Author's Note: I now have four unfinished stories in progress, but this one wouldn't leave me alone, and I needed something to get me back into the swing of things. My other stories are on hiatus for now, and when I'm not studying or working I'm usually too tired to do much. Now...I've introduced plenty of 'cute-and-cuddly' characters, though some of them admittedly have a bit of an attitude, but it's easy enough to accept an attractive package. You won't get that in this story, but I hope you like him anyway. And Soulful Heart Fox belongs to NebulaBelt (you guys know the drill ;) ).
Late autumn was always cold in the Kingdom of Caring, and if anyone was around to ask them, the Care Bear Family would certainly agree that this November night was the coldest so far. No one was overjoyed to be attending a late-night meeting at the Hall of Hearts, courtesy of Brave Heart. The lion himself had dark circles under his eyes and was wearing a heavy winter coat, but his energy level was high that night, and with good reason.
"Everybody here?" he asked, his eyes briefly scanning the room. Faint, tinny-sounding music caught his attention, and he pointedly cleared his throat.
Chance, the tip of his tongue poking out the corner of his mouth in concentration, was giving his thumbs a workout and was completely oblivious to his uncle. The beeps and music continued, and Brave Heart began to tap his foot.
"Huh?" the liger glanced up, but not before he hit the pause button.
"Put down the Gameboy, and pay attention please..." sighed Stellar, trying not to yawn. Chance sheepishly complied as a few of the Family members began to giggle.
"Thank you." Brave Heart said sarcastically. "Cheer, wake up Grumpy, will you? And Soulful, quit tapping your fingers on the table! That drives me nuts."
The fox snorted disdainfully, and glared back at him. "Well? Are you going to start the meeting already, or are you going to keep us here all night?"
Brave Heart folded his arms. "Friends...and Soulful..."
No reaction from the fox, who really couldn't have cared less.
"We have a thief!" announced the lion, pausing for effect. Everyone was silent, waiting for him to continue, and Chance leaned back in his chair, looking bored. Brave Heart went on, "As you know, tonight it was my turn to do an inventory check on our winter supplies, and I found this," he held up a handful of walnuts in the shell, "right where the apples were supposed to be."
Pace raised his paw, clearing his throat politely, "Excuse me, but that seems more like a trade than outright thievery."
"WAAAAAAAAA!" yelled Chance, who had leaned back too far in his chair and fallen over backwards. There was a brief commotion as those around him made sure he was okay, and Connie said something under her breath that sounded like 'how old are you?'.
"Maybe if it was an even trade," said Brave Heart, "and even if it was, whoever did it never asked if they could. That's stealing. Those apples were where they should have been two hours ago, and now they're gone. It couldn't have been one of us."
"Well," reasoned Pace, "Maybe whoever took the apples needed them more than we did. Nothing grows up here this time of year, so..."
"Until we know for sure, none of us is safe!" Brave Heart interrupted, "I say we track down who, or what, did this, and make 'em tell us why!"
Darien scratched the back of his head and gave a wide yawn. "Can't it wait until mornin'? It's a handful of freakin' apples, okay? It's not as if someone burned the place down..."
"Darien..." whispered Hope, shaking her head no.
"What? I was just sayin'..." he mumbled, but fell silent.
Soulful Heart got up, and held up his paws as if to say 'that's it'. "I'm going back to bed. This is ridiculous."
The Care Bear Family watched him leave, and more than half of them wanted to do the same, but they all understood that it wasn't an option. Even Darien sighed as if giving up, and sat up a little bit straighter.
"Now, Bright Heart, if you would be so kind, follow me into the store room." said Brave Heart, turning to head for their food stores without waiting for a reply. Pace watched as the raccoon did as he was told, then turned his attention back to the walnuts, which Brave Heart had set down on the table. He frequently went on nature walks, and he now remembered seeing pieces of walnut shells on one of his hikes. At the time he hadn't thought much about it, but now that he thought about it he remembered that the pieces looked more like they had been smashed open by a rock than chewed apart by squirrels.
While the others were half-heartedly poking about the Hall in search of clues, Pace decided to head back alone to where he had first seen those shells. He took a flashlight from the supply closet, and tucked it into one of the pockets of his parka. If the 'thief' was leaving some sort of payment for the things he or she took, Pace was pretty sure he had nothing to fear by going alone. Whoever it was seemed to have some sort of conscience.
Pace was just turning to leave when Noble Heart stopped him.
"And where are you trying to slip away to?" he asked.
"I'm going to look around outside...Maybe check up on something I saw earlier this week." Pace said cautiously, hoping that the horse wouldn't make him bring someone along.
Noble Heart seemed to consider this for a moment, then he nodded. "All right, but leave your cell phone on."
Pace nodded and slipped out into the night before Noble Heart could change his mind. He drove low, hovering a mere ten feet over the main road that lead to the Forest of Feelings, going slowly so that he could keep an eye out for anything unfamiliar. It wasn't long before he came across Soulful Heart Fox, who was still on his way home. The fox turned and shielded his eyes against the glare of Pace's headlights as the liger descended to talk to him, the Cloudmobile dissipating after he got out.
"The meeting's over already?" Soulful asked doubtfully.
"Everyone's looking for clues." Said Pace, as usual being as succinct as possible.
"And you?" asked the fox.
"The same. I saw something a few days ago, and thought it might be good to look into it a bit more."
