiery blush and a sudden malaise of shame slicked across her mind gave her any clues, the feeling amplified even further as she recalled Big holding her that last time, just before she'd been able to pull away; Big…;

He was the central piece of this puzzle, a puzzle that had now been suddenly and violently shaken around in its box, its components scattered all around heedlessly just now, as she sought to make sense of them all. Staring up at the ceiling, Mighty hugged her arms across her chest, dimly recalling words spoken only this morning though it seemed like half a lifetime ago now; she'd employed them carelessly then, little more than a lash to sting her father with, only now they made more uncomfortable remembrance for her. …Continue to associate with who I want to, do the jobs I want to do and…; this was the one that really made her smoulder, curling up into a ball as, unlike virtually every other statement she'd pronounced in front of her father, she could recall this one picture-perfectly; sleep with the people I choose to. But why had she said that – nothing had happened as Big, ever the perfect gentleMobian, would have never even considered rushing her into something she wasn't sure in her own mind she wasn't one-hundred and ten percent ready for; now there was every chance Stefan would have made his mind up on the basis of a lie and would punish the cat still more mercilessly on the basis of a groundless truth. Even as that possibility crossed her mind she dismissed it though – it was only a disguise for her true dilemma, the one she'd caught herself out with in a half-second of reckless thought, the idea that, while nothing had happened up to now, was she going to be the one who took it in her hands to make something happen, or even could she do so? After all, got no idea what Bigs' thoughts on the matter might be; it was a reasonable suggestion that crossed her mind then, one that allowed her to begin purifying her thoughts and sift concrete fact from wild, half-dreamed fiction; and no matter how much he might try and rattle my cage, I can't let him push me into something either I'm, or perhaps even Big, isn't wanting just yet.

Not a muscle moved in her physical body; she wasn't even aware of what she was seeing to be honest, but her mental memory and muscles were being stretched to overtime and then some as she taxed them to the limit, plan and counter-plan being formulated, contemplated and then either discarded or fine-tuned as necessary. Relaxed and focussing on her own ideas Mighty let herself drift a little, making sure she was at peace within and, where friction did appear, that at least a temporary truce had been brokered before moving on, taking into consideration as many facets of the multitudes of arguments she could conceive of as she made up her divided minds. However, behind the scenes of such internal diplomacy was a single, overriding objective, one that not a single procedure she brought to bear dared to contradict or threaten as she focussed on everything else; eventually, when all was as done as she could make it in the time she had and with the tools she could muster, the armadillo pushed aside all else and consulted this final oracle, the one goal she had set herself and, having seen her work thus far did not break this iron contract, smiled in grim satisfaction. There it is dad, that's the stone-cold truth; her fingers grooved furrows in the blanket at her side, the honesty in her words cast imperishably in her mind as she finally opened her eyes again, the picture slightly blurry even as she blinked away sudden, unbidden tears; nothing you do or say, no matter how you try and get us both to snap, is going to either push us apart or force us to rush into anything – Big and I are going at our own speed, our own pace and we are not letting someone as small and inconsequential as you dictate anything to us!

Suddenly she sat up, not wanting to be laid down any longer, not when there was work to do at any rate. Shaking herself off as much as she was able to, the armadillo slid her legs off the end of the bed and stood up, taking a second to recollect her bearings and make sure she wasn't about to have a complete head-rush so soon after doing so much good, positive thinking for a change. Instead, as her gaze swept over the room and her lips puckered up in distaste, she began to formulate another plan in her mind, slapping her hands together as she solved a pair of problems at once; yeah, mum's always got three or four bits lying around, she always takes too much – I can liberate them and put them to good use at the same time as explain a couple of things about what's gone on; her brows knitted at this – she would have to be careful about what she said there, she didn't want to upset her mother unduly and, truth be told, her quarrel was with her father directly, so no need to get Emily involved at all. Still, that could be thought of later, if indeed she decided to let it trouble her at all – right now, she needed to get this drab little room all spruced up for the festive season and to do that, she had to pay her mother a visit…

A short while later, her bedroom now suitably decked out with boughs of holly, tinsel and all manner of other sundries, Mighty gave a satisfied nod before, much to her surprise, she let out a yawn; covering her mouth with a hand she blinked around, shaking herself off blearily. Where did that come from? Though, truth be told, I am feeling a little tired; it was true, though as to why Mighty had no idea – even on her easiest days in the Chaotix she'd always done more exercise than the tiny spot of decorating she'd just completed; her only conclusion was that the argument with her father and, just after that, the frantic agonising she'd just put herself through had shattered her mentally. Whatever the reason though, she thought ideally as she pulled of first one, then the other of her shoes, it might have been a bit of a blessing in disguise; certainly she could use forty or so winks before the evening rolled around. Settling down on top of the blankets again, the armadillo stretched out, let her eyes fall shut and, almost before she realised it, drifted off soundlessly to sleep.

XXX

"Hmm, wha?"

"Come on mate", the large blur in front of his eyes shifted a bit, making him squint as he tried to focus on it so soon after coming back to wakefulness, "nearly time to get this whole show on the road; set my alarm just to be sure". Big nodded, verbal communication completely beyond him as he tried to recall the basic motor functions that would enable him to stagger out of bed despite feeling like he'd been dragged backwards through a hedge. As Derek moved backwards to give him a bit more space, the mammoth cat finally cleared his muggy head enough to drag himself upwards, legs flopping down to the carpet as his toes groped around for the comforting warmth of his normal footwear,

"Heh", at the sound of a chuckle from the side of him Big stopped rubbing his eyes clear and shot a side-long look at his roommate, Derek apparently all ready to rock and roll, "guess you're not much a nap person usually?"

"Definitely not; urgh", with a great heave he came to his feet, the armadillo to the side of him making sure to give him plenty of space as he swayed alarmingly before straightening up, "more often than not got a lot to do, so knocking off for a quick siesta in the middle of the day really ain't much of an option. Still, now we're mostly up and ready to go"; are you talking to me or you there pal?; Derek hid his smile as the colossal feline before him seemed to give himself a verbal dressing-down before composing himself and facing him once more, "let's be getting on now; lead the way, I'm hungry".

"You and me both, oh", halfway to the door Derek suddenly paused, the small part of his ears Big could see quivering as an idea was earthed between them, "better see if Mighty's rolling yet; leave that to you?"

"Sure"; temporarily forgetting what had occurred just before he'd set about hunting down the decorations he'd needed and set them up strategically around his half of his room, Big agreed to that clause before even his prodigious memory could flag up any reservations Mighty may have had to seeing him again at such short notice, "just let me get something like presentable first". The grey-shell gave another chuckle,

"You bet, get a bit spruced up before seeing the other half again, go for it"; he then quickly darted out the room before Big could lumber after him for the cheek in that comment, the cat trying to scowl at the same time as suppress a roguish smile; other half – just lucky for him she's not here right now – she'd have given him what for and no mistake! Actually; now Big really did smile, a dangerously dark expression, suavely calculating and not at all familiar on his usually honest and open face; yeah, the right couple of words in her ears and she might still do that anyway. Nice idea Derek – hand the beat-stick of your family a stick to beat you with. Though there was no actual way the cat would have even dreamed of putting such a nefarious scheme into practice, the innate snide humour of such a scenario nibbled the edges of Big's thoughts as he strode through the corridor on his self-appointed errand, nodding politely as armadillo either passed him in the corridor or peeped through their doors to see him move past. Such vision entertained him up until the point he came to the door of Mighty's room itself; as if the painted wood was a reminder the cat suddenly found himself flattening his ears and shaking his head, humour evaporated and only slight confusion and doubt recondensing in his mind as once more he saw her virtually headlong flight from him, the armadillo's familiar back racing away down the corridor towards this very room, a haven from something he could only hope was a delayed reaction to her father's earlier brazen attack on her as a Mobian, her own sense of worth.

He felt as though he stood at a threshold, as though the door itself was somehow more than simply just another barred passageway into a room in a hostel in Scotland – it loomed suddenly, large and hugely important in his mind as he tried to think whether he should or shouldn't knock upon it, the reasons for each side of the argument warring and colliding in his head. He stood where he was for a moment, trying to reason them all through and put them into some sort of logical order before simply deciding he didn't have time to pursue so lengthy and, in the long run, fruitless a task, he drew the entire conflict down into a single series of yes/no questions:

Is Mighty in that room? Yes…

Do I want to see her and go down to dinner with her? Yes…

Even knowing who's going to be down there waiting for the pair of us?...; the cat had to suddenly bite down on his lip for a moment, for the first time aware of how much pointless agonising he might have just avoided by getting straight down to the basics of the matter; …definitely yes…

in that case…; the matter was settled – he drew back his arm; …I knock, ask her if she's ready and if she is then let's get this show on the road. Much more at peace with himself now, the cat rapped smartly on the wood three times, a broad grin on his feline features that, after a few seconds had ticked remorselessly by, shrunk slightly, polluted with consternations about why she hadn't replied. He repeated the gesture, slightly louder this time, leaning towards the door to see if he could hear anything from within; hmm, no, nothing going on in there. I wonder – she could be already awake; almost before he'd thought about it one of his sausage-like fingers had curled around the door handle to try it, though as it pressed down under his gentle pressure he recognised he couldn't take that as gospel she was inside; after all, this is all her family and I know for a fact that they, in fact not a single one of them, would ever stoop as low as stealing from their own. That much was true, though the cat bit into his bottom lip a touch, not a hundred percent sure how to proceed now as the last thing he wanted to do was be accused of muscling into his girlfriends' room; at the same time though, don't want to be seen loitering as though with intent…ah; a cavalier part of his psyche rose up and grabbed the reins for a minute, allowing him to take a dare this one time; to hell with it;

"Mighty?" He said the name softly, barely louder than a whisper as he knocked again, pushing to door gradually open even as he did so, "Might, you about in here?" Poking his head around the door cautiously, the cat glanced around almost nervously before, with a sigh halfway between annoyance ad affection, he realised exactly why he hadn't gotten any answer in locating her so far.

She was lain facing towards the wall the door was set in, letting him see the front of her rather than the normal matt black expanse of her featureless shell, still sound asleep and dreaming as he tip-toed soundlessly inside, a soft smile on his face as he recognised the armadillo inside. Out like a light; and she was – even as he sat down on the end of the bed and made the blanket bow out she never stirred, merely continuing to dream whatever she was dreaming; for a second Big was tempted just to leave and let her carry on her lovely slumber but, remembering what everyone else had told him thus far about this holiday, he understood that, in the long run, she probably wouldn't thank him for it as she'd miss both the last meal of the evening and possibly even the start of the mysterious races he'd heard so much about. Therefore, leaning down and slowly extending an almost trembling paw, nerves and slight excitement getting to him even now as he realised that they were both alone, the cat steeling himself and reached forwards, feathering a touch on her shoulder and giving the very gentlest of nudges,

"Mighty?" She didn't even stir; he self-consciously shook himself down and tried again, this time giving a slightly harder push, "Mighty – come on babe, time to get going". Her lips moved, a vague burble issuing forth as she shuffled on the blanket; just as the cat was thinking about going in for a third time, however, the armadillo's centre of gravity rolled backwards too far and she flopped onto her back; the sudden vertigo of such a movement combined with her already half-sentient state was enough to settle the matter as, with a gasp of air and reflexive kick of shock, Mighty jolted awake.

XXX

Huh, Big?; her mind was all over the places, memories jumbled up hither and thither like snowflakes in a gale as she came to; what's going on – where are we? Ohmigosh; a sudden fear seized her, almost causing her to grab the blanket and hitch it up to her chin before she could rein herself in, sort out the probable and improbable reasons as to why the cat was in here, not least because of all the dreams she could recall he'd been a principle figure in most of them; no, calm down, cool it – Big's here but there's no way in a month of Sundays he'd lay a finger on me…why's he stood up all of a sudden? Curious as to why the cat had vacated his previous seat the armadillo squinted upwards and, seeing him rub a recently-tenderised area of his anatomy, gave a badly-stifled snicker of laughter,

"Shut up"; this, of course, simply made it impossible for Mighty to rein herself in – with a proper laugh now she shook her head at where he was rubbing just beneath one of his hips, "that was ruddy sore that was".

