Written by: Dan Green
Disclaimer: Kit Cloudkicker, Baloo,WildCat, Molly Cunningham, Rebecca Cunningham, Don Karnage, "The Air Pirates", Ernie; Oscar Vandersnoot; Col. Spigot and Sgt. Dunder are copyright 1990/1991 Walt Disney Company and are being used without premission. The writer has made sure that no money was made in the production of this fanfic and all material is used with the upmost affection and respect to the Walt Disney Company and the Tale Spin Team. All other characters are the creation of Dan Green and shall not be used without written consent from the writer.
This story is gratefully dedicated to Jymn Magon, Mark Zaslove, and the entire talented and dedicated TaleSpin team.
Personal thanks go out to my usual posse - Alyson, Laura, Jeff, and Kristof. Special thanks to: Michael Gollihue, who once again helped me tremendously with a difficult plot twist; Susie Walton, my sounding board and best critic; Dave, who inspired me to write about a certain someone; and Andrew, who helped and inspired me to get this fic off the ground. Also, thanks to Woody Allen for the quote in Part 2!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic is part adventure story, part love story, and part family drama. But then, I think war stories encompass all of those things. My attempt to parallel events and places in this story to actual events and places will be transparent, I'm sure, but I took some liberties with geography and timelines for dramatic purposes. I hope the history majors out there (no names!) will go easy one me.
A Disclaimer - This story does cover some mature and difficult subject matter, and there are scenes of a violent nature - well, all that by my standards anyway. Definitely a PG rating! I've tried to deal with this stuff in a way that's consistent with the TaleSpin universe, and to do it tastefully. It's not my intention to offend anyone, and I don't think anyone will be. But I did mention it, for the record... Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!
"Oh I, I'm with you boy,
If I got to ride six million miles
Well old pal, it' still surprisin'
How long you can go before you stay
Do not let the mornin' blind you
When on your sleeve you wore the yellow star
How long will you be driven
Relentless round the world
The blood in the rhythm of the soul
The loneliness which can't be spoken
Just swings a rope and rides inside a song
Dead limbs play with ringless fingers
The melody that burns you deep inside
Oh, how the song
Becomes the singers
May peace be ever with you as you ride
--- Kinky Friedman
"What's happening?" the small girl screamed, as her father rushed through the door of their tiny house and slammed it behind him. Outside, a panicked crowd was furiously milling about, as brown-uniformed dogs marched through the streets.
"I'm not sure." her father, a distinguished looking bespectacled polar bear in his mid-30s, panted. He grabbed the small cub and pulled her close. "There are soldiers out there - Alemanian soldiers by the look of them. Where's Mama?"
The girl was crying with fright by this point. "She's outside! She went to the market a few minutes ago! Papa, what is it?"
"Dear God!" the man whispered. He took off his cap and scratched his head thoughtfully. "What to do, what to do?" he mumbled. "I'm sure she'll be fine, Little One. We can't go out there just now. Let's just stay inside and wait for her, all right?"
"But Papa - what are all those soldiers doing out there? What do they want?"she whimpered.
The polar bear said nothing, but absently placed a hand on his daughter's head and held it there for a moment, deep in thought. With a jerk, he removed his hand and dashed over to the radio. "Maybe they'll say on the wireless, Anna. Let's see." He tried to smile at the little cub, but was only able to muster a halfhearted grimace.
He flicked on the radio and flipped the dials frantically for a moment, finding only static. Finally, a voice, crisp and emotionless, cut through the white noise.
"Repeating - an agreement has been signed between the governments of Alemany and Bohemia. Please do not be alarmed. Everything is under control. All residents of the Polar Bear section of Brague are to remain in their homes until further notice. I repeat - do not be alarmed. All residents of the Polar Bear section of Brague are to remain in their homes until further notice. Further instructions will be issued shortly. Peace is at hand, and there is no cause for panic.
With a gasp, the polar bear snapped the dial counterclockwise and shut off the radio. He sat staring, straight ahead, his face even whiter than normal. Anna, his daughter, ran over and put her hand on his face. "Papa! What did that mean? Papa? What about Mama?"
The man stared for another instant, and then quickly turned and looked down at the small cub, as her voice broke through his reverie. He grabbed her head gently in both paws and hugged it to his chest. "Mama will be fine, Dumpling. We'll all be fine." he purred soothingly. He looked over the girl's shoulder and out the window of the sitting room, where the brown-uniformed soldiers continued to mill through the frightened throng, rifle shots occasionally audible over the shouts of fear. "We'll all be fine, Little One......"
"You're late!" Rebecca Cunningham said sternly as her flight crew, Baloo and Kit Cloudkicker, strolled through the door at Higher for Hire. Baloo slumped down in his easy chair, while Kit, shaking his head slightly with a rueful smile, walked over to the small yellow cub playing in front of Rebecca's desk and knelt down next to her.
"Aw, it's only an hour, Boss-lady!" Baloo said in an annoyed tone. "Whatsay we call it close enough fer government work and give the lectures a day off?"
"Baloo-" Rebecca began, frowning, "Baloo, I just don't know what to do with you! I suppose I should be pleased enough you're only an hour late..... But sooner or later you're going to understand that this is a business! I pay you to deliver cargo and fly my plane back here - not to joyride around and waste time at Louie's!"
"An' sooner or later _yer_ gonna understand, flyin' is hard work!" Baloo grumbled, as Kit and Molly shared a sad smile and played with her action figures. "If I wanna stop fer an hour at Louie's after flyin' all over creation on a deadline, that oughtta be just fine! Right Kit?"
"Uh, right Baloo." Kit said unenthusiastically. Baloo could never understand, but it was getting harder and harder for the cub to take his side against Miz Cunningham. He didn't want to take _anybody's_ side. At least the big bear hadn't asked Kit to lie for him.... As he seemed to be more and more, he tried to play peacemaker between the two. "I know we're late, Becky, an' I'm real sorry. But we _did_ deliver on time - the customer was happy. Those stops at Louie's are kinda important for us, I guess. We'll try to be on time, OK?"
"Kid!" Baloo said, sounding betrayed. "What kinda attitude is that fer my navigator to take?"
"I'm sorry, Papa Bear. I'm just trying to-"
"Forget it!" "Rebecca sighed. "I don't know why I even start these things, they always end the same way." She met Kit's eyes for a moment, and smiled. She was bailing him out, and he knew it. "Let's just try to be on time in future, all right? I'm not asking you to stay away from Louie's forever - just to keep on a schedule. Just promise me you'll try, all right Baloo?"
The pilot was trapped now, and clearly didn't want to be the only one sounding unreasonable. "Sure Beckers, whatever. Schedule." he muttered.
"Baloo, if you don't wants to be late, why don't you just leave earlier?" Molly piped in.
"She thinks like me already!" Rebecca laughed.
"Ain't that simple, Button-nose." Baloo grumbled, feeling very ganged-up on. "There's pre-flights, maintenance..."
"Oversleeping!" Rebecca chuckled.
"Even ace pilots need our beauty sleep!" Baloo said indignantly.
"In that case you must not have slept in a year!" Rebecca giggled.
Kit scratched Molly on the ears and stood. This kind of wisecracking was still a little edgy, but it was better than the stage that it always seemed to follow - the out and out fighting. He felt safe in leaving the two of them unattended now. "I'm gonna head upstairs and work on my homework, you guys." he said, his voice a strained squeak. He grimaced, as Molly giggled loudly.
"Kit! What's wrong with your voice?" Rebecca said, struggling not to laugh.
"Yeah, Kid, what's up? I been noticin' that more and more lately. You got a bad cold or somethin'?" Baloo asked.
Kit could feel his ears turning bright red. His voice seemed like a live grenade lately - he never knew when it was gonna go off. "I dunno." he mumbled softly.
Rebecca shared a look with Baloo. "I think I know..." she said. "Kit, how old are you, exactly?"
"Fourteen in a few months." he said softly, silently begging his voice not to crack.
"Oh yeah - sure!" Baloo exclaimed. "That's about how old I was when it happened!"
"When _what_ happened?" Molly asked innocently. Kit, by this time, was looking around for a hole in the floor to climb into.
"When my voice changed, Pigtails." Baloo laughed.
"Guys-" Kit pleaded, desperate for this conversation to end yesterday. His face felt like it was erupting in flames....
Rebecca giggled and patted his shoulder gently. "It's all right Kit, it's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's something that happens to boys around Kit's age, Molly. Their voice changes. It's perfectly natural."
"But I like Kit's voice now!" Molly protested. ~Me too, Kiddo!~ the cub thought to himself.
Her mother laughed. "It'll still be Kit's voice, Pumpkin! He'll just sound a little different, that's all." She turned to the boy. "Kit - has anyone - you know - ever talked about this with you, before?"
"Um - No, I guess not." he muttered. If they were bound and determined to embarrass him he may as well cooperate and be done with it as quickly as possible.
Rebecca shot Baloo a dirty look and the bear shrugged helplessly. "Hey, I hafta think of everything?"
"Well, you _are_ his father, Baloo! Didn't it ever occur to you that Kit might be worried about it? That he'd like to talk to someone who'd been through it himself?"
"Hey guys, really, it's no big deal!" Kit squeaked helplessly.
Rebecca seemed determined to make her point. "Well - do you mean to tell me that you weren't curious about your voice cracking all of a sudden? Maybe a little scared?" she asked him gently.
"A little." he admitted grudgingly. "I just kinda figgered, you know, that was gonna be what my voice was like from now on...."
Baloo glanced down guiltily. "Yeah, well... ya don't hafta worry about that, L'il Britches. It only lasts for a little while, an' then it sorta... I dunno, settles down."
"How long?" Kit asked, a little desperately. He didn't want to admit it, but he hated having a ticking time bomb in his larynx, just waiting to embarrass him at any moment...
"After a couple months, I guess, it kinda starts to get better." Baloo said. "It's been a while since it happened to me, Kiddo. I shoulda set ya down and talked to ya, soon as I noticed."
"That's OK." Kit said sheepishly. "As long as it's not gonna be like this forever, I can deal with it."
Rebecca grinned at him. "He's right Honey - after a few weeks it'll calm down. Don't worry about it."
"That's good." the cub said, eager to extricate himself now that he'd actually heard what he wanted to hear. "I'm gonna take a little walk around, OK? See you in a while." he said, heading for the door.
"I'm comin' too!" Molly said, trailing after the boy. "Say somethin' real funny again., Kit!"
Rebecca waited until the cubs were gone, then spun on Baloo. "Why in the world didn't you talk to the boy about this, Baloo? You said you'd noticed-"
"What'd you embarrass Kit like that for, Beckers?" the big grey bear snapped. "Couldn't ya see he didn't wanna talk about it here? You gals just don't understand guys at all, do ya?"
"Oh Baloo, it's nothing to be embarrassed about!" she said dissuasively. "Besides - I was trying to prove a point - to you!"
"And that was?"
"Baloo - Kit's almost fourteen years old. He'll be going through a lot of changes soon, and not just his voice. You can't just ignore them and hope he'll get through it on his own!"
"Awww-" the pilot said, hiding his face in his hands.
"Baloo - I know that this is a difficult subject for you, but you have responsibilities. You're the boy's father." she strode over and sat on the arm of his chair. "I know it's not fair - most parents have twelve or thirteen years to get to know their child, and get used to the idea. You don't have that luxury. You happened to adopt Kit just as he's starting the toughest years of his life."
"I know..." he groaned.
"Baloo, as hard as it is for you to talk about - things, with Kit - imagine how hard it would be for him to have to go through them, with no one to help him." she prodded, gently.
"My Daddy never talked to me about none o' that!" he grumbled.
"I rest my case."
She chuckled and patted the pilot's arm. "I know it's been a long time, Baloo, but try to remember what it's like, being thirteen. Remember how tough it was. Don't you want to help Kit get through it as painlessly as possible? You're his father - that means more than partying with him at Louie's and taking him to baseball games. It means you have to face things you don't want to do, because he's going through things he has no choice but to face."
"I know Beckers." Baloo said quietly. "I just don't have much experience with all this fatherin' stuff, that's all. I didn't get a lot of it myself, if ya know what I mean."
She didn't, exactly - they'd never discussed the pilot's childhood. Still, she had an idea. "Just be honest with Kit, and talk from your heart. You know how to do that. Everything will be fine." she smiled, grasping his paw. "I know Kit seems very grown up, but he's just another kid when it comes to this sort of thing - all of his experience and toughness can't prepare him for what he's going through. He needs you, Baloo."
"Guess yer right, Beckers." he chuckled, glad, as ever to have her around when this sort of thing baffled him - which was all the time. "Don't know how I'd do it without ya..."
The two cubs walked, hand in hand, along the water, Kit stopping periodically to pick up a flat stone and skim it along the surface of the harbor. Molly could sense the plaintive mood that gripped her 'older brother' - she was more than adept at guessing moods, even if the older folks didn't know it. "Whassa matter, Kit?" she asked in her blunt fashion.
He smiled down at her and was silent for a moment, as if considering answering her question. Finally he stooped, picked up another stone and gently hurled it out over the water. "Nothin', Short Stuff. I'm perfect." he squeaked, with a grimace.
"Worried about your voice, huh?" she asked, suppressing a giggle.
"Naw!" he replied. "It's no big deal - just my voice, is all. I'm just glad it's not gonna be like this forever."
"I guess stuff changes sometimes, even when you don't want it to, huh?" she said innocently.
Kit arched an eyebrow at her in surprise. The little girl had a way of cutting through all of the fluff and hitting squarely on the point. "Never mind, Pigtails. Everything's fine." he said, shaking his head.
"Kit - can you show me how to make the rocks skip like that?"
"Maybe when you're a little older, Molly." the boy said, sending another stone dancing along the harbor.
Molly scowled. "Older, older! I wanna learn _now_!" she grumbled.
Kit laughed. "Ok, Kiddo. But I don't think yer gonna be able to do it." He bent over and scouted around among the pebbles and stones, finally finding what he was looking for. "Here you go." he said, handing her a small, oval shaped flattish stone. "You just grab it between your thumb and forefinger, like this-" he said, moving the yellow cub's paw into place, "and you kind of flick it out over the water, real low. Go ahead and try." The girl complied, and the rock flew in a graceful arc a few feet over the water and disappeared with a thunk.
"Good try!" he giggled as the yellow cub scowled. "But you have to use your wrist more - that puts the English on the rock and makes it skip." He scouted and found another rock. "Here - watch me." He grabbed the stone and with a whipping motion sent it out over the water. The cub winced and grabbed at his side as the rock skimmed the surface seven times and finally settled under the water gently.
"Kit! Are you OK?" Molly gasped, seeing the pained expression on the boy' face.
Kit stood, bent over, for a moment, breathing slowly. Finally he grinned weakly at the little girl. "I'm fine Molly, just a little tummyache..... C'mon, time to head back. Your Mom will be going home soon." He draped an arm around the girl's shoulder and the two cubs headed back to Higher for Hire.
The four polar bears sat at a large, wooden table, a slew of maps and photographs spread out on it's surface. Each man wore a look of somber resolve. "So we are agreed, then - our priorities are changed?" the largest of the four, dressed in a well tailored blue suit, said quietly.
Another bear, dressed in a causal tan flight shirt, answered him. "As difficult as this is, I must agree. I have devoted my entire adult life to exposing the injustices committed by the Thembrian government - I do not easily argue to shift our energies elsewhere. But the facts are the facts - there are even greater and more pressing crisis' at our doorstep."
"What are our options?" a third man - the youngest, by appearances - asked.
The tan-shirted bear chuckled bitterly. "Even if our priorities change, some things never do. The free governments of the world continue to ignore the atrocities we see. As ever, we must try to gather whatever evidence we can to show that action is needed urgently. And then-" he frowned grimly, "we must hope that, even presented with that evidence, they are willing to act."
Low clouds and mist hung over Cape Suzette Harbor as a cool wind blew gently in from the west. The lighthouse foghorn mournfully called out in the night every few seconds, it's wail joining with the ringing of the signal buoy bobbing on the water's surface. Wildcat was working late, whistling softly as he tinkered with the starboard engine by lamplight.
Inside Higher for Hire, the radio was softly playing the music of a swing band, recorded live in a ballroom somewhere in one of the great cities of Usland. Baloo and Kit shared the easy chair, the big bear stretched out, eyes closed, the cub reclining across his ample belly, head resting on the crook of the pilot's arm , reading a newspaper. Baloo stretched luxuriantly, and absently scratched the boy's ears with his free hand, prompting a giggle. "Not a bad meal yer ol' Papa Bear cooked up, huh, Kid?"
"Real good, Baloo." the cub grinned. "You really know your way around a trout."
"Noticed you didn't eat much though, L'il Britches."
"It was great, Papa Bear. Just wasn't that hungry is all." the cub said absently, continuing to browse the paper with interest.
Baloo frowned and peeked at what the boy was reading. "Still don't think it's natural, kid yer age so danged interested in the news." he grumbled. "More bad stuff outta Eporue, huh?"
Kit sighed. "It really looks rough, Baloo. The Alemanians are massing troops all over their borders. They've already pretty much taken over Bohemia."
Baloo shook his head. "Alemanians is always the bad guys, Kid. Same thing as last time. Make a devil outta the other guy, get ever'body riled up-"
"How can you say that, Baloo?" the cub protested. "After everything we saw - with those shipments, all that dangerous stuff they had us carryin', without us even knowing! And all that stuff that Michael said-"
"Michael, yeah." Baloo whispered, eyes closed. "I guess I can't argue, Kid. It seems pretty obvious those were some bad people we was dealin' with. Still....."
Kit shook his head sadly as he read the newspaper. "And there's stories, Baloo - rumors, terrible things happening in Alemany - and Bohemia, now. And maybe other places soon. When I think about all those people... I'm scared, Papa Bear."
Baloo hugged the boy a little closer. "I know Kid. I guess this whole thing is pretty serious, like you say. But what can we do? We got our own little piece o' the world ta worry about, L'il Britches. You can't take on every bad person in the whole world. Ya got enough to do dealin' with the ones in yer own backyard."
"I guess." the boy said dubiously. "But Baloo - how can we just sit back and hope? If there's anything we can do, don't we have a responsibility to do it? Just 'cause we're lucky and don't have that stuff happening around here, does that mean we should ignore it?"
"Yes! No. I mean..." Baloo said, frustrated. "I know what I know, Kiddo. It ain't much, but yer ol' man's been through a little more stuff than you. I don't know exactly what's right and wrong, all the time." The bear was finding himself less and less sure about these things, as Kit's altruism continued to weaken his defenses. "But I know what's important - I know that fer sure. If we can help out, we help out, but we gotta take care o' what's ours, too."
"I know." Kit said, smiling weakly at the big grey bear.
Baloo set his jaw resolutely. "I know what's important." he said, gently pulling Kit's head to his chest. He frowned. "You feel hot, Kid - ya got a temperature?"
Kit sat up. "I dunno...."
"Ya feel OK, Kiddo?" Baloo said concerned.
"I'm _fine_!" Kit said, irritated. "Just a little tired maybe."
Baloo gently lifted the cub, stood, and set him back on the chair. "I don't think I got a thermometer around here..." he muttered, noisily fumbling in the cabinets that dotted the room here and there. After searching for a few moments, he stood, scratching his head. "Dang! What kinda father am I, no thermometer in the house?"
"You're a great father!" Kit protested. "There's nothin' wrong with me!"
Baloo walked back to the boy and placed a paw on his forehead. Frowning, he took off for the kitchen, where he began rummaging through the cupboards. "A-Ha!" he shouted after a moment, returning to the living room triumphantly. "Ta-Da!" he grinned, holding up a bottle.
"'Baer's Baby Aspirin?" Kit said, reading the label. "_Baby_ aspirin?" he asked indignantly. "I'm no baby!"
Baloo chuckled. "Just a finger o' speech, L'il Britches. Bought a bottle o' this when I had a job running Kiddygardners on field trips to Carlsbear Caverns a few years back. Lessee - 'Expires 4/37'. Well, that's close enough I guess. How good a parent am _I_, huh?"
"But Baloo, I _tol'_ ya, I'm fine!" the boy protested.
"Nu-uh!" the pilot said firmly, handing the cub two tablets and retreating to the kitchen for a glass of water. "Swallow those down and go straight ta bed. Ain't no point in takin' chances."
"All right!" Kit grumbled, swallowing the pills. "But I dunno why you have to be such a mother hen all of a sudden!"
Baloo smiled. "Just doin' my job, Kid. I know what's important. C'mon, get ta bed now, I'll be upstairs in a few minutes."
"Status report, Major?" the uniformed dog seated behind the desk snapped at the figure seated before him. The man had a number of medals pinned to his lapels, and the office was decorated in grand fashion.
"All is vell, Colonel." the other figure, a similarly dressed hound, replied. His uniform bore a fraction of the decoration of his superior's. "There is a minimal amount of dissention, as is only to be expected. But on the whole ve are meeting with little resistance."
"Vat about the polar bears? Are zey obeying ze curfew?" the Colonel snapped.
The Major shifted uncomfortably for a moment. "Vell , sir - as is only to be expected, zey are giving us some difficulties.... Ze roadblocks are in place, and zey are being confined to ze ghetto. But as you know, zey are a most stubborn and difficult people-"
"I am not interested in hearing about difficulties, Major - only successes." the large dog behind the desk said ominously. "Zey are scum, of course zey vill resist. Let us see how zey resist after a few veeks of starvation. And Major - do not be bashful about making an example of a few of zem, if need be. Do I make myself clear?"
The smaller canine swallowed nervously. "Uh - an example, sir?"
"An example, Major. My orders come directly from Linber itself. I do not expect to have to address zis with you again. You know our expectations and I expect zem to be met. Brague vll submit, and it vill do so quickly, do you understand?" the Colonel shouted.
"I understand, sir!" the Major replied crisply, with only a tiny tremble in his voice.
"Wevy vell. Hail Alemany. You are dismissed." The smaller dog stood, shot his right arm out crisply and departed.
Kit grabbed his trumpet case, scooped up his books and headed for the door, glad that another seemingly endless school day had finally drawn to a close. Christmas break was coming up soon - what a welcome relief that would be! Of course, that would mean he wouldn't be seeing Susie again for a while......
Susie - it was weird, how he couldn't get her off of his mind. She'd been the reason he'd started listening to jazz at first, of course - that conversation after music class that day, when she'd gushed on about how she loved Louis Legstrong, and Bunny Hareigan. Fortunately for Kit, he'd discovered he liked the music anyway.
Still, every time he thought about striking up another conversation with her, he held back for some reason. Part of it, he freely admitted to himself, was simple crippling fear, but there was something else, too, that held him back. Something about it that made him feel as if he'd be doing something wrong. He couldn't quite figure out for sure why, but he had an idea, silly as it seemed.
Kit paused in the hallway, wincing momentarily as he felt a pain in his gut. "This cafeteria food is slowly killing me!" he muttered softly, leaning against a locker. He caught his breath and headed for the doors.
Someone had set up a small table by the exit, and there was a banner draped across it. A smiling young tigress handed him a sheet of paper as he walked by. "Thanks." he grinned, taking the paper. He paused to read it.
"Cape Suzette Junior High Boosters Club invites you to....
TROPICAL PARADISE 1938 CHRISTMAS DANCE!
Food, drink, fun and music under the tropical moon
Friday, 7:00, main gymnasium
See you there!
Kit stared at the gaily colored lettering for a moment, deep in thought. A dance? Who would have ever thought, Kit Cloudkicker going to a dance - what would the gang on the Iron Vulture have to say about that! "Naw..." he mumbled, absently placing the flyer with his books and heading for home.
Baloo walked up to Higher for Hire, yawning. It had been a long, long day - an eight hour round trip flight to Tierra del Frio, complete with a tropical storm parked smack in the middle of his route. And all to deliver forty crates of Borscht. He was all in, that was for sure - too tired even for a stop at Louie's. Worst of all, he'd had to take the flight solo. Even the long hauls were pretty tolerable with Kit for company.
Rebecca was already long gone as he stepped inside. Upstairs, Kit was quietly playing scales on the trumpet, barely audible. Baloo trudged over to the kitchen, rooted around in the icebox and located a wedge of pizza, which he downed in two bites. He stepped over to the table, where Kit's schoolbooks were stacked. His eyes were drawn to the brightly lettered flyer advertising the Christmas dance.
He picked it up and read it, chuckling. He hadn't really stayed around long enough to go to any dances in school..... Absently he stuffed the flyer in his shirt pocket, glancing upstairs. Rebecca's admonishment from a few nights earlier leapt into his mind, causing an involuntary scowl to cross his face.
"Naw - yer too tired." he grumbled under his breath. Almost instantly he felt ashamed. There would always be excuses, if he looked for them..... They were here, by themselves - there would never be a better time. He hadn't though about exactly what he was going to say, but maybe that was better. With a deep breath, he started up the stairs. "Time to earn yer father o' the year points, Buster!" he muttered.
Kit was sitting, cross-legged on the bed, playing the trumpet very softly when the pilot walked in. To Baloo's eyes the boy looked a little pale - maybe still under the weather, he thought to himself. "Hey, L'il Britches - feelin' better today?" he asked the boy cheerfully.
"Yeah, I'm fine." the cub replied with a smile. "How was that haul to Tierra del Frio?"
"Don't ask, Kid." Baloo groaned, sitting next to Kit on his bed. "Tropical storm right smack in my flight path. Cost me an extra hour just ta fly around her."
"Gee, I'm sorry, Papa Bear. I sure wish I coulda been there - sounds like you really coulda used me."
"No problem." the pilot grinned, clapping the cub on the shoulder. "Ol' Baloo did a lot o' solo flights before he was Papa Bear. You have dinner?"
"Naw - wasn't hungry." the boy squeaked, carefully placing the trumpet back in it's case. "If you
want, I could make you somethin', if you're worn out-"
"That's OK, I just had some pizza!" Baloo chuckled. "So Kid... rumor mill says there's a dance at yer school, huh?"
Kit groaned and leaned back on the bed. "How'd you find out about that?"
Baloo pulled out the flyer and held it up. "Found this little beauty downstairs. So - you gonna go?"
Kit lay back and hid his face with his hands. "No."
Baloo frowned. "Why not? Sounds like fun to me-"
"Sounds dumb to me - just a bunch o' kids standing around, sweating and nervous, listening to some square music. Who needs it?" Kit answered scornfully.
"Well-" Baloo began thoughtfully. "If I'd been in school long enough, I sure woulda liked to go to a few dances... What about that girl, from music class - the one you said liked jazz? Wouldn't ya like ta ask her ta go?
"Aw, just mind yer own business, OK Papa Bear?" Kit scowled. "I said I didn't wanna go!"
Baloo felt a few pangs of guilt as he saw the normally confident cub flustered and defensive. "Um - well... Kit. I - that is...."
"What?" the boy asked, uncovering his face and sitting up.
"I was thinkin', maybe... uh, maybe it was time - you know, that we... talked." the big grey bear stammered.
"Oh no!" Kit moaned, hiding his face again.
Baloo grasped his cap and fumbled with it, trying to regain whatever momentum he'd started out with. He'd known this wouldn't be easy...."L'il Britches - I know this is kinda, uh, embarrassing - but yer gettin' older, and I am yer Dad, after all..."
"Stop, just stop!" Kit begged, both bears' faces bright crimson by this point. "Listen, I dunno what you think it was like on the Iron Vulture, but I wasn't exactly living with nuns, y'know. It's not like I didn't hear anything-"
"Aw!" Baloo interrupted sharply. "C'mon Kiddo - you wanna rely on what those dumb pirates told ya? I may not know much about... stuff, but I ain't no pirate. An' I've gone through it Kit, what yer goin' through..."
"I know." the boy sighed. "It's just - I dunno, it's really embarrassing to talk about... It's not like I'm gonna start dating or anything-"
Baloo breathed an internal sigh of relief. "I know, Kid. But it's pretty obvious yer startin' ta - well - notice stuff - girls - an' ya never used to I'll bet, didya?"
"No." the cub admitted.
Baloo took a deep breath. Harder than ditching a dozen air pirates, this was....."Um - well, first of all - the main thing I want you ta know is, if you _ever_ have any questions you wanna ask, about... anything, you kin always ask. Even if yer embarrassed, or if ya think I'll be. I want ya to promise me you'll ask. OK?" The boy stared straight ahead, saying nothing. The pilot gently grasped the cub's chin and pulled his face around to his own. "Promise?"
"Promise." Kit said reluctantly, then smiled.
Baloo playfully punched him in the jaw and took another deep breath. "Now then, Kid - you know, what's goin' on with yer voice, an' all. Well, that's just a part o' somethin' bigger goin' on. Yer' goin' through a bunch o' stuff right now-" to his immense frustration and guilty relief, the phone rang. "Who's callin' here at this hour?" he grumbled.
"Better get it Baloo - could be important, who knows?" Kit said, also seemingly relieved.
"OK." the bear said reluctantly. "But hold that thought - we ain't done!" He leapt down the stairs and picked up the receiver. "Higher fer Hire - we're closed!"
"Is that how you always answer the phone at night?" Rebecca's voice asked indignantly from the other end of the line.
Naturally, it would be Becky, calling just at that moment...."Yer timing's perfect as ever, Boss-lady. What's up?" Baloo sighed.
"I need you to meet me at my place right away, Baloo. There's an important potential client in town, and he's leaving tomorrow morning. I managed to get him to agree to see me tonight, but he wants to see the pilot, too."
"Right now?" Baloo groaned. This day was never gonna end...
"Right now, Baloo. It's Leghorn Chicken Farms - the third largest poultry producer in Usland. We could get the entire south Pacific distribution contract, if we're lucky. But we have to act immediately."
"Awright, Becky, I'll grab a cab and be right over..." Baloo sighed.
"Baloo - bring Kit too. I need him to sit with Molly while we're at the meeting. And put on a dress shirt and tie, please!"
"Right Beckers. Be right over." The big grey bear wearily hung up the phone and headed for the stairs. Kit was halfway down, staring at him expectantly. "Don't get comfy, L'il Britches. We gotta head over to Becky's place. We're meetin' some kinda high-falootin' chicken guy. You gotta baby-sit Molly. And I gotta put on a tie." the pilot said, trudging slowly up the stairs.