Soulful raised his eyebrows, looking both curious and worried. "Around where we live, you mean?"
"Well, not right in our back yards, but yes." Said Pace.
The level of light diminished as a cloud chose that exact moment to obscure the moon, and the temperature actually seemed to drop.
"What is it you saw?" Soulful asked, looking very serious now.
The answer wasn't what he expected. "Walnut shells."
'Walnut shells?' thought Soulful, knowing that it was pertinent if Pace was following up on it, but unable to see just how. "Squirrels, no doubt." He said uncertainly.
Pace shook his head. "No, not squirrels. Have you ever seen a walnut that a squirrel's been chewing on?"
Soulful almost said 'why would I want to?', but he simply shook his head instead.
Pace smiled a bit, easily able to read his 'uncle's' expression, and explained, "Well, if you knew what to look for, you'd see scrape marks from their teeth on the edges of the pieces. The bits I found didn't have that, and since walnuts were found at the Hall—"
Soulful cut him off. "You made the connection."
Soulful Heart frowned at him. "And so you just decided to go traipsing off into the night – alone, no less – in search of a thief whose nature is completely unknown? I'm disappointed, you used to be smart."
Pace was used to Soulful's bluntness, and wasn't offended. "Well, first of all, I don't 'traipse'; I walk. Second of all, I'm not alone at the moment. And third, I wouldn't use the word 'unknown'. Whoever it is has some concept of morality, otherwise why bother to leave payment at all?" he smiled, "Even if it's in the form of a few walnuts."
"Hmph…" Soulful grunted, "You still shouldn't do this alone, though."
The liger shrugged passively, and clicked on his flashlight. "You're welcome to tag along if you want to. To be honest, anyone else would probably talk too much, and we'd never find anything."
"That's not necessarily a bad thing, considering it's the middle of the night." Grumbled the fox, trudging unhappily after Pace, who had turned and pushed his way through the bushes that lined the path. "Gentle Heart hardly talks at all." He pointed out.
Pace dismissed that thought with a shake of his head. Gentle tended to spook too easily, and she was busy back at the Hall.
Soulful cursed as they forged their way through a briar patch, and he bristled when Pace turned and said 'shh'.
"Don't you 'shush' me!" he hissed back, "I'm tired, I'm cold, and it'll take me hours to get these burrs out of my tail!" He clutched the appendage in his paws and picked at his severely matted fur.
Pace gestured firmly for silence and pointed to his ear, mouthing the word 'listen'.
Soulful listened, and at first he heard nothing. Then, after a few seconds, he heard a distant crunching sound. Apples had been missing from the hall, and what he heard sounded exactly like someone biting into a fresh apple and chewing hungrily, as if whatever it was couldn't fill its belly fast enough.
Pace nodded at the look of comprehension on Soulful's face, covering the flashlight so that only a tiny shaft of light peeked through his fingers. Silently, the two of them cautiously approached the sound, having no idea what they would find.
Abruptly the crunching ceased, and for the briefest of moments there was a strange scuttling sound and a thump. Then…nothing.
Soulful swallowed hard, unsure of the exact reason why that sound made the bile rise in his throat. It almost sounded familiar. He didn't want to go a single step further, but he knew he'd never get a wink of sleep with this mystery hanging over his head.
What they found was a simple clearing, about ten feet in diameter, and four well-gnawed apple cores.
Pace picked up an apple core by its stem, frowning slightly as he examined it.
"An animal?" asked Soulful, though he didn't think so.
No…An animal wouldn't eat an apple and leave the core, I don't think…At least, the core would be in pieces. Look at these tooth marks. They almost look human…but they're too wide."
"Enough is enough." Declared Soulful, "We're going back to the Hall to show the others what you found, then I'm done with this."
Pace didn't argue, and the two of them left the area. Neither of them witnessed a small patch of cloud lift like a trap door, showing nothing more than moonlight glinting off of eight large eyes, which were narrowed in suspicion.
The so-called 'thief' was well aware of the concept of stealing. He had, after all, been living unseen in the Kingdom of Caring for a number of years. It was only quite recently that he had begun to sneak into the Hall of Hearts to get the food he needed, having grown sick (literally, in some cases) of eating walnuts. This past year he had 'changed', and could no longer eat the food he was accustomed to. He was able to subsist on wild fruits and such, but as winter drew near he was finding it harder and harder to keep his belly full. He liked walnuts well enough, but his method of opening them involved two rocks and some luck. After having a belly ache one night, and smashing his 'paw' the next night (which was followed by a string of naughty words), he decided that he couldn't take it anymore. He would see what the Care Bears were eating, and leave something in return, hoping that they wouldn't notice.
It was a faint hope, since all he had to leave them was walnuts. 'The biggest irony,' he thought, 'is that I can't simply ask them for food.'
He didn't dare. He had seen how some of them reacted to his appearance when he was a lot smaller, and if they saw him now…Before, the main danger was being smashed. Not at all an attractive way to expire, but at least it would have been quick, even as big as he had been. But now he was ever so much bigger, and he didn't want to think of what would happen if he encountered one of them. It didn't really occur to him that they might think he was dangerous if they ever met him.
And now, two of them had almost discovered him. He would have to relocate, dig out a new burrow, and move his cache of walnuts. How tedious…
Author's Note: So, has anyone guessed the nature of the latest newbie yet? The eight eyes should be a dead give-away. More to come soon.