Chapter 14

The alternate ending

So, why the update after all this time. A friend's request put it to mind, for an alternate ending, and I really wanted to do it. The ending to this story was always up in the air as I wrote it, but it was always going to come down to a decision Kit would make.

The original ending was a logical choice in terms of that it wrapped up the story with fewer loose ends. Kit makes a choice, and things more-than-less go back to the way they had been, and life at Higher for Hire goes on with a sense of closure to the adventure. It's familiar and comfortable. But had Kit made the other choice and if was conveyed well enough through the context of the entire story, it wasn't an easy choice the course of furry events would have changed forever. A sense of closure pertaining to Higher for Hire would have been impossible. But, screw Higher for Hire, this is fanfiction.

Now, Wikipedia defines fan service as 'material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience.' The audience in this case may be more of a fandom minority, whom I would count myself among, those who love the thought of the time when Kit was a pirate under Karnage's wing, and the possibilities then and thereafter. So, I'm posting this alternate ending to the story for the hell of it, for us. :)

Dragons and volcanoes. That was his day. And now, that wasn't even the worst of it.

No, the worst wasn't getting his fur singed by the black, fire-breathing dragon that had almost swallowed him whole in its enormous snapping jaws, nor was it when the same bastardly beast swatted his plane out of the sky with a slap of its wing. Nor was it the excruciating sight he witnessed when his airship, the Iron Vulture, seemingly fell to its doom over the eruption of a volcano that had collapsed an entire mountain range down with it. Nor was it watching his crew, flying their attack planes, fall back and leave him behind, ditching him for good in the jungle. The worst wasn't even when that blasted Baloo arrived (if he ever had a choice between being eaten by a dragon and having to see that protege-pilfering pilot's slobbering face one more time, he just might ask the dragon if it wants fries with that) and landed that bucket-of-bolts seaplane on the lake behind him ― no, actually, for once, that was some fortunate timing.

Even after suffering all that, the worst, the absolute worst, was where he faced now, the nerve of these Alpacatan soldiers ― these motherless marching band rejects ― who had swooped in on him from behind the jungle foliage with their rifles aimed. After all he had just been through, the tangle with a monstrous dragon, these guys come along and think they're going to put him in a cage, or shoot him dead. The real kicker was that they had the guns to do it. There was no way he could let either one of those things happen, though the emotional throes he was choking back, having watched his whole pirate enterprise fall apart before his eyes in just the last few moments, told him to just surrender already, for he had nothing left to fight for.

But he had one thing going for him. The only thing he had left now: 'I don't want to hurt Baloo,' Kit had said, while they were watching the Sea Duck swoop down into the lake. 'But... I don't wanna leave you.'

He had heard the soldiers coming before the boy did. Luckily, the Sea Duck was inbound, and that fool Baloo and his tiring oh boo-hoo I have to butt in and save my navigator crusade was going to be his way out. Their way out, him and the boy.

He just needed a hostage for a few minutes to stay their gunfire, wait for the plane to land, steal the plane, and off we go. Unfortunately for the boy, he happened to be the only thing hostagable around.

"Wha'? What are you doing?" the boy exclaimed, getting suddenly turned around, an impromptu bullet shield between Karnage and the soldiers, with a cutlass blade under his chin.

"Act scared," Karnage hissed at him.

"Act? I'm not bulletproof!" And so the standoff ensued, but in their exchanges, these rifle-wielding wimps with cat food breath had the audacity to consider that he and the boy were in cahoots. He yanked Kit's head back by a fistful of hair, to show them he meant business of the most not-jokingly kind, pressing the blade against the boy's throat for them all to see clearly. "Try me," he warned them.

"Ow! Don't try him," yelped Kit. He glared up at Karnage with an angry, warning look that implied someone might be getting a finger bitten if he keeps this up. "He has no idea what he's doin'."

"Keep talking if you want a shave," Karnage murmured down at him. So he was making it believable, sue him. You know, the brat could at least be more appreciative of a split-second plan, a great plan, if he did think so himself, that was about to work out brilliantly. Look what a favor he was doing him, anyway: a quick getaway where Balooser didn't have to get his itty-bitties hurt because he could assume the kid was being taken against his will. No long goodbyes. No quick goodbyes, even. Just gone, ties cut, adios muchachos and see you next robbery.

Ooh! Maybe later he could send Higher for Hire a singing telegram. Like:

Roses are red,

Your face must be blue,

Now the boy likes me

Better than you

Yours very sincerely hating you,

Don Karnage

And the singer better know how to roll that R, damn it.

It took Baloo long enough to finally beach the plane on the shore. And how fun, he brought along the bossy businesswoman ― if only Aunt Louise would just drop out of the blue sky right now, he'd have the perfect trifecta of faces that make him want to go AAAUUUGGGHH. "About time. Back, you! All of you! Back, back, back!" Slowly, he began to back-step toward the Sea Duck, his cutlass towing Kit's neck along with him. He kept most of his back toward Baloo and Rebecca, obscuring their line of sight on Kit.

That's when Big Mouth decided to open his yap and become a hostage negotiator. "Karny, wait, don't hurt 'im!" cried Baloo. "Look, he ain't done nothin' to you," so he pleaded. Nothing? Karnage shot Baloo a look, unspokenly asking him if he really wanted to go there. "Well, er, lately," stammered Baloo. "I hope. Just whaddaya want, anyway?"

