"Beloved"

Disclaimer/Author's Note: I don't own the Care Bears. I do, however, own Regal Heart and Stellar Heart. I realize that not everyone will like the idea of Care Bear Cousins getting married to each other…and believe me, I didn't care for the thought either at first. I know some of you are thinking "Ick", but aside from some fluffy romance, there is nothing to worry about. I still don't like the idea of original characters marrying…that's why I'm marrying two customs! It started out as creating a best friend for Regal Heart, but it just evolved from there and took on a life of its own. I hope you enjoy my story, and yes, there's lots more on the way…but if you read through and decide that you still don't like the idea, you can't say I blind-sided ya. As always, I will respect your opinions…but please, no flames. Now, I also don't own the song "You're Where I Belong" by Trisha Yearwood. I think that about covers it. Now…on with the story.

Morning dawned bright over the Kingdom of Caring; there was a slight nip in the air, as spring was still young, and winter had yet to relinquish its hold on the cloud paradise. Regal Heart Lioness stood on the back porch of her home, and thoughtfully sipped at a mug of chamomile tea. The steam from the brew mingled with her breath, which condensed upon hitting the chilled morning air. She gripped the mug not by its handle, but by its body, even though it was so hot that it almost burned her. Her paws were warm, even if the rest of her protested at the morning cold.

Regal Heart supposed it was silly, standing out in the cold like she was, but this was her last morning to take in this particular view, for she would be going to live in a brand new house with her soon-to-be husband. Tomorrow her view would be a different one.

As far as she knew, she and Stellar Heart Tiger would be the first married couple in the Kingdom of Caring. She had often wondered if Noble Heart and True Heart were married, but they had never said if they were or not, and she had never gotten up enough nerve to ask. She figured that she and Stellar Heart wouldn't be the last, though. Good Luck Bear seemed to spend more time on Earth visiting Polite Panda than he did in Care-A-Lot. Regal wondered if Brave Heart would ever pluck up enough of his renowned courage to ask out Proud Heart Cat…but her poor klutz of a brother always ended up hemming and hawing and finally commenting on the weather. The lioness shook her head ruefully. If he waited too long to ask Proud Heart out, the cat would move on.

Ah, but Regal Heart's mind was wandering now. She drained her mug, the warm liquid helping to quell a few of the butterflies in her tummy. She didn't need to wonder if Stellar Heart was nervous right now; as early as it was, he was probably still asleep.

……………………

Stellar Heart wasn't asleep. He was standing in front of his full-length mirror, trying to suck in his "gut". He had finally attained a more healthy weight, but he was so keyed up at the moment that he was suddenly finding "flaws" he never noticed before. His nose was "too big". His tail was "too long". How did his teeth look? Well, at least they were clean and straight. He tried on his bow tie, just to see how it looked, and it bounced up and down whenever he swallowed. He groaned at the sight of that. "What does she see in me anyway? I look like a striped fool…"

But, he reflected, it hadn't been his looks that had attracted her. He hadn't been handsome when he first joined the Family, though Regal claimed to think he was now. And why would she lie? No, it hadn't been physical attraction, at least not on her part. It hadn't been love at first sight, either, though it hadn't taken them long to fall into that welcome, mutual trap.

Stellar looked at himself in the mirror again, and decided that he was being silly. She loved him for himself, not how he looked…and he supposed he looked okay. He was just nervous. He just wanted everything to go right.

'Everything will go right.' he thought to himself, 'I know I don't have anything to worry about…It's normal wedding day jitters, that's all.'

Stellar Heart picked up his fur brush, and he brushed his coat until it shined, onyx stripes against an agate background. There was plenty of time before he had to be at the Hall of Hearts, so he kept himself busy by laying out his wedding clothes. He honestly didn't know why they were wearing clothes today. He figured it was symbolic or something, but it made him all hot and itchy. Still, it was only for one day.

"Itchy white frilly shirt…check. Black pants…check. Blue bandy thingie that goes around my waist, and I forget the name for…check. Black tuxedo jacket…check. Shoes…check. Bow tie…bow tie…uh-oh." There was an awful, panicked moment, followed by a frantic search. "Come on…gotta be around here somewhere…" He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and realized with a laugh that he was still wearing the silly thing. "White bow tie…still around the brainless groom's neck…check!"

He went down the list again, then again just to be sure, and finally he was satisfied that he had everything ready. He knew his vows by heart…after all, he had written them himself…but he went over them again. No problems there. He was ready.

……………………

Lioness and tiger separately made their way to the Hall of Hearts so that they wouldn't run into each other. It had been agreed on long before this that they would not see each other during the last twenty-four hours before the wedding. Grams Bear had said it was bad luck, and while they weren't particularly superstitious, they decided not to leave it to chance.

While Stellar Heart was getting dressed in one room, and trying to overcome a sour stomach brought on by his nerves combined with his breakfast juice, Regal Heart was getting ready in a different room. She had not yet gotten to the point where she was ready to don her wedding dress when there was a knock at the door. "Entre vou…" she called, still brushing her fur.

"Say wha…?" came a perplexed male voice from outside.

