"Hiding the Truth"

Author's Note: This takes place when Regal and Stellar's cubs are full-grown, so it's a bit of a time jump. Stories in the series will be numbered as I complete them, but they'll (eventually) be put in chronological order on my website; so this will be number 12 here, since I'm not sure what it's number would be in my series. As I said before, if I get an idea I don't want to lose, I might skip forward a bit or skip back. I haven't introduced Faith yet, but her part in this is very small. I've never had appendicitis or known anyone who's had it, so I had to go with what I read about it. My apologies if it isn't quite accurate. I don't own the Care Bears, but I do own Regal and her family. Soulful Heart Fox belongs to NebulaBelt. This was partly inspired by an RP with Chibikan, so she deserves partial credit as well.

"Goodbye!" called Regal as she and Stellar left the scene of their latest Caring Mission.

"And keep caring!" added Stellar.

The husband-and-wife duo had been working in tandem for a year now, since most of their cubs were adults except for Faith, who was in her 'teens'. Regal and Stellar hadn't gone on their Missions together since before their cubs were born, but it was just like falling into an old routine for them as they picked up right where they left off. Stellar Heart worked best with shy children, helping them understand that shyness was nothing to be ashamed of, and he was able to tell them from personal experience that it could be overcome. Shyness and low self esteem often went hand-in-hand, and since Regal's department was usually motivation they made a great team.

Regal was very good at helping kids boost their self confidence, and she had basically taken the lead during this last Mission. A young girl had to give her first oral report in front of her class, and with Regal's help it had gone off without a hitch.

"I love it when things go smoothly." said Regal as she drove the Cloudmobile in a gently-sloped climb.

"Yeah..." her husband agreed, stifling a yawn. He was in a passable mood, but he hadn't been sleeping very well lately. He couldn't put his finger on it, and really, he didn't think it was anything important. Perhaps he only had a little indigestion, and it wasn't bad enough to worry him. He wasn't normally prone to getting stomach aches, but they weren't severe enough to bother him too much. He only wished that they would restrict themselves to a more reasonable hour so that he wouldn't find himself sipping Alka Seltzer at his kitchen table at two in the morning. They had been especially busy lately, so he simply chalked it up to stress. He looked over the windshield at the quickly-approaching Kingdom of Caring, absently rubbing the lower right region of his abdomen.

Regal Heart glanced briefly over at him, noting his silence and his tired expression. "Did you sleep last night?"

"Not really." he admitted.

"You feeling okay?" she asked, concerned.

"Yeah, I'm fine." he smiled, "What're we having for supper?"

"Probably pizza. Hope found a new recipe she wants to try." she replied. He nodded, falling silent again. Regal pulled up to the house, and he got out of the car and followed her. "We're home!" called Regal.

Chance looked up from his card game with Pace, and said, "About time! We finished our Missions hours ago. Ha ha, full house, Pace!"

Patient Heart merely smiled, showing Chance his cards, and sweeping the pile of multi-colored candies towards himself.

"Straight flush!" Chance blurted in disbelief, then muttered disgustedly to himself under his breath.

"Don't be a sore loser, Chance." said Pace, "You beat me the past six games, you know."

The house was filled with the smell of baking pizza, which Regal inhaled with an expression of enjoyment. Stellar Heart, on the other hand, looked uncomfortable...and a bit sick to his stomach.

"I'm...I'm gonna go outside for a minute." he said, turning on his heel and walking back out.

Regal found him standing on their porch, taking deep, steady breaths, and looking a little bit peaked. "You okay?"

"Yeah..." he nodded, "Just needed some fresh air. Let's go back in."

"Are you sure?" she cocked her head and looked him up and down as if searching for the source of his discomfort.

"Positive. I'm just tired." he told her, and with that he went back inside.

Dinner was very good; Hope had put together a wonderful meal with Faith's help. Faith had made a salad of romaine lettuce, feta cheese, and olives. Hope had made two pizzas with whole wheat crusts, one plain cheese and one with mushrooms and green peppers. Connie, who disliked cooking as a general rule, had pitched in and made a batch of bread sticks. Chance had fun pretending that his bread stick was hard to bite into, but Pace proved his lie by quite easily biting into his and giving Connie a 'thumbs-up'.