"Well if you will sit where I can't see you", she retorted, finally letting go of the blanket she'd half-wrapped herself up in and reaching forwards to get her warm hands on her suddenly cold feet, bereft of the shoes she'd kicked off before collapsing on her bed, "sorry about that though". The cat gave a theatrical roll of his hazel eyes,

"Oh and not before time I can tell you; you kick hard", he pouted, almost setting her off on another laughing bout before dropping his act and speaking a little more seriously, "but anyway, get something on your feet and then we'd better get downstairs; Derek just woke me and apparently it's time for a bite. And just out of interest", he squinted as he noticed the watch on her wrist but couldn't get a good view of it as she brought her hands up to rub her face, "what is the time?" Giving a hard blink to ensure her sight was functioning a hundred percent, the armadillo flicked her eyes sideways and gave a start,

"Blimey, too late, get a shift on we'd better", flumping over to the other side of bed for her boots, Mighty called over her shoulder as she felt Big stand up, "going to be a long night it is tonight; first we'll all have a big feast, then we'll pack all the smaller riff-raff off to bed and then, finally, we get down to the good bit". Is there any point asking?; looking over his shoulder as he stretched off, the cat saw his girlfriend's back and, knowing her as well as he did now, realised his answer; probably not – she'll only want to keep me in suspense until it's almost upon the pair of us. Still, looking forwards to some more of the tuck from this place I can tell you; that was certainly true – though he could never claim to be a great follower of haute cuisine, the meals provided from the kitchens of the Highland Steppes had been truly sumptuous thus far, and he was under no illusion that this would continue this evening. In fact he was so busy picturing the menu for tonight that it was only when he heard Mighty's gasp from behind him that his trance broke and he glanced at her again. Upon even the briefest viewing of her whitened face and horror-struck eyes he immediately paid more attention, forgetting about eating at all as he followed her shock-deadened gaze – once he realised what was there waiting for him, however, he very quickly joined his girlfriend in the land of the stunned and speechless, though his face was bright red rather than the armadillo's chalk-white.

Standing in the doorway to Mighty's room was none other than her mother, and both Mobians present within the room itself knew exactly what she must be seeing and, from that, could take a pretty precise and squirmingly uncomfortable guess at the conclusions she was drawing in her head.

Oh mum, please no; the second she could get her blood flowing again it all rushed up to her head, making her vision swim with dizziness as she saw the smirk hovering on Emily's lips; no sarky comments, no mocking remarks, nothing like that because Big'll never forget them. Her mental implorings were of such power that surely nothing on the planet, let alone someone stood not seven or eight feet away from her, could have not heard them but somehow her mother seemed immune; time slowed to the merest crawl as Mighty was forced to watch her mother's lips twitch, virtually see the syllables formed before Emily pronounced them and she was helpless to stop them being uttered – she could only cross her fingers and pray to God that her boyfriend would be able to scrub her mothers' words from his mind as easily as it appeared he had her fathers,

"Well, this is cosy", Emily wouldn't have been able to call herself Mobian if she hadn't had a smirk, even a little one, at the couple's predicament as she unluckily caught them both out, a perfectly reasonable get-together found under perfectly imperfect settings, "don't worry, my lips are sealed; come on, no-one's about. Duck out fast, you'll not be seen". She stood to the side quickly, pushing the door open completely with her fingertips as the pair of them bolted past, Big out first without even slowing down as he just about managed to make it out without shattering the doorframe. As he came to an unsteady halt with Emily's eyes at his back, the elder of the two armadillo's present felt a hand take her own, larger and much more powerful than her grip could ever hope to be as it gave a soft squeeze, the accompanying words cementing the gratitude the hand's owner felt towards her,

"Thanks mum"; my pleasure, in fact the least I could do; hand on heart Emily would have been unable to deny that she had been planning to say a little more than she'd let them get away with just then but, having recalled in the nick of time what she'd gleaned from earlier in the afternoon with her husband, she'd decided on the spot she couldn't be cruel enough to force the pair of them through any more purgatory, she'd let them off lightly. Acting as though she hadn't heard her daughter's whisper, Emily pulled herself upright and turned around, nodding at Big as she did so,

"Right then, we best get downstairs before the rest of the avalanche strips the table bare; good spot there Big"; what was?; confusion must have been written large all over his face as Emily answered before he'd even gathered the wits to ask, "noticing the lump over there hadn't surfaced yet".

"Well, uh", the cat wasn't quite sure what to say to that, not least because Mighty was glowering at both him and her mother equally; probably best to play it safe; "actually more luck than judgement, Derek's just kicked me out of bed as it is". The comment made both mother and daughter laugh in tandem,

"First time for everything then", Might drawled after a second, seeing her boyfriend smile as the infectious humour took a toe-hold on him, "anyway, come on you lot, I'm starving".

"You don't look it"; mum; the younger armadillo knifed the elder with a look of pure filth, the malevolence within it only increasing as Emily continued to look angelically innocent; you are cruising for a bruising here…; "but I agree, it is most definitely", she checked her watch one last time, the wrist-mounted timepiece much more elegant and delicate than the rough-and-ready variety Mighty favoured, a necessity for it being able to survive most of the work she ended up doing on Angel Island, "dinner time. Come on Big; hope you like pick-and-mix".

The cat merely watched on incredulous as she walked past, completely and utterly flummoxed by her last oblique reference – had Wull and Bekka hired some kind of sweet-shop for them all? He hoped to look for answers out of Mighty but, he quickly realised, that was a lost cause from the outset; all he was able to glean there was a knowing look and a sly smile. He tried to look insouciant and failed, instead grinning widely as the armadillo fell into step beside him, one of her hands on the fur of his broad back, caressing though the thick fibres and making him shiver at the same time his closest hand quested for the crown of her shell, seeking her ears as a target,

"Trust me", she spoke as he at last felt solid armour under his palm, "you'll find out when we're down there". Now if it were anyone else I wouldn't believe them; luckily Emily didn't look over her shoulder as the pace of the two behind her slowed dramatically – with both fur and ears being ruffled and teased, neither could concentrate much on walking, in fact Big could barely muster the energy to finish his fledgling thought; but just for you I'll make an exceptioohhoonnn – just left, just to the left…bullseye-eee!

XXX

As Emily in front of them pushed open the door, Big took a single sight of the spread laid out before him and a singular scent of the same sight; both of which set his mouth watering impatiently,

"So", he managed to speak through the excess saliva, looking down to see Mighty fighting a similar battle to avoid her hunger running away with her, "this is an armadillo pick-and-mix then?"

"Oh yeah", she breathed back, eyes already feasting on the full table off to one side of the dining hall, the sight transfixing and tormenting her until she could finally bear it no longer, "so, before this lot polish it off entirely, let's just go dig in".

"Now that", the cat spoke as he followed her into the dining area itself, raising a paw and nodding greetings to those who recognised him, "is something I do agree with"; and boy, do I ever!

He agreed because of not only one, but a pair of equal and co-joined facts; firstly, unlike every other meal time the cat could remember at the Steppes, the entirety of Mighty's family appeared to be corralled around just one, rather than both of the huge tables, making space a bit of a premium as far as he could tell. Some of the younger ones had, in fact, neglected to find any space at all and were instead setting up a makeshift camp on the floor along the far wall, where they were less likely to get accidentally trodden on by a pre-occupied adult. Aside from the eldest ancestors, secluded from the rest of the younger, rather more reckless members of their family as they held their own table at the head of the room itself, everyone else was crowded around and fighting for both elbow room and to be heard; mingled call and shouts were the norm as the individual leaves and branches of the extended armadillo family tree took up every available scrap of room. Even before Big could question why they didn't spread out to the other table though, he had that question answered for him by the sight of the second long panel of oak and varnish groaning against the weight of the platters that had been set down upon it.

Rolls of ham and smoked fish, probably mackerel he thought at a guess; massive cheeses, bowls of mixed vegetables either mixed together as salads or separate, huge hunks of bread in all different shapes, sizes and colours, troughs of dip and crisps to dunk in it – all these and more wonderful things were piled upon the sturdy wood and how it was bearing up Big couldn't have said. Enough there to feed the five thousand, so they should be able to cater for me at least; it seemed true, though as he watched on he saw that even now the armadillos had a bit of a system going to avoid the whole thing devolving into a complete free-for-all. All the plates and cutlery were, he noticed, perched on the table-end closest to the door; therefore anyone who wanted to get something having come down from upstairs had to start at that point and work their way up the table, gathering what they wanted as they went. It was such a simple yet elegant system that even those who had already entrenched themselves at the eating table were sticking to it as well, joining the back of the line as they came in search of seconds, thirds or, Big hid a smile as it seemed that more than a few of them were walking at a much more sedate pace than normal, even courses after that. All this passed through his mind in a heartbeat; in the next instant he was dogging Mightys' heels towards the table, the promise of all the delicious meat and wine there rendering almost everything else secondary as his stomach growled – it had been a long time since breakfast. And it has, in more ways than one; somehow, though he couldn't forget it in its entirety much as he'd have liked to, the altercation with Stefan this morning seemed a lot more distant than it had previously and for that he was grateful; the last thing he wanted right now was to have that sort of memory nipping at his mind like a shoal of piranha.

"Grab a plate Big", the voice stirred him from his memory and it was a timely reminder indeed; as he nodded, smiling and accepting the white oval dish Mighty passed his way, the cat waited until he was certain she had her back to him and was engrossed in picking what she wanted from the display before her before he thought again; and, though I might be mistaken I'm certain I'm not, one of the main reasons I'm not dwelling on that is simply because of you Michelle. You stood up to him at least as much, probably even more so than I did – you've got to take the plaudits for this one I can tell you. Come on, let's eat now; reaching across, he plucked a handful of grapes from the fruit platter nearest him at the same time as his girlfriend, having just sawn from one of the massive loaves of bread a slice thick enough to act as an emergency door-stop should the need arise, picked up a knife dripping with butter that she proceeded to slather one side of the bread with, not aware of the cat's eyes on her back as they softened in benevolence; and see where we go after from there after that.

XXX

"Hey, Emmie, over here", the shout caught the attention of all three of them though the one it was aimed at was first off the mark; almost before her younger brother had pulled the seat out for her, Emily had parked herself in it, her daughter close enough on her heels to snag the one just to the other side as Big, bringing up the rear, was left without a place to sit; oh well, probably for the best – after all, space is at a premium and I take up too much of it as it is;

"Sorry Big guy", Paula's voice brought him back to earth as the squirrel snickered, "no room at the inn for you".

"Just as well I don't drink then isn't it, although", memory twigged by the reminder the cat suddenly realised he had a score he could settle now, "this evening that may well change; Emily", she looked up, all of a sudden not liking the mischief in the cat's face, "I reckon you'll be owing me a round or two either tonight or tomorrow; come on, you were there when most of them were slack-jawed, or do you want me to name them as well?" I was as well; suddenly cottoning on to what he was on about Emily was forced to concede that he was right about this; most of them were staring like there was no tomorrow, me included first time I saw him.

"Okay, okay, I know when I'm beaten", even as Big smirked in victory Sam had to clap a hand to his suddenly throbbing ear, looking over at his sister heartbrokenly as Paula snorted with laughter in the background, "and that was for helping him win – I'm out of pocket because of you, now how familiar does that sound?"

"Far, far too familiar for me"; it appeared Sam was still too shocked by Emily's cuff to answer so Paula did it for him, the squirrel shaking with the giggles even as she looked for answers, "but which line did he put one of those clumping great feet of his over this time?"

"I'll tell you later", Emily answered with a world-weary sigh before finally noticing a very important subtraction from the normal equation of her youngest brother's family, "hang on, where's your little'un?" Finally getting his tongue back into gear, the other armadillo answered for his partner, still obviously miffed after getting a cuff around the head for a reason he wasn't sure of,

"Got the baby-sitting club looking after her; she'll be all right, they know where we are". Following his finger, both Mighty and her partner chuckled a touch, Emily being able to keep her dignity slightly better and giving only a gracious smile as she beheld what her youngest sibling was pointed out.

In the middle of the children camp, surrounded by what looked to be a concentrated knot of the young armadillos all sitting with shells and tails pointed outwards like a protective shield barrier, all three could just about make out the small form of Jess crawling around animatedly from lap to lap, cuddling up to each of her cousins as she reached them. Though they couldn't accurately hear what was being said over the din of other conversations going on around them, it never seemed that the baby was ignored; as each of the youngsters felt sticky little fingers start to pry their way onto their knee, without exception they abandoned their own feasting and drinking to entertain the youngest of their company – at every stop Jess got at least a few minutes in warm arms and several kind, jokey words, sometimes even a crumb of bread, a sliver of cheese or, and Big was almost certain her parents didn't approve of this, a drop or two of fizzy pop sneaked to her, and it didn't look like she was refusing too many of such treats either. Afterwards, as she struggled to be free once more, she was set back on the ground to repeat the cycle once more, crawling towards another target in the circle and take in some more of the Christmas spirit of peace and goodwill to all men and Mobians.