"I'll call a cab!" Kit said with a tired smile, heading for the phone. "Oh, an' Papa Bear?"
"Yeah?" Baloo said expectantly, paused on the top step.
"Thanks!" Kit grinned sheepishly, and headed for Rebecca's desk.
"Baloo, your tie is crooked!" Rebecca barked, frantically dashing about the apartment and scooping up papers. "And comb your hair!"
"Yeah yeah, don't get yer fryers in an uproar!" the pilot grumbled, wearily trudging over to the mirror to adjust his cravat.
"Kit? Where are you?" Rebecca called, touching up her makeup and grabbing her coat.
"Right here." the boy said from behind her. Molly sat on the sofa, looking perturbed.
"All right Kit." Rebecca said, hand on the cub's shoulder. "Molly's already had her dinner, and her bedtime is nine o'clock, but we should be home by then. If she's good, you can take her to the corner for some Frosty Pep - but I don't know, it's dark out..." she said, glancing out the window. She saw the slightly hurt look on Kit's face and grinned. "Never mind, I'm sure you'll be fine. Here's three dollars for the ice cream, and you can keep the change. But just the corner store, understand?"
"Understand." Kit answered solemnly. "You can count on me, Miz Cunningham."
"I know!" she smiled, tousling his hair. "Allright Flyboy, haul your gizzards out here and let's get going! I don't want to keep Mr. Fowler waiting!" she shouted, bending over quickly to kiss Molly on the forehead "And you be good, Young Lady. Don't give Kit any trouble!"
"I'm _always_ good!" the yellow cub huffed indignantly.
"Keep yer feathers on, I'm comin'!" Baloo grumbled, his tie worse than before
Rebecca sighed grandly. "Never mind, I'll fix it in the cab! You kids be careful - Remember Kit, corner store, and don't let anyone in the apartment, all right? Be careful! See you later!"
"We will!" Kit shouted as the two adults hurried out. With a tired sigh, the boy sat down on the sofa next to Molly.
"This ain't fair!" the little girl grumbled. "Mom an' me was gonna make brownies tonight for Lucy's tea party tomorrow."
"Sorry Kiddo - I dunno how to make brownies." Kit said quietly.
"I know - let's play tail gunner!" the girl said excitedly. "There's all kinds o' pirates around here!"
"Molly, I gotta ask you something -real serious, ,OK?" Kit said, wiping his brow.
"What?" the girl said, annoyed.
"Molly, I don't feel so good tonight, OK? I've got a bad tummyache. So please, be real good - I'm kinda tired out an' I don't think I can play any games right now."
"Awww..." the yellow cub complained. "Yer just tryin' to trick me-"
"I'm serious Molly!" the boy snapped, eyes closed. "I need to rest for a few minutes, and then I'll take you for some Frosty Pep, if you're good. OK?"
"OK.." Molly said, frowning. It wasn't like Kit to try to use an old grown-up trick like that....
The cab slowly worked it's way towards downtown Cape Suzette, fighting the last vestiges of the evening's rush hour traffic. Rebecca leaned across and adjusted Baloo's polka- dotted necktie. "Honestly, Baloo!" she grumbled. "I don't know how you can fly that airplane all over the world and you can't tie a simple knot!"
"Hey - in my line o' work we never need these useless things! I dunno why this guy wants to see me anyways - yer the one that's supposed to be makin' deals."
Rebecca sighed and finished straightening the tie. "We're a one-plane operation, Baloo. This guy has a ton of money - he wants to be thorough. So do me a favor - _try_ not to be a doofus tonight, all right?"
"Hey, I'll be Mr. Professional!" Baloo grinned. "You know me." Rebecca scowled at him. "Well, I'll still be Mr. Professional!"
Rebecca started to retort, then frowned thoughtfully. "Baloo, did I tell Kit where we were going to be tonight?"
The pilot scratched his head. "I dunno, Beckers - don't think so. What's it matter, Kit can handle things."
"I should have told him, in case anything happens with Molly. Maybe I'll stop and call when we get to the restaurant..."
"Naw!" Baloo scowled. "You worry too much, Beckers. Besides - they'll prob'ly be out getting the ice cream when ya call anyways."
"I suppose." she sighed.
Kit, _come on_!" Molly said impatiently, tugging on the cub's hand. The ice cream stand was only a few dozen yards away - she could see it! "Whassa matter? Keep up!"
"Sorry." the boy whispered, walking a little faster. Something just wasn't right, he felt - strange. Why was he having trouble breathing?
Molly continued to tug at Kit's paw impatiently, and finally felt him release her hand. Gleefully, she raced ahead, waiting for the inevitable command to slow down and wait for him. When it didn't come, she turned around, only to find the boy doubled over, holding his side. "Kit!" she squealed, rushing back to him.
Kit blinked rapidly, tears of pain blurring his vision. The hurt was terrible, burning. "I... I have to sit down, Molly...." he gasped, frantically feeling around for a bench or even a fire hydrant. Finally, he could support his own weight no longer, and fell to the grass with a groan.
"Kit!" Molly screamed again. "Whassa matter?"
The cub "gritted his teeth, trying to suck in enough air to talk. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a strangled groan came out.
Molly was crying by now, realizing that this was no game. "Kit! What should I do?" she begged frantically, but the boy only groaned again, sweat beading on his forehead. She closed her eyes and thought for a moment. "I'm gonna get help!" she panted, and took off at a run.
Kit heard the cub's last comment through the screeching pain, and saw a yellow blur streak off. "No! Wait, Molly.." he croaked, trying to stand and follow her. The effort was rewarded by a tremendous shot of agony in his side, and he fell back to the grass with a yelp. That was all - he could move no more, and lay back on the turf, holding his gut and moaning. He knew he should be looking for Molly, but couldn't even muster the strength to open his eyes. Finally, after what could have been a minute or an hour, he felt strong hands grasp his shoulders and heard voices speaking gently to him, their words a jumbled blur.
"Honestly, Baloo!" Rebecca scolded as she and the big grey bear rode the elevator to her floor. "Imagine telling the President of a poultry company that you're a steak and potatoes man!"
"Well, I'm sorry Becky, but it's true! I like burgers, an' stuff - and last time I checked they weren't makin' burgers out o' chickens or turkeys!" the pilot said defensively.
"Well, a business meeting is no place for honesty!" she barked as the doors opened. "Besides, maybe they _will_ make burgers that way someday."
"Don't make me laugh, Becky - who over heard o' turkey burgers?" Baloo grumbled as Rebecca fumbled with her keys, finally opening the door. "Hi-ho, L'il Britches!" Baloo called as they entered the apartment.
"Where are they?" Rebecca frowned, looking around the empty living room.
"Dunno - maybe he's puttin' Molly to bed." Baloo said quizzically.
"At eight thirty?" Rebecca frowned, glancing at her watch. She walked over to Molly's bedroom and peeked inside. "They're not here, Baloo!"
"Well - maybe they're still out gettin' ice cream." Baloo said dubiously.
"At this hour?! They'd better not be! I though Kit knew better than that! Maybe hanging around you so much is finally starting to rub off."
"Hey!" Baloo complained. "That ain't fair - besides, Kit's responsible. He wouldn't do anything that weren't safe."
"He'd better not." Rebecca said ominously, looking around the apartment. "If anything happens to Molly... Help me look for a note or something."
Baloo started checking the tables and counters. "You know Kit better'n that, Becky! If he took Molly out after he was supposed to there musta been a real good reason, like he had no choice or somethin'!"
"Oh, _that_ makes me feel better!" the bearess said sarcastically. "Still - I don't think Kit would take any chances with Molly. Oh Baloo, what if something happened?"
"Don't panic Beckers, I'm sure there's a good explanation..." Baloo said, starting to worry himself. "Maybe I should go out and take a look around, see if I kin find 'em."
"Maybe..." Rebecca said dubiously. The phone rang, causing both bears to jump. "Oh my..." Rebecca mumbled, picking up the receiver. "It's Wildcat!" she said, surprised. "Wildcat, is Molly all right? What? Oh my God...." she gasped, turning pale.
"What? What is it? Is she OK?" Baloo said frantically.
"Yes, yes... Suzette Memorial, all right. We'll be right there!" Rebecca said, hanging up the phone.
"Whassa matter?" Baloo yelled. "Is Molly all right?"
"Molly's fine." Rebecca said gently. "But Kit's in the emergency room."
Wildcat hung up the phone and walked back over to where Molly sat, crying quietly, on a couch in the waiting room. "Yer Mom an' Baloo are comin' right over, Mollycat." the mechanic said, gently patting her head. "Ever'thing's gonna be OK, man."
"It was terrible, Wildcat!" the little girl sobbed. "He was so sick, he couldn't even talk. I was so scared!"
"I bet!" Wildcat said sympathetically. "Don't you worry, Kiddo, like, Kit's gonna be just fine, you'll see. Kit's as tough as a nickel steak. Uncle Wildcat's never wrong about these things....."
"Calm down, Baloo!" Rebecca chided as she and the big grey bear rushed up the steps and into the hospital. "Your panicking isn't going to help Kit right now."
"Easy fer _you_ to say!" Baloo snapped. "But it ain't your kid in the emergency room, and they don't even know what's wrong! So don't tell _me_ ta calm down, lady!"
"You're right, I'm sorry." she said soothingly, patting his arm. "But just try to keep cool, OK? For Kit's sake."
"I bet it was the pills!" Baloo groaned, whacking himself on the forehead.
"What pills?" she asked, puzzled.
"Awwww!" the pilot moaned. "Kit seemed like he had a fever last night, and I gave him a couple o' baby aspirins that expired last year! I bet that's what did it, Becky! I put my own kid in the hospital!"
"That's silly!" she admonished. "I'm sure that wasn't it, Baloo. Don't blame yourself - kids get sick sometimes, no matter what we do."
Baloo shook his head angrily. "Don't ya see Becky? Even if it wasn't the pills, the kid was still sick! I shouldn't've let him go to school today - I shoulda stayed home and took care o' him! What's a fat, stupid ol' pilot like me know about lookin' after a kid, Beckers? I let him down - I ain't got no right bein' a father...."
"Baloo, that's enough!" Rebecca said firmly as they approached the emergency room desk. "You can't blame yourself for everything that happens to your child. Sometimes things just happen , and it's no one's fault. The important thing is that Kit's all right." She placed her paws on his shoulders. "Now - you need to pull yourself together and be strong, for Kit - all right?"
The bear nodded gently, eyes closed, and approached the nurse at the window. "'S'cuse me M'amm, I'm here about my kid, Kit Cloudkicker is his name-"
"Miz Cunningham!" Wildcat called softly. Turning, she saw the mechanic sitting with Molly on a sofa in the waiting area. She rushed over to them.
"Wildcat, what's happened, exactly?" she exclaimed, as Molly crawled into her arms.
The mechanic scratched his head. "Well, like, the hospital called me, an' said that Kit got brought in on an ambulance, man. An' Molly was with him. So I came down here, and they'd already put Kit in some kinda room, an' Molly was here, an' she said you guys was, like, out, so's I figured I'd better keep callin' you every few minutes til' you got home. So that's what I did."
"How's Kit?" she whispered.
"I dunno, man. They wheeled him in somewheres, an' said they were gonna check him out, an we been waitin' ever since."
"Molly, honey - what happened?" Rebecca asked her still tearful daughter gently.
"I - I dunno, Mommy." the girl said quietly. "Kit's real sick He got sick and fell down when we were goin' for ice cream."
Baloo walked over, looking angry. "These clowns won't tell me what's wrong with L'il Britches!" he fumed. "Said they're checkin' him out, and the doctor'll be out in a little while. I don't got a little while! That's my son in there!" he snarled, collapsing wearily into a chair.
"Molly said he got sick when they were out getting ice cream." Rebecca sighed, cradling her daughter. "She said he just fell over...."
A tall goose in a white lab coat walked over to them, carrying a clipboard and wearing a practiced smile. "I'm Dr. Gosselin. Are you the Cloudkickers?"
"I'm the boy's Daddy." Baloo said quickly, not feeling in the mood for explanations. "What's up, Doc? How is he?"
"Well - the boy has acute appendicitis." the goose said, looking down at his clipboard. "He's being prepped fer surgery right now."
"My goodness!" Rebecca exclaimed.
"Acute... Is that serious?" Baloo whispered.
"It can be." the goose said somberly. "Actually, this little girl probably saved his life." he said, tweaking Molly's nose gently. "Apparently they were outside when the boy collapsed. She ran and got help right away, and we were able to get him to the hospital quite quickly."
"You did that all by yourself?" Rebecca asked the yellow cub.
"I got the ice cream man to help me." the girl said softly. "Is - is Kit gonna be OK?"
"Yeah, Doc - cut to the chase. Is my boy gonna be all right?" Baloo asked urgently.
"Well - "the doctor said, sitting on the armrest of Baloo's chair, "Surgery is never completely without risk. Unfortunately, the boy's appendix has burst, so we have no choice but to operate right away. Under ideal conditions, we prefer to plan for surgery, obviously - keep the patient off solid foods, bring his fever down. But once the appendix has burst, we have to operate immediately. The boy is running a fever, but we've given him antibiotics, and he appears to be in generally excellent condition. All of those things will help him pull through something like this."
"P-pull through?" Baloo stammered, hiding his face in his hands. Rebecca hugged him gently.
The doctor smiled. "I know you'll worry, but this is a very common procedure. We're fortunate that we've caught it as soon as we have. We won't know until we operate, but assuming there are no further complications Kit will be in surgery for about two and a half hours or so."
"Kin I see him first?" the pilot asked desperately.
"No - I'm sorry, he's in a sterile area, and surgery will begin in a few moments. As soon as we're finished I'll come out and let you know, and you can see him a few minutes after that. All right?"
"OK." Baloo said with a weary sigh. "Did - did the kid say anything, when you brought him in?"
The doctor clapped Baloo on the shoulder softly. "He was in a lot of pain, Mr. Baloo. But he's a pretty brave kid. He asked if Molly was all right, and he said to be sure we called Mr. Wildcat. Even remembered the number. I'm amazed he was that coherent, considering his condition. As I said, he's a very brave boy."
"You don't know the half of it." Baloo whispered. The doctor stood, smiled at the little group and was gone.
The clock on the wall of the waiting room had nearly reached midnight as Baloo sat on the sofa, silently staring straight ahead, his necktie wrapped tightly around his right fist, which he beat softly into his left palm repeatedly. A weary looking Rebecca was at his side, hands wrapped around his arm, Molly curled up asleep in her lap. Wildcat too had dozed off, and was snoring gently in the large armchair.
"I can't take this." the pilot said softly, without interrupting his mantric palm-punching or his hypnotic stare.
"What?" Rebecca said groggily, as Molly shifted on her lap.
"I can't take it, Becky. Sittin' here, not bein' able to do anything - I'm a bear of action! If I see a problem, I fix it. If air pirates are on my tail, I lose 'em. If I bust an engine, I bring the plane down safe. But I'm sittin' here, and I can't do nuthin'! I'm tellin' ya Becky, I can't take it!"
"Get used to it Baloo." she replied, resting her head on his arm. "It never changes."
Baloo shook his head angrily. "Ya know what makes it even worse? I'm sittin' here thinkin', why didn't I see it comin'? Why wasn't I more careful? What if I'd paid a little closer attention to L'il Britches yesterday? What if I'd looked past his tough act and seen as he was really sick? He wouldn't be here now, Becky! And what if he... he-"
"Get used to that too." she sighed. "That never changes either."
"Yer not being too encouragin' here, Beckers!" the big grey bear said with a bitter laugh.
"Baloo, this is what being a parent is really all about. It's about worrying for your child's safety all the time. It's about going crazy because you can't control everything that happens. It's about blaming yourself every time something goes wrong - and second-guessing yourself about what you should have done differently. It all goes with the territory, Baloo."
The pilot ran a hand over his face wearily. "Does it ever get any easier?"
Rebecca laughed softly. "I'll let you know!"
"Is it worth it?" he whispered
Rebecca said nothing for a moment, and looked down at Molly, gently stroking her cheek. "Do you even have to ask, Baloo?"
Baloo stared straight ahead. How could anything possibly be worth all this agony? He thought of Kit's expression after he'd landed the Sea Duck for the first time, and he smiled. He thought about comforting the tearful cub in New Fedora, after the boy had nearly broken his heart by leaving him for a week to travel with Daring Dan's airshow. He thought about sitting back at Higher for Higher on a quiet evening, after dinner, Kit snuggled into the big old armchair next to him, the both of them lazily reading the paper, or talking, or slowly falling asleep. He knew he'd endure a lifetime of nights like this one to experience even one of those moments again. And he'd have a lifetime of those moments, if only...
"Beckers - if anything - I just don't think I could take it, if-" he croaked, voice breaking with emotion.
"He'll be fine." Rebecca said clearly and confidently, hugging his arm. "He's got the heart of a lion, Baloo - if he didn't have the will to survive he wouldn't have made it this far. He'll be fine. He'll pull through - for you."
A door opened, and Dr. Gosselin stepped out, a surgical mask dangling around his neck and the front of his smock dotted with blood. Baloo and Rebecca looked at the smock in horror as the goose approached. Seeing their concern, he smiled apologetically. "Sorry about that! I came straight here from recovery, I didn't think you'd want to wait any longer than you had to-"
"Damn right!" Baloo gasped urgently as he stood. "How is he, Doc?"
"He came through surgery just fine Mr. Cloudkicker-"
"It's Baloo actually." the bear interrupted. "Sorry -go on please!"
"Sorry, Mr. Baloo. He came through surgery just fine. He's a strong little guy, I'll tell you that! We removed his appendix, or course, and our major concern in cases like this is infection in the surrounding tissue due to the rupture of the organ. However, in this case, we appear to have operated in time, and cleaned out the area sufficiently. He'll be on antibiotics for a time, of course, but I don't expect any major problems."
"Oh, thank God!" Rebecca exclaimed, as Molly and Wildcat stirred awake.
Baloo impulsively hugged the goose, who laughed. "That's great Doc - just fan-dang-tastic! Kin' we see him now?"
"Certainly." Dr. Gosselin grinned. "He's been out of surgery for about twenty minutes - I stayed with him in recovery for a while, just to make sure he came through the anaesthesia all right. He'll be pretty groggy, but you can see him if you like. Follow me."
Baloo hugged Rebecca, who kissed him on the cheek, and they followed the doctor down a long hallway, Wildcat trailing close behind. Gosselin opened a door, and they entered a dimly lit room, with a large bed in a corner, surrounded by two intravenous units. They approached the bed quietly.
Baloo looked down, where Kit lay breathing slowly, deeply, looking for all the world like he did any morning before he woke up. Kit didn't know, but Baloo had the habit of staring at the boy as he slept , sometimes for an hour at a time. He leaned over and gently grasped the cub's paw, as the others crowded in behind him, Molly still in Rebecca's arms.
Kit stirred slightly, and blinked once, twice, looking disoriented. "Shhh!" Baloo whispered. "Yer OK, L'il Britches. Yer just fine..."
"Where am I?" Kit whispered, barely audible.
"Yer in the hospital, L'il Britches. Ya had a bum appendix - scared us all real bad fer a while! But they took it out, and yer just fine now!" Baloo grinned.
"Molly." the boy whispered.
"She's right here, Kit!" Rebecca smiled, holding the sleepy cub over the railing on the bed, where she reached out and touched Kit's paw. "She got help for you, when you were sick!"
Kit smiled slightly, looking up at the yellow cub. "Good work, Kiddo. Guess you were _my_ baby-sitter tonight." he said, his voice a little stronger.
"Hey Kit - how ya feelin', man?" Wildcat grinned down at him, grabbing his paw.
"Hey W.C." the boy answered. "Pretty tired... and my gut hurts a little."
Dr. Gosselin put a hand on Baloo's back. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but the young man needs a lot of rest right now. We'll want to keep him here for a couple of days, and after that he can recuperate at home. Now, if we could just leave him to sleep..."
Rebecca bent over and kissed Kit gently on the cheek. "I'll come back and see you tomorrow morning, OK? Get some sleep, Sweetie. We love you!" she smiled.
"Thanks, Becky." he smiled weakly.
"Kin' I have a minute, Doc?" Baloo asked softly. "Just a minute?"
"Just one minute, please." the doctor said sternly, then smiled. He left with the others.
Baloo quietly slid a chair over and sat next to the bed, grabbing Kit's paw in both of his. "So - how ya doin', Kiddo?" he asked gently.
"I'm fine." Kit smiled. "As long as you're here."
The pilot delicately stroked the cub's hair for a moment, as if he were afraid that he might break him if he weren't careful. "Boy, I don't mind tellin' ya, Kid, I was pretty scared there, fer a while. If anything had... well-"
"Sorry I scared ya." Kit grinned wearily.
"Naw L'il Britches - I'm the one who's sorry!" Baloo answered huskily. "I don't - I'm sorry ya had to go through this. I shoulda seen... shoulda known you was sick. I shoulda taken better care of ya-"
"No!" the boy protested, with as much verve as he could muster, which wasn't much. "I didn't tell you anything, I didn't know either. It just hit me real sudden. It wasn't your fault, Papa Bear. I was thinkin' about you, the whole time I was sick. I never felt too scared, 'cause I knew you'd be there..."
"Mr. Baloo - it's time!" the doctor whispered quietly but firmly, as he cracked the door and poked his head through.
Baloo chuckled and wiped away a tear. "They're makin' me go, Kiddo. They seem to have some idea you could use some sleep -doctors, huh?" He bent over the boy and kissed him on the forehead. "I'll be here when ya wake up, OK?"
"OK." the boy grinned.
"Love ya." the big grey bear said with an embarrassed chuckle, and squeezed Kit's paw gently.
"Love you too." Kit answered, as sleep began to overtake him and his eyelids fluttered, then closed.
Isaac Walschinsky stormed into the office and slammed his briefcase to the table in frustration. "I swear to you now gentlemen - if the cause were not so dire, I would pack it in right now! The intransigence-"
"I take it your meeting with the Secretary of State did not go well?" one of the several other polar bears seated at the table asked in a droll voice.
"Is it that obvious, Jonah?" Walschinsky asked with a smirk. "They are not interested - all they can keep saying is 'No immediate national security threat'. It's like a mantra with them. They will not act until the hounds are barking at their very door."
"Which they will be soon enough." the bear sitting at the head of the table said darkly. He was obviously the leader of the group, and controlling the direction of the meeting. "Well, now that Isaac has arrived, albeit without the news we had hoped, let us hear from Pavel. What have you
been able to determine about the situation in Brague?"
Pavel, a bearded bear in an ill-fitting brown suit, shifted nervously in his seat. "You will forgive me, I am not good to the public speaking, yes?" he began in a faltering voice. "Ahem - I am most apologetic, but I must report that the situation in Brague is very grim indeed. No one is being allowed in or out of the ghetto. There are the military - what is word - cordon? - on all sides. And there is no food or medical supply allowed inside either. It is a siege."
"Damn!" the bear named Jonah cursed. "It's as we feared. Why?"
"Because they wish to break their spirits." Walschinsky answered softly. "So that they may do with these people as they please, later. Without resistance."
"But what do we do now?" a heavyset bear asked. "If the governments will not help-"
"Simple." the leader said grimly. "If those to whom we go for assistance will not assist, than we must go to other sources - and act alone, if necessary..."
Kit blinked once, twice, and was awake, momentarily disoriented. He looked around the room and placed himself - still in the hospital. His sense of time was still a little off, due to the fog that shrouded him after the surgery, but this felt like the third day he'd been here. He glanced to his right, and saw Baloo slumped over in the chair, snoring gently. Kit smiled - ~Must have slept here again! ~he thought to himself. ~He did it for me....~ The cub, still weak, tried to pull himself into a sitting position, causing an involuntary yelp from the pain his still very tender side.
Baloo, normally a sound sleeper, jolted awake immediately at the small sound, and looked around frantically for an instant before settling his eyes on Kit. "Kid - whassa matter? You okay?"
"I'm fine." Kit grimaced. "Just tryin' to sit up...."
"Stop that!" Baloo admonished. "Ya know yer still to weak fer that. Lemme help ya." Tenderly, the big bear propped a pillow behind the boy's back and with immaculate care lifted the cub into a sitting position.
"Thanks, Papa Bear. Sorry to be such a bother-"
"Nuthin' I'd rather be doin'!" Baloo replied with a yawn.
"You shouldn't have slept here, Baloo. That chair looks really uncomfortable, I woulda been OK-" Kit protested.
"Stop it!" Baloo interrupted testily. "There's no way they were gettin' me outta this room, L'il Britches." Both bears looked up as a smiling nurse, a young brown bear in a white skirt and blouse, walked in carrying a tray laden with red gelatin, dry toast and a mug of tea.
"Good morning, Sweetheart!" she said, setting the tray in front of the boy. "Dr. Gosselin said you should try to eat some solid food today, so I want to see you make a dent on that tray, all right?"
"Thanks!" Kit grinned up at her. "D'you think you could bring some breakfast for Papa Bear too?"
"I don't know, guests are supposed to eat in the cafeteria...." she said thoughtfully, then winked at the cub. "But for you, I think I can make an exception!" she grinned, and headed back out into the hallway.
Baloo looked down at his young charge, whose gaze had followed the nurse outside. "Pretty cute, huh?" he chuckled.
"Yeah!" Kit said, then appeared to catch himself. "Aw, she's OK, I guess." The pilot chuckled and tousled Kit's hair fondly as the boy tentatively took a nibble of toast. "Becky!" he said happily, as Rebecca walked into the room.
"Morning!" she called cheerily, leaning over to kiss Kit on the cheek and patting Baloo on the neck fondly. "How's our patient this morning?"
"Fine." Kit answered, sipping his tea. "Still a little sore, but I guess there's somethin' in the I.V. that keeps the pain down. Thanks for coming, Miz Cunningham."
"Yeah, thanks Becky - you been down here a lot. Real nice o' ya." Baloo added.
"Happy to!" she smiled, pulling up a chair and sitting next to Baloo. "Here, Kit - I stopped on the way and got you the new issue of 'Scarf and Goggles'."
"Wow - thanks Becky!" he smiled, grabbing the comic. "The last issue was a cliffhanger, too! Thanks a lot!" Baloo smiled gratefully and clasped her paw.
"And - " she continued, "I ran into your doctor outside, and he said, if there are no complications and you have no fever, you can come home tomorrow! Isn't that nice?"
"Great!" Kit said. "I miss bein' home. People are real nice here, but it's - depressin', y'know?"
"Sure will be good to have ya back, L'il Britches." Baloo smiled.
"Miz Cunningham, I know I been kinda out of it an' all, but it sure seems like Baloo has been here a lot." Kit yawned. "Who's been doin' all the deliveries? I hope you didn't shut down the business 'cause of me-"
"Stop worryin' Kid!" Baloo scolded.
"He's right Kit - stop worrying!" Rebecca added. "Wildcat has done a couple of the really important deliveries - he's no Baloo, but he's adequate in a pinch. Some of the others could wait. Just get better and don't concern yourself, all right? Higher for Hire will be fine - you're the important thing right now."
"OK." the boy said reluctantly, closing his eyes. Even this small amount of talking had worn him out. He couldn't help but think of the times when he'd been sick, like the chicken pox, in the orphanage - waking up alone, in the middle of the night, his skin itching and burning terribly. He'd been sick in Port Wallaby, too, out on the streets. Alone, with a fever, his throat raw and burning - and no one to tell him to get better, to comfort him as he lay awake in the middle of the night. He felt very warm and safe, all of a sudden. He tried to open his eyes again, to look at Baloo and Rebecca, but found that he was too exhausted, and fell into a peaceful sleep.
The four figures, three walking, one in a wheelchair, slowly traversed the walkway and towards the curb, where a taxicab stood waiting for them. "Doc.." Baloo started. "I just wanna tell ya - I'm real grateful for ever'thin ya did for L'il Britches. We all are."
"That's quite all right." Dr. Gosselin smiled. "I'm only doing my job. Now remember - Kit is to have bed rest for at least three days - I can't stress that enough! He's still very weak and he has to mind his stitches as well."
"Bed rest, got it." Baloo said obediently.
The goose handed him two bottle of pills. "These are Kit's presciptions. It's quite normal for a patient to have some pain after surgery. He's to have one pain reliever before he goes to bed and one after lunch. Only if the pain gets very, very bad may he have an extra - they're very strong, and they'll make him quite drowsy. And he's already had his pill this afternoon, so along with what's already in his system from the intravenous he should be fine for the rest of the day. The antibiotics are four times a day, for ten days. Understand?"
"Understood." Baloo replied solemnly.
The doctor bent over and put a hand on Kit's shoulder. "Get well soon, young man. I didn't put all that work into you just to have you screw it up. You take it easy!"
"OK - thanks Doc!" the boy grinned sheepishly.
"All right then, I'll see you when we take those stitches out. And lay off the cloudsurfing for a while!" he laughed, clapping the boy on the shoulder gently.
"You know about that?" Rebecca asked, surprised.
"Yeah, Kit told me about it yesterday." Gosselin chuckled, holding open the car door. "I can't say it sounds safe to me - but I can already tell that this boy does what he wants! Just not for a couple of weeks at least, all right?"
"No problem there, Doc." Baloo answered, lifting Kit out of the wheelchair with extreme gentleness. With exaggerated care, he tenderly set the cub down on the back seat of the cab. "You OK, L'il Britches?"
"Fine." the boy smiled, then yawned. "Thanks again Doc."
"Here, don't forget this." Gosselin said, handing the boy a cane. "Remember to use that when you get out of bed - which I stress again should be only when absolutely necessary for at least three days." The doctor shook everyone's hand, and with a wave turned to return to the hospital. "Good luck to all of you! Remember - bed rest!"
The doctor took Baloo aside. "The boy may be in a lot of pain, Mr. Baloo. Just stay with him and don't panic, all right? It's a natural part of the healing, but it can be a little scary."
"OK, Doc, natural, right."
