Title: The Warmth Of Winter
Category: Cartoons ยป Gummi Bears
Author: strangeseraph
Language: English, Rating: Rated: T
Genre: Romance/Angst
Published: 11-29-07, Updated: 04-13-08
Chapters: 4, Words: 18,613

Chapter 1: Winter's Promises

Winter's Promises

Morning. It danced across the forest like bird song, showering upon the icy frosted limbs of the impressively bowed trees and shooting prisms of color across the icicles, tiny rainbow stalactites which hung in shivering silver garlands from every branch. Winter sparrows chirruped from the trees in soft choruses of simple song, dropping from the limbs to peck at the remains of pine cones freshly fallen from the frosted evergreens.

Only such a morning as this could pull Gusto Gummi out of his usual slumber into the icy winter winds with sketchpad in one gloved hand and a pencil held precariously in the other.

"Mornings like this...I wish I had a bit more than a sketchpad," Gusto sighed. "Some sort of device that would capture this image, just as it is..."

Well it was pretty impressive. Even the half slumbering Treefolk gals looked like ice Princesses, dressed to hold their royal court beneath the sheltered bows of their elder and wiser Winter Oak Queen. Gusto was so impressed by this arrangement that he sketched them. Usually he would ask their permission before drawing them, but he couldn't resist this tempting scenery, and refused to wake them from their peaceful repose.

By Gum, if only Gruffi could see this...the stubborn lump.

Gruffi was also awake at this peaceful hour of the morning. But unlike Gusto, Gruffi would not come out into the winter chill just to see the sunrise. Instead Gruffi, on this morning, was outside working. Shovelling more snow from out of South Gumton in order to get back to work repairing it.

It hadn't snowed much in the North, and they hadn't been due to come down to South Gumton until the Spring. But when the Aqueduct has frozen over, with no sign of it being thawed properly until spring, there was no choice but to leave Ursalia. They sent Arte Deco down to the forest to find out whether there was any running water here, and sure enough there was working water in the old pipes down here at South Gumton, too deep in the ground to freeze, just like at Gummi Glen. And then Arte had promptly flown South to the tropics for the winter. But South Gumton was missing one thing that was vitally important.

Heat. Or more specifically rooms with fireplaces. Everyone was now forced to sleep huddled up and cold underground in whatever rooms were available. The Barbics, used to the freezing cold, had settled in as if they were back home again. Then last night a pipe had burst, flooding the kitchen.
"Just what we needed!" Gruffi had complained. "No heat, and this place is practically falling apart!"

Gusto, shamefully, felt that the repairs to the warren were the least of his worries this morning. His cold nose was all that he was worried for and he fervently wished that he could have flown south with his feathered friend Arte. Now, even after three years away from his island, he still felt the winter chill like a hammer stone to his heart. An icy tugging at his lungs and nose was now telling him that it would soon be time for him to go inside.

"Wish I was heartier," Gusto sighed. "Wish I could handle the winters as well as Gruffi. Ah, I'd better find him. Maybe I can bring some cocoa to him."

He closed his sketchpad and resignedly headed back down into the warren. So much for a morning of sketching. Though he had some nice rough sketches to work on improving a little while later. Until then, though, he'd have to warm himself up with some hot chocolate and putting his poor cold feet up by the fireplace.

But he had forgotten to wear socks again, and his toes, when he entered the warren, felt like ice.

"You always do this!" said Grammi, wrapping Gusto's feet in a warm towel and glaring at him under her mess of orange hair. "You always forget to put socks on! You know we don't have any proper heat down here yet except in the kitchen!"

"Sorry Grammi," Gusto sighed, and leaned back in his chair, happy for the attention. "I just couldn't resist the sounds of bird song."

"Well you'll be sorry if you catch frostbite," Grammi warned hotly, and then turned to go fetch him some cocoa.

"She's right you know," said Tummi, coming into the greenhouse yawning. "Zummi told me all about frostbite...he says its contagious."

Yes, they were currently using a greenhouse for a den. Without a great hall or any other proper accommodations they had been forced to convert the greenhouses into de facto bedrooms and living areas. The greenhouse that Gusto and Tummi had discovered the Gummi Berry bush in had been converted into a kitchen, as it was the only water source. Ursa and half of her Barbics went hunting every morning for some more food to fortify their stocks. If that didn't work out they would take the quick cars down to Gummi Glen to get food from Cala and Cavin, and bring back whatever furnishings they could lash to the quick cars with rope. It was almost comfortable here now. But of course Gruffi wasn't happy.

"I swear," Gruffi complained loudly as he stomped into the room. "As soon as spring comes back we're coming down here with some proper tools and building some proper rooms, and cleaning out this place, and rebuilding all the fireplaces and restoring this warren! Every inch of it! I don't want to spend another winter in such a cold place ever again!"

"Its not that bad living here, we have water and now heat and enough beds now thanks to the Barbics hauling stuff down here for us, so don't exaggerate," Grammi said, returning with tea for Gusto. "But we're already out of cocoa."

Everyone immediately turned to look at Tummi, who shook his head in immediate shock.

"I didn't, honest!" he said, looking honestly as if he really hadn't touched the cocoa.

"I bet it was Zummi," Gruffi whispered conspiratorially to Gusto. "He's been putting on a bit of weight."

Zummi himself soon entered the greenhouse, looking anxious.

"Have any of you seen the medallion?" he said at once, all a picture of sleepy eyed panic. "I woke up and it wasn't next to my bed where it was supposed to be!"

"For the love of...Zummi did you lose the medallion again?" Gruffi said, immediately climbing out of his chair as if to start looking.

"No I swear! Its in my room somewhere! I've just been so sick, I...guess I must have forgotten where I put it..."

"We'll help you look," Gruffi sighed. "Come on Gus, we'll need your sharp eyes for this, I swear I'm going as myopic as Zummi is."

Gus. Gusto had hated that pet name the moment it first escaped Gruffi's lips. But remembering all the times he'd called the other bear Grufferooni and Grufferino, when he knew Gruffi hated it, had compelled him to be silent whenever Gruffi called him a nickname he didn't like, lest he be a hypocrite. But he still hated it.

"Its probably just dropped down between a couple loose floorboards below somewhere..." Gruffi continued, as Gusto trotted after him. "Just like he lost his glasses yesterday..."

"I'm not that blind!" Zummi said hotly. "Its not my fault there's holes in the floor, you were supposed to fix them!"

"Here, have some breakfast first," Grammi said, pointing to the tray of biscuits on the table that Tummi had been inching innocently closer and closer to. "And Gusto, honestly, put on some socks! I swear, you'd forget your head if it wasn't attached!"

"Grammi! Grammi!"

Sunni, Buddi and Cubbi suddenly came running into the room, breathless. The three cubs were covered in quickly melting snow.

"What now?" said Grammi, then turned and saw them both and gasped. "Land sakes have you been outside in this weather?"

"Yes, and we've been chasing Tingle!" said Sunni, shivering and shaking the snow from her fur. "He jumped onto a ledge and now we can't reach him!"

"Yeah," Buddi said, looking angry. "Tingle grabbed something from Zummi's room and went running outside!"

"My medallion!" Zummi said, in horror. "It must have been Tingle then! Oh Cubbi!"

"Its not my fault!" said Cubbi immediately, countering any argument to the contrary from the snow-chilled Sunni or the miffed Buddi. "He's not trained to stay yet! Gruffi said he'd help me with that!"

"Now's not the time to argue," Gruffi said, going over to look imposingly down at Cubbi. "Where is Tingle?"

Cubbi looked rather ashamed of himself now, and Sunni looked almost frightened now instead of angry. Buddi was smirking, as if he was absolutely delighted by the prospect of Cubbi being in trouble.

"Cubbi!" said Zummi, pushing passed Gruffi and suddenly sounding more stern then the oldster had sounded in long awhile. "WHERE?"

"Um...Tingle tried to go home...to his mama. And he got across that gap in the gorge..."

"Oh Cubbi!"

Tingle. The miscreant feline cub that they had found hanging for dear life and limb at the edge of the bottomless gorge. They had saved him, of course, and Cubbi had adopted and named him, even though his likewise fang toothed mother had been seen around the gorge trying to find her offspring. Gruffi and Ursa had both spotted her a couple times, but Ursa had admitted she herself was too frightened of the imposing feline to try and approach her. The cat was big, easily bigger than a mastiff, and had claws and fangs that nobody wanted to tangle with.

But she had been on the other side of the gorge both times Gruffi had spotted her. They had all argued about how Tingle possibly could have crossed the gorge and where, and their searching had found a thin area of the gorge, a gap, that was possible for even a Gummi Bear to jump across.

Gruffi had promptly wanted to build a bridge there, but the mother cat had shown up and so they had walked away from the spot, saving these plans for the spring. She had seemed entirely too intelligent, knowing where they were, almost as if she knew they were planning to put a bridge there. Almost as if she knew where her cub was, and was waiting for him to come home himself. But just in case, Gruffi had forbidden Cubbi from bringing Tingle into the warren, just in case she came looking for him after all. Nobody wanted to get between the two of them if it came to that.

Nobody, apparently, save for Cubbi.

"I'm sorry," said the lad. "I know I wasn't supposed to bring him in, but I didn't want him falling over the gorge, or freezing to death. I was scared!"
"That's no excuse!" said Gruffi, who then turned to look at the rest of them. "Guess we'd better go and get it. And leave that darned cub home where he belongs! I'll get some rope, and Grammi, could you pack up my backpack, just in case we get into any more disasters. Zummi, you're too sick to go out, you can stay here and let the Barbics know where we've gone. And take care of Cubbi while you're at it."

Zummi turned to look firmly at Cubbi, who seemed more frightened of Zummi then he had been of Gruffi. Zummi's punishments could be even more unpleasant than Gruffi's, Sunni had told Gusto once, and considering Zummi's age he was bound to have more experience with cubs.
"It wasn't my fault!" Cubbi said, tears now in his eyes at the thought of the potential punishment to come. "I didn't think he'd do that! He's only ever stole food!"

Gruffi snorted pointedly, not the least bit sympathetic; the boy had broken the rule about bringing the cub inside until it was tame enough to be trusted, and as a result something had been stolen.

But Gusto pondered this. The mother had seemed awfully intelligent. Did the cub know that he was stealing something precious to them? Had it been smart enough to know they would come after him? Were they potentially walking into a trap?

It didn't matter really. For Gusto was now put on a mission with Gruffi to go get the medallion. Buddi, Sunni, Grammi and Tummi, in layers and layers of clothing, followed behind them both through the snow to the gorge setting out flares for the Barbics to follow when they came back from their hunting.

And it was at this horrible moment that the harshest blizzard of winter decided to howl its way through the gorge like a cyclone.