Want? Was Baloo and Rebecca jumping hand-in-hand into the middle of the lake too much to ask? With a gesture of his head, he directed them to move away from the plane. "If you do not mind, I will be making another dashing getaway, leaving you all to make an acquaintanceship with each other in this lovely, stinking-like-llama-spit jungle!"

This was it! Just a few more yards, and...

"Ready...!" one of the military commanders had suddenly shouted. A dozen rifles clicked.

Karnage stopped moving, he and Kit staring wide-eyed at the movement of the soldiers. "C-captain? What're they ―"

"Aim...!' the commander shouted, and so the soldiers did, in unison.

― about to shoot a whole lot of bullets without any more ado, was the answer to Kit's unfinished, uttered question.


"Eep," squeaked Don Karnage. In an instant he had dove to the ground, dragging Kit under him. The rifles fired, but over their heads. Over the Sea Duck, even. They were shooting out over the lake. Karnage raised his head; his ears were bombasted by a roaring boom, a boom his ears knew... one of the cannons from the Iron Vulture.

And there it was, when he looked, practically hobbling over the lake. It looked like hell, torn up and still smoking from dragon fire and volcanic ash. Its front cannons were extended around the prow, firing heavy shells that exploded in the water with massive splashes. Lined up on the open prow was his crew, muskets in hand, firing upon the soldiers. They had dropped a long rope ladder down. They were coming for him!

It didn't take long before the soldiers had to reload, and in that moment of their disarray, the Vulture fired another cannon shot, this one exploding behind them in the thick of the jungle. All sorts of earthly debris splattered through the sky. The soldiers scattered for their lives.

Chugging and sputtering, the resounding noises of the airship's wounded mechanical lifeforce, it came to a slow, hovering halt just over the shoreline. "Vaminos, boy!" he shouted, and wasted no time grabbing onto the rope and quickly climbing.

But he realized, about halfway up, he was climbing alone. "Boy?" A glance down, and Kit was staring up at the Vulture, a quite stunned look on his face. A glance to the side, and there were Baloo and Rebecca, taking cover behind a large tree ― they were calling after him.

"Boy! No! No, look up!" hollered Karnage, over the deafening din of the airship's noise. He dropped down several rungs. But Kit wasn't listening to him; he was looking at Baloo, and he could see it on the kid's face, that he was losing him. This was wrong! All wrong! Those buttinsky bears were making the boy feel guilty! Much as he would have loved to have gone down there and render some black eyes, there was this little matter of all these soldiers somewhere down there who wanted to put bullet holes in his nice blue coat. "You will get over them!"

Falling to the last rung, and holding fast to it with only one hand, Karnage made a swipe for Kit with the other. He just nicked the collar of the kid's sweater. He needed him to reach up and take his hand. "Come on, boy! Hurry!"

But Kit had staggered back from the ladder, favoring his sprained foot, blinking as his eyes glossed over.

"Boy...! Don't!" Karnage wanted to scream it, but his words came out in more of a low grunt as he almost lost his grip on the rung, his feet swaying. Then came the blow. He watched the boy's face, how he shook his head, drawing his gaze toward Baloo, then at the ground... that is, looking anywhere but up. Then the boy mouthed the words, 'I'm sorry.'

Sorry? Sorry? Sorry is what this kid and his miniature mind would be if Karnage could reach far enough to shake some sense into him, especially after a week like this. He knew the boy was sometimes slow on the uptake, but how could he not know by now just how sorry he would be if he settled for Cape Suzette? He could he not want to be with his captain again? He was vaguely aware that the Alpacatan soldiers were regathering and reloading their rifles. He had seconds before they started firing again, firing at an easy target, a dangling dope on a rope.

Still, he kept his arm outstretched, one hand holding the bottom-most rung on the rope ladder, the other wide open, stretching so far that it constricted the air from his chest. Holding out for hope, at this last moment, a moment he would never get back. The words uttered from his clenched teeth were as subtle as a whispered prayer: "Come ― with ― me."

Kit flashed a look up at him, ruddy but with a peculiar expression that might sometimes be referred to as a game face. That was when Don Karnage realized ― and it had got his blood drumming faster than any blast from a lightning gun ever had ― the boy had mouthed the words to Baloo, not him.

In a hasty hobble, Kit took a one-legged jump and caught onto Karnage's hand with both of his, the instant the rifles began firing, and the Iron Vulture ascended sharply, in a beat taking them to a height of a fatal fall, all while they swayed uncontrollably from the bottom rung. "I got you!" shouted Karnage, with a mighty heave hoisting Kit up to grab the ladder. Kit did, taking the opposite side, so that suddenly they were facing each other, their expressions both a reflection of the other, a deer-in-the-headlights type of shock. Don Karnage blinked, for a part of him yet could not believe his own eyes. "I got you," he said, wonderstruck at the fact described in those three plain words.

Kit yelped when a bullet whistled past the back of his leg. He just looked up and started climbing, not saying anything. Not until they were about half way up, and the wind was whipping them around: "Stop rockin' the rope!"

"Oh no, you don't start THAT again!" spat Karnage. After a week like this, they were practically getting used to these perilous, hold-on-for-your-life predicaments, so he figured he might as well set a ground rule: "And next time you fall, hands off my tail!"

In but a moment, the airship ascending for the clouds, they were far above the canopy of dark green treetops, acres around them still getting swept over with volcanic ash and tons of dust and debris from the collapsed mountains. The destruction of the landscape was their lasting memory of the unimaginable treasures they left deep underground.