The family devoured the food hungrily, with the exception of one member. Stellar picked at his salad and nibbled on a bread stick, but it seemed like he was forcing himself to do even that. Finally he excused himself from the table, saying that he was tired. He waited until he was out of their range of sight before pressing his paw to his mouth and quickening his pace.

Hope looked over at her mother as he headed upstairs, and asked, "Is he feeling okay?"

"Well, he didn't sleep too good last night." said Regal.

"Well." Pace mumbled into his water glass.

"Huh?" Regal Heart blinked.

"He didn't sleep well last night." Pace grinned at her.

"Wise guy..." Regal smirked at her son. "Can never resist the chance to show off your book smarts, can you?"

"Sure I can." he answered, "I often do."

Stellar Heart, meanwhile, was being sick as quietly as possible. 'Something must have disagreed with me,' he thought, wiping his mouth with a weary expression. He got himself a drink of water and went to the bedroom he shared with his wife. He felt a little better now, but every now and then he winced as a piercing pain sliced across the right side of his stomach. 'I just need a good night's sleep, then I'll get over this bug...' he thought, 'no need to worry them...' When Regal came up to check on him, he was sound asleep. Deciding that he was merely exhausted from his sleepless night, she silently closed the door again and went back downstairs.

Stellar awoke in a cold sweat during the night, and his stomach ache was no better. He wondered how much time had passed, and looking at his clock radio he saw that it was after midnight. He was beginning to feel ill again, but one look told him that Regal was sleeping peacefully beside him. He hated to wake her, and as long as he didn't move around too much it wasn't too bad. Grimacing in something less than pain and something more than annoyance, he slid a little closer and put his arm over her. It didn't help with his stomach ache, but he felt better just the same. Unable to sleep, he spent the night staring at the rose-print design of her night shirt.

After a second sleepless night, Stellar was increasingly aware that something was very wrong, but he pretended that there wasn't. He couldn't fool his wife, but every time she asked him if he was okay he insisted that he was. Moreover, he refused to be left out of the Caring Missions that day.

"Stellar, if you're sick, you should really stay home. You won't do anyone much good if you aren't well." she told him.

"I'm not sick." he said, and his tone ended the discussion. He was going, and that was that.

As the day wore on, Stellar Heart began to regret his decision. He was tired and in pain, and he was afraid. What if there really was something wrong with him? He had nothing against Take Care Bear, but he didn't relish the idea of a possibly invasive medical procedure. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became that she would want to do something painful. 'Nothing's wrong with me,' he thought, willing that to be the truth. He put double the effort into his Caring Missions, and Regal Heart soon stopped worrying about him.

The tiger was having an easier time keeping up his act now, though he was feeling uncomfortably warm. At around 5:00, Regal and Stellar completed their last Caring Mission for the day. Stellar was feeling nauseous again, but he tried to ignore it.

Regal noticed that he had lapsed into silence again, and again she asked, "Are you all right?"

The tiger nodded slowly and closed his eyes. He rubbed his forehead with his paw, and it came away damp with sweat. Regal didn't like the way he looked, and she said, "Maybe you should lie down when we get home. You really don't look so good..."

Stellar nodded again, but as soon as they were in the door Chance came up to him and said, "Hey Dad, I need someone to shoot hoops with, but the girls are too busy and Pace isn't interested."

"Okay, show me what ya got." said Stellar, catching the basketball Chance threw at him.

"Stel, you better lie down." Regal cautioned him, but he waved it off.

"I'm fine."

"You tired, Dad?" asked Chance.

"Nah. Let's go."

Stellar Heart lost miserably every time he tried to make a shot. He kept wincing and rubbing the lower right part of his tummy, and he was beginning to sweat more than his exertions warranted. It was the smell of their dinner cooking that finally did him in, and he dropped the ball and ran into the house with his paw pressed firmly over his mouth.

