Author's Note: Rated PG-13 for angst and dark themes. I don't own the Care Bears, but I do own Regal and Stellar. I suppose I'm starting to sound like a broken record at this point, but I'm too broke for a lawsuit. This is the first installment of the "Lucky Seven" series, and you'll eventually see why I call it that if you stick with me through the next several entries. Part of this was inspired by an online RP with Chibikan, drawing on a message against hatred, so she deserves partial credit here. Thanks for the ideas, Chibi! Thanks also to eagle205, for pointing out a few things that needed correcting. As far as I know, Chestnut County isn't a real place; I made it up. I wasn't able to find much information on the sentancing of animal cruelty offenders, so I had to make a guess at that too...I at least know that they generally don't get long sentances. Well...I think that's about it. I hope you like it.
On the morning of his first wedding anniversary, Stellar Heart Tiger happened to wake up earlier than usual. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and the sun had yet to show itself; Stellar yawned, snuggled up against his wife for warmth, and considered going back to sleep. Regal Heart smiled in her sleep, as if she sensed him beside her, and the tiger found that he would rather just look at her than go back to dreamland.
As he watched her sleep, an idea came to him. He had gotten her an anniversary card and a gift, but he wanted to do something special for her. He really wanted their second year together to begin with something good, but what could he do for her that he didn't normally do? Well, that was easy. Stellar wasn't a fan of cooking, since that involved using fire, but he had learned to cook while wearing oven mitts as an extra precaution. Since he had grown less skittish around the stove, he decided that he would cook breakfast this morning.
Regal Heart's head was resting on his arm, and Stellar Heart carefully slid a paw under her neck to support her head as he disengaged himself. The lioness twitched a bit, but slept on. Stellar smiled, slipped from the bed as quietly as possible, and tip-toed down to the kitchen. He got out two skillets, a carton of orange juice, three eggs, and five good-sized potatoes for making hashbrowns. He was actually a passable cook, but he normally preferred to prepare the ingredients and let Regal work the stove. This had absolutely nothing to do with laziness or an 'it's the girl's job to cook' attidude; fires, even 'controlled' ones, still made him nervous and edgy.
Once he had the potatoes peeled and grated, and the eggs scrambled in a bowl, Stellar put a little butter in each skillet and prepared to turn on the stove. His heart made a peculiar flip-flop as he reached for the dials, but he was used to this by now. He took a moment to remind himself that he knew what he was doing, and that he was the boss, not the stove. He pulled on his oven mitts, turned on the flame, and muttered half-jokingly, "En garde, Senor Estufa..."
Once he got started, the flame ceased to worry him. He put some bread in the toaster, and went back to the eggs and hashbrowns. Unfortunately, he had completely forgotten that the eggs would cook faster than the potatoes, and he had to put the bowl of scrambled eggs into the microwave for the time being. He turned back to the hashbrowns and flipped them over, grinning. He was beginning to think he was hot stuff until he smelled something that reminded him of charcoal.
"Hmm?" Stellar Heart sniffed the air a few times, and looked over his shoulder to gawp at the toaster. Smoke billowed from the bread slots, meandering its way up towards the smoke alarm as the tiger stood frozen on the spot. The smoke made the entire kitchen cloudy, and Stellar's eyes began to sting. He coughed a few times, and yanked the toaster's plug from the socket before dumping the now-smoldering toast into the sink just as the smoke alarm went off.
"Oh, great..." Stellar grabbed a chair to stand on, and wrestled with the battery panel. He had forgotten to take off his mitts, so he could barely hook his fingertips under the tab. There was too much padding, but he was more concerned with simply stopping the racket the device was making. "Shut up..." he hissed under his breath, "You'll wake her..."
"Stellar? Is everything all right?"
Stellar Heart sagged a bit, and finished his sentence. "...up." Out loud, he said, "Yes, everything's fine. Go back to sleep." He laid his ears back, and finally managed to get the panel off. He dropped the battery and nearly lost his balance when he heard Regal's voice in the doorway.
"Why's it so smoky in here?" she coughed and opened the kitchen windows.
Stellar Heart hadn't heard her come down over the high-pitched "BEEPBEEPBEEP" of the smoke alarm, and now he stepped guiltily down from the chair and went over to his skillet. "I wanted to surprise you..." he mumbled.
"Well, you did..." Regal Heart giggled, wafting the smoke out the window with her paws.
Embarrassed and disapointed, Stellar Heart flipped the hashbrowns again, with much less finesse than before. The air was clearer now, and Regal went over to her husband and put her arm around his waist. "You cooked breakfast? For me?"
He snorted. "Well, I tried to..."
She kissed his cheek. "It smells delicious."
"How can you tell?" he asked, waving as if to dissipate more smoke.
Regal smiled. "The food smells reached the top floor before the smoke smells did." When he didn't answer her, she gave him a concerned look. "Don't be discouraged. The only thing you burned was the toast, and we've all done that. You can blame that on the toaster."
"I just wanted to do something special..."
"You did, Stel. You made breakfast, and I know you don't like to cook." she smiled, and traced one of his cheek stripes. "Besides, you look cute in oven mitts."
The tiger finally chuckled, and kissed her. "I love you..."
"I love you too," she replied, "but you better take these off the flame." She pointed to the hashbrowns, which were beginning to smoke.
"Oh!" he turned off the flame, and quickly moved the pan to a cool burner. Regal laughed a little and hugged him, and he hugged back, feeling much better. His ego was rather deflated, but his spirits had risen considerably. After he had microwaved the eggs a little to warm them, Stellar told Regal to go sit down while he fixed up their plates. She dutifully complied, and when he had joined her she poured them both some orange juice.