"Wow"; Big could say nothing, he was too busy trying to keep tears from his eyes as he beheld the scene unfolding and was thus extremely grateful when Mighty spoke for him, a laugh rather than a sob in her voice, "you've got them well-trained".

"Better than I've managed with anything back home, and I mean anything", Paula answered, a very direct glance sent Samson's way as the armadillo huffed, folding his arms as he resented being the butt of the jokes from both his partner and his elder sister, "still, you've not done too bad yourself there girl – the way Derek's been telling it the Big man over there's at your beck and call when it comes to your back and shell".

Oh has he now?; Mighty scanned the room around her but was unable to pick out the grey shell of her lovingly-hated cousin; well, he'll get what's coming to him when we get to the horses tonight – thanks for the lessons there batgirl;

"I'd like to think so", Mighty answered slowly, diplomatically as she tore a mouthful from the sandwich she'd made, swallowing it quickly to as she suddenly thought how to answer her aunt at the same time as not rub Big up the wrong way, difficult as that feat actually was to achieve most of the time, "but chances are even he can't hear me from Angel Island; it's a long way up you know?"

"I didn't actually; any idea how high exactly?" Paula commented idly, her partner also taking an interest in the subject, "I'd love to go there someday".

"Well they're building an airport for sometime in the new year, maybe you'll be able to hop up and visit some time. Got some great digs you know", with visions of how far Paula would be driven up the wall by Vector and Charmy torturing her funny bone Mighty had no idea how she kept the smirk off her face as she finished demurely, "be happy to have you over, as long as one of you doesn't mind kipping on the couch that is". Samson shook his head as much as he was able to, an air of official importance suddenly pervading the air around him that caught Big, still stood up and eating with one hand as he held the plate in the other, a little by surprise – after all, everything he'd seen from this particular armadillo so far had suggested someone who very rarely, if ever, took himself anything like seriously,

"Sorry Mighty, no can do – got rules and regulations you see. Can't let the animals on the settee, sends out the wrong signals you know?" As the target of his directed glance slitted her eyes murderously and clenched a fist Mighty winced; wrong signals maybe – danger signals certainly… Fortunately though, Paula seemed to keep the lid on her temper to just about below boiling point and merely glare back, speaking from between clenched teeth in a voice that would have frozen a blast furnace solid,

"You are really riding for the hiding to end all hidings, you know that?"

"No but thanks for the heads-up", Samson said genially before ranking back on a pair of imaginary reins, "whoa Nellie!" Big had to put the rest of his sandwich back down on his plate, covering his face with one hand as his entire body shook with laughter, Mighty on the seat in front of him in a similar state though thankfully for the pair of them Paula didn't notice. The squirrel appeared to be doing something akin to meditating – her eyes were closed and looked like her lips were moving soundlessly, though Big was under no illusion that inner peace and tranquillity were about the last things on her mind at this time,

"You", her voice was so low that Big was sure the stone beneath his feet quivered, "are really going to get it one of these day".

"Really?" Samson had a clueless look on his face before turning in his chair, looking back at the baby-sitting circle where by pure serendipity Jess was clearly visible, being held up by one of the older children present and waving her arms and legs in delight, "thought you'd already given it to me once, or was that one of those blink-and-you've-missed-it moments?"

No more than a fraction of a second later, as Emily disintegrated hopelessly and Paula's hands fixed themselves around her partner's stoutly-muscled neck, her brush ruffled up to fever pitch as she attempted to throttle the life from the armadillo next to her, Big managed to hold himself together enough to lean down and whisper in Mighty's closest ear,

"Hundred-buck question Might", blinking back her blurry vision, Mighty fixed her boyfriend with a questioning look as he inclined his head slightly to the side, "how are those two…", he tailed off, suddenly closing his eyes and grinning widely, "…in fact, don't answer that – they already remind me far too much of another happy couple we both know, know who I mean?" The armadillo laughed, even more so as her aunt's tail collapsed onto her, all the squirrels' fight drained out of her as Samson finally linked his arms around her back, whispering sweet nothings into her ear and holding her close, just like she'd seen another Mobian do a hundred times or more,

"Oh yeah", just for a minute Mighty's mind wandered away and upwards, raising its glass towards where the pair of guardians were probably already following through and making last-minute tweaks to their Christmas Day plan, "and with any luck, they'll soon be having the same sorts of fight these two are, over a third member of the family".

"One that's not green and been sat on the same spot for most of its life?" Mighty nodded, the thought in her eyes deepening as she recalled one of the few 'girl-talks' she and Rouge had shared together when neither Knuckles nor the rest of the Chaotix had been present,

"Oh yeah", absent-mindedly she wolfed down another mouthful of sandwich, not even noticing the taste of the food nor the force of absolute certainty she'd packed into her voice, "definitely not that one", her voice dropped lower, gaze locking directly onto Big's with a ferocity that terrified him for a second as she finished her rock-solid prediction,

"Not any more".

XXX

As time swept slowly on in its usual stately and imperious way, it was only when Big leant downwards to pursue an escapee olive that had rolled off his plate and caught a glimpse of his partner's wristwatch that he realised how long it had actually been. Quarter to nine; unfortunately he hadn't been able to see the time it had been when Derek had shaken him back from the land of sleep so he had no idea at how long he and the rest of the assembled Mobians had been as they were, grazing from the table as the want took them but, by now, spending most of their time just talking, moving around to relatives they had yet to converse with fully during the holiday thus far as they all sat around the table together. Still, the cat reasoned in his mind, time really was getting on and he was still in the dark about what was supposed to be going on later tonight and, with that in mind, he leaned across to whisper when he was sure Mighty wasn't otherwise engaged,

"Might, seen the time recently?" The armadillo turned and regarded him quizzically for a second before catching on what he meant; looking downwards at her wrist Mighty realised what the cat was on about and held up a hand to allay his questions,

"Yeah, don't worry; come about nine we'll get rid of all the chaff and go from there", with a slight smile and a teasing glance she set up the last part of her statement as a challenging question, "reckon you can last that long?"

"Oh yeah", the cat replied with his own, equally challenging grin, "you should know, you've seen me sit in one spot for hours on end with nothing but a role in my hand, waiting for something to bite. Compared to that, fifteen minutes is nothing". And having said his piece, the cat simply sat back in his seat aware of Mighty's eyes on him the whole time, and seemed to settle back into something akin to a doze, merely waiting for these last few minutes to pass and allow the last mystery of this armadillo family gathering to be made clear to him.

A voice in his ear stirred him merely a few minutes later, however; Mighty tugging on his sleeve and nodding towards something at the entrance to the room itself,

"Huh, looks like you're not the only one eager to get things started". Following her gaze, the cat saw the main door that led out of the room now fully opened, two immediately recognisable figures standing in the entranceway as an unmistakable clamour suddenly filled the air, Bekka shouting even above the ringing tones of the bell she held in one hand and was shaking vigorously,

"Right, tha's it, lass bells", suddenly pinching the metal to quiet its tones she cast her gaze towards where the vast majority of the children still sat, many of them already stifling yawns as the hour and the vast amounts of fine food had taken their toll on their abilities to remain awake, "all tha'wee ones, off tae yer beds an' leave us old'uns in peace". I see; digesting what she'd said Big felt himself smile as he turned towards where Mighty had just sat down once more – even from the look on his face the armadillo could tell something was up; that smirk promised nothing good that she could see,

"I take it whatever happens next isn't for young, delicate ears to hear and innocent eyes to see?" Mighty favoured him with a basilisk glare even as she answered gratingly,

"Something like that", she managed to force out between clenched teeth, cursing the world in general for embarrassing her like this before, in an instant, it made up its debt to her and Big was distracted by the whispers from behind him. Mighty milked the short breathing space for all it was worth as her uncle came to his feet, finally wrestling down Paula's protests enough to explain his reasons,

"No, I'll do it; out the two of us I'm the one who can set up the monitor in less than half-an-hour, now you settle down", though he couldn't be sure, the cat was under the impression that Paula would have loved to fight her corner on this issue but was unable to for the simple reason that her partner was correct, "just as soon as I find her, I'll tuck her away in bed. Now", looking around, Samson began to rove the room in the hunt for his errant daughter, "where'd she jet off to?"

"You mean her?"

Big almost jumped at the small voice from behind his seat; trying to look over his own shoulder at the noise, the cat just about managed to see the top of an armadillo's shell as well as a feature much more distinctive; lavender hair rippling, Mina stepped back as her companion stepped up and, a second later, Jess was in her father's arms and contentedly sucking her thumb. The elder armadillo took a minute to lean down and touch noses with the baby before turning to the other youngsters who'd looked after her so well,

"Thanks Ed, tell the others you did a fantastic job looking after her, and just between you and me", Sam's head dipped lower even as his voice rose, "you two make a very pretty couple".

"Eww!" The reaction was immediate; both youngsters sprang apart as though the other was a dog that had rolled in something unmentionable, Mina in particular vocal in her disgust while Edward, almost the mirror image of his effervescent brother, simply clammed up and scrutinised the floor, "uncle that's a horrible think to even think – never, not in a million years…"

"I know, for goodness sake", the elder armadillo shook his head as though regretting he'd ever made the comment in the first place, "I didn't mean anything by that, just playing around. Anyway, both of you come with us – unless I've got it hopelessly wrong or you've unearthed the secret of eternal youth I'm right in guessing neither of you are over sixteen yet?" Mina shrugged, Big rotating his head and twisting in his seat to watch the mongoose depart, just behind her uncle and with Edward bringing up the rear, the armadillo still saying nothing as they all approached the door and the figure that stood there, a tray of…in fact, what was on the tray he was holding? Pointless guessing; and it was – he had no idea; not when I've got someone with me who's sure to know;

"What's Wull holding up there Mighty? Looks like glasses of milk".

"You're not far wrong Big", it was actually Emily who answered him as her daughter had her mouth full of grapes at the time, "put it like this – short of bopping them over the head with a truncheon or drugging them up to the eyeballs with sleeping pills, it's the best damn way of getting anyone too young to be at the races to sleep through the night".

"That so?" The cat looked back at where the manager of the Highland Steppes was handing out what looked like little tumblers of white liquid to each of the younger armadillos who filed past him, a kindly goodnight on his lips as he bade farewell to each of his younger guests, most of whom were accompanied by parents to make sure they were well tucked in for the night. Even as he watched on, Sam reached the taller human in the line and, after exchanging a few words the cat didn't have a chance of hearing at this distance, snagged one of the tumblers, obviously intending his daughter to sip at it on the journey upstairs; hmm, wonder if mum could use this – after all, the gruesome twosome have never been able to get to bed easily;

"Any idea what's in it?" To his equal parts surprise and hope, Emily nodded, replying in an off-hand fashion,

"Oh yeah, he tells each of us when we hit sixteen, then we don't need it any more; we get to stay up and play cards all night instead. It's something like two-parts full-fat milk to one-part double cream, warmed up and with a tot of whisky splashed in for good measure".

"And it works", Mighty cut in, vigorously nodding her head, "take it from me, hits you about fifteen minutes after it's slid down, you just go out. Even got him to make me some a few years ago, remember when I was really coming down with something and we couldn't get hold of any hickory nuts?" She shared a glance with her mother and Emily nodded, taking up the story as Mighty backed her up with a series of nods in all the right places,

"Yeah, she wasn't a hundred percent well then, she was seventeen at the time. Anyway, she couldn't stay at the table more than an hour, hour and a half; she was coughing herself raw and disturbing everyone else, not like she had much of a choice, so we put the game on hold while Wull heads to the kitchen and whips some up. She downed it all in one; Stefan had to virtually carry her upstairs, it went straight to her head".

"Believe me I was away and gone". Mighty finished, making Big chuckle,

"And as far as I can tell you've never really come back", he said silkily, making the armadillo scowl before he moved on to the next of his queries, "so, we've got the little ones out the way, what happens now? I've figured out it's a card game of some sort, but what have horses got to do with anything?"

A chuckle, from his other side this time, made all three of them pause; seeing both Emily and Mighty looking past him, Big joined their consensus and twisted in his seat to find himself face to face with Paula again, the squirrel stood up as she causally balanced the core of the apple she'd just demolished in the palm of one hand,

"You know", she tilted her head backwards after giving them all a small smile, wandering backwards into her memory as she saw something once more in her mind's eye, "I remember asking that very same question; want to know what Sam told me?"