"Huh?" Chance blinked, following his father into the house. He paused at the bathroom door and frowned, then went in to help his father, who seemed very sick indeed. While Stellar was otherwise occupied, Chance got him a cup of cold water and moistened a washcloth to make a compress. By the time he was done with that, Stellar was just catching his breath.

"Sorry, Dad...I didn't know you were sick." he said, holding the compress to his father's forehead and offering the cup.

Stellar took the compress and the cup, and sighed. "I'm okay now, I think." He took a small sip of water, and stood up. "I'm gonna go lie down..."

"Okay. You think you'll be wanting some dinner later on?" asked Chance, who was feeling guilty now as if it was his fault.

Stellar grimaced and shook his head as he went to his room, stumbling a little and holding his middle.

Regal was fixing them some eggs and pancakes, sort of a 'breakfast for supper' kind of meal, when Chance loped in the kitchen and called, "Hey Ma!"

Regal cringed and rubbed her ear. "Yes, Chance?"

"Oh, sorry. I don't think Dad'll be down for dinner tonight." said Chance.

Regal saw that the pancakes were starting to get bubbly on the batter side, and flipped them. "Why not? Is he okay?"

"Yeah, considering he just upchucked." Chance said dryly.

Regal frowned and deposited the pancakes on a serving plate. "Okay," she said, handing Chance the plate, "Tell you what, why don't you guys finish setting the table? I'll go check on your father, and you can start without us." She handed him the bowl of hot scrambled eggs, and washed her paws at the sink.

"Sure, Ma."

Stellar was in agony. He lay curled up in a tight ball, panting quietly, groaning every now and then, and clutching his abdomen. He was hot and sweaty, and he felt like he was being stabbed over and over again in time with his heartbeat. Why had he kept it to himself? He was almost in tears from the pain, and he was more frightened than ever. He had never felt anything quite like this, never. He felt like a hostage to his own body, and he wanted nothing more than to escape from it. To escape from himself. To elude the pain. He didn't even look up when Regal came in to check on him.

"Stel?" she asked, alarmed by his appearance. He just lay there, groaning softly and trembling. She touched his forehead, and found it hot and glazed with sweat. "How long have you been this way?"

Stellar tried to answer her, but all that came out was a strangled whimper. He cracked open one eye and gazed pleadingly up at his wife, his expression clearly begging her to help him. After his exertions with Chance, the pain had suddenly quadrupled. His eyes drifted shut again.

"Stel?" she took his face between her paws and made him look her in the eye."Please, talk to me. When did this start?"

"Yesterday..." he croaked out.

Regal noticed where his paws were, and she remembered something Friend Bear had told her once. "Move your paws for a minute."

"Uh-uh..." he shook his head.

"I know it hurts, but trust me." she told him, and he reluctantly did as he was told. She pressed firmly on the place where his appendix would be, and he went limp with relief; pressing on it seemed to temporarily ease the pain a little bit. When she let go, however, he gave a loud yelp and began to cry softly, curling up tight.

"I'm sorry..." she told him, putting her arms around him as he buried his face on her side. He held on for dear life, shaking silently.

"What...what is wrong with me?" he asked.

"It might - " Regal began, but she was interrupted by the sound of running footsteps, and Connie appeared in the doorway.

"Who screamed?" she demanded, looking worried.

"Your father. Go call Take Care, and tell her we'll be right over." said Regal, all the while trying to reassure her husband through touch.

Connie ran back out, almost bowling Chance and Faith over in her haste to get to a phone.

"What's wrong with me?" Stellar asked again, beginning to panic.

"It might be appendicitis." Regal told him, "Friend Bear told me about the time she had it."

"Ah...ah...great..." he gasped, grinding his teeth and clenching his eyes shut. "What'll happen?"

"Well, if that's what it is, Take Care will probably have to operate to remove it." she told him, unable to find a more delicate way to tell him.

"Uh-uh, no operations!" he said as firmly as he could, which wasn't very. Another spasm of pain ripped through him, and he caught his breath. It was almost like the sting of a leather circus whip, only it came from the inside, and it seemed far more intense because it wasn't nearly as brief as a whiplash. This was no ordinary stomach ache!

"Now, we don't even know if that's what it is." she told him, "It'll be okay."