"Come in, Brave Heart." She clarified. She tried not to look annoyed with Cheer Bear, who kept getting in her face to fiddle with her "bangs".

"Well, why didn't ya say so?" mumbled the lion, opening the door and entering a veritable den of fussing and bustling females. "Hey Sis, you think I can talk to ya without the peanut gallery for a few minutes?" he asked, mildly teasing his many female friends, who pretended to take offense.

"Well, I never!" cried Cheer Bear, smirking. They all filed out of the room in a fluttering, giggling clump.

Regal Heart rolled her eyes. "My hero…I've been jabbed with so many straight pins this past week, it's not even funny…"

He laughed, coming over to hug her. "Nervous?"

She laughed shakily. "Are you kidding? How's Stellar?"

"Oh, well, ya know…he's a wreck, but I've never seen him look happier." He replied. He gave her a sentimental smile, and she could have sworn he was beginning to get a little misty-eyed. "Can't believe it…my sister…getting married."

She smiled back, and said, "You know, even after you and I had that talk the second day Stellar Heart was here, where you agreed to back off a bit, I still wondered if you were okay with it. You seem to have no trouble accepting it, and I know I'm asking this a bit late in the game, but…how do you feel about this?"

His eyebrows lifted in mild surprise, but he saw how important his opinion was to her. "I was a little overprotective at first, that's all. You're the only sister I got, and if you did find someone, I wanted him to be a good one. It was just because I didn't know him well…"

"And…?" she looked apprehensive.

"And now that I do know him, I think he's okay. If you're askin' if I approve…then my answer is yeah." he smiled, "He'll treat ya right, and he's over the moon for ya."

She hugged him again, and when she spoke her voice was thick with tears. "Thanks, Bro…that means a lot to me."

"Hey, anytime…" he hugged her back, "but does my opinion really matter?"

"I'd marry him, whatever you thought, but it still matters to me…" she replied.

And she would, too. He had no doubt about that. "Listen, you do whatever makes ya happy, hmm?"

"Uh-huh…" she nodded, stepping back and wiping her eyes.

There was a knock at the door, followed by True Heart's voice, "Regal, honey, it's time to get ready."

"Okay." she called back, hugging her brother one more time. He gave her a peck on the cheek and left, and Regal Heart was once more hemmed in on all sides by a sea of female Care Bears and Care Bear Cousins. She didn't mind it, and she did need help with the dress.

……………………

No Heart gazed into the swirling, bluish fluid in his cauldron, and waited for the opportune moment to make his move. While the Care Bear Family had been planning for the wedding, No Heart had been plotting to ruin it. Normally he had no interest in sabotaging their little family events, but this was something special. And with special events came special problems if something important went missing…say, the bride not showing up for her own wedding.

Theoretically, the lioness's character would be under scrutiny…and this should cause discord among the family when those who took the bride's side rallied to her defense in her absence. It wasn't foolproof, of course, but the sorcerer did have a backup plan.

"Ah…good, they've left her alone for a few moments…BEASTLY!"

"Y…y…yes, No Heart?"

"Don't go far. I shall return shortly with your charge." Said No Heart.

After his first encounter with the lioness, and subsequently with her protective oaf of a brother, Beastly did not relish the thought of keeping an eye on her. On the other hand, he didn'' want to be used for target practice if he refused. The strange creature nodded his head, and said, "I won't mess up this time, boss!"

"See that you don't, Beastly…see that you don't." No Heart's voice was low and dangerous.

……………………

Regal Heart looked at herself in the full length mirror, and she was amazed by her own transformation. She had always been cute in the Care Bear Cousin way…but in that dress she was beautiful. She had worried that a wedding dress would look ludicrous on her, but her worries had been unfounded. She had always felt undeserving of Stellar Heart's compliments on her looks, but now…

"I hope I don't give the poor boy a heart attack!" she laughed, and her nervousness melted away. She turned away from the mirror just in time to see a tiny beetle morph into the last man she expected or wanted to see.

"No Hea—" she was cut off as he blew a green powder into her face. She held her breath, but it made no difference; she had already inhaled the disagreeable stuff. Her eyelids began to droop. 'Not again…' she thought.

No Heart didn't stop to gloat over his prize. He caught her as she fell forward, and heaved her unceremoniously over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Carrying her thus, he walked through the full length mirror and was gone.

……………………

The wedding procession had already begun, and Stellar Heart stood expectantly…and nervously…at the altar. Love-A-Lot Bear would perform the ceremony, and she was already in her appointed place. Noble Heart would be giving the bride away, and Stellar's best man was none other than Brave Heart Lion.

All in all, the tiger felt very good about this. He was nervous, yes, but his excitement was even greater. Little Tugs, the ring bearer, was nearby. Baby Hugs, in her little flower girl dress, was making her way down the aisle, dropping pink and white rose petals on the floor and smiling widely. The wedding march began…this was it. Everyone turned to see the bride…

They waited…and waited. Stellar Heart felt his stomach drop. She had missed her cue.