"As long as it's nothing rude", Emily answered for her trio, knowing how coarse her brother could be at times, especially when his partner was concerned – Paula merely chuckled once more before grabbing a handful of Big's closest arm, yanking softly on the thick fir there even as she spoke,

"He said 'well make yourself useful and help clear the table and you'll find out all the quicker', and you know something, for once in his life he was right. So"; I get the feeling I've been diddled here; despite the indignant thought in his mind Big was smart enough to take a cue and stood up, a little heartened as he saw Mighty doing likewise, "stir those huge stumps of yours and give us a hand to clear up, and it'll all be made clear".

"Gee thanks", the cat said with heavy fatalism, reaching forwards to hoover up loose plates and bowls that had long since had the food they contained consumed and devoured the ravenous horde that had preyed on it, "Mighty, I'm holding this on your head"; oh are you now?; she put her hands on her hips and stared darkly at the cat as a hint of a smile played on his lips, "if what happens next isn't up to scratch, you're the one who's making up for it, got it?"

"No, but if you try anything the only thing I'll be giving you is a good hiding", she said sardonically, Big backing away theatrically as she raised her fist before it dropped, almost of its own volition, reaching forwards instead, taking some of the plates he'd gathered up. Their fingertips touched for an instant, the contact supernovaed through both of them for the sweetest of seconds before it was broken as they both turned away slightly; even as they focussed on the task at hand, however, their minds were elsewhere, trained on the other as their bodies went through the motions to clear a table and a room. They thought of little else, and to have no other concerns, no other imaginings or wants running through their minds to cloud the scene before them, was a rare and magical form of peace to enjoy.

XXX

As he came back up from the kitchens for the last time the sight that met the his eyes was completely removed from anything he'd thus far seen; apparently, for the first time since he'd been here as far as he could remember, which of course was all of it, neither of the two main tables of the Steppes' main eating hall were being used. Instead, all the action was taking place at the top table and the more elderly members of the family had all retreated from the wood a few inches as it appeared something like a green tablecloth had been laid over the top of the table itself; is this going to be like a poker table then? That would have been doable, he'd played before and knew all the rules but even as the thought crossed his mind it crossed swords with another, equally as pertinent question – if a tournament like this was taking shape before him, how were they all going to get a seat?

"Ah, brill", Emily, who had been behind him delivering the last of the condiments to the kitchens, now moved forwards, "just round up the rest of the cartel and we can get started", she took a few paces forwards before seeming to remember who she was with; Big could almost see the recrimination spreading outwards through her, starting in her face and trickling down from there as she shook her head at her own impulsiveness overriding her normal business senses of both logic and propriety, "I'm sorry Big, I should have explained this better".

"Don't apologise, you're just in a bit head-over-heels as my mum would say", the cat accepted genially, stepping up behind him and patting her closest shoulder softly, "so, what's the plan for the rest of the night then?" Emily chuckled, answering even as her eyes darted hither and thither, trying to pick out the other two she needed to get herself ready for the power struggle ahead,

"Tonight and most of tomorrow morning more likely", she corrected him before giving up on trying to complete her task unaided and glanced up at the massive cat beside her, "anyway, before anything else goes on we need to track down my husband and your girlfriend – got any news for me up there?"

Stretching to his full height, Big found it easy to pick out Stefan's distinctive grey shell out in the crowd, though he did take care to make sure the shell he'd spotted wasn't in any way marked before whistling through to the other armadillo. As always, as he ploughed towards them like a bulldozer and other armadillos made tracks to get out of his way, Emily took the lead in greeting her spouse,

"Hello Stefan, seen our daughter about?"

"Not recently", the grey-shell replied in his normal acerbic tone and Big felt his self-resolve start to wilt; and I'm going to be teamed with you for how ling now?; suddenly the grey eyes arced upwards – before Big could react, Stefan spoke again, "though, if we stay where we are, she'll doubtless be with us soon. Like many other things master cat, she seems to gravitate towards you more than anything else in the vicinity". Much as he'd have liked to take offence, for the sake of familial harmony Big bit his tongue and kept quiet until, with a rush of caught breath, he was able to lean down and whisper,

"Incoming", to the two waiting parents. Typically, before either of them could react, their daughter reached them, bustling over with a burning intensity and anticipation blazing in her eyes,

"Right, we're set up; come on quick, Nessie's about to draw the horses".

"Okay, okay, keep your hair on, not that that really affects you that much", Emily answered quickly, trying to keep her dignity better than her daughter though Big couldn't help but notice her pace pick up as she raced along the trail Mighty had laid down, "well, you want to try and drag her back?"

"Not particularly", answering his wife's question the only way he feasibly could, Stefan made to move off as well; he might have paused and tried to glance backwards, seeing if Big was still standing still, stunned by the speed at which things had moved on and tried to claim a one-up that way but in this he was to be disappointed; though, going on what I saw, and felt earlier; with his shell blocking Big's vision, the armadillo gently rubbed his bruised solar plexus and half-scowled, half-smiled at his conclusions; I don't suppose I should feel all that surprised – by now I'm sure almost nothing she can do could possibly be a surprise to him.

XXX

"Okay then Big", even as he pulled out chairs for both Mighty, her mother and himself, Stefan already at the table and apparently waiting for the rest of his family to join him as he reserved a place at the table for them, the cat found himself addressed by his partner, "I know you've probably figured out some of the background to what's going on, but just as soon as we've got the place set up you'll find out properly when we play a ghost hand or two".

"Okay", as long as he wasn't going in completely blind, the cat reasoned he could live with that; though there are a couple of things I'd like to know…; "but just one thing, why are we, or rather, why's everyone else in family groups?"

"That's part of the background, we're all representing a racing cartel", Mighty explained, obviously moving into her element and loving every minute of it as Big merely looked perplexed, "this game's called Newmarket, it's after a fairly famous old racing town in England somewhere, and the cards are going to be like a horse race. We bet on them and, if you laid the right card you get some money back, and if you lose your whole hand first you get all the money on the bottom row, and…"

"Basically", more out of shock than anything else Big sat up and took note as Stefan's tone slit smoothly through Mighty's excited explanations, "it's a game more easily played than explained. Look here", luckily, the cat's great height meant he had to do little more than crane his neck to get as good a view as the armadillo sat a little in front of him, "we're about to get underway; she always does the honours before you ask, old family tradition, though it'd get done a lot faster if she delegated the responsibility to someone a little more sprightly and with better joint conditions".

Almost without meaning to Big caught Emily bristling from the very corner of his eye, the wife of the armadillo doing the insulting railing against his casual slander as were, he noticed with a great deal of satisfaction, most of the others present, a concentrated beam of malice directed solely at the one member of the family who seemed to be able to get up the noses of everyone equally. However, there was one omission in that litany of fury, all the more noticeable in its absence as it was the one Stefan's barbs had been aiming to skewer; as her one good hand slowly peeled the cards one by one from the deck her paralysed hand clutched in a rigid grip, Nessie merely smiled beneath her loosely-attached oxygen mask before giving her answer,

"But speed is no matter here Stefan", the grey-shell in front of Big's vision suddenly sat up, not used to being answered back, "since we're still a cartel short it matters not if I take five minutes or five years; until Wull and Bekka join us the game will not begin, is that clear?"

"As it always is". Must just be the age; somehow even Stefan, obnoxious and quarrelsome as his attitude was in general, could not keep every hint of reproach out of his voice, couldn't quite hide the fact that he'd been well and truly put in his place by someone a lot older and more worldly-wise than he was. And it seemed Nessie wasn't through with him just yet either,

"Good", she took another breath of the artificially oxygen-rich atmosphere beneath her mask, the appliance thankfully not dampening her croaking speech too much, "just though you might have forgotten the rules yourself for a minute there – you'd be in no position to explain Newmarket to a complete novice if you haven't got a handle on it yourself, it can get quite complex".

There was no answer and no-one was surprised at this, least of all Big himself; in every other face he could see the same fight raging as there was present in his – it was so tempting to break into a grin, maybe even chuckle with a laugh at Stefan finally being given his well-deserved comeuppance but, at the same time, there was the knowledge that not admitting this almost sadistic joy and instead showing the grey-shelled armadillo the one emotion he loathed above all others, that of sympathy and pity, would be the ultimate way to strike back at his cold, pseudo-emotionless core and wind him up no end. Stefan's indignation was so palpable he could almost taste it but he had no get-out clause; Stefan had brought this on his own head and tripped over his own colossal pride, now he paid the price for it off his own back – in the end, confronted by that which he hated so much, he was forced to perform the action that Big knew, instinctively knew, stuck in his craw more than anything else to make it stop,

"I know it can", his tone was colourless, void of anything that could have been possibly wounded by other people's comments, words or actions, "my, apologies Vanessa, my comments were, a little rash".

"More haste, less speed you might say"; you are so damned lucky and you don't even know it; folding his arms the cat set his glare flaying into the back of Stefan's shell – he'd seen the malicious glitter in Nessies' eye for a split-second before she'd blinked and snuffed it out; she could have made you pay a lot worse than that – if it had been my mum, or grandma for that matter, you'd tried to pull a stunt like that with you'd have got it both barrels and no holds barred; "still, you've a lot to grow up and learn before you get to my age, and we're not here to fight, so let's put this to one side and…", her thumb caressed the card it was rested on and, a second later, the jack of clubs came to rest on the green felt that had been laid over the table surface,

"…get the horses ready to ride".

After Stefan's faux pas there was only silence; as the minutes ticked by uncounted Big watched on as the solitary card Nessie had plucked from the deck was joined by the ace of hearts, then the queen of diamonds and finally the king of spades – after these four cards had been found Nessie set the deck down, apparently satisfied. How's this going to work then?; try as he might to figure it out, with his chin in his hand Big was utterly flummoxed as to how this game was to progress; with this many of us – how can we get a game with only these four cards? His brainwork was so intense that he didn't actually notice Mighty knocking his arm until she almost tore out a clump of his coat; stifling his sudden flare of pain and shock, Big looked down as the armadillo whispered under her breath,

"Those are the horses, those four", returning his attention to the table, the cat watched as someone leaned over Nessie's wheelchair and quickly arranged the quartet of high-value cards in a parallel line along the table's centre, almost directly opposite from where the cat was sat, "being put out in the paddock now, ready to race. We use two decks in this game, we have to…look", typically, just as he opened his mouth, Mighty pointed out the point she was trying to make, "Gav just got it for her, now we're ready. Nana always deals the first hand, it's tradition, the eldest always play the first round, and it goes down in age order for the next hands, understand?"

"I think so", Big answered a second later, mentally computing that information and making sense out of it as he noticed the his girlfriend had been exactly correct – there was now another deck in Nessies' frail but capable paw, though curiously she neglected to but the first deck with the four missing cards, the 'horses' Mighty had called them, away. Maybe so she won't forget to put them back at the end?; it was a reasonable suggestion and, not wanting to get bogged down in questions at this early stage, Big let the point rest for now as Nessie began, in her own slow, methodical way, to deal out the cards from the new deck.

The whole deck?; as Stefan picked up the cards before him Big wondered that the whole pack, less the jokers, had been used in the dealing; mind you, with the number of cartels we've got that doesn't seem too many cards each, about five at the most. As the armadillo in front of him made a neat fan before him with the cards he'd received, Mighty suddenly piped up with a low whisper,

"Nana gets two hands there Big; see", dragging his attention from the cards held by her father and looking across, the cat raised his eyebrows as it appeared that Nessie had indeed dealt herself two hands, though only appeared to be looking at one of them, "this is important; the way it works is that she can choose to drop her first hand and switch to the second one, but once she has done she can't switch back. This makes it a bit more likely that she can get one of the horses in her hand".

"I get it, but what's so important about them?" The armadillo smiled,

"That'll be important when Wull and his missus get here with the penny-pot; all you need to know for now is that the dealer starts unless he or she switches hands; if they do that it's the player on the right that gets the ball rolling. Ah, Nana's about ready…" Right on cue, the eldest Mobian present spoke up,

"I'll stick with this. So then, all ready?" When there was no reply, she took another breath from her mask and, slowly drawing one of the cards from the small fan of her cards, spoke to the table aloud,

"Three of diamonds".

Even as he watched the wrinkled, parchment-skinned paw lay the named card down, another voice off to the left called out,

"Four of diamonds"; what?; caught slightly off-guard the cat could only try to keep up as the flow of cards hitting the table came thick and fast,

"Five of diamonds".

"Six…", he looked forwards to see Gavin suddenly tap the armadillo in front of him, one Big didn't recognise immediately, and immediately the last part of the announcement was added, "…of diamonds".

"Seven, and eight of diamonds". There was a very tangible pause, letting Big finally catch his breath before David, who had laid the pair, swept his spectacled gaze across the table and spoke once more in a questioning tone,

"No nine? Very well then; nine of clubs". Red to black, but only when the chain seems to break; finally finding a little order in what appeared to be a rather chaotic game that he could see so far, Big tried to make the rest of the picture make sense even as different voices added their words to the mix,

"Ten of clubs".