Chance came in and said, "Connie has Take Care on the phone. Wants to know if he can walk."

Stellar Heart couldn't even bring himself to uncurl, and after he shook his head Regal echoed the gesture.

"Okay, she said if he can't, not to force him to move." said Chance, unable to look directly at his father. 'What have I done?' he thought. Out loud, he said, "She'll be right over." And with that, he went out to tell Connie that their father couldn't get up.

Now all they had to do was wait. It wouldn't take long for the Care Bear Family's doctor to show up; she didn't live far away. During the wait, Stellar got sick again before curling up once more in a ball of misery. Regal felt terrible for him, and she did her best to make him comfortable.

"I don't...ah! ...I don't want an operation..." he told her.

"I know you don't," she said gently, "but you might need one."

"No..." he shook his head.

"What are you gonna do if it is appendicitis?" she asked quietly, "It won't just go away on its own; it's a serious thing." Regal didn't mean to sound so pushy, but she knew just how serious this was. Friend Bear had gotten her curious, and she had read up on the subject. She knew about the pain it would bring (was bringing), and she knew about the nausea and the fever. She also knew that if his appendix burst, the resulting infection could kill him. No, she didn't want to frighten him. But she didn't want to lose him either. "Why didn't you tell me when you started feeling sick, Stel?" she asked in gentle tones, stroking the back of his head, "Why didn't you say something was wrong before it got to this point?"

"I...I don't want there to be anything wrong..." he whispered, his speech muffled by the soft fur of her tummy, "I...I'm scared, Regs..."

"I know..." she murmured, petting his head as he sniffled quietly. As hard as his pain was to watch, his fear was truly heartbreaking.

There was the sound of voices coming from downstairs, and a few moments after that Take Care appeared in the doorway. "Hey, Stellar." she said, coming over, "Heard you weren't feeling too good.

Stellar Heart immediately tried to regain control of himself; it was one thing to cry in front of his wife, but the rest of the Care Bear Family was another matter.

Take Care dug through her bag, and pulled out a thermometer. "Okay, I need you to open up." she said, putting the thermometer into his mouth as he did so. Three minutes later, Take Care took the thermometer and held it up so that she could read it. "103.2"

Regal managed not to react to this.

"Regal, can you scoot over for a minute?" asked Take Care, "I need to get a look at his belly."

Regal tried to let go of him, but he tightened his grip. She hated doing it, but she pried his paws loose and backed away. He had the look of one betrayed as he stared forlornly up at her, his eyes pleading with her to sit back down with him, but she couldn't.

"I need you to move your paws, Stellar." Take Care told him, trying gently to nudge his paws from his belly. For a moment he looked like he would refuse, but after the initial hesitation he did as he was told.

Take Care noticed right away that there was some swelling where his appendix was, and she was pretty sure that this was indeed appendicitis. Her face fell; she didn't want to say so, but it was possible that his appendix had already burst. She couldn't tell just by looking, but in any event it was crucial that she act quickly. "We need to get him back to my office." she said briskly, pulling the blanket down all the way despite his look of panic.

"For what?" he asked.

"That appendix needs to come out." she said. There was no way to soften it, so she simply said it.

He shook his head. "Uh-uh."

Take Care looked over at Regal, and the unspoken message was clear; she couldn't do this without his consent, but if she didn't operate soon his life would be in danger.

Regal went to him again, and tilted his chin up to make sure she had his full attention. "I don't want to scare you, but do you know what will happen if your appendix bursts?"

"Bursts...?" he gulped.

"Yeah...It's not just to make the pain go away; it's to save your life." she told him.

He was visibly shaken when he heard this, but after a moment he nodded. He would allow it. He still couldn't walk, so the two females enlisted Chance's help in transporting him to the Cloud Ambulance. Chance, who was a full inch taller than his father and just as strong, had little trouble in lifting him. Stellar gritted his teeth, biting back a grunt of pain, and Chance couldn't bring himself to look at him. Pace asked if he needed help, but Chance pressed his lips together and gave his head a firm shake.