Kit was first up and aboard. Karnage, a little slower thanks to achy joints that nobody better be ever listening to when they cracked, pulled himself up over the edge of the prow a moment later. He was surrounded by the usual suspects. Then, in his first official act as captain back on his own ship... he yelled "Get away from me," rolled flat on is back and sprawled out on the iron floor, officially signing out of any other business that didn't involve planning where what beautiful beach he was going to and what beautiful women were going hand feed him peeled grapes while he laid in a hammock for a week or twelve. But what was really nice about that grimy iron floor was rather the fact that it wasn't being blow-torched by a giant dragon, barbecued by a volcano, or run amok through by a psychotic, overgrown mercenary trying to bash his head in with a steel pipe. He let out a laugh.

"Almost missed the ride, mister," he told the boy. He saw Kit on all fours, his head peering over the side of the prow, the wind whisking his hair around his brow and and his red scarf flap around his neck. He was looking down at the lake. Karnage joined him ― partially ― leaning over just enough to get his arm extended over the edge of the platform, and, abandoning all airs of piratical nobility, made a very uncouth gesture with his middle finger at the jungle and literally everyone down there in it, particularly with those who were now officially navigator-less. He grunted as he sat up, aches in just about every muscle. The boy, though, didn't seem to be able to pull himself away from looking down. He was looking at the Sea Duck, no doubt, by now just a small, yellow glimmer. Karnage was about to tell him to get away from there, to not look back ― never look back ― but he had a second thought about it that stayed his voice. He had done plenty of back-looking himself while scratching to survive side-by-side with the boy. He would have never won him back if he had not.

"So, uh, boss," said Will, approaching like he was initiating small-talk at a cocktail party, trying not to sound too forward when he asked, "You manage to at least pocket somethin' outta there, cause all of us made out with squat."

"Any gold?" asked Mad Dog.

"Any jewels?" asked Ratchet.

Gibber leaned down and whispered something in the captain's ear, then stepped back with childlike eagerness to hear the answer.

"WHERE would I find green stamps in there?" snapped Karnage. Gibber bowed his head and sulked.

But wait... it occurred to Don Karnage, then, a bit surprisingly, that for all this jungle and treasure hunting fiasco, he had come out of it with less than empty pockets ― there was no gain in all the aches and pains, scrapes and bruises, and he had lost several planes, lots of explosives, ruined a set of clothes, the ship was ravaged, barely sky-worthy and in would be a long time before it was ready to partake in any honest to goodness pirate business. Strange ― he ought to be furious, he thought, cuffing heads, kicking crates and casting blame. He felt like he had come out ahead, though. But while the synapses in his brain were firing away and concerning themselves with these details, what he answered was, "Shut up," and waved them off.

That's when Kit stood up, wobbly, staggering to keep his weight off his foot, turning to the crew. Karnage regarded his expression as the kind that was dealing with a plethora of second guesses already. Kit glanced at all of them in turn, and looked like he was about to be sick, and was pretty angry about it, too, a scowl made darker by the gash streaked over his brow, a stance made to appear gruffer by the scruffs and mud stains incurred to his sweater through the week. There was no concealing the way his eyes flushed with tears. He said nothing, but bolted through the crowd ― blowing off some steam by shoving Sadie on his keister on the way ― and took off.

Karnage, standing up, glowered at them all like a parent scolding his children for the way they were treating a younger sibling, finger shaking and all. "I don't know what you did, but stop it!" he snarled.

"Sor-ry," they mumbled.

Kit had holed himself up in the radio room, behind a scarred iron door that had been blow-torched open once, and welded back together sometime within the last year. The lock didn't work anymore, unfortunately. Here in this relatively quiet room the irregular chugging of the airship's wounded engines drummed through the metal walls; every now and then the Vulture listed to either side, as if beset upon by an invisible wave rolling underneath it.

He had found things on the Iron Vulture pretty much exactly has he had left them, including the nook where (stolen, of course) first aid supplies were stashed. Some of the stuff in those dusty boxes was probably older than he was. He had taken a couple rolls of bandages for his foot, and a few small adhesive ones for his forehead, whereas the old ones had already fallen off somewhere between running for his life out of that cavern and dragon breath fricasseeing his fur. His foot was now swollen round behind his toes, and he was wrapping one of the bandages around it like he had some idea of knowing what he was doing, or knew when to stop. He ended up with a big cloth ball for a shoe.

All the while, he eyed the large mic and radio system set on the table; he had come to offer Baloo some sort of peace, but when it came to it, what could he ever say that would ever make Papa Bear feel better about it? He had shut the radio off the instant he burst into the room, and now wondered if he'd ever gather the guts to turn it back on, to face the music, knowing, just knowing, a distress call was hot on the air: Lil' Britches! Where are ya, Lil' Britches!

What had he done? Trading the comforts of home for hanging around this smelly bunch? Trading the family he attained for the company Mad Dog and Dumptruck, who could ever give two licks about him? For dealing those bullies who called him runt and harassed him every day? And Baloo... was the Sea Duck on the heels of the Iron Vulture already? Or was he so heartbroken that he still sat there in the jungle, inconsolable. Kit hunched over the table; his stomach was knotted with guilt.