"And", Derek gave a chuckle as he placed his last card down, "jack of clubs and out". Everyone else around the table seemed to give a disgusted tut or hiss, but Big kept his eyes on the panther as he reached forwards and firstly tapped the relevant horse he'd put down, hen drew his fingers in a line across the top of the cards as Big looked at them; why'd he do that? It was a gesture that provoked only confusion from the cat, though thankfully as everyone else seemed to stand up and get ready to switch places his emotions were masked from the table at large, seen in fact only by a single Mobian out of all present,

"Don't panic, I was as bamboozled as you must be when I first started", Mighty consoled him before sloughing some of the concern from her voice and becoming a little more brisk, "but did you see how it worked, some of it at least?"

"I, err, I think so", Big's response was carefully measured and mouthed back to her, though such was the volume directed against David and his perceived lucky streak when it came to being dealt short straights of cards it was highly unlikely anyone else would have been able to listen in on a private conversation, "looked like if you were the last one to play a card in a sequence, then you have to lay another card of a different colour, is that right?"

"Almost", Mighty said encouragingly, "you're nearly there; the way it works is the dealer or, as I said, if the dealer swapped to the ghost hand then the Mobian to the right of the dealer starts the ball rolling with the lowest card in their hand, if it's a tie then lowest red. The rest of us add to the chain as much as we can, but you're right about the next part; if you're the one who put the last one down in a chain you start another one, but you have to start with the lowest card of a different colour in your hand".

"What happens if you don't have one? No cards of the other colour?" Big elaborated as Mighty drew a blank at his first question; she did, however, quickly rally after his explanation,

"You have to say so", she said with a shrug, "just say 'no red' or 'no black' and it passes to the guy on your right; everything goes clockwise in this game". Hang on a minute;

"That's a bit harsh", Big mentioned after a second of thinking about it, explaining as almost without realising it he'd swapped seats with the others of his cartel, "I mean, what if play switches to reds and all you've got in your hand is black?" Might shrugged,

"That's Newmarket for you – sometimes the horses just don't want to play. Anyway, you better make sure you've got the rules nailed this time around", it was Big's turn to quail at the mischief he could see in his partner's eye, feeling cold sweat start to form at the back of his neck as Mighty snickered ominously, "because after mum's gone around, the next hand's yours!" Uh-oh…;

XXX

Well, that could have gone a lot worse; though he hadn't won anything at all, Big was still relieved to hand over the cards remaining in his hand to Derek, the other grey-shell present at the table shot him a subtle wink across the table; actually, when you're actually at the table it's not that hard to play. Looks like you were right Nessie; for a split-second his hazel eyes sought out the armadillo matriarch and a smile flitted across his lips as he saw her waiting towards the back of her six-strong cartel, itching to play the next hand as much as the rest of her relatives who were currently on the sidelines must have been; all friends here – no fighting here. It's a gentleman's game is the sport of kings; turning away from the table, he made to move to the back of the line of his quartet of cartel-members before a tap at his side brought him up short,

"I know what you're going to say"; good, because I was out of ideas there; Mighty once more found herself grateful for Big's virtual six-sense of premonition, "I think I've got it all, but there's just one thing still puzzling me. Why do they all knock the horses they lay, and why does the first one out always rake the felt at the top of the cards?"

"Actually Big that's two things", just this once she'd caught him out and to his chagrin the cat knew she wasn't likely to let him forget about it any time soon, "but they've both got the same answer, and they'll be answered when the last pair get here. They always bring the penny-pot – Bekka always says it's to make sure we don't start without them, as if we would".

"Penny-pot?" It wasn't the first time she'd brought that word combination out together and Big would have commented as such had the armadillo not raised a hand to hush him, realising she was getting late for the latest meeting,

"Trust me, it'll all make sense", she could tell he wasn't entirely happy about this but for her sake he went with it, nodding and moving past to let her go past – she dallied just long enough, however, to say her final piece, a little more devil-may-care in her attitude and her flippant tone, "after all, what would Newmarket be if we couldn't all have a little flutter on the horses while we're here?"

A little flutter?; so there was money involved – this Big wasn't completely surprised by as, little as he knew about the racing of horses, he knew it was a game that either rich men or mugs took part in; still, I doubt it'd be for much, and anyway you; sliding into his seat behind Stefan he spared the back of Mighty's shell a mischievous glance for a moment; didn't I hear that the guests never pay up here? So, win lose or draw, it doesn't matter to me really – after all, it'll be on your tab!

XXX

The penny-pot, Big discovered about three hands later as, having finally finished the clearing up downstairs the last pair of players in this particular game joined them, was what looked to be an old china bulldog, a relic, Wull explained as he flipped it over and pulled the plastic plug from the bottom of it, of his old English home. As he turned it right side up once more and a veritable cascade of copper-coloured coins rained down on the table, the cat realised it was known as the 'penny-pot' for a very good reason – going on what he could see there was at least a few pounds sterling worth of pennies contained within it. Almost as soon as the clatter of currency had stopped, however, there looked to be a bit of a scramble forwards; eager armadillo fingers began picking their way into the pile, Emily's included,

"Come on", like a general rallying her troops she called over her shoulder, "we need our fifteen before the rest of this lot sweep 'em all up". Suits me; without further ado or restraint Big leant towards the table, his mighty mitts easily able to reach down and pluck a fistful of change from the tabletop; hastily counting it out, he realised he'd got a decent nine pennies and, thinking quickly, decided to announce it,

"Got nine here". Emily glanced up at him, respect evident in her eye as it seemed he'd quickly enriched the rest of his cartel,

"Okay, just need one more; ah-ah, nice try", with a deft motion she swiped a single coin from the rapidly-diminishing pile as Derek's hand, slightly slower to the punch, slunk away with a nasty glower, "but you don't get one over on your aunt that easy my lad. Okay, that's our lot…"

"Actually a bit more", Mighty admitted, counting off three of the coins resting in her palm and flipping them back into the centre of the table, "okay, now we're at fifteen, and Big", the cat pricked his ears, "you're the next hand at the table so you'd better pay attention to this – these are how we place our bets. You put one coin above the horses, one coin below the horses and one coin on a horse of your choice, got that?"

"I reckon so, ah", he snapped his fingers as something made a lot of sense all of a sudden, "is that why they were all tapping cards and pulling the felt earlier?" Mighty gave an enthusiastic nod; knew it wouldn't take you long – you've always been sharp like that;

"You got it; if you play one of the horses you get all the money on that horse; it's come in for you and you take the winnings. If you're the first one out, you've got a clean-sweep and you get all the money at the top of the paddock, understand? I know, you're about to ask about the bottom stack", she held a hand up, second-guessing his next question, "well that's won if someone beats the bookie; the way that works really is easier seen than explained. Okay, I reckon you're as ready as you'll ever be; good luck and just relax – no-one's going to shoot you if you don't win anything".

With a nod and smile, she directed him to the table once more and, with new trepidation stirring in the pit of his stomach as he realised the ghost hands were over and they were playing for real now, the cat nodded back, gave a weak smile and moved back to the hot seat at the table. Easing his way past Stefan as, like before, the grey-shell seemed disinclined to move his chair to make locomotion easier for him, Big retook his seat just as the dealing began to take place, noticing how the others were placing their bets; the three pennies between his fingers felt like lead weights as he slowly nudged two of them where they needed to go; the third one he deliberated a little more before finally making up his divided mind and shifting it over to rest atop the king of spades. Folding up his hand as the dealing finished, the cat tried as best he could to keep his face plain as he unfurled the card fan; well, not perfect, but it could be worse – anyway, with a bit of luck; just for a second his eyes flitted to the table and took note of the number of coins on one of the horses; we could recoup our losses here, anything beyond that's just a bonus I suppose.

"Six of hearts". Flicking his attention back to what he had in his hand, the cat felt his heart leap; hastily swallowing it back down, he cleared his throat as best he could and, laying out the next in sequence, played the first card he'd laid down all game,

"Seven of hearts". There was a second's silence and he dared hope he might go again before,

"Eight of hearts".

"Nine…" Oh well, better luck next time – it's just a game after all; with that thought now set firmly in his mind, the cat settled back in his seat and scrutinised his cards again, an idea beginning to swirl around in the nebula at the back of his mind as he suddenly saw, in this game, an opportunity to get something into the open that he hadn't had a chance to yet.

XXX

"And the bookie says", the was a tangible pause, all eyes on the card at the very top of the blue stack of cards, the deck Nessie had drawn the four horses from hours ago; with a sudden flourish the armadillo who'd dealt the deck out this round flipped it over, speaking as soon as she saw what it was, "the three of clubs".

"Arrgh", there was an agonised groan from farther up the table; Big had to bite back a snigger from the mortally-wounded look of Samson's face as the armadillo covered his eyes with one hand and let the other fall forwards, exposing the trio of card he hadn't been able to lay, "it's in my hand, I didn't play it".

There was a minor riot of good-natured ribbing and commiseration at his ill-fortune; as Big had discovered by now, at the end of the round the top card of what he now called the horses' deck was turned over as the bookie's card. If someone had played it, then their cartel scooped the bottom row of coins as they beat the bookie; if, however it hadn't been played, or was in the hand the dealer hadn't used, then the bookie's row kept the coins and no-one won, as Sam had just found out and was now being vigorously reminded by his partner,

"You and your bad luck", she hissed in his ear as he handed the cards in, thought there was a smile on her face as she tapped his arm, "at this rate we'll be going belly-up in a minute".

"Well at least we weren't the first", the armadillo retorted; a fair point, Big had to concede as he looked around the recently changed landscape of the playing table. Once a cartel ran out of money it did not, as the cat had first thought, get eliminated entirely – instead it fractured and the individual members of that cartel were absorbed by friends or neighbours, ensuring everyone could keep playing as long as they pleased. It had already gone midnight, of that the cat was sure, but he wasn't ready to call it a night just yet – after all, he had just helped the finances of his cartel by getting a horse home and landing a clean-sweep so they wouldn't want to lose his beginner's luck, and at the same time, there was the other reason he had for staying where he was for the moment,

"All right, all right", David, his cartel only just intact now, down to its last five or so coppers, spoke over the banter as he shuffled the deck, his turn to deal with Pockets and Lianne backing him up, the other two members of his triad, "settle down and let's see the next race off". With that he swiftly dealt out the whole deck and gathered up his own cards; with a look of disgust, however, he hastily set them down,

"I'm changing from that rubbish; you start Gavin".

"Nice", the slightly younger armadillo spoke as Paula suddenly stood up, the baby monitor at her elbow suddenly squawking, Jess obviously disturbed a little. Folding her cards face down on the table, the squirrel gave an apologetic, awkward grin,

"Sorry, I'll just see to her; Sam, you want…?"

"…to wait for you to get back – yes I do", the armadillo answered with an accepting smile, glancing around the table as everyone else seemed to settle back a little more, a short pause before the next round began, "come on, with my luck if I play two straight hands we'll be bankrupt before you get back. Go sort out her Majesty and then get the feather-duster you call a tail back down here". Luckily for the sake of expediency Paula didn't argue, merely crossing the hallway as light on her feet as she always was, pulled open the door at the entrance and disappeared through it quietly.

The unexpected recess allowed the cat to put the finishing touches to his plan at the same time as everyone else relaxed a little, folding down hands of cards as they exchanged some small talk with neighbours and other members of their family. Indeed, most of the talk seemed to be directed at the partner of the Mobian who'd just left to attend her baby daughter,

"So Sam, sorry I never got chance to talk to you earlier", looking up, Mighty's youngest uncle found himself being questioned by Lianne, "how's the business going so far? Started up the extension plan you pair dreamt up yet?" The other armadillo remained quiet for a few moments; Big thought it looked like he was putting a lot of consideration into his answer,

"Not as such, but that's just because I'm having to build most of the new cages and such-like myself before you start taking the mick about me not organising anything", he said, a scathing glance whipping around the table as he did so before he broke it off and continued, "but as for everything else it's all going well; last count we had about two-dozen mogs and eighteen dogs sharing space with us, eighteen-and-a-half if you count the missus". There was a collective intake of breath, Gavin wincing more than most even as his son chuckled in a threatening manner, pointing at the baby monitor now sat silently next to Samson's small cartel, the number swelled to four due to refugees from bankrupt horse-racers,

"Hey uncle", as Sam looked his way, he elaborated, "that thing's not two-way is it?"