"Tell me again," Gruffi grumbled, pushing through the snow towards the gorge. "Why did we bring that little ball of idiocy back to the warren with us?"

"Because Cubbi made big sad eyes," Sunni said wisely. "Are we almost there? I can't see!"

"We may have to call off this rescue mission until the snow clears up," Grammi said.

"Nothing doing," Gruffi said stubbornly. "By then the medallion will be buried under ten feet of snow."

But Gusto wasn't so sure he wanted to carry on through the harsh howling winter forest towards the gorge. He wasn't sure he was enjoying the harsh gale that was whipping their bodies with icy winds and chilling the breath inside their lungs. He wanted to be warm again. Rolled up on a nice chair, by a warm fire...

"Here it is," said Gruffi, and Gusto was startled.

They were at the gap. Already.

"That's the way he went," Sunni pointed across the gap to the ledge where the tall snow capped mountain spiraled up, towering above them like an icy dagger, trying to stab the sun.

"All right," said Gruffi firmly. "Gusto and I will cross and go find the thing, being the best climbers. Sunni, Buddi, you both stay on this side near the gap in case something goes wrong and you have to go get Zummi. Tummi, you and Grammi walk along the gap and check the other side...they might have crossed over again at some point along the way that we haven't found yet."

"Be careful you two," Grammi said, kissing them both. "You don't have any Gummi Berry Juice."

"We'll be fine," Gusto said, laughing. "We'll get that medallion no sweat."

But a precarious trek along a narrow ledge, in order to retrieve the medallion from a vicious wildcat and her cub, was not something Gusto was looking forward to.

"Come on," Gruffi said, and turned to jump the ledge quickly. "Lets get this over with."

Ice and snow. Fire and cold. Gruffi could almost feel his toes getting number. As they inched their way along a cliff shelf no wider than a bobsled, Gruffi could almost feel his nerves tying themselves into knots.

"Hey Gruff," Gusto suddenly said, sounding defeated and tired. "Its been twenty minutes...or an hour. Possily longer. I don't think we're going to find the cub, or its mum. Maybe we should go back..."

"Not yet," Gruffi said stubbornly, then peered across the gap to make sure Grammi and Tummi were still following them along the opposite side. An orange and blue blur was all he could see through the icy winds that pummeled his body. Grammi...but no Tummi. She'd sent him back. "We're fine."

Gusto didn't say anything in response to that. Gruffi was sure that Gusto was probably wishing he'd slept in that morning. Gruffi himself was looking forward to sitting down by a nice warm fire with a cup of cocoa.

But a nice warm happy ending to this fiasco was not in the cards tonight. Gruffi was busy trying to keep his eyes ahead of him on the trail, looking for any signs that the wildcat or her cub had come this way.

Which was why both of them were taken by surprise when she dropped upon them from the cliffs above, the medallion around her neck and her claws bared. Gusto gave a cry of fright as she grabbed him by the shoulder and the two of them were pushed over the ledge by the howling winds. Gruffi jumped out to grab the wildcat by the tail to stop their fall.

"Oh no you don't you feline fiend!" Gruffi shouted, pulling hard.

Bad move. The feline gave a snarl, and tried to twist around to attack whatever had grabbed her tail. Gruffi was suddenly flung around like a wet spaghetti noodle, Gusto likewise spinning, the two of them yelping.

"Give us back our medallion!" Gusto suddenly shouted, and grabbed it with his gloved hands from where he was situated, hanging by his hood from her jaws.

The wildcat snarled, dropping Gusto from her jaws over the ledge, so that he clung with desperation to the medallion around her neck.


"Hang on Gusto!" Gruffi shouted.

He wished he hadn't. His shouts echoed up the mountain into the harsh winds, thrown wild by the strong force of the gale that surrounded them. A horrendous cracking filled the chasm as a month's worth of ice and snow suddenly broke lose from the mountain above.

"Its an avalanche!" Gruffi cried, and scrambled upon his precarious perch towards the ledge to safety.

But it was all for naught. Gruffi was suddenly flung forward as the feline, Gusto, the medallion, and half the mountain top was thrown down into the gaping chasm below.

How hard it was to describe the sensation of falling? The lack of anything to discern distance, the blindness of white and snow, the fire of cold as Gruffi plummeted further than he had ever fell in his existence.

Now it will be my last...

Or so he thought. What Gruffi had not expected was to land with a not so gentle whump upon a snow pile. He landed, feeling his teeth crack, and rolled, the snow encasing his body as he tried to reach out and grasp anything, any surface to keep him from being completely buried in the heavy white substance that was holding him captive, sweeping passed his boots like water, threatening to pull him under...


That was basically the noise that he started, and finished, his descent with, as the last of the rumbling finally settled down into a fragile silence of howling winds.

Gruffi pulled himself up out of the snow like a blind bear, crawling forward until he could see again, and breathe freely again. And then he looked out over the pile of snow he was stop and could see stretched out before him the mysterious bottom of the not so bottomless gorge.

Ice. Every inch of this gorge was layered with walls of ice. The snow pile he was upon had to be much more than a simple month's worth of snow.
So much for a quiet winter in South Gumton!

Gruffi suddenly heard the struggling sounds of something nearby splashing in the water, over the ledge...

When he looked down over the edge of his snowbank he was surprised to discover that this pile of snow was actually situated atop ice, a great wall of ice, that stretched out into the distance back towards the east. But in the west the crevice was ice free, and a river of freely running water was flowing from under the ice towards the west. He could see nothing but ice and rocks and a winding river in that direction.

And down below him, clinging precariously to the bank of the river where the ice met the water, was Gusto. He scrambled at the surface of the ice wall, trying to get a hold of something, anything, to give him leverage.

Gruffi finally snapped into action when Gusto's head went under.

"Hang on!" he said, pushing through the snow and fumbling at his back for the coil of rope tied there. "Hang on Gusto! I'm coming!"

He tossed the rope over the edge and prayed that Gusto would come up again for air, grab the rope...

He did! And grab he did! And scrambled at the wall of ice with a violent scraping of his boots as Gruffi pulled and fumbled in the snow, trying to pull Gusto up to him while sliding forward himself.

"Climb Gusto climb!"

Climb he did. And pull Gruffi did. And between the pulling and the climbing they together managed to get Gusto up on the snowbank.

Gusto was wet. He was soaked to the bone. His eyes were wide and dilated and his fur was sticking out in sodden clumps. But worst of all he was shaking with the cold, teeth chattering up in a symphony of click clacking panic. Gruffi could see his skin under his fur turning white...

"Stay with me now!" Gruffi said, reaching for Gusto and pulling him to himself. "Don't pass out!"

"Got it," Gusto slurred in response, and he shoved the Gummi Medallion into Gruffi's hands. "She le' go. Dang 'er, she le' go!"

Gruffi nodded, then felt his heart stop beating in his chest as Gusto's eyes rolled back in his sockets.

"Oh Great Gummis don't you dare!" Gruffi said hotly, panicking. "Come on! Wake up!"

When Gusto didn't do much more then cough in response, Gruffi started searching around the area, desperate for any answer to his immediate problem; death of Gusto by hypothermia. A momentary numbness filled him as he realized that most people couldn't survive being dipped head to toe in ice cold water in the middle of winter. If he didn't do something fast he'd lose Gusto.

He's lose his best friend.

"Come on," Gruffi said, pulling Gusto up over his shoulder, water dripping down his fur onto Gruffi's shoulder, and down his back to his already aching spine, chilling him even more. "There must be a ledge along here somewhere where I can get off this snow bank!"

There was better then a ledge; there was a cave. Gruffi saw ahead of him through the swirling winds the mouth of a cave, well, a crack in the icy cavernous walls of the gorge. He only paused a moment in wondering whether there might be some nasty creature living inside it, waiting to attack them, then shook his head.

"Now's not the time..."

Pulling Gusto with all the strength he had left in his tired arms he trudged through the snow towards the crack in the wall, stretched, reached for it, until finally he felt his boots hit on stone and they were up and in and out of the winds.

"Come on Gusto, come on," Gruffi said, then put Gusto down briefly in order to get his bearings.

He stared. This cave was filled with piles of old rotting leaves. The refuse of spring and fall had swirled into this cave over the years and piled up against the walls so that the ground was piled up with the strange matter. It crackled icy beneath Gruffi's feet and sent up a layer of ancient dust that tickled his nose.

He sneezed, then chose the biggest pile of leaves to throw Gusto upon.

"Okay, now what, ooh! I know! Grammi told me what to do, take his clothes off!"

It seemed like an idiotic action to his way of thinking, but Grammi had saved Gruffi once from frostbite before, so she knew what she was doing. He stipped every inch of wet soggy clothes from his friend, pulling off the boots and finally soaking wet socks before shaking his head.

"Now what?" and he tried to remember, in his head, what Grammi had told him.

"Best to get dried up first. If you don't have a warm blanket to wrap up in or a fire nearby, body warmth is the best thing, my mum always used to say so..."

Gruffi had to pray that Grammi, and her mum, were both right. He pulled off his own jacket, sweater and undershirt, feeling to cool air hitting his sweaty body, and used his undershirt to try and dry Gusto off, before pulling the other bear against his own chest and wrapping them up in his own bulky jacket.

Gusto was breathing shallowly, his eyes were fluttering open and shut faintly, his mouth was parted. Gruffi could hear the harsh rattle of his breath. There was a battle going on here now between Gusto and the cold. Gusto was fighting it though. His breathing was hard and he leaned his shaking icy body into Gruffi, curling up and crying like a cub that had lost his way home.

"G-Gruffi, s-s-s-o c-c-c-old!"

"Hush hush," Gruffi said, not sure what to say. "Stay with me, breath! In and out, thats it!"

When Gusto's breathing had slowed and his heart seemed to be beating properly, and his eyes were closed and he was sleeping softly, Gruffi knew he had won. He curled himself back down upon the pile of leaves, using his body to cover and cradel his friend, and closed his own eyes, exhaustion overtaking him at last.

Gruffi stirred, and blinked his eyes open.

I'm alive. Gusto's alive. It worked! Grammi's advice worked!

This brief respite from the cold, their bodies slowly warming together, was enough for the moment. But this wasn't enough for the imminent future and Gruffi felt a sudden fear fill his chest.

And then he remembered the medallion.
"I got another idea," he said, regretfully letting his companion go.

He left Gusto in the leaf pile, piling all the dry clothes they had on top of Gusto, including his hat, before turning to examine the cave briefly. The floor was bare for the most part, but there were enough leaves in here to start something of a small fire. He started grabbing leaves and piling them up on a bare spot on the floor.

"Stones, I need...there! Ah ha!"