"See you soon." He shook Baloo's hand and was gone.
Baloo stowed Kit's bag in the trunk and climbed in next to the cub, Rebecca sliding in next to him, and the taxi started for Higher for Hire. "Excited to be comin' home, partner?" he grinned at the boy.
"You bet!" Kit yawned. "These darn pills just make me so tired..."
"Wildcat and Molly sure will be happy to have you home, Kit." Rebecca smiled. "Higher for Hire just hasn't felt the same without you there."
"Don't know how you'd know." Kit giggled tiredly. "You've been at the hospital so much..." the cub leaned over and rested his head on Baloo's chest, eyes closed, and yawned again. Within a minute he was sound asleep.
"Well, if that isn't trust, I've never seen it." Rebecca whispered, squeezing the pilot's arm gently.
Baloo said nothing, just stared down at Kit's peaceful face, his expression unreadable. "Penny for your thoughts." Rebecca giggled softly.
Baloo smiled over at her. "I just love to watch the kid sleep, Becky. Dunno why, can't really explain it-"
"You're a parent." she grinned, patting his hand and joining him in looking down at Kit. "We all do that - no one knows why." With a tired sigh she leaned back on the seat. "Thank God that's over, Baloo. I'm exhausted - and if I'm this much of a wreck, I can only imagine how you must feel."
"Lucky." Baloo answered, his gaze unwavering. "I can't even imagine if anything would have happened, what I would've-"
"Well, it didn't, thank goodness. I suppose we should talk about what the schedule will be like, back at work, and all... Kit will need someone to stay with him for the next few days. Maybe we should bring in a temporary pilot..."
Baloo sighed. "L'il Britches is gonna bug me to go back and fly."
"Well, I'm in the office all day anyway, Baloo - I can stay with Kit." Rebecca smiled. "It's really up to you."
"We'll see." Baloo said wearily, closing his eyes. "Let's just play it by ear, huh?"
"Excuse me." the driver whispered, having assessed the situation in the back seat. "We're here M'amm - Higher for Hire."
"Thank you." she answered quietly, handing him a bill. "Keep the change. Will you bring the bags from the trunk please? I'll take the cane and the medicine, Baloo. The bedroom is all ready."
"Thanks Beckers." the big grey bear whispered, gingerly shifting Kit's head from his chest without waking him up. He slipped out of the cab and, placing one massive arm under the boy's knees and one under his neck, tenderly lifted him out. The cub stirred slightly but did not wake up.
Wildcat walked over, carrying his wrench and grinning a mile wide. "Hey - Kit's back, huh? How's he doin'? Looks like he's quieter than the Sea Duck when she's outta gas!" he whispered.
Baloo grinned. "He's great, Wildcat. Strong as an ox, he is. Uh, Wildcat, I never tol' ya but - thanks fer everythin'. You were great, that first night, when it all happened..."
"No problem! Like, the ground crew's job is ta take care of the flight crew, right? Boy, he's all conked out. Better get him ta bed, man!" the mechanic grinned. Baloo walked inside, and Rebecca and the mechanic shared a smile.
Slowly, carefully, the pilot ascended the stairs and entered the bedroom. Rebecca hadn't been kidding - the room was prepared. A stack of Kit's comics sat on the nightstand, the gramophone and a pile of records sat next to the boy's bed, within easy arm's reach. The covers were even turned back. Baloo gingerly lay the cub down in the bed and pulled the covers up to his chin.
Kit stirred, and blinked his eyes awake. "Hi Baloo. Did I conk out again?" he said, a little irritably.
Baloo sat on the bed and smoothed the boy's hair with a grin. "Can't keep ya awake, Kid! It's them pills, I think. Just get some more sleep, I'll be here when ya wake up and I'll get ya some dinner if yer hungry. OK?"
"K." Kit replied with a monstrous yawn. "I'm home, huh?" he said, rolling his eyes around the room.
"Yer home." Baloo chuckled, and picked up the latest issue of "Bullethead" as the boy drifted off.
Kit's mind still felt as though it was engulfed in a massive fog. Between the blinding pain of his appendix bursting and the lingering effects of the anaesthetic and pain medication, his sense of time was extremely distorted. Every time he felt like he was breaking through into clarity, his short bursts of energy would tire him out again, and he'd feel the compelling need to close his eyes and sleep once more, preferably resting against Baloo. Fortunately, the big bear had rarely left his side since the ordeal began - three days ago? Four?
The cub picked at his food, finding that his appetite was very spotty. Baloo hadn't even wanted to leave him alone for the time it took him to prepare dinner, but the boy had persuaded him that he'd be fine. He took a small bite of chicken and glanced over at the bear, who was engrossed in one of Kit's back issues of 'Bullethead', and smiled. He knew Baloo was smothering him with concerned attention, but somehow the cub felt immeasurably better when the pilot was around when he opened his eyes. There was usually even a moment of panic before he spotted the big bear, which Kit felt rather silly about.
The boy took a few more small bites of his food, and leaned back, no desire to continue. The pain in his side was returning, as Dr. Gosselin had warned him it would as the powerful pain medication from the intravenous slowly left his system. "Papa Bear, I'm just gonna take my pain pill and go to bed now, if that's OK." he said with a weak smile. "I'm not very hungry, and that pill's just gonna knock me out anyways."
"Sure yer OK, Kid?" the pilot asked, a worried look on his face. "Ya didn't eat much-"
"I'm fine." Kit smiled, the pain in his gut growing a little stronger. "The doc said I wouldn't have much appetite for a little while."
"OK, yer the patient." the big bear chuckled, handing the boy a pill and a glass of water. "Lemme just head downstairs and do the dishes, and I'll be up in a little while." he said, picking up the tray.
"Uh, Baloo?" the cub said sheepishly, blushing a little.
"What, L'il Britches?"
"Umm.... would ya mind stayin' in the room - y'know, until I fall asleep?" Kit asked with a embarrassed grin.
Baloo stared for a moment, then grinned. "Sure, Kiddo, no problem." He put down the tray and sat on the edge of Kit's bed patting the cub's paw. Kit squeezed the pilot's hand and closed his eyes. Silly, he knew, but it made him feel better.
Baloo had been asleep for a time - he wasn't sure how long - when he was startled awake by a sound, in the dark. He glanced over at the clock, which read two A.M.. He stared at Kit's bed, and saw no movement, heard no sound, for a moment. Then the boy called out, softly. "Baloo!"
The big bear leapt up, alarmed at the uncharacteristic tone of fear and vulnerability in the boy's voice. "Whassa matter, Kid?" he asked urgently, flipping on the light.
The cub's eyes were clenched shut tightly, and he was scrunched up at the waist, hands on his gut. "It hurts!" he said simply, through gritted teeth.
"My gosh!" Baloo gasped helplessly, grabbing the boy's clammy paw. "What should I - I'll call the doctor!"
"No!" Kit said urgently. "H-he said this m-might... It's the pain stuff, it's out of my system. The pills aren't s-strong enough..." The boy breathed in, out, quickly.
"Lemme give ya another pill!" Baloo said hoarsely, racing into the bathroom for a glass of water. ~Natural part of healing.~, he told himself. "Kin' ya sit up L'il Britches?"
"Yeah." the cub whispered, trying to slide up in the bed, only to fall back with a yelp of pain.
Baloo bent over, trying to raise the boy up enough to swallow the water. Inch by inch he slid the cub back in the bed, Kit's teeth gritted tightly and tears streaming from his eyes. Finally, Baloo reached over for the pill. "Open up." he panted, and slipped the tablet into the boy's mouth. He gently tipped a swallow of water into the cub, some if it spilling out onto his chin, but the boy managed to swallow the pill down.
Kit grabbed his side. "Baloo, it's horrible!" he panted.
"I know." Baloo answered helplessly. Natural? How could this be natural?
Kit moaned again, through clenched teeth. "Where are you?" he said, sounding panicked.
Baloo slid up onto the bed and lay back next to Kit. "I'm right here, Pardner." he said soothingly, grasping the boy's hand. "I'm right here, ever'thin's gonna be fine."
"S-sorry to be such a baby." Kit whispered, squeezing Baloo's paw so hard that the pilot winced in pain himself.
Baloo forced himself to laugh. "Stop worryin' about that, L'il Britches. You've been real brave through this whole thing. That pill's gonna work any minute now and you'll feel just fine."
Kit lay silent for a moment, breathing quickly. Then a sob escaped him, followed quickly by others. "It hurts so much!" he groaned, now sobbing uncontrollably, all traces of his toughness and independence washed away in a sea of pain and fear.
"I know." Baloo whispered, trying desperately to retain his composure. "I know it hurts..." The boy continued to sob, tears squeezed out through clenched eyes. Baloo wrapped his arms around him and pulled his head next to his own. He could feel the boy trembling in his arms.
"You cold, L'il Britches?"
The boy said nothing for a moment, but continued to cry softly, and shivered. "Baloo - it hurts! Don't leave." he panted in quick breaths.
Baloo squeezed his eyes shut, forcing tears down his cheeks. This was the worst - the hardest. Nothing that had happened could compare to it. "I ain't leaving." he said fiercely, cheek to cheek with the boy, their tears mingling. He wrapped his arms around Kit more tightly. "It'll be OK, I promise. You hear me? I promise. I'm gonna stay right here and yer gonna feel better."
"OK." Kit sobbed, snuggling closer to the pilot. He was so cold, and the pain was tremendous. He didn't see how he could stand it, how he could survive another minute of it. "Oh God - it's terrible, Papa Bear!" he managed to sob through the pain.
Baloo softly stroked the boy's hair as he held him, the cub continuing to shiver slightly as he cried. Baloo felt as if he were being slowly tortured, his insides being eaten away. "We'll get through it." he said, trying to project some strength and confidence into his voice. "Yer not alone, Kid. I'm right here with ya."
Kit could only feel the pain, for long moments, although he was at some level conscious that he must look like a complete babbling infant to Baloo. It didn't matter - he clung to the big grey bear, stealing warmth from him, holding on to his comforting presence and using it to keep his spirit from completely despairing. Slowly, infinitesimally slowly, the pain began to recede. It was still there, a lurking, ominous presence, but it ceded some portion of his perception, allowing tiny snatches of coherent thought to creep back in.
The two lay in the same position for several minutes, Baloo's arm wrapped tightly around Kit, hugging the boy's face close to his own, as the cub's frequent sobs slowed to occasional ones, and his shivering receded. "Feelin' better?" Baloo whispered gently.
Kit sobbed softly. "Yeah. It's still terrible... but it's not as bad." He sniffled several times and wiped his eyes.
"I know." Baloo whispered, reaching into a pocket and pulling out a handkerchief, which he used to wipe the cub's face. "I wish I could make it all go away, L'il Britches. D'you think yer gonna be able ta go to sleep soon?"
"Don't go!" the boy sobbed urgently, hugging the big bear closer.
"Easy, Kid, easy, easy!" Baloo replied hastily, forcing himself to chuckle. "Papa Bear's right here for the duration, don't you worry. I just want ya to be able to get some rest, that's all. I'll be right here all night, don't worry."
"Thanks." Kit sniffled. He didn't care how he looked right now - he just knew he needed Baloo to be there right next to him. Even the next bed would feel like a thousand miles away. His entire consciousness was focused on the fire in his side, and the comforting presence that held him, which he clung to like a life preserver. The pain continued to subside maddeningly slowly, and Kit felt his exhaustion overtaking him. Just surviving the agony had used up all of his energy, and the effects of the pain medication were beginning to kick in as well. Slowly he allowed himself to drift off, the slow, steady breathing of the pilot next to him a soothing refrain.
Baloo was exhausted as well. In all of the terrible nights he'd experienced, all of the pirate attacks and crashes, even the terrible nights not knowing where Kit was, he'd never felt anything like this. It was excruciating. He felt like crying himself, but was simply too tired, although he'd be unable to sleep, scrunched up on Kit's small bed.
As he held the boy tightly in his arms, Kit began to breathe more slowly, easily, his warm breath falling on Baloo's cheek, and his shivering stopped. Asleep, or soon would be, the big bear thought. There was no justice in a world, he mused bitterly, where an innocent kid would have to suffer like that... - and he realized that nothing else mattered - only the welfare of the fragile young life in his arms - his child, his son. He would never let anything harm the boy again, not while he had a breath left. That was all that mattered. Thank goodness Kit could sleep now......
Consciousness came very slowly, gradually to Kit, as he lay in bed. He could hear Baloo gently snoring close by, and could feel the warmth from the big grey bear next to him. He lay still, eyes closed, for several minutes, unwilling or unable to open them, he wasn't sure which.
As wakefulness returned he felt a twinge of pain in his side - a dull ache, but it was enough to jerk his mind back to the events of hours earlier, and he began to breathe quickly and felt frightened, just from the memory of it. He lay still, willing himself to regain composure, telling himself that it was all over, he'd survived it.
He blinked his eyes to openness gradually, squinting from the bright sunshine in the bedroom. His head was resting on the crook of Baloo's left arm, and the pilot's right arm was draped over Kit's shoulder. A few details of the previous night's ordeal crept back to him, but all that really stood out was blinding, searing pain, tears, and Baloo's presence next to him. It felt like a nightmare, but the memory of the pain - and of Baloo's presence - was sharp and clear. Slowly, gently, he extricated himself from the weary bear's arms.
His mind felt sharp - sharper than it had felt for days, maybe. His body was sore, and his muscles ached, but he was awake and alert. He looked down at Baloo, even in sleep looking exhausted. Kit swallowed and winced - his mouth felt dry, sour. He turned, and noticed that he was in Baloo's bed - the pilot must have moved him during the night. He looked over at the clock - seven A.M. He gently slid his feet off the bed and onto the floor, and pushed himself upright, grunting with the effort. He started to slide slowly across towards the cane.
Baloo stirred, heightened senses awakened by the cub's efforts. "Kit... whaddaya doin?!" he protested sleepily.
"Nothin' Papa Bear, go back to sleep." Kit said, not wanting to exert the energy to turn. "I'm just gonna go brush my teeth-"
"No dice!" Baloo said sharply, fully awake now. He rolled out of bed and knelt down in front of the cub. "Grab on."
"Baloo!" Kit protested sheepishly. "I gotta walk sometime-"
"Grab on!" Baloo demanded. With a sigh, the cub wrapped his arms around the big bear's neck, and Baloo lifted him, using exaggerated care to support the boy's weight and exert no pressure on his stitches. He walked him over to the sink and set the cub down gently. Kit grabbed the basin for support as the pilot stood expectantly by.
"I think I can handle this part myself." Kit said pointedly, and Baloo grudgingly walked over and sat on Kit's bed as the boy gingerly brushed his teeth. Baloo watched him, noticing that the cub was noticeably thinner from his ordeal. He looked weak and frail - even more so than he normally did to Baloo, who encouraged him to eat heartily every chance he got. But the boy's cheeks were ruddy, and his eyes were brighter than they'd been since before the illness.
Kit rinsed his mouth out and splashed water on his face, then reached for a towel and dried himself . "All set." he said, feeling rather silly and helpless.
Baloo propped up the pillows on the small bed and walked over to Kit, kneeling down again so the boy could grasp his neck. He carried him over to the bed and gently set him down in a half-sitting position. "How'd I get in your bed last night?" the cub asked.
Baloo smiled. "Well, you was pretty... well-" Baloo chose his words carefully, not wanting to embarrass the boy. "I didn't want ya to wake up an' be alone, L'il Britches."
"With that pill in me I coulda slept through a thunderstorm." Kit giggled softly.
"Yeah... Well, I didn't wanna take no chances." Baloo said, looking away.
Kit started at Baloo for a moment. "Thanks." he whispered, holding out his arms. Baloo needed no explanation - he wrapped his arms around Kit and they hugged, silently, for several moments. "I - I..."
"I know. Me too." Baloo whispered. "Now!" he said loudly, keeping his emotions in check, "You hongry, L'il Britches?"
Kit grinned. "Actually... I'm famished!" It was true - for the first time that he could remember in days he had a real appetite.
Baloo's face lit up. "Great! I got some pancake mix downstairs - howz flapjacks and fried potatoes sound?"
"Great! Oh, and a cup of coffee, too? Please?"
Baloo chuckled, shaking his head. "OK, Kiddo - coffee."
"Thanks, Papa Bear! How 'bout some music while you're cookin'?" Kit beamed.
"Sure Kid." Baloo replied, headed for the door. He paused in the doorway. "Ya sure yer gonna be OK while I'm downstairs?"
"Baloo, I'm _fine_" Kit replied, slipping the absolute last copy of 'I Got Them Flat Broke, Sticky Shoes, No Banana Boogie-Woogie Blues' on the gramophone.
"Yer playin' my song, Pardner!" Baloo laughed, snapping his fingers as he headed down the stairs. "Man, whatta beat!" Kit grinned and leaned back, arms behind his head. Right now, he felt like nothing in the world could hurt him - his fear was gone, chased away into the dark corners of his mind. Amazing, the impact one person could have on your life!
"Fives?" Baloo asked.
"Go fish!" Kit giggled, as Baloo picked a card up off the bed. "D'you have any sevens?"
Baloo sighed and extracted two cards. "I dunno why I even play cards with ya Kid, I never win..."
"Halloo!" Rebecca called from downstairs, barely audible over the Lenny Goodfellow record on the gramophone. Kit reached over and turned down the volume.
"Up here Beckers!" Baloo called, but the woman was already on her way up the stairs.
"Of course you're up here - where else would you be?" she asked Baloo sarcastically as she entered the room, Molly in her arms. She sat next to Baloo on Kit's bed as Molly reached her paws out to the boy, who grasped them with a grin. "Goon morning, Kit! You look chipper today!"
"Mornin' Becky. Mornin' Pigtails. I feel pretty good." Kit answered with a smile. "How's my baby-sitter today?"
"Fine, Kit!" Molly beamed. "Are you still sick?"
"Sick? They just cut me open three days ago, Short stuff!" Kit chuckled.
"Ewwww!" the yellow cub groaned, screwing up her face. "That's gross!"
"Sorry Kiddo!" Kit apologized. "I'm doin' fine, but I won't be playin' tail gunner with ya for a while!"
"That's OK." the girl grinned. "Just so you get better."
"That's sweet, Button-nose!" Baloo grinned, snatching the girl in his arms and tickling her gently. She reached over at Kit, but her Mother stopped her.
"Nuh-uh, Molly! No tickling Kit - he could pop one of his stitches - understand?" she admonished.
"Aw, I'm not _that_ ticklish!" the boy protested.
"I'm serious, Molly!" Rebecca repeated.
"OK, I get it." Molly grumbled.
"Good. Now Baloo - what about the schedule today? Do you want to fly, or not?"
"Yes!" Kit replied.
"No!" Baloo answered simultaneously. "Last night - well, never mind." the pilot said, meeting Becky's eyes for a moment. "There's no way I'm leavin' L'il Britches all day today, Becky. If he's feelin' good I'll fly tomorrow."
"But Baloo-" Kit protested.
"But nuthin'!" Baloo said firmly, arms crossed. "This bear's grounded today. OK, Kit?"
"OK." Kit acquiesced, grabbing Baloo's paw. Secretly, he didn't want the big bear to leave him today, though he'd never admit it."Thanks."
"That's fine, we don't have anything that can't wait until tomorrow." Becky said, standing. "Baloo, we'll still need to talk about the schedule, though. Come on downstairs, and we'll take a look at it."
"Kid?" Baloo said, looking at Kit.
"I'm fine!" Kit frowned. "Go ahead - don't worry."
"OK. I'll be back in a few minutes." He answered, setting Molly down on the bed.
"Don't you play rough with Kit while we're gone, young lady!" Rebecca admonished. "He's still very weak - understand?"
"OK, Mom." Molly said, crawling over to sit next to Kit at the head of the bed. She still had a lot of scary thoughts from a few days before, and her normal exuberance was tempered by relief at seeing the boy smiling and happy. She sat quietly next to Kit and he tickled her gently.
Once Baloo and Rebecca were downstairs she turned to the pilot with a frown. "What's going on, Baloo? Did something happen? You're obviously shaken up..."
The big grey bear collapsed into the easy chair wearily, his facade of nonchalance gone now that Kit was out of earshot. "You don't know the half of it, Lady. Last night was the worst night o' my life - and I've had some rotten ones, believe me."
"Baloo, my goodness!" Rebecca exclaimed. "What happened? Kit seems fine-"
"He's OK." The pilot sighed, running a hand over his eyes. "Don't tell him I tol' ya, Becky, 'cause I know he'd be embarrassed, but L'il Britches had a terrible night last night, jus' terrible."
"What happened?" she gasped, sitting on the arm of the chair.
Baloo took a deep breath. "Well, he started out OK - he didn't eat much, but he seemed fine... He took his pill an' went to sleep about eight, I guess. I kinda watched 'im fer a while, then I guess I fell asleep too. When I woke up, it was about two o'clock, an' Kit was - he was - it was real bad, Beckers."
"What?" she whispered.
Baloo covered his face. "He was in terr'ble pain, Becky. I guess the one pill wasn't enough - he couldn't even breathe right, it were hurtin' him so bad. He jus' kept sayin' 'It hurts!' over an' over, and he was cryin' somethin' awful."
"Oh, my!" she gasped, closing her eyes tightly. "Oh my... What did you do, Baloo?"
The pilot took a deep breath and spoke, choking back emotion. "I - I gave him another pill, but it didn't work right away. I went over to 'im, an' I just held 'im, real tight. He was shivering, Becky - like he was freezin'. He kept sayin' 'It hurts, It's terrible!' and he was beggin' me not to go, not to leave him. He was shiverin' and cryin', and he was white as a ghost, from the pain...." The big bear sobbed, overcome by the memory. "I just held him real tight Becky, tight as I could. That's all I could do...."
Tears rolled down Rebecca's cheeks as she listened, and saw the strong figure before her overcome by pain. She squeezed his arm in both paws. "I'm so sorry, Baloo. I'm so sorry... I've never had to go through anything like that with Molly. I don't know what to say."
The pilot composed himself, and a look of resolution, even anger crossed his face. "I ain't never been through anythin' like that. Never. Never. All I wanted ta do was take that pain away,. Becky. I wanted that pain, I wanted it in me, so Kit wouldn't have to go through it. But I - I couldn't. All I could do is hold him, an' it was like he was a thousand miles away, even though he was right there. That look on his face..." Baloo covered his eyes again. "It's the worst thing I ever felt, Becky. I ain't never felt so useless."
"But - he got through it, Baloo. He's up there smiling and happy right now. Because of you-"
"I'll tell ya somethin', Becky. It really cleared things up fer me. I ain't never lettin' nuthin' happen to Kit as long as I'm alive. I'm gonna be with him, protectin' him, all the time. All the other stuff, it ain't important to me, no more. All that stuff's outta my hands, and it don't matter anyhow. But I'm makin' sure Kit's safe, and he never has ta go through another night like that again."
"Oh Baloo." Rebecca said sympathetically. "You know that you can't be there, every second. I know you love Kit, and you want to protect him. But you have to let him live his life, too-"
"Never again." Baloo said resolutely. "Not as long as I'm alive. I know what's important."
Rebecca patted his arm and wiped her eyes, standing. "All right Baloo. It sounds like I should call in a replacement pilot, for a little while-"
Baloo shook his head. "Don't do that Becky. I think the worst is over - I just kinda sense it, somehow. Last night was - well, it was what it was, but I think Kit's over the hump now. I gotta fly sooner or later, so tomorrow's as good a day as any. I just wanna be with the kid today - all day. Besides," he smiled, "I trust Kit with you. He loves ya. You'll take care of him. I just - I just couldn't leave him today, Beckers."
"I understand." she sighed. "All right, you fly tomorrow. Now, why don't you go back up there and be with your son - I know you want to! I'll make you boys some lunch in a couple of hours."
"Thanks Beckers, yer allright." Baloo grinned, sprinting back up the stairs.
"Uh, I think you have to king me, Wildcat." Kit said sheepishly to the mechanic, who sat at the edge of the bed, on the opposite end of a checkerboard.
"Oh yeah man, yer right!" the mechanic giggled. "That's like, weird, 'King me', man - cause if ya got all yer pieces to the end, they'd all get kinged right? And then you'd have a whole _buncha_ kings runnin' around, en' everybody knows that you kin only have one king, y'know? Cause otherwise one of 'em would have all the other's heads cut off! Chop chop!"
Kit laughed, causing a small pang in his stitches. "I guess, Wildcat! I never really though about it." That was the thing about Wildcat's ideas - you never really though about most of them until he brought them up. The scary thing was, some of them started to make sense after a while. Kit moved his newly kinged piece, deftly leaping the lion's last two checkers. "I think that's the game, W.C.."
"Yeah man, yer right. That's six in a row. Wanna go again? Maybe you could set a record!"
"That's OK." Kit chuckled. "We can just sit here and talk." Kit looked at the mechanic out of the corner of his eye as he yawned. He could never tell what Wildcat was thinking, which was odd because the mechanic was the least deceptive person Kit knew. "Uh, thanks for sittin' with me Wildcat. I know you've got work you could be doin', or somethin'."
Wildcat grinned and set the checkerboard and pieces on the floor. "That's OK, Kit. I been sick too. I know what it's like, man. Ever'body treats ya real nice, but they're real careful, like they're scared yer gonna break. Sometimes ya just wanna sit and talk, ya know?"
"Yeah." the cub said nodding. "That's right. How's - how's the Sea Duck?" Kit asked, unable to think of anything else to say.
"It's great, man! Engines are all trimmer than a race horse, man! She had, like two days off. I think she misses ya though, Kit."
Kit arched an eyebrow in surprise. "Misses me?"
"Sure, man." Wildcat said thoughtfully. "Like, the Sea Duck knows how Baloo feels, right? Cause the Sea Duck an' Baloo are pals, y'know? An' the Sea Duck knows, see, that Baloo's been a lot happier since you been around, man. She knows Baloo likes to fly even more now that yer here. So why you don't fly, she misses ya, 'cause she knows Baloo ain't as happy. Plus, she likes you now too. See? I been takin' care o' the Sea Duck fer a long time, Kit. I know what she's thinkin'."
Kit was oddly touched by the lion's comments. "Thanks, Wildcat. I miss - the Sea Duck, too." Kit sat back, looking over Wildcat's shoulder, out the window. He'd been cooped up for so long - he wanted to be active, alive! This was the longest he'd gone without flying since he'd joined up with Baloo. He felt bold, suddenly. "Say Wildcat - I was curious. You never talk much about yourself. What were your folks like? When did you start workin' for Baloo?"
Wildcat grinned. "Sure man, I'll tell ya! It-"
"Hi boys!" Rebecca interrupted, walking into the room with two trays of food. "I brought us some lunch, Kit. I'll stay for a while, Wildcat. You can head back to the workshop if you want."
"Sure, Ree-becca. Talk to ya later, Kit. Feel better, man!" Wildcat grinned, walking out of the room.
"Thanks Wildcat." Kit waved, a little disappointed. Still, he was already famished, as his appetite seemed to be making up for lost time. "Thanks for lunch, Miz Cunningham."
"You're welcome." she said jovially, setting a tray down on the cub's lap. "You know how I feel about cooking - me and kitchens go together like Baloo and neckties! So it's nothing too fancy, just some soup and a turkey sandwich."
"It's terrific!" Kit grinned, taking a large bite of the sandwich. "You always say that, but I never hear Molly complaining, so you must be a better cook than you think!"
Rebecca chuckled. "Molly doesn't know anything different..." She took a dainty bite of her sandwich and watched Kit for a moment. "It's certainly good to see you eating again, Kit. We were all pretty worried, when this first happened."
Kit slurped down several spoonfuls of soup. "I know, it's like my body's tryin' to make up for not eating for so long! I'm always hungry now. This soup is really good, Becky!" he slurped.
"Don't thank me, thank Hampbell's!" she laughed. "How's your side - is it still hurting you?"
The boy ran his fingers lightly over his stitches. "Yeah, some. It gets worse when I haven't had a pill for a while. But it's nothing like that first day, when I got home..." A dark shadow crossed the boy's face for a moment, and he silently returned to his lunch.
Rebecca stared at him sidelong, debating whether to ask Kit for his version of that night's events. She decided on a different tack. "I never thought we'd get Baloo to leave today! I thought for all the world that I'd have to fly the cargo myself."
Kit winced. "Yeah - I'm sorry about that Miz Cunningham. I've never seen him like this before."
The bearess laughed. "Well, it's pretty understandable, Honey! After what you've been through, he doesn't want to leave you alone for a minute, and this was the first time since you came home. He's a father now, whether he likes it or not. I only hope he isn't driving you too crazy."
Kit smiled. "Naw. Actually, I, uh, think it may be kinda my fault." he said sheepishly.
"_Your_ fault? What in the world do you mean?"
The boy looked down. "I've kinda been - I dunno. I guess I really didn't want Baloo to leave, at first. I know it sounds like I'm bein' a baby-"
"No!" Rebecca protested. "Kit, after what you've been through it's perfectly understandable. It's all right to feel scared when you're sick. It's the most natural thing in the world to want Baloo there with you."
"I guess." the cub replied softly.
"Kit - I don't know if I should tell you, but Baloo blamed himself, a little, for you getting sick-"
"What?" Kit exclaimed. "Papa Bear? That's nuts! Why?"
Rebecca smiled gently and squeezed his paw. "That's the most natural thing in the world, too. Try to understand - a parent always want's to protect their child, at any costs. They always blame themselves if anything goes wrong. He thought that he should have seen that you were ill, kept you home from school-"
"Aw, Papa Bear!" Kit grumbled, almost angrily. "Why would he do that? I didn't even tell him I was feelin' bad! He even gave me aspirin and sent me to bed early, the night before. If it hadn't been for him, I'd - well..."
"I know. But you'll understand, someday."
Kit looked down. "I never told ya, Becky, but that first night back... It was - I was pretty bad, Becky. The pain pills weren't working, and - and.." the cub closed his eyes tightly at the memory. "I don't remember all of it, but I wasn't makin' too much sense, and I worked Papa Bear over pretty good. If he hadn't been there, I don't - I don't know if I could've got through it." He took a deep breath, even the memory of the pain and the emotion overpowering. "Don't tell Baloo I tol' ya, OK Miz Cunningham? He'd be embarrassed..."