"Huh? Oh no – you really think I'd have said something like that if there was even a chance she might have heard me?" He gave a wry smile and rubbed the side of his jaw, "hard as it might be to believe I'm actually not as dumb as I look".

"Right you are Sam, that is hard to believe", Derek said smirking, his top lip curled back into a smile and betraying a few centimetres of worn canine teeth before the panther spoke once more, a little more curious and fishing for answers now, "but perhaps you can answer me this. I heard, just from hearsay mind, that you were thinking of tying the knot with Paula sometime soon?" No denying it this time; and there wasn't – no-one could have possibly said that the armadillo's face didn't spilt into a grin half a mile wide as he kicked into life, actually going as far as to point Big himself out as even as he finished his thoughts off; he looks happy as Larry about that;

"True as true can be mate; those two over there were there when we said it. Well, you tell 'em", obviously Sam wasn't sure the rest of his family would believe him if he didn't have a couple of witnesses to back him up, "what did the pair of us say just before our little girl snatched Roddy's crown off his head and took it for her own?"

Good point; Mighty quickly glanced to her side, hoping Bog would be able to cover for her this time; what did you say exactly, I haven't got a Scooby; thankfully though, she could breathe a sigh of relief as it looked the cat was going to answer for the both of them and she knew he'd be in a perfect position not to leave anything important out,

"Well, after a bit of the usual arguing", there were a few chuckles at this, even Sam himself not able to resist a self-depreciating grin as he realised that yes, he and Paula did spark up a lot of the time even when they were trying to be friendly, "Sam said he was just waiting for her to give him the word to get the whole show on the road, so Paula set him a dare; I might not be sure but I think it was something along the lines of 'us married before Jess turns a year and a half old or I use your back a bobsleigh next year', am I right?"

"Close enough, can barely recall it myself truth be told", the armadillo in question said with a shrug before turning slightly more serious, "but yeah, I intend to get the deed done a long time before that deadline I can assure you. At least that way she can't keep reminding me of it every chance she gets".

"Not that anyone would blame her for that, knowing your memory", a new voice cut in; Big recognised it and was able to put face to name in almost the same instant, but everyone else had to turn in their seats to see Peg finish her harsh croak, eyes never wavering from her relation's younger features, "too much you don't remember Samson, how that fine young squirrel's put up with you this long even I don't know, and why she'd ever want your hand in marriage is completely beyond me". There was a vicious harrumph from somewhere further along the table,

"You're one to talk", finally shoving his way to the table itself, Reuben managed to clear some space for himself and look his wife dead in the eye, "look what you, by your own admission, settled with for a husband. And how long have you worn my ring now – going on fifty years if I'm counting right? So then, how can you look at those two young fire-crackers and wonder why they've fallen base-over-apex for each other – you know what they say, opposites attract". Peg's answer was a dirty look but, thankfully, before she could transfer any of that into a verbal form there was a cough from Nessie's chair and everyone immediately fell silent; she out of the lot of them had kept her eyes on the far door the whole time and now that alertness came to the fore. As she slipped the door shut behind her, Paula sauntered back over to the table and retook her seat, looking around engagingly as she picked up her cards,

"Sorry about that, she's all tucked in now for the rest of the night – must have been all those sweets I didn't see her get for supper giving her a bit of a bad belly. Did I miss anything – in fact", she answered her own question after no more than a second's looking, shaking her head as she realised an honest truth, "don't answer that, I'm under no illusions that anything I did miss I'm better off not knowing. So then", suddenly her hand had move and a single penny was dancing up and down her knuckles at breakneck speed, the squirrel not even looking at her outburst of dexterity as she smiled, "Gavin, get them under starters order and then just set them off; something tells me this one's going to be my race".

XXX

Good, a nice long round; that was important and had been a crucial centre plank of his plan, if only because it mathematically increased the chances of someone having played the bookie's card and thus, enable him to get what he needed to get off his chest out into the open without too much duress. Even as Big looked on, apparently impassive as far as a casual observation would have seen, there was a triumphant call as, with an elaborate flourish, Gavin twirled his last card around his fingers before placing it, softly and with a great deal of mock reverence, onto the fuzzy felt of the table, atop his pile of smaller cards,

"Jack of hearts and out", there were several grumbles of malcontent as he smirkingly scooped the top row of coins, winking at the Mobian to his left as he did so, "bet you wish you never let me start now don't you Derek? Need a loan?"

"No we don't", Lianne answered for the panther, gritting her teeth at her insufferable in-law, "I've got the next hand, and I'll tell you now it will be mine, got it?"

"Be that as it may", David's voice rolled over the pair of them, hushing them into a state of semi-compliance at the same time as soothe Big's already ragged nerves, "the bookie may yet make this one mine; let's see", there was a second's pause as he reached for the deck of blue cards, the top one lifting up as Big tensed, already letting his recall accelerate and relive the race that had just been and gone with alarming alacrity – as soon as he saw the picture on the front of the card the panther turned over he knew,

"Nine of spades – hmm, not sure about that, think it…"; heh, guess you were right Sam – she is a good-luck charm to you;

"Nicely played Paula".

As he'd expected, the squirrel's head raised as she heard her name; letting out a slow breath, tinged with the hint of a chuckle as the irony of his last thought reached him a little, Big simply looked across neutrally as she cocked her head quizzically,

"What you mean Big guy?"

"It's there", he nodded at the small pile of cards in front of her, aware at the back of his mind that he was gaining more and more of an audience as this went on; just as well really – get this all over with at once, make it easier overall I suppose; "fourth card down in your pile – you beat the bookie". Is he having me on?; not quite sure if the cat was setting her up for an oblique sort of fall she hadn't predicted, Paula nevertheless reached down and carefully began to sift through her played deck; a mere fraction of a second later, she felt her eyes widening; I guess not;

"How?" She was at a loss to explain it – crikey, she'd been the one to actually play the card and even she'd forgotten she'd put it down, how had he remembered, "how'd you know that?" As she raised the card for all to see, thoughts of the bookie's stack lost for the moment, her body language along with that of the family she'd soon be married into simply demanded an explanation – as Big simply gave a knowing smile, she felt her indignation rise until, with a word, he soothed it once more,

"I'll show you", he said simply, beckoning across the table as he did so, "Derek, you're dealing next correct?" He already knew he was; the question was redundant but seemed to help settle everyone else down as the armadillo nodded,

"Umm, yeah, but what's that…?"

"Get the cards, shuffle them up then hand the deck to me – sorry but the next hand'll have to be a dead hand, that okay with everyone?"

So; even as he'd named her non-armadillo aunt Mighty had had and inkling of what the cat was up to and now, as everyone else swapped glances with neighbours before giving a unanimous nod of affirmation, she thought she could see exactly where he was going with this one. All was still except for the steady drifting noise of a shuffled deck until, apparently satisfied, Derek leant forwards,

"Okay, that'll do, one more for luck though", he quickly cut the deck one last time and offered it forwards, "Em, pass it back…"; how long you been room-sharing with him Derek?; despite the circumstances of what she was seeing Mighty couldn't help but smile as her boyfriend simply made the last part of his request unnecessary; simply by leaning forwards and extending his arm he loomed over half the table despite having to reach over the top of her mother's shell to do so. Deftly plucking the fifty-two cards from the grey-shell's hand, she watched him settle back and quickly fan through them at his own pace, neither too fast nor too slow, before with a snap for pure theatre, he formed the large fan to a solid deck once more and offered it forwards. As Derek reached for it, the cat spoke to him, simple instructions that let him know exactly what was about to happen,

"Don't shuffle any more, just deal them face-up as I name them; should be eight hands, nine if you include the ghost, oh", as he let go of the deck, Mighty couldn't see his face but she'd have bet anything that his face was lit with a wry smile, "and before we start, sorry".

As Derek made ready to deal, the cat once more sat back into a pose Mighty recognised as what she called his 'contemplation'; it was the way he often looked before starting a new drawing, or before the first cast of his latest fishing expedition; a few seconds out where he made sure his memory was perfectly clear in his mind before beginning his new task. She virtually saw the seconds snail past in air so thick with apprehension and confusion that it was almost solid before Big's voice broke through it,

"Right then, the eight of spades". Everyone looked a little perplexed for a second before, with a sudden 'oh' as he recalled the part he had to play in the proceedings, Derek quickly flipped the top card off the deck to land in front of him. All right then; she knew logically she'd had no reason to fret – after all, she'd seen his perfect memory in action a hundred times before, was reminded of it in the most illuminating way possible every time she visited the guardians in their home outside Echidnopolis, where The End of the Hunt rested on their wall like a the perfect, endless sunset of a second beautiful sun, but emotionally she was never quite as sure, was always a little tense that this would be the one time his memory banks came up with a blank cheque. However, as the lacquered rectangle of plastic came to rest, eight shovel-like pictograms easily distinguishable on it's surface, she let herself breathe again; from here, it's all academic;

"…the four of hearts…the ten of spades…the queen of clubs…"

XXX

For the first revolution of nine, she could tell, they hadn't been all that impressed; after all, remembering the order of nine cards, even after just a quick glance, wasn't beyond the realm of Mobian comprehension. However, the looks on their faces as Big began the second cycle made the only other Mobian, aside from Big himself, who truly knew the secret of his success at games such as this, have to wrestle down a smile, and when the cat eventually finished with a flippant,

"…and last but not least, the seven of clubs", the expressions of bewildered wonderment was enough to force a cheep of laughter out of her. Shaking her head, Mighty flicked her eyes sideways to see her dad sitting dumbstruck in his seat; now perfect or not, no way my memory's letting go of that one;

"Help m'Boab", Wull muttered into the awestruck atmosphere before looking at the cat once more, "ye canna be richt; it's no'possible…" Big simply turned his head to regard him,

"You want me to do it again? I can do this all night if I have to".

"Er...nay lad", after a second's thinking the co-owner of the hostel shook his head, his glasses flashing in the light, "nay, bu' I wouldnae mind ye tellin' us'a how ye did it. Was it sum kind'a magic?" Big shook his head, regarding them all with an air around him that ranged somewhere between proud and world-weary,

"No Wull, no magic in me I can tell you. All it was was just something I was born with; you might as well all know it, I have a perfect memory", he took a second to let that sink in, a very good idea in Mighty's opinion – it had taken a long time for the very imagining of such of thing, to say nothing of understanding the potential bad point of such a seemingly wonderful gift, to even beginning to become apparent to her, "it is, as far as I've ever used it, completely flawless. I remember everything, quite literally everything, and nothing short of a good whack on the bonce and a dose of amnesia is going to make me forget it and", he gave a chuckle, looking around the table with a twinkle in his eye, treating it all as a joke rather than a solemn announcement, trivialising it to prevent the assembled congregation from treating him any differently than the had over the past week or so; and I don't want them to – I've had one of the times of my life out here and nothing, least of all something like a little thing like that, is going to stop me reliving it again next year; "fatal as it might be to say this, I don't think any of you lot can stretch up high enough to get a decent crack at between my ears".

She thought she could see understanding just start to dawn on a couple of faces here and there but, just to make things absolutely clear, Mighty decided it would probably be for the best if she made her statement here and now rather than waiting until afterwards to get her point across, the Chaotix member stood up tall and made her feelings on the matter plain as day,

"It's true", all attention immediately snapped onto her and for a second she thought she might quail – the instant she laid eyes on Big's broad back, however, seeing the cords of muscle in his neck ripple as he looked over his shoulder at her, all ideas of bottling it left her completely and she finished what she'd started to say, "I've seen this for a long time and what he's saying is absolutely the truth. Big's memory is absolutely crystal, so from now on you've all got no excuses", steel suddenly replaced softness in her gaze as she swept the table with an imperious gaze, her next words charged with challenge and promise, "nothing you say, do or mention, even in passing, is going to get out of his head if he catches wind of it, so as long as he's about no throw-away lines about anything and certainly no deliberate attempts to get rid of either of us, do I make myself clear?"