Baloo wouldn't get it in a million years, though, he thought. 'He was my boy before he was your navigator!' The captain's words ― it was a simple sentence, but loaded with a year's worth of history, highs and lows, a time where it all went to hell, and time when he thought the world of Don Karnage, when all he coveted was the reassurance that he was wanted. Kind and warm were not words that ever pertained to the captain, but Karange was the first person to ever make him feel special, like in the way he'd share a sly, subtle smirk, inconspicuous to the other pirates, or like when he'd hold a diabolical twinkle in his eye when Kit had made him proud. He loved the captain then, like he thought family ought to, and in these recent days, it was obvious to him that ―

after runny away, stealing that stone, ruining his biggest plan ever, after calling him Don Garbage, after Captain Juan Toomany's treasure, after rubies hidden in strawberry jam and a giant flying iceberg, after smashing his giant mirror on the Master Run, after teaming with Baloo again and again and enjoying making a monkey out of the pirates at every turn, foiling every caper…

― he still did. It didn't go away with a year in Cape Suzette. Everything about the captain he ever dreamed was coming true. So, no… Baloo'd never know what it was like to be in his (proverbial) shoes when Don Karnage reached out his hand on that ladder.

Behind him, the hinges of the door squeaked open. "So, now they call you the giant killer," announced Don Karnage.

Kit turned back with a bleary, sidelong glance. "Huh?"

Karnage gestured behind himself with his thumb, indicating the entire crew in general. "They think you knocked that ugly oaf's head off," said the captain. In demonstration, he mimed the act of aiming a grappling hook gun and firing it, ka-pow. "Check the broom closet, it's where Dumptruck is hiding from you."

"But it didn't happen like ― wait, really?" That was a shock, being held in some sort of piratical esteem, even if it was as such. Better than being called the captain's pet again.

Karnage snorted at him. "Of course. I do all the work, you get all the credentials." Then, in a suddenly stern expression, he shifted looks at Kit and the radio, apparently wanting an explanation of what exactly Kit's intentions were.

Kit ducked his head and rotated forward in the chair, leaning over his arm, cheek in palm. "What if he comes back lookin' for me."

"Pfft," scoffed Karnage, obviously knowing who 'he' was in this case, "And what if he doesn't. Who cares!"

Kit considered that, and didn't know which scenario would hurt more. I'd deserve it, Kit thought miserably. Aw, Baloo… don't hate me.

He was waiting for it, the captain's certain reply, the type of counsel only Don Karnage could give, the type that wasn't going to help at all: Get over them, he'd say, or something similar, as if it was so simple, that he should just be gaga to be in the presence of the great Don Karrrnage and all of his abounding greatness, and did he mention how great he is? But the room was quiet for a long moment. He could hear the subtle squeaking of the captain's boots as they shifted awkwardly on the steel floor.

"So you know, son," Karnage said at length, "I will never make you choose between them and me."

That piqued Kit's interest. There was hope in those words, something he wasn't expecting, something that might magically see him through what he was feeling right now. "Yeah?"

Hand planted on his chest, the captain gestured at himself. "I will choose for you. Me! There, no sweating it."

That was more like it. "Yeah, you're a big help. Thanks."

"Oh, what is it! Look at you, finally home again, and all mopey-dopey in the mouth. This is the best thing to ever happen to you!"

The best thing? Kit shook his head at him; he had had a couple best things already. One of them included the time he got a red scarf tied around his neck for the first time. The other included these words: 'Hey, yer with me from now on. We're buddies, pals! A team!' Neither one of those best things had him feeling like he did now, with his stomach in such a knot, his mind so clouded. He didn't even mean to say it out loud when he muttered, "He's never gonna forgive me."

"Just wait until we see the look on his sourpuss the day you show up to steal the stuffings out of his plane," he heard the captain chuckle giddily. It was in a quiet tone, as if said to himself, but practically salivating at the thought, and bursting with underlying excitement.

Oh, crud! Kit felt his heart jump. He hadn't thought that far ahead! Baloo had never known how many planes his navigator had a fair share in helping loot and pick clean. It was a scenario he had run countless times, but against Baloo? No, NO! He shuddered audibly, twisting around in his seat as if about to run ― or at least hobble ― fast away from that thought looming over his head, Don Karnage was discreetly doing a little happy dance, fist-pumping with both arms. He came to an abrupt, straight posture the instant he noticed he was being observed. "Ahem. Just a thought. Cheer up! How about we blow up an ice cream store on the way home, yes?"

"What was… that?" Kit wanted to know. He slid out of the chair.


"That…" Kit didn't really have a word for it, but he mimicked, quite poorly with an awkward twist of his body, the number he caught the captain doing. "Waaaaaait a minute…"

Suddenly Don Karnage found himself on the defensive end of a pointed finger and the kind of brow-cocked look that an incredulous detective might give a suspect who couldn't tell the truth to save their life. "Why are you giving me the suspicious eyeball?"

"Fess up! Was this all about you putting one up on Baloo?"

"What? No! That is just what you call ― your hinge benefits." He shrugged, and could not seem to help but to continue to smile at the thought.

"Some benefit," scoffed Kit. Same ol' Don Karnage, he thought, only caring about himself. He couldn't stand the sight of Karnage gloating anymore, and turned away, leaning his elbows on the table, and his head in his hands. His gut felt worse than before. "I feel sick about it," he muttered.

He heard the captain snort at him. "Are you going to be crying over it all day?"

Kit had the sensation of hot taco sauce running up his legs. "Oh, whadda you know!" he snapped, hands slapping the table. "Baloo was there when ― when you weren't, okay?"

