"Will You Still Care?"
"Daddy! Mommy's sick again!" called Hope as she jogged into the kitchen, her paws over her ears.
The tiger looked up from buttering his toast, showing her a worried frown. For about a week now, his wife had been getting sick in the mornings. By around 10:00 AM, however, she would be right as rain. Stellar had his suspicions, but even so he was worried. He set the butter knife down, and went up to check on Regal.
"Regs?" he asked, tapping softly on the door, "Are you all right?" He heard her gargling some mouthwash, and he waited a moment before knocking again. "Regal?"
The door opened and Regal Heart came out, looking a bit pale. "I'm okay...Are there any Cheerios left, or did the girls kill 'em?"
He blinked a bit, unsure how she could even think about food so soon after getting sick. "You sure you can keep something down?" he asked.
"I will, whether my stomach says so or not." she replied with a grin. "Say, do we have any sardines?"
"Wha...?" his eyebrows shot up in surprise; he didn't know how she could go from wanting Cheerios to wanting sardines, and the strange part was she didn't even like sardines.
"Yeah, sardines and ketchup sounds really good." she continued, heading down the stairs and leaving behind a very flabbergasted husband.
"Um...hey, hold the phone." he said, having finally found his voice, and he caught up with her in the living room. "Why sardines and ketchup?"
She stopped short, frowned as she reconsidered, then grimaced. "You're right, what was I thinking?" Stellar looked relieved until she asked, "We have mustard, don't we?"
Stellar Heart nodded dumbly then followed her into the kitchen, scratching his head as he went.
"Mommy!" Hope whined, "Connie called me a weenie!"
"Connie, don't call your sister a weenie." sighed Regal Heart, rummaging through the cabinets for a tin of sardines. She knew they had them, since Stellar Heart had a bit of a weakness for them, as well as for kippers.
While she was busy with this, the phone rang. "I'll get it!" chirped Connie, getting up, but her father laid a restraining paw on her head.
"S'okay, sweetie, I got it." he told her, glad for the interruption. He cleared his throat, picked up the phone, and said, "Hello? Oh, hey, Take Care. Uh-huh, she is...what? Um...okay..."
"What's up?" asked Regal.
"It's Take Care Bear...something about 'test results'..." he held out the phone, looking concerned.
"Oh, good!" Regal took the phone, and moved off a bit. "Hey, Take Care, what's up? Uh-huh...You're sure? Oh, good!" she put a paw to her heart, laughing a little. "Yes, I'll tell him now! Thank you!" she hung up the phone.
"What's happening?" Stellar Heart asked, having already rushed to her side. "What do you have? It's a stomach flu, I know it..."
"Stellar, calm down before you blow a gasket." she giggled, taking his paw and placing it over her tummy. "We're gonna have a baby!"
"Huh...?" he blinked as the words seemed to sail over his head.
"We're having a baby, Stel!" she laughed, hugging him.
"A...a baby..." he whispered, stepping back from the hug and reaching out to touch her tummy. "Are you sure?" he asked, looking like he was gearing up to be emotional.
"Yeah! I kept it to myself because I wasn't sure, but it's a definite."
"That's great!" he cried, lifting her by the waist and spinning her around, while Hope cheered and jumped up and down.
Connie looked completely thunderstruck, and she was watching her sister in disbelief. Had Hopeful Heart lost her mind? Where were they in all of this? Were their parents even looking at them? No. It was like they no longer existed, and all that was real was the baby...wherever it was. What did their mother's tummy have to do with it? But that wasn't the point. This was it, the end of everything. Regal Heart picked up the phone to call Brave Heart and tell him the good news, and Connie trudged slowly up to her room.
Having stuffed her little backpack with peanut butter crackers and juice boxes, Contrary Heart Liger slipped out the back door and left her parents' yard. Emotionally, she and her sister were about six years old, and Connie had thought that things would never change. She was the first person to admit she had a bit of an attitude, but she had always known her parents loved her. At least, until today she had known. "They didn't even look at us. They were too busy acting all mushy..." she grumbled to herself, "Well...if they don't want me, I'm not staying!"
"Thanks, Bro! Bye." Regal Heart hung up the phone and turned to talk to her cubs, but she only saw one cub. "Hopie? Where's your sister?"