Stellar Heart was surprised. Even without the toast to go with their meal they enjoyed it, because the eggs and hashbrowns were done perfectly. He supposed it didn't matter that he hadn't been able to bring his wife breakfast in bed when just his effort had made her so happy. Besides, as he well knew, not everything could be perfect.
"So," Regal spoke up, sipping her juice, "what should we do for our anniversary?"
He smiled, leaning back and lacing his paws behind his head. "Well...I thought we'd go for a walk by the Rainbow River...drive down to Hawaii, where we'll walk on the beach and look for seashells...and maybe drive over to Paris for dinner. I tell you, I just love Cloudmobiles!"
She giggled, copying his pose. "Sounds great!"
"Happy anniversary, sweetheart." he said, hugging her.
"Happy anniversary." she hugged back, "What's the weather supposed to be like?"
He smirked. "That's what the news is for, dear."
Stellar laughed as she stuck her tongue out at him, and he turned on the TV.
"...be a wonderful day, unseasonably warm, and not a cloud in the sky." the weather man was saying, "And we can expect more of the same until Friday; we'll get a little bit of rain then, but not too much. On Saturday, partly cloudy with a chance of rain. That's our forecast for the East Coast for this week. Now back to you, Phil."
The screen flipped to a reporter who, having not heard his cue, was picking his nose.
"Pssst!" someone off-camera hissed, "Phil, that's you!"
Regal exchanged a look with Stellar, and both rolled their eyes in disgusted amusement.
The reporter jumped, and spoke extra fast in his embarrassment. "Yes, we're here at the Chestnut County Prison, where today, former ringmaster Richard Savage is being released."
Stellar Heart spat out a spray of orange juice and hacked convulsively while Regal patted his back a few times. Both stared at the television in astonishment as Phil went on with the story.
"The former circus owner and animal abuser was sentanced to two to five years for his crimes, and has expressed remorse for his actions. Today, after nearly three years, he is free and on probation on the terms that he never again owns an animal. These are his own words..."
The screen flipped again to show a middle-aged, heavy-set, balding man. Savage certainly did look remorseful, but there was something showy about that remorse that made Stellar Heart bare his teeth. "Three years ago I was brought to justice for my sins against my fellow creatures. I can't change what I've done...but I have changed my ways. I only hope that one day I can be forgiven." he flashed a smile for the camera, and it wasn't a particularly nice smile either. At least, Stellar didn't think so.
"He's...he's lying!" Stellar Heart spluttered, pointing accusingly at the screen, "Can't they see it? He's just playing up the crowd; it's an act!" Regal put her paw over his, and they continued to watch.
A journalist was asking, "And what are your plans, now that you've been set up with a job and a place to stay?"
Savage flashed his smile again as a microphone was thrust into his face, and replied, "That's easy; to buy a box of the most expensive cigars I can find!"
Stellar Heart grabbed the remote, nearly dropped it, and turned off the television. "They're letting him out! I...I can't believe they're letting him out!"
"Honey..." she began, but he stood up and cleared his place.
"I can't eat anymore." he went to the trash can, and dumped the rest of his breakfast into it. Regal could hear pans clanking as he set about cleaning up his mess. Abandoning her own breakfast, she went into the kitchen and found him angrily scrubbing the dishes with a flat, yellow-and-green dishwashing pad. He was breathing a bit faster than usual, making a peculiar hissing sound through his nose, and his ears were pressed flat on his skull.
"Stellar?" Regal asked hesitantly.
The tiger's tail began to lash, and he took a deep breath. "I'm fine."
She went over to him, and took his face gently between her paws. "I've never known you to lie to me...please, don't start now."
Stellar closed his eyes, and sighed deeply. "Really, I'm fine. Just a bit shocked, that's all."
He nodded. "Yes..."
Regal decided that it was best to let things be for now, and she nodded also. "Okay...You want me to help you clean up?"
"Sure." he turned back to the dishes, relieved that she wasn't pursuing it. He didn't want to dwell on this, not on their anniversary. Even so, he couldn't stop his brain from thinking, and what his brain wanted to think about was that news report. He knew that man was lying! He had grown to know the subtleties of his expressions and tone of voice while he was in the circus, and he knew a lie when he heard it. Why, of all days, did this have to happen today?
Regal, who had also lost her appetite, forced herself to eat the last two bites of her hashbrowns. After all the work her husband had put into making breakfast, she hated to dump it in the garbage. She brought her empty plate into the kitchen, and wordlessly dried while he washed. He gave her a little half-smile, but she could see that he was angry and upset. And there was nothing she could do about it.
When the dishes were put away, the couple went upstairs to brush their teeth. Stellar still wasn't speaking, and his toothbrush moved so fast that tiny flecks of foam began hitting the mirror. Regal flinched away to avoid being splattered, brushing her own teeth much more slowly.
"Stellar?" she ventured, after spitting out the toothpaste.
He turned towards her. "Esh?" he asked, not bothering to spit.
"Um...maybe you want to stay in today...?" she suggested.
The tiger turned back to the sink, spitting, and wiped his mouth on his hand towel. "Why would I want to do that?"
Regal looked uncomfortable. "Well...just...you seem a bit uptight. Maybe we should stay inside and relax today."
"Regal," he smiled, "Really, I'm fine. I'm not about to let him ruin our anniversary. It's a special day for us."
Seeing her hesitation, he pounced on it. "C'mon, let's go right away."
"You sure?" she asked.
"Why wait?" he returned.
"Well...okay." she agreed, "But instead of going nuts, why don't we just pack a lunch and go down to Earth? We can have a picnic by a lake, maybe feed the ducks."
"Sure." he nodded, "Whatever you want to do."
"Well, what do you want to do?" she asked. She had suggested a less complicated day because it would be more relaxing, and she could see that he needed to relax. In fact, after hearing that her husband's former tormentor had just been freed from prison, Regal felt that she herself could use some cool-down time.