He built a circle of stones around the pile of leaves he had made, putting more and more leaves on the pile until he was satisfied with its size. The dust got up his nose and he sneezed.

Gusto sneezed too. He had finally woken up, wrapping Gruffi's jacket around himself to watch the other bear working, and it was the sneeze that alerted Gruffi that Gusto was awake.

"Hey Gus," said Gruffi, feeling a warmth fill him at his friend's obvious alertness. "Do you remember Zummi's fire lighting spell?"

"Huh," Gusto said, shaking from head to toe and pulling the coat around him. "I think it was, lumight numow. And some other stuff, but I can't remember it all..."

"Hm, I thought it was something like that. I think I can do this," Gruffi took a hold of the medallion, and felt its cool metal touch against his fingertips. "I remember some of what Zummi would do when he lit a fire."

"Do you know you're naked?" Gusto suddenly said, teeth chattering as he watched Gruffi concentrating.

"Hush up. I'm trying to save our mutual necks here."

"Question withdrawn," said Gusto, with one of of his trademark chuckles.

Oh heaven, if he's laughing then maybe we do have a chance! Gruffi thought as he pointed his hands at the pile of leaves.

"Lummight! Lummeaves! Nummow!"

"Gruffi, thats not the, oh! You did it!"

A tiny fire had lighted the topmost leaf in the pile, and being a pile of dry tinder the lot likewise soon caught the flame. Gruffi added more leaves to the smouldering pile, and went around to sit next to Gusto. There was enough ventilation that the smoke rose to the top of the roof, finding a crack in the stone that it could seep up through. Gruffi prayed that they wouldn't be smoked out.

"It'll be enough for now. I may have to dig around, see if there's any dead plants or fallen branches down here I can use for kindling. Years worth of our dropping garbage down here must amount for something!"

"Right," said Gusto. "Gruffi...are we going to die?"

Gruffi turned to look at Gusto in shock. His friend's lips were still rather white and trembling, and his eyes were wide and wet with tears. His fur was turning stiff now and Gruffi vaguely hoped he could get Gusto warmed up and thawed out before the frostbite caught a hold of him.

But the question was much more obvious than freezing to death. For how could they survive without food or water? How would they survive with just leaves and a cave?

"We're bears," said Gruffi suddenly, remembering his mother's warm voice in the middle of a rather harsh famine during his youth. "We'll make it through. I promise."

-All edited and proofed. :) If you catch errors PM them to me so I can fix them up! Thanks!

Chapter 2: Winter's Sacrifice

Winter's Sacrifice

The next couple of days spent in the cave were some of the hardest days either Gruffi or Gusto had known in their lives. The cold of the winter storms had kept them from leaving the cave in search of fire wood or food, and so they were forced to live off of whatever they had on hand.

Gruffi had taken to letting Gusto wear the Gummi medallion whenever it wasn't needed, for the warm circle of metal seemed to have a magical heat source all of its own. It helped thaw Gusto down from his previous popsicle state, but it didn't help that Gusto had taken to hiding it under his clothes whenever he had it on, and falling asleep with it still around his neck. Gruffi was worried that Gusto was colder then he was letting on.

On the third day Gruffi rose with the sun in his eyes, a brief break in the storm, and with a warm furry body curled up against his. They had decided that sleeping side by side would help keep them from getting cold should the fire die out during the night.

Gusto had refused to take his clothes off though. Gruffi couldn't understand why.

But they weren't starving at least. Poking around in his pack had revealed a packed lunch of sandwiches and a thermos of tea, a small packet of hard crackers and some liniment for wounds which Gruffi had handed to Gusto to rub onto the scrapes on himself. Grammi had really thought of everything. It would keep, but he'd have to find some better source of food for the both of them. Gruffi was praying that the storm would let up and give him a chance to go exploring.

"Fish maybe?" Gruffi said out loud.


Gusto looked a little better now, after an hour with a warm smoldering fire. A quick dig through the piles of leaves had revealed some dead branches, but they wouldn't last long.

They would need to find more fuel.

"I was thinking the river might still have fish. You know Ursa said they used to do some ice fishing up in Barbic woods, just think! All those hibernating fish under the water, perfect game! We could catch as much as we can and stock up..."

"Stock up?" Gusto sat up pointedly. "You mean, we're staying here?"

Gruffi sat back on his haunches and thought about this as he warmed up the thermos of tea over the fire. Gusto was chewing very slowly on his sandwich now, and looking for all intents and purposes as if the idea of staying here was the last possible thing they should do.

"The weather outside is too harsh for climbing. We can wait for it to clear up a bit, and go on a hike along to see if there's a way back up. But I think our priority should be making sure we stay alive, one day at a time."

Gusto nodded, looking rather pale but somewhat resigned, and Gruffi doled him out some tea.

"Gruffi, the weather's clearing up a bit now. Maybe you can go have a look...and my jacket and boots must be dry by now so wrap yourself up, I don't want you catching a cold or anything and..."


"Just...just in case there's like, a route back out somewhere really close by and we don't even know about it...we can just up and go," the bear continued, not answering the unspoken question.

Gruffi looked at Gusto very carefully. He looked cold, and was sounding entirely too desperate for Gruffi's comfort. But he didn't want to pry. Gusto was already far to out of his comfort zone than was usual and prying might send the other bear into a panic.

"I'll go look. And check out that river to see where it leads. Maybe there's a cave through under somewhere that leads to the top. We'll see."

But Gusto's eyes, when Gruffi left, were worried beyond anything Gruffi had ever seen before. He had to get back quickly, and alleviate his fear that something wasn't completely wrong with his friend. That Gusto would be okay.

If he snaps and goes mad because of the cold I don't know what I'll do. I just hope he's all right.

A quick survey of their area told Gruffi all he needed to know. Along the length and breadth of the ravine was ice, walls of it, pinched at either end in a steep arching overhang of rock. The snow pile he landed in, and the large sloping incline of ice it was situated upon, was the only way up out of the ravine. Otherwise, there would be no other choice but to try a climb.

Its like being inside a teapot. And no way Gusto and I can just hike out in this weather, that snow doesn't look too stable. It may not go all the way to the top too, could start another avalanche. Climbing it is then, up the walls of the ravine where the route is the clearest to the top. But we'd freeze after the first hour trying to climb in this weather, and what to climb with?

Well, the answer to that, and to his troubles with the firewood, actually presented themselves to him in the form of an old mine shaft, down the opposite end of the ravine. It led down through the darkness of the rocky canyon, but at the deepest part of the mine it was blocked off by a cave in. Strewn throughout this old shaft of rusted metal tracks and old metal carts was enough broken rotting wood to last a month at least, the remains of broken carts, old water troughs, an elevator shaft, no longer working, and some old sacks that Gruffi decided might be good for blankets if they were cleaned out.

He also found the remains of what must have been an Ancient Gummi quick car, too broken to repair, but might be good for firewood. He decided he wouldn't show Gusto that just yet. It would only have depressed him to learn that the quick car tunnel was blocked off.

No getting out that way. This is going to take patience for spring, a thaw and a warm sunny day for climbing. Its a good thing me and Gus are good climbers! Its a shame about that quick car though, a real shame...

But he had managed to salvage one working mine cart, with rusted wheels, to fill with wood. A sledge hammer and some old rail stakes were found amongst the refuse, and plenty of coal, the very purpose for which the mine shaft was present.

They wouldn't die of the cold. Or at least he hoped they wouldn't. And the rail stakes would be just what they needed once they were ready to climb out. But the worst problem for him was that he had to lug it all back, for the coal dust in the air of this mine made it impossible to use as a shelter. He ended up taking the wheels off of the mine cart with the hammer and pulling it along on the snow on makeshift skis made with some rail ties.

Now all I have to do is find food...

Gruffi found himself quite surprised and delighted by the wonders of the ravine. On one of the ice covered walls along the way he found, frozen deep in the stone, the fossilized skeleton of some old great beast, rearing its head back as if to attack the very ice it was imprisoned within. Along the route between the cave and the mine shaft he had found dozens more caves just like their own, hung with impressive arrays of rainbow stalactites and stalagmites. He would have to bring Gusto to show him.

And he'd check out that river on the way back for fish, though he wasn't going to keep his hopes up. Somehow they would get some food. Even if they had to eat the old fall leaves and twigs that lay dusty and lifeless on the cavern floors.

Gruffi would find a way to keep them alive. He'd made a promise, and he was going to keep it.

When Gruffi got back to the cave, he was surprised to find Gusto bent down near the fire wrapped up in Gruffi's jacket talking to himself...no praying to himself.

Gusto was praying.

"Gusto, what in the name of the Great Gummis are you doing?"

Gusto jerked up in surprise, swearing an oath, then glared at Gruffi for a moment before sighing in resignation.

"I was...asking God to protect us..."

Gruffi huffed, reacting almost instantly.

"Gummi bears don't have gods. Its not the Gummi Way."

"Not every Gummi believes in the 'Gummi Way' you know," Gusto said back, almost angry.

Gruffi hiccuped, entirely to taken aback to hide it. It hadn't occurred to him, in the long years that he'd known Gusto, that Gusto maybe didn't share the same beliefs that he did in the origins of Gummi Bears.

Gusto had come to every one of the traditional gatherings they had held. He'd laughed and more than willingly lit the candles during the Midwinter festival, and donned any number of costumes for various functions of Gummi tradition from Fall's Farewell to the Festival of the First Gummi Berry.

But...not believe in the Gummi Way? What was Gusto on about?

"Stop it Gruffi," Gusto muttered, breaking Gruffi's mental hiccup. "I can see you trying to calculate it all in your head like some sort of walking talking abacus. I'll spell it out for you; I'm Jewish. Everyone from my warren is...was."

"Oh," Gruffi said, unfamiliar with the term thrown at him. "I see. Isn't that a...human religion?"

"Yeah, my ancestors came across Europe from Israel during the migration. Don't worry about it," said Gusto, standing unsteadily to his feet. "Are you going to show me what you found? I'm out of my mind with curiosity."

Gruffi pushed back his shock at this revelation into his friend's religion and decidedly began describing his discoveries to Gusto, revealing the various objects in the mine cart he'd found.

"There's plenty more, and way up the river, closer to the mine, I noticed some shapes in the water which I'm assuming are fish. I also brought some of those rail spike things, good for cutting and such. When the weather really clears up we can used them to climb out of the ravine. But first I think we'd better...Gusto is something wrong?"

Gusto had looked rather pale at pulling one of the sharp metal stakes out of the cart, and looked up at Gruffi, eyes going momentarily pale and distant.

"Don't you have your hunting knife with you Gruffi?"

"My hunting knife? I always bring it with me, its in the pack...what Gusto? What is it? Why do you want my knife?"