"Fine!" Storming to the table, Karnage slammed his fist against the radio, turning it on. "If you are so worried about estupid, loser pilot, talk to him. Tell him how oh so sorry you are, sorry for doing what you want. Beg him to take you back, why don't you. You know he will. Go haul cargo. See if I care, tiny trousers! Or… puny pants, whatever it is."

"Know what, you just don't get it, and I don't wanna talk to either one of ya, so put a sock in it and leave me alone." He lunged over the table to shut the radio off, but a dramatic exit was hindered by limping on a bandaged foot. Halfway through the room, his mind had just rewinded ten seconds: "Ugh. It's Little Britches. Little, britches. Sheesh!"

"STOP right there," snarled Karnage, before Kit made it to the door.

And stop Kit did, if nothing for but the growl in Karnage's voice, a tone that invoked every meaning of the phrase dead serious. But he didn't have to like it, and showed it by keeping his arms crossed and back turned.

Karnage stomped in front of him, blocking the door, and leaning forward toward his face. "Put a sock in what, Meeester Mouthy-mouth?"

"Your sock drawer," sighed Kit. "Okay? That it?"

"No!" said the captain, straightening up. Then Kit watched while Karnage hesitated: mouth open, nose wrinkling, hands moving a lot, gesturing words and thoughts that the captain wasn't quite able to speak. It took a moment. "H'okay, boy, listen. So you might miss him… a little. You always will, a part of you. It's what happens when someone you l ― er, someone you're used to, is not there anymore. Sometimes you might even see him now and then, and you think… you would like it if you were on the same side again." He grinned. "But that only happens to the winners, know what I'm saying? And who could blame you for what you did? Look at me, are you even listening? Now is the time to realize where you are, and why you wanted to be here. Because pirate! Because adventure! Because you want to stand with grrreatness, of course! Now here you are. And, if you don't blouse it up, there is a chance that some of it might rub off on you."

"Sounds like your dandruff," scoffed Kit. He listened to about half of what the captain said, greatness, rub off, yadda yadda. Typical self-centered Karnage. The rest of his mind was distracted on how he was going to somehow deal with what he was feeling. By himself. "Yeah, good talk. Can I go, now?" He didn't wait for some sort of permission, but began to squeeze past the captain and through the doorway.

There was a sudden movement, Karnage made a grab for him ― Kit ducked because he thought the captain was going to lean into him, and he was whisked off his feet…!

The captain has his arms under his, wrapped around him, embracing, his chin over Kit's ear.

"And because you better know by now, I will always call you my boy…" he said.

Kit blinked, frozen by the shock of it all, barely cognizant of two things: his feet were dangling, and the captain was squeezing him. He looked up, sidelong, and when he and the captain finally made eye contact, Karnage himself became horrified with what seemed to be a sudden self-awareness of what he was doing.

Kit yelped as he was dropped, while Karnage staggered above him, cupping his head with one hand and holding onto the gunmetal iron wall with the other. He had lost his breath. "… because… because I am ne-EH-ver calling you Kit." He stepped over the boy, and Kit heard him grumble something or other about stupid names that sound like sneezes.

"Captain, wait," Kit said, but his voice was a cracked whisper. Just a little emotional.

Karnage was on his way down the hall, but he turned around, stepping quickly, and threw a clawed finger in the boy's face. "If you ever say a word to anyone about what just did NOT EVER happen, I will tie your tattling tongue into Gibber's shoelaces!"

"Aw, I don't care," Kit told him, and wrapped his arms around the captain's waist.

"B-boy, what do you think you're doing…?"

He was thinking, was Kit… that he had hardly wanted anything more. Except to fly and have a plane. But right under that, this, from the day he was rescued as a stowaway on that cargo plane. And now there was a treasure-filled world of plunder and adventure awaiting. Skyway robbery. Fast planes and an iron airship. Him and the captain. A new start.

"H'okay. Yes, there there," said Karnage, taking but a second to return the embrace and patting head on the head and shoulders. "That's… enough. Perhaps you could be letting go now, before some lookee-loo comes passing by. What is so funny, you giggling ninny?" Karnage started laughing, too; it was contagious. When he stepped back, Kit stepped forward, and so on. "I mean it! Scrape off, you little ― uno momento!" The captain grabbed him by the shoulders and glared at him fiercely. "What do you mean, dandruff?"

Kit sputtered another laugh, shaking his head. "Aw, I'm gonna miss throwin' my board at your head. At least until next time."

"Cute," muttered Karnage, unamused.

Kit started down the corridor, with a renewed vigor. "Hey, I'm gonna go scare the bajeepers outta Dumptruck while I got this goin' for me. Wanna come with?"

"Do not be silly," said Karnage, walking with him. "We have magnificent schemes to fixate our gazes upon."

"Yeah? Like what?"

"Cape Suzette!"

Uh-oh, thought Kit. "What… kind of… schemes?"

"Tsk, you think I am going to blast it to rubble and steal every nickel they have hoarded from me while hiding behind their cowardly cliffs?" His voice was a shout by the end of that sentence, but then he took a breath. "Well, not today." In a sinister aside that hardly went amiss, he added, "But we shall see about tomorrow."

"Are you crr ― er, really not thinkin' that through? The ship's kind of a flying wreck right now."

"So, we go take a few pot shots, keep up appearances, let them know that the fabulous one Don Karrrnage misses them very much, and then… you know, I do want to get that ice cream, with the sprinkles and the cherries and the man in the little white hat tied up in the back begging for his life."