"Huh?" Hope looked to her left with a perplexed frown. "She was right here..." she hopped to her left and stood where her sister had been standing.
"Maybe she's up in her room." suggested Stellar Heart.
"Yeah, maybe." she agreed, "I'll go check."
Regal left the room, and Hope looked up at her father. "We really gonna have a baby?" she asked, all smiles.
"Yes..." Stellar told her, still smiling, and looking a little misty-eyed.
Hope saw this, and squeezed him around the waist, giggling. "Aww, silly Daddy!"
"Is it a boy or girl?" she asked.
"We don't know yet." he replied.
"When's it coming?" she pressed.
"We don't know that either...well, I don't." he said, making a mental note to ask Regal when he got a chance.
"Hey Daddy, where is the baby?" asked Hope.
"Er...well, it's inside Mommy's tummy..." he replied uneasily.
Hope gaped at him and shrilled, "Mommy ate the baby?"
"Regal! Did you find her yet?" called Stellar, beginning to look a bit panicky.
Regal came jogging down the steps, and she was breathless when she entered the kitchen. "She's not in her room; I don't think she's even in the house!"
"Mommy, how come you ate the baby?" demanded Hope.
"Huh?" Regal blinked, confused. Then it dawned on her, and she said, "Oh no, it's okay, I didn't eat the baby. Listen, I'll explain later...right now we have to find your sister."
"You're sure she's not in the house?" asked Stellar, peeking into the living room to see if she was there. Then he nearly laughed at himself for being stupid, since Regal had just come from there.
"Of course I'm sure, and stop smiling! This is serious." she scolded, and he ducked his head in boyish shame. Regal hardly noticed this; she was using the phone again, calling Brave Heart to come right over.
"This is ridiculous!"
Regal Heart was spouting off at her brother, who looked like he was wishing he was someplace else. She had called him over to babysit Hope while she and Stellar looked for Connie, but now both males were insisting that she be the one to stay. Her cub was possibly in danger, she was pregnant and hormonal, and she was having none of it. "I won't break, for the love of Pete, I'm not made of glass!"
"Sis, I know that, I just think it'll be easier all around if-"
"Oh, men!" she cut him off, "Fine, go do what you want to."
"But Regs..." Stellar Heart attempted to smooth her ruffled feathers, as it were, and was rewarded with the front door being slammed in his face for his troubles. He looked down at his feet, and sighed. "Well, I guess I have to get used to that again..."
Brave Heart shook his head in sympathy. "That bad, eh?"
The tiger shook his head. She had just had a royal hissy fit, but it had involved their cub's safety. Loyalty to his wife won out and he couldn't actually agree with Brave Heart; after all, he was worried too, but he wasn't the one being told to stay home. To say she was being nasty wouldn't be fair at all. Even so...
"I remember when she was carrying the twins." Stellar confided as they set out, "One time she asked me if I thought she looked fat..."
"Oh no..." groaned Brave Heart.
"Exactly. It was a no-win situation. She was supposed to look big, and I couldn't just say nothing. Stupid me, I told her no. She got upset and said I was just saying that, and she made me sleep on the couch that night. Then she was so sorry the next day she started crying the minute she saw me. I mean, she couldn't help herself; the whole thing messed with her entire mood." he said.
"Ouch..." said Brave Heart.
"Where am I?" Connie said out loud to no one, turning her head this way and that, looking for something even remotely familiar. She had been walking for several hours now, and had managed to get herself hopelessly lost in the Forest of Feelings. The trees, with their pastel heart-shaped leaves were pleasant to look at, but they weren't the trees she knew. Connie wasn't stupid enough to assume the Forest was without its dangers. At the moment, her danger was starvation; once she ran out of food, she wouldn't know what was safe to eat.
'Speaking of eating...' Connie thought as her stomach growled. The cub sat down on a big tree root, and dug out some peanut butter crackers. While she ate, a little red-bird landed on a nearby branch to watch her. Connie took out a box of apple juice, and punched the little straw through the tiny foil dot in the top of it. Then she noticed the bird, and saw that it was eyeing her crackers.