"Promise." she answered with a sad smile, amazed again at the bizarre bond between Baloo and Kit. Each not wanting to embarrass the other by talking about an emotionally vulnerable moment - a moment that was so genuine and honest for both of them. They were such - males! It was powerfully moving for her, this strange pairing. Impulsively she sat on Kit's bed and enveloped the boy in a hug.
"What's that for?" he giggled.
"Just to let you know I'm here." she grinned. "Anytime you need a hug. Are you finished with your lunch?"
"Thanks." he smiled. He wolfed down the last of the sandwich. "Yeah, I'm done. It was delicious, Becky!"
She took the tray. "You get your pain pill now, and another antibiotic." she said, grabbing the bottles off of the dresser. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, I'm fine." he replied, swallowing the pills. "Can you just stay, and talk?"
"Of course! You didn't think I was going to leave?"
"No, I guess not." he smiled, grabbing his cane. "I'm gonna go brush my teeth." he said, sliding his feet onto the floor gingerly, more anxious for the excuse to get out of bed and move around than anything else.
"Are you sure? Can I help you?" she asked concerned.
"Naw, I'm fine!" he replied with a grin. "It's good for me, and I'm feeling better." Rebecca stood and watched as the cub walked, slowly but steadily, to the sink, her heart rising and falling with every step. She certainly didn't remember this being in the air cargo manual - but then, very little of her life at Higher for Hire went by the books anymore...
Rebecca blinked and looked around the room, getting her bearings. Kit was asleep, having nodded off after a half-hour or so of conversation with her, the pain medication having it's usual effect.. Apparently she'd nodded off too, as the sun was sinking low in the western sky outside the window. She walked over to the cub's bed and pulled the blanket up over him, just as the Sea Duck splashed in for a landing on the water outside.
Kit stirred as the yellow seaplane engines arched, then died. He lifted his head slightly and looked over at the other bed, then spotted Rebecca standing by the window, staring at him. He smiled sleepily. "Hey."
"Hey to you too." she grinned, sitting on the bed and tousling his hair. "How do you feel?"
"Fine. Sleepy." he yawned.
"Your Papa Bear is home." she said softly. "Do you want to get up?"
Kit smiled. He'd never heard her refer to Baloo that way before. "Sure. He'll wanna talk an' everything." he mumbled sleepily, as she helped him slide up to a sitting position.
The front door opened noisily and Baloo's heavy footfalls were soon audible on the steps. "Hiho!" he called, and a second later popped through the bedroom doorway. He took off his cap and nervously clutched it in his paw. "Everythin' OK?"
"Fine." Kit smiled wearily. "How was the delivery?"
"Hey Becky." the big grey bear said absently as he walked over to the bed and sat next to her. He leaned over and gently hugged Kit to his chest. "I swear Kid, that was the longest run I ever flew, an' it was only four hours! I thought I'd never get back! How ya feelin'?"
"I'm fine." Kit smiled, obviously delighted to have Baloo back. "The flight was OK?"
"I guess." Baloo said, not wanting to release the cub from his gentle grasp. "Couldn't concentrate. You guys have fun here?"
"Yeah. Me an' Wildcat played some checkers, and Becky made lunch, and then we - talked, for a long time. Before that stupid pill knocked me out." Kit replied with a yawn.
"Didn't ya miss me, L'il Britches?" Baloo asked, sounding hurt, as he leaned back on the bed next to his son.
"Oh, Baloo!" Rebecca chuckled with a shake of the head.
"I sure did." Kit grinned wearily, resting his head on Baloo's shoulder. "But I wasn't lonely." The boy yawned and closed his eyes, obviously still drowsy. His breath came slowly and evenly, and within a moment he appeared to be asleep.
"Well, I think I'm going to head downstairs and get a little work done before I leave." Rebecca whispered. "Looks like things are well under control up here."
"Thanks Becky." Baloo grinned. "Thanks fer takin' such good care o' Kit. I sure do appreciate it."
"Don't mention it!" she smiled, squeezing the pilot's paw and turning to leave. She stopped in the doorway, pausing to watch bear and cub on the bed. Baloo looked contentedly down at his son, softly stroking his hair as he slept, head on Baloo's shoulder. She couldn't help but be moved by the scene.
Still, there was another part of her that was uneasy. This terrible experience was clearly nearing it's close - the worst was over. Kit was on the mend, the incredible recuperative powers of youth already hard at work. The ordeal had obviously brought the boy and his father even closer together, which Rebecca would have hardly thought possible. The emotional bond between them was as solid as an oak.
But she had seen a change in the pilot, in these last few days. His devotion to Kit was burning, almost fanatical. He hadn't been a parent long enough to know that he couldn't control every facet of his child's life. Kit was hopelessly, utterly dependent on Baloo emotionally right now, but he was growing up. His own strength of will and intellect was growing all the time. He would, inevitably, seek to stretch out, to walk on his own legs, under his own power. And she wasn't sure Baloo was emotionally prepared to deal with that.
The tough, independent, but skittish child that had shown up at Baloo's Air Service was gone, replaced by a young man who had opened his heart and been changed forever by the knowledge that there were people who would love him and not betray him. There was an openness to the boy that hadn't existed before, but the toughness and independence was still there - it was a part of Kit's psyche, and it would never leave him. And he was, surely as the sun rose every morning, growing up, seemingly faster every day.
Baloo had changed too, of course. He was no longer the cavalier, irresponsible suspended adolescent that had run his business into the ground and lost his plane. He had matured as well, as surely as Kit was. And the events of the last week had deepened his feelings of parental protectiveness tremendously. He had simplified his life down to it's bear necessities. And Kit, surely, unstoppably, was growing up.
But those were thoughts for later on, she supposed. Right now, the important thing was that they had each other. As she watched Kit smile slightly in his sleep, utterly contented, and Baloo chuckle softly as he watched his son, it was hard to see how anything else in the world could possibly matter. Smiling, she tiptoed out of the bedroom and headed downstairs to finish up at work, anxious to get home to Molly.
Jacob Malek stroked his daughter's hair gently as she lay sleeping, head on his shoulder. He sat back in his chair, removed his glasses and closed his eyes, trying to will himself not to despair, to be strong for his daughter. Still, it was getting harder and harder to shield her from the grim reality of the situation around him. The larder was nearly empty now, and the small shops and markets in the ghetto were nearly all closed, their wares long since gone.
Why? Why were the Alemanians doing this? What purpose did it serve? Were they simply going to be starved to death, slowly? Or was there some other plan, some purpose that reasonable men such as himself could scarce guess at? His reverie was broken by a knock on the door.
Jacob tensed immediately, causing Anna to stir and wake. He gently slid her off of his lap and onto the chair. "It's allright Darling, just a visitor." he said soothingly, as he warily approached the door. "Who is it?" he barked.
"Jacob! It's Vlade! Open the door." a male voice whispered from the other side of the wooden portal.
Jacob slid the lock back and opened the door, allowing a thin scraggly polar bear in his late 20's to enter the tiny house. "Hello, Vlade. What news?" he greeted his friend.
"Hello Jacob. Hello Anna." he smiled wearily at the little cub. "Jacob, I need - we need to talk for a moment." he whispered.
Jacob frowned. "Anna, go into the bedroom for a few moments while Papa and Vlade talk, all right?"
"All right Papa." the little girl answered. "When are we having dinner, Papa?"
Jacob looked at his feet. "Soon, Dumpling. I'll make you something."
"OK." she said, walking towards the small bedroom.
Jacob gently slid the door closed behind her. "Now then Vlade - what is happening? Have you heard anything?"
The scraggly bear shook his head and sat on the small sofa. "Jacob, you must help me. We have no food left. We have no milk for the baby. You must help us!" he said desperately.
Jacob stared at him for a moment. "Vlade - I, we - we have virtually no food left ourselves! Where do you suppose I would be getting supplies? I have Anna to consider-"
"_Please_ Jacob - I'm desperate! I have nowhere else to turn, the stores are closed..."
"The roadblocks are still in place, then?" the bespectacled bear asked bitterly.
"Of course." the other man replied. "There is no change. No one is getting in or out. Have - have you heard any news of Mina?"
"No." Jacob whispered, covering his eyes.
"I'm sorry." Vlade said softly.
Jacob sighed and headed into the kitchen. Either they would all starve or they wouldn't, he supposed. In the meantime, the children would have to take precedence. "Very well Vlade - I will spare you whatever I can. I am strong - I can go without for a few days. If no help is coming it will all be moot in a few weeks in any case..." Jacob opened the pantry and looked at the shelves dejectedly. King Solomon himself couldn't divide these meager rations, he thought bitterly.
Sighing, he grabbed a small jar of dry noodles and a sack of flour. He walked over the icebox and took inventory. Three quarts of milk, that was all. How could he take any of it out of his daughter's mouth? Yet Vlade had a baby, an infant. Shaking his head, Jacob took out a quart of the precious liquid and set it on the counter. He also took out three eggs and placed them in a small sack.
This is what it comes to, he mused. Deciding who would be the first to die. The polar bear placed the meager supplies into a sack and returned to the sitting room. "Here is all I can spare, my friend. If there is no help it will not matter one way or the other. But perhaps it can buy your child a few days of life." He handed the sack to the other bear.
Vlade peeked inside the bag. A tear formed in his eye. "Jacob - I cannot tell you - this will-"
"Never mind" Malek smiled grimly, clapping the smaller bear on the shoulder. "Go quickly, and be careful. It's past curfew."
Vlade carefully tucked the bag under one arm and shook Jacob's hand. "I'm grateful. God willing, Mina will come home soon. I will talk to you tomorrow, yes?"
"Yes, tomorrow my friend." Jacob smiled. The smaller bear slipped outside, and Jacob locked and bolted the door behind him. "Anna, forgive me, my child." he muttered softly, under his breath. "But we must be protectors of all the children, yes?" He walked over to the bedroom and opened the door. "Come, Anna-" he began.
There was a shout, from the street "Stop! HALT!"
Jacob dashed to the window and pulled back the curtain slightly. He cursed softly - Vlade had stopped in the middle of the street, and was standing stock still. "Papa?" Anna called from the bedroom doorway.
"Shhh! Anna, go back in the bedroom until Papa tells you. Now!"
"Go NOW!" he hissed, with uncharacteristic sharpness. Startled, she fled into the other room.
On the street, two brown-uniformed shepherd dogs were approaching the terrified polar bear, who stood in the middle of the street, the bag of Jacob's provisions still under his arm. "Vat have we here, eh?" one of the dogs snarled.
"Zere is a curfew!" the other shouted. "Do you scum not understand? It is not difficult to comprehend, fool!"
"I - I am very sorry sir, it will not-" the frightened bear stammered.
"Shut up!!" the first dog growled, viciously slapping the white bear across the face. "Vat have you here, hey?" He grabbed the bag. "Indeed! Milk, eggs... No doubt stolen from a decent canine merchant, yes?"
"No! It is milk, for my baby, it is mine-"
The dog clubbed the polar bear on shoulder with his rifle, prompting a scream of pain. He slammed the bag of provisions to the street, the milk bottle shattering and the white fluid puddling at Vlade's feet. The bear stared at it, dismayed. "For your baby! Nits grow into lice.... Vat shall ve do, Rolf? It seems these parasites are unable to comprehend that ve are serious about ze curfew, yes?"
The second dog grinned at his friend. "Indeed! Perhaps ze residents need a demonstration of our resolve."
"Ya! I believe zat would be most beneficial, Rolf." he laughed. "If I may have your attention!" he yelled loudly. "I believe that all of you vermin in zis festering hole would be well served to observe ze swift and sure nature of Alemanian justice!"
Faces began to appear in windows, as the ghetto residents peered around their curtains and blinds. Jacob stood, frozen in shock, unable to tear his eyes away. His hand gripped the windowsill so tightly that his fingers ached.
"Turn around!" the soldier known as Rolf barked at Vlade, who, trembling, complied. The two dogs spoke quietly for a moment, then laughed. Rolf walked several yards away, then stopped. His associate took a few paces, then turned and pointed his rifle at the back of the polar bear's head. Jacob turned away, just as a shot pierced the dusk.
Jacob stood, trembling, hands still gripping the windowsill tightly. He knew, now, that there was no hope. Before, he had just not fully grasped the sheer inhumanity of these invaders, but it was clear now. All was lost. On the street, the two dogs laughed loudly, and walked away. A pool of red fluid began to form, soon blending with the puddle of milk from the broken bottle.
Isaac Walschinsky prided himself on being a realistic optimist - one had to be, he figured, to wake up every day in Thembria and still hold out hope that it might be better than the last one. It was his firm conviction that as long as the spirit was still hopeful, defeat was impossible. It had driven him through the loss of his wife, his time in a prison camp and his countless run-ins with the Thembrian government. And, in fact, he was now a free bear, and reunited with his daughter. His days had become better than the last had been.
Even in his darkest, most hopeless moments in Thembria, however, he'd never felt so challenged to keep his spirit from crumbling as he did now. Even the Thembrians seemed humane when compared to the almost inconceivable brutality he had seen from the current government of Alemania. A terrible reckoning was already occurring in Alemania itself, but even worse, the criminal nation grew stronger daily, threatening to export it's cruel vision to a wide swath of Eporue. And the governments of the free nations seemed unwilling or unable to act against the criminal abuse of decency that was occurring in Bohemia, first of the Alemanians victims.
He looked around the table at the three other bears seated there - Gregory Spotilivich, one of the wealthiest men in Eporue, whose personal fortune was already bankrolling much of their fledgling resistance movement. That fortune had bought him a position of leadership in their small group. Jonah Wallenbearg, young, impetuous and brilliant, a natural, if reckless, leader of men. And finally Pavel Vasclav, who had escaped Bohemia scant days before the Alemanian tanks had rolled in, and was providing them with much of the information they had received from inside the borders of that besieged nation.
"Shall we get started?" Gregory asked, as ever taking it upon himself to dictate the pace of events. "Why don't you start us off, Pavel? Is there any change in Brague?"
The thin bear coughed nervously, never comfortable speaking in front of a group. "Thank you, Mr. Spotilivich. I am fearing there is no good to report, yes? The residents of the ghettos are nearing the point of the starvation. What supplies that exist are nearly gone, and there is still no escaping in or out. And even more, there is appearing to be an increase in brutality by the troops patrolling the streets."
"What is their purpose? Do they plan to simply starve these people to death?" Jonah asked bitterly.
"Ahem, I am, as you will say, not knowing." Pavel said quietly. "There may be other plans at work, we are not sure."
"What is the situation like outside Brague - in the smaller cities and the countryside?" Isaac asked.
"Well - Bohemia is a large country, and there are only so many troops, yes? There is resistance, and it will take substantially longer for these places to be subdued. But it will surely happen, eventually."
"Bastards!" Jonah barked, banging a fist on the table. "Where is the point in all this? Do they simply intend to starve all of us to death?"
"Jonah-" Gregory started.
"Action, my friends! Enough talk, we all know the situation is terrible. What we must decide is what action we will take! Clearly we have no time to waste in indecision. Lives are at stake."
Wallenbearg said fiercely.
"I agree." Spotilivich replied calmly. "The question before us is, what action shall we take? Isaac?"
Walschinsky looked around the room thoughtfully, gazing at the faces before him. What could a rag-tag bunch of men such as these do against the Alemanian juggernaut? "My friends - it is distressingly clear to me that only a massive and concerted effort by the free nations of the world can halt the advance of this evil. Clearly, we have neither the resources nor the ability to confront it directly.
It is my opinion that we must fight this battle on two fronts. Our first priority must be to convince the free nations of the world, by whatever means necessary, that the abuses of the Alemanians are real and horrendous. And we must also convince them that the Alemanian war machine is surely a threat to them, in time - that these people will not stop unless they are defeated. If we cannot convince the governments themselves, we must convince the people - make a case so strong that they demand action by their leaders."
"Espionage?" Pavel asked.
Isaac smiled darkly. ""When you do not have a force sufficient to confront the enemy directly, perhaps you are small enough to escape his attention. We must gather all the proof that we can of what is happening, by whatever means we can. We are not large in number, but there are many skilled and talented people in our ranks.
The second priority, gentlemen, is the aid of those who are suffering right now. Once again, it appears that the governments are content to do nothing for now. Perhaps that will change as we expose the truth. In the meantime, we must do all that we can to combat the tragedy that is occurring."
"But how?" Jonah queried bitterly. "What can we-"
"Please." Isaac interrupted his friend. Jonah was as brave as any man, but given to allowing his emotions to dictate his actions far too often. "It is terribly painful for me to say, but I see little that we can do directly for those of us within the Alemanian borders. For these people, we must focus our efforts in fostering opposition to Alemania. There is little else we can do.
But for those in Brague, perhaps we can help. The Alemanian presence there is weaker - they surely plan to enact the same strategy elsewhere that they have in Bohemia. Their troops and weapons are spread thinly. I believe that we can slip through and provide humanitarian aid to the besieged residents of the Brague ghetto and perhaps allow them to survive long enough to resist. It is a flawed plan, but I see little else that we can do."
"How, Isaac?" Gregory asked, deferring to the Thembrian's greater tactical and organizational skills. "How will we do this?"
"It will not be easy. Perhaps it will be only a tiny gesture in the face of such terrible opposition. But it must at least be attempted. And given my personal experience in escaping Thembria, I have certain ideas about what may be effective..."
Marshall Franz Mueller sat behind the large oak desk in his opulent office at the Alemanian central headquarters in Linber. He loved his office. He had arranged the furniture so that any visitor would have only a narrow corridor of empty space to walk through, leading directly to the front of the massive desk. The desk itself, as well as the chair on which the Marshall sat, were on an elevated platform several inches above the floor which Mueller had ordered installed. The cumulative effect - along with the Marshall's great bulk - was one of intimidation. Visitors to Marshall Franz Mueller were disabused of any thoughts other than obedience soon after they entered his office.
"Ah, Colonel Strauss, velcome!" Mueller said jovially to the shepherd that stood before his desk currently, shifting from foot to foot almost imperceptibly. "Please, do have a seat."
Strauss complied, and sat looking up at the imposing figure that towered over him. "Thank you, Marshall."
"Colonel, I am hearing most disturbing reports out of Bohemia. I am hearing zat zere is still resistance in the countryside, and that the Bohemian army is regrouping in the north. I am hoping zat you will inform me that zese reports are untrue."
Strauss' eyes nervously darted around the room. "Ve have ze situation vell under control, Marshall. Is is only a question of time-"
"Ah, time!" Mueller smiled, clasping his hands together in front of him. "A question of time. And how much time, Colonel? A day? Two?"
"Vell - M-Marshall..." Strauss stammered nervously. "Zere is still some resistance in ze countryside, zis is to be expected. It is a large country, if ve only had some more troops-"
"_More_ troops?" Mueller shouted. "You already outnumber ze Bohemian army by ten to one! Zere government has officially surrendered! If you are unable to succeed under zese conditions perhaps I shall need to consider a field commander who can make better use of his resources!"
"No sir!" Strauss barked. "I mean - Ve vill succeed, Marshall. I promise it. Ve may have to move some resources from Brague and into the countryside. A simple realignment is all zat is needed. Ve vill crush zem - ze Bohemian resistance and ze polar bear vermin. Ve vill starve zem out."
"See zat you do, Strauss." the Marshall said darkly. "If I see you in zis office again before Ze complete subjugation of Bohemia it vill be to relieve you of command - or to identify ze body. Do I make myself clear?"
"Very clear, Sir!" Strauss barked sharply, a tremor in his voice.
"Excellent. Alvays a pleasure, Colonel. Hail Alemany." Mueller smiled, right paw out in a salute.
"Hail Alemany!" Strauss shouted crisply, responding in kind. He spun on his heels and left the office, leaving the Marshall chuckling behind his desk.
"Well, Father?" the white cub asked as Isaac Walschinsky walked through the door of their rented flat in Seines. "How did it go?"
The bear, dressed casually in a tan shirt, embraced his daughter and kissed her on the cheek. "As well as can be expected, Little One. Certainly, there is little doubt that we must do something - everyone agrees with that. The only question is what."
The two polar bears sat on the sofa. "And what is the answer, Papa?"
Isaac chuckled. "Always were the impatient one, weren't you Sasha? Well, I believe I was able to convince them that our first priority should be humanitarian relief. People are suffering, and even if we do not have the strength to fight the disease, at least we can attempt to relieve the symptom."
"So you will go to Bohemia then?" she said softly.
"At some point, yes. We will have to go there, to do all that we can. It is up to greater forces than we to confront the Alemanians head-on. All we can do is convince them."
"Take me with you." the young bearess whispered, leaning her head on her father's shoulder.
"Little One - you know I cannot. It is far too dangerous. The risk is unacceptable."
"Father.." the girl protested, eyes glistening, "after all that has happened, all we have suffered - I would rather die than lose you again! Please take me!"
Isaac silently cursed. How cruel, that he should have to face such decisions so soon after his freedom..."I cannot, Little One. I cannot in good conscience take such a risk. I will be fine, I swear it. I will return safely, and we will be together. I promise."
Sasha sighed. "Why must people be so evil, Father? Why can't people just live their lives and let others do the same?"
Walschinsky laughed bitterly. "If I could answer that, Sasha... Such a question! It has been asked for as long as people have walked the earth, I'm certain."
"When will you go?"
"It will take some time, Little One. There is much work to be done, preparation. Yet time is of the essence. However, we have many friends, in many places." He tenderly grasped his daughter's chin in his paw and smiled. "Be of good spirit, Sasha. There is always hope, as long as we believe. Perhaps you may even see some old friends soon, who knows? Now come, let us have dinner, and be grateful that we have food in our larder, while so many others do not." Arm in arm, the two white bears rose from the sofa and walked into the kitchen, as a light rain began to spit against the windows of the flat.
The yellow seaplane was a tiny dot against the brilliant blue sky, soaring a mile above the Pacific towards Cape Suzette. Kit leaned back in the navigator's chair, eyes closed. He loved this chair, this plane - he loved sitting here sightless, totally giving himself over to the sound and vibration of the engines, like old friends speaking to him, telling him that all was well.
He hadn't flown in nearly two weeks - despite his vehement protestations that he was fully recovered, Baloo simply wouldn't let him fly, fearing that something might happen, hundreds of miles out over the ocean as they were now. It had been the longest flightless stretch in Kit's life since he'd come to Higher for Hire, and every time he'd stood inside, listening to the Sea Duck's engines as the plane left without him, he'd been filled with anger and frustration.
But now, at last, Baloo had relented. Kit had put aside his cane, and more importantly the medication that inevitably fogged his mind. Tomorrow the stitches would come out, he felt no pain, and he was among the clouds again, Baloo at his side. No matter that it had simply been a cargo run of the most routine order, boring on the surface. To Kit, it had been sheer heaven.
"So, L'il Britches, pretty nice to be back in the saddle, huh?" Baloo chuckled, deft as ever at sensing the boy's moods.
"Is it that obvious?" Kit replied. "Man, I can't believe I haven't flown in thirteen days! It feels like forever, Papa Bear."
"I know what you mean." Baloo grinned. "I darn near fergot how tough it is ta fly solo, Pardner. The ol' Duck just ain't been the same without ya."
"Thanks." Kit smiled. "Gonna have to take the Blue Eagle out soon too, just to blow out the carbs."
"Don't worry Kid, she'll be fine. We'll get 'er airborne in the next couple days." Baloo laughed. "So Kit - ya think ya fergot ever'thin I taught ya about flyin' in all that sacktime?"
"Me?" Kit howled. "I'm Kit Cloudkicker! Besides, it's like ridin' a bike, right? Once you learn ya never forget!"
"Maybe so, L'il Britches. Maybe so." The pilot unstrapped from his chair and stood. "Why don't ya go ahead an' take over, Pardner. Bring us on in the rest o' the way home."
"Thanks Baloo!" the cub grinned, sliding over to the pilot's seat. He'd almost begun to feel at home in this chair, but after his layoff he felt some of his old nervousness returning. He lightly ran his hands over the controls and forced himself to do a status report. "OK Papa Bear, we're at 5300 feet, airspeed 188 MPH, heading north-northwest one-five-two degrees." he said, a slight quaver in his voice.
"Easy Kid, it'll come back, don't worry." Baloo soothed, squeezing the cub's shoulder gently. He sat back and watched the boy for a moment, conflicting emotions running through him. It was a little scary, the way he had felt over the last week of flights - there had been none of the usual joy, the sense of freedom. He couldn't get his mind away from the crow's nest at Higher for Higher.
Sitting here now, that fear was mixed with pride - he loved seeing Kit at the controls of the Sea Duck, still filled with the same sense of wonder he'd had that first day when Baloo had allowed the frail little cub to take the controls. This plane and the love of flight was something that bound them together, and that filled Baloo with joy. Still, it was impossible for him to separate the experience of flying from the boy who sat next to him - all of the passion and exuberance the pilot had always drawn from flight was magnified, as long as Kit was beside him. But if the boy wasn't there, the experience was hollow. That was what scared the pilot - it was all the proof he needed that his life was no longer his own.
"You OK, Papa Bear?" Kit asked nervously, sensing the pilot's apprehension.
"Just fine!" Baloo chuckled. "Yer doin' great, L'il Britches. Just glad ta have ya back in that chair, that's all. So - ya think yer up to tryin' to land 'er today?"
"You bet!" Kit grinned, a little surprised that Baloo was willing to trust him so far on his first day back. "Uh, thanks Baloo, y'know-"
"Don't worry about it Pardner, I know ya kin handle it." Baloo laughed. "She's all yours, Kid - take us home!"
"Thanks for takin' me to the hospital, Miz Cunningham." Kit said, as he ran his fingers over the spot on his gut where the stitches had been. "Sorry to be such a pain."
"It's no bother." she smiled as the cab sped through the streets of Cape Suzette. "There's nothing in the office that couldn't wait for an hour or two. Does it hurt at all?"
"Not really." the boy replied. "It kinda itches, but Dr. Gosselin said that was normal."
"I guess you're going to have a little souvenir from the experience, huh?" she laughed.
"Yeah." the cub scowled. "I'm never goin' to the beach, I'll tell you that! This scar is really gross..."
"Call it a badge of honor." she giggled, squeezing his paw sympathetically. "It'll fade in time, I'm sure." The taxi pulled up outside Higher for Hire. "What's that?" Rebecca frowned, staring at a weather-beaten brown cargo plane docked a dozen yards or so from the Blue Eagle.
"I dunno." the cub answered, squinting as he looked at it. "New client, maybe? Sure is a beat-up plane..." Kit and Rebecca slipped out of the cab, Rebecca pausing to hand the driver some bills. "Papa Bear's not back yet - I wonder-"
"Haloo!" a voice called, from the cockpit of the brown plane. "We were beginning to think there was no one home!" A white polar bear jumped down from the cockpit, followed by two more, one tall and very thin, the other shorter and decidedly feminine.
"Isaac Walschinsky?" Rebecca said, surprised.
"Sasha!" Kit shouted, spying the shorter figure. He dashed over to her and impulsively enveloped her in a hug, as the two other white bears shared a grin. "Oh, Sasha... I don't believe it!" he gasped, catching himself and drawing back with an embarrassed grin.
"Hello Keet!" Sasha smiled, grasping his paw. "This is a wonderful day - I've missed you so much-"
"Me too!" Kit laughed as Rebecca walked over to join them. Kit looked around sheepishly, then planted a brief kiss on the bearess' cheek, prompting a giggle from the white cub. "I can't believe you're really here!"
"Hello Sasha!" Rebecca smiled, giving the girl a hug. "Hello Mr. Walschinsky, it's good to see you again."
"Miss Cunningham." the bear replied, kissing her on the cheek. "Hello young man!" he smiled, shaking Kit's hand. "I trust you are well?"
"Very well, thank you Sir." Kit answered.
"Allow me to introduce my nephew, Joshua." Isaac smiled, arm around the shoulder of the other bear, a young man of perhaps eighteen. "He's a fine pilot - already! He flew us here today."
"H'lo." the young bear mumbled quietly, shaking Kit and Rebecca's hand.
"Well, it's good to see all of you!" Rebecca beamed. "Will you come inside, I'll make some coffee. Have you had breakfast?"
"That's very kind, Miss Cunningham." Isaac said with a small bow. "However, I am in Cape Suzette for some rather urgent business - a very important meeting." Kit noticed Sasha frown slightly. "Joshua will be joining me. I thought, under the circumstances, that the young people would enjoy having some time together, so it was my hope that Sasha could stay here today, if it's not too much trouble-"
"Great!" Kit beamed.
"Of course it's no trouble!' Rebecca grinned. "Our doors are always open for your family, Mr. Walschinsky. Sasha is welcome to stay here today or any day. Are you sure you and your nephew don't have time to join us for breakfast?"
"Thank you, no." Isaac replied. "We should be leaving now, as a matter of fact. We'll return this evening. Thank you once again for your kindness, Dear Lady."
"Your welcome." she smiled as the two bears jumped back into the cockpit of the old plane. "See you tonight then." With a wave, the two men were off, and the plane headed towards the airfield downtown.
"Now then - " she addressed the cubs. "I imagine you kids will have plenty to talk about without me getting in the way, so I'll head inside and get some work done. Just let me know if you need anything."
"Thank you Miss Cunningham." the white cub said politely.
"Yeah, thanks Becky." Kit smiled. He reached out and grabbed Sasha's paw, which felt as wonderfully warm and soft as ever in his own. She wore a light blue skirt and blouse, which to Kit's eyes were the most beautiful he'd ever seen. "I thought I'd never see you again... Sasha, you won't believe it - I got my own plane! Wanna see it?"
"Of course!" the girl grinned. "You own plane? How is this possible?"
Kit led the girl over to the Blue Eagle at a jog, and helped her into the cockpit. "That's a long story - have a seat!" he grinned, gesturing to the pilot's chair. He planted himself in the navigator's seat. "It belonged to my Mom, but like I say, that's a really long story..."
