"You're on!" Chris flashed his brother a confident grin. "There's no way you're going to find more zebra-tailed lizards than I am. I've got a full analysis of their habits right here – it'll lead me straight to them!"
He waved his Creature Pod tantalizingly in front of his brother's face – a move he instantly regretted when Martin deftly plucked the communicator from his hand and, holding it just slightly above Chris's head, began to scroll through its contents. A teasing grin and a removal of the Creature Pod to a level even farther out of his reach were all Chris got for his efforts to snatch the device out of his brother's grasp, but eventually, the older Kratt relented.
"Pretty impressive, bro," he acknowledged, handing it back, and Chris felt a small glow of pride overtake his mild feelings of annoyance. "You know..."
He trailed off unexpectedly, and Chris, glancing up in surprise, was puzzled to see his smile fading, a tiny crease appearing between his brows. The younger brother wasn't quite sure what to make of the uncharacteristic expression, but he did know that he didn't like it one bit, so he decided to try a little gentle teasing of his own. "What's the matter? Afraid I'm going to win?"
Martin shook his head quickly, the frown vanishing as Chris had hoped. "No way. I've just got to think like a zebra-tail. Besides–" Shifting his gaze a little to the left, he matched his brother's earlier grin with one of his own. "I've got something you don't have."
The grin widened. "A head start."
Chris whirled around. Squinting in the bright sunlight, he could just make out a trim little reptile, almost perfectly camouflaged against the desert soil save for the distinctive black-and-white tail curled over its back. Pushing itself up on its slender legs, the lizard eyed the brothers warily, its tail now waving from side to side like a tiny flag. Then, without warning, it turned and bolted, skittering away across the sandy plain in a surprising burst of speed. Martin gave a whoop and sprinted after it.
Chris stared after him for a moment, then shook his head, chuckling to himself. "You'll never catch him," he called to his brother's retreating back, but of course Martin knew that. He was running for the sheer joy of it – and perhaps, Chris realized belatedly, a touch of competitive spirit. "Guess I'd better get a move on," the younger Kratt mused, although he wasn't really worried. Martin could more than hold his own when it came to creature knowledge, and his methods, though occasionally rather unorthodox, were generally very effective, but Chris was confident that his more analytical approach would put him over the top. Pausing to consult his Creature Pod once more, he headed off in a slightly different direction than the one his brother had taken, the one that – statistically speaking – should possess the highest concentration of zebra-tails. The race was on.
Chris paused at the mouth of a small, wooded canyon. He'd had quite a bit of success on the surrounding slopes, but the more abundant vegetation and the small stream running through the ravine made it unlikely that he'd spot many lizards down here. Still, the shade was inviting, a good place to cool off with a long drink of water after chasing around in the hot desert sun. Wiping his brow, Chris settled himself against the trunk of a large cottonwood tree and uncorked his canteen. His eyes roamed over the surrounding rocks and trees as he drank, always on the watch for any creatures that might be nearby, but everything seemed to be quiet.
Perhaps too quiet. The younger Kratt frowned. It wasn't uncommon for desert-dwelling animals to retreat to their burrows and dens during the midday heat, but this stillness had an unnatural quality, one that sent a faint prickle up the back of his neck. Replacing the cap on his water bottle, he stood up abruptly and began to move farther into the wash.
He was almost on top of them before he realized what he was seeing: a pair of cougar kittens, not more than two or three months old, their spotted coats blending in with the leaf litter in the dappled shade. They appeared to be engaged in a bout of playful wrestling, their oversized paws wrapped around each other, one set of tiny teeth nipping at a wayward tail. Chris drew in his breath with a hiss, understanding all at once both what was wrong with the scene and why it was that he hadn't noticed them earlier. The cubs were not moving.