"I want to spend the day with my wife." he said, kissing her.
Stellar Heart tried his best to ignore the anger that gnawed at his heart as he and Regal Heart set out to have their picnic. He was aware of his wife's covert glances, and he supposed he couldn't blame her, but they weren't exactly helping him to forget. He didn't want to ruin this, so he was acting as normally as possible; he forced his ears to stay upright, made sure his tail was motionless, and kept his face carefully neutral.
Regal, for her part, let him think that he was fooling her. She knew something would have to give sooner or later. The question was when. She couldn't force him to talk about it. Stellar parked the car, and they got out and took in their surroundings. They were in a suburban park, with carefully spaced trees, and a large, beautiful lake. There weren't any ducks to feed, but it was a nice view just the same. The tiger opened the back door of their car and brought out their picnic basket and a blanket, and he gave himself away when he slammed the door shut again. Regal Heart followed him with a sigh and took the blanket from him, spreading it out on the grass.
"Thanks..." he mumbled, setting the basket down and sitting on one side of the blanket. Regal sat down with him and opened the picnic basket, but he merely looked out over the water. Neither of them was really hungry, so she left the food where it was. He put an arm around her shoulders and sighed deeply, but that sigh carried so much sadness that she felt she had to speak up.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
He wasn't okay, but he nodded glumly. He was fighting the realization that their day was already shot. He turned his head at the sound of footsteps, and he scowled at the sight of a lady walking a labrador. The dog seemed happy enough with his lot, but Stellar was focusing on the collar and the leash. He put his paw to his own neck, remembering a time when he had been forced to wear a similar apparatus. He sneered a bit, remembering the choking sensation he had felt when a rough tug would put too much pressure on his trachea. He watched the woman and the dog until they were out of sight before huffing angrily.
"All humans should be banned from keeping animals as pets!" he growled. He remembered how, as a normal tiger, he hadn't dared to protest the leash tugs. he had known that if he had, he would have been in for much worse.
Regal, startled by this pronouncement, looked over. "Why? The dog seemed happy and healthy."
"Lucky him..." Stellar's ears swiveled back.
"Is that what you're really angry at?" she asked calmly, "A lady walking her dog?"
"I am not angry!" he shouted, getting up and beginning to pace.
"Yes you are, and ignoring it won't make things any better." she told him. His response was to pick up a rock, and to hurl it over the lake as far as he could with a roar. One roar wasn't enough, however, and he drew in a deep breath and blasted a yell that sent birds flying from the trees. It went on and on until he ran out of breath and became light-headed. Regal wasn't much phased by this, having expected something like it since the news broadcast, but she felt that the time for pretending things were fine was over.
"I really think it would be a good idea to go home..." she said quietly. He shook his head, and she went over to him. "Neither of us is having any fun, and you're upset."
"There." He threw up his paws, disgusted with himself, "I went and ruined it..."
"No," she told him, her paw resting on his back, "the news broadcast did. But I really think we should go home so you can calm down."
He turned away from her, his ribs tight and his heart pounding. "I don't want to calm down!" he resumed his feverish pacing, "I want to put him back where he belongs! I want to hit him with a burning torch! I want him to learn what a whip lash feels like! I want him to know hunger that he has never imagined before! I want him to live in fear of his life! I want to keep him in a tiny, filthy cage! I want my brother back!" he finished at the top of his voice, having worked himself into a frenzy.
Regal, who had been standing very still with her eyes wide, now blinked at this revelation. "You had a brother?"
Stellar gritted his teeth as a convulsive feeling began to build in his throat and his breath began to hitch painfully, but it was too late to pop a lid on the stewpot of his emotions, which had decided that it was time to boil over. He brought his paws up to his face, the nails digging into his forehead, and he fell to his knees with a cry of sheer anguish. He doubled over until he was nearly in the fetal position, sobbing loudly and helplessly into his paws. He didn't care if the world heard him. He wanted the world to hear him! The image of Macbeth, a large white tiger with a playful nature, would not be banished from his mind; he had often wished his brother had been transformed with him, and Savage had robbed them both of that opportunity. It wasn't just the loss of his brother; it was everything that man had done, and it was the fact that he was now free to do it again.
Regal felt as if someone had just punched her in the chest as she hurried over to gather her husband in her arms. He was too wracked by sobs to hug her back, and he could do nothing but cry into her shoulder as she rocked him. Some anniversary!
"Honey, I'm so sorry..." she whispered, stroking the back of his head.
"H-h-he k-k-killed h-him!" sobbed the tiger, burying his face in his wife's shoulder, "I s-saw him d-d-do it!"
Regal had guessed that easily enough when he had collapsed. "I know, baby...I'm sorry..." She held him close as the worst of the storms passed, rocking him like she would a child, until he finally began to calm down. Now that he had released some of the tension that had built up since that morning, he was deeply ashamed of himself.
"Regal, I'm sorry..." he sniffled, holding on to her, "I'm so sorry I ruined our anniversary..."
"Stel, I don't want to hear any apologies." she told him gently, "It wasn't your fault his release landed on the same day as our anniversary. That was just bad luck. After what he did to you, I don't blame you a bit."
"I...hate him..." he whispered.
"You have every right to your anger and pain...but don't hate him, Stel..." she told him.
"Can't help it..."
"Hating him won't change what he did." she said, "It'll just eat away at you, making you bitter....For your own sake, Stellar, please..."
He began to cry again, more quietly this time, and she rubbed his back to comfort him. "This is just going to keep hurting you until you forgive him."
"Forgive him!" he cried incredulously.
"Trust me...I used to hate No Heart for what he did to my parents...but hating him only hurt me, not him. It took a long time, but I was able to forgive him...and you know what?"
"What?" he asked.