Only the captain could make it sound fun. Only the captain could get him feeling in that groove again. After a childhood of pickpocketing and petty thievery, followed by a world of sky pirating, the law-abiding life was about as easy to shake as a change of clothes. "Uh, I know a soda shop by the marina in Freeport," offered Kit. "If ya fly in on the other side of the beach, easy in, easy out."

"They have strawberry?"

Kit's nose wrinkled. "More importantly, they have hot fudge."

Karnage smirked at him. "You, my boy, have a lot of pirating to be catching up on."

"Yeah! So... I get my own plane soon, right?"

There went the smirk. "Could not wait to open that can of snails again," he heard the captain mutter. Karnage began walking faster as to gain some distance. Kit kept up with him, even though it was mostly hopping on the one foot; the captain wasn't gonna get off the hook that easy. "Hey, you said!"

"Stop it with all that hippity-hoppity behind me. Get off that foot, and ― I told you yesterday ― go bandage on that thing on your head before it gets all infectuated with go-green. Go! Shoo."

"Nuh-uh! Every time I bring it up, you try to get rid of me."

"Funny how that works, no?" grumbled Karnage. Kit watched him put a finger to his bottom lip, in an expression of sudden deep thought. "What was it when you swear you've been here before, seen this before, heard this before… ah, those two tiny words…"

"Uh, deja vu?"

"No, it was shut up. And that is still the answer."

"Oh yeah? Well maybe I got two tiny words for you, too, Cap. The first word's up."

"Keep up walking on the slim ice, boy, and I might just remember Ratchet telling me of a grease pit that needs someone exactly your size to unclog."

Karnage thought he was going to pull a fast one by cutting down a flight of stairs, thinking young Master Hobbles couldn't keep up with him that way. But Kit took the railing instead, sliding down and landing at the bottom first, grinning as he waited a beat for the captain the keep up.

"You said I didn't hafta wait until I was old enough for a pilot's license."

"And you have proof of his conversation?"

"Aw, c'mon, you said so!"

"I said one day! No to-day."

"Ah-ha!" exclaimed Kit. He had learned a few things about contractual loopholes from Miz Cunningham. "Look, it's been over 'one day' since you said it, so contractually, you've already missed the one-day deadline. I'll take really good care of it, I swear! And I promise to be careful. C'mon, just a small one, maybe?"

Karnage turned on his heel, stopping them both. "Two things," he said. "Numero uno, make your lips into a zipper and zzzzip! Numero two, let me be as clear as the empty air between your ears." The captain tilted Kit's head to the side, using his ear as like the mouthpiece of a megaphone: "You (pronounced SHYOO!) are too young to fly!"

Kit shrank away from him, cupping his ears; it was one thing to have the most awful sequence of words in the history of forever repeated yet again at his direction, but now he had it resounding in his head with his ear ringing. He was about to lay into the captain with what he certainly didn't know about how times were changing for twelve-year-olds, for example, certain Thembrian experimentation on the matter ―

"Ah ah, besides," added Karnage, before Kit could raise another protest, straightening his coat as he stood upright in a straight, proper posture, and raising his finger to make a powerfully profound point, the type in an argument that is so absolute that it would leave any opposition in the debate standing there watching on dumbfounded in all its finality ― and that was exactly where left Kit standing when he said, "It's against the law."

Don Karnage sat lazily with a leg thrown over the arm of his captain's chair, his diary open, propped up on his thigh. He had an inkwell on the other arm, and held between his fingers his antique quill ― these classy details were important, after all. The entries in his diary were the records of his exploits, his unmatched piratical prowess ― if they were written with a regular old inkpen, why, it'd be like coloring a masterpiece like the Moaning Lisa with crayon. As he dabbed the quill in the inkwell, he looked to the front window, where a brilliant sunet of golden clouds made the bridge glow with gilded light. He was trying to find his muse.

Dear Diary, he wrote. Today ―

He stopped, his pen trailing off in a long line. He had to think about it. Not just anything could be jotted down, you know. You had to write it right, and be choosy. Someday, the immortal words he penned on these illustrious pages would make professors bang their brains against their chalkboards, despairing in the sheer literary brilliance of it all; women would swoon, riots would ensue, monuments would be raised, armies would march, countries would be named after him, history would bend its knee to the legend of Don Karnage.

But first he needed a catchy opener.

"Let's see," he muttered, thinking. "Today, I, Don Karnage, single-handedly slayed a dragon. Hmm…" He'd of course leave out the part where he didn't get an ounce of treasure out of it. Maybe something else to show his dastardly heroism, thinking aloud: "Today, I, Don Karnage, your pirating wonder, saved my prodigal protege from a fate worse than peeling turnips." No, that wasn't quite it, either.

And speak of the prodigal, limped footsteps padded from behind the chair. "I told you to stay off the foot," he said, without bothering to look. "I assume you have hopped all this way because you would like me to break the other one, too."

Kit leaned on the chair, frowning. "Are we flyin' over Nosanbique or what? How'm I supposed to sit around when we can't even pick up a decent radio station?"

"Sounds like a problem that is personally yours."

"I had a comic book stash this big when I left. Where'd it go?"

"You are directing the sound of your voice toward me with this question, because…?"

"They're gone, and I know you've seen 'em around. Don't tell me someone thew 'em away."

"Well, boy. This is just a dark shot at the wild guessing, but, could it be that them being gone has something to do with it was a year ago."