"I...just...thought maybe you didn't...since you said the spikes were...nevermind..."

Gruffi watched as Gusto shuffled back over to the fire to sit down and clasp his hands together as if in prayer again, though he made no sound.

Gruffi stared at Gusto for a few moments, thinking about it for a few moments, really studied his friend. He wasn't the best at telling when people were distressed, and Gusto was usually so forthcoming about everything. But Gusto looked like he was in a great deal of pain, and was trying to hide it from him.

And then it hit Gruffi, like a sack of bricks, what might have been causing Gusto to panic as badly as he was about the cold, about the hunting knife, about the whole situation.

"Show me your feet Gus."

Gusto jerked his head up and paled, uncurling himself from the crouch he was in as if to try and hide his feet. Gruffi came over to his side, getting onto his knees, and put a hand on Gusto's shoulder.

"Lets see, c'mon Gusto..."

The tears of pain were very real as Gusto achingly pulled off each boot, and eat sock and lifted his feet up for Gruffi's inspection.

The left foot looked perfectly fine. Rather pink and cold under the fur, but a warm wrap and a boot would keep it protected. It was recovering well from the shock of cold and ice of winter.

But the right foot made Gruffi physically wince and recoil. Frostbite, and gangrene. Black and swollen, the tips of Gusto's toes looked like they had been shoved headfirst into the fire and left there. Gruffi held the foot up in his hands and looked up at Gusto, who was giving his foot a ghostly look.

"Well?" said the blue bear, closing his eyes tightly. "Are they...done for?"

Gruffi bit his lips and closed his eyes, thinking of how best to answer Gusto without causing a panic.

"Yes, they're goners. You wanna...borrow my...?"

"No, I can't do it!" Gusto wailed, and he began to shake. "I can't Gruffi! I...just don't understand! I was wearing three pairs of socks. How did this happen so fast? I wasn't underwater that long! And why only the one foot, why not my fingers too?"

Gruffi shook his head and pulled Gusto forward so that their foreheads were together, something Grammi had always done with Gruffi when he himself was out of his mind with panic. The effect was instantaneous. Gusto's eyes popped open, letting loose a stream of tears. The shaking and heaving sobs slowed completely and Gusto threw his arms around Gruffi, clinging to him tightly.

"Don't worry Gus, I'll do it," said Gruffi, though he wasn't sure he really could. "I'll cut em off for you. Just...let me see if Grammi put a needle and some thread in that pack or I don't know what we'll use for sutures."

"Gruff, you know I hated that pet name the first time you used it," Gusto admitted, wiping his eyes. "But for some reason I can't hate it now. Not when you're using it so...I dunno...this way."

"Yeah I know," said Gruffi, finally bringing himself to search through their packs. "Why don't you tell me more about your...religion...while I work..."

"What?" Gusto was totally taken aback. "Well, what do you want to know?"

"Anything. Just talk to me. Tell me about it all. Talking will keep your mind off the pain."

"The pain...oh Great Gummis!"

Gruffi mentally smacked himself for pointing out not so subtly that there'd be nothing to numb the pain. But he had to hand it to Grammi; he had everything else he could possibly need in his pack for an emergency. There was indeed a needle and spool of thread in the pack, in fact a whole first aid kit with bandages and some of that human alcohol she kept around the place for cleaning wounds out. Stuff stung like hell, he knew for himself, but it killed infection and...

Damn. It wasn't enough to get Gusto drunk enough to not feel the pain. That random idea left him as quickly as he had thought it and he briefly considered knocking Gusto out to spare him the pain.

But then Gusto spoke.

"Well, I'm guessing you already know a bit about God from Cala and Cavin," said he, looking up at the ceiling. "We...well, follow what we believe are the laws that God set down for us. There's a lot of important days we celebrate; Shabbat, one day every week, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah..."

"Why do you celebrate those holidays?" said Gruffi, trying to think how best to go about the amputation of his friend's toes as he listened to Gusto talking. "And what do the names mean, why not call them something in English?"

"Well," Gusto chuckled. "The language doen't matter, there are lots of names for the holidays I suppose," Gusto chewed on his lips nervously as Gruffi laid down the various tools he would be using for the surgery. "Its what the words signify, the Covenent between God and his creations. It would be like painting without brushes for me to not celebrate the days that are considered Holy to my people."

"I don't get it. Its a human god..."

"Well, its hard to explain. Race doesn't really matter to God as much as the way we choose to live our lives...thats what I always understood it to be anyways. Though, I've been called rather unorthodox by my family," said with a sigh, and Gusto looked down at his hands as if he were looking for blemishes or scars. "Probably why I'm always getting into trouble with God...I don't always listen to him..."

"I see," said Gruffi, trying hard to find an argument for that, and not being able to. "All right, before you keep going, I'm going to have you take your clothes off."

"Come again?"

Gusto turned bright red, and looked like he wanted to do anything but take off his clothes. Gruffi couldn't understand that embarassment, considering they usually went without pants through most of the summer.

Then again, summer tunics were longer then the sweaters they wore over their pants in the winter, and covered up much more...
"C'mon, its gonna be a bit bloody and I want you to have clean things to wear later. I'll take my clothes off too, don't have any warm water to wash laundry in right? Come out here on the stone where its clean and dry. I'm gonna probably beat those old sacks later to get all the dust out, would not be very good for your stitches to get dirt in them."

Gusto dutifully took off his clothes, shivering in the faint chill of the cave, revealing quite possibly why Gusto didn't want to be naked in front of anyone; he was circumcised, which meant there was no covering of fur to protect his modesty.

No wonder he never takes off his clothes!

But it didn't really matter much to Gruffi. All that mattered now was that the bear was shivering from the cold. He had to get this done with quickly so that Gusto could get back into his warm clothes. He didn't know how long it would take to get Gusto one hundred percent warm again, but he was going to make sure it happened. He himself had been working up a good sweat over the last couple of hours with his trekking up and down the ravine and building a fire, and he had a heavy pelt so he'd be fine for awhile.

Gusto, however, seemed to have been made of more fragile material. He had no winter pelt to speak of; his fur was as soft as the underbelly of a baby rabbit, and just as thin, and now he was in the altogether, naked, and shaking like a newborn cub.

"So keep talking, tell me more about the holidays you mentioned," said Gruffi, and he pointedly straddled Gusto's leg, ignoring the pounding in his chest at this very very intimate of positions they were sitting in whilst naked.

Gusto squeaked with panic at being sat upon this way, but nervously started prattling off on the holidays again, the one day a week for rest, celebrating the freedom of Jews from slavery, the lighting of candles to remember a time when a tiny bit of oil lasted longer then it really should have...on and on.

It all made sense, really. But lest he become distracted by the explanation, Gruffi took this opportunity to really assess the damage to his friend's foot. He wouldn't have to remove the whole appendage, just the three toes. If he was careful with his cutting, which he usually was when he dealt with cutting anything, Gusto would still have a proper foot to walk on, even if it would be a toeless foot.

"All right Gusto, brace yourself...this is probably gonna hurt..."

And he lifted the knife...

Oy! No kidding Gruff! Gusto thought to himself sardonically as pain lanced up his leg through his nerves like fire. OUCH!

He'd managed to keep himself from screaming his head off at the first slice, the pain wasn't as earth shatteringly awful as he'd imagined it would be. He had at first thought that maybe his feet were so cold they would be mostly numb. But then he'd been proved wrong knife had finally gone through the bone, hitting nerves that maybe weren't all that completely dead after all.

And then he had started crying, and he couldn't stop no matter how hard he'd tried. He'd been doing that a lot of crying lately.

Merciful God! Owowowowo!

This agonizing process of Gruffi keeping his poor prone leg in the tight pincer embrace of his hand and legs and sawing through bone was repeated three times. Gusto swore and yelled through each agonizingly long second until finally he was able to fall backwards and just choke back his sobs of pain.

Its my own fault, God really HAS abandoned me hasn't he? This must be a sign...

He was suddenly distracted by a soft voice talking to him. A tiny tugging at his foot told him that Gruffi was stitching him up. It was over. Gruffi was talking to him.

"...wasn't so bad...Not even a lot of blood. Lets get you stitched up so you can put some clothes back on."

Gusto was suddenly fully aware that they were both naked, and Gruffi was sitting right on top of him...right where he had hoped he wouldn't.

"Um, Gruffi..." said Gusto, and was surprised by how hoarse his voice sounded. "You're sitting on an uncomfortable place..."

Gruffi coughed, uncomfortably, and shuffled forwards.

"Sorry. You squirm around like a fish in the paw. Speaking of which, it may be too stormy out now to go ice fishing. We'll have to see how my old heart keeps in the cold."

"Just put clothes on. You damn well make me feel ice cold the way you go about, half naked around the cave in just your pants..."

"Damn right," said Gruffi, looking at Gusto harshly. "I've got an entire layer of winter fur I've grown since coming down to South Gumton, but you don't. Your warren was in the tropics wasn't it?"

"Mediterranean actually..." Gusto said, suddenly feeling horrifically jealous of Gruffi and his family for their hearty nature. "On an Island, near Sicily...ow. Okay, are you done wrapping me up? Because I need to get some circulation back into my leg."

"Yup, all bandaged up. Your foot is as good as new, if a few toes shorter."

Gusto grumbled and sat up, assessing the damage, and the very neatly wrapped bandages, and of course the blood stains on the floor. It was over. And he was already feeling twice as healthy as he had been before the operation.

Maybe God was giving him a sign. He needed to better look after his own skin from now on.

"Maybe I'll...what was that?"

A soft scraping sound near the entrance of the cave startled them both out of their reverie. Outside the world of snow was now blindingly white as a whirlwind storm rolled down into the ravine, howling lowly and softening into a dull of ominous quiet.

"Shhhh," said Gruffi. "Be very quiet, don't move..."

And then came a low growl, as a heavy set four legged shape filled the mouth of the cave with its dark shadow.

It was the mother cat.

She must have smelled the blood and came in search of the source. Shit.

Very rarely did Gruffi curse in the more colorful refrains, Zummi would never allow it, but he found himself having to stifle himself now from speaking these curses out loud. The fire was dying out and the mother cat was standing in the mouth of the cave looking wild and hungry. Gusto was now shuffling closer to Gruffi, looking wild eyed and panicked. Clearly he must have realized that his bloody foot was the source of her search.

The mother cat moved. She growled lowly and started towards them, beginning to circle them and the fire, giving both a very wide circuit. Gruffi immediately grabbed the bloody hunting knife from the floor. He didn't dare grab for one of the flaming pieces of wood; one wrong spark would ignite every leaf pile in the entire cavern.