"I would like to hear it, Keet!" she smiled, looking around the immaculate cockpit of the little plane.
"Boy, Sasha - your English is great! Not that it was bad before... that is - um..."
"Thank you!" she laughed. "I have been taking lessons, yes? I fear I still sound very strange, to you-"
"You sound wonderful!" he grinned stupidly, entranced by her eyes. They were so-
"Keet, you look thin!" she frowned. "Are you not well?"
"Oh!" he replied, snapping out of his reverie. "I'm fine - that is, I had appendicitis. My appendix burst, and everything - pow!"
"Goodness!" the white cub exclaimed. "When did this happen?"
"About two weeks ago. I'm fine, but I lost a lot of weight, in the first few days. They had to operate, take my appendix out. Um... wanna see my scar?" he asked sheepishly.
She blushed. "All right."
Kit lifted his sweater to expose the two inch white gash on his side. "They just took the stitches out today! The doctor said it'll fade a little. They had to shave the fur off, and that'll grow back, so-"
"Hi kids, I thought I'd find you in here!" Rebecca smiled, peeking her head in through the window. Clearly she was well aware of what she'd interrupted, and her eyes danced with laughter. "I thought you might be hungry, so I brought you some brownies, leftover from Molly's tea party. Here's some milk too."
"Thanks Becky." Kit blushed. With a wave, Rebecca headed back into Higher for Hire, chuckling.
"Very impressive." she said solemnly. "But - you are all right now?"
"I'm terrific!" he beamed, biting into a brownie. "I've been eating like a horse for the past week, trying to make up for lost time, I guess!"
"I'll bet the man who is not your father was very worried!"
"Oh, that's right - you don't know!" he chuckled. "It happened not that long after you left. He _is_ my father now! I don't know how he convinced the child welfare people, but they went along - he adopted me!"
"That's wonderful!" she laughed. "You must be very happy!"
Kit blushed again. "It was the best day of my life, I think. I can't even imagine what it would've been like, going through this whole appendicitis thing, without Baloo. He's been so incredible to me-"
"He loves you." she smiled. "I could see that before. But now no one can break you apart. It is wonderful to be with your family, Keet. I am most pleased for you."
"My goodness, so much has happened! Thank heavens it seems to be good things... Is your life always so exciting?"
The boy laughed. "You don't know the half of it! Stuff just kinda seems to follow Baloo n' me around, it's weird. How 'bout you? What've you been up to? Is your dad still trying to take on the Thembrians?"
Sasha looked away. "All is not so very well, I am afraid Keet. My father has been forced to turn his attention to even more grave matters."
"Eporue?" Kit asked grimly.
The white cub arched an eyebrow in surprise. "Yes. How did you know?"
Kit smiled sadly. "I read a lot, ask a lot of questions... Even more since we met. I know things are pretty bad."
"Indeed they are Keet." she sighed. "My father and I settled in Seines - there is a large diplomatic contingent there. For a few weeks he lobbied on behalf of the polar bears in Thembria, with little success. He grew increasingly frustrated. Meanwhile, reports were coming in, horrible atrocities in Alemania-"
"Yeah, I know!" Kit said angrily. "We had a little run-in with those bastards! Another long story. VERY long..."
Sasha's jaw dropped. "You continue to surprise me, Keet Cloudkeecker! In any event, this was becoming more and more the focus of my father's attentions. He was in close contact with a group who were organizing opposition to the Alemanians. Unfortunately, the situation became even worse - they invaded Bohemia, and imposed martial law."
"Yeah, I read about that. It sounds pretty bad."
She closed her eyes. "It's horrible, Keet. The polar bears in Brague, the capital - they live in a ghetto, and they are confined there, behind a military blockade. No supplies are being allowed in-"
"So that's true then?" Kit whispered.
"It is true."
"Well - there's somethin' bein' done about it, right? I mean, Usland will help them , for sure! Won't they?"
She shook her head. "There is little being done, Keet. The governments of Usland and Eporue are content to appease the Alemanians until they perceive a direct threat to themselves."
"But - but that's ridiculous!" Kit sputtered angrily. "There's no way they'd just sit around and let those people starve - IS there?"
"I am afraid they are - for now." Sasha sighed. "And... my father is trying to help, to aid the people, to organize resistance... But he may have to go to Bohemia himself, with my cousin, and it is very dangerous..." she sobbed, a tear rolling down her cheek.
Her sadness stabbed Kit in the heart. "It's - it's OK..." he whispered, tentatively placing a paw on her shoulder. "It'll be all right."
"I am sorry Keet, it's just that I am scared, for Father, for what will happen-"
"It's OK!" the boy said firmly, hugging the white cub. "We'll help, do what we can. I know Baloo will want to help out... I promise I won't let anything happen!"
"Oh Keet, you are very sweet - still!" she chuckled through a tear. "You are my brave protector, my knight... always! Thank you..."
"It'll be OK..." Kit whispered, wanting nothing more than to hold the girl in his arms and protect her, and to never see her cry again.
"Snowflake!" Baloo cried, walking through the front door and spying the two cubs sitting at the table. "What the heck-"
"Hello Mr. Baloo." Sasha grinned, genuinely pleased to see the jovial, overstuffed bear she owed so much to. "I hope you are well?"
Baloo walked over with a nod at Rebecca and gently hugged the white cub. "I'm great, Darlin'. Just confused is all. What're you doin' here?"
"Her Dad's in town for a conference, Papa Bear." Kit chimed in. "He'll be back in a little while."
"That's Jim-dandy!" Baloo grinned. "Kit tell you all about his operation an' all?"
"He certainly did Baloo. It sounds quite frightening."
"Sure was, Snowflake. Sure was. You get the stitches out OK, L'il Britches? Oops! Sorry..."
the big grey bear said, joining them at the table.
"That's OK!" Kit chuckled. "Yep - doc said everything looked perfect."
"So Mr. Baloo - I hear you are Keet's father now. I think it is wonderful!" Sasha grinned.
"Yeah, I think so too!" the pilot laughed, tousling Kit's hair fondly. "I dunno what this fat ol' bear did ta deserve it, but he's the best thing that ever happened ta me, Snowflake."
"Baloo!" Kit blushed.
Sasha laughed. "You embarrass so easily, Keet! I think you are very funny..."
"So, Snowflake - how's yer Pop? He still givin' the Thembrians what for?" Baloo asked.
"Perhaps I will let him tell you, Baloo." she sighed. "It is a very complicated story."
Baloo frowned. A plane touched down outside. "Sounds like that's him now." Kit said, jogging over to open the door. After a moment Isaac and his nephew walked in.
Isaac smiled and patted Kit's head gently as he walked in. "Greetings to all of you! Miss Cunningham, always a pleasure - and Baloo! It does my heart good to see you again."
"Hello Mr. Walschinsky." Rebecca smiled.
"You too Ikey." the pilot grinned, prompting a raised eyebrow from Joshua. "Who's yer skinny friend here?"
"My nephew, Joshua. Joshua, this is the legendary Baloo - he and Kit engineered my freedom from Grelspach."
"Mr. Baloo - you have done a great service. Thank you." the young man said in thickly accented English.
"Don't sweat it Kiddo." Baloo grinned. "All part o' the package. So Ikey - what brings yer brood ta Cape Suzette?"
Walschinsky frowned. "There are grave events taking place in the world right now, Baloo. There are those of us who are very concerned - even if our voices are still not being heard."
Baloo whistled softly "That sounds like pretty serious business for empty stomachs, boys. What say we get you polar bears some burgers an' fries - good Cape Suzette grub! Never heard o' any serious business that didn't sound better after a good meal. Becky - you comin'?"
Rebecca stood from her desk. "No, unfortunately Molly has a school play tonight Baloo, and I have to leave in a few minutes. Mr. Walschinsky, I hope you have a good stay in town. Will I see you all tomorrow?"
"Perhaps, Miss Cunningham, perhaps. Thank you once again for your gracious hospitality."
The five bears walked slowly along the harbor, the moon shining brightly in the sky above the water. Kit and Sasha were a few paces behind the others, hand in hand, saying little. Baloo held court between Isaac and his nephew with stories of his daring aeronautic exploits. He had determinedly steered the conversation away from serious topics all night, despite Kit's gentle efforts over dinner to nudge them onto the subject of Isaac's plans.
Within a few moments they were back at Higher for Hire, and Baloo, it seemed, was ready to get down to business. "So, Ikey." he sighed wearily, sitting down at the table. "I guess we can get ta brass tacks. Just what's yer story? Why are ya in Cape Suzette?"
Walschinsky joined him at the table. "There are very grim events taking place, Baloo. Perhaps - perhaps you would be more comfortable if the children were not present?"
"No dice!" Kit said sharply, staking out a place at the table. "Anything you have to say to Baloo you can say to me!"
"Such spirit." Isaac smiled sadly. "After all you have done for me, Kit, I can hardly refuse. Very well, come Sasha, sit next to your young friend, we shall have no secrets. Joshua, you do not mind standing?"
"No, is fine Uncle Isaac." the youth said quietly, moving to stand behind Walschinsky. Baloo looked curiously at the boy - he sure didn't say much. Had a real fire in his eyes, though. Seen too much, too young, the pilot thought bitterly.
"Now then Baloo." Isaac began. "Perhaps you have been following the events of the past weeks in Eporue?"
"Not as closely as my little buddy here." he replied, gesturing at Kit. "But I may have some notion of what yer talkin' about."
"Bohemia." Kit said quietly.
"Yes, Bohemia." Isaac nodded. "But also Alemania, and soon Warsalia and perhaps other nations as well. The Alemanians are expanding their horizons at an alarming rate - every day their armies grow stronger, and they mass more troops along their borders. The governments of the so-called great powers are paralyzed with fear, but unwilling to provoke a confrontation with Alemania by direct involvement."
Baloo frowned. "That sounds pretty bad - but what can you guys possibly do about it?"
"Frankly, not a lot." Isaac smiled grimly. "We are obviously unable to confront the Alemanians head-on. What we can and will do is work tirelessly to convince the powers of the free world that they have no choice but to draw a line, and force the Alemanians to cease their aggression - and the senseless butchering of innocent civilians."
"B-butchering?" Kit whispered.
Isaac grasped Kit's paw in his own. "There are things happening in Alemania, My Precious Child - things which are terrible, cruel... The government of Alemania denies official involvement, of course. But the reports are numerous and indisputable. I will not torture you with the details, it is pointless." Walschinsky closed his eyes, looking deeply pained. "It is my greatest agony that we are unable to do anything to directly help these people. The borders of Alemania are an impenetrable fortress. Only by the downfall of the very regime in Linber will we be able to end the suffering of these innocents."
"My gosh..." Kit gasped. Sasha squeezed his arm gently.
Walschinsky opened his eyes, and a deep anger burned there. "All we may do now is to convince the governments of Usland and Eporue that the threat is real, and the atrocities intolerable. If we must do this by espionage, subterfuge, we will - we will take our case directly to the people, and they will force their leaders to act."
"I'll never understand..." Baloo muttered. "The world would be a wonderful place if it weren't for certain people! But why are you _here_, now, Ikey?"
Isaac met the big bear's gaze for a moment. "Because I have a responsibility, Baloo. To ease suffering. You see, there is a great tragedy occurring in Bohemia, as well. Alemania invaded a few weeks ago, and the government there acquiesced, rolled over. They had no choice - they were badly outnumbered and no one would provide them with assistance.
Let me explain something to you, my friends. In Brague, as in many other of the great cities in Eporue, my people live in small, distinct neighborhoods - we call them ghettos. The first thing that
the Alemanian dogs did when they rolled into Brague was to cordon off the ghetto there - to trap my people inside, with no hope of escape. That is not all - they instituted a curfew, and have not been bashful about using summary executions to keep the residents in line. Worst of all, they are allowing no supplies inside the barricades - no food, no milk, no medicine. And winter is coming - in northern Eporue, winter is very bitter and harsh. The supplies of heating oil will not outlast December as it stands."
"But - why?" Baloo asked, puzzled. "It don't make any sense-"
"To a reasonable man like you or I, Baloo, no. But the Alemanians are not reasonable. They are driven by intense and bizarre hatred. They wish, perhaps, to starve these people out - whether to kill them outright or simply to weaken them so much they offer no resistance as part of a larger scheme, I do not know."
"That's horrible!" Kit snarled. "These guys make Don Karnage look like a prince!"
"It is horrible." Isaac nodded. "However, the Alemanian troops are spread thinly in Brague. They have met unexpected resistance from the remnants of the Bohemian army, and are having difficulty subduing the towns and villages. And they seem unwilling to pull back troops from their threatening posture against Warsalia. There are weaknesses in their defenses, and we believe that we may be able to provide humanitarian assistance."
"How?" Baloo asked intently.
"That is why I am here in Cape Suzette, Baloo. An airdrop is being organized. We will provide food, medicine, heating oil - it will be a ragtag air force of mercenaries, merchant planes, free-lance pilots - but the Alemanians will be unable to stop it. We will get through their defenses and provide some relief to the citizens of the Brague ghetto."
"That sounds like a good plan, Ikey - but what's the point? If these Alemanians plan to starve those poor folks out, aren't ya - well - just postponing it?" Baloo asked gently.
"Perhaps. But there are children dying already - they are always the first to suffer. Our aim is to help these people survive the winter, however we may. To give them the strength to fight, perhaps - or just to survive until the rest of the world wakes up and engages the Alemanians. Perhaps then they will have to pull troops out of Bohemia altogether. It is a long possibility, but it is all we have."
"An' that's why you're here? You're organizin' this airdrop?"
"Yes." the white bear nodded. "Myself and others. Joshua will fly to Bohemia, and I will fly with him."
"Oh Father!" Sasha whispered. Kit grasped her hand silently.
"He is but a boy, and I will not send him alone." Isaac whispered, not looking at his daughter. "There will be risks - we will meet opposition, and almost certainly we will lose some planes. There are too few pilots as it is, and they will be flying solo for the most part, in unarmed craft. But we will do so knowing that we are just. And, in the mercenaries case, that they are being well paid."
"Quite a story." Baloo said softly.
Walschinsky met the pilot's eyes. "Baloo, Lord knows I owe you my life already. I could never ask you to do more. But your skills as a pilot are undeniable. We can use every able body we can get. Will you consider joining the airdrop?"
"Of course!" Kit said immediately.
"Hold it, L'il Britches." Baloo said sternly.
"HOLD it! Let Papa Bear talk fer a second." he admonished the boy. "Mr. Walschinsky - Ikey - I don't have any doubt what yer sayin' is true, every word. I feel fer all those people, you kin believe that. It's terrible, what's goin' on. Maybe it _is_ different than the last time - it sure sounds like it. But as far as joinin' yer airdrop, I hafta say no."
"What?" Kit cried in disbelief. "Baloo-"
"Keet, stop!" Sasha scolded. "Please!"
"Kit, lemme talk!" Baloo said a little angrily. "Ikey - I almost lost this boy here, a few days ago. He was sick - real sick. An' I ain't had 'im in my life that long as it is. I've only been his Daddy fer a few weeks, and he only just joined up with me less than two years ago. I can't see my life without this boy in it - an' I can't see his without me neither. We both been through too much to get where we are, Mr. Walschinsky - too much alone time.. I lost one family to a war already, and even if I didn't deserve it, somehow, some way, I got a second chance. I ain't losin' another family Mr. Walschinsky. I love Kit too much, an' he needs me here, with him. The answer is no."
"I understand." Isaac smiled.
"Mr. Baloo, I can hardly believe-" Joshua began, speaking for the first time in long moments.
"No!" Isaac interrupted angrily. "Mr. Baloo is a kind and corageous man, and very wise. He has done more service to this family than we could repay in a hundred lifetimes. His actions are driven by love. I will not have you browbeat him for this. He has chosen boldly, and I respect his decision."
"Papa Bear, please! Don't you see-"
"Keet, stop." Sasha interrupted gently.
Isaac smiled fondly at Kit. "You are wise, Baloo - and your love for your son does you credit. I have one more small favor to ask you."
"Sure Ike, go ahead." Baloo nodded.
"We leave early, the day after tomorrow. We will load the plane here and fly directly to Bohemia. It would put my mind at rest if you would look after Sasha for me, while I am gone. I would be deeply grateful - more so even than I am, already."
"Sure Ikey." Baloo smiled. "Happy to do it."
"Thank you." Isaac smiled, grasping Baloo's paw. "Now, I believe it is time for Joshua and myself to depart. We must find a hotel for the night-"
"No dice!" Baloo interrupted. "You stay here. It ain't the Takeover Hostel, but we'll make ya comfortable. Sasha kin take Kit's bed, an' he'll share with me. You and the boy kin take the hammock and the easy chair down here."
"Baloo, this isn't right, doing nothing!" Kit said angrily, tugging on Baloo's arm. "We need to discuss this!"
"Nuthin' to discuss, Kid." Baloo said softly.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Baloo. You are kind. It would be most ungracious to refuse-"
"Baloo! I wanna talk about this!" Kit repeated, refusing to be denied.
Isaac watched them with concern. "Come, Children. I believe we should take a walk, enjoy the warm Cape Suzette evening, yes? Leave Baloo and Kit to a few moments of privacy before we impose on their hospitality. Come now."
Joshua followed his Uncle to the door silently. Sasha squeezed Kit's arm and smiled weakly, then followed, leaving Baloo and the cub alone in the house. The big grey bear trudged over to the easy chair and collapsed into it with a sigh. "You wanted to talk Kit, so talk."
Kit walked over and leaned on the armrest, staring at Baloo. "Papa Bear - after all we've been through, all the risks - how can you say no to something like this? Weren't you listening?"
"Weren't _you_ listenin', L'il Britches? This mission is dangerous! Things have... changed. I ain't takin' no risks as don't need to be took! That's it, end o' discussion!"
"So _my_ feelings don't matter?" the cub asked indignantly.
"In this case no, Kid, they don't. I'm yer Daddy and when it comes to decisions fer this family, I'm the one who's gotta stand by 'em. Yer thirteen years old, L'il Britches - you got no idea what war's really like-"
"I am so SICK of hearing that!" Kit snarled, balling his paws into fists angrily. "I lived on the damn Iron Vulture with pirates and thugs. They beat me, kicked me! And I saw things... terrible things, Baloo! They killed people - and I couldn't do anything about it! That makes _me_ responsible! You don't know what it's like, to live with that, to carry it around.. .So _don't_ tell me I'm thirteen like it's some kind of grand proclamation of innocence! I'm _not_ innocent, Baloo!" he yelled, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Baloo stared, mouth agape. Another brick had fallen, exposing a crack in the wall... "L'il Britches, I..." he stammered, reaching out a paw to the boy's face.
Kit angrily slapped it away. "If you do nothing, you're just as guilty as they are, don't you see? We have a responsibility-"
"Kit, I understand all that." Baloo interrupted. "I understand and I'm sorry fer what you went through, fer what you had ta see. But there's no person in the world that's more innocent than you. You got more good in ya than anybody I ever met, 'ceptin maybe my Mama. You woulda got along great, L'il Britches - yer peas in a pod!"
"Now just listen, Kid. You talk about responsibility. Well, I got a responsibility. I got a resistibility ta make sure yer safe, and healthy, and get an education. But I also got a responsibility ta make sure ya don't hafta - ta lose yer family, to be alone. I did, Kiddo. I lost my family. I lost my brother to that damn war. I hadda grow up alone, with a father who hated me cause of it.
Kit, I hafta be here for you. I can't let you go through life with nobody there for ya, when yer sick, or hurt, or cryin'. That's why I hadda go through it, so's I'd know what it was like. So's I'd know that I could never let that happen to you-"
Kit kept seeing Sasha's face, wet with tears. "But Baloo - those people need us, don't you see? We take risks every day - and for what? Delivering a bunch of cargo - to make money!"
"Kid, there's risks and there's risks, an' you know it-"
Kit could hardly believe that Baloo could desert him on this. "I can't believe you'd turn your back on those people, let them die-"
"This discussion is _over_!" the big grey bear bellowed angrily.
"Why don't you just admit it? You won't go because you're afraid! You're a coward!" Kit screamed, blind with rage.
Baloo recoiled, shock on his face. He stared at the boy for a long moment. "If that's what it takes, Kid. If that's what ya need to think, fine." he said quietly, looking away.
Kit stood, panting from his tirade. The look on Baloo's face was like a condemnation of his very soul. How he could he do this - allow himself to hurt Baloo yet again, in anger - after telling himself, _promising_ himself over and over, that he'd never hurt him again? He knew what he'd said was untrue - he'd said it only to hurt.
The boy blinked rapidly, tears of anger replaced by tears of shame. The pilot sat silently in the chair, saying nothing. Kit slowly walked over to him and stood, mere inches away, tears rolling down his cheeks, but the big bear would not look at him. Finally, he could control himself no longer. He climbed onto the chair and threw his arms around Baloo's neck. "I'm sorry!" he sobbed loudly, overcome by shame and guilt.
Baloo said nothing, his own mind a sea of warring emotions. _Was_ he a coward about this, when all was said and done? The cub continued to sob, burying his face in the big grey bear's neck. "Papa Bear, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry..."
The pilot closed his eyes and patted the boy softly on the back, trying to understand the anger that burned in Kit. "S'okay Kid..." he whispered.
Kit continued to sob, scarcely believing that he'd given himself over to anger and said what he had. How could he, after all Baloo had done for him, after the way Baloo had supported him through crisis after crisis. "Y-you're - the b-bravest man I've ever met." he stammered. "I'm so sorry! You're not a coward-"
"It's OK L'il Britches." Baloo said softly, wrapping his arms around the cub. "I forgive ya. We all say things we don't mean, sometimes. I forgive ya, stop cryin'..."
"I'm sorry." Kit sobbed, unable to stop the tears from flowing. "I'm proud of you. I don't deserve a father like you-"
"Stop!" Baloo chuckled, squeezing the boy tightly. "I know ya didn't mean it, it's OK. It's all over. I'm fine! Are you OK?"
"OK." Kit sniffed, forcing a smile at the big bear. "I love you. You're the bravest man I know."
"You too." Baloo grinned. "Pardners?"
"Partners." Kit smiled, nuzzling his cheek. It was so easy to forget the world, snug in Baloo's arms like this. But deep down, he knew he was right - they belonged in the air, doing everything they could to help those people. But he also knew that Baloo's refusal was not driven by cowardice. His shame at deliberately hurting the bear yet again was just something he'd have to live with. The world was an endlessly complex place, and issues were never as simple as they seemed...
Baloo sighed, holding Kit close. It was so easy to be idealistic, at Kit's age... but he had responsibilities. He knew his priorities. He knew what was important. If only he could just keep Kit safe in his arms, like he was now, never let anything hurt him... but life wasn't that simple. All he could do was what he knew was right.
Rebecca Cunningham had sensed from the moment she'd walked through the door at Higher for Higher that something was seriously amiss. Everything had been far quieter than normal - there was none of the usual playful banter between Baloo and Kit. At first she'd chalked it up to the somewhat surprising presence of the Walschisnky family - she hadn't expected them to stay the night. But Isaac and his nephew had left for more meetings soon after she'd arrived, and the mood hadn't changed.
Now, Kit and Sasha sat at the table, absently stirring at bowls of cereal, obviously preoccupied with something, as Baloo prepared for his morning delivery. Nobody was saying much of anything, and it was starting to get on her nerves.
Finally, Baloo grabbed his cap and headed for the door. "So, L'il Britches - yer gonna stay an' keep Snowflake company?" he asked, turning to the cubs.
"Yeah, I guess so Papa Bear." the boy replied glumly. "I feel bad about leaving you alone-"
"Naw, don't worry Kiddo!" the pilot chuckled. "Wouldn't be polite ta leave yer guest all day. Ol' Baloo's gonna be just fine. Sasha, I asked Wildcat to check out yer Daddy's plane real good, OK?" With a wave, Baloo started outside.
"Thank you, Baloo." the girl smiled.
"Papa Bear?" Kit called, hesitatingly, an odd quaver in his voice.
"Yeah Kid?" Baloo asked quizzically, pausing in the doorway. Wordlessly, the cub rose and walked over to Baloo. He buried his head in the big bear's chest and wrapped his arms around him.
"Have a good flight." Kit smiled up at the pilot.
"Thanks, Kid." Baloo grinned, ruffling the boy's hair through his cap, and turned to leave. Kit watched him go, then walked back over and sat at the table next to Sasha. Rebecca watched the odd exchange with concern. Something had happened, between those two - and they were both pretending it hadn't.
With a sigh she set down her work and walked over to sit next to Kit at the table. "What happened, Sweetie? What's the matter?" she asked, grasping his paw.
Kit looked back at her in surprise. "What do you mean, Miz Cunningham?"
Rebecca shook her head. So stubborn... "Kit, I've known both of you too long for this. What happened last night? You could cut the tension between you and Baloo with a knife."
Kit looked down at the table, and fidgeted in his chair. "I dunno... Isaac and Joshua are goin' to Bohemia, and it's kinda dangerous. I guess everybody's a little upset over it-"
"Bohemia?" Rebecca was a little taken aback. "I'm sorry Sasha, you must be worried sick about it."
"Thank you Miss Cunningham." the white cub sighed. "I am."
"Is that all?" she asked Kit pointedly.
Kit was unwilling to meet her eyes. "I guess - I guess me an' Papa Bear had a little fight... It was my fault, Becky! I yelled at him-"
"A fight? What about?" she asked gently.
The cub sighed, looking suddenly much older than his thirteen years. "It's not important. He forgave me. He always forgives me - whether I deserve it or not."
Rebecca squeezed the brown bearcub's paw, puzzled and concerned by his obvious pain. "Tell me. Tell me about it."
"Naw, that's OK Becky." Kit said, standing. "I really don't wanna talk about it. It'll be OK. C'mon Sasha, let's take a walk, OK? See you in a while, Miz Cunningham." he said softly, gently pulling his paw from her grip and heading for the door. Sasha looked almost pleadingly at Rebecca, then followed the cub outside. Rebecca watched them go, more sure than ever that she'd missed something very important the night before.
The two cubs walked silently along the harbor for a time, neither saying much of anything. Kit periodically picked up a stone and sent it skipping across the water, an exercise he always found oddly soothing. After a time, he grabbed her hand and they continued to stroll in silence.
"Look!" he said, pointing, after they'd walked for a few moments. "There's our tree."
Sasha giggled. "So it is!" The two cubs strolled over and sat, backs against the old oak, staring out at the water hand-in-hand.
Kit could still remember the powerful emotions he'd felt, the first time he'd seen Sasha standing under this very tree, and the crushing anticipation and dread he'd felt each subsequent day, wondering if she'd be there when he came by. Sitting here, next to her, he was a sea of emotions, powerful feelings that he couldn't understand. Being this close to Sasha still turned his knees to jelly, when he stopped long enough to think about it. But he had other matters on his mind as well, and those feelings would not be easily subverted.
"I'm sorry." Sasha said quietly, staring out over the water.
"Sorry?" the boy asked, puzzled. "For what?"
"It seems that our presence here had cause pain between you and your father. It hurts me deeply to see you so sad, Keet-"
"That's not your fault." Kit laughed bitterly. "It's kinda an old argument between us, Sasha. I just - I did something really stupid. Really mean. We'll be OK. We always are. Baloo's special. I don't know why he keeps letting me off so easy-"
"Because he loves you." the white cub said firmly. "That's what you do when you love someone - you forgive them."
"I guess." Kit said softly.
"I know my father would never want his visit to come between you and your Papa Bear, Keet. He cares very much about both of you - and not just because he is grateful. He meant what he said about your father's decision, I am sure of it."
Kit squeezed her paw and smiled. "Your dad's a pretty amazing guy, Sasha. And he was right about Baloo an' all. I know Papa Bear said what he said because he's trying to do the right thing... for me. But he's still wrong."
"It's not so easy, being a father, I'm sure." she sighed. She stared ahead for a moment, then sobbed softly. "Keet - I cannot bear the thought of my father going off to Bohemia... and not... not coming-"
"Shhh!" Kit whispered. "Don't think about that. I told you, everything's gonna be OK!" He placed a paw on her shoulder and smiled, prompting a weary chuckle from the girl. They stared at each other for a moment, then Kit eased towards her and softly placed his lips on hers, eyes closed. They kissed for a moment, then pulled back, each cub looking out over the water sheepishly.
Kit stared straight ahead, trying to keep from panting due to the palpitations in his chest. For a brief moment, all thoughts of Baloo, of the coming war, were crowded out of his mind completely. "Everything's gonna be OK..." he whispered.
Neither cub spoke for a moment, both obviously consumed with thoughts about what had happened. Sasha broke the silence. "I should be with him." she said softly. "If this is something he has to do, then I should be with him."
"But - how?" Kit asked. "It didn't sound like he'd be very flexible about it-"
"I don't know." she whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks. "But we were apart for so long... I cannot bear to lose him again. We should be together."
"Well, I can't let you go by yourself." Kit said resolutely. "I guess that means I'm going too."
"What? Keet, do not be ridiculous-"
"Sasha, I - I can't explain it... but I need to do this. You heard your dad, there's not enough pilots for the job, everyone flying solo, no weapons. I'm a good navigator, an' I can fly too, in an emergency. They need everyone they can. Your father's not a pilot, he's an engineer. Your cousin Joshua needs a good navigator with him in that old plane."
"Keet." Sasha sighed, shaking her head. "Your Papa Bear will never allow this, you heard him-"
"Will your dad let _you_ go?" Kit asked pointedly.
"No." she whispered. "I am certain he will not."
"Then we both have a problem. I can work on Baloo tonight, try to convince him to change his mind. You can talk to Isaac. But I don't think much of our chances."
"So - if the adults won't see reason, then we'll have to take matters into our owns hands. We both know what's right. You need to be with your dad, and I need to help the airdrop. Besides-" he whispered, grasping both her paws, "I could never let you face this without me."
"Keet, what are you saying?" she sighed.
"You know what I'm saying." he smiled flintily. "You did it once already, didn't you? Once they're over Eporue, past the halfway point, they'll have no choice but to take us with them. We'll stay hidden until then-"
"Kit, my father would be furious!" Sasha gasped.