Chris's lips tightened. Glancing farther up the ravine, he saw his suspicions confirmed by the familiar pink jet parked near the water's edge, and a small sigh escaped him. He'd known it was only a matter of time before they ran into Donita again, but he had hoped for his brother's sake that they might be able to put it off a little longer. But abandoning the young cougars was out of the question – and besides, he had to admit that there was definitely something to be said for simply getting this first meeting out of the way. Withholding another sigh, he pulled out his Creature Pod and hailed his brother.
"Looks like we've got a creature rescue on our hands," he reported, fingers flying as he keyed in his coordinates. "Two cougar cubs in suspended animation. Donita's got her jet parked down here by the stream, but I don't see her or Dabio."
He thought he saw his brother flinch, just slightly, but it could have been a flicker in the transmission. In any case, all Martin said was, "I'll be right there."
Martin quickened his pace as he neared his brother's location, his heart thudding unpleasantly in his chest for reasons that had very little to do with the effort of navigating the rocky terrain. Truth be told, he'd had a bad feeling about this adventure from the start, but he couldn't tell whether there was actually anything unusual amiss or whether it stemmed from what he considered an extremely cowardly desire to avoid seeing Donita again. He'd vowed not to allow what had happened between them to interfere with doing his job, and he intended to keep that promise, but there was no denying that it had been a lot easier to focus when the possibility of coming face-to-face with her wasn't lurking in the back of his mind. It doesn't change anything, he told himself sternly. And those cubs need your help.
Cresting the ridge that bordered the wash on that side, he felt his stomach give a nervous twist in spite of all his resolve as he caught sight of the pink jet perched on the gravelly bank, but it was the scene closer to the mouth of the ravine that stopped him dead in his tracks, almost paralyzed with horror. Chris was bending over the cubs with his Creature Pod in hand, absorbed in conducting some kind of bio-scan and completely unaware of the fully-grown female emerging from a clump of bushes behind him. From her narrowed eyes and the way she was lashing her tail, two things were very evident: she was the cubs' mother, and she was not happy.
Martin snatched his own Creature Pod from his pocket – nearly dropping it in his haste – and hurriedly rang his brother's device. "Hey, bro!" came the cheerful greeting. "I–"
"Shh!" Martin hissed sharply. Chris broke off, giving him a puzzled glance. "Don't make any sudden movements," the older brother warned, his voice barely above a whisper, but crystal-clear in its intensity. "Mama cougar at 6 o'clock. Repeat, mama cougar at 6 o'clock."
Chris's eyes widened, the smile wiped from his face, and Martin felt his own eyes being drawn skyward in the fleeting, desperate hope of spotting a peregrine falcon whose creature powers he might borrow to swoop down and get his brother out of there. But the vast expanse of blue above him remained clear and empty, unbroken by any shadow of wings, and he reluctantly turned his gaze back toward the ground.
"I'm on my way down," he assured his brother, starting down what seemed to be the most direct path to the bottom of the slope. "Just turn around very slowly and–"
"–try to back away from the cubs," Chris finished, nodding. The terrible, frozen look was gone, and Martin could almost see him scrolling through the myriad creature facts stored in his encyclopedic memory, pulling out the ones he could use to formulate a strategy. The younger brother nodded again, giving his sibling a small smile. "Got it. See you soon." Cutting the call, he took a deep breath and began rising slowly to his feet.
Making his way down the incline as quickly as he dared, Martin felt his stomach twist once again as he watched his brother turn to face the angry female. He was sure that Chris's plan was a solid one – the two of them were no strangers to dealing with agitated creatures, after all – but the cougar is one of the most fiercely protective mothers in the animal world, and the younger Kratt was walking a very fine line, needing to retreat without provoking her chase instinct, while simultaneously making himself appear both too insignificant to be a threat to the cubs and too intimidating to be prey.
He seemed to be managing it, however. Drawing himself up to his full height, he spread his arms and legs wide and held his ground for a moment, then lowered his hands, assuming a slightly more submissive posture, and began to edge away from the cubs. The mother allowed him to retreat a short distance as she glided swiftly toward her offspring, but on giving them a nudge and finding them unresponsive, she let out a distressed whine, then growled low in her throat and began to pursue him.