Noble Heart appeared in the doorway…alone. The music stopped, and the silence that followed only served to magnify the sounds of Noble Heart's footsteps and anxious panting as he hurried down the aisle. When he got there he swallowed with a convulsive clicking noise, as if he had been running.

"Wh…what's going on?" Stellar Heart asked shakily.

Noble Heart leaned forward and whispered, "Now, Stellar…don't panic…but I can't find Regal Heart."

"What do you mean?" the tiger whispered back; it hadn't quite registered. Why wouldn't they be able to find her?

"I mean, she wasn't in her room!" Noble Heart replied in what was meant to be a whisper, but the Family heard it anyway. A murmuring tide of voices rose and fell and rose again, and for a moment all was confusion. Stellar felt his heart climb up into his throat, and it never occurred to him that she could be hiding out somewhere. If he himself was here, he knew she would intend to be too…unless something had happened to her.

"Maybe the poor dear got nervous…" suggested Grams Bear, hesitantly. Somehow she didn't believe the words, even as she said them.

Stellar Heart shook his head firmly. "Not her."

"Maybe she accidentally locked herself in the ladies room." Suggested True Heart in a discreet whisper.

"Good thinking!" said Noble Heart, and the next ten minutes or so was spent searching for Regal Heart.

As he searched, Stellar Heart prayed that she would suddenly turn up with some silly comment about walking into a closet by mistake and having the door close on her. That would be something they could laugh about; it would be better than her showing up only to say she thought this was a mistake. Or worse, not showing up at all. But ten minutes passed without any sign of her, and Stellar Heart could feel bitter panic rising.

Tender Heart came around the corner and nearly collided with the tiger. "Ooh, sorry…any luck?"

The tiger shook his head, his eyes so wide that the whites showed all around. If he had had any luck she'd be with him right now, and he almost told Tender Heart so.

Tender Heart took a breath to calm himself; he considered the lioness to be a good friend, and he was just as worried as Stellar Heart. "Maybe she got nervous; it happens sometimes. She's probably sitting and thinking somewhere."

Stellar Heart shook his head, his expression both warning and weary at the same time. By now, he had repeated himself several times. "She wouldn't do that. Not to me, not to anyone. When she has a problem, she says so. I'm nervous, and I want to go through with it; she should have no problems compared to me. She's too strong for that."

"Then where could she be?" asked Tender Heart before he thought about how it sounded.

"I don't know!" cried Stellar, throwing up his hands and looking as if he might cry.

"All right," Tender Heart gripped his shoulders, his face apologetic, "let's just keep looking. She's bound to turn up."

"Yeah…okay…" Stellar nodded, and they resumed the search.

But Regal Heart didn't turn up. She wasn't anywhere in the Hall of Hearts, and no one had seen her leave. Stellar Heart hated the looks of pity his friends were giving him, and he had a terrible job not to panic. He refused to believe she had left him at the altar, but then that would mean something had happened to her. He didn't even want to consider that…in fact, what he really wanted to do was to sit down and cry. This was his wedding! And he had no idea where his bride was. He wasn't even permitted the luxury of tears; he had to find her.

……………………

"I suspected as much…" No Heart growled quietly as he gazed into his cauldron.

Beastly stood a few feet away, guarding a small, fluffy-white form that lay curled up at his feet. The lioness was asleep still, and her wedding dress made it look like she was lying in a bubble bath, with only her head, her paws, and the tip of her tail visible. Beastly could hardly believe he had ever been intimidated by her. Not that she had ever tried to physically harm him, but he hadn't enjoyed being chased by her that first night. It had been fun chasing her with a tarantula in return, if only her stupid brother had kept his big nose out of it. He nudged her lightly with a clawed toe, but she just slumbered on.

"Beastly!" No Heart said sharply, and the creature jumped.

"No, Yes Heart? I…I mean, yes, No Heart?" stammered Beastly, wincing at his faux pas, but No Heart hadn't seemed to notice.

"I want you to put that creature into one of the broom closets while I compose a message for those cutesy Care Bears." Instructed the sorcerer, gesturing towards Regal Heart as he turned his back in dismissal.

"Right away, Boss!" Beastly saluted, and grabbed one of Regal's paws. He grunted and strained, trying to drag her from the room, but he wasn't very strong. No Heart turned and glared at him, and he tried to heave her up onto his shoulders, but it was no good.

"Beastly!" No Heart roared, and with a strength born of terror, Beastly lifted her into his arms and bolted from the room. No Heart rolled his eyes, and set about writing a certain letter.

……………………

"Ooh…uhh…boy, somebody needs to go on a diet…" panted Beastly, dragging the lioness by her arms. He finally managed to get her inside a cramped little closet, where he collapsed on his knees beside her, huffing and puffing. When he had said someone needed to go on a diet, he hadn't necessarily meant Regal.

"Beastly!! What could possibly be taking so long?"

"Ah! Coming, No Heart!" Beastly called back, leaving Regal Heart where she was on the floor of the broom closet. In his haste to obey his master, Beastly forgot to close the door all the way.