"Are ya hungry?" she asked, and the bird made a few short hops in her direction. Connie crumbled up a cracker, and held out her paw. the bird cocked its head as it considered the offering, then it flew to Connie's paw and began to eat the crumbs. The bird's tiny claws were pointy, but not sharp. Connie was charmed by the little red-bird and the trust it showed her, the way it let her stroke the top of its head with her finger. For no reason that she could think of, she began to talk to it.
"I ran away from home today...bet you can't guess why." she said. The bird paused to look at her, then resumed eating. "My mommy and daddy said we're getting another baby."
The bird finished with the crumbs, and lifted its head to look straight at her.
"But I don't want a new baby! Ya know why? Cuz they'll ignore me an' Hope now. They were too busy hugging and making nice to even notice me...Us." she quickly amended, "They're mean...they didn't even ask us if we wanted one."
The bird then did something that surprised her; it spoke! "I see...and now you want to see how mean you can be."
"Huh?" Connie blinked. "How come you can talk? You don't look like a parrot..."
"Well, most birds in the Forest of Feelings can talk. I think it's because we're so close to the Great Wishing Star. Now...why would a new baby make you run away from home?" asked the bird.
"None of your beeswax!" she snapped.
"Come now...You've saved me the trouble of searching for food. Let me see if I can help you with your problem." said the bird.
"Can ya make the baby go away?" she asked.
"Of course not. Now, listen...your parents love you. They were probably just excited, and I doubt they meant to ignore you. What's more, they don't need your permission to have other hatchlings...er, cubs. Why can you not be happy for them?" the bird asked gently.
Connie began to cry, and the bird transferred itself to her shoulder as she covered her face. "Cuz they won't love us no more!"
"Because they'll be too busy with the new baby to care anymore..."
"Well, you're right about one thing." said the bird, "They will be busy. But do you know what?"
"Mmmwhat?" Connie mumbled.
"They'll still love you just as much. They'll have to spend a lot of time with the baby, but they'll make time for you and your sister. Maybe they'll even let you help out, and when the baby gets bigger you'll have a new friend to play with." said the bird.
Connie thought this over for a few minutes as she calmed down, then she looked up. "But now what? I'll be in trouble for running away..."
"Yes, but I think you should tell them how you're feeling about it. You're a Care Bear Cousin; feelings will be your job someday."
Connie nodded slowly, and said, "But I'm lost...I don't know the way home."
The sputtering sound of a Cloudmobile reached their ears, and the bird said, "I don't think that will be a problem. Goodbye!" And with that, the little bird flew away.
"Oh, I'm so dead..." moaned Connie.
"There!" Stellar pointed, and Brave Heart turned the wheel, banking sharply. As soon as the wheels touched cloud, the tiger vaulted out of the car and broke into a flat-out run, flinging himself to his knees in front of his daughter and hugging her so tightly she could hardly breathe. "Connie! Don't you ever scare me like that again!"
He was crying! She couldn't believe it. She had seen him cry once or twice during a sad movie, and during her rescue from No Heart's castle several months ago, but now...Somehow, this was different because she had caused it directly.
"Four hours...I was beginning to think we'd never find you! And the way No Heart's been trying to take you from us, I thought..." he sniffled sharply, and held her at arm's length to look her over for injuries. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah..." she blinked, then looked over her father's shoulder at the sound of running footsteps. "Hi, Uncle Brave Heart."
"C'mere!" Brave Heart tossed her up and caught her again, rubbing his cheek against hers, and he actually let himself purr for a moment. She had never heard him purr before, and if she had asked him why, he would have replied that it wasn't 'macho' like a roar. Yes, he was very happy to see her...but then again, he wasn't the one getting a new baby, so his opinion didn't count quite as much.
Connie looked over at her father, and said quietly, "Guess I'm in trouble, huh?"
"We'll discuss that at home...your mother's worried sick." he replied, hugging her again and kissing the side of her head.
Connie looked like she might start crying again as she said, "She's gonna yell at me!"
Neither of the males could confirm or deny that, so they just brought her to the Cloudmobile and set off for home.