"It was like putting aside a heavy weight. Don't do this to yourself, Stellar Heart...don't hate him." she was pleading with him, her voice soft and gentle.
"Can we just go home?" he asked, sounding stuffy-nosed and pitiful.
"I think that's a good idea." she said, helping her husband to his feet.
"I should say not!" cried Stellar later that day, looking appalled. "Me? Go down and talk to that...that...human?"
"You don't need to say the word 'human' like it's a swear word..." sighed Regal, "And I think it might help you. Who knows? Maybe he has changed."
"You don't know the man, Regal." he told her as patiently as possible. "His kind is unable to change!"
"Well, they did let him out. Couldn't that mean something?" she asked, moving to stand in front of him.
Stellar Heart laid back his ears, the white spots on them resembling a pair of glaring eyes. "Yes!" he shot back, "It means that the American judicial system is a complete joke, so full of holes that even Swiss cheese is envious!"
"You don't need to shout at me." Regal looked hurt, her own ears flattening.
"Well, you don't need to pick at me!" he replied before he could stop himself. Regal's eyes widened, and he covered his mouth. "Regal, I'm sorry!"
She took a deep breath, then let it out. "I just think that you haven't been dealing with this before today."
"I don't want to deal with it." he said stubbornly.
"Well, if you want to move on with your life, you may have to." she told him, "It's not gonna go away, so why not make peace with your past?"
"Because my past has nothing to do with peace!" he turned and headed for the door, much to her alarm.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going for a walk." he replied.
"I just need to walk." and with that, he left their house and closed the door behind him rather harder than was necessary. The doorjamb rattled, and his message was clear; he wanted to be alone.
Regal Heart wanted to follow him, but instead she sat down on the couch and let the tears come. She had always been able to help him. Why not now? And he had never raised his voice to her before. Today they had celebrated their first anniversary by having their first fight.
Stellar Heart hadn't started forward right away. The moment the door slammed home he wanted to go back in and take it back, but he simply stood with his back braced against the door. There was no way she'd welcome him with open arms now. He cocked an ear as the muffled sounds of subdued weeping filtered through the closed door, and he closed his eyes with a sigh. He couldn't face her now...
Blinking back tears of his own, Stellar Heart Tiger trudged slowly into the Forest of Feelings to be miserable in peace. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when a person saves up their tears for later, Stellar found that the tears wouldn't come when he finally reached a secluded spot in the forest. It wasn't so much that he wanted to cry again, but now that he was ready for it to happen, he got zilch. "Fine, then." he said out loud to no one at all, and sat down under a tree.
"Trouble in paradise?" piped a high-pitched voice from the branches of the tree Stellar was under.
The tiger sighed. "Hello, Playful Heart..."
The monkey dropped down from the tree, and sat down beside the tiger. "Something the matter? I thought you'd be with Regal Heart. Today is your anniversary, right?" he was teasing. He knew their anniversary was today.
"Yeah...it is..." said Stellar, not feeling much like talking.
"Did you two have a fight or something?" asked Playful.
'Ah,' thought Stellar, 'here they come...' The tiger lowered his face to his paw, shaking silently. Why did he have to cry now, when he was no longer alone?
The monkey lost his smile, and began to look genuinely concerned. "What happened?"
"We did have a fight..." sighed Stellar, "But it started with...Did you watch the news this morning?"
Playful Heart shook his head, his shoulders rising and falling once in a shrug. "Nope, I got up too late."
Stellar Heart sniffled once, and forced himself to tell his friend what had happened. At this point he would have accepted help from No Heart, had the sorcerer come to offer it. "They're letting that ringmaster out of jail...Actually, by now, he's already been free a while."
"Gee, that's rough..." said Playful Heart, shaking his head.
"Yeah..." Stellar Heart nodded, crying some more as the monkey reached over and patted his shoulder.
"What were you fighting about, though?" insisted Playful Heart.
Stellar thought the monkey was being rather nosy now, but he replied, "She said I should go down and make peace with him...said I wasn't dealing with it. But I don't want to! The...he killed my brother...and I really don't think I can make peace with him..."
This was all news to Playful Heart, and the monkey simply sat with him until he was a bit calmer.
"I didn't mean to snap at Regal...I was just so..." Stellar shook his head, and lapsed into silence.
"Aw, cheer up." Playful Heart jogged Stellar's shoulder a bit, "She's your wife; she'll forgive you. Besides, if I know her, she wants to help you through this."
"I made her cry..." mumbled Stellar.
"Looks to me like you made each other cry. Come on, go and talk to her. You love each other. Let her help." said Playful.
"I don't know if anyone can help here..." said the tiger.
"Give it a try." Playful urged.
"Do you think she's right?" asked Stellar Heart, looking up, "Do you think I've been avoiding dealing with it?"
"No idea. But maybe you ought to just trust Regal's judgment." replied the monkey.
The tiger nodded thoughtfully, and it did occur to him that Playful Heart seemed to be adopting Regal's view of the situation. Maybe, if more than one person felt that way, it was just possible that there was some truth to it. Stellar nodded a bit more firmly, and got to his feet.
"Where you goin'?" asked Playful, since the tiger was heading for the Rainbow River rather than to his home.
"Maybe she's right...I should just suck it up and go down there." said Stellar.
"Well, I thought you wanted to make up with her." Playful pointed out.
Now Stellar was sure the monkey was being nosy. Still, he decided to answer him. "I do...I will after this. If I don't do it now, I'll lose my nerve...Besides, this is a way for me to make things right with both Regal and...and him."
"But don't you think it's better to..." began Playful Heart.
"Playful Heart..." Stellar sighed.
"Please, I'd like to do this my way."
Playful nodded, giggling a bit and looking sheepish. "Right. Well...good luck with that."
Stellar Heart nodded in appreciation. "Thanks. And thanks for your help."