Martin had been approaching cautiously, trying not to alarm her further, but it was manifestly too late for that now. Breaking into a run, he charged down the embankment, waving his arms and shouting at the top of his voice in a frantic attempt to draw her attention away from his brother.
For a moment, it appeared to have worked. Flattening her ears, the mother turned and moved a few steps in his direction, her teeth bared in a snarl. "Come on, come on," Martin urged her under his breath. Another step, and Chris, seeing his opportunity, made a dash for a nearby tree, grabbing hold of a low-hanging branch and swinging himself up onto it.
But whatever relief Martin might have felt was extinguished almost immediately as the mother, apparently unwilling to relinquish her original quarry, turned back toward the younger Kratt with a menacing growl. One quick leap, and she was beneath the tree, swinging her powerful forepaw toward the human she believed to have endangered her cubs. Chris let out a cry of pain as her claws raked across the back of his leg.
"No!" Martin's anguished, answering cry echoed off the surrounding rocks. Chris was scrambling up the trunk, trying to get himself out of reach, but his injured leg buckled under his weight, and he slipped, barely managing to catch hold of the lowest branch to avoid plummeting to the ground. Clinging tightly with both hands, he tried desperately to hoist the rest of his body up onto it while the cougar paced below him.
Lungs burning, muscles screaming, Martin raced toward the pair, faster than he had ever run in his life. He had to get to Chris, had to help him somehow, but the distance between them didn't seem to be getting any smaller, and suddenly he knew, with a cold certainty that almost brought him to his knees, that he would never make it in time.
But he still had one move remaining, one surefire way to distract her. It was crazy, possibly bordering on suicidal, but what else could he do? Letting out another yell, he pivoted and changed course, heading straight for the cubs.
He thought he heard, as though from a long way off, the sound of Chris's voice screaming out his name, but he couldn't think about that now. Every ounce of his attention was riveted on the mother as she started toward him with another terrible snarl, every movement a reaction to hers. If he drew back too soon, she would lose interest in him and turn back to Chris as she'd done before. Too late, and... well, he preferred not to dwell on that.
Five more steps, Martin told himself, praying that he'd bought his brother enough time to make it to safety. Three more... two...
He hit the brakes, sending up a shower of pebbles as he skidded to a stop a scant few yards from the cubs. Fighting the overpowering urge to simply turn and bolt, he held his position for a few seemingly interminable seconds before beginning to back away, retreating slowly and deliberately in the opposite direction from the tree.
The mother paused in her advance, eying him suspiciously. Martin met her gaze as steadily as he could – a last-ditch display of a strength he was far from feeling – but he could see the powerful muscles under her tawny coat, coiled and ready to spring, and he felt his own muscles tighten in response, equally prepared to dodge the attack.
All at once, the ground between them seemed to come alive in a wriggling mass of spotted fur. The startled female jumped, not forward, but back, wide-eyed, as the cubs came hurtling toward her; the next moment, she had launched herself at them with a volley of ecstatic purrs, licking and pawing them all over as though to assure herself that they were all right, while they snuggled into her comforting warmth.
The undeniable tenderness of the scene brought a soft smile to Martin's face as he watched, even though he knew that he and perhaps Chris were still in very real danger. The little family seemed so absorbed in one another, however, that he thought it just might be possible to slip away and rejoin his brother without being noticed. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he began shifting his weight to his back foot, but before he'd taken even a single step, the mother glanced up sharply, her golden eyes flashing. Martin froze, hardly daring to breathe, as she directed a long, penetrating look at him, then back at Chris. At last, she turned and, giving her cubs a final nuzzle, led them away into the underbrush.