……………………

No Heart looked up as Beastly entered the room. The sorcerer held in his hand a letter, one that he didn't bother sealing in an envelope. "Ah, there you are. You are to deliver this letter to the Care Bears…Make sure they read it; better yet, read it to them yourself."

"Me? But…what does it say?" asked Beastly.

No Heart sighed. "It is a ransom note of sorts." What else could it be? But he supposed it would be expecting too much to think that such a thought should occur to Beastly.

Beastly grabbed the letter and ran out to his favorite mode of transportation; a combination bicycle and helicopter. What was he getting himself into? No Heart had done many things to the Care Bear Family, but he had never ruined a wedding before. Beastly had a feeling he was entering a viper pit.

Shrieky came into No Heart's throne room, and asked her uncle, "Uncle No Heart, where'd Beastly get to? He's been going through my things again!" The girl brandished her mirror.

No Heart chuckled. "Oh, I think he's about to receive his punishment…"

……………………

Half of the Care Bear Family had left the Hall of Hearts to search for Regal Heart. Those who remained were not looking for Regal herself, but for clues on her disappearance. Improper or not, Brave Heart and Stellar Heart were going through her dressing room.

"No note, nothing…" said Stellar, "I know she would have at least left a note if she were having second thoughts."

"She wasn't." replied Brave Heart, "I talked to her not too long before it was supposed to start, and she seemed all excited about it."

Stellar continued to search for clues, fully believing that she was in some sort of trouble, and that they were wasting their time in here. He turned to inspect the dresser, and as he crossed the room, his foot made a peculiar skidding sound as if on sand. "Hmm?"

"Did you find something?" asked Brave Heart, looking over.

Stellar Heart stooped to look more closely at the floor, and he gingerly rubbed the pad of his index finger over the tile. He raised it to his face, and saw that it was covered in some sort of green powder. He carefully sniffed at it, and an almost overwhelming sense of drowsiness came over him. He had enough presence of mind to open a window, and the chilled afternoon air revived him immediately. "Brave Heart…" he said, almost in despair, "I think Regal has been kidnapped."

……………………

There was no doubt in anyone's mind that No Heart was behind the kidnapping. How to get her back…that was the question. Stellar Heart was all for storming the castle to get her back, and Brave Heart stood by that decision with complete conviction, but Tender Heart advised caution.

"He'll be expecting us, and you can bet he'll be laying traps." Tender Heart told them.

"We can't just sit here while my wi—" Stellar Heart checked himself, and amended, "while she's in danger!"

"We—" Tender Heart began, but his words were cut short by a crashing noise that came from directly outside. The next moment the front door of the Hall of Heart's swung inward, and a small, furry creature peeked in, looking more than a little bit nervous.

"Mr. Beastly?!" chorused most of the Care Bear Family.

"Where is she?" demanded Stellar Heart, who was looking like the direct opposite of his mild-mannered self. His voice, which was a smooth baritone when he spoke in normal tones, was made rough and threatening with his anger and worry. This was a creature who wouldn't normally say "boo" to a goose, and his family was briefly surprised…but not greatly surprised. Beastly visibly flinched.

"No Heart sent me with a message. Um, you ever heard the phrase 'Don't shoot the messenger'?" asked Beastly.

"Where's my sister?" roared Brave Heart, striding aggressively forward, and Stellar Heart wasn't far behind.

Beastly quickly unfolded the letter, somehow managing not to drop it, and began backing up as he read aloud.

"Care Bears,

I, No Heart, am in possession of something that, I believe, belongs to you. Here is my ultimatum; stop interfering with my work on Earth, or you will never see the lioness again. If you help so much as one human child, I will terminate her life. Do not bother coming to retrieve her; she is not in my castle. Agree to my terms, and I will consider returning her. I will expect your signed agreement within twenty-four hours.

Signed,

No Heart"

Beastly then did the most natural thing in the world; he dropped the letter, and fairly ran for his life. Twin roars split through the silence as lion and tiger gave chase, but Beastly was long gone.

"Rrraaaagh!" snarled Stellar Heart, bringing his fist down on the side of the building and gritting his teeth. "Coward!"

Brave Heart restricted himself to a growl as he picked up the letter and read it through for himself before crushing it in his paw. Stellar Heart hadn't had much contact with No Heart, so he had no way of knowing that this was a strange move or the sorcerer to make. Maybe No Heart was "re-staking his claim" on Regal…he had kept her locked in his broom closet for twenty-one years. Even so, it made no sense. During their many subsequent meetings, No Heart had shown no particular interest in Regal. It was a puzzle indeed.

"We can't let him keep her!" declared Stellar Heart, whirling to face Brave Heart, his ears laid back and his eyes wide, "He has no right!"

By now the Care Bear Family had joined them outside, but no one reached out to comfort Stellar Heart; he looked completely feral, and they didn't exactly like the way the fur on his neck had stood up in a ridge. They had seen him possessed by many different moods; sorrow, affection, curiosity, contentment, even the rare moment of clownishness…but never such pure, unadulterated rage. He was literally shaking with it. No Heart had taken from him his reason for smiling and laughing, his reason for getting up in the morning…his Regal Heart. And he intended to get her back, whatever the risk to him might be. "We can't…let him…keep her!" he said again.