Regal Heart had been relatively okay until the final hour; by that time her mind had been running through many possible scenarios, and the image of No Heart had popped unbidden into her head. Things had been way too quiet lately, and she hadn't forgotten the interest the sorcerer had seemed to take in her cubs. 'What if he took her, and we're wasting time looking for her here?' was the thought that continued to plague her. She had kept up a strong front so as to keep from frightening Hope, but inwardly she was falling apart piece by piece. She wanted to be on that search, and since she wasn't...well, she was torn between crying and putting her fist through a wall. Despite all this, she went about entertaining Hope as if nothing was amiss.
Hope wasn't blind, and she wasn't stupid. She knew her mother was upset, but since Regal thought she was fooling her, she kept silent and played with her toys.
When the front door opened, Regal Heart turned her head so sharply it was a wonder she didn't break her neck. When her husband came through the door, holding Connie by the paw, she finally lost it and burst into tears. "Stel, you found her!" she cried, scooping Connie up in her arms.
Brave Heart, who was standing in the doorway, said loudly, "Hey, where's Hope?"
"Uncle Brave Heart!" Hope squealed, running over and hugging his leg. He laughed, and tossed her up like he had done with Connie.
To say that Connie was surprised would have been an understatement. That little red-bird was right! Her parents did still want her. Now, if her mother would just stop kissing her for a moment, she could get a word in edgewise...
"Connie, why?" Regal asked her, almost pleadingly, "Why would you run away like that?"
The cub looked down, and mumbled, "Cuz you wanted a new baby more than me..."
Regal Heart blinked. "What...?"
Brave Heart felt that this was his cue to leave, so he set Hope down gently and said, "Well, I better be goin'. I'm sure there's still a few Caring Missions to do, so I'll see ya."
"Uh-huh..." Regal Heart said distractedly, still staring at her daughter in shock.
"Thanks, Brave Heart." said Stellar, who had already had time to recover.
"Hey, anytime." Brave Heart grinned, waving. "Keep outta trouble, Con."
The cub covered her face and groaned. The minute the front door closed and Brave Heart was gone, Connie started bawling. She knew she was about to be punished, she just knew it...But instead of scolding her, Regal simply held her close and rocked her until she calmed down. Hope watched all this, wide-eyed with surprise, and Stellar Heart simply stood there.
"Daddy?" Hope whispered.
"You don't really want the new baby more than us, do you?" she asked.
Stellar Heart picked her up, and sat down beside Regal on the couch. "Of course not..."
"Why would you think that, Connie?" Regal asked gently, drying her daughter's face with a tissue.
"You and Daddy got so excited about it, but you didn't even look at us." said Connie.
"Nuh-uh," said Hope, "After you left they wanted to talk to us, but you went away, so they couldn't."
"Oh..." Connie frowned. "But when the baby comes, you'll be too busy for us. You're not gonna love us anymore. I don't want a new baby..."
Her parents were certainly hurt by this, but Regal said, "Connie...we love you and Hope no matter what. The two of you were our first babies, and no matter how many cubs we have, no one can take that away from you. This baby won't take your place, or your sister's place. And yes, we will be very busy, but we'll still make time for the two of you...So don't ever try to leave us again, okay?"
Connie could only nod as her mother hugged her again. Stellar shook his head slowly and sighed, resting his cheek on top of Hope's head as she leaned against him. Connie slipped down from her mother's lap. She had some thinking she needed to do...alone.
That night, after the twins were in bed, Regal sat on the window seat in the bedroom she shared with her husband, looking through a pink photo album. She came to the first pictures that had been taken of her cubs, and trailed the pads of her fingers down the plastic covering. It hadn't been that long ago that the twins were so small. Now there was another one on the way, and instead of being happy, her firstborn twin felt unwanted. Regal turned her head and looked out the window, so that when Stellar came in from brushing his teeth he couldn't tell right away that she had begun to cry. He came over and kissed her cheek, his breath warm and smelling of Colgate, and he frowned at the damp surface his lips came in contact with.
"What's the matter?" he asked, sitting behind her on the window seat and pulling her backwards against him. She allowed this, and leaned back with her head pillowed on her husband's chest.
She sighed, wiped her cheeks with the heel of her paw, and said, "How could she think we don't love her anymore?"
"She doesn't...not really. She was just confused and upset, that's all." he said quietly.
"But she should never have been confused or upset...I mean, I was so wrapped up with the thought of a baby this past week, before any of you even knew, that I completely forgot to talk to them about it...I could have asked them how they would like it, and still kept it to myself until I was sure, and..."