Martin stood gazing after them, held fast by wonder and amazement, until the tip of the last tail had disappeared from view. Then, letting out a long breath, he turned and began hurrying toward the tree, where Chris, who had been cautiously making his way down from the higher branches, now dropped to the ground, his trademark skilled landing deteriorating into an awkward semi-collapse as his wounded leg gave way beneath him.
"Chris!" Martin put on a final burst of speed, almost falling to his knees at his brother's side. His normally bright brown eyes wore a slightly glazed expression, and Martin bit his lip, hoping desperately that he wasn't going into shock. "Chris?" he called again, more softly, as he reached out to place a hand on his shoulder. "Bro?"
The younger Kratt jumped. "Martin... I... you–" Chris shuddered convulsively, burying his face in his brother's shoulder.
"It's okay," Martin whispered, although he too was shaking. "It's okay." He hardly even knew what he was saying, pure older-brother instinct taking over as he struggled to absorb the full impact of what had just taken place, and it was only the knowledge that Chris was still bleeding that induced him to loosen his hold on his brother. He drew in a deep, slightly ragged breath, then another, fighting to hold back the tide of emotions that threatened to overwhelm them both. "Let's– let's take a look at that leg of yours, huh?"
Chris nodded and sat back, extending the injured limb with a wince while Martin dug the first-aid kit out of his pocket and set about cleaning and examining the wounds. He worked in silence for a few minutes, both brothers lost in their own thoughts once more, but the familiar – perhaps too familiar – motions carried with them a sense of normalcy that was oddly soothing, and he soon felt his hands growing steadier, the specter of what could have been receding for the moment in the face of practical necessity.
"Well, it could've been a lot worse," he reported at last, sitting back on his heels with a relieved-sounding exhale as he reached back into his kit for a roll of bandages. "You're probably going to need a few stitches once we get back to the Tortuga, but it doesn't look like there's any major damage. He gave his brother a crooked smile. "But no more tree-climbing for a couple of days, at least."
Chris nodded absently, and Martin noted with affectionate amusement the intent expression that meant that he was puzzling over some question or other. Injury or no, the younger Kratt was never one to leave a mystery unsolved for very long. Sure enough, as Martin began wrapping a final layer of gauze around his brother's leg, Chris's head abruptly snapped up. "How did the cubs get free?" he demanded.
Martin blinked, a bit taken aback. Honestly, the question hadn't even crossed his mind until now. He'd been stunned to see the cubs suddenly come to life, and almost dizzy with relief when their mother had decided to put an end to the confrontation, but once she and her babies had vanished into the underbrush, he'd had no time for analysis, no thought to spare for anything but Chris. "I… don't know," he started to say, but even as he spoke, he found his gaze being drawn back upstream with the dawning realization of what must have happened.
Donita was standing beside the jet with the controller in her hand, watching the two brothers with an odd expression on her face. When her eyes met Martin's, she smiled, ever so slightly. Slowly, almost unconsciously, he got to his feet, the roll of gauze trailing forgotten from his hand, and for a long moment neither of them moved or spoke.
"All ready, Donita!" Dabio's cheerful voice shattered the silence.
Donita gave a start. She looked down at Martin for another moment, then turned slowly, deliberately, back toward the jet, sauntering up the ramp in her high-heeled boots. When she reached the top, she paused, throwing another smile over her shoulder – a smile much more like the confident, slightly flirtatious one she usually wore – and fluttered her fingers in a tiny wave. Then the doors closed behind her and she was gone.
Chris let out a long breath as the aircraft streaked off across the sky, growing smaller and smaller in the distance until it was lost from sight. "Why'd she do it?" he wondered aloud. "Did she want us to feel like we owe her one?" He cast a sidelong glance at his brother, the teasing note of weeks past now conspicuously absent from his voice. "Or do you think she really...?"
Martin shook his head, his eyes still on the last lingering wisps of vapor that the jet had left behind. "I don't know," he said at last, turning back to Chris with a rueful half-smile. "And I'm not sure I ever want to find out."