Brave Heart clenched the note in his fist and folded his arms, tucking his fist into his armpit and drumming the fingers of his other paw on his bicep. "I don't intend to."

……………………

"Ah-choo!"

Her own sneeze jolted her out of a sound, dreamless sleep, but she couldn't tell where she was. Regal Heart awoke disoriented, with a nagging feeling that she was supposed to be somewhere. Was she late for something? She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry; her throat was lightly coated with dust. She could smell dust in the air, mingling with the acrid smells of cleaning fluids and turpentine. If she didn't know better, it smelled uncommonly like a…

"Broom closet?" she mumbled sleepily moving her head a bit and peeking with one eye. She was in almost perfect darkness, except for one vertical sliver of sickly yellow light, which illuminated a mostly-empty bottle of Lysol Disinfectant. "Peachy…"

Regal Heart sat up slowly; she wasn't in any pain—she didn't even have a headache—but she was so groggy that she could barely move. 'And why do I feel so heavy?' she thought to herself as she flexed her limbs. That was when she realized, and exclaimed aloud, "I'm wearing a wedding dress!"

All at once, everything came flooding back. Today was her wedding day, and she had missed her own wedding! 'Poor Stellar Heart must be worried sick…' she thought, 'Either that, or he thinks I flaked out…'

"Fudge!" she hissed, tottering unsteadily to her feet…and when she saw the tiny black dots falling at her feet and skittering off into the shadows, she realized that she had been a living highway for a troupe of spiders. "Eeeeaaugh!" she squealed, dancing around in place and frantically brushing herself free of the offending bugs. "Eew, eew, yucky, eew! UGH!"

She suddenly clapped her paws over her mouth, realizing whose broom closet she was in. She gave a short, quick shiver, as if a glass of ice water had been poured down her back. She had to get out of there!

It was deathly quiet in between thunder claps, and she could hear no signs that she had been overheard. Much more awake now, Regal tip-toed over to the door and peered through the tiny crack. The corridor was empty save for a few guttering torches, which threw the heavy granite blocks that made up the walls into sharp relief. Quiet as a church mouse, she began her quest for freedom; she slipped through the door that Beastly had forgotten to close and lock, and stole away into the semi-darkness.

……………………

It was a unanimous agreement that No Heart must be keeping her at the castle; after all, where else would he put her? If they didn't find her there, they honestly didn't know where else to look. The Care Bear Family, minus Grams Bear and the cubs, piled into a literal squadron of Cloudmobiles and set off for No Heart's castle. They would not sneak in through the back door, and they would not break up into search parties. They would get her back as quickly as possible…provided they could find her.

Brave Heart was livid. The audacity of No Heart, thinking he could use the lion's own sister to try to force them to give up what they did, what they were! Ruining her wedding, and threatening to kill her if they didn't comply! And not even delivering the message himself. It was simply out of the question for them to withdraw any and all versions of their help towards the children of Earth…but they couldn't let him harm her. Not if they could stop it. Brave Heart looked briefly over at Stellar Heart, and he had to admit that he was surprised.

A year ago the tiger might have despaired about ever seeing her again, but now…Now the determined set of his jaw and the way he stared intently ahead spoke of a strength he probably didn't even know he had. All the tiger could see was Regal Heart. If they weren't able to save her…well, he just wouldn't let himself think about that.

'I'll find you, Regs…' Stellar thought, his ears rotating back to show the white spots, 'He won't keep you there, I promise…'

But what if she wasn't there? The thought crept unbidden into the tiger's mind, but he forced it back out. She was there. She had to be.

……………………

"Beastly! Didn't you remember to lock the closet door?!" roared No Heart. The sorcerer was standing beside the open broom closet door, pointing an accusatory finger at the tiny chamber.

Beastly cowered back, trying to defend himself, but doing a very bad job. "I did! I swear! That is…I…"

"Aaargh, when am I going to learn not to rely on you?! If there's a brain cell in your head, it's dying of loneliness!" No Heart grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, and brought him up close to his face. "If I don't find her, you will be scrubbing the castle from top to bottom with your toothbrush…then you will brush your teeth!"

Beastly coughed a bit as No Heart released him, taking deep breaths to steady his nerves.

No Heart transformed into a large purple crow, and with a vengeful "caw!" he flew off in search of his missing captive.

……………………

"No, this isn't the right way either…" muttered Regal, having turned to her left only to find herself in a blind corridor. "This means I have to backtrack…again." She put her paws on her hips, and sighed. Her dress was only slightly dusty from her little nap on the floor, but it was heavy, and it itched. She wasn't sure if it was the fabric itself that made her itchy, or the remembered fact that she had been a spider highway not long before. She hoped it wasn't the latter. Regal Heart turned to face several different directions, but she didn't go anywhere. No closer to getting out than she was ten minutes ago, she was well and truly lost.

"Which way to go? Which way?" she said to herself, tapping her chin with a finger. Then, facing outward from the blind hallway, she turned left. She was not going in the direction from which she had come, but the opposite direction.