There was no chance of anyone missing who she'd aimed the last part of that comment at though, as always, Stefan seemed to remain studiously neutral in matters as inconsequential as the feelings of others. Mighty didn't so much as look at him, as far as she was concerned he wasn't worth bothering with; instead it was only when she heard someone else speak up, the tone carefully considered and, quite surprisingly, a little contrite, that she focussed on something other than her immediate flesh and blood,

"Okay my lovely, no offence ever meant", drawing her walking stick up to her knees, Peg inclined her head as much as she was able to in the general direction of her relation's partner, "you really should have said earlier if you were worried about being offended, or even not turned up at all, that might have been best for you". Big gave a gruff snort of laughter, planting his hands on his hips as the venerable armadillo made a token gesture of reconciliation towards him,

"Not as far as I'm concerned; come on, compared to a holiday with the rest of my pride this is absolutely nothing", his smile showed that he was genuinely not at all offended by anything that had happened at the Steppes so far, something that most of the rest of Mighty's family now they knew his reasons for wanting to stay out of earshot of trouble if he could avoid it, were grateful for, "besides, I've lived with it for long enough to know how to cope with anything by now"; or at least; his vision misted over for a minute, his mind no longer concentrated on the congregation before him, instead centred on the armadillo just behind him; I do now someone opened my eyes and showed me how it could be done instead of just running and hiding like a coward. Much as he'd have liked to though, he couldn't afford to be lost in a memory and instead blinked, turning his attention back to the table and tapped Emily on the shoulder in the same movement, "so let's keep this night of horses riding; budge up there Em, my hand now, and before anyone asks, no", his whiskers twitched as he smiled again, "I can't count cards after they've been shuffled properly, so there's no way I can cheat at Newmarket. Though I am sorry I lost you a pair of horses Derek". The named armadillo crossed his eyes confusedly before realising what the cat meant and tutted, picking up the exposed cards next to him with a regretful sigh,

"Just my luck that is; still, never know what the next draw will turn up do you? Come on everyone cards in, the magic show's over", suddenly brisk and business-like, he tapped the cards on the table, making his demands plain even as he shuffled the ever-growing pile as everyone threw in the hands Big had flawlessly second-guessed, "the Big guy's right – for the rest of the night, we ride like there's no Boxing Day tomorrow!"

XXX

"That", Big said before becoming pre-occupied with finding his balance again; only when he was sure his swaying was under control did he pick up the thread of conversation once more, "is a hell'fa game".

"Is good", Mighty agreed with him before giggling, sheer overwhelming tiredness rendering the pair of them almost drunken in manner as they began to make their way towards the foot of the stairs with rolling, tottering strides, Mighty tittering most of the way at some joke or other, only breaking off from her internal joke-fest to speak once more,

"Scho, see you bachere next year, yeah? I mean", she drew herself away from him and up importantly, not realising the finger she held aloft in a would-be pompous manner was actually her thumb, "withee card trick you pulled just now, they'll be begging f'more. What's time, by the way?"

"Dunno, you've got a watch on", Big pointed at her wrist, swaying alarmingly as the move left him slightly overbalanced; as he once more fought with gravity for control of his basic motor functions Mighty glanced at her watch, then stared at it harder, trying to get the annoying blinking numbers to swim into focus with her almost teary, red-rimmed eyes; nah, no chance, but it is late, I'm sure I know as much as that. It must have been late as well; even Nessie had gone to bed about a half-hour before the two of them had decided to call it a night, leaving only a hardened dozen or so in the feasting hall still glued to the fall of cards and clink of copper coins deciding their fates. Groping blindly for the stairs, Mighty heard more than felt herself touch the wall and then following it, the rough layout of even the hallway she'd spent every Christmas she could remember in lost on her sleep-deprived mind now. Luckily though Big seemed to have cottoned on to her method of locomotion having much less of a risk of falling and the two of them made a strange sort of conga line as they crept along the wall towards the stairwell, the question of how they were going to get up it in their condition one as yet unasked for the two of them. Though, as Mighty's hand at last found the corner of the wall with an exaggerated 'aha' from the armadillo herself, it was an interesting proposition that would demand an almost ingenious solution to overcome.

One almost-ingenious solution later, a sort of three armed walk whereby Mighty kept a tight hold on the banister and levered herself up one step at a time, while Big held onto the sides of her shell with both hands and provided a little support of her movements before lumbering up after her, almost dragged there by the armadillo's prodigious body power, the two of them flopped onto the first floor like a pair of beached whales, breathing in like walruses running a marathon before, as the first to recover, Big stood up, something tickling the very edge of his hearing and he looked around for the source of the noise muggily,

"Might?"

"Hmm?" Drained brain not quite recovered enough to hold a full conversation yet, the armadillo simply hummed back her reply; not put off in any way by this, Big continued,

"You hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"That", Big repeated, trying his best to follow his ears towards the ghostly sound he could have sworn floated out of the blackness before him as neither he nor Mighty had been able to find a light switch between them yet, "dis way I think". Realising he was leaving her behind the armadillo hurried to keep up at the same time as strain her ears,

"I can't hear anything Big, 'cept my bed – 'Mi'hee', it's singing to me; eh, wait though", she came to a dead halt, standing erect as now, closer to the source, she finally managed to detect what Big's radar-dish ears had heard from the off, "you might be right – wha'is it?"

"Dunno", the cat said, shaking his head like a elephant bothered by flies before taking another stumbling pace down the darkened hallway, "reckon we autta find out tho, Bekka mi' need to know about it".

"True, 's very true", Mighty said with a nod that made her feel dizzy for a minute, blood sloshing around in her head before she sorted it all out again and set about tracking down the mystery noise again, "reckon we're right way, comin' from a room?"

"'Swat I thought", Big confirmed a second later, both ears pricked up and almost leaning forwards on his head, homing in on the sound he was sure he'd nearly pin-pointed; nah, scotta be this one; "reckon it's here. You do the talking, think someone might be cryin'". Thinking about this statement as much as she was able to, Mighty tried to put the snuffling, slurping noise she could now plainly hear into context and realise that yes, overall Big's assumption was probably a pretty accurate one, though it was a bit…

"Strange", in all probability Mighty never did realise she was talking out loud by this point, "who'd that be at this time? Still", raising her voice a little, she strode past where Big backed off to make room for her before looking back at him, "better sort this out, after all, we're both adults here". Even as Big was thinking about a response to that statement, the armadillo put actions above words and, after a small, perfunctory tap on the door itself, grabbed the handle at the second time of asking and pushed the door inwards, peering into the darkness within and speaking in an unquiet whisper,

"Hello, who's in here? Anyone need cheering up?"

The sound of the trembling, obviously tearful reply banished Big's tiredness to a degree, memories of his two sisters sounding in similar straits, and his comforting of them, in his younger years helping him out in this regard, a spur Mighty didn't have as she took a blundering pace forwards into the room itself, seeking for the youngster who answered her,

"A…Auntie?" Big would have backed himself to recognise the voice under normal circumstances but right now he was simply too tired to be able to, instead simply following in his girlfriend's footsteps and, as a result, being close enough to hear the response to her next question,

"Yep, tha's me, auntis through and through – who's this, and where are you?"

"Eddie"; thought it was you; he'd almost had it as well, that was the aggravating thing but the young armadillo's voice had remained irritatingly just out of reach until he'd answered her question, "I, I had a b… a bad dream".

Only the younger armadillo clicking on a tiny night-light next to his bed, the small illumination throwing the silhouette of his relative into sharp relief, allowed Big to stop in time as Mighty came to a dead halt, arms akimbo as she stared down at the bed, not recognising the commotion behind her as Big frantically tried to kill his momentum before he was forced to flatten her.

"Nope, not settlin' for that, no way", she shook her head before striding forwards again, not taking her eyes off her nephew as she reached the end of the bed itself, "you can't have bad dreams at Christmus, they're no'allowed – wha' was it, anyway?" Having finally got himself back under control and regain his balance, Big pottered towards the end of the bed as well, taking care in his movements to avoid waking Edward's elder brother, the snore of whom still droned through the still air of the darkened room from his bed, opposite his younger siblings,

"Can't remember", like everything else he'd said so far, Ed's answer was short and straight to the point, barely able to look up at the two adults in his room now – surely he was too old to suffer from nightmares now, "just woke up; didn't want to go down, it's mum and dads night". Hmm, okay; Big had an idea, now came the hard part – putting it into practice without making the youngster in front of him even more scared of him than he already was; right, take it steady and go from there;

"You're quite right there Ed, it is", Big agreed genially, his voice as soft as he could make it while still being audible; he approached a little closer to the bed itself, Mighty retreating to a chair piled high with rumpled clothing as he placed one hand on the end post of the bed, "but, lucky thing this is, I know a way to get rid of those bad nightmares, no bother".

The armadillo didn't answer, in all honesty the cat hadn't expected him to – instead he pulled his bedclothes put to his chin, staring at the cat wide-eyed, wary in the company of a stranger, despite the comforting presence of his aunt close at hand. For his part Big simply took a look at the state of both of Edward and the bed he rested in; luckily as far as he was concerned only tears wetted the pillow, the sound of the child's crying that had drawn both him and Mighty into this room like moths to a candle flame. Just as well really, the state we're in I'm sure trying to change a bed would be completely beyond even all three of us; just thinking about how tired he was made him have to stifle a yawn before he reasserted himself, focussing on the most important goal he had here.

"Okay, well let's get this thing going and you back off to sleep then", gaining a little more confidence as Edward seemed to relax, Big slid around the bedpost he was leant on and settled on the end of the bed itself, talking all the time, "all you need to do is just lie back and do a bit of imagining, think you can manage that?" There was a slight pause before the youngster, eye never leaving the cat smiling at the foot of his bed, began to slide down into his bedcovers, laying flat out about a minute or so later, obediently letting his eyelids fall shut at Big's gentle command of,

"Close your eyes, now", thinking up a suitable scenario in his head, the cat quickly settled on both the rhyme and something to go with it, "image this Eddie; your family's Scottish by descent so this is pretty relevant to you in a way – you're on a ship, one of the last ships to leave your shores, heading for the Isle of Skye with a priceless trophy on board. It's just after the rebellion, king Charles has fallen and you have to flee, the English are coming and they want revenge. So you and everyone you love is on board the last ship out of harbour, the wind and spray are in your hair as you watch the coastline fade over the horizon – see all that clearly?" He waited, a crucial pause before, with a look of slight concentration etched on his face, the armadillo prostrate before him gave a nod, seeing that and bringing the lines of the old song he'd read as a child, Big began to softly intone the first lines, lulling the child before him to sleep:

"Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wind,

On'ard the sailor's cry…"

It seemed to be working, already Edward had lost his look of concentration, his expression softening as he began to feel the pull of sleep at the back of his mind, a tug that only grew stronger as the song continued:

"…Carry the lad, born to be king

O'er the sea to Skye

Burnt are our homes, in exile and death,

Scattered the loyal men…"

He was fading fast, of that Big had no doubt; in fact it was becoming more of a battle to keep his own eyes open now. Still, as the last couple of lines came to his lips, he realised it was a battle he could soon afford to capitulate in; just as soon as I'm in my own room and got this armadillo off to sleep;

"…Yet ere the sword cool in its sheath

Charlie will come again".

With that, Big made to stand up, hoping he had enough power in his legs to do so; however, even before he'd made it to halfway in that regard, a murmur, the barest of murmurs that even he could barely hear, just about made it to his ears,

"Please", it was Edward, the armadillo's lips hardly moving as he breathed the words forwards, "sing it again". Sure thing; taking a second to smile, Big idly wondered if, years ago, he'd looked like this as his mother and grandmothers had sung him into slumber, before taking another breath and beginning to recite the old song once more, a phantom wind at his back and a rolling deck beneath his feet as, immersed in memory, he lived the rhyme as much as Edward did, and he loved every minute of it as much as any child could.

He actually didn't just finish with a single encore, he repeated himself three or four times just to be sure the little armadillo wasn't going to be revisited by phantom terrors in the darkness as he lay asleep; only when he was sure Eddie was completely spark out did he allow himself a pat on the back and, after collecting himself for a second, the strength to stand up, standing still against the sudden lurch of vertigo that accompanied such a movement so late at night.

"Heh", his words were a whisper from the corner of his mouth, aimed at the only other awake Mobian in the room, "worked like a charm; come on, we best get outta…" It was only then that his gaze followed his words and he was forced to double-take a little before then simply staring outright; okay, might have been wrong there; with a gruff sigh, the cat realised the form slumped in the chair opposite him, already gone and away with the fairies and then some; I am the only awake Mobian in this room. And it was true, Mighty was fast asleep and, tempting as it was, Big realised he couldn't wake her just to make her drag herself another few feet to collapse into bed again. So, after taking a second to memorise the layout of the room around him from the illumination of Edward's night light, the cat circled around the bed and, with a deft flick of his hand, pinched out the light itself, plunging the room into darkness once more.