"He'd have been furious if he'd known what you did last time." Kit said pointedly. "And if you hadn't done it, he'd still be rotting in a Thembrian prison - and we'd have never met. Besides, we're teenagers, right? Just call it teenage rebellion!"
She looked down, clearly wavering. "Oh Keet, I do not know. I do want to be with Father, more than anything. But surely, if you go - if we do this - it will hurt Baloo, very badly, will it not?"
Kit winced - she'd said the one thing that he'd been trying to keep out of his mind. There was no point in denying it, Baloo would be angry, and worse, he'd be hurt, devastated. But that hurt would heal, once Kit was home safely. The people in Bohemia still needed help, as much as ever. Joshua was young, inexperienced - he needed help too, and Isaac wasn't the man to provide it. Besides, he couldn't let Sasha go alone... "I know. It will hurt him. But - I... I think I need to do it anyway. I've sat back and done nothing, too many times."
"Perhaps." Sasha sighed. "But even if we do - if we decide that this is right - how will we do it? Surely they will-"
"It'll be easy enough." the boy said thoughtfully. "Your father and Joshua are leaving at three o'clock tomorrow morning, right? They'll be loading the plane tonight, and flying straight to Bohemia. We wait till they're asleep, then sneak outside. We'll empty out a box and hide inside, then wait for a few hours until they've gone too far to turn back. Then we reveal ourselves, and radio back to let Baloo and Becky know we're OK."
"The same box?" she asked with a frown.
Kit blushed. "Uh - no, I guess not. We'll empty out two boxes, one for each of us."
"Take the food out? Those people need every ounce that we send them, Keet!"
The cub frowned. "Well - I'm sure that Becky'll have some cargo, going somewhere... we'll empty a couple of those boxes, stash the cargo in one of the outbuildings somewhere so they can deliver it later. Then we'll squeeze the crates onto your plane and hide inside."
"I suppose it could work..." she said dubiously. "I hope we're doing the right thing..."
"We are." Kit said resolutely. "Besides, maybe we can convince out dads to change their minds tonight." he said, not believing it for a moment. He didn't want to think about Baloo right now. What he was planning _would_ hurt the big bear very badly, Kit was sure. But - he had to do what he felt was right... didn't he?
It hadn't been an easy day for Baloo. Every time he seemed to have things figured out, making sense at last, something would come along and shake up his resolve. He was a bear who liked to be sure about things - shades of grey were never his strong suit.
He'd been very hurt, at first, by Kit's biting comment of the previous night - so hurt that he shut the boy out, just for an instant. But as quickly as Kit had wounded him, it had been obvious that the cub was deeply sorry. He was thirteen, idealistic and impetuous. What kind of father would he be if he couldn't forgive that? And if Kit had the unique ability to hurt him, the way no one else could, well - he'd just have to live with that fact.
Still, even if the anger at Kit subsided, the pain of his comment didn't. Baloo had spent much of his lonely day wondering if the boy hadn't been right. Maybe that was why it had hurt as badly as it had. He'd tossed it around, over and over, and still no clear answer presented itself. All he was left with was to trust his gut.
That had all changed, though, the minute he'd walked through the door and seen Kit's face. In that instant he'd known he was right, all along - that as powerful as Kit's altruistic arguments were, they were no match for what Baloo knew to be true - his job was to think of Kit first, period. So, when the boy had halfheartedly tried to convince him once again to change his mind, he'd listened sympathetically but not wavered. He knew what he had to do.
It was a somber mood at Higher for Hire that night. Isaac was troubled to be leaving his daughter, and Kit was troubled not to be going with him. No one said much of anything over the course of the evening. Rebecca had stayed quite late, and motioned to Baloo just as the small group was about to sit down to dinner. The big bear approached her desk with a puzzled frown. "What's up, Beckers?"
"Sit down." she said quietly. "Baloo, before I go - is everything all right with you and Kit? I tried to get him to discuss it before, but you know how he is."
Baloo sighed. "We're fine, Becky. Kit's just stubborn, that's all. We had a little disagreement about somethin', but we're OK."
"He wants you both to go to Bohemia with Isaac, doesn't he?" she frowned.
"Right first time, Becky. How'd ya know?"
"Because I know Kit, I suppose. I assume that you told him no?"
Baloo braced himself, not wanting another argument. "I sure did Becky, but-"
"Thank goodness." she whispered. "I'm glad you had the strength to say no, Baloo. It must've been hard. But you did the right thing."
"Thanks Becky." he pilot smiled gratefully. "I was beginnin' to think I was the only person as felt that way..."
"Baloo, did Kit - did he do something, last night? He seemed awfully ashamed this morning when I talked to him about it."
Baloo sighed. "He got a little worked up, is all. We both did. Kit just knows how ta push my buttons, Beckers. It ain't the kid's fault. He don't know no better. He didn't mean nuthin' anyways. We're fine."
"I'm sure he'll understand, someday." she smiled sadly. "His heart's in the right place. He's just too young to know that you have to protect what you have, sometimes."
"Yeah, too young..."
She stood and gathered her papers together. "Well, I just wanted to talk about it for a minute, I suppose. I was very worried about him - about both of you. Just try to understand what he's thinking, Baloo. Don't let this come between you. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yeah, see ya tomorrow Becky." Baloo grinned, heading back to the table. Rebecca watched him for a moment, then turned her attention to her briefcase. What she wouldn't give for one uneventful week around here...
Kit lay awake, patiently waiting for the telltale snore which would tell him Baloo was deep into his night's rest. Isaac and Joshua, planning for their early start, had already been asleep for more than an hour downstairs.
Baloo seemed unusually fitful in his sleep, for some reason. Unfortunately, his restlessness gave Kit plenty of time for second thoughts and guilt about what he and Sasha were about to do. Things no longer looked as clear to him as they had in the light of day. He tried not to imagine Baloo's face when he woke to find them gone, or when they called in to let him know where they were. Not to mention Becky - she'd been so kind to him, rearranged her life for him, and Baloo, and the business...
No, that was no good - it just wouldn't work. He thought about Sasha - that was better. How desperately she wanted to stay with her father. How could even consider turning his back on her now? Baloo and Becky would suffer for a day, two at the most, until he was home. Sasha had already suffered enough.
Finally, the big bear began to snore gently. Kit glanced at the clock - a little after eleven. He slowly slid out of bed and looked over at his own bed, where Sasha lay staring at him, eyes open. He gave a thumbs-up signal, grabbed his green sweater and slipped out of the room. A moment later Sasha followed. She'd worn her clothes to bed, wisely.
The two cubs tiptoed down the stairs and paused at the bottom. Isaac was stretched out in the easy chair, legs over one of the armrests, snoring gently. Joshua was barely visible in the dim, stretched out in the hammock. Gesturing to Sasha to follow, Kit slipped the front door open a crack and stepped into the cool night air.
The foghorn sounded gently in the mist, the moon barely visible through the wispy fog. Sasha shivered, and Kit wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "This is it, I guess." he whispered. "We have to be careful not to wake Wildcat up. C'mon, let's check out Becky's cargo, see what's goin' out tomorrow."
"OK Keet." Sasha sighed. "I hope what we're doing is right."
"Hey, don't get cold feet now!" he scolded. "You want to be with your dad, don't you?"
"Of course." she whispered. "I only wish we didn't have to deceive him - and Baloo."
"I know, me too. But they gave us no choice." Kit said softly, picking his way among the crates awaiting shipment. "A-ha! These are perfect!" he smiled, pointing to two moderately sized wooden boxes. "Desk chairs! I'll just stash these behind the tool shed, and tell Becky about it when we radio in. Then we haul the empty boxes over to your plane, sneak 'em on, and we're all set."
"If you say so." Sasha said softly. "We're going to be awfully tired tomorrow..."
"Well - we can sleep in the boxes, for a few hours." Kit whispered thoughtfully "It's not like we'll have anything else to do. And then I'll keep an eye on my watch - bring a flashlight with me. I've already got the course plotted out - I'll know exactly when we can show ourselves, and they'll have to keep going. I don't think we'll be too comfortable in there."
"You certainly are resourceful!" she grinned wearily. "I'd almost think you'd done this sort of thing before."
"Hey, _I'm_ not the one who sabotaged an engine just to get to Louie's, so don't talk!" he giggled, tweaking her nose. He reached out and embraced the white cub. "Everything's gonna be OK, I promise." he whispered. "We can handle anything."
"My Knight." she whispered softly.
Reluctantly, Kit released the girl from his hug and stepped back. "It's gettin' late - we better get this show on the road..."
"Ready?" Isaac whispered to Joshua, the main room at Higher for Higher dimly illuminated by a small lamp.
The thin young bear picked up his duffel bag. "I am ready, Uncle Isaac."
Isaac looked upstairs plaintively. "I really should go up and say goodbye to Sasha..."
"Uncle-" the boy said softly. "You said your goodbye last night, yes? If you go there now, she will only worry more, I am thinking. Let her sleep. You will see her in few days."
"Yes, I suppose your are right Joshua." the bear sighed. "I hope I am doing the right thing - she went through so much to bring us together."
"We do what we must - is that not as you taught me, Uncle Isaac?"
"Yes, my boy. We do what we must." the older man whispered wearily. Wars didn't care about families. Nations didn't care about families. It was all about sacrifice - but why did it seem like the same people had to keep making sacrifices, over and over? Slinging his duffel bag over his shoulder, he headed outside, his nephew behind him.
Kit stirred and winced, cramping from the uncomfortable position he'd been fitfully sleeping in. A box - why not, he'd slept everywhere else! What had woken him? There it was - the metal fuselage vibrating slightly, as the cockpit doors were opened and shut. He pulled out his flashlight and checked his watch - three A. M. on the dot. This was the moment of truth.
The cub switched off the flashlight and forced himself to sit still, resisting his nervous impulse to fidget, and wishing he were still the same three-foot nine waif he'd been when he first came to Higher for Higher. The extra height was doing him no favors, crammed uncomfortably into the crate.
He found that he could hear very little through the wooden container, but he could feel - feel the vibrations course through the metal floor of the plane whenever a door opened, or someone moved. He felt rather than heard the footsteps, a someone walked towards him, through the cargo hold. Checking the cargo, he thought. Let's hope he doesn't check it too close... His mind drifted back to the dozens of other times he's stowed away, in his previous life - that life that seemed like a dream now, before he woke up next to Baloo.
The footsteps receded, and there was no movement for a few moments. Then Kit felt the hum of the engines course through the fuselage, and the crate shifted slightly as the plane moved forward. There was a lurch, and they were airborne, leaving Cape Suzette behind. That was it - they'd made it. There was no going back now. Fighting down the uneasiness that welled in his stomach, Kit tried to curl himself into a slightly more comfortable position, hoping to snatch a few more moments of precious sleep. It was going to be a hard day - he'd need all the rest he could get.
Baloo stirred, yawned and started to roll over onto his back. He stopped himself, remembering that Kit was sleeping in his bed, didn't want to crush the boy... He looked over his shoulder, but the cub wasn't there. He glanced over at Kit's bed, and Sasha wasn't there either. He looked over at the bathroom, but the door was open and no one was inside. Odd.
The big grey bear sat up and stretched. The clock said seven A. M. - maybe the kids were downstairs, having an early breakfast? He walked halfway down the stairs, and peered into the kitchen. "L'il Britches? Sasha?"
Weird - not down there either. "Oh well, mebbe their out walkin' or somethin'." he muttered, then frowned. "Mebbe I shoulda finished that talk with the Kid... Naw!" With a chuckle, he headed for the bathroom and a hot shower. Wait'll the cubs found out he was takin' em to Harborview amusement park - Kit loved the place, and Baloo was pretty sure Sasha'd never seen a place like that in Thembria! He thought of Col. Spigot and Dunder riding a roller-coaster and laughed. What a picture! Yessir, it was gonna be a fun day, just what those moony kids needed to take their minds off... other stuff...
Kit opened his eyes, only to find he was in darkness. He realized where he was and fought down an instant of panic. How long had he been asleep? He found the flashlight and switched it on - 7:40. They were past the turnback point. While he didn't relish facing Walschinsky after he showed himself, at least he'd out of this infernal crate. He gently shoved on the lid, and eased it off the crate and onto the floor.
He tried to stand and almost cried out from the pain. His muscles ached from their confinement, but he forced himself to crawl out of the box and over to the crate where Sasha waited. He softly tapped on the lid and lifted it off. Sasha smiled painfully up at him, and Kit realized that the experience must have been even worse for her - she was at least three inches taller than he was! He grabbed her paws and gently helped her out of the crate.
The two cubs stood crouched in the dimly illuminated hold, staring up at he cockpit two dozen yards away. Kit hadn't actually thought about just how he'd actually announce their presence to the two polar bears - he certainly didn't want to cause a heart attack! A tap on the shoulder probably wasn't the way to go... Gently squeezing Sasha's paw reassuringly, he started slowly towards the cockpit. When he was perhaps ten yards away, he stopped.
The two bears were arguing quietly. 'This is not possible, Uncle." Joshua said. "This will take us over a hundred miles of Alemanian airspace."
"Damn!" Isaac replied. I warned you that I cannot read these accursed maps, Joshua!"
"Give them to me." Joshua hissed. "Perhaps I can-"
Kit winked at Sasha. "Ahoy!" he called, in a loud, clear voice."
"What the-!" Isaac gasped, turning. Joshua released the stick and started to stand, but his uncle pushed him back down. He unbuckled and stood. "My God! Kit? Sasha! What in the world?"
"Hello Mr. Walschinsky." the boy said sheepishly. "Need some help plotting your course?"
The white bear buried his face in his hands. "This is too much! Why, Children? How?"
Sasha walked over and hugged her father, who almost involuntarily returned her embrace. "I could not bear to be apart, Papa! I could not lose you again! Do not blame Keet, it is my fault-"
"That's not true, Sir." Kit interrupted hastily. "I wanted to come along as badly as Sasha did - I want to help, in any way I can. We stowed away in some empty boxes."
"Children..." the white bear muttered, shaking his head. "You have done a terrible thing - I cannot take you to Bohemia, we must return you to safety..."
"No!" Kit shouted.
"Uncle, we cannot!" Joshua spoke at last. "We must proceed to Bohemia as quickly as we can. If we stop even to drop the children, we will arrive too late - their air defenses will have been alerted. We have no weapons to fight them - we must depart before they can mobilize!"
Isaac closed his eyes and pounded the bulkhead in a rare display of anger. "Another terrible decision you have forced on me, Daughter! Why must you never obey me? I am so terrible a father?"
"If I'd obeyed you before, father, you'd still be in Thembria." the girl whispered through a tear.
Isaac sighed. "You are right, Nephew. Too many are depending on us... I must take these innocents into the jaws of the lion. May I be forgiven for such callousness."
"Sir, I admire you so much..." Kit said, struggling for words. "I - I _have_ to help, don't you see? It's just - right!"
"You are brave, little one." Joshua said, respect in his eyes.
"And you are too young to understand - there are consequences to all we do." Isaac told his nephew bitterly. "Very well then - let us go to Bohemia, with a cargo more precious even than I had dreamed."
"It sounds liked you need some help with your navigation. You need to find a quick path over neutral airspace, right?" the cub grinned, heading into the cockpit.
"You are knowing the maps?" Joshua said, surprised.
"I've done a little navigating." Kit said modestly. "I'm sure we can figure something out... Um, but I need to use the radio first, if that's OK."
"Slow down Baloo!" Rebecca said soothingly. "I'm sure there's a simple explanation.-"
"But where _are_ they Beckers?" the pilot snarled, collapsing into his easy chair. "I been up an hour, and they ain't been here! If Kit was gonna go somewhere he'd leave me a note..."
"Well..." she said thoughtfully. "Maybe they're just out walking around, or something. Or maybe he took her to the diner, for breakfast."
"That don't sound like Kit, doin' that without even tellin' me, or leavin' me a note." the pilot grumbled. "I guess it's possible - I can run over there and check-"
The radio crackled, off in the corner behind the desk. "...in Higher for Hire, repeat, Higher for Hire. This is....insky, repeating-"
"Yeah, this is Higher for Hire." Baloo shouted, racing over and grabbing the microphone. "Who is this?"
There was a pause on the other end for a long moment. Then a voice, unmistakably Kit's sheepish squeak, was audible. "Hi, Papa Bear."
"Kit?!" Baloo bellowed. "Where in blue blazes are ya?"
"Um... we're on Isaac's plane, Baloo. Sasha and I kinda - well, stowed away. In the desk chair crates."
"Oh, my!" Rebecca gasped, sitting on the desk. "Oh my..."
"What the devil were you fool kids thinkin'?" Baloo snarled. "Where are ya?"
"We're about an hour from Bohemian airspace, Baloo, maybe a little more. I wanted to call in, so you wouldn't worry-" Kit said quietly.
"Worry! Kid, you got some nerve! I can't believe this! You-you-" the big bear sputtered.
"Baloo, this is Isaac Walschinsky." the polar bear's voice cut in. "I am deeply sorry, Baloo - we only just found out that the children were on board a short time ago."
"Ikey, what - where-"
"Baloo, we cannot turn back." Isaac said somberly. "We must proceed to Bohemia now or not at all. We will execute the airdrop and return to Alsatia, where we can refuel. Then I will deliver your son back to you."
Baloo held his hand over his face for a long moment. "You do that, Ike. You bring my boy home, you hear me?" he mumbled. "So's I can strangle 'im..."
"Baloo, I'm sorry..." Kit's voice cut in.
"Sorry?" Baloo shouted. "Kit, you won't know sorry till you get back here, you hear me? Of all the bonehead stunts you ever pulled-"
"Baloo, we must go." Isaac said. "We are getting too close to Alemanian territory for radio contact, and we must plot out course. I am sorry for all this, Baloo. I'll contact you as soon as I can. Walschinsky out." There was a crackle of static, then silence. Baloo dropped the mike to the floor.
"Baloo, I'm sure he'll be all right..." Rebecca said helplessly, a hand on the big grey bear's back.
"When I get my hands on that kid..." Baloo whispered. "When I get my hands on him, I'll-I'll-"
The pilot snarled angrily and slammed his fist down on the telephone with a deafening crash. Bits of casing and innards flew across the desk and onto the floor. Without another word the pilot stormed out of the office.
Rebecca watched him go, mouth agape. "He's afraid, that's all." she told herself. "He'll be fine, just as soon as Kit gets back. Back from Bohemia..." She closed her eyes, blocking out that thought. With a sigh, she looked at the mess on her desk. "Wildcat!" she called wearily, "I think there's something wrong with the phone..."
Kit stood in the cockpit, staring at the silent radio for a long moment. Sasha squeezed his shoulder gently. "He will be fine." she whispered soothingly.
"We must plot our course, Uncle." Joshua said quietly. "It is time."
"I just need a sec', OK?" Kit whispered, and walked quickly back into the hold.
"Baloo?" Rebecca said gently, as the pilot sat on the dock, staring out at the harbor. "Baloo, they'll be fine, nothing will happen-"
"Just shut up Rebecca." Baloo said bitterly. "I don't wanna hear any excuses fer that fool kid."
"Don't tell _me_ to shut up!" the bearess said indignantly. "I'm just trying to help _you_ feel better!"
Baloo spun on her. "You remember I asked ya before, in the hospital, if it was worth it? Well, I - I got my answer!" he snarled, storming off.
"Baloo, wait! Baloo, you don't mean that! Baloo?" she called helplessly. This was bad, very bad... She hadn't seen this Baloo since they returned from that horrible stay on pirate island - one cub short of when they'd left...
Kit looked out the window from his perch in the navigator's seat, willing himself to concentrate on the job at hand, as Baloo had taught him. Baloo... Due to the time difference it was still dark as they flew the last leg of the flight to Brague, without running lights so as to provide as little help to the Alemanian defenses as they could. They were relying strictly on the instruments and Kit's navigation to find the besieged city - how in the world would they have found it without his help? Kit shuddered at the thought.
He checked the compass and made a note on the map. "According to my figures we should be about twenty miles south-southwest of Brague - I guess we'll be able to see the lights, soon enough."
"Your skill is remarkable." Joshua said approvingly.
"Thanks. Where exactly is the - ghetto? Where we make the drop?"
Isaac had given his chair to Kit, recognizing the young cub's greater usefulness at this stage. He sat behind the pilot's chair on the floor, Sasha next to him, head on his shoulder. "It is in the northwest quadrant of the city, near the river. When we are close I will guide you there."
"There!" Joshua pointed. "Starboard - that is Brague." A dull glow lit the horizon in the distance.
Isaac checked his watch. "We should be arriving in conjunction with most of the fleet." he said quietly. "Some of them will have begun dropping supplies already." He stood and leaned over Kit's shoulder, looking out the window. "Head for the river, nephew, and fly north. I will guide you from there."
"Yes Sir." the young man answered. He banked the rickety plane to starboard, and soon they were flying directly over the river, over the outskirts of Brague. "Reducing altitude, I will fly in at about 200 feet for the drop, Uncle."
"No resistance yet..." Kit said nervously, drumming his fingers nervously on the armrest.
"We should be able to get out before they can organize anything." Isaac said. "There - the Mecir Castle! The ghetto will be due north of there, less than a mile." he pointed to a large structure, looming in the distance in the dim pre-dawn. "Come, children - as you are here, make yourselves useful. We will prepare to drop the supplies. Nephew, open the cargo hatch." He walked back into the hold, the two cubs in tow.
"Line the boxes up, prepare them to be dumped quickly!" he shouted over the screaming wind. "Move aside!" he shouted, picking up one of Kit and Sasha's empty crates. With astonishing strength he hoisted it over his head and hurled it out of the way, as the cubs pressed back against the wall. He repeated this with the other box and proceeded to start shifting the supplies close to the open hatch.
"Where do we want to drop these exactly?" Kit grunted, pressing his meager weight against a crate of flour sacks.
"Anywhere inside the cordon will do -we cannot be choosy!" Isaac shouted, standing next to him and easily shifting the crate. "We must drop them and then it is up to the residents to locate and secure them! They'll know what's going on soon enough, and the Alemanians will be more concerned with us."
Within a moment the crates were lined up and Isaac looked down into the empty sky. "Just a few moments, Children!" he shouted.
"Look!" Kit pointed, another craft looping around behind them.
"Another of our fleet!" Isaac grinned. "Coming in for a second pass... Prepare yourselves!" He watched the ground intently for a few seconds. "Now! he shouted, shoving a box over the side and into the night. Kit and Sasha, grunting with exertion, threw their weight against crates, sending them falling into the sky. Within a minute the dim was pockmarked with parachutes a the precious supplies fell gently to the ground.
"Stop!" the polar bear yelled. "We are too close to the perimeter. Joshua - fly in for another pass!" he shouted to the cockpit.
Joshua flew a tight circle and brought the plane in low, again. "Now!" Isaac shouted, again demonstrating shocking strength as he heaved box after box over the side. On the streets below, Kit could already see the streets filing with people, intent on seizing the supplies as quickly as possible.
"It's working!" Kit shouted gleefully, heaving a crate of powdered milk off the plane. "They see them!"
"That's the last of it." Isaac grunted, giving one last crate a shove into the night. "Joshua - close the hatch and get us out of here!"
"We did it!" Kit cried gleefully, hugging Sasha as the two cubs laughed.
"Do not celebrate yet, Little Ones." Isaac said grimly. "Some of those supplies will surely be intercepted, but hopefully most will get to those who most need them. And still we must escape with our lives!"
Isaac and the cubs returned to the cockpit, where Kit jumped into the navigator's seat and picked up a map. "Great flying, Joshua!"
"Thank you." the young bear replied, unsmiling. "But we must be escaping, yes? We have been lucky but the Alemanians will be joining us soon if we are not gone."
Kit studied the map and pulled out his compass. He made a quick calculation in pencil and looked up. "Head thirty-two degrees west - that'll take us over western Bohemia and we'll be in Alsatia in about eighty miles."
"Thirty-two degrees west." the young bear echoed, banking the plane.
"The fleet will be splitting up now." Isaac said, looking at the map. "That was the plan, it will confuse the Alemanians, hopefully. May they all return safely..."
"What's happening Papa?" Anna shouted, as her father, still in his nightshirt, peered out from behind the curtain.
"I am not sure, Dumpling." Jacob replied. Outside, residents had taken to the streets and were dashing to and fro, but not in panic. In... excitement? There were no soldiers to be seen. He went to the door and opened it a crack, peeking his head out. A large wooden crate slammed to the ground, barely ten yards in front of him, covered an instant later by a billowing parachute.
His jaw dropped. "It is - I believe it is help, Anna - food. Someone has decided to help us..."
"Wait here, Anna. Stay inside! Papa will be back in a few moments. Lock the door and let no one in until I return!"
"Please, Dumpling!" he said urgently. "It may be our only chance!"
The sky was overcast, and the dawn brought little light to the rugged landscape below them as the plane carrying Kit Cloudkicker and the Walschinsky family made it's way towards the Alsatian border. "How much longer?" Isaac asked urgently.
"Another forty miles." Kit replied, studying his maps.
"What's that?" Sasha asked suddenly, pointing to a massive clearing to the north.
"I do not know..." Isaac frowned. "Joshua - fly over there, let us take a closer look."
"But Uncle - if we are pursued-"
"Have you forgotten, nephew, the other part of our mission? This could be important! Fly closer." Isaac said urgently.
The boy complied. As the old plane flew closer they could see that they were looking at a large, artificial clearing in the massive woodland that covered the region. "There." Kit squinted. "There's some kind of construction going on... I see buildings - and a perimeter fence..."
"What's that?" Sasha asked, pointing to a dark line snaking from the edge of the construction and off through the woods to the southeast, as far as they could see.
"It looks like a railroad track." Isaac frowned. "Brague is back in that direction... I have seen intelligence maps for this area - there is no railway here! This area is sparsely populated - what in the world?"
Kit was intently studying the site. "That looks like some kind of prison, or camp of some kind to me. Look at all that fencing around it! And those big- buildings inside - barracks?"
"I do not like this..." Joshua hissed.
"But why - why would they need such a huge prison camp here, in the middle of nowhere?" Isaac whispered. "It makes no sense..." He rose and reached behind him, grabbing his duffel bag. "We must have pictures of it. I prepared for this eventuality. Joshua, loop around and fly in low again." he barked, pulling out a large camera.
"Those pictures will never come out visible!" Kit said, shaking his head. "It's too dark!"
"Well, what can we do?" Isaac scowled. "This overcast does not appear interested in breaking anytime soon. If we wait for the sun to rise higher there will surely be pursuit-"
"D'you have any rope?" Kit asked slyly.
"Keet, no!" Sasha shouted.
"What?" Isaac asked. "Why do you need rope, Child?"
The cub pulled out his airfoil. "If I go out there, with the camera, I can surf in low. Joshua can bank the plane, direct all the lights down onto that camp, onto the tracks. I can get pictures!"
"Surf - you mean, as you did when you rescued my daughter, in Thembria?" Isaac frowned.
"Keet, no! It's too dangerous!" Sasha pleaded.
"As soon as we direct our lights, they will be knowing we are here." Joshua pointed out.
"We're only forty miles from Alsatian airspace." Kit protested excitedly. "As soon as I'm back inside, we can make a run for it - they'll never catch us! It'll work!"
"No. It's too dangerous." Isaac said. "I cannot-"
Kit could sense the urgency of this. He could justify his presence on this mission, if only he could get those pictures - and only _he_ could get them. "No!" Kit protested. "Mr. Walschinsky, this could be really important! Who knows what that construction is? We need proof, and this is the only way to get it! Maybe it's why I came along in the first place... This could be the break you're looking for, to show everyone what the Alemanians are up to!"
"I don't know..." the white bear wavered.
"You have rope?" Kit asked Joshua.
"Yes." the thin boy said, pointing behind him. "There is winch, in back. Is manual, hand cranked-"
"It's good enough!" Kit hissed, dashing back into the hold, camera in hand.
"Wait!" Isaac yelled, following him, Sasha in tow. "This is too risky!"
"Aw, I've done it a thousand times!" Kit grinned. "I know what I'm doing." He hurriedly fashioned the end of the rope into a loop and began turning the winch. "I'll need maybe thirty yards of rope. Have Joshua point the lights down into the main construction area, and I'll get some pictures. Then have him loop out the southeast side and I'll get some shots of that railroad track."
"Kit, be careful!" Sasha hissed urgently.
"I'll be careful." Kit smiled "Don't worry."
"Don't worry!" Isaac muttered. "All right Boy, you win. But a few pictures of the main camp, and one or two of the tracks, and that's all! I want you back inside immediately after that, understood?"
"Understood!" Kit grinned. "I'll give you a signal when to reel me in."
"Good luck." Isaac hissed and returned to the cockpit to issue instructions. The cargo hatch opened after a moment.
"You're a fool! We both are." Sasha whispered, a tear in her eye.
"Fools have more fun." he smiled, gently wiping the tear off her cheek. "See you in a few minutes." He whipped out his airfoil and leapt out the hatch, camera tucked under one arm. The rope snaked and then stretched taut, and he was pulled along behind the old cargo plane.
Joshua banked the plane and flew in low, headed for the clearing. Kit looped the tow rope around his foot and held the camera, poised to begin snapping photos. He surfed down, towards the ground, wind screaming around him. It was time to get down to business.
He looked up at the old plane, above him, and saw the exterior lights flicker on. The craft banked, pointed down, and the searchlights illuminated the exterior fencing on the ground. The boy quickly snapped two photographs. In the glow of the searchlights he could make out the razor sharp wiring strung along the top of the metal gates. No, whoever was inside there was not going to be going anywhere...
The lights played over the main construction area inside the fence, and Kit continued snapping pictures. Several long, low buildings, and what looked liked a foundry in the center. A labor camp? To his alarm, Kit saw shapes milling along the ground in the shadowy dawn, and faintly heard voices shouting over the engines of the cargo plane. He signalled frantically at Sasha's small figure, leaning out the open cargo hatch.
"Now! Get out now!" Sasha screamed towards the cockpit. "There are soldiers!" Frantically she began pulling on the old winch. Joshua banked the plane into a sharp turn to the west.