Suddenly, she froze. There was a strange sound not too far off, a sort of whispery flapping sound. She saw no place to hide, so she flattened herself against the wall and held her breath. Maybe it would go away, whatever it was…

But it didn't go away. The sound got nearer and nearer, until she could hear it quite clearly. Bird wings. Not bat wings. Bird wings. In a castle filled with bats. She realized too late that she should have made a run for it. Her breath escaped her in a strangled "huh!" sound as a purple crow appeared at the end of the long hallway. The sight of that crow gave her chills, for she knew who that crow was.

"No Heart…" she whispered. She had met him several times since her awakening two and a half years before; in fact, she had found herself almost looking forward to their first meeting until it had actually come. She had stopped short at the staccato rise-and-fall of his laughter, and she was so flooded with memories of her human parents that while her Family had Stared and Called their hearts out, she could do nothing more than fall to her knees and shake, half-fainting. As frightened as she had been, though, she had been secure in the knowledge that her family was there with her.

Now she was alone…with No Heart. The sorcerer took on his man form, and strode at a leisurely pace towards the terrified lioness. She took a step backwards…then she frowned. He was enjoying this! He wasn't hurrying at all, because he knew that she couldn't escape. She couldn't hope to take him on her own, but if he was going to get her anyway, she was going to make him earn it!

"No Heart!" she called out to him, holding her ground and tipping her chin a scant inch higher, the better to look up at him. "Explain yourself! Why am I here?"

"Why, I am holding you for ransom, my dear." He chuckled, "Your safe return in exchange for your family puling their help from the people of Earth."

The lioness smirked in spite of herself. "And I suppose, should they meet your terms, you would keep your part of the bargain?"

"Certainly not." he sounded disgusted by the very notion, "In fact, you'll be dead before they even get here, but I don't intend to tell them that until it is too late."

'Cripes!' she thought, 'Gotta stall for time; they're sure to come, if I know my brother…'

Out loud, Regal said, "Why didn't you just kill me in the first place?"

"I was deciding whether or not that would be in my best interests, and until I had decided, I had intended to keep you under that sleep spell, renewing it as needed, since it was temporary. Unfortunately, I misjudged the dosage, and you awoke too soon. You also managed to go quite a good distance on your own before I even noticed you were missing. I'm afraid you're just too clever to be allowed to live. You may take that as a compliment if you wish." He said mildly, mockingly.

She scowled. "To quote Captain Hook, 'I want no such compliments'! And your plan won't work. Whether you honor the deal or not, and that's if they even choose to make it, they will never stop caring! And neither will I!"

No Heart's red eyes narrowed, and he folded his arms in the sleeves of his robe. "And how will your fiancé feel if he never sees you again?"

She couldn't help it; a gasp escaped her. No Heart had hit a soft spot, and he knew it.

"Oh, yes, I'm sure he would make quite an argument to persuade the others to submit." He continued.

She hoped he was wrong! "You leave him out of this…and while we're on the subject of life and death…" she narrowed her own eyes, "Why did you kill my parents? They had nothing to do with you.

No Heart seemed perplexed. "Who…?"

Regal Heart growled impatiently, and yelled, "You know who! Eric and Danica! You killed them! You came, you demanded my name, and you killed them!"

"Ahhh, yes…they were in the way, you see." he replied.

"How?" she demanded, "They were too terrified to move!"

"You misunderstand me, lioness. They had obviously been acquainted with you for some time." he told her, "You and your kin spread love and caring to every human being you come in contact with. Oh, there are some exceptions, I suppose…But I could tell by the way they carried themselves that your goodness had poisoned them. So, in terms of the big picture, they were in my way."

Regal could feel the sting of tears, but she forced them back. "You make it sound as if my family and I are saints or something. We're not. We have several very human foibles, even though we all started out as animals. Grumpy Bear complains as a habit; Playful Heart loves practical jokes a little too much; I have a temper, and I sometimes find it difficult not to swear. None of us are perfect little angels, and there was no need to kill my parents!" her voice broke, and one tear did escape; she brushed it away angrily. She noted that No Heart had stopped advancing sometime during her speech, and was listening with mild interest. She continued, "You think me incapable of hatred?"

His blue eyebrows rose a bit, and she imagined that his expression, hidden by his cowl, was one of amusement. "You hate me, little one?"

She could see the gears in his head turning, but she knew she couldn't lie. "Sometimes…yes."

"Only sometimes?" There was a definite note of suppressed laughter in his voice now.

"The rest of the time…" she took a deep breath, and her next words were probably the truest words she had ever spoken. "I pity you."

His eyes widened in sudden fury. "Pity…me?! Pity me! How dare you!"

"I dare." She said levelly, her tummy symbol glowing beneath her wedding dress, not harming the fabric one whit. "I do pity you, because the way you are now, you can never be happy. How sad for you, No Heart." She was pleased to note that he was frothing mad now. "But I suppose we've wasted enough time. I'm tired of fearing you, I'm tired of hating, of pitying, of running. So…" she squared her shoulders, and her symbol glowed again in anticipation of a standoff. "If you're gonna kill me, come and get some. If not…" her eyes narrowed, "shut your daggone trap!"