XXX

Now this brings back memories; despite the grey haze of tiredness overlaying all his other senses almost to the point of amnesia, the cat couldn't help but smile at his sudden thought and relive those memories again, the buffering barrier of exhaustion making even the mnemonic pain less acute as he recalled the circumstances behind the last time he'd ended up carrying the armadillo now in his arms once more; not quite as sore as they used to be and for that I'm grateful. Guess I really do have something to thank you for; looking down at where his girlfriend was laid prostrate in his grip, a grin of true, genuine affection as he realised a truth in the matter; you were right – good memories really can bury bad news if you concentrate on them hard enough. Just as well really, I was getting a bit sick of trying not to remember anything at…hmm? A noise in front of him, sort of a mechanical whirr made him look up; as soon as he had done so he came to a stumbling halt, trying desperately to wipe his face clean of emotion at the same time as try to come up with a gracious apology at very short notice for the figure he'd come very close to running over without realising it. Killing the backwards momentum of her wheelchair with a deft flick of even her half-paralysed hand, Nessie drew her aged head up to look at both him and, he squirmed in embarrassment, her grand-daughter some generations removed as she lay comatose.

For a moment neither spoke, there was just silent communication raging between them, mostly apology as far as Big was concerned though Nessie's aged face was, as usual, pretty much inscrutable. Or a least, it was up until the point she smiled and drew her hands up into her lap,

"Now I've seen card tricks in my time Big, thousands of them, but by my reckoning your one back there topped the lot", slightly more relaxed now he knew he wasn't in trouble of any kind, the cat settled onto his back foot and let her finish, "so, you'll be going home with happy memories of the Steppes I hope?"

"Oh yes", the cat chuckles gruffly, unable to convey anything with his hands as Mighty was still filling them so hoping his words would be enough to get the point across, "and I won't be leaving for a while yet, something I'm extremely pleased about I can tell you – I'm looking forwards to later in the morning more than I can tell you". Nessie touched her chair forwards a little, ending up so close to the pair of other Mobians that all Big could see was the crown of her shell and her ears, though thankfully he could still hear her as well as he ever had,

"And you're not alone in that, this one you're carrying's usually the first one down to see the treasures Saint Nicholas has left for us all", suddenly she looked up, such a piercing gaze of scrutiny in her pale green eyes that almost out of instinct Big fell back a pace, shocked at the vehemence of love in that ancient stare of a mother and grandmother to countless children, "have you lain with her Big?"

Ah; hand on heart it hadn't been the last thing he'd expected, though that didn't mean he'd been able to prepare for it at all; can't help but be honest here, though I do wish my face would stop burning so much. Somehow the realisation that he could focus on the heat now threatening to set his thickened winter fur aflame calmed his hammering pulse a little and, taking a breath and trying to organise his divided and scattered thoughts, he returned her scrutiny with a look of honest openness,

"No, although", despite himself his voice lowered, his tone that of a child scolded for harbouring unsavoury thoughts, "I can't say I haven't thought about it…a bit". He knew how foolish he must have sounded and, more to the point, so did Nessie; his feverish mental plotting of ways to apologise was so frenzied that the sudden light touch on the tips of his fingers, only just able to transmit themselves through the material of his gloves, made his jaw drop, the undignified spectacle he must have made exacerbated as he actually saw what was causing such a sensation.

Nessie was patting his hand, the one supporting under her relation's shell, making sure Mighty didn't slip and go to the floor head-first.

He was thunderstruck, completely unable to comprehend what was happening; his perfect memory had come up with nothing to even come close to this sort of experience before and therefore he was blind in the light of this new sensation – didn't Nessie mind what he'd just said?

"I know Big", only her words snapped him back to reality; looking down again he saw her weathered, well-lined face crinkle into a smile bestowed with the wisdom only age could muster, "unlike yourself I've seen it all before; it was in young Samson's face when he was courting Paula, and in Stefan's when he made dear Emily his fiancé, hard as that might be to believe. I don't think what's in your mind is too far from hers either, truth be told". Understanding some of what she meant, the cat merely watched as slowly Nessie's hand crabbed its away from his own, moving up to caress Mighty's shoulder – though he couldn't be sure in the darkness clouding them all, Big would almost have sworn that she responded to such contact even through the veil of her sleep, a smile might have spread over her face and she could have rolled slightly, trying to get closer even as her grandmother withdrew her touch, settling back in her chair and drinking in a long draught of the oxygen she needed before speaking once more,

"It's the same every year Big; she did tell you about the little cards we'll keep under our pillows tonight?" Trying to stifle a yawn Big could only nod and, thus answered, Nessie carried on, hands in her lap once more, "Well, it's always my wish every year to last another, just one more time; force this old shell to get around to next Christmas and see more of my family grow up, maybe even find love and settle down, take things from there. You have your wish written?" Once more Big nodded, this time managing to speak as well,

"Oh yes, did it almost as soon as I heard about it", he assured her before leaning down a touch, voice a little more conspiratorial as he spoke again, "and, not meaning to give it all away, but I think something in our wishes might turn out to be mutually supportive, if you catch my meaning?" Nessie smiled, reached out to touch his finger one last time and then withdrew, directing her chair out of the way of the knackered cat and his comatose passenger,

"I'm sure I've got most of the message Big; well, I shouldn't keep you any longer, you both look like you could do with a rest, so do I come to that – not quite as young as I used to be you know", the comment was said with a youthful zest and forced Big to stifle a chuckle badly, the humour appreciated even if it was entirely probable that even he wouldn't be able to remember much of it in the morning through the shades of foggy exhaustion clouding his memory like breath over a mirror, "get yourselves where you need to be Big, who should have been Bill, after his father"; something tells me that tag's sticking with me for a while yet; "and thanks for carrying her, don't think I'd have been up to the job and this thing doesn't come equipped with a tow cable. Still, goodnight to you both".

"And you Nessie", he had been tempted to use her real name as a parting shot but, overall, decided it wasn't worth spoiling an almost perfect night with a little quibble like that; instead he simply inclined his head and strode past where she'd backed up to let him through, "I, in fact we'll see in the morning". She spared him a sideways look before her wheelchair engaged forwards drive and began to trundle away, disappearing into the night where her own bed no doubt awaited her eagerly,

"I look forwards to it; goodnight". Not as much as I do Nessie; even as he tried to recall exactly which door Mighty should be resting behind Big diverted enough of his extremely sorely taxed mental strength to cast that certainty in iron; not as much as I do.

XXX

"Okay then, there we go", a few minutes later, having had to solve not one but two tricky problems that had almost made his vision swim; having to fumble around in Mighty's pocket for her room key in the pitch black and then, once that kafuffle had been dealt with, have to somehow throw back the covers of her bed without putting her not-inconsiderable weight down had been enough to make the small part of his mind that hadn't yet been submerged beneath slumber screaming with frustration, desperate to join the rest of itself and get some much-needed shut-eye. Still, as he finally let Mighty flump down from across his shoulder and the armadillo collapsed onto the mattress, still as dead to the world as she ever was when she fell asleep, a little thing like falling from the fireman's carry the cat had been forced to manoeuvre her into in order to rake back the covers of the queen-sized bed he'd decided must have been hers, he reckoned it was worth it overall – if nothing else he'd have something to needle her with over breakfast. It was either that or leave you sleeping on your front-door mat Might; words such as those came to him even as, operating on auto-pilot, his body traversed from where it was leant down and haphazardly pulled the blankets up around her.

Having completed its work and then let his mind catch up with it, Big's body and mind once more acted as one to try and somehow find their way back to their own living quarters; before that, however, he paused, his eyes, engineered by nature to see well even in darkness, focussing on the face of the armadillo before him; after a second of looking his hand moved in on the act, reaching forwards with but a single finger extended, the tip of such a digit feathering a touch across Mighty's brow, the contact both chilling and thrilling to him as Nessie's words bubbled up from the back of his mind again; …thinking the same things I am…no, come on now; he shook his head, ignoring the frantic pitching of the room such an action caused; this isn't the time – it's time to get your own head down now. And a good start to that would be standing up…oh, wait...

It was a thought he never finished as by then it was too late; as he suddenly stood up tall having been stooped for so long, the blood drained from his head back down into his body even as he clumsily half-turned towards the door he was never going to reach as his senses, losing their oxygen for a minute, completely shut down. His knees went to water as his mind slipped for a minute and he half-fell backwards – he felt something soft underneath him, had the very vaguest of sensations as one of his ears was crushed into something soft and yielding and then, free will crushed utterly and a slave to sleep, he knew nothing more.

XXX

Ummm; waking up was never an easy thing to do as far as Mighty was concerned, there were always a few minutes of disorientation before all was right with the world again – today it was that she was resting at an angle, rather than at the horizontal position she usually had whenever she took her repose. Well, that and the droning noise that was rising and falling in pitch in her ear; even as she finally gave up and let her eyes open, the bags underneath them weighing her down like plates of cold rice pudding, Mighty wondered why reality still hadn't reasserted itself as she felt like her bed was on a slant – in fact it was only as she shifted a leg, seeking to stick a toe out from under the nice, warm blanket and try to work out how quickly she'd need to get dressed before she turned into a Mobian popsicle, that her common sense suddenly rebooted and made a couple of facts stick together in a way that immediately banished all thoughts of doing anything else for the immediate future.

Oh God; suddenly even breathing was something she had to remind herself to do; she remained as rigid as a board as she frantically tried to disbelieve what she was hearing and experiencing – she couldn't even bring herself to look to see how right she was. That task was instead left to one of her hands; slowly pulling it free from where it was confined under the blanket with the rest of her, the armadillo scrunched her eyes shut and slowly reached it behind her, knowing what she would feel even before her palm pressed into a warm, soft, squashy something that rose and fell in a steady, rhythmic pattern; this is me dead then. How had this happened, in fact, more to the point what had happened last night – as far back as she could recall there was something about going into the wrong room for some reason, a bit of a sing-song over something and then…nothing; did I fall asleep then? Yes, I must have done; it was the only thing that made sense, and the thrill of knowing that she was right was indescribable as, pulling her hand back, she realised she still had her gloves on – she was still fully clothed, had to be; because I didn't get to bed myself – someone, and I've got a good idea who; the conclusion made her smile as she teased a couple of long, purple hairs from her glove with her free hand; put me here, so everything's okay. And even if it wasn't, so what?

For the second time in two days the thought made her stop dead – running it back through her mind made her do two things, aside from blush; firstly, she chastised herself for giving the thought credence in the first place and, more importantly, she discounted possible scenarios and instead focussed on the situation as it was. After all, even to a casual observer it would have been patently obvious that everything had to be innocent; after all, she still had everything on and would have wagered good money that Big still did as well, and secondly she could feel that, rather than under the blanket with her, he was actually on top of them and still sleeping away merrily. And Bekka wouldn't be that harsh anyway – after all, I've never given her any trouble, well; that strictly wasn't true but compared to a couple of other pebbles in her avalanche, the tricks she'd gotten up to were relatively small fry; not enough for her to really bother with anyway. And dad, pah; she pulled a face as if trying to ignore a bad smell; forget him – I could be locked in a chastity belt and he still wouldn't believe anything except what he wanted to believe - I'll never win with him, so why bother trying? Instead, let's just enjoy what we've got…hmm….

A more calculating look on her face now as a plan began to formulate, Mighty reached behind her again, this time with more consideration on her face as she poked and probed for something she could grab hold of; just as the tip of her tongue began to peek from the corner of her mouth she stiffened with a muffled gasp of triumph – a minute later, Big's arm lay across her shoulder, his hand entwined with hers atop the blanket as she stroked his index finger with her thumb, a soft grin on her face before her expression hardened somewhat, a cross between regret and devil-may-care flippancy as she realised she'd be losing both her family records in the same Christmas; ah, but so what – no point being the first down if you can't open your presents until everyone gets there is there? So, sorry guys; the thought in her mind finally solidified into certainty, Mighty closed her eyes once more and willed herself back to sleep once more; you'll have to start without me. In the moments it took before she finally joined Big in the realms of dreams again, however, the armadillo was careful to wish each and every member of her family the happiest of seasons and spared a fleeting second to pray with utmost conviction that everyone she'd left behind in Angel Island was having at least as good a time as she was in their merry-making.

For that reason perhaps, it was for the best that Mighty was in the dark about the events that were actually unfolding upon the floating island itself, for in all probability had she known about even half of them it would have been doubtful that, even where she was, with her kith and kin all about her and the arms of the Mobian she loved around her, the spirit of Christmas and her own inner fonts of joy and wellness with the world could have continued flowing against the backdrop of the sorrows being unleashed there even now, as, blessed by her ignorance, she dreamed in peace again with Big where she wanted him, right by her side.

A/N: Well, I managed the deadline I set myself – this is going up the day before my interview; wish me luck everyone, I'm going for it big style! Sorry for the nasty cliffie just there, but consider it an advanced warning – the next follow-on fic from this one is not going to be a happy one.