Kit looked frantically behind him as the small shapes of the Alemanian soldiers began spilling out of the guardhouse on the exterior of the camp. He hadn't gotten any photos of the railroad track! He twisted himself backwards and snapped a few hurriedly, hoping against hope that there was enough light. He tucked the camera under his arm and grabbed the towrope with his hands, desperately pulling himself towards the plane as bullets began to sing in the sky around him.
Sasha pulled desperately at the winch as bullets dinged off the fuselage of the plane. It was so slow! "Father! Help me!" she gasped, muscles cramping. Kit looked like he was a mile away, hanging down there behind the plane!
Isaac took over at the winch, grunting with exertion as he desperately hauled the cub closer to the plane. Sasha crawled to the hatch and peered out, watching the boy approach with agonizing slowness.
Kit continued to pull himself along, hand over hand, appreciating more than ever the mechanized winch on the Sea Duck. He was only ten yards away now... A rifle shot kissed off the bottom of the airfoil - too close! Almost there... Then, suddenly, he was floating free, the tow rope neatly severed by a bullet.
"Kit!" Sasha screamed, as the brown cub flailed for a moment and released the rope, which fluttered in the wind and was gone, far behind them. Desperately he scudded towards the plane, reaching his paws out. He wasn't going to make it... Sasha leaned her body over the side and Kit grabbed her left paw with his own, holding on by a fingertip. He trapped the airfoil between his feet, preventing it from falling to the ground.
"Sasha!" Isaac bellowed, standing from the winch and taking a step over towards her. There was an explosion, and the plane lurched violently to starboard, tossing the screaming girl out the hatch and into the sky as Isaac stumbled to the deck. "Sasha!"
Kit held Sasha'a paw with all the strength he could muster, arm aching, as the plane sped away from them, billowing smoke. He could see Isaac's desperate face, receding in the distance. He kicked the airfoil down under his feet and grabbed Sasha's arm with both hands. Grunting with exertion, he heaved her onto the board behind him, adrenaline providing him strength far behind what his frail body could normally produce. "Just grab on!" he shouted desperately.
"Kit!" she sobbed, grabbing him around the waist. The boy looked around, assessing the situation. They were perhaps a hundred yards above the ground, no more. Grim. He pressed down with his right foot, and sent the airfoil and it's passengers over the seemingly endless forest, trying to keep them in the air for as long as possible. At least in the trees there would be cover, they'd be harder to find... but what then?
"Joshua! Land the plane - now!" Isaac cried, stumbling as the plane lurched wildly.
"Uncle, I cannot!" the boy protested. "The starboard engine is gone - shot! Thank heaven there is no air pursuit, yet. We may just make it to the Alsatian border."
"You do not understand! My daughter is down there! And Kit! We cannot leave them!" the white bear croaked desperately.
A shadow crossed the young man's face. "Uncle - there is nowhere to land! And we have no weapons! The plane will not last much longer, with one engine. If there is pursuit by air, we are doomed! We must flee to Alsatia, send help for them..."
"My daughter!" Isaac hissed helplessly, staring out the window at the plume of smoke they trailed behind them. "She is down there..."
Kit skimmed the tops of the trees as the airfoil gradually lost altitude. He couldn't keep them in the air for long, he knew. He spotted a gap in the trees and scudded downwards, weaving wildly to avoid the trunks and branches. After a few seconds he saw the ground approaching and skidded, hit a rock and summersaulted, head over heels, landing on his back, the board a few yards away. "Sasha!" he grunted, sitting up painfully.
"I am here." she called, from a few yards to his right, in a clump of bushes, next to a gurgling stream.
"Are you OK?" he cried, standing. He let out a yelp, as his left ankle buckled under him, sending a wave of pain up his leg.
"I am fine, a few scratches." she gasped, standing. Noticing the grimace on his face, she rushed over to him. "Keet - you're hurt!"
"I'm fine." he said, forcing a smile. "Just turned my ankle a little, no problem." He looked around and spied the camera. He picked it up and looked it over - it seemed intact. He tried to tuck it under his sweater, but it was too bulky. Frowning, he fiddled with the back, looking for the film door release. He opened the camera and removed the film, stashing it in a pocket. He tossed the camera into the stream with a sigh.
"What do we do now?" Sasha whispered, shivering from the chill.
Kit absently wrapped an arm around her. "I think we surfed for about a mile after we lost the plane." he said thoughtfully. "Those soldiers will be looking for us... We need to keep moving, to get away from here as fast as we can, or find a place to hide."
"What about Father and Joshua?" Sasha asked. "Surely they'll come back?"
Kit decided not to share what his experience told him about the state of their plane. "I'm - sure they'll send help, Sasha. But there's nowhere for them to land here. We need to buy time until they can help us." But how?
"Oh Keet, this is terrible..." she whispered. "I am forever causing you danger."
Kit shook his head, feeling more than a little guilty about their predicament himself. "It's my fault. Anyways, we better just get moving..." He knew what a spot they were in. How could anyone help them here, of all places? They were behind enemy lines. It was very grim, very grim indeed. He pulled out his compass. "The camp is that way." he said, pointing to the east. "That'll probably be where the soldiers come from. I guess we head west, maybe we can make it to the border." he smiled, not really believing it. Forty miles, in this wasteland, this cold, with soldiers pursuing them. He took a step and almost fell. "Um, Sasha, I need to lean on you, I think. My ankle's not too good."
"Oh Keet." she sighed, a tear rolling down her cheek. She wrapped an arm around him and he leaned on her shoulder, hopping on his right leg.
"How much further?" Isaac gasped, eyes red, as the old cargo plane limped westward towards Alsatia.
"We are there, nearly." Joshua said softly. "Thank God there has been no pursuit. We are in no condition for evasive maneuvers."
"We're barely in condition for flight." the older man sighed as the port engine sputtered and complained. "I must get word to Baloo - he must know what has happened."
"How, Uncle Isaac? They are well out of radio range. And even if we attempt to radio them from here, the Alemanians will surely intercept the transmission." the young bear said grimly.
Isaac closed his eyes and leaned back wearily. "It is my fault, Boy. I should never have allowed them to enter Bohemia - I was a fool." He sighed, and the young man said nothing. "I suppose we will find a phone, once we touch down in Alsatia, and attempt to telephone Baloo and Miss Cunningham. And organize some sort of rescue."
"If we make it that far." Joshua hissed, as the one remaining engine coughed and strained.
"I need to rest." Kit panted, his good leg weary and aching from supporting all of his weight. He still hadn't completely recovered his strength after the surgery.
"All right." Sasha said quietly, helping the boy to sit down on a dead tree. "It's so cold."
"I know." Kit smiled, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. "I'm gettin' pretty hungry too. Don't worry. We'll get out of here."
"I know." she smiled wearily. "We will, somehow."
Kit looked around him. The trees stretched as far as he could see, in all directions, but that could be ten feet for all that he could see through the dense foliage. "I'm sorry I got you into this, Sasha. It's my fault. I talked you into it."
"Stop it." she scolded. "We agreed, together."
"An' if I hadn't gone out on my airfoil-"
"You were very brave." she interrupted, squeezing her arm tightly around him. "And we will not let that bravery be wasted. We will get the photographs back to safety, and us with them."
Kit sighed. Why was everyone so anxious to forgive him all the time? He heard a noise, a low drone, barely audible. "What's that?", he hissed, hopping up on one leg and peering around him.
"What, Keet?" Sasha frowned. "I do not-"
"Shhh.!" he whispered. His ears were tuned to pick up that noise anywhere by now. "It's an airplane!"
The noise grew louder. "Rescuers - or searchers?" the white cub hissed.
Kit looked around him, squinting. He saw a grey shape approaching from the northeast. "Down!" he whispered, crouching behind the dead tree. Sasha knelt next to him. He looked up as the plane flew closer. He made out the unmistakable silhouettes of weapons on each wing. "It's an Alemanian plane - the Wuftlaffe!" he hissed. "An M-22, fighter. Looking for us, I bet." The plane flew almost directly overhead, then disappeared in the distance.
"Do you think they saw us?" Sasha gasped.
"I doubt it. This cover is pretty thick." he answered. "As long as we're in the woods, they won't spot us from the air - but we'll have to come out eventually. And that won't stop them from searching for us on foot."
Sasha closed her eyes, the hopelessness of their plight dawning on her fully for the first time. "Oh Keet - we really are in trouble, aren't we?" she whispered.
"Yup!" Kit said grimly. "But Kit Cloudkicker never gives up without a fight. Let's keep moving west, away from the camp. It gets dark pretty early this time of year - we'll keep in the forest until then, and then we'll - I dunno. Look for a house, or something, a farm. We'll need to get something to eat, somehow, and I'll have to wrap my ankle or I won't even be able to limp on it tomorrow."
"Very well." Sasha said, helping the wincing cub to his feet. He leaned on her shoulder and they hobbled on, through the trees.
Rebecca had gone through the motions of work, but it was a game she knew she couldn't win. Between her worry over Kit's safety and Baloo's sullen wrath, she was unable to concentrate for more than a moment or two. Every attempt she made to draw the pilot into any sort of conversation was rebuffed, and so she spent the bulk of the day waiting for the buzz of the radio
and jumping every time the phone (nimbly repaired by Wildcat) rang.
It was about five in the evening when she began to get really worried. If the airdrop had gone smoothly, they would have heard by now - wouldn't they? Baloo was concerned too - he was still sulking, but now he was doing it in the office, well in range of the phone and radio. He still refused to engage in conversation, however.
The phone rang at a few minutes after five, and Rebecca picked the receiver up, hoping against hope that it wasn't just a normal business call. "Hello?" she said in what she hoped was a clear, calm voice.
"Miss Cunningham?" Isaac's voice croaked from the other end of the line. It was a bad connection, but the bear still sounded terrible. "This is Isaac Walschinsky-"
Rebecca didn't like the tone of his voice. "Yes Mr. Walschinsky. Are you all right? How's Kit?"
"I - I wish I could answer you, Miss Cunningham - but I honestly do not know. There was an... accident-"
"Dear God!" Rebecca gasped.
Baloo roughly grabbed the phone out of her hand. "Ike? What's goin' on? Where's Kit?" he shouted.
"Baloo, he and Sasha are... they are in Bohemia. There was an accident, while he was taking photographs. We were forced to leave them-"
"_Leave_ them? What photographs, Man?" Baloo snarled.
Isaac sighed. "The boy was on his... air board, taking photographs of an Alemanian construction site in western Bohemia. We were attacked, and the tow rope was severed. He appeared to be... He appeared all right, Baloo, but we lost him somewhere over the forests. Sasha is with him. Our plane was crippled - we barely escaped to Alsatia ourselves. We are trying - "
Baloo turned deathly pale. "What? What's happened?" Rebecca asked urgently.
"You - you left my boy in Bohemia?" Baloo gasped. "What the Hell - how are ya gettin' him back? What're you doin' there?"
"I wanted to land, Baloo! I can promise you that... Our plane was badly damaged-"
"Never mind." Baloo hissed, eyes closed. "What now? What're you doin' to get the kids back?"
"Unfortunately, we were in Bohemia without the sanction of any government, Baloo. They will not assist us and risk provoking the Alemanians. We are trying to get our plane repaired, locate other members of the airdrop-"
"I'm comin' over there." Baloo barked. "I'll find those kids, you kin bank on that. Where'd ya lose 'em exactly?"
"About forty miles west-northwest of Brague. But Baloo, there are - they will be pursued, Baloo - there are Alemanian soldiers camped nearby. I - I don't know how they..." the polar bear sounded as if he were crying.
"Kit'll find a way to keep 'em alive, don't you worry!" Baloo hissed. "He's been in tougher spots before. He'll keep 'em free... I'm comin' over there right now, Ikey! I dunno how I'll find 'em but I will!"
"Very well Baloo." Isaac said quietly, barely audible. "Contact me by radio when you get here. I'm in Humbrecht, it's just over the Alsatian border. We'll try to find some way to search from here in the meantime."
"Roger." the pilot whispered, hanging up the phone. "L'il Britches'll keep 'em alive..."
"All right, out with it." Rebecca sighed. "I can take it."
"It's bad, Becky." Baloo replied, grabbing his cap. "Wildcat! Gas up the Duck!" he shouted out the front door.
"Very bad, Becky. The kids are trapped in Bohemia, somewheres. Place is crawling with Alemanians too."
"Oh God." she gasped. "Are they hurt?"
"Dunno. But they don't have much time, those Alemanian dogs'll be sniffin' 'em out. If they catch 'em..."
"But Baloo, how - how in the world will you ever find them?" she sobbed, unable to control the emotions any longer. "They're all alone out there-"
"I know, Becky." the pilot said softly, embracing her. "But Kit's tough - if any kid can survive out there, keep hidden, he can do it. I'll find 'em and bring that boy home, I promise. The sooner I'm outta here the sooner I'm there. I'm gone."
The had been walking for what seemed like days, but as Kit glanced at his watch he saw that it had only been a few hours. His ankle had loosened up a little, and he was able to put some weight on it, but without a wrap of some sort he knew it would be far worse tomorrow. As much as his foot hurt, he was more bothered by the cold - Sasha was used to it, maybe, but he'd been in Cape Suzette for too long. With only Rebecca's sweater for protection he felt as though his very bones were freezing up. Not to mention his ever deepening hunger.
He paused, hands on knees. "Gettin' dark, now. We better start thinking about finding a place to hole up for the night." he squeaked.
She smiled tiredly down at him. "Your voice - I notice it before, in Cape Suzette! You are sick?"
"Naw." he shook his head. "Just my voice changin', I guess. Couple weeks ago it was all I was worried about! Funny huh?"
"Keet, you are so young!" she frowned. "I think you would have been better off if I had never met you-"
"Don't say that! I - you're the best, Sasha. I couldn't imagine not knowing you." he said sheepishly. "Besides, I didn't do anything except what I wanted to do. We're in this together and we'll get out of it together."
"I suppose." she sighed. "What now? Where do we go? We should not spend the night in these woods."
"No argument there." he nodded, checking his compass. He closed his eyes, trying to remember details of the maps he'd studied on the flight over. "This is a guess - I don't even know where we are exactly. But I think there'll be breaks in these woods, to the north. Let's head in that direction and see what happens."
"All right Keet. Perhaps there is a village or town there."
"Maybe." he replied shivering, and set off in a brisk limp to the north. "But I'm not so sure that's a good idea. Where there's a town there's more likely to be soldiers."
"And food." she said longingly.
"Yeah." he echoed. What he wouldn't give for a Louie's pepperoni pizza right now! And a hot cup of coffee... They walked in silence for a time, both cubs too tired to say much. A plane droned overhead, far in the distance, but did not come close to their position. And everywhere, there were trees. Trees and more trees.
After perhaps an hour of tired walking they found themselves, suddenly and without warning, at the edge of the forest. A small ridge of wooded hills was visible in the near distance, and in the narrow strip between the trees and the hills a few scattered lights were visible in the dusk, along with a smell of wood smoke in the air. "Civilization." Kit whispered.
"Such as it is." Sasha hissed. "Keet, I know it is a risk, but I think we must approach one of these cottages. In Thembria the local people will always help a traveler in need."
"If there's no price on our head." Kit sighed. "You're right. We'll freeze out here, and I'm starved. Not to mention my ankle's gonna get worse and worse. I don't think we have a choice."
A light snow began to fall, and the two cubs looked at each other for a moment. Kit winked at Sasha and smiled. "Now or never." he chuckled, and hobbled off for the nearest house, a hundred yards of so across a field. "Hope it doesn't snow enough to leave footprints!" Kit whispered, as they approached the structure warily.
Up close, it was revealed to be a small A-frame cottage, the telltale flickering in the window indicating it was lit by oil lamps. No electricity. A thin trail of smoke snaked it's way into the night sky from the small chimney on the roof. The two cubs crept up to the kitchen window and peered inside - no one was visible. They stared at each other for a moment, unsure what to do.
In a flash, the door of the smallholding creaked open, and a craggly-faced moose poked his head out. "Ha! Jungen!" he barked at them.
The cubs cowered against the wooden house, unsure what to do. Kit couldn't run, and Sasha wouldn't run without him. They were at the mercy of the strange apparition before them. The old moose walked closer, puzzled by their lack of response. "Jungen!" he said again. He looked them over. "Alemanian?"
Kit shook his head. "Uh-n-no Sir." he stammered. "You speak English? English?"
He looked them over. "Ya, English. You not from here, no. Strange. What you do?"
"Sir, we're very sorry." Sasha said calmly. "We are very tired, and cold-"
"Strange." the moose sniffed. He stared at Sasha, a strange look in his eyes. "You hide from Alemanian, ya?"
"Yes sir." Kit whispered, seeing no hope of fooling this wizened fellow.
"Alemanian!" the old man scowled. He spit onto the ground. "Come, jungen. Inside, ya, come."
"I repeat, this is the Sea Duck, over. Calling for Isaac Walschinsky, in Humbrecht!" Baloo shouted into the mike for the thirtieth time. No answer except the crackle of static. Where was the polar bear? If he couldn't even find Walschinsky, his chances of finding the cubs were pretty slim...
He sighed and set the mike down. He'd be in Humbrecht soon, he'd just have to try him there. It was very cold and very dark outside the Sea Duck. Bohemia was a big country - big and hostile. There were Wuftlaffe planes cruising it's skies. "Talk about yer needle in the haystack." he muttered, fighting off the despair that threatened to engulf him. He would just have to try, that's all. Do the best he could. Kit was tough, he'd find a way to elude the Alemanians. But how would Baloo find him, even if he did?
"Good?" the old woman asked with a gap-toothed smile, as Kit and Sasha wolfed down the steaming bowls of stew she'd set before them on the old wooden table. Her husband stood back, arms crossed, watching the cubs eating with curiosity.
"Yes, good!" Kit grinned, nodding and taking a huge bite of crusty bread. "Thank you!" These people were strange, certainly, but they seemed kind and genuinely concerned. He watched them out of the corner of his eye as he ate. He was ravenous like he hadn't been since his Port Wallaby days, and the food tasted better than he'd remembered food could.
"Poor jungen!" the woman said with a sad shake of her head. "Eat, be warm. Is good." She turned and spoke gruffly to her husband in a language Kit didn't understand. It sounded vaguely like the Alemanian he'd heard but was quite different as well. The husband answered in a short bark, and nodded his head.
Kit looked over at Sasha and grinned, happy for now to be warm and well-fed, no matter what would happen next. She smiled and patted his paw as they finished the last of the stew. The boy mopped up the final drops with a slab of bread, and took a gargantuan swallow of water, causing him to cough slightly. He laughed and smiled at the old couple. "I was thirsty! Thank you."
"Is good." the woman said, patting his head softly. "You are hurt, yes?"
"Uh, yeah." he nodded. "My ankle, the left one-"
The old woman barked a command to her husband, who nodded. He took two huge strides over to the table and lifted the astonished boy in his arms like a toy. Kit started to say something, but just looked at Sasha helplessly as she followed behind. This old fellow was a lot stronger than he looked! The man carried him into the bedroom, and set him down on the straw mattress with surprising gentleness. "Wait!" he ordered, and left the room.
"What do you suppose..." he asked her quizzically.
"I don't know!" she grinned. "I don't think they're going to hurt you, though."
Kit sat on the bed for a moment and then the old woman walked in, carrying a tray containing two bowls and a long roll of cloth. There was a pungent, herbal smell emanating from the bowls, and steam rose from one of them. She set the tray down and sat next to Kit on the bed. She reached and touched the surprised cub gently on the cheek. "Poor jungen. I not hurt you, understand? I look at foot, may hurt a little, but is good. Yes?"
"Yes." Kit smiled in wonder.
The old woman reached down and tenderly grasped his ankle in her hands. "Is swell, yes. Is hurt." she mumbled, softly shifting the leg in her hands, causing a yelp of pain from Kit. "Is hurt too much?" she asked in concern.
"No, is - it's OK." Kit said through gritted teeth. "It's OK."
"Poor jungen!" she muttered again, shaking her head. She continued to softly play her hands over the boy's ankle, until she was apparently satisfied. "Is hurt, is not break." she said with a craggy smile. She held up the tray. "Is help, yes? Three day, four day, you leave. Is better. Understand?"
"Understand." Kit answered, nodding his head.
Singing softly to herself, the old woman dipped a coil of cloth in the steaming bowl, and proceeded to patiently wrap it tightly around the cub's ankle. She took another length of cloth and ripped it off the coil in her teeth, dipping it in the other bowl, and wrapped it around the outside of the first one. She pinned it in place and stood, smiling. "Is finish!" she said happily. "Is hurt some, but is get better. OK?"
"OK." Kit grinned, holding out his hands to her. She grasped them in her own and smiled. She scratched Sasha on the head and patted her cheek. "You very pretty, sweet girl, yes? Jungen happy now!" Singing softly, she walked out, stopping in the doorway. "Come, come! she said impatiently.
They followed her out into the main room of the house, and towards the rear, where her husband was busily tossing pillows and blankets onto a small loft. He smiled as they approached. "Your foot is better?" he asked, his English slightly more polished than his wife's.
"Yes, thank you Sir." Kit nodded, feeling more and more as though he were dreaming this whole evening. These people were so different from anyone he'd ever met!
"You sleep now?" he asked.
Kit looked over at Sasha, who nodded. "Yes Sir, we sleep now." she smiled at him.
"OK pretty girl, you sleep." he replied, hoisting first Sasha and then Kit up into the small loft. There appeared to be no ladder or steps of any kind. It was surprisingly cozy - there was a V-shaped ceiling perhaps four feet above their heads, and they would have plenty of room to stretch out. The fire still crackled, and the little house was toasty warm.
The craggy-faced moose leaned over and looked Kit in the eye, a serious scowl on his face. "You hide from Alemanians, is true?"
"It's true, Sir." Kit said quietly.
The old man shook his head. "My Grandfather, Grandmother Alemanian, yes? Is good people, kind people. But Alemanian soldiers terrible, cowards, bullies!" he hissed. "You listen, boy - you stay away from them, or they kill you - they don't care is little boy and girl, don't even care is mother and baby. You stay away, understand?"
"We understand." Kit said solemnly. "Thank you, Sir. For-"
"Ack!" the man spat dismissively. "We do nothing special for you. Is human, that all. You sleep now, yes? Rest and feel strong tomorrow." The old man clapped Kit and the shoulder, grinned at Sasha and was gone, pausing to turn down the lights, leaving the two cubs in darkness.
"Mr. Baloo? Is you?" the voice called out over the static on the radio.
"Yeah, it's me Ikey." the pilot shouted into the mike. "I kin barely hear ya!"
"This is Joshua, Mr. Baloo. My Uncle is try to arrange something with local authorities, some sort of rescue - but it is unlikely. Where are you?"
"I'm over the outskirts of Humbrecht right now. I'm gonna stop and refuel, then head out over Bohemia and start searchin'. I dunno what I'm gonna see in the dark, but I ain't waitin' around here. What's yer status?"
"The plane is still grounded." the boy replied through the crackling line. "May be repaired by morning. We will try to locate another of the planes from the airdrop, Mr. Baloo, but for now you are on your own, I am fear."
"Roger that." Baloo sighed. "How'd the airdrop go, Son?"
"It went well, Mr. Baloo. We have not made contact with the other pilots, but we met little resistance in Brague. I suspect that all of the payloads were dropped safely."
"Well, that's somethin' Josh." Baloo said. "Least the trip wasn't a total loss. I'm gonna touch down in about five minutes an' then hit the sky."
"Mr. Baloo..." the young man said hesitatingly, "Your son, he is very very brave. I know you are angry-"
"Ain't angry right now." Baloo grumbled. "Just want the kids back, that's all."
"Yes. My cousin, she is strong, Mr. Baloo. She will not give up easily. They will try and contact us, somehow. Do not give up hope."
"Can't afford to, Son. They ain't got nobody else. Baloo out."
Kit leaned back on his pillow, feeling safe and warm. He knew it was an illusion - they were still in terrible danger. But his hunger was sated, he was comfortable under the blankets, and his ankle had calmed down to a manageable dull throb.
The absence of his discomforts had allowed other, subtler feelings to creep into his mind. For reasons which he had to admit he didn't fully understand, he found Sasha's presence next to him in the loft totally overpowering. It was a physical feeling, no doubt - he was sweaty, uncomfortable. Yet it was something more as well. He had never experienced anything like it in his life - but he couldn't explain it. "You awake, Sasha?" he whispered.
"I am, Keet." she said softly. "Is your ankle hurting you very much?"
"Naw, it' OK." he replied. "Whatever that ol' lady put on there really seemed to help."
"That is good." she answered, with what he could sense was a smile. Even her voice caused his guts to turn summersaults. "What shall we do tomorrow?"
"I guess we head back into the woods and keep moving west, towards Alsatia." he mused. Forty miles, in this cold... "The border'll be guarded, I bet - but I just don't see what else we can do. I dunno if anyone's even looking for us."
"My Father will search, I am sure of this. And Baloo-"
"I'm not sure. Baloo's pretty mad at me. I really hurt him, Sasha. He may not-"
"Do not be ridiculous, silly Keet!" she scolded. "He will search the ends of the earth, no matter what you do. He is not turned away so easily. He search."
"Maybe." the boy whispered. What _was_ this? Why couldn't he relax - he was exhausted! He couldn't stop thinking, about _her_ there, her eyes, her nose... everything. "Sasha, what's gonna happen when - when we're rescued?" he asked suddenly.
"What do you mean?"
He sighed in frustration. Why couldn't he find words? "It's - I mean... You and yer dad'll go away, somewhere... Do whatever you have to do. But I won't be with you! And I'm not sure I - I dunno if I can... Damn!"
"What?" she whispered, reaching out for his hand, sending bolts of electricity through him.
"I just - I want to be with you! I can't say it any better, I'm sorry. I just know, we're meant to be together Sasha! And we won't be..."
"I know, Keet. I feel this way also." she sighed, sending a wave of exuberance through him. "I must to be with Father, Dear Keet. He needs me. It will be difficult, for a time... But I will come and see you, whenever it is possible. Whenever I can. My Father likes you Keet, very much. He will understand. And one day, it will be possible, and we will be together. We will just have to be patient."
"I don't wanna be patient!" the boy sighed, a little petulantly.
"Nor I, Sweet boy. But we must, and if we are meant to be together, it will be worth it, yes?" Kit heard her move, in the dark, and she leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek. "I am willing to wait." she whispered.
He raised his head and kissed her cheek once, twice. "I am too." he said softly, more determined than ever that he deliver her to safety.
"Now, we must sleep, yes?" she sighed, laying back down. "Tomorrow will be a long and difficult day, and today was as well. I am tired. Good night, Dear Keet."
"Good night Sasha." he whispered, overcome by emotion. He said no more, and soon his exhaustion overcame his exuberance, and he fell into a fitful slumber.
Kit's eyes snapped open, and he wasn't sure if it was the old man's voice or the pounding that had woken him first. "Wake! You must go!" the old moose was saying.
There it was - a pounding on the door of the cottage. "What - what is it?" Sasha whispered.
The old man effortlessly lifted the two cubs off the loft and to the floor. "Is soldiers - only two. You go out back door, hide in trees. I keep them for a minute, two. Is enough. Hurry!"
Kit threw his sweater on and grabbed Sasha's hand. "Thank you for everything, Mr.... Mr.-"
"Go!" he hissed, shoving them towards the rear door of the house.
The old woman appeared in her nightshirt, holding two small, grey woolen cloaks. "_My_ Jungen!" she smiled. She tossed them at the cubs. "Go, hurry. Good fortune, ya?"
Kit grinned at her and pulled Sasha out the back door and towards the cover of trees at the base of the hill, a few dozen yards away, cloak in hand and wincing from the pain in his ankle. They slipped in amongst the cover of trees and watched the cottage below them in the dim light. The snow had stopped, leaving only a light dusting, and a crescent moon illuminated the night a little - too much for Kit's liking.
He checked his watch - four A.M., local time. He looked up and saw a few clouds, but no hope of the overcast returning in force. He grasped Sasha's paw tightly and looked down at the cabin below them. There was no sound, no movement for a minute, two. Were the soldiers searching?
Then two forms appeared around the corner of the house and peered around them. There was no sign of any horses or vehicles - certainly there were no roads in this isolated little slice of meadow. The dogs resumed walking towards the next house, dimly visible a half-mile or so up the little valley. As soon as they were out of sight, Kit and Sasha limped across the clearing and back into the blessed cover of the dense forest.
Baloo circled in darkness, barely able to make out the landscape below him in the dim moonlight.. It was mostly forested, with very little sign of any habitation anywhere. He knew he was accomplishing very little except wasting fuel, but at least he was doing _something_... It would be daylight soon, which would improve his chances of miraculously finding the cubs, assuming they hadn't been captured already. But it would also make him a sitting Sea Duck -his unarmed plane an easy target for any patrolling Wuftlaffe fighters.
He sighed and banked the plane to the north. Another loop, maybe he'd spot something, a town. But would Kit head to a town, even if he found it? Baloo didn't think he would, not the Kid's style - he'd rather take his chances trying to stay hidden. Hidden from evil eyes - but from his Papa Bear's too. The faintest hint of light began to appear at the tip of the eastern horizon, towards Brague.
Kit and Sasha had been walking for the better part of an hour, neither saying much of anything. Where there were two soldiers, there were likely to be more, and voices travelled far in the calm night air. With the woolen cloaks they were much warmer than they'd been the day before, but the night was still bitter, and both cubs' fingers and toes were stiff and chilled.
Dawn was beginning to lighten the sky when they heard a roaring noise ahead of them in the dim. They paused for a moment, staring at each other silently. "It's a river, I think!" Sasha whispered in his ear.
They started to walk towards the sound when it was joined by another, a familiar drone. "Hang on!" Kit hissed intently. "That's - could it be?" He scanned the slowly lightening sky above him desperately. "There!" he pointed at a dim shape approaching above the treetops. "The Sea Duck!" he said."
"Shhh! You must be quiet!" Sasha whispered, grabbing his arm.