"Shhhhh..." he held her more tightly. "Don't talk like that...It'll be okay. Hope's fine with it, and Connie will come around."
"But I must have made a mistake somehow if she thinks I don't love her..." she insisted, beginning to sob quietly.
"Oh, please don't..." he begged, kissing the back of her head and rocking her as if she were a cub. It always distressed him when she cried, which wasn't all that often. Whenever she comforted him, she always knew what to say and do. He was always caught unprepared. It wasn't like comforting his daughters; that he could do easily enough because they looked up to him. When an adult female cried, it actually frightened him a little.
His clumsy attempts to comfort her were appreciated, though, and she turned on the seat so that her cheek was pressed against his chest.
"Please don't..." he said again, rubbing her back.
Regal sniffled a few times and sighed, listening to his heartbeat. A soft voice from the doorway made them both turn their heads.
"Mommy?" Connie said in a voice that was barely above a whisper.
"Yes, Connie?" said Regal, quickly drying her face on Stellar's nightshirt.
"I...I'm sorry, Mommy...I do want a new baby..." Connie looked down, scuffing the floor with her toe. She brought her little paws up to her face, trying to stifle tears, and Regal crossed the room and picked her up.
"It's okay...What made you change your mind?" asked Regal.
"I thought you didn't want me anymore, but when I went away I made you cry...I was bein' mean...I didn't mean to be, I just thought..."
"Well, you shouldn't have run away...No Heart's still around, and it isn't safe to go anywhere without a grown-up." said Regal, "But I should have told you about the baby. I didn't mean to leave you out, I was just so excited. And babies can be a lot of fun, you know?"
"Guess so..." Connie mumbled, "Am I in trouble?"
"Well...not this time." said Regal, who still couldn't believe that Connie had thought she was unloved. "Next time you will be, but there won't be a next time, right?"
"Mm-hmm..." Connie nodded, yawning.
Stellar laughed softly, and got to his feet. "I think it's way past someone's bedtime."
"Yours?" asked Connie.
"No such luck!" he replied, kissing her forehead. "Night, Connie."
Regal smirked up at her husband. "Actually, it's bedtime for all of us, Mr. Droopy-Eyes."
"Well-" he began, but whatever he had been about to say was spoiled by a wide yawn.
"What did I tell ya?" chuckled Regal Heart, carrying her daughter out and into the cubs' room. Hope was already asleep, and no wonder; the clock on their wall read 10:30 PM.
As Regal tucked Connie in for the second time that night, the cub asked, "What's a new baby gonna be like?"
"Well, it'll start out very small...We'll have to be very gentle with it, and you won't be able to play with it right away. But a Care Bear Cousin baby grows fast." she said, which was very true. Connie and Hope were a few weeks shy of being a year old. "And soon you'll have a new friend to play with. Trust me, you'll love having a new baby around...Someone who will look up to you, and want to be like you."
Connie wasn't sure if she liked the idea of someone following her around, but the idea of having a new friend appealed to her. She hadn't considered that possibility when the red-bird had mentioned it to her, but hearing it from her mother was different. She could really believe it. But one thing still bothered her. "Am I gonna have to change diapers?"
Regal burst out laughing. She couldn't help it; Connie was making the 'icky face'. "Nah, I think your father and I can handle that."
"Oh, good..." Connie looked so relieved that her mother laughed again. As Regal was turning to go, she asked, "When's it coming?"
"It'll be here in two months and two weeks. Goodnight, Connie." said Regal, kissing her daughter's forehead. "I'll always love you, no matter what."
"Love you too..."
A moment after her mother had gone, Connie got out of bed and padded over to their little calendar. She flipped two pages up, and frowned as she tried to remember exactly how long a week was. Finally she shrugged, and circled the entire month of September. "Oh well...see ya then."
Stellar was already asleep when Regal got back to their bedroom, and she couldn't help but stop and stare. The tiger was lying flat on his belly at his side of the bed, purring softly. Peeping out of the crook of his elbow was a teddy bear. Regal got into bed, snickering, and kissed the back of his head. "You're hopeless..."
Author's Note: Seems like it's always Connie, doesn't it? I think it's high time I wrote a fic that centered around Hope...