"But it had the entire Air Adventures series, autographed limited print. I still remember the plane we lifted it from! The whole set's worth a hundred bucks, easy."

"It was a year ago, you hard-hearing hellion. Check where you last left it."

"I did! It was my — secret hiding place."

Actually, that did bring something to memory. "Ahh, yes. The hole behind the panel that does the sliding thing on the wall, next to the big machine that goes bom-bom-bom, way in the back."

"Okay… so my not-very-secret hiding place."

Karnage snapped his fingers, remembering. "And you mean the ones where at the end, the hero pilot in the fancy-pants plane dives in and stops the masterminding genius who tried so very, very hard to rule the world and almost got away with it?"

"Yeah! That's the one."

"I hated that ending. I threw it away. And, speaking of away, that is a wonderful place for you to go."

Kit made a face at him, then happen to notice that second mate Will was substituting at the helm. "Aren't you missin' the roach races?" he asked him.

"Jock called in sick," grumbled Will.

"Uh…" Kit scratched his head, turning to the captain. "How does that even work?"

Don Karnage shrugged at him. These types of concerns were below his paygrade. Now, back to his diary. "Where was I. Today, I…" In his peripheral vision, he noticed the boy was taking the wheel from Will.

"Here, I got it. Go bet on a roach," the boy was telling him.

"Careful, kid. Rudder's shot, wind's choppy and we're flyin' on half a wing."

Kit waved him off. "Nah, it's a cinch." He squeezed in front of the second mate, grabbing onto the wheel with both hands. "See? Nothin' to it."

Will looked back at Karnage, hoping for a nod of permission. Karnage didn't signal an approval ― he wasn't quite sure how he felt about it. The helm was easy enough if it was just holding a course, he knew, but he then again he had also become duly introduced yesterday to the boy's ability to steer a stolen car… or rather, wreck a stolen car ― but didn't say no, either. He shifted in his seat and focused on his diary, if the world would just shut up its face and kindly leave him to it, thank you very much.

"All right, kid, just hold steady 'til I get back. I owe ya one. Just don't touch any of the levers, huh? We're barely keepin' balanced."

"Yeah, yeah," said Kit. "I got it."

Will made a hasty retreat, leaving Kanage and Kit to themselves on the bridge. "Dear Diary," so Karnage began again, "Today, I, the perilous plunderer… hm, perilous plunderer… no, I used that one already. Today, I, the ― what is that noise?"

Whistling. The boy was whistling an obnoxious tune, taking back-glances toward the captain's chair, obviously wanting attention. Karnage deigned to oblige by raising a scowl at him.

"See? Told ya I could fly," said Kit.

So explained the boy's sudden interest in taking the helm.

"Should have known," groaned Karnage. Back to things that mattered, like the diary. "Today, I…"

"Okay, look," the boy was saying, "I know I jumped on it right away, I know you think I'm too young, but pirates are supposed to make their own rules, right? Isn't that also what you call your hinge benefits? Things have changed, like I've had tons of practice… well, sorta. What're you so worried about, anyway?"

"Strangely enough, be believing it or not," Karnage muttered under his breath, tapping the point of his quill into the paper, distracted by and not at all quite used to what he was thinking: "You."

Kit turned his head at him. "Huh?"

No response. The captain shifted in his chair again, and scowled into his diary.

"So the way I see it," the boy continued, "if I can handle a great big ship like this, what's teeny, tiny plane?"

"The way I see it," finally answered Karnage, "when you crash into the ground, smashing your baby-sized brains to smithereens and crushing every bone in your body, and the rest of the bits and pieces burn to mice crispies, think of me, and what I would be going through."

"Jeez…" the boy winced. "You don't gotta worry about me like that, ya know."

"Who said I do, you self-flattering fuzzball?" Karnage went ahead and elaborated on that last point, just so there was no misunderstanding: "Planes don't grow on trees. I would have to steal another one to replace it. Too much work."

"Walked right into that one," scoffed Kit. Not that he was about to drop the subject. Cockily, he let go and smacked the wheel just to show what a piece of cake it was ― and it started spinning on its own. As in fast. Kit yelped, a gust of wind had heaved from under the airship,the floor tilted, and though he tried to stop the spinning, the wheel was pretty much knocking him around at that point.

Amusing as it would have been to sit back and watch, Karnage cursed at him, for in the lazy posture he was enjoying up until then he had to hold on to not tumble out of his seat, and he had to move quick to grab his inkwell before it fell; more ink ended up on his lap than in the jar. Kit scrambled to correct the mistake, and at length wrangled the wheel to a stop, then began cranking it the opposite direction. The airship began to wobble to some semblance of balance again.

"Uh, that coulda happened to anyone," said Kit.

"But you, most of all," Karnage grumbled. "Use both hands!"

"Yeesh, ye-essir," the boy muttered, making sure to be facing straight ahead.

"And put the tongue that I know you are sticking out at me right now back where it belongs, inside your filthy face." Finally settling in his seat again, he flicked the page of his diary open. So maybe he had an idea to write about: "Dear Diary, Today, I let the boy kill us all…"

Nothing he could think of was good enough to write. Why was he having such a difficult time with this? Usually the genius just flowed, and after a week like this, it should have been more than he could contain. He began to flip back through the pages, reminiscing about previous exploits.

For instance, there was one where he got that bag of diamonds from that sea convoy out in Timbukthree, and a few pages behind that was the regaling tale of how he captured a jumbo cargo liner and made away with more pistachios than he could ever eat in a lifetime. Good times!