Stellar never even noticed Chance's guilt; he was lost in a vortex of pain and sickness that seemed to pull him inward. He wanted to disappear into that vortex entirely, like the proverbial snake that swallowed its own tail until it popped out of being.

Regal rode in the back of the ambulance with him, and he opened his eyes once more and looked up at her. He said nothing; he didn't need to.

Regal Heart sat in the waiting room, and forced herself to look at a magazine. Now that she didn't have to be strong for her husband, she was shaking. She didn't even look up when Brave Heart and her cubs entered the room; she hadn't heard them.

"Hey, Sis..." Brave Heart said, sitting beside her.

She squeaked in surprise, fumbling her magazine and dropping it. "Oh, hey..."

"Sorry..." he said, returning it to her; she set it aside, and looked at the door between the waiting room and the recovery room. Brave Heart cleared his throat, and said, "Is he okay? I mean, not too scared?"

"Well...I don't know, and yes." she replied steadily, almost too steadily.

Brave Heart shook his head sadly. "Poor guy..."

She nodded, rubbing her forehead with a paw that shook, her brow creased with worry. Brave Heart and Regal were alike in one respect; neither of them liked to admit to being scared. He was much more reticent about it than she was, but every now and then she would go on 'auto pilot' so that she could better deal with stressful situations. Now her brave front was beginning to crumble, and she trembled like a newborn cub. Supposing she did lose him? Supposing she had acted too late? It would be hard enough on her, but as a mother she wanted to be strong for her cubs, and she didn't know if she could be. Not if...

She felt her brother's arm go around her shoulders, and she leaned on him with a sigh, resting her head on his shoulder and closing her eyes.

"I'm sure he'll be fine." said Brave Heart, "Take Care knows what she's doing."

"I know." she said quietly.

"I shouldn't have made him play..." mumbled Chance, playing with the tuft at the end of his tail. "I knew he was tired, and..."

"It wasn't your fault." said Brave Heart, "You had no way of knowing he was sick if he didn't let on."

"Yeah, but just the same..." Chance trailed off.

Regal pulled away from Brave Heart, and went to sit with her children. She took Chance's paws in hers, and said earnestly, "It would have happened anyway, Chancie...Don't blame yourself, hon."

Chance simply looked at the ceiling and blinked a few times. They sat and waited in a tight-knit group, feeling like they were caught in a pocket of limbo as time seemed to slow to a crawl. Hours passed, but to them it might just as well have been days. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Take Care deigned to show her face. Seven felines got quickly to their feet, and the red bear's face was unreadable.

"Is he okay?" asked Regal eagerly.

Take Care sighed. "Well...his appendix burst, but I have him on antibiotics to combat infection."

Regal felt her stomach grow cold as she said, "But he'll be okay?"

"It's too early to be sure." Take Care said reluctantly. "He really should have come in yesterday, then it would have been a routine operation, but...only time will tell."

Regal's ears flattened, and Chance buried his face in his paws.

"Do you want to go see him?" asked Take Care.

Regal nodded, and turned to her cubs; four of them stood up, but Chance remained in his seat. "Chance?"

"I...I don't want to see him..." he mumbled, his voice hoarse.

Regal stepped towards him, and said to her brother and her cubs, "Go on...I'll see him soon, but you go on." When she and Chance were alone, Regal sat down beside him and put her arms around him. He stiffened and looked like he would pull away, then he gave a choked sob and returned the hug. "Chancie..."

"It's my fault..."

"Oh no..." she whispered, rocking him. "It's nobody's fault, honey...It just happened. He'll be okay, I know he will."

She didn't know, but her words seemed to calm him. After a minute or two, he cleared his throat and pulled away. "Okay...I'm ready now."

At Regal's persuasion, her brother and cubs went home for the night while she stayed with Stellar. As the night wore on, she felt her heart begin to sink. Stellar should have woken up hours ago, but he still lay in a deep, feverish sleep. His fever had climbed to a dangerously high level, and in spite of Take Care's efforts it wasn't dropping. Regal hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, but when Take Care firmly told her to go get something to eat, her answer was just as firm. She would stay where she was until her husband's condition changed, one way or the other. She wiped Stellar's forehead with a cool cloth, and though he tossed his head restlessly on the sweat-soaked pillow, he didn't wake.