The mother cat seemed to have realized this for she seemed to slow down, giving Gruffi a look of triumph.

"Oh so you survived," Gruffi said suddenly, feeling that diplomacy might just work. "Well there's plenty of fish in the river and we're not gonna go without a fight, why not go out there, I doubt the fish will give you a hard time."

But she turned immediately to look at Gusto, who paled. Clearly she thought he was an easy target. Gruffi growled and got into a defensive stance with his knife, and put himself between her and Gusto.

"Come on, you want him you'll have to get through me!"

She snarled, growling low in the throat and hissing with aggression, and pounced.

Gruffi fell with a thud as two paws planted themselves into his shoulder.

If she thinks she's gonna use me for a trampoline then she's dead wrong!

He took the advantage of his position to jam the knife in his hand deep into her chest. It glanced along her ribcage drawing a long wound causing her to snarl and dig her claws into his shoulders. She then pounced against, leaping over the fire to the other side.


"I'm coming Gruff hang on!"

Gusto had snapped into action the minute she had jumped, running to their rail cart and grabbing one of the sharp rail stakes. But then he paused, as if he wasn't sure quite what to do with it. The mother cat observed him with a predatory look, digging her claws into the leafy floor and assessing him as he moved around to Gruffi's side.

"Gruff are you okay?"

"Yeah, but you're probably gonna need to stitch me later."

But the mother cat didn't give either of them another moment to talk, for she pounced again, this time avoiding the target and leaping right into the midst of the two, dividing them both.

"Bad move!" said Gruffi, and he immediately jumped on her back, stabbing the knife between her ribs.

Gusto just stood pale and frozen in spot as the cat snarled her rage and pain, blood spittle flying from her mouth as she danced around trying to rid herself of Gruffi.

But it was too late. He had stabbed her again. And again, and kept at it until finally she was still, so still that her body looked as if it were carved from the very blood stained stones upon which she rested.

Gruffi took a deep breath, lungs heaving, as exhaustion finally took over him. He turned to look at Gusto, who was standing still where he was, the metal stake in both his hands.

And then he closed his eyes as Gusto bent down to the cavern floor and wretched from the sight of the blood. Gruffi took a deep calming breath to steady himself.

"Been awhile since I've been in a fight like this, god I'm covered in blood, gonna need to warm up some of that water and wash with it, can you get that old tin bowl thing I brought back from the cave and...Gusto?"

Gusto stumbled forward, avoiding the mess of his vomit and the blood, and reached out to pull Gruffi from off of the feline. Gruffi then had to stumble backwards as he was pushed away from the corpse not so gently.

Away from her. And then Gusto bent down, tears filling his eyes, and said a soft prayer...in that strange language he had been speaking in earlier when describing his beliefs.

It was a prayer for the dead. But Gruffi had never...ever...in his life...prayed over something that wasn't another Gummi. Yet here Gusto was, praying for the cat.

"Gruffi," said Gusto, turning to look at him with sad eyes. "She was cold and hungry, but she didn't know how to communicate with us, she didn't understand we were intelligent too. Its really not her fault! We could have given her some of our food. If we'd thought about it, we could have helped her. Shared our cave with her...Gruffi..."

Gruffi stared at Gusto for a moment, then looked down at the closed eyes of the feline, remembering the strange look that he had seen in those two glassy dead eyes just a few moments ago. Clearly Gusto had not missed the semi-intelligence there, and he was clearly now reacting to it with great sadness, as if it had been another Gummi bear, or a human, that had died.

"The langauge doesn't matter...its what the words signify..."
The realization of just what Gusto was saying hit him like a dead weight.

"I'm sorry Gusto," Gruffi said, feeling the weight and enormity of what he had done filling him like ice cold water filling a fragile crystal glass. "But there's nothing I can do now. She's gone, but we're still alive. Lets just be thankful for that."

-I think its ironic and funny that from the start of the chapter the two of them were in each others clothing, and then just ended up naked by the end. ;) And ouch, poor Gusto, poor cat, whats going to happen now me wonders? :(

Chapter 3: Winter's Passion

Winter's Passion

After the death of the cat, something had changed in Gusto that was quite visible to Gruffi, who was now side stepping around the issue as much as he could to prevent another confrontation. An argument had already broken out between them almost immediately as to how they would deal with the cat's body. Gusto absolutely fought against the idea of eating her, even though they needed food. Gruffi had asked him to be sensible.

"What is the line between friend and food?" Gusto had argued. "If it was Arte that was here, or even an ogre, would we do the same to them? And its not kosher!"

Gusto had been using that word so much during the argument that Gruffi reacted almost violently to it.
"Of course not!" countered Gruffi, disliking the strange Jewish word with all his being. "But I'm not gonna let us starve over this!"

In the end they had compromised. Gusto had agree to letting Gruffi skin and clean the fur, to use for warmth. But if Gruffi wanted to eat the meat, it was his decision, Gusto had fully and thoroughly refused.

After cleaning the mess of the cave, Gruffi had realized that they'd probably be able to use fish for food, there wasn't a need to eat the cat. The fur was all they needed. He'd sighed, and grumbled about it in his own way, and decidedly buried the remains of the feline under the snow where it was clean and icy, which had given Gusto a relieved look.

"I hope you're happy!" Gruffi had told the blue bear, not the least bit happy. "I've buried her, just like a Gummi bear! Happy now? Feel better about it?"

Gusto had glowered in response, and had ignored him from then on in favor of washing his fur. Which involved heating some river water in the tea thermos and using one of his socks as a wash cloth, a very tedious routine that Gruffi had hoped he could amend someway. The mine cart would be large enough to act as a bathtub, if they only had a way to heat up more water then just a few cupfuls at a time!

But Gusto had wanted privacy for his cleaning and so Gruffi had left him to it, trekking outside to go exploring again.

We're turning into a cranky married couple, Gruffi thought, feeling a twisting of his stomach at this thought. We're already fighting like one!

Now he was walking up and down the river in search of fish. But Gruffi couldn't get out of his mind the sad looks of his friend, and the pain that they were causing him. There was a now an impasse between them, an itchy feeling which was making Gruffi's insides ache; Gusto was clearly disappointed with him for not being more respectful about the cat, sad that the cat was dead. It went beyond the word kosher. It was something deeper.

And Gruffi was so desperate to see Gusto smile and laugh again in good health. So much that he was losing his temper over nothing.

I just gotta be patient I suppose. Gusto will get over it. Once we have fish, he'll feel better about it all. He doesn't eat a lot of meat normally that I've seen, having spent twelve years eating nothing but fruit and coconuts. But I bet there's tons of fish in that river, he can't say no to them!

They were there, under the ice, he could see them. Some were even actively moving. Which meant, to Gruffi's way of thinking, that they'd be easy to catch in some sort of net.

I could use my hat, or my shirt...or maybe, well we have that fur now to sleep on, we can use one of those sacks for fish. They're much too dirty to keep sleeping on anyways, but washing them out in the stream and using them for nets, thats an idea.

It was such a good idea that he went all the way back to the cave to tell Gusto about it. He found Gusto was now clean and up on his feet, wrapped up in all his clothes, with a piece of charcoal in hand near the south wall. He was scraping the coal on the wall and leaving black marks and trailing symbols on the pale gray surface of the stone. Gruffi quietly watched Gusto as he drew, feeling something in his chest thicken at the sight of the drawings, feeling something strange in the pit of his stomach awaken.

If Gusto's drawing, it means his health is back, he's getting back to himself! Thank the Great Gummis for that!

Gruffi examined the drawing introspectively. Gusto was drawing Gruffi's fight with the cat. It had the feel of a cave painting about it, but it was surrounded by other tiny pictures, the various things that had happened in the cave since arriving there. Gusto's toe amputation, lighting the fire with the medallion, the discovery of the mine shaft, all of it.

"Gusto..." said Gruffi, and the blue bear jerked, turning around to look at him. "I...wow..."

Gusto swallowed hard, looking down at his feet, then looked back up at Gruffi again.

"I can clean it up if you want," said Gusto with a swallow. "But, I needed to draw, to tell the story. To do something!"

"No, its fine, I like the drawings," said Gruffi, going over to put a hand on Gusto's shoulder. "They can stay."

Gusto stiffened a bit at the touch, then shivered and buried himself into Gruffi's shoulder crying. Startled, Gruffi could do nothing but hold onto his friend long enough to let him vent.

"What's wrong Gusto? What is it?"

"I'm sorry," Gusto said, shaking his head. "I didn't mean to...to make it seem like you...did something terrible, just because I have different beliefs. You have every right to be angry with me. I actually thought...you were very...brave...protecting me..."

"No no no, I'm not angry," said Gruffi, and then jerked, totally caught off guard. "Really? You think I'm brave? Well...um..."

Now why did this make him feel...happy? Why did his stomach feel like it was in a knot? Why did Gusto's approval seem so important to him?

"Gruffi, I'm really hungry," said Gusto awkwardly. "I probably shouldn't have made you bury her...I was selfish...but now I'm hungry. I'm...an idiot."

Oh right. Food. That was what was wrong with his stomach. At least, that was what he told himself. That shivering feeling in his abdomen wasn't because of their emotional closeness. He wasn't falling for Gusto Gummi, his best friend. No not in the least.

He was kidding himself.

"No no, its fine, there's plenty of fish in the river," Gruffi said, hoping to distract himself from the feel of Gusto's shivery fingers threaded through his fur. "I'm going to use one of those sacks as a net..."

"What about using one of those rail stakes on a stick like a spear?"

"Thats a good idea too!" Gruffi said, pulling from from Gusto at last in order to go and grab the sacks. "Better yet, those three long poles I brought back I was gonna use for kindling can probably be sharpened into proper spears."

"I'll come with you," said Gusto, following after him. "I'm tired of being cooped up in this cave, and its beautiful outside today."

"Okay, but if you start to feel cold you tell me, you don't need to lose the other toes."

After getting bundled up in all their clothes with spears and sacks in hand, they both went down to where the water was flowing free of the ice to fish. Gusto quickly got over his dislike of hunting living animals when Gruffi challenged his prowess with the spear. A competition ensued as to who could spear fish the faster, leading to much splashing and Gruffi getting smacked in the face by a trout.

And the laughter which followed their playful endeavors shivered and danced its way up the walls of the gorge, dissipating softly into the whispering winds.

Gusto quietly watched Gruffi from across the fire. The gruff brown bear was nibbling on smoked trout, looking just about as happy as Gusto had ever seen him.

We've been surprisingly lucky, Gusto decided, looking down at his own meal with a satisfied stomach. Gruffi's pack, the fish, the mine shaft, even that damn cat!