At some point during his reminiscing, in his peripheral saw a heave in the green shape of the boy's sweater. Kit had exhaled a forlorn sigh ― he must have been thinking again of ― those others who shall not be named if their name is Baloo for instance.

Lucky him, thought Karnage of himself, he had the only brat in the world who could be both home and homesick at the same time. But what could he do for the boy now except let it pass its course. Bah, if that heavy-stinking hairball with all the oo-ing at the end of his name ever did try to catch up with the boy, said hairball and he, on the boy's behalf, were going to have a very serious conversation with the blade of his sword doing most of the talking. Perhaps once the airship was repaired, it would be a good time to consider a long trip, go prowling about some of the other corners of the world for a little while, go find some wonders of the world to plunder, see some new scenery, terrorize a new nation or two, perhaps give the boy some room to breathe from that stuffy Cape Suzette air.

He flipped back another several pages in the diary, randomly, seeing one, unpleasantly, that he had forgotten about. This one made him grimace, the stark emotions it brought back. He sat up in his chair, looking at the page between his knees. The entry was the first he had written after the lighting gun attack on Cape Suzette ― a week after the attack, after brooding over the bitterness of his defeat, and betrayal. He recalled the time he tried to write this entry, when he thought that bitterness was behind him, and he could go on to write how daring he had been in the heist. It ended up reading, though, Dear Diary, and then ― Karnage remembered how he sat there a long time, unable to compose words ― there was just a heavy, black line of blotted ink slashed through the page. The grim slash, without words, conveyed a lot of words he was thinking at the time:

Never trust. Never get too close. Never go too easy.




On that page, the imagery of his mind watched that newly-defeated pirate captain stagger down a hall, head still ringing from the ricocheting bullets from attack planes that perforated the airship after the lightning gun was destroyed. There, on the floor, was that backstabbing brat's red scarf, discarded. He snatched it up, wadded it into a ball with both hands, and squeezed it in a fist, crushing it, crushing it with all his strength, crushing it so that the brat might somehow feel his seething anger…

… and now look who was steering the ship, you tragically trusting moron you.

'He has made the handsome fool of you twice already!' said the pirate with the scarf balled in his fist. 'How big of a fool are you?'

Around that time, Will slumped back onto the bridge. He was disheveled, even by pirate standards, sporting a new shiner in his left eye. He shuffled by the captain's chair, muttering don't wanna see no one, don't wanna talk to no one, and took over the helm once again.

"Over already?" asked Kit, who, obvious by the weary way he rubbed his arms afterward, wasn't sorry relinquish the wheel.

"It's all fun 'n' games 'til someone gets stabbed in the eye," said the second mate. Then he looked back at the captain. "By the way, Bandit Patch? Now he's Bandit Patches."

Karnage wasn't listening to him ― he still glared down upon that opened page ― but it sounded something like another typical roach race. Then a voice was suddenly at his ear: "What'cha doin'?" He didn't notice that the boy had stole around the chair, behind his shoulder. The kid was trying to peek at the diary. Karange flipped it over immediately. "Get your eavesdropping eyeballs away from here."

"Aw, did ya write anything about me? Kit Cloudkicker, dragon slayer?"

"You? You? Hmph. What do you think?"

Kit smirked, smugly, an expression that suggested that he had retained some insider knowledge of some of the content of that little book. "I think I always got left out on way too many good stories in there."

Karnage conceded that with a shrug, not really realizing that such knowledge would be something only he should know himself. "The problem with this book, boy," said he, tapping it with his claw, "it's full of things that were."

"If you're writin' it, I bet it's full of somethin' else, too."

"Of course, only the priceless thoughts of the most cunning pirate commander of all time."

"Yeah, that's... what I meant. Know what, I'm beat. I guess I'm gonna call it a night. What's up for tomorrow?"

"Ah, tomorrow," said Karnage, contemplatively. "Well. There is one thing I know about the brand new day awaiting us tomorrow." He raised his hands in the direction of the airship's front window, gesturing to some incredible vision he was having about the future. The boy was all ears, waiting. Then, a pause for dramatic effect.

"Yeah?" the boy finally asked him impatiently.

"Tomorrow, you will still be too young to fly. Don't ask."

The boy made a face at him and limped away. Don Karnage waved him off, then felt the need for a long stretch, arms to toes, which lead to a wide, loud yawn. Turning in early didn't seem to be a bad idea. He was just about to gather the strength from his weary legs to stand up and do so, when the boy came hobbling back beside him with attitude, a pint-sized whirlwind of tough guy.

"I don't care what you say, or what you do," Kit told him, "or how much you get tired of hearin' it, but it's what I want and I'm never givin' up on it." That said now, all mano a mano like, the boy sauntered off, mighty pleased with himself.

Don Karnage thought it was about the silliest thing he'd ever seen, and he had seen a lot of silly on this ship. His thumb, wedged in the diary, still kept the page he was looking at. He flipped it over and opened it, remembering that night of plunder and lightning, and could imagne his own reflection, the pirate from a year ago, glaring up at him wanting an explanation. Karnage snorted at himself, thinking how big of a fool was he, now? A BIG fool, that's what. And he couldn't care less. He ripped that page out, crumbled it, and threw it over his shoulder. He left the diary on the chair. Then, thinking about what the boy had just said, that little spiel about bout never givin' up on what he wants, he finally gave his reply, if just to himself:

"A pirate never does."