"You're welcome." Playful Heart replied, turning and leaving Stellar to his task. He would back off and allow the tiger to handle his own problems...but that didn't mean he couldn't tell Regal where Stellar had gone. As their friend, he felt that he owed it to Regal to make sure she wouldn't have to frantically search the Kingdom of Caring for her missing husband.
As Playful Heart left the tiger behind, he heard Stellar Heart say to the Rainbow River, "Show me Richard Savage."
"Now, Regal, what married couple doesn't argue from time to time?" True Heart Bear said soothingly, patting Regal's back as the lioness blew her nose. Shortly after her husband had left, Regal had telephoned True Heart in tears.
"It's not so much the fight as the reason for the fight." replied the lioness, flinging her arms wide as if to demonstrate her helplessness. "It's knowing that he's hurting, and he's out there, and I can't do a thing about it!"
"Yes you can, though." True Heart handed her another tissue.
"What?" asked Regal, dabbing her eyes and sniffling.
"You can do exactly what you've been doing." said True Heart, "You can be there for him. And don't try to force him to do anything just now. Give him some time. He'll come to terms with it in his own time."
"So I shouldn't have asked him to...?" Regal looked up at the cream-colored bear.
"Well...your timing may or may not have been a little off, but you are right about one thing. For his own peace of mind, one day he'll have to forgive that man." True Heart told her. "He may have gotten upset, but he knows you're trying to help. I'm sure he didn't mean to get a bit snippy with you."
"Oh, I don't care about that...I just want him back home..." Regal reached for another tissue, but she was more rational now.
True Heart nodded, and she began to say something else when someone tapped out 'Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits' on the front door. Regal Heart hurried to answer it, hoping her husband had returned home, but even as she gripped the doorknob she realized how unlikely that was. Why would Stellar knock on the door of his own house?
"Hi, Regal!" Playful Heart grinned, looking cheerful as usual.
"Hi, Playful Heart...I'm sorry, this really isn't a good time..." she told him, not unkindly.
"Yeah, I know." he said quickly, not wanting to give her a chance to shut the door. "I came to tell you Stellar's okay, but he had something to do down on Earth."
"He what?" Regal cried. Where else would Stellar have gone but to see Savage? If he went down there angry, he was liable to get himself in a heap of trouble. "When I said I thought he should talk to the guy, I didn't mean right away! If he confronts him in that state, there's no telling what will happen!"
Playful Heart winced. "Guess I should have stopped him, huh?"
Regal Heart rubbed a paw over her face, and forced calm on herself. "No, Playful, it isn't your fault...it's mine."
"You know that isn't true." said True Heart, who had come up behind her.
"I have to find him." said Regal, stepping around Playful Heart and heading down to the Rainbow River to locate her husband. True Heart and Playful Heart exchanged a look, shrugged, and jogged after her.
From the moment Stellar Heart landed his Cloudmobile in an alleyway so that he could scope out the situation, he knew he had made a mistake. Richard Savage was in the process of moving into an expensive-looking house, which he couldn't have possibly bought for himself. The tiger had no idea what sort of arrangement this was, but he supposed Savage had a rich family member or friend who was letting him use the property. Stellar knew that Savage could be quite charming when he wanted to be, and it was possible that the human had gotten his new digs through a show of more personality than he really had.
As Stellar Heart observed the unpacking of the moving vans, he recognized a few of the men who were helping out. One man, a former clown, happened to lose his grip on a box he was carrying. At the shattering sound that followed, Savage threw aside the cigar he had been smoking and proceeded to berate the poor man with language that would have caused a sailor to blush.
Stellar drew back into the alley, shaking his head. "He hasn't changed at all..." he whispered. He strongly doubted that Savage would honor the agreement to never keep another animal. The man had never made any pretense at loving his animals, but he had kept and bred them to gain status among the other showmen that were out there. Why wouldn't he do the same on a smaller scale? "How many more animals will he kill? How on Earth can I ever forgive him?" Stellar hazarded another peek, and he bit back a cry as a couch was unloaded. For a moment he thought it was upholstered with tiger skin, but at a second glance he realized that it was way too fuzzy. It was only a tiger-print plush, but the damage was done. "I can't do this!" He hurried back to his car and headed for home, not knowing that his wife had seen all this from the Rainbow River.
True Heart tapped Playful Heart on the shoulder, indicating that they should give the couple some time alone, and the monkey nodded. "Regal," said True Heart, "why don't we leave you to it? I think the less eyes watching, the better..."
Regal Heart nodded, and hugged True Heart. "Thank you, True Heart...for your help..."
"Oh, you're quite welcome. Remember, if you need me later, I'm just a phone call away." said True Heart.
"Thanks. Thank you too, Playful Heart." She smiled at the monkey, knowing that he had only tried to help. The two turned and left the lioness, and Regal was just turning to look into the river again when she heard an approaching Cloudmobile. Regal Heart waved for Stellar to stop, and for a moment it looked like he wouldn't. He had seen her, but he hesitated before landing about twenty feet ahead of her. He got out, shut the door, and leaned against the car.
"I tried..." she heard him whisper.
"Stellar, are you all right?" she asked, hugging him.
"I didn't mean to yell..." he was crying now, "I didn't want any of this to happen!"
"No, it's all right...I know you didn't. I'm sorry I tried to get you to do something you weren't ready to do." she told him, rubbing his back gently.
"Uh-uh, you were right. But I just couldn't...He's never gonna change his ways. Never." he shook his head, "I'm sorry I left like that; I don't know what my problem is. I guess I just thought he'd be in there for much longer, where he couldn't hurt anymore animals. And now he's out."
She stood back so that she could look him in the eye, and said, "Now, just because he's out doesn't mean he'll start hoarding animals. We know where he is, so we'll know if he brings one home."