Gusto closed his eyes, letting the pain move through him as it would, and settled himself a little more appreciatively upon the fur blanket beneath him.

We're warm, we're safe, we're fed. And now I understand why Gruffi was so willing to fight and kill. He really wants us both to survive. He hasn't given up!

If Gusto was really honest with himself, he had given up. For awhile anyways. The loss of his toes had made him feel as if he was falling apart piece by piece. He had felt as if death was at his door since they had fallen into the gorge. But Gruffi wasn't falling apart. Gruffi wasn't complaining about the cold and snow, and he was constantly thinking of ways in which to improve their situation. Gruffi was strong.

Gruffi's strength was giving Gusto an unexplainable shivery feeling in his belly that was speaking to areas of his body that were not controlled by his head.

Oh heavens! No female has ever made me feel so warm. Every time Gruffi does something, whether its fight that cat, or cut my toes off, he makes me feel like I'm cared about. Like I'm...loved...Damn!


Gusto jerked his head up, suddenly aware that his name had been spoken multiple times before he had heard it.


"I asked if you wanted more, but you don't seem to be done your second."

"I'm full now...I was just thinking," Gusto said, then immediately regretted it. "Actually, I was wondering, since we'll have to keep...sleeping together...maybe we should...I'm not sure how to say this...oh..."

Gruffi waited, expression wide eyed and face red, obviously misinterpreting him completely.

"I mean," Gusto swallowed. "We should...just...hibernate. We're bears...we're capable of it. Even if the urge to sleep through the winter has been passive in Gummi bears for ages, we still could try...if we stored enough fish in the cave, we could eat whenever we woke and just go to bed again...Spring would come around before we knew it..."

Gruffi seemed a little relieved by this, and lifted his head in a sort of jerking nod. Then he grinned.

"I was thinking you would probably get bored without any paper to sketch on," Gruffi admitted. "There's plenty of walls in this gorge for you to draw on. I'm sure there's plenty we could do...but if you just want to laze around in bed all day..."

Gruffi was teasing him! The tip of his tongue was even sticking out!

"No, it was just an idea!" Gusto said with a huff. "If you'd rather work all day long and..."

Gusto stopped talking suddenly as Gruffi came around the fire to sit down next to him and pull him close.

"Shuddap you," said Gruffi affectionately, pressing their foreheads together. "I think laying around in bed sleeping with you all winter would be severely difficult. You snore, you realize."


Gruffi looked at him for a few moments, and Gusto realized suddenly what the brown bear was really feeling, and had been trying subtly to communicate to Gusto without success.

Could Gruffi really...be interested in me? How can I tell? We've both been through so much, it could just be the situation and not our true feelings...I mean, its a sin...but heck, I've spent half of my life sinning! And we've been through so much now...he's been keeping me alive. How could I not want him to be mine?

Now they were alone together, for the incomprehensibly long winter, with nothing to distract them both but each other. Now they were looking to one another to keep themselves from going mad in the quiet isolation of their wintery prison.

"We'll be all right now," said Gruffi, speaking this out loud. "Just as long as we're together, we'll be just fine."

"Yeah, thats you're doing you know," Gusto said, sighing. "I've been almost useless here..."

"No, I don't think so," Gruffi admitted, standing to his feet. "You've given me something to keep fighting for. You've kept me alive as much as I've kept you alive. We're in this together."

For a moment, Gusto thought that he was going to go back to his eating. That he had misinterpreted the signals that Gruffi had silently been sending to him.

And then Gruffi started pulling off all his clothes.

So much for hibernating...

Morning dawned bright and early into the cave. It brought with it to Gruffi a shivery feeling that he hadn't felt in a long time. That sort of stirring in his body of aches and pains that could only have followed a night of sweat and heat.

Passionate memories of tangled bodies filled his brain; the grasping limbs and animalistic moans muffled into his fur. Three days they had passed like this, rising only to tend the fire and eat, and take care of bodily functions. The pure eroticism of their situation had not been lost upon Gusto, and he had thrown himself into it for all he was worth, surprising Gruffi completely.

Rather than just being randy and sexual, Gusto had been clingy and needy. He had been entirely too...emotional.

What does he thinks this means? That we're a couple? Gruffi thought, stretching lazily and finding himself still curled up around the other bear. How do I feel about him anyways?

Gruffi couldn't figure out his feelings at this moment, for the warm body next to him was proving to be a pleasant distraction. Gusto was making the most adorable happy sounds in his sleep. Gruffi pondered momentarily if he should wake him up, but then decided that Gusto was probably right about one thing.

Sleeping through winter would had make it easier, much easier, to handle. If only that were true though. Simple hibernation was a nice dream, but it wasn't the reality.

The reality was the warmth and light of the sunshine filling the cave. It was enough to stir Gruffi from his reverie in stunned silence.

Wait a moment...light? Sunshine? Warmth?

Gruffi pulled himself free of the furs at least, moaning as he did, and stretched. This caused Gusto to stir and lift his own head.

"Gruffi, come back to bed..."

"Sunshine Gus," said Gruffi. "Take a look."


Both of them pulled free of the blankets and dressed quickly. Together they went out into the cold morning air, holding hands, and staring up at the light that was falling down upon them, and not a snow cloud was in the sky.

"It feels nice," said Gusto, smiling widely. "Almost like spring."

"It won't last," said Gruffi, pointing at the glistening ice walls around them. "But it might be enough to melt the walls, maybe. We may not have to spend very long down here after all. We just need enough rock face for us to climb out."

"Great Gummis!" said Gusto. "You think so?"

"Yeah, I'm sure about it. But lets not hope on it to much, we have winter today, and that means back to the cave and keep the fire going."

"All right Gruffi," Gusto turned to look at him, the light and warmth playing off his fur and sparkling eyes. "But first I'd like to go walking with you and see those things you showed me. The stalactites and stuff, those strange bones. Maybe show me the mine shaft, and we can go fishing again. I think...I almost feel...as if I really do want to spend the whole winter down here with you."

Gruffi stared at Gusto, but before he could argue the blue bear pressed their lips together warmly. The bright sunshine falling over them both and warming their fur was not as deeply warming and healing as this kiss and it broke the surface of Gruffi's mind. When they parted again it was sign enough that Gruffi had trouble breathing.

"This...isn't going to be just a one time thing is it?" Gruffi said.

"Nope," said Gusto. "My religion is very strict about it; when you love, love with all you have. When you mate, mate for life."

"I see," said Gruffi, putting a smirk on his face, but feeling really queasy inside. "I suppose your religion has rules against two males being mates?"

"Yeah," said Gusto, pulling Gruffi to himself again. "But when have you known me to follow all the rules?"

Gruffi swallowed hard, unable to speak as they stumbled back into the cave again. He was being pulled pointedly to the fur blanket by his lover and he wasn't entirely against the idea.

So much for this being just a short term thing, Gruffi thought ironically. Maybe I can convince him it was all a dream. Maybe it is. I feel like I'm going mad just being with him.

Maybe he was.

Despite Gruffi's optimism, the canyon walls didn't melt. Another good dusting of snow and sleet followed that brief moment of sunshine, driving both bears mostly into their cave and temporarily putting an end to any idea of climbing out. By the time this storm front had blown itself out two weeks later, Gusto and Gruffi had settled into a daily routine. Both of them finally were resigned to the idea that they would be spending much of the harsh winter in the gorge, and not entirely adverse to the idea now that they had mated.

Gruffi would get up first thing in the morning, tending the fire and checking their food supply. If fish was needed he would wake Gusto then go out to fish, leaving Gusto alone to mend holey socks. They would eat a late breakfast, or lunch if Gruffi's hunting wasn't so good, and then go for a walk together and get some exercise, lest they grow too fat to climb. Gruffi often took their mine cart back to the mine to fill with more wood, leaving Gusto to make their food and keep an eye on the fire. These explorations of the mine shaft had revealed some empty metal buckets that would serve for heating up water, so the problem of bathing and cleaning had sorted itself out. The expression on Gusto's face the first time he had settled down into the mine cart filled to the brim with hot water was pure euphoria, and worth all the pain and effort it had taken to prepare a proper bath.

It was a comfortable routine, and the end of each day brought the promise of making love and a comfortable rest.

We really are married, thought Gusto serenely as he roasted the day's fish. Gruffi is the hunter gatherer and I...I am too entirely put out having to sew all the holes in his socks, let alone the hole he's sewed up in me!

Gusto laughed quietly at this, and stretched his leg momentarily to look at his foot.

Flesh is healed, bandages are mostly clean coming off now, no infection, and its hurting less, stitches can probably come out soon. Yeah, I think I'll soon be as active as he is again. And we'll be able to climb...that is...if winter ever ends.

Gusto took a deep breath and shivered. He didn't want to get his hopes up that they would be able to leave sooner, but Gruffi had hinted that the ice walls were solid enough that they could use the rail stakes as ice picks and escape. But Gruffi had not been enthusiastic about that idea in light of how cold winter was. A long trek like that would have Gusto's lungs in stitches within minutes, let alone his lame foot. It was a dream.

But the reality was that they might have to wait.

But...I'm waiting with Gruffi...its not that long. Only a few months. How hard can it be to live in a cave for three months?

If the whipping winter winds beyond the cave had anything to say in response, they didn't voice their opinions. The churning winds were blowing brightly across the mouth of the cave, whipping snow into the entryway and singing across the gorge, their crystalline ghostlike voices sending shivers down Gusto's spine.

I would pray, thought Gusto, wrapping his arms around himself superstitiously. But somehow, I think that God has been planning all of this out for a very long time. I don't know whats worse; the bad weather, or a God playing matchmaker?

And at that moment Gruffi chose to return, the winter winds dancing and pushing him gently into the cave with swirling merriment.

"Can you believe it?" said Gruffi, putting his hands up. "I had to actually pick a hole in the ice to fish! Nothing. Its a good thing we've been stocking up because I don't think we're getting anything else for awhile."

Gusto shivered, and patted the spot beside him.

"Sit down, eat something, warm up. It was bound to freeze over eventually. We have all that fish packed away, its enough for awhile anyways."

Gruffi nodded, but there was clear worry in his eyes as he settled down next to the fire. Gusto leaned on his shoulder and sighed.

"At least we have warmth...and each other. We'll be fine. I know we will. I can almost...feel it."

"If you're not worried, then thats a good sign," Gruffi said, kissing him.

Well, if God is playing matchmaker, then He's doing a damned good job, Gusto thought to himself as they held each other. Maybe I should stop questioning Him and just let things happen as they will.

And then Gruffi kissed him again, and his worries all vanished along with the dying winds.

-I've changed and edited this fic. :) Be sure to read from the beginning to get the edits!