"Why, you wretched animal!" he roared, and horror of horrors, he transformed into a mammoth spider! Seeing her expression, he laughed crazily. "Oh, yes, Beastly told me of your little phobia…Death by venom. Interesting way to go, no?"

"No!" she shouted her reply, and let loose her Call. 'Interesting' was definitely not the word she would have used, and she wasn't prepared to go quietly. No Heart emitted a low moan of pain, but continued to advance on her. She backed up, her expression grim. She would not be able to hold him off for long. "Stellar, I'm sorry…" she whispered, feeling herself beginning to tire. They could only hold a Stare or a Call for just so long…

No Heart almost had her. Regal Heart did not close her eyes.

"Care Bear Countdown!" came a voice from somewhere behind No Heart.

"What?!" No Heart whipped around.

"Brave Heart!" cried Regal, smiling widely.

"Four…three…two…one…" counted Brave Heart, and more than thirty voices cried out, "STARE!"

The light from their Stares and Calls was blinding, and No Heart threw up one hairy foreleg to protect his face, screaming in agony. He half-turned, and ground out, "I should have killed you outright!"

Regal mustered up a saucy grin, and replied, "Lesson one; never stop to mince words with the enemy."

"Rrrr, I HATE YOU ALLLLL!" bellowed No Heart, turning into a crow again and fleeing for the safe recesses of his throne room.

The purple spots from the glare of the Stare had hardly begun to fade from Regal's eyes when a pair of arms went around her, and she found herself being crushed against someone's chest. Her arms went around the unseen Bear or Cousin of their own accord, and when she breathed in and detected the scent of Old Spice cologne, she knew who it was. This was all in a split second, and the next moment the chest she was pressed against began to shudder silently.

"Stellar…please, don't cry…" she said gently, patting his back as the Family clamored around them, impatiently awaiting their turns to hug her and cheering loudly.

"I thought I'd lost you!" he said, covering her face with kisses, not at all ashamed of himself.

"I'm fine." she told him, hugging him again and kissing him gently. Then she stepped back, and was swept into her brother's embrace.

"Sis!" he cried joyfully.

"Ooh!" the lioness gasped, or at least tried to, "Ugh, Brave Heart, sweetie, Regal can't breathe…"

"Sorry." he released her, smiling.

"I hate to break this up," piped Grumpy, "but shouldn't we be going?"

That brought everyone to their senses, and they hurried out to the Cloudmobiles and into the air. Stellar Heart was so happy to have Regal back, safe and unharmed, that he hardly cared about the wedding being ruined. As long as she was safe, there could still be a wedding.

It was getting late; at four-thirty, the reception should have been winding down by now. Most of them thought that Regal wouldn't be up to it that day, but when True Heart mentioned it the lioness said, "Are you kidding?"

Stellar looked hopeful. He too was concerned about her, more than anyone in fact, but he had already waited a long time to make her his wife. After such a scare, he was more than grate ful to have her, but the thought of waiting even one more day made his heart sink with disappointment.

"If he's up to it, so am I." Regal grinned.

If he was up to it… "Are you kidding? I've been waiting all day!" he laughingly countered.

……………………

Lioness and tiger stood side-by-side in front of Love-A-Lot Bear who was to marry them. Regal's dress had been brushed free of dust, and this was the first time Stellar had seen her in it. The drive back didn't count; in their hurry, he hadn't really had a chance to look. He was struck by how beautiful she looked to him, and by the air of quiet dignity she had as she stood beside him. Regal indeed! When she glanced over at him and smiled, his heart began to hammer in his chest, but from love, not nervousness. He was so absorbed with just looking at her that he nearly missed his cue. Recovering quickly, he said, "I will."

Love-A-Lot was the only one to notice, but she smiled and kept it to herself. "And now the couple will recite the vows they have written for each other. Stellar Heart, please face Regal Heart…"

They turned so that they were standing face-to-face, and joined paws. Stellar Heart cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and began to speak.

"What can I say to the one who means the world to me? Regal, you have been my best friend since day one, and I can hardly believe my luck…today, you're about to become my wife. I honestly don't know what I did to deserve you. I arrived here confused, and very distrustful of any attempts to win my friendship…you, however, wouldn't let me cower and hide. You reached out to me, and you refused to give up on me. That first night, when I finally opened up a bit and told you about what my past was like, you put your arm around me to comfort me. I didn't recognize my feelings for what they were at the time, but it was at that moment that I fell in love with you. Without you, I don't know where I'd be now. How privileged I am to have you by my side…I just hope I can make you as happy as you made me. I promise to always be true to you; I promise that I will always be there for you, as you were there for me. My best friend…my love…my wife."

It was at that moment that Regal was sure she had chosen right, and she took a moment to make sure her voice would be steady when she spoke.