Take Care left to answer the phone, and a moment later she came back with it in her paw. "It's Connie. She wants to talk to you."

"Oh..." Regal stood up, trading the cloth for the phone and moving to the far corner of the room for privacy. "Hey, Connie."

"Mom? Um...just calling to see how you're holding up." came Connie's hesitant voice.

"Oh, I'm fine." sighed Regal, rubbing the back of her neck and stifling a yawn.

"Do you want me to come down there?" asked Connie.

"No, no, you guys need your sleep. As it is, Brave Heart's gonna be two Cousins short."

Connie was quiet for a moment, then she said, "I really should be there with you. We all should. I mean, if..."

"Con, Daddy's gonna be fine. Okay? Just fine. He isn't any worse...I think he looks a little better, his color's better..." she said, which was a lie. Fortunately, guilty eyes couldn't be read over the phone, and Connie swallowed the bait.

"Well...okay. I'll see to it that the others get out on time, and we'll drop by to see him before we have to go. Um...I love you, Mom..." she finished, saying something that wasn't very easy for her to come out and say so plainly.

"I love you too, Connie. Goodnight..."


Soulful Heart Fox frowned in disgust as his phone rang, setting his book aside. He stared at the phone until it rang a third time, then huffed as he picked it up. Putting it to his ear, he said without preamble, "This damn well better be important, do you know what time it is?"

"It is important." said Pace, sounding neither offended nor intimidated. "Dad's in the hospital."

"What!" Soulful immediately sat up straight. "Wh...what happened?"

"He had appendicitis, and his appendix burst." Pace said in a too-level voice, the voice he used when he was holding on to his self-control with both hands. "Mom's with him now, but we had to leave. I...guess I just...I don't know, I just needed to talk to someone, and you're usually up late. Look, I'm sorry I called, I'll see you later."

"No - " Soulful began, but Pace had already hung up the phone. Pursing his lips in annoyance, Soulful quickly dialed Regal and Stellar's number and waited for someone to pick up.

"Hello?" Pace answered after the second ring, sounding like he had been interrupted in the middle of a cry.

"Listen, Pace, it's never too late for something like this. If you need to talk, then talk. I'm all ears." Soulful told him. He and Pace had always gotten along well, and it hurt him more than he liked to admit that he might have upset Pace with his brusque 'greeting'. He heard Pace take a few deep breaths to steady himself, and in a strangely composed voice he told Soulful about everything that had happened, and how their father might die now because he had waited too long to seek treatment. Soulful didn't know what to say, and he certainly didn't know how he could help their present situation.

Almost as if he picked up on this, Pace said, "I know there's nothing anyone can do about it, except for Take Care...I guess I just needed to talk to someone about it, someone who wouldn't start crying...I don't want to upset my sisters, and Chance blames himself..."

"Well, that's stupid." interrupted Soulful, "If it's anyone's fault, it's your father's for waiting too long."

Pace gulped, but didn't dispute the truth of this. When Soulful began to apologize, he said, "Don't. No. That's true. But it's not his fault he got sick, and I know that wasn't what you were saying. I know it's nobody's fault, but..."

"How's your mother?" asked Soulful, who didn't like the path this conversation had taken.

"She's...well, she's still with Dad. She seemed fine when I left, but she wouldn't let us stay with her, so I'm not sure." replied Pace. "I just realized, she didn't eat any dinner..."

Soulful looked at his clock, and saw that it was twelve after midnight. He thought for a moment, mentally going over what he had in his refrigerator, and said, "Take Care knows what she's doing. She didn't say it was a definite that he'd...you know. From what you said, he has an okay chance at pulling through, right?"


"Then trust her." Soulful cut him off, getting to his feet. "Get some sleep if you can. I'll bring your mother something to eat."

"Oh, but..." Pace protested; he hadn't meant to get Soulful to leave his house.

"I want to see for myself how she is. Get some sleep, Pace."