Chapter 4: Winter's Release

-I think Gusto is a little more IC in this chapter, less OOC. I hope. I sort of lost him away back there, but then again traumatic situations do change people. Yeah thats it. Its not my half-arsed author skills, no not at all. ;; Enjoy this last bit of the story! Bit of proof reading has been done in previous chapters too, for your reading pleasure. No I'm off...to go read some Gusto fanfics and watch the shows again. o.o

Winter's Release

Time seemed to pass by in almost the blinking of an eye for Gusto and Gruffi, and Gusto found himself one morning in December looking up at the cavern walls with Gruffi as they assessed which stretch of it would be the best to attempt a climb. But Gruffi had been very adamant; Gusto's lame foot meant that he would be doing the less climbing work if Gruffi could manage it.

"We wait until the weather is nice and calm, lest we be blown away. I'll do the main climbing, picking out a path with the rail stakes. You'll be tied to me with that rope, following my lead. If you fall the rope will catch you. And if you get too tired to climb I can bear your weight."

It was a good plan. But Gusto had felt nervous about it. Especially with the raw condition the rope was in.

"What if...the rope breaks and I fall?"

"Then I fall after you," Gruffi had stated pointedly. "There's no way you're leaving this world without me. Wherever you go, I'll go. But I promise I won't let you fall..."

We could both fail and end up having to live down here for good. Though, I'm not too sure I'd be unhappy about that...

Gusto desperately wanted more time with Gruffi. He wasn't sure he wanted to go back to the world of the Gummi Way and all the pomp and circumstance that went with that. Gusto knew that Gruffi would walk through fire and brimstone to be with him, so there was something there. But how would the others react?

'Love with all you have'...well if God really has set this up then I must respect His decision.

By the time Gruffi arrived back with the wood and supplies from the mine Gusto had been able to work up this question to the point that he could speak it all to Gruffi, with stumbling awkwardness that bespoke volumes as to his nervousness.

I can smooth talk my way out of any situation, but talk about our romance with Gruffi? No...thats not something I do well at all.

Gruffi just laughed.

"I don't think we'll have to hide our feelings with Grammi and the others. Don't know about the Barbics though. Hm. It might be better to be quiet about it at first, until we see how they'll react. But there's nothing in the Great Book of Gummi that says our relationship is wrong. Just, matings are supposed to produce cubs..."

That was basically the jist of what the Torah said about it as well, and Gusto shared a good laugh with Gruffi over this interesting sharing of religious resemblances. They had then talked about the food, and the whole kosher thing, and Gruffi had eventually commented that Gusto was an excellent cook, kosher or not, much much better then himself, and single handedly handed over all the cooking chores to him.

Which brought them back to the sticky business about their coming climb.

"I'm scared, I must be honest," Gusto said, languishing over his fish meal with a feeling akin to boredom. Fish was so normal now that he wondered why he'd ever complained before. "I'm scared about climbing the mountain, and the possibility of falling again, or both of us not making it to the top. Its a long climb..."

"It'll take a long time yeah," Gruffi sighed, and scratched his nose. "I'm sorry Gusto, I know, I know you are scared, but I think we should go soon. Before...before we get too comfortable here. Before we get so comfortable that we don't want to leave, and winter comes in and we have no other chance. We don't know if our supplies will last long. I think we need to go soon."

"What, right now?" said Gusto in alarm.

"No not now, you finish eating, and we'll sleep. But tomorrow we'll see what the weather is like, and then we'll use that as our gauge to whether its a good day to climb or not. Fill our pack and get going. I think you are up to a climb, more than you probably think you are."

"I...okay Gruffi," said Gusto, feeling the fish in his stomach suddenly churning sourly.

But even the distraction of Gruffi's arms wasn't enough to distract him from the fearful thoughts that churned through his head. He wanted to speak to Gruffi of his love and all his feelings, but felt the words die in his mouth before he could even move his lips. When he finally did speak, it was when Gruffi was fast asleep, unable to comprehend or respond to the monumental devotions of his lover.

"I love you," Gusto finally said, looking done upon his sleeping partner. "May God help me, but I do...I do."

The wall Gruffi chose was steep, but rocky, with a great many places to grab onto, and many ledges for resting. Gruffi had spent an hour re-examining the old rope, inch-lengths at a time, pulling it and stretching it to make sure it wasn't going to snap.

He wasn't a hundred percent satisfied, but by the time a good bright day for climbing had finally shone down upon them, they didn't have much of a choice; their supply of fish was going down, their clothes were tattered, and Gruffi had decided that the coal they had been burning for fuel may have been effecting their breathing somehow. Surely they'd been living in a rather smoky environment from the start, not having a choice but to live with the open firepit. But Gruffi had been feeling his lungs react to hard work in ways he'd never expected them too.

They had to leave, before their health debilitated to the point where they couldn't go anywhere.

So on that morning, bright and early, they set out to make their climbing attempt. Bundled up in their clothes, but with only the bare minimum of supplies in the pack, leaving behind what they wouldn't need. The less weight the better. They had rail spikes in their hands and spares in their belts, for picking into icy or harder to climb areas of the rock wall. And they had packed a couple of lunches of cooked wrapped fish in case they had to spend a night on a ledge somewhere.

"This is it," said Gruffi, tying the rope to Gusto firmly, and double checking the knots. "Better do it now then to hesitate about it all morning. Bright, clear day, no wind, plenty of sunshine. C'mon then."

Gusto hesitated of course, but being tied to Gruffi by that rope like a babe to his mother, had no choice but to follow as Gruffi started to chip the first hesitant handholds into the icy wall with his rail stake.

It was easier than he thought. The ice behaved exactly how he had hoped it would. Smooth, thick, and strong, but not so hard that they couldn't chip into it. Gusto was using Gruffi's chipped holes as his handholds, and in an emergency he had his own rail stakes to start carving out holes himself.

Now just up to the left, maybe an hour, and there's the first stop point, just above us.

It was a ledge of ice, sitting upon a wall of ice that looked stable enough to hold them both. But Gusto climbed onto it with shivery legs and chattering teeth.

"Time to stop," he said pointedly. "I need to sit down."

Gruffi watched him with worry in his eyes. Had he forced this climb on Gusto too soon? Would he make it to the top?

"I'm all right Gruffi. Just, my legs to need to remember how to climb again. It has been awhile."

Gruffi nodded, and sat down next to him, looking down upon the gorge from a different perspective.

"Its not really all that bad down there. Maybe we can find out where the other end of that mine shaft is and bring around the mole machine. Open up that Quick Car tunnel again for travelling. The coal would certainly be worth the effort."

"And the memories," Gusto added, leaning against him with a sigh. "I'll remember this winter with you as long as I live. And have the scars to prove it," he added, pointing to his boot.

"Don't think about that too hard Gus," said Gruffi, standing up and stretching. "Hungry? Or do you think you might be up to another hour of climbing?"

"I, think I could climb some more," Gusto agreed. "I've lost my appetite for fish."

Gruffi laughed heartily, then turned and began to assess their next path. It seemed straight up to the top was clear. But whether there would be enough ledges was his concern.

To the left there were plenty of ledges, but the ice didn't look as safe. The right was a gaping sheer wall, which was just out of the question.

"Straight up, or to the left?" he asked Gusto, letting the bear check out the route for himself.

"I don't know. Left looks good, enough places to stop. But up is clearer ice."

So they were split. Gruffi wanted to go straight, Gusto wanted to go left.

"Find kettle of fish if we can't choose a path!" Gruffi complained.

"We can go straight up if you want. I just...don't see a lot of ledges to stop. I'm worried you might get tired."

"I think we can angle towards that first ledge there if we...do you say if 'I' got tired?"

"Yeah, you're doing all the work," said Gusto, smirking. "You aren't made of stone Gruffi. I don't want to see you break down. Maybe we could work it in shifts? I could take the next turn of picking out a path..."

Gruffi blushed, and then decided that this was a good idea, but to start working out the next path to the next ledge. He was feeling pretty strong still, and Gusto was still giving out laboured whuffs of breath from their first climb.

Its all uphill from here I suppose. I just hope Gusto survives this climb. He's worried about me, and I'm worried about him! What a pair we make!

Gusto wasn't entirely to sure about the upwards path, but Gruffi seemed to want to take it as it was the shorter path, which meant less climbing, but there were less places to stop.

More chances for us to wear out...

He also wasn't entirely too sure that Gruffi was as up for this climb as he made himself out to be. But by the time they made it to the second ledge, there was nothing to argue about, for they were both far too hungry to carry on until they ate something. Which meant they would both be stopping here to rest.

Ugh, dry fish, thought Gusto. I am so bored of fish of any kind! I don't know how many I've eaten this winter, but I'm glad that I don't yet look like a fat old bear in hibernation! I certainly wouldn't have been surprised if I had!

Nibbling on the dried fish brought Gusto back to the reality of what it would have been like to spend all of winter down in the gorge, and thankful for this climb.

With Gruffi, he mentally added. Maybe we'll be able to open up that mine and build a nice little love nest down there...for the summers.

But right now he had the heady urge to climb. To go.

"Hey Gruff, I think I'll take this next one up. Okay?"

Gruffi jerked his head up, looked at Gusto plainly, then nodded.

"All right, if you think you're up to it..."

I know I am, Gusto decided pointedly. But you, Gruffi Gummi, aren't fooling me. You look like you need a break, and I'm ready to give it to you now, more then ever.

How gusto had managed to get his energy up so much to do the next run of climbing, Gruffi couldn't be sure. His stomach and lungs hurt in ways that they shouldn't have, so much so that he let Gusto take the second run too.

I don't feel so good, thought Gruffi, blearily picking out the next hole that Gusto had chopped in the ice. Guh, every time I take a break I feel a tug at my navel.

"You all right down there Gruffi?" said Gusto, plainly worried. "We're almost to the top now, just a half hour. Do you want to stop?"

They had to stop. He had to stop. He couldn't move another inch yet. He had a stich in both his lungs.

"Yeah, lets stop. Sorry to leave us hanging here, without a perch, but I need to catch up my breathing."

They were out of ledges, and out of breath, and Gusto was looking down at him, worry etched in every line of his face. At least Gusto wasn't bothered by the same sort of vertigo that would have downed Zummi. As if looking down into the gorge was an every day occurance.

"C'mon Gruff," said Gusto, urging him on. "On a spring day you'd be already to the top of this old gopher hole. Want to race?"

Oh, a challenge! Gruffi could feel the adrenaline fill him at this suggestion and started chipping his own path up to the top with the rail stakes.

"You're on!"

Gusto laughed, and teased him, and led him along, and coaxed him up when he faltered, and urged him to take Gusto's handholds when he needed to break. They took turns leading for the rest of the way up, finally coming briefly to a small ledge they could both stand on while Gruffi drank some water from their thermos.

