“Papa, where’s Darla?” Wendy asked. She whined slightly.

Aaron looked down at the wolf and did his best to mask the irritation he was feeling. “She’ll be here soon.”

“But why couldn’t she come with the rest of us?”

A rude, but brutally honest answer flashed through his head, but in the interest of setting a good example, he said, “There was some confusion. Uncle Terry’s taking care of it.”

“She’ll be here before we have to out there, right?” The young wolf looked anxiously at the door.

“She will.”

Tiffany let out an amused huff. “We won’t be able to get Lisa out if she isn’t.”

Lisa’s spotted tail, which stuck out from behind the couch, twitched irritatedly. “Shut up,” she said.

“Be nice,” Aaron said. He knew Tiffany well enough to know she was nervous herself, even if she’d never admit it. She could handle crowds better than Wendy or Lisa, but they were dealing with thousands of people. Even her stubbornness couldn’t stand up to those kinds of numbers.

She wasn’t wrong about Lisa, though. She was the shyest of the girls, and didn’t do terribly well with crowds in the best of situations. If it came down to it, he’d just go out with Ginny, Tiffany, and Wendy. He wasn’t going to force Lisa out there without Darla.

Darla didn’t have problems with crowds. She loved them. She was a golden retriever, after all. And her confidence made her sisters more at ease. It was an old trick of show animals, and the main reason he had insisted on including a dog along with the more exotic animals the producers had wanted.

“Uncle Terry will fix it,” Ginny said, not looking up from the puzzle she was working on. “He’s smarter than the man in the red shirt.”

Aaron thought that if ‘the man in the red shirt’ had been smarter, they wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. He didn’t say it out loud, though. Ginny was almost guaranteed to repeat it at the worst time.

Terry slammed the door open, storming into the waiting room. Darla trotted in behind him. Wendy immediately ran to her sisters side, rubbing muzzles with the dog. Ginny and Tiffany were more restrained, but also went to greet Darla, and even Lisa poked her head out from behind the couch.

“Jungle cats and fricking wolves are okay,” Terry snarled, “but the golden retriever’s not allowed because it’s against the rules. Of all the idiocy… I was this close to gouging out my own eyes so I could claim she was a service dog!”

“I’m sorry?” Darla said, uncertainly.

Terry took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. “It’s not your fault, Darla. The man had more rules than common sense. Normal dogs aren’t allowed in the convention hall. He didn’t seem to realize that you being a panelist makes you an exception.”

“Are normal tigers allowed in the convention hall?” Tiffany asked.

“Normal tigers aren’t allowed in the city, so they don’t have specific rules for them here,” Terry explained. He turned to his brother. “Is everybody ready? We’re already late.”

“Now that Darla’s here,” he said, giving the dog’s ears a scratch. “At least as ready as they can be.” He looked over the four animals gathered around him, and Lisa, still behind the couch.

“There’s going to be a lot of people here,” he told them. “More than you’ve ever seen before. But they’re all friends. They’ve all seen our show, and they just want to meet you in person.”

 

The first half of the panel went better than Aaron had expected. Brad Walker, the Jungle Man, was hosting. And as long as he was asking questions, the animals were content to largely ignore the giant crowd watching them.

When they reached the audience Q&A portion, however, he could see the girls all tense up. Except for Darla, of course, who got up and walked to the front of the stage, her tongue hanging out in a doggie grin.

A teenage girl approached the microphone, slightly nervous. She wore a tiger-striped hoodie, complete with ears.

“Hi, um. I’m Stacey. I love the show. Tiffany’s my favorite.” She gave a little giggle and gestured at her hoodie. “Well, obviously.”

“You have good taste,” Tiffany said.

Stacey laughed a little more. “Thanks. Um… I was wondering, what do you think about the Jungle Labs fan fiction?”

“There’s Jungle Labs fan fiction?” Aaron asked. A chuckle rumbled through the audience. “Seriously, though. I haven’t really looked into it myself, and the girls can’t read yet.”

Terry pulled his microphone slightly closer to himself. “I would like to remind any aspiring writers out there that the girls are only children,” he said, his voice amused. “So keep it clean, okay?”

The next person was a young man, dressed in a Jungle Labs t-shirt.

“My question is for Wendy and Tiffany,” he said. “Do you ever miss real hunting?”

“Do you?” Wendy replied.

The young man laughed. “But your both, like, apex predators. Don’t your instincts ever make you want to catch your own food?”

“Wendy would probably starve if she had to catch her own food,” Tiffany said with a huff.

Wendy stood up, growling slightly. “Would not.”

Aaron cleared his throat loudly. Wendy turned her head sharply away from Tiffany, then walked over to take the pillow Darla had been using earlier, which was farther away from Tiffany.

“The girls spend a lot of time playing games designed to appease their instincts. I don’t think most of it gets on to the show, though.” He looked at his brother, who nodded.

“When they’re playing on the paddock, they look like pretty much any animals playing. If people are interested, though, we can put some up on the website. What do you say?” Terry held his hands out invitingly to the crowd, who cheered. “All right. I’ll see what I can do. Who’s next?”

A middle-aged woman. Compared to most of the con-goers, she was dressed almost formally; she wore a long, black skirt and a red blouse. She walked up to the microphone with a business-like edge to her steps.

“What gives you the right to play god?” she demanded. “What gives you-” Aaron couldn’t make out the rest, as her mic was suddenly cut and she was drowned out by the boos and jeers from the rest of the audience. A red-shirted security officer stepped between the woman and the nearest audience members, even as his partner started escorting the woman out of the hall.

Aaron held up a hand for silence, but the crowd was too worked up. He saw Darla retreat back to her sisters, who all moved closer together. Except for Lisa, who was hiding under his chair.

He spoke anyway.

“Ma’am, I am always willing to engage in civilized discussions about the ethical ramifications of my work. But this is a fan convention. If you want an interview, I’d suggest you go through official channels.”

She glared murderously at him, before the security officer continued walking her out. When the doors swung shut behind her, the crowd burst into applause.

“All.. all right,” Brad Walker said, “What’s the next question?”

Advertisements