"What good'll that do?" he asked, wiping his nose.
"If that happens, we can call the ASPCA and leave an anonymous tip. It's not meddling if it's to save a life and to keep a court ruling from being broken." she replied.
He nodded slowly. "Guess you're right..."
"Come on." she took his paw, "Let's go home and have dinner. I'll reheat the rest of last night's lasagna, and you'll like what I got you."
It took him a moment to realize she meant an anniversary gift. He wasn't hungry, and he wanted a nap, but he nodded anyway and allowed himself to be driven home. He was silent during the trip, his eyes glazed over and focusing on nothing at all. When they got home she led him to the couch and had him sit down, but when she turned to prepare dinner he kept hold of her paw. She turned and looked back over her shoulder at him, and the look on his face was one to break hearts. Forgetting all about dinner, she slowly sat down beside him and hugged him close. He hugged back and closed his eyes, and she felt tears seeping into the fur of her shoulder. "It'll be all right, Stellar..."
"I hope so..." he whispered.
Richard was exhausted. He had been anticipating his release from prison since the night before, and as a consequence he had gotten no sleep. Hamming it up for the news crew had been easy enough; in fact it had been fun, almost like old times in a way. But that afternoon, however, his energy had finally given out. He had managed to finish the move by the time sunset had begun, but the house was so full of boxes that he felt like he was living in a labyrinth.
But it was finally over. Not just the move, but the whole ordeal. He wouldn't have gone through this if it hadn't been for Lysander and his new friends. 'Care Bear Cousins' they had called themselves. Richard snorted as he lay down on his tiger-print couch and lit up a cigar. Where had those animals come from anyway? "How did Lysander become like them? And how did he dare to turn on me?" He puffed at his cigar, coughing because he was unused to smoking now. Sneering in disgust, he stubbed out the cigar and went rummaging through his many boxes until he came up with what he wanted. He poured himself a strong drink...and then another. He had missed this while in prison...
But now he had to think about the future. He and two of his associates weren't ready to give up on using animals as profit just yet. It was easy enough, at least in his way of thinking, since 'taking care of animals' simply meant putting them into a cage with a water dish and saying 'there you are'. He would let Harry and Jake take care of the dirty work. Richard's job would be securing the 'product'. The product would be pedigree cats. Egyptian Maus, Siamese, Bengals, Maine Coons and many more. Jake would be housing them, so Savage was in the clear. He would not be violating his agreement...not by much, anyway. There was always a demand for show cats; what the owners did with them after they bought them mattered neither to Richard, nor his associates. Richard poured himself a third drink.
The trouble was getting these cats in the first place. Harry had admitted that the connections he'd had before fell through, so they would have to look somewhere else if they wanted to start a business. They had sufficient money put aside, so there was plenty of room for error. Richard might not be able to run his beloved circus anymore, thanks to that striped upstart, but he would show the authorities who the real boss was! They couldn't keep him from treating animals as he saw fit. He saw the police as thieves, and those animals as his stolen property. He poured himself another drink, but only sipped it once. Too much too soon. He lit up another cigar and lay back, thinking what an interesting crack that was in the ceiling...
The cigar dropped from between his two forefingers as he passed out, and it rolled several feet away to nestle in some packing paper.
"Open it..." Regal Heart urged quietly, pushing a wrapped package into her husband's paws. He looked at it for a moment, and took the card she had taped to the package and opened it.
"'For My Husband,'" he read aloud in a somewhat dull voice, "'On our first year together, to the one I hold dear. You are a joy just to be near. If one year was so wonderful, I look forward to many more...with the one I adore. Love, Regal Heart.' Thanks, honey..." he hugged her, cheering up a little in spite of himself. She hugged back, smiling, then indicated that he should open his gift. He tore the paper off rather slowly, and smiled. She had gotten him a tin of macadamia nuts and a bottle of Old Spice Cologne. His old bottle had merely been a small sample, and had become his favorite cologne, but he was nearly out. Not anymore! This one would last him for a few years. She had also gotten him a faux leather case for the cologne and his fur brush.
Now it was Regal's turn. She opened her card, and read it aloud as he had done. "'To My Wife, On Our Anniversary; The keeper of my heart, and life that brings me light; I don't want to go a day without you in my sight. Love, Stellar Heart'. Aww, you drew little hearts around your name!" she kissed him as he smiled sheepishly.
She began to open her present carefully, trying not to tear the paper, and he finally smiled for real. "Regs, we're not gonna save the paper...just rip it off!"
"Now, hold your horses." she giggled, but she gave up on being neat and tore the paper off. She opened the large box and raised an eyebrow. Inside, on top of a tightly packed nest of tissue paper was a tiny velvet box, which she picked up and opened. Her eyes widened, and she drew out a pendant that was in the shape of her Tummy Symbol. It was enameled to be the correct color, and was suspended on a fine gold chain. "Where in the world did you find this?"
"I had it commissioned...Bright Heart had never made jewelry before with the exception of our wedding rings, so he was really up for the challenge." he replied as she flung her arms around his neck.
"I love it! Thank you so much..." she gushed, and he felt his heart beginning to warm.
Stellar Heart was still upset, but maybe their anniversary wasn't a total bust after all...
The tiger suddenly winced as a bright light shone through the window. "What the..." he got up, thinking that it was Playful Heart with a flashlight or something, and went to close the curtains, but something stopped him. The light was from very far off. In fact, it was coming from the sky near where Big Star Point was located. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he saw the outline of the Great Wishing Star. He couldn't read the Star's expression, but he knew something was wrong. The Star was warning him about something, and when Stellar's attention was on him, he flashed rapidly and sent down a shaft of light that caused a blaze of rainbow colors to spring up from the River.
"What is it?" Regal asked.