Finally, having convinced Pace to at least try going to bed, Soulful strode towards his fridge and opened it. He didn't see much that was worth eating, since he usually ate at the Hall or at Bright Heart's, but he did find a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he had been saving for his lunch the next day. Since there was nothing else, he sighed and wrapped it up to bring to Take Care's office.

Regal looked up as someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she blinked in surprise. "Soulful? What...what're you doing here?"

The fox held up a foil-wrapped square. "I brought you a sandwich."

She smiled after a moment, touched by the gesture, but at the moment the thought of eating turned her stomach. "Well...thank you, but..."

Soulful merely nodded, and set the packet on the nightstand before coming over to look at Stellar. His heart sank; Stellar really didn't look good. Stealing a look at Regal, he felt a swell of panic as he saw that she was near tears. She wasn't looking at him; her eyes had barely left Stellar, and now they were focused on his drawn and sweaty face once more. She dipped the cloth in a bowl of cold water, and placed it on her husband's forehead. Soulful began to reach out, but his paw stopped about an inch away from her shoulder. This was something he couldn't intrude upon. He lowered his paw again and sighed, saying, "You'd better sleep."

She shook her head. "No, I can't. What if he wakes up for two minutes, and I'm not here? Or..."

"Regal, you won't be able to keep him here by staring at him." he said as gently as he could, taking half a step back when her head snapped up. "He's being taken care of. You need to worry about yourself now."

She bit back an angry reply; it wasn't Soulful she was angry at, it was the truth in his statements and her own helplessness that got her hackles up. Taking a deep breath, she said, "He wouldn't leave if it were me on this bed. I can't leave. I won't."

The fox gave an uncompromising frown. "You're being stubborn."

"That's right, I am." she answered. More gently, she said, "I know what you're trying to do, Soulful...and believe me, I appreciate it...but even if I tried, I wouldn't be able to sleep. So where else would I be?"

Stellar tossed his head a little, frowning in his sleep. Regal bit her lip, and sat down in her chair. Soulful, though he was profoundly uncomfortable to be doing so, began to reach out. After a few false tries, he put an awkward paw on her shoulder, not looking at her. She looked up and saw him looking at her husband with an expression of sorrow and worry, and she felt herself smile a little. She reached up and put her paw over his, and resumed her vigil as Soulful blushed in discomfort.

Morning came, and Regal hadn't moved from her seat or slept. Soulful Heart, despite Regal's attempts to get him to go home and rest, was sitting curled up in a chair near the door. He had tried to stay awake with her, but sleep had finally claimed him and he snored softly, every now and then smacking his lips as he adjusted his position. Regal hadn't slept a wink, but she wasn't quite as worried as she had been several hours earlier. Take Care told her that the fever was going down, and that he should be all right. Regal would sleep, yes, but not until Stellar woke up and she had a chance to talk to him. His color was certainly better, and he seemed more relaxed.

Regal looked up as the door opened again, and she smiled when she saw her cubs. "Hey..."

"Did he wake up yet?" asked Chance, anxiously.

"Not yet," Regal shook her head, but she stopped speaking when Stellar's face twitched at the sound of their voices. She took his paw, and called his name.

Soulful, from his chair across the room, snorted as he awoke, but he said nothing as he sat up. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and watched them.

Stellar made a small noise in response to Regal's voice, almost a reply, and moved his head a little. It was like coming up for air. He could hear a voice he recognized. A voice calling a name. His name? He was aware of a growing soreness in the lower right part of his belly, but that pain was, at the very least, bearable. It was nothing compared to what he had felt before. There was that voice again, accompanied by others...

"Stellar Heart? Wake up, Stel..." that loved voice...

"Dad..." a male voice, not quite as deep as his own, one that was usually jovial and mischievous.

"Stellar..." called the female voice again...

"Regal?" he breathed, his voice slightly gravelly from the tube that had been down his throat during the surgery.

"Yeah, it's me..." she said, a smile in her voice.

Stellar was a little more alert now; he remembered what had happened, though not in great detail, and he knew who was speaking to him. He opened his eyes, and at first he saw nothing but a blurry, grayish haze. He blinked a few times, and Regal's face swam into focus.

"How do you feel?" she asked him.