"Stellar Heart, I'll never forget the day I met you. There you were, a brand new Care Bear Cousin; frightened, alone, and full of anger. Rather than make your feelings known, you played your cards extremely close to your heart at first. It was this secrecy that drew me; I knew there was much more to you than you let on, and I wanted to know you for the gentle creature that you were, and still are. I suppose I made it my mission to crack that shell of yours…and I'm so glad I did. You were so sweet and shy, it was impossible for me not to love you. Since that first day, you've come a long way. And as I got to know you, I realized that there had been something missing in my life…you. And now here we are, about to be married. You've often told me that I am a comfort to you, but the feeling is mutual. Just as I listened to what you had to say about your past, you listened to me. You didn't judge me for what I felt, and while no one else judged me either, you actually understood. You'll never know what it means to me to have you, but I hope I can give you some idea. I promise to remain faithful to you, and I promise to continue to be there for you, just as you were there for me. My best friend…my love…my husband."

Stellar Heart looked a little surprised; they hadn't seen each other's vows, but the ending lines had almost been identical. She gave his paws a little squeeze, and he squeezed back, smiling down at her.

Love-A-Lot signaled for Tugs to give her the rings, and she said, "Now, Stellar Heart, please place this ring on Regal Heart's finger, and say, 'With this ring, I thee wed.'"

The tiger did so, and the process was repeated, with Regal Heart placing a ring on his finger as well.

"Regal Heart, do you take this tiger to be your wedded husband?" asked Love-A-Lot.

"I do."

Stellar Heart let out a breath he hadn't even known he was holding. Love-A-Lot turned to him, and asked, "Stellar Heart, do you take this lioness to be your wedded wife?"

Was she kidding? "I do."

"If there is anyone with any reason why these two should not be wed, he shall speak now, or forever hold his peace." Said Love-A-Lot. This was simply a formality, part of the ceremony, and not surprisingly, no one objected. Love-A-Lot continued, "Then, by the power vested in me by the Great Wishing Star, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Stellar Heart, you may—"

But they were already kissing, and a soft chuckle rippled through the room. Love-A-Lot shrugged, and said in an amused voice, "—go on kissing your bride."

The reception was also to be held at the Hall of Hearts, and though the food was cold, the atmosphere wasn't. Happy tears were shed, speeches were made, and the happy couple shared their first dance as husband and wife. Playful Heart, who was loving his job as the DJ (and under stern orders from Brave Heart not to play "The Chicken Dance"), stumbled on the perfect song for these two.

Stellar Heart's clammy paw betrayed his nervousness as he led his new wife to the center of the room at Playful Heart's behest. He wasn't the best dancer and he knew it, but he had been taking lessons from Harmony Bear, who was a patient teacher in spite of her mashed toes. He could easily have learned from Regal Heart, but he wanted to surprise her. Anyone could do the type of side-to-side-step slow dance, but for his wedding, he had wanted to learn real ballroom dancing.

The music began to play, and both of them smiled in recognition as Trisha Yearwood's voice filed the room.

"I am home now, home now

I've been waiting for forever to find you, to find you

Not alone now, alone now

'Cause you've taken in my heart from the cold

All I know is every time I look into your eyes

I know, I know, you're where I belong

I belong with you"

Stellar Heart dipped her, and she gasped in pleasant, giddy surprise. The room was filed with "Oh's" as the wedding guest took in the tiger's bold maneuver. When he straightened her again, she was laughing softly, joyfully.

"You're where I belong

And I know it's the truth

You're part of my heart

There's nothing I can do

Oh, you're the one who keeps me warm

My baby, you're where I belong"

No slouch Regal, she moved in perfect sync with him as they traveled across the buffed floor, nicely complimenting his dance moves with her own. She, apparently, had also been taking lessons from Harmony, because both of them knew exactly what the other would do. They didn't even have to think about it; they simply let it happen, and the others were staring at them in unabashed admiration.

"You're my first taste, first taste

Of the sweetest thing I've ever known, that I've known

You're my safe place, safe place

From a world that can be so cruel and cold

You're my harbor, you're my shelter

You're that welcome smile

That lets me know I'm home"

In an unspoken agreement, the two of them stopped showing off and moved closer to one another. Regal pressed her cheek against his, and he closed his eyes as his heart gave a peculiar flutter.

"You're where I belong

I belong with you

You're where I belong

And I know it's the truth

You're part of my heart

There's nothing I can do

Oh, you're the one who keeps me warm

My baby, you're where I belong"

Now others were pairing up and joining them on the dance floor, and wonder of wonders, Proud Heart tapped Brave Heart on the shoulder. Regal had to smile at the dopey grin on her brother's face as he nodded yes, and she winced as the lion stepped on the cat's foot.

"You're the one I come to…yeah

To keep me from the cold"

"You're so beautiful…" Stellar Heart whispered.

"You're where I belong

I belong with you

You're where I belong

And I know it's the truth

You're part of my heart

There's nothing I can do

Oh, you're the one who keeps me warm

My baby, you're where I belong"

Regal Heart grinned against her husband's cheek, and whispered so closely to his ear that it tickled him, "And you…you're sooo Stellar!"

He chuckled and held her close as they swayed to the music.

"You're where I belong

You're where I belong

You're where I belong

I am home now, home now"

The End