"I don't know, but we better get down to the Rainbow River." he replied, taking her paw and fairly dragging her down to the water. It took them a few minutes to reach it, and both were out of breath, but he knelt at the water's edge and said, "Show me where the trouble is."
The waters rippled for a moment, then Stellar gasped as he saw Richard Savage passed out on his couch in a smoke-filled room. The image panned to the right, and Stellar could see that a small blaze had started among the many boxes that littered the dwelling; the blaze was small now, but it was rapidly growing. While Savage was in little danger of being burned right now, the smoke could kill him. 'But why give me the task of saving him' Stellar thought to himself, almost willing the Star to hear it. But he knew what the answer would have been. Because it was the right thing to do. And in any event, now was not the time to argue the point. Curling his lip, Stellar stood up.
"Regal, go and get Brave Heart. Have him rally the Cousins and call on the Care Bears." he said.
"You're not going down there on your own!" she cried.
He wished he wasn't. He would rather not go in there at all. Fire! Of all things! And Savage, of all people...But two Care Bear Cousins couldn't do much against it, and if the Great Star had warned him, that meant the fire department probably wouldn't get there in time to save him. They would need the rest of the Family, but someone had to go down and try to wake Savage up, and Stellar Heart wasn't about to send his wife. "I don't have time to argue. Trust me, and go!"
"No, you're not..." she began, but he cut her off with a swift, tight hug.
"I love you...Please hurry." And with that, he Called a Rainbow Roller and jumped into it, flying off before she could object.
"Stellar, when I see you again, I don't know if I'll kiss you or kill you!" she hissed, running off to pound on the door of her brother's cave.
By the time Stellar Heart got down to Earth, the fire was spreading throughout the room. Stellar brought the Roller to a stop, and his stomach twisted lazily in his abdomen. He had never in his life seen such a big blaze, other than on television. "Oh man..." he whispered, "Oh man..."
The tiger sent a Cousin Call at the window, not sure what would happen, and the moment the beam touched the glass, there was an outward explosion of scintillating shards. The glass must have been really hot for that to happen, and now Stellar was definitely having second thoughts. Wouldn't Savage be a crispy critter by now? But no, Stellar could see the man on the couch, still asleep. In fact, if the Tiger strained hard enough to hear, he caught the sound of snoring. How could the man sleep through that? Ah, but then Stellar saw the liquor bottle near the couch. Now it would really be hard to get Savage out of there!
Taking a deep breath, Stellar brought the Rainbow Roller level with the window and looked inside, trying to find a better escape route. He immediately drew his head back, coughing from the smoke and feeling like his eyeballs had been hard boiled. Flames were everywhere, and the smoke was worse! Stellar did the only thing he could think of; he Called a damp cloth and tied it around his nose and mouth, and he Called a pair of goggles for his eyes. He didn't know much about safety in a large fire, but then again he wasn't planning on staying in the building that long! He climbed through the window, instinctively lying on his belly to get below the smoke, and crawled over to the slumbering form of the human who had put him through such pain. 'I could just leave you here...' he thought as he reached out to shake the human, 'I could do that...but then I'd be just like you.'
When shaking Savage didn't work, Stellar tried reaching up and whamming his paw down on the man's stomach. He didn't do it to be mean; nothing else was working.
"Whuh!" Savage grunted, opening his eyes a bit.
Coughing, Stellar Heart tried to drag him into a sitting position. "Get up! Can't you see this place is on..." A pile of burning boxes toppled over, spilling orange coals near the couch, and Stellar Heart finished his sentance in a terrified scream. "Fire!"
Savage had enough presence of mind to sit up and try to stand, but he was so drunk that he only ended up rolling off the couch and passing out again.
"No you don't! Get up!" Stellar ground out, roughly shaking the human, his fear making him impatient. Savage began to cough from the smoke, and Stellar searched wildly for a way out. The window was blocked by flames. But there was a door at the far end of the room, if only he could get Savage towards it! The fire was contained in this room, and if he could get the man out of there, they'd be relatively safe.
Stellar Heart had never been so scared in his life! The heat in the room was causing steam to rise from the rag that covered his muzzle, and his eyes wouldn't stop tearing, even with the goggles on. How could he get Savage to move? He put his mouth to the man's ear, and roared at the top of his lungs, "WAAAAAAKE UUUUUUUUP!"
When the rest of the Care Bear Family arrived, Regal cried out in shock. The room that had only had about six cubic feet of burning boxes in it was now a veritable inferno. "Stellar!"
"We need water, and that's the truth!" said Lotsa Heart.
"Where are we going to get water at such short notice?" demanded Grumpy Bear.
He was right. The Care Bear Family could make many things with their Tummy Symbols, but one thing they couldn't do was to create enough water to put out a blaze. Staring and Calling took energy directly from their bodies, and creating things took even more. To make enough water for that fire, they would run the risk of putting themselves into a coma. But there was one thing they could do. It was a long shot, but they had very few options.
"Care Bears!" yelled Tender Heart, "Countdown to the clouds! Four...three...two...one...Stare!"
The Care Bear Family sent their Stares and Calls right up into the sky, and the clouds began to darken and rumble. Moments later, rain came pattering down, becoming a torrent. Water hissed on the punished roof of the house, and the flames began to flicker, even if they didn't grow any smaller. Then the unthinkable happened. The roof above that room caved in.
"Stellar!" screamed Regal, trying to run forward, intent on entering the building and getting her husband out.
Brave Heart grabbed her before she had gotten two steps, and held her back. "Sis, are you crazy?"
"He's in there!" she cried, fighting to get free of her brother's grasp, "Let me go!"
She struggled and fought; he was too strong for her, but she continued to push against him, digging her nails into his arms to make him let go. But he wouldn't. He caught her wrists so that she couldn't hurt him or herself, and held her fast. "Stop it!" he told her, "We can't help him now!"