"Hurts..." he whispered, touching his side gingerly with a paw that felt as heavy as a lead weight, "but not as bad."

"Well, that's good." she smiled, kissing him. "You'll probably be a little sore for a while, but the worst is over." she smirked, and couldn't resist an attempt at humor, "And hey, for the next week or so you get to sit on your butt and watch TV!"

He cracked a small smile, but he didn't dare laugh. "Yep..."

Chance, who was sitting by his other side and looking remorseful, said, "Dad, I'm sorry..."

Stellar blinked, looking confused, and asked, "For what, son?"

"I knew you weren't feeling too good, but I made you play anyway." said Chance.

The tiger shook his head slowly, more from exhaustion than anything else, and said, "Wasn't your fault."

"Besides," added Regal, "you didn't force him to play with you." she gave her husband a canny look, "I think he just didn't want to admit there was something wrong."

"No kidding..." Soulful muttered, but no one responded to that.

"I didn't want there to be anything wrong." Stellar rasped quietly, thinking in a rather detached manner that he wanted a cough drop, but he was afraid of falling asleep with it in his mouth and choking on it. "I...guess I was trying to kid myself."

Chance perked up a bit, though he still felt badly for his father.

Stellar's eyelids were beginning to droop, but he was alert enough to respond when his other cubs came up one by one to hug him gently. Regal noticed this, and asked, "Well, should we let you get some rest?"

"Hmm?" he muttered, turning his head towards her; he hadn't heard her clearly.

"You tired?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'm pretty well zonked..." he answered softly.

"Well, we'll let you sleep." she said, getting to her feet, and the others followed suit. Soulful began to edge past her, but she put a paw on his shoulder to stop him. "Hey, you, did you think you could get away without being thanked?"

"Ah..w...I..." he stammered, hoping she wouldn't do something embarrassing like kissing his cheek in front of everyone.

But she didn't. She just smiled, and gave his shoulder a little squeeze. "Thanks for bringing the sandwich, and for staying...Don't be a stranger, hear?"

"Won't..." he mumbled, blushing furiously as he sidled out of the room.

"Actually...can you stay, Regal?" asked Stellar. He wasn't afraid, now that it was over, but he didn't want to be alone.

She smiled, and sat back down. "Sure."

"Bye, Daddy, feel better!" chirped Faith, kissing his forehead and making him smile.

"I love you," said Hope, repeating the gesture.

Pace merely hugged him once more, and Connie was trying to look unconcerned...and failing miserably. She smiled finally, and said, "Bye, Dad." before following Pace out the door.

Chance gave his trademark goofy grin, saying, "See ya on the court, Dad."

Stellar almost laughed at that, but caught himself in time and shot back, "You're on..."

Regal put her paw on her husband's forehead when they were alone once more. It was still a bit too warm, but he was clearly past the worst of it. "Should I ask Take Care to give you something for the pain?" she asked.

"Mm-mmm, I'm just tired..." he answered.

"Well, you go ahead and get some sleep." she told him, kissing him again. "I'll probably be in the next bed over when you wake up. If not, I'll be sitting here."



He gave a groggy smile. "I love you..."

Monday found Stellar Heart parked in front of the tube, wearing a baggy T-shirt to hide the bandages. He had been home for three days now, and he was bored out of his gourd. He wasn't a watcher of soap operas, but he had to face it. He was desperate. Yes, he was grateful to be alive, but he wanted out of the house. Since that wasn't possible, he had to make do with 'Days of Our Lives'.

He should have known better. After ten minutes, he turned the television off in disgust and stared at the blank set. He cocked his head at the coating of dust on the screen, and reached out to scrawl the words "Wash Me" on its surface. Regal found him flicking a dust bunny off his fingers, and she noted his bored expression with something between amusement and concern.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"Oh, they killed off one girl, another girl is cheating on her boyfriend with this big beefy guy, and someone's back from the 'dead'." he sighed.

"Aww..." she grinned, giving him a one-armed hug. "Want a snack?"

He smiled at her. "You always know, don't you?"

"Yep, I've got ESPN...whoops, too much TV...must escape!" she ducked into the kitchen, his laughter following in her wake.