"Wow, you're really tired aren't you Gruff?" Gusto said in a panic, putting a hand to his sweaty forhead. "You need a long break this time maybe. Sit down, and I'll tell you a story...a Jewish story."

Gruffi laughed, feeling the rasp of his own lungs, and sat down with his legs dangling over the edge, ignoring his own vertigo as Gusto told him a story about his home warren in the medditeranean. Gusto promised him that they would go visit it soon, and that they would be able to explore all of Europe together.

And then Gruffi passed out, the breath of his lungs exhaling in a sharp rasp.

We're going to make it, Gusto thought, holding Gruffi close to his chest as the bear slept.

The sun cast them both in its shadows, catching along all the edges of the icy snowscape beneath them. Gusto didn't dare fall asleep himself; the ledge was not big enough for two people to sit on, let alone one to sleep, and it was all he do to hold onto Gruffi to keep him from rolling over the edge.

Knew he'd wear himself out, push himself passed his limit, but I got him to the ledge! Thats a good thing...

Now all he had to worry about was the cold. Noon had come with a soft blowing of winds and snow, and Gusto knew that their luck with the weather had finally failed.

Going to have to try the hard way. Up straight up, no stopping, or we'll get lost in the blinding snow. Its not far now. Come on Gruffi, up and at em!

But Gruffi slept pointedly on. Until the chill of the wind hit him and he started to shiver.

"What...huh? Where on Earth?"

"No! Don't be startled or stand up! Don't look down! You...passed out."

Gruffi seemed to suddenly come back to himself, and clutched to Gusto with desperation.

"Woah, I did? Oh Bears Fur, is this a snow storm?"

"Yup, but we're almost to the top. Maybe half an hour of climbing or less. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I am thanks to you," said Gruffi, rubbing his face. "I don't know what pushed me to taking this climb when I knew I wasn't feeling up to it. I'm just glad I had you here."

"Me too. Now do you want to pick out this climb, or should I?"

"Oh you had better, I don't trust my eyes in this blow and you know where we are better than I do."

"All right."

The rest on the ledge had fortified them both well though. They were out of water and food, so it was just this last stretch of climb and they could rest at the top for as long as they wanted. Find South Gumton and climb into warm beds by a nice snug fire.

Gusto hugged the ice wall as he picked his way up. He felt the tug at his navel more than once, and looked down to see where Gruffi was, vision blurring with snow and tears, and noting that his mate was still following him, still near, picking handhelds of his own where Gusto's seemed to have weakened.

This ice isn't stable. Better not rush it then or I could set the whole thing off.

He was much more careful about his cuts now, and stopped briefly to take a long breath.

And was amazed when Gruffi actually passed him, chipping his way upwards.

"My turn, you follow along..."

Gusto grinned, and reached for the nearest handheld...grasping it with his hand...

There was a tremulous cracking, a sound like the rushing of wind, and Gusto felt the violent tug of the rope at his stomach, the rail stakes falling from his hands as the ice he had been grasping for broke off in his paw.

"Gusto! Hang on!" Gruffi called. "Just hang on!"

Gusto did, hanging onto the rope for dear life as he swung there in the wind, tied to Gruffi only by the rope and nothing else. Gruffi was now picking at the ice furiously, and picking his path up the mountain towards a bare patch of rock which he grasped with one hand. Gusto reached with desperation for the handholds that Gruffi had been picking out and grasped one just as the rope started to unravel.

A jerk and he was free, and hanging by his hands to the ice and fearing for his life.


"I'm all right! I'm still hanging on!" he called, lest Gruffi do something severe like jump down after him. "How far to the top?"

"Not far! Its bare rock from where I am up to the next ledge! I'll wait here for you!"

Gusto felt a shiver of love fill him at this and then slowly, painstakingly, found the handholes Gruffi had chipped away and pulled himself upwards slowly, an inch at a time, until like Gruffi he was holding onto the bare edge of the rock face that Gruffi was.

And that was when the ice sheet they had been climbing decided to finally break free and slide down the wall into the chasm below. Both Gummis held on for their lives at the violence shrieking of loose ice and snow that echoed below them in the gorge like the thunder.

Then silence. The wind blew across their sweat damp fur, playing with it as if soothing them of their fears. They had made it. They could see a clear easy climbing route to the top, handholds already made for them as if by fate in the hard surface of the craggy rock face.

Gusto looked at Gruffi, who looked back.

"Well if this wasn't a sign from God that we went the right way, I'll be bounced," said Gruffi, causing Gusto to jerk in surprise."

"Yes, yes it is."

They both looked at each other, both free of the rope, of their one lifeline, but both of them unafraid. Their route was clear.

"Lets go!"

It was easy beans, this climbing. It was like climbing a ladder. And every meter they gained closer to the top, the stronger they seemed to become. Gusto could feel the muscles in his back stretching taught as he climbed. The workout was doing his muscles some good.

"Do you see it yet?"

"Yes! I can see trees!"

They grasped upon the next ledge, pulling themselves up over it, and were delighted to see a tangled gnarled tree limb leaning down over them.

They had made it. They were home.

"Gruffi?" said Gusto. "Gruffi?"
The bear was laughing. Laughing so brightly that Gusto almost thought he was dreaming.

"We did it. We're home!"

Gusto grinned, eyes crinkling in delight.

"Yes hon, we're home now. Lets go inside."

"All right," Gruffi said, getting up. "But first..."

And suddenly Gusto was being kissed. Kissed like he had never been kissed before.

"I love you," Gruffi said. "And I'd have killed myself if I hadn't told you that before your life ended. I'm so stubbourn I would have waited until we were both old and gray to say it, I'm sure."

"Don't I know it," Gusto laughed. "I love you to, and just so you don't forget..."

They kissed again, and it took a gust of wind nearly blowing both their hats off to break them from their reverie long enough to trek back to South Gumton.

Back home.

Grammi Gummi sniffed softly as she finished baking the last loaf of bread. She had been baking all day, ever since the Barbics had come back from Dunwyn with the sacks of flour from Cala. But now she was tired, and rather miserable.

She was generally miserable. There was little need for them to still be here in South Gumton, save for that this was what Gruffi had wanted. To get this place going again.

Pain filled her at this memory, and she whipped some baking powder into the bowl of flour in front of her. It seemed like only yesterday Gruffi and Gusto were arguing about how to repair the Quick Car tracks up here, about Zummi's missing glasses, about the weather.

But it had been two months now and nothing. No sign that they were ever coming back.

Great Gummis but I miss them!

She didn't jerk or even turn her head when she heard somebody enter the kitchen. She just slapped her spoon into the bowl and sighed.

"Supper's gonna be a bit late."

"Thats all right Grammi," said the cheerful voice. "Can I get a cup of cocoa instead? Make that two, with marshmellows."

For a moment the voice didn't register in her head. Then she turned to look at the speaker and nearly jumped out of her jumpers.

I'm seeing a ghost!

But it wasn't a ghost, it was a very solid Gusto, a solid Gusto who was dressed in all his winter regalia, looking shivery and cold, his blue nose was even turning pink.

"Oh Gusto!" Grammi said, and wrapped her arms immediately around the bear. "Gusto!"

"Yeah, and Gruffi's out in the parlor. We need some hot drinks to warm us up a bit. That was one hell of a climb."

"Oh yes, of course, here, I only have tea I'm afraid, Zummi drank up all the cocoa. Oh its so good to see you back, and alive!"

Gusto hugged her as she cried on his shoulder, then smiled and pointed to the parlour.

"You could get everyone up, but I think we're just going to camp out by the fireplace. Gruffi's gotten out the bedrolls by now. We're both bushed."

"Well don't settle in just yet, we've got the fireplaces in a couple of rooms working now so you can sleep in a proper bed."

"Might be awhile until we're used to sleeping in beds again..."

She shuffled him out to the parlour, where Gruffi sat in a chair, still bundled in his outdoor clothes, staring at the fireplace. She pulled him up into a tight hug and he moaned.

"Grammi, don't ever let me do something that thick headed again."

"Oh Gruffi! I'm just glad your back!"

The sound of voices could not be ignored and soon the whole clan was pouring out of rooms, Glens and Barbics alike. They all hugged the pair and coaxed them into telling them their story while Grammi pulled their winter clothes off of them.

Gusto gave a violent jerk when she reached for his boots.

"No, no, I can do it Grammi."

"Gusto they're gonna find out anyways, show them."

The blue bear grumbled and dithered about the task, but removed his boots and eventually Grammi got to see the reason why he was so concerned over his foot.

"Now no lectures!" Gusto said at once, pulling the socks from his injured foot to show his lack of toes. "I was wearing three pairs of socks when I fell!"

"Oh Gusto!" said Grammi, lifting his foot up to inspect. "Well, you did a good job with stitching it all up."

"But what happened to his toes?" said Sunni.

"Frostbite, and let me tell you, its not worth going out without socks. Put on three pairs at least!"

Gruffi chuckled, and Grammi immediately fetched them warm cups of tea, as Gruffi regaled them all with the story.

But then the pair suddenly spied Cubbi hovering near the outskirts of the room, and Gruffi rose to go over to him.

"I'm sorry," said Cubbi, tears in his eyes. "Its all my fault."

"Naw kid, you couldn't have known," said Gruffi.

"Um, guess who came back while you were away?" Cubbi said, eyes turning big and worried.

Gruffi didn't have to guess. He had seen the sleeping bundle of fur coming in, surely. But now Tingle padded over to him, somewhat increased in weight and size, and looked up at Gruffi.

Grammi felt panic fill her, that Gruffi would shut the cat out of the house again. But instead she, and everyone else, was startled when Gruffi got down onto one knee to look the cat in the eyes.

"I'm sorry kiddo, but she's gone and she's not coming back. We're your family now."

The cat seemed to understand this, nuzzled his chin, and turned to pad back over to the fire. Gruffi didn't so much as complain, or even frown. In fact, he was smiling. Everyone gaped.

"Well, thats one bit of business out of the way," said Gruffi. "Now to the next bit of business. Bed. Before I fall apart at the seams."

Grammi quickly helped them choose a room to make up, was surprised when they both chose to room together, and pointedly doubled the number of blankets she left inside with them, thinking they would sleep seperately in bedrolls on the floor instead of the lone bed, like Gusto had suggested.

But morning would come. And with morning she would finally find them together in the bed, curled up to one another, clutching each other, tied together in the middle by a length of string.

-Yay! Done! Sorta. Will be an epilogue, wanted to avoid it, but this fic clearly deserves one. Hoorah! Can't say when the epilogue will come, but it will. So for now enjoy the last chapter. :) Might get proofing later.