"No!" she screamed, but her struggles were weakening now. "Stellar, no!"
Regal Heart slumped in her brother's arms, crying hysterically, every now and then hitting his chest with her fist. He held her close and took the blows without flinching, knowing that she was hurting a hundred times more. He didn't even want to entertain the thought that his brother-in-law had died in there, but he didn't see how anyone could have survived that. Still, as he had said to Regal Heart, there was nothing they could do to help the tiger. He had nothing to do now but hold his sister as the Family looked on in disbelief.
"How could it happen?" whispered Swift Heart.
Playful Heart covered his face and turned away. "It's not fair..."
True Heart covered her mouth, tears in her eyes. "Oh, the poor boy..."
Gentle Heart Lamb said nothing at all, but lowered her head as her tears joined the raindrops.
"Nooo!" wailed Regal, crying into her brother's chest as he supported her. He shut his eyes tight against the sting of tears, and said nothing as he rubbed his sister's back.
And at that moment, the front door was pushed open, and coughing and grunting was heard before they even saw who was coming out. Regal didn't even look up until Brave Heart suddenly grew tense. Coming out of the front door was none other than Stellar Heart Tiger, and he was dragging by the arms the comatose form of Richard Savage, who was strapped to a skateboard with his own belt. Stellar tore off his goggles and mask and fell to his knees, coughing and dry heaving from the smoke and from his own terror. In between hacks, he said to Savage's still form, "You better...appreciate this, you...Seigfried and Roy wannabe..."
"Stellar!" Regal slipped free of her brother's grasp, which was now much lighter, and tackled the tiger in a hug. They rolled over in the grass and sat up side-by-side, where she hugged him again, sobbing.
Stellar, too out of breath to verbally reassure her, and too tired to compose a clear sentence, was only able to hug her.
"I thought you were dead!" she cried, kissing him over and over.
"No...just...f...fire..." he shivered and tightened his grip on her, hiding his face from the dying flames as sirens approached in the distance. The rain was stopping already. Stellar Heart was only dimly aware of his Family's cheering, and he didn't look up as the paramedics ran to attend to Savage.
That is, he didn't look up until one of the men stooped to pick up something that had fallen out of Savage's breast pocket. "What's this? Mmm...hoo boy, you're in big trouble. Uh-huh..."
"What is it?" Stellar managed to ask before he was seized by another coughing fit.
"Seems Mr. Savage here was planning on owning and operating a secret cattery. Well, we'll see what the police have to say about that..." the paramedic passed the document off to one of the policemen, who scolded him for contaminating evidence, but it was still enough. Savage had cooked his own goose as surely as he had almost cooked himself. Savage was taken to the hospital to recover, where he would later be arrested once more.
Stellar Heart was also taken in to be treated for smoke inhalation. Take Care would have brought him home to treat him, but it seemed more convenient to take advangage of the fact that there was an ambulence right there. She went along with them, knowing how the human treatments had to be modified to suit a Care Bear Cousin, and he was soon released. He was none the worse for wear, and he couldn't believe just how lucky he had turned out to be that day! Had the fates given him a coupon, or something? He had faced his greatest fear to save the human who had treated him so badly, and they had both survived; one to rejoin his family, and one to grapple once again with the judicial system. Stellar dimly remembered Calling a skateboard from his Tummy Symbol, taking Savage's belt off, and rolling the man onto the board. He remembered tying him to it, and he remembered a little of the effort of dragging him out, but it was all hazy. With Savage passed out and helpless, vulnerable to the smoke and flames, Stellar had felt something that he hadn't been expecting; he had felt pity for this man. He was aware of the power he'd had over Savage's life, and he had chosen to save it. But now...
Now all Stellar Heart could think about was taking a nice, long shower to wash the smoky smell from his fur. That, and sleeping the clock all the way around. Perhaps he could forgive Savage now...after all, if he could go into a burning building, he could do anything. Right?
While Stellar was getting a drink at a water fountain, Regal Heart happened to see her brother standing nearby. He was hanging back as if not wanting to disturb them, and he had his arms folded. She winced as she imagined the bruises she must have given him under his fur, and walked over. "Hey, Brave Heart..."
"Hey. You okay, Sis?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine...Listen, I'm sorry about earlier...and I'm sorry if I hurt you..." she looked down, but he smiled and hugged her.
"Not enough to worry your purty head about. I'm just glad Stellar made it out okay."
"So am I." she smiled, walking away to join her husband, who had finished his drink. "Ready to go home, Stel?"
The tiger wiped his mouth with the back of his paw, and nodded. "Yeah." he said, his voice still hoarse. He and Regal went out to their Cloudmobile, and he was just getting ready to sit in the driver's seat when she stopped him.
"I'm driving. You suck on a cough drop, and relax." she said with a smile, and Stellar Heart nodded gratefully.
Regal Heart pulled into their driveway and they went inside, both of them exhausted. Stellar kissed her and went upstairs to take a shower while she went into the kitchen to find something to eat. He came down a little later to find her eating a sandwich, and he kissed her forehead lovingly.
"Hmm?" she looked up, still chewing.
"Next year, for our anniversary...can we just stay home?" he grinned, winking to show that he was kidding, and she swallowed, chuckling.
"It's a deal, hon."
Stellar, who wasn't hungry, and who frankly was still a bit queasy from the smoke, simply put his arm around her and sighed. That was when he noticed what was in her sandwich. "Eew, peanut butter and mustard?"
"Yeah, I know..." she shrugged, taking another bite.
"But you don't even like mustard, and eating it with peanut butter..." he wrinkled his nose.
She shrugged her shoulders, swallowing again, and said, "I was just in the mood for it, so sue me."
Stellar Heart looked at her thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Whatever you like, Regs..."