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It had been Claude's first shore leave in a long time. The Lesonians were getting antsy again all of a sudden, so all hands were needed on deck. He'd been worried about Rena's reaction when he'd been away for such a long with so few opportunities to get messages sent back down to her. He wouldn't have blamed her if she'd been furious with him - especially leaving her alone with a young child to look after! He'd managed to get some time off for his daughter's birthday this time, however, he was a little worried the child wouldn't even recognise her father at this rate. No, there were going to be serious words when he reached the doorstep. He'd have to tread lightly if he was to be forgiven at all...

He hadn't expected to open the door to find the whole house swarming with kittens, puppies, rabbits, birds, small spherical drones with cute stubby little arms and legs, and one delighted small child cackling with joy at the three puppies who were rolling around on the floor with her, two of them licking her face, the other determined to remove her left sock with his teeth.

"DAD! Uncle Noel's been!" she explained. Rena, coming in from the kitchen with a tray full of cakes, one of which was immediately stolen by a kitten, gave him a long-suffering sigh.

"I'm sorry, Claude. All the animals had litters. Or clutches. I think those birds have clutches...? I'm not convinced Noel actually understands how to keep an eye on the animals, to be honest, they didn't even have half of them on Nede."

The little girl grabbed a large puppy with long white fur and floppy ears, then dangled the surprised-looking animal in his face, "Dad, this one can be yours. We named it Ashlay. Mum said you had a doggy before and it was called Ratix so this is called Ashlay after Grandpa's other friend..."

"That's sweet of you, dearest, but he wouldn't like it on the ship. Can you look after him for me?" Claude smiled, looking down at a drone who rammed into his foot a couple of times, beeped, then tried to pour tea down his leg.

"Oh, of all the... Precis said that was fixed now!" Rena sighed.

"I see some friends have been round," Claude lifted the child up onto his lap, to her delight.

"And Ashton let me pet Gyoro and Ururun, and Chisato showed me the pictures she's going to put in her paper, and - guess what - Celine called me pretty!"

"You are, sweetie," Claude smiled.

"What did you get me? Did you get me something from space? Is it an alien space egg?"

"I think that's enough pets for now," said Claude, "You're gonna have to clean up after all these, you know!"

"Nah, it's okay, the robots will do that."

"The robots are never allowed near a mop and bucket again after the last time," Rena intercepted firmly.

"Okay, Ashton'll do it."

Rena sighed again, then swatted yet another kitten away from the tea and cakes.

"I'm glad you haven't been lonely while I was away," Claude replied, trying not to add, exactly how often is Ashton around, hm?

"I haven't lost contact with my friends and I'm even getting involved in a lot of things outside of Arlia now," she explained, "Dr. Bowman hires me for my healing symbology, Leon pesters me to tell him how it works, Noel comes in with random exotic animals like I have the first clue how to treat their injuries..."

"In other words, I'm the only one alienating myself from our friends," Claude frowned. A puppy immediately appeared in his face to give him a vigorous licking.

"No being sad on my birthday! Cuddle Ashlay when you are sad!" ordered his daughter. He did as he was told, ignoring the dog's immediate attempt to eat his fingers.

"You have friends of your own from before you met me, though, right? And a responsibility to your family and your home world," she said, "It's like having a soldier for a husband would be back here, so I understand."

In all the stories he'd heard, the wife didn't understand, and often had affairs with dashing rogues who happened to pass through the area, but he disciplined himself not to say anything.

"Actually, I did bring you back a present," said Claude, "It's a snack from Tetragene - and a bottle of wine for mum!"