He caught himself - she was right. "He'll never spot us!" the boy whispered desperately, looking for a clearing in the trees, an opening. He ran in a circle frantically, his pain forgotten, as the yellow seaplane flew almost directly overhead, then receded into the distance. "Damn!" he sighed, falling to the ground and burying his face in his hands.
"It is all right." Sasha said, kneeling next to him. "He is searching, he is here. We must only contact him."
"How?" Kit said, filled with despair. "He'll never find us..."
"Stop!" she said fiercely. "He is here and he will find us - he must. Now, we have to keep moving, it is our only chance. Get up!"
"You're right." he sighed, as she helped him to his feet. "Gotta keep moving." They trudged ahead, the pain in the boy's ankle returning with a vengeance now that his rush of adrenaline had passed. The roaring grew louder, and soon they stood a few yards away from the banks of a wide, fast moving river.
"Wow." Kit whispered. The river cut a swath through the trees, which continued unbroken on the far side, running northeast to southwest. "There's no way we can cross that, Sasha - it's too deep and too wide, and that current looks pretty rough. Bet it's cold too..."
"You are right." she agreed. "We cannot ford this river. So the question then is - which way do we go?"
Kit closed his eyes, picturing the maps in his mind's eye. "I think this is the same river that flows through Brague, or at least it flows into the one that does. That'll be to the east - our right. One way or the other, that's no good. We'll have to go left, follow the river and try to find a spot where we can cross."
"Where there are rivers, there are people - and towns." the white cub said grimly.
Kit considered. Despite their experience of the night before, he didn't want to get involved with any of the locals now, especially in an actual town. "You're right Sasha. Maybe we can - I dunno, stay back in the trees, keep the river in earshot but out of sight?"
"True - but then how will we know if there is a place where it is fordable?"
Kit sighed. Resourceful girl... Either choice was no good. "I guess we have to stay close, and hope we find a place where we can cross, and get away at the first sign of any habitation. OK?"
"OK, Keet!" she answered, grabbing his paw. The started walking southwest, a few yards from the banks of the rushing water.
Baloo frowned - it was getting light now. He checked his gas gauge - half a tank. Keep going for a while, he supposed. He noticed a river, cutting through the trees beneath him. It looked pretty formidable. If the kids had headed this way, it would've stopped them, certainly. They might still be around here, somewhere, hiding...
The two cubs had walked for only a half-mile or so when they came to the first clearing. It held a farmhouse, much larger than the one they'd stayed in the night before, and a small barn. The clearing was U-shaped, covered lightly in snow, and not large. The river meandered along it's edge. "What do you make of this?" Kit whispered.
"It is a large house. Perhaps there is a town nearby. I think we should avoid it, for now." the white cub replied.
"Agreed." the boy hissed. They stayed in the trees, and skirted the house. After only a few more minutes they came to another house, then another. Clearly, it was a settlement. There was even a small road that ran along the edge of the houses, and cut a path through the trees. "Looks like we've hit a town." Kit whispered.
"We have nowhere else to go. Ahead of us is a village, no doubt. Beside us is the river, which we cannot cross. We cannot go back. At least in a village there may be a bridge, yes?" Sasha said thoughtfully.
"I guess." Kit said reluctantly It was time to take a risk. "Let's follow the road, but from a few yards back in the trees, OK? See where it goes."
"You're the navigator." she smiled, squeezing his paw. He found himself loving her spirit more and more... but now was not the time for those thoughts. They followed the road for a few minutes, passing a few houses but seeing no one. They intersected a small dirt road, perhaps a driveway, which led to a house, set well back from the main road, along the river. A shack sat a few yards away, with a rusted out jalopy parked in front of it, the first car they'd seen. "Let's investigate this." Sasha said suddenly.
"Why?" Kit hissed, following her.
"I have an idea." she whispered, investigating the old car, clearly long past it's running days. She walked over and gently tried the door of the shed - it was unlocked. She pulled it open and stepped inside, Kit on her heels.
The small building was packed with junk of all types - an old mattress, boxes of clothes, books. The girl rooted around, searching the piles of detritus. "What're you looking for?" Kit whispered, puzzled.
The white cub rooted around for a few moments. "This!" she grinned, turning. She held a radio, battery powered, that had clearly seen better days. "If it has any power..."
"But - why? How does that help us?" the boy asked.
She pried the cover off the device. "It's a receiver. If it has any power, I can rewire it to be a transmitter."
Kit's jaw dropped. "You can do that?"
She grinned. "Do not forget, my father is mechanical engineer. I have been playing with machines since I was a little girl." She delicately turned the knobs, then turned them back quickly. "There is some power, but very little. Maybe enough to send a message, maybe not."
"I guess we should try." he sighed, squeezing her paw. "How long will it take you to rewire it?"
"A few minutes only, no more." she said confidently, already tinkering with the innards of the radio.
Kit sat on a box, feeling useless but not wanting to disturb her concentration. Then a thought struck him. "Y'know, if we send a message, to Baloo - won't the Alemanians hear it too?" he squeaked. Amazing - even here, in this terrible bind, that squeak _still_ ticked him off!
"They will, Dear one." she said grimly, without looking up. "But I think we have little choice, do we not?"
The boy considered. "I guess we just have to hope Papa Bear's closer than... _they_ are ... 'Cause we're broadcasting our location to every Alemanian in radio range, an' if he's not..."
"This will not be a strong signal. Maybe not strong even to be heard by anyone. If he is not close, it will not matter - he will never hear the message."
"We better think real careful about what we're gonna say, cause we aren't gonna get a second chance!" he hissed. "He won't be able to contact us, I assume?"
"No, Kit - I would have to rewire the machine again, and I doubt there is enough power in any case." she replied. She stood. "It is ready."
"Ready..." the cub echoed. "What should we say? We can't exactly tell him to pick us up at the bus station! Heck, we don't even know for sure where we are!"
"I do not know, Keet." she sighed. "As soon as I switch the radio on, talk and talk quickly. It will not last for more than a half-minute, I am thinking.
Kit closed his eyes, imagining himself in Baloo's position. What should he say?
Baloo continued to circle, his anxiety increasing as the day grew brighter. He'd have company soon, he was sure of it. Someone on the ground would spot him, and that would be that. He'd have to beat a hasty retreat back to Alsatia - and what then? He pounded the dash in anger. "Where are ya, L'il Britches?" he shouted angrily.
A few seconds later, there was a crackle of static on the radio, and a voice followed it, barely audible, so weak that Baloo had to ease the throttle back just to hear it discernibly. "Repeat, Papa Bear, this is Little Britches..."
"This is Little Britches." Kit said urgently. "I don't know our exact position. We're just south of the large river you flew over maybe thirty minutes ago. We've gone slightly west of that point. There's a U-shaped clearing with a house and a barn, that's where we'll be. There are a few houses and maybe a town a mile or so farther west from that clearing along the river. Find the clearing, we'll be there. I repeat, Papa Bear, if you can hear me-"
Sasha placed a paw over his gently. "It is dead, Keet. There is no power left." she said gently.
Kit set the radio down with a sigh. "I hope it got through." he whispered.
"Who knows?" she sighed. "Maybe it was so weak no one heard it - or perhaps it was strong enough for Baloo to hear it, and perhaps others, too..."
Kit looked around the empty old barn and lay back in the straw. "I guess we'll know soon enough."
The slate grey M-22 fighter sped through the brightening sky, scanning the ground below for any sign of their pursuit - the needle in the haystack, as the crew had come to call it. What chance did they have to find a couple of civilians, on foot, in this vast Bohemian wasteland? Leave it to the grunts on foot to track them down.
The radio officer frowned, and held his earphones tightly to his head, adjusting the controls quickly. "Vot is this?" he called. "English, English! Captain!" He threw the headphones aside and dashed up to the cockpit.
Kit and Sasha sat quietly, knees drawn up, as the rising sun slowly brightened the interior of the old barn. Neither cub had much to say, but both were deep in thought. Kit looked over at Sasha, out of the corner of his eye, and a tear rolled down his cheek.
She noticed immediately. "Keet! What is the matter?" she exclaimed.
The boy shook his head, embarrassed. "I was just thinkin', if we don't - if... Well, y'know. What a mess I've made of it. All of it..."
"Keet, please." she frowned, squeezing his paw gently.
"Baloo will blame himself, that's the worst part." he sighed. "He'll hate himself for it, and it'll be my fault. And there's so much... I was so lucky! There's so much I wanna do, y'know? All the possibilities were finally there-"
"Sweet boy, it is not your fault." she smiled, stroking his cheek gently. "It is the terrible men who have started this invasion, this sacrilege. They force good people to make hard decisions, and there are always prices to be paid, no matter what they decide. That is what happens, my Sweet one. The good people are always the ones who must sacrifice. And you are good, Keet. You are brave, kind, compassionate. I love you."
Kit stared at the white cub, overcome by emotions far too powerful for him to comprehend. His world seemed very small at this moment. Alemanians could come charging through the doors any second, and that would be their doom - and he didn't care. Her eyes were his world.
He felt as if he were out of his body, floating above it. He didn't understand what was happening to him - he had no context. He knew, viscerally, on some level, that males and females yearned to be together, but he'd never really understood it. There were no couples at the orphanage, no women on the Iron Vulture. And as for Baloo and Becky, well - he often felt that there was something in the air that he wasn't a part of, something unspoken in their banter. But he didn't understand that either.
All of these thoughts raced through his mind, in milliseconds. But they didn't matter. He looked into Sasha's eyes and it all made sense, in some way. "I love you." he whispered, and kissed her lightly, tentatively. He pulled away and stared into her eyes, smiling. She grinned back at him, and laughed softly, musically. He closed his eyes and met her lips with his own, and it may have lasted a second or an hour, he wasn't sure - he only knew that his entire body was shot through with fire. He held her to him tightly, gently caressing her back, and buried his face in her neck, crying softly.
"Dear Keet." she whispered. "What is the matter, Sweet one?"
"Nothing, nothing's wrong." he chuckled, gazing once more into her eyes. She was so beautiful, more so than anything could ever be, in any place or time. "I'm just happy, that's all!" She smiled, and he kissed her again, for a long time.
A noise filtered through the wooden frame of the old building, and he looked up, head cocked. "That's..." he whispered, jogging over to the door. "The Sea Duck! It's Baloo!" he laughed as she ran to join him. He grabbed her hands. "Papa Bear's here!"
The three grey dogs sat in the cockpit of the grey plane, poring over a topographical map spread out before them. "Zis is all zey said? South of a large river, U-shaped clearing?" one said.
"Yes Major." said another, a pair of earphones hanging around his neck. "Ze signal was wery veak, almost inaudible. I could undershtand no more."
"A river! Indeed. Vell, it must be ze Strauss, ya? Zere are no other large rivers zey could have reached on foot. But a U-shaped clearing? Zat could be anyvere!"
The third uniformed dog spoke up. "Sir, if zis signal is as veak as Heintzer says, it could not have carried far. Ve should fly along ze course of ze Strauss, vithin a few miles of our location ven ve intercepted ze transmission."
The major shook his head. "Papa Bear, Little Britches. Vat is zis, some strange new code?"
"Major!" the pilot shouted. "Unidentified aircraft, ten o'clock!"
Baloo flew directly over the river, retracing his path of what felt like half an hour before, as best he could remember. He found a town, finally - really a small cluster of structures on a bend in the river, no more. It _could_ have been what Kit was talking about.
The he spotted a vaguely U-shaped break in the trees, alongside the river, and his heart jumped. "There she is - maybe!" he muttered aloud, banking the Sea Duck and coming in low. Two buildings - just as the boy had said! But where were the kids? Had someone else gotten there first? Fighting down panic he scanned the ground beneath him desperately, then prepared to loop around and fly another pass.
Then he saw them - two shapes, spilling out of the doorway of the barn near the river. It _had_ to be the cubs! He looked the clearing over, making mental calculations. There was no way he'd be able to land, it was too small. Only one thing left..."Here goes nuthin'!" he sighed, opening the cargo hatch.
"C'mon!" Kit panted, pulling Sasha out into the clearing and waving frantically. "He'll never be able to land - the clearing's too small. We'll have to surf on-"
"He'll be going too fast!" Sasha gasped. "That rope will tear your hands off!"
Kit looked around helplessly. "He _can't land! What else can we do?"
Baloo looped around wide and came in, low as he could. He'd never be able to land and stop, but he could tap his wheels down and slow himself down enough to let the boy grab the rope - maybe. Then gather enough speed to lift off and clear the trees. It would be a little dicey...
"What's he doing?" Sasha hissed, as Baloo looped far to the west and flew in low, skimming the treetops.
"He's gonna try a touch and go!" Kit panted, pulling the girl towards the center of the clearing, away from the buildings. "Try to grind the wheels and slow down enough that we can grab on, then lift off before we hit the trees."
"Is he crazy?" she gasped.
"Yep." Kit huffed. "Hang on to me tight, you understand? Don't let go! I can barely run anyway, with this ankle, so you won't have any trouble keeping up." A woman appeared outside the house, looking up at the sky in astonishment.
The yellow seaplane cleared the trees and Baloo dipped the nose down and impacted the ground with a crash, the wheels leaping and sliding on the uneven ground. The towrope clattered along behind aircraft as Kit took out his airfoil and began running as best he could, parallel to the Sea Duck's course, the girl's arms wrapped around his waist. "Hang on!" he bellowed, and reached out for the handle of the rope. He screamed in pain, but managed to hold on, and flipped the airfoil under his feet, skimming along the thin layer of snow that covered the field.
Baloo could see the cubs scudding along behind him on the rough ground, and knew that for their sake and his own he'd need to get airborne as quickly as possible. "C'mon baby!" he growled, goosing the throttles, desperately trying to gain enough speed to take to the air. He could see the river now, practically on top of him, and knew he could wait no longer. He yanked back on the stick and the yellow seaplane lurched into the air a few seconds before the front wheels would have hit the river. He banked the plane sharply to port as he gained altitude, and cleared the first of the trees by a yard. Panting, he activated the winch, and the tow rope slowly was pulled into the cabin. Below him, the woman stared, mouth agape, at the bizarre scene unfolding above her. Shaking her head and muttering, she walked back into the house and slammed the door behind her.
Kit felt as though his hand was on fire, but he retained his grip on the rope handle, Sasha grasping him firmly around the waist. He saw the Sea Duck narrowly clear the first layer of trees and climb, and closed his eyes as the branches flew towards him, bracing for impact. It never came - he opened his eyes and the trees were below his feet, and the cargo hold of the old seaplane was growing closer by the second.
As soon as the solid ground of the plane was below his feet Kit released the rope and fell to the floor, eyes clenched tightly shut. His ankle throbbed, and hand burned, and his lungs ached. But he was safe. "You kids all right?" Baloo called from the cockpit as the hatch slammed shut.
"Kit's hurt!" Sasha screamed, bending by his side. "Kit, are you all right? Kit?"
The boy opened his eyes. "I'm OK, Sasha." he panted, struggling to his feet. She helped him up to the cockpit, dripping blood, where he threw his arms around Baloo's neck and collapsed onto his shoulder. "Baloo!" he gasped.
"The one and only, Kid!" the pilot whispered, wrapping his arms around the boy. "You OK?"
"Baloo!" Kit squeaked, opening his eyes. "Look!"
"Oh great!" the big bear grumbled, following the cub's glance. A slate grey plane was winging across the horizon towards them. "They couldn't've gotten here five minutes later? What's the fastest way outta this country, L'il Britches?"
Kit collapsed painfully into his chair, too tired and in too much pain to pick up a map. "F-fly due west, Papa Bear." Kit panted. "That'll get you to Alsatia."
"Better hope we can outrun these guys Kiddos, 'cause that ain't no P-37 out there. Those babies are armed to the hilt." He noticed Kit's ankle for the first time. "Kid! What happened to yer foot? Y'OK?"
Kit had tucked his painful left hand under his right armpit. "It's nuthin', Papa Bear, just a sprain. I'll be OK..."
Sasha bent over his chair. "Poor Keet! How is your hand? Let me see!"
"Yeah, sorry I couldn't've slowed down more for ya, Kid." Baloo said, looking over his shoulder at the pursuing fighter. "You all right?"
"That's OK." the boy grinned through clenched teeth as he held out his hand for the white cub to investigate. The rope had ripped the skin from his palm, which was bleeding profusely.
She gently examined the boy for a moment. "There is no break, I think. It is bruised badly, and cut, but that is all. I will get the first aid kit, Sweet boy. I remember where it is!" She tenderly kissed him on the cheek, and he casually, confidently kissed her lightly on the lips, a fact which did not escape Baloo's attention.
He looked sidelong at the boy, frowning. Time to ask about that later... "How'd ya get yer ankle taped, L'il Britches? Looks like a professional job!"
Kit looked over at him and smiled wearily. "Last night we slept at a farmhouse, somewhere... just on old couple, but they were incredible to us. They saved our lives..." Kit sat up, looking at the pursuing aircraft. "Baloo, thanks fer savin' us... I know I let you down-"
"Later, Kiddo." Baloo said grimly. "Yer safe an' that's all that matters. Right now we gotta worry about gettin' outta here alive, and that fighter's gainin' on us. Man, what I wouldn't give for my overdrive motors about now! Throttles are maxed an' we ain't losin' 'em!"
Sasha returned to the cockpit and began ministering to Kit's injured paw. "Hold still, Keet." she said gently.
"Yow!" the cub winced, as Sasha poured iodine on the wound. "Papa Bear, we just gotta make it to Alsatian airspace, they'll never follow us. They can't - it'd start a war!"
"That may be, Kid, but we ain't there yet!" Baloo hissed. A spray of bullets whizzed by on the starboard side. "They're firing! They're in range!" He banked the plane sharply to port and began flying a serpentine path. "You'll have to catch me first!" he shouted.
"It can't be that much farther, Baloo!" Kit said urgently. Just a few more minutes..." Another hail of bullets rang against the fuselage.
"We can't take too many hits like that!" Baloo hissed. "Those guns are too powerful - they're gonna hit an engine for sure, and then we're toast!" He banked the plane straight down and the fighter swooped to follow. He flew low along the ground for a few seconds, then straight up into the air again, buying precious seconds as the Alsatian border drew ever closer.
"There it is! There's Alsatia!" Kit shouted, pointing with his good hand to a cluster of buildings far on the horizon.
"Yep, that's Humbrecht. But we ain't there yet!" Baloo hissed. Another round o bullets just missed the port engine. They were sitting ducks, and he knew it - outgunned and overpowered.
Suddenly, the sky ahead of them was filled with dark shapes - several planes were approaching from the west. "Attention cargo plane!" A voice shouted over the radio. "State your business in Alsatia."
Baloo grinned and picked up the mike. "Uh, that'd be humanitarian. I have, uh, two refugees, who are leaving Bohemia."
There was a moment of static. "Land at Humbrecht Central and you will be met by customs officials. Is that understood?"
"Understood." Baloo grinned. Three of the Alsatian planes had taken up positions flanking the Alemanian fighter, and no doubt were engaged in conversation with it's crew. "Looks like the Alsatians are feelin' a little sensitive about their airspace!"
"I'll take my chances with a bunch o' beaurocrats over an Alemanian fighter any day." Kit sighed.
Sasha had finished bandaging his hand, and now she turned and hugged the pilot. "Baloo, I am so grateful, you are a wonderful man..."
"That's OK, Snowflake!" Baloo chuckled. "Just doin' what's right, that's all." He picked up the radio. "Come in, Isaac Walschinsky. This is the Sea Duck, calling for Isaac Walschinsky..."
Baloo, Kit and Sasha sat in the lobby of the main Customs building at the Humbrecht airport. The meeting with the local officials had been brief and uneventful - surprisingly so. They had been asked a few innocuous questions and escorted out, not even asked for papers. Baloo, sleepless for the last day, had drifted off and was snoring gently. Kit and Sasha sat, holding hands.
Kit rolled his head over to look at the white cub. Tired as he was, her face still gave him a thrilling sensation. "Quite an adventure, huh?" he grinned wearily.
"Keet, our meetings are never boring!" she chuckled. "I confess, there were times that I did not think we would survive."
"Me too." he whispered. "You were great! If you hadn't rigged that radio-"
"I knew you would protect me." she smiled. "Your bravery made me strong."
"What do you think will happen now?" the boy asked, a little sadly.
Sasha closed her eyes. "I imagine Father and I will stay in Eporue, Dear One. I may - I may not see you for a while."
"I know." Kit said with a sad smile. "But I can wait. You do what you have to do - you and your father." He looked over at Baloo's sleeping figure. "I have responsibilities too. I have a lot to make up for." He squeezed her paw. "I'll be waiting for you - I promise."
"I will wait for you, Keet, I promise. And we will see each other soon, I am sure of it."
"Sasha!" a voice called. The cub looked up and saw her father and Joshua walking towards them. "Oh, Sasha..." The girl ran to her father and embraced him, tears flowing down both their cheeks. Kit smiled, and Baloo stirred awake.
The two polar bears embraced for a long time, and finally Isaac released the girl and kissed her on the cheek. She kissed Joshua and they embraced, silently. "Mr. Baloo, and Kit - it does my heart good to see you safe, and well-"
"Not by much, Ikey." Baloo chuckled tiredly. "I had an M-22 on my tail that was tougher ta shake than a bad cold. If those Alsatian fighters hadn't showed up-"
The white bear laughed, a gesture that surprised Baloo. "That, I fear, was not a coincidence, Baloo. I called in a favor with an old - friend - at the Foreign Ministry. I was able to persuade him to order the Bohemian frontier patrolled a little bit more aggressively today."
"Yer somethin' else, Ike! You saved our bacon..."
"There are limits." the bear frowned. "They were not willing to risk a provocation, to search for the children. Even to acknowledge their presence in Bohemia. But the Alsatians do not recognize the so-called "treaty" between Bohemia and Alemania. And the Alemanians do not wish to provoke a confrontation either - yet."
"Well, I take my help where I can get it, Isaac." Baloo said wearily. "Thanks a million fer what ya did."
Isaac walked over in front of Kit and stared down at the boy, his expression unreadable. "My Child... My remarkable Child - you continue to amaze me!"
Kit stood, taking off his cap sheepishly. "I have something for you." he said quietly, pulling out the roll of film.
Isaac took it and held it in his outstretched palm. "Were you able to-"
"Yeah - the main buildings, the fences, maybe the railroad tracks too. I hope - I hope it helps."
"What's that, Kiddo?" Baloo said, puzzled.
Isaac laughed quietly. "Maybe the key to it all Baloo, who knows?"
"What will you do with it?" Kit asked.
"It will be our proof, hopefully, that the Alemanians are a greater threat than the governments are wiling to admit. We will study it, attempt to determine exactly what they are doing. We will take it to the great powers, show them. And show the people directly, if we must. The truth must be discovered - and exposed."
"Well, I'm glad I could help." Kit said glumly. "Mr. Walschinsky, I'm sorry - I'm sorry I got your daughter into this, almost got her killed. I wouldn't blame you if-"
"Keet, no!" Sasha protested.
The polar bear knelt and put his paws on Kit's shoulders. "You are a remarkable boy, Kit Cloudkicker. I can not blame you for your courage, and your passion. Nor can I blame you for your rashness - it is a badge of youth, and you wear it with honor."
"But Sir-" Kit frowned.
"Kit, you brought my daughter back safely to me. You acted bravely, and you risked yourself for what you believed in. I do not blame you, any more than I blame the moon or the trees. In these times all good people are forced to make difficult choices. You chose with your heart, and corageously." He kissed the cub on the forehead. "Be at peace, my boy."
Kit looked up at Isaac's face, and now, for the first time, he saw Sasha's face there too. "Sir, I - I would die for your daughter. I... I love her, Sir." Baloo jaw dropped in surprise.
Isaac arched an eyebrow for a moment and then smiled slightly. "You are so young, Child. Both of you, so young. It all makes so much sense to you... Maybe it is enough, in the end." He stood and clapped the boy's shoulder gently, then extended a hand. Kit shook it. "Goodbye, Kit. I feel I shall see you again, yes? And now I think you would like a moment alone with Sasha." He smiled at Baloo, wrapped an arm around Joshua's shoulder and walked down to the other end of the lobby.
Baloo was feeling a little overwhelmed by all this. Clearly, it had been an... _eventful_ few days for all of them... Still, he didn't want to be a third wheel. "I'll just - uh, that is..." he mumbled. He smiled awkwardly and gave Sasha a small hug, then walked over to where Joshua and his uncle stood.
Kit grabbed Sasha's paws in his own, feeling very self-conscious. "I think you surprised our fathers quite a bit, silly Keet." the white cub smiled mischievously.
He looked down. "Yeah, I'm sorry... I just wanted to be honest with your dad, y'know? And I meant it, every word."
"I know." she grinned.
"Your dad is an amazing man." Kit said admiringly.
"So is yours." Sasha echoed.
"Yeah!" the boy laughed. "He is, I guess... we're both lucky." He looked into her eyes for a moment. "I'm almost sorry it's over! I mean, as terrible as it was, at least we were together. Now..."
"I know." she smiled, hugging him. "But we will be together soon, I promise it. There is no hurry, and we both have responsibilities, yes? It is not sad, Keet. We have done what we started out to do, and maybe we have even done more. We have helped people who desperately needed it. And there are fathers who need us, and we are going to be with them. That is a reason to be happy, is it not?"
"Sure." he whispered. "I dunno what's gonna happen, with this war, or whatever it is... but it'll be over, someday. Alemania will lose, I know it."
"You're right. They will, I know it too."
"I love you." he smiled and kissed her gently.
"I love you too." she echoed, and they kissed again for a brief eternity.
"Sorry - I guess I'm sad!" he laughed ruefully, breathing heavily. "I can't really help it-"
"I forgive you." she whispered, wrapping her arms around him tightly.
He kissed her on the forehead, then on her cheek and finally her nose. "C'mon, our families are waiting." he sighed, eyes closed, holding her cheek to his own. He smiled and grabbed her hand with his bandaged one, and they limped down the hall to where Baloo, Isaac and Joshua stood patiently.
The mood on the Sea Duck was somber and a little strained as the yellow seaplane left Alsatia and headed south. Kit looked sidelong at Baloo, who, catching his gaze, looked over and smiled wearily. The boy knew that there was a lot that was unsaid between the two of them, and now that they were alone, the distractions gone, those unspoken feelings were bubbling just below the surface.
He tried to think of something to say, that would ease the tension, soothe the pain. But there was nothing, no easy answers or shortcuts. And he was tired - very tired. Almost without realizing it, he closed his eyes, his thoughts becoming more and more cloudy and dreamlike.
Baloo glanced over at the cub, and wondered if he was asleep. ~Wouldn't blame him.~ the pilot thought, ~after what he's been through. What about what he's put me through? Does he even realize?~
The big bear sighed and leaned back in his seat, steering the plane with his feet. It was going to be a long flight home. The boy had hunched over, head lolling on his shoulders. At least one of them could sleep. He walked back into the hold and grabbed a blanket, gently arranging it over Kit's sleeping form. He stood and watched the cub for a moment, then sat and picked up the mike, ready to call Rebecca at Higher for Hire.
"Is she asleep?" Joshua asked, as his uncle wearily walked up from the hold and sat in his chair with a sigh.
"Yes." the bear answered. "She is a remarkable young woman, your cousin. Willful, strong - much as I might say about her young friend. They are much alike."
"She is a Walschinsky." the boy said proudly.
"Indeed she is!" Isaac laughed ruefully.
"The boy - he is brave, but a strange one, yes? Sasha is serious with him, you think?"
"Sasha is serious with everything, Joshua." Isaac said softly. "And he is a good boy."
They flew in silence for a few moments. "This is good, Uncle." the young man said quietly. "We have accomplished much. We will keep fighting, yes? Sooner or later, they will see that we were right."
Isaac stared silently at the tall, reedy young man next to him. It was painfully clear what they was trying to accomplish - to convince the great powers to fight, to go to war. A war that would be fought by young men like Joshua. Perhaps even by young boys like Kit. It was always the young who suffered, died. And he had set himself the task of mobilizing the nations, to gather their young men together, to fight.
He sighed and closed his eyes. What was the alternative? He knew, in his heart, that the Alemanians would never be satisfied, never sated. Their leaders hungered for power, and were driven by hatred. They would have to be fought, sooner or later. And in the meantime innocents were dying, every day. There was no alternative. But that didn't make the choice any easier. It was always the good who had to make hard choices, and the innocent who had to sacrifice. That was the way of the world.
He smiled wearily and clapped his nephew on the shoulder. "Home, Joshua. Back to Seines. Home for now." He stood and walked back into the hold, to watch his daughter sleep.
"C'mon Kid." Baloo nudged the boy on the shoulder. "We're back."
Kit stirred, blinked. "We're home?" he mumbled sleepily. "What time is it?"
"About eight." Baloo smiled. "We missed dinner. Ya hungry?"
The cub stood and Baloo helped him down out of the cockpit and onto the dock gingerly on his injured ankle. "Naw, just tired. And a little thirsty." A rush of warm tropical air hit him in the face, stunning after his prolonged exposure to the bitter northern Eporuean cold. The boy hobbled behind Baloo up to the door, where Rebecca had nailed a large wreath. A string of lights ran along the front of the structure.
"Looks like Becky an' Wildcat are gettin' ready for Christmas." Baloo grinned as they stepped inside. Kit squeezed his arm and limped over to the table, where he sat wearily. The pilot walked into the kitchen and grabbed two sodas, handing one to the boy and taking the other to the easy chair.
"Thanks." Kit said, taking a swig of pop. He wanted to go sit with Baloo in the chair, but it didn't feel right.
Baloo wearily took a draw from the bottle and sighed. "You sure you're OK, L'il Britches?" he asked. "Ya wanna go see a doctor tomorrow?"
"Naw, I'm fine." the cub replied. "My ankle's feelin' better, and my hand's just cut a little."
"How's yer gut - the scar and all? Not botherin' ya?"
"Naw, it's fine, thanks." Kit smiled wearily. He took a long drink, and closed his eyes. They sat, neither bear speaking, for several moments. Finally the boy looked up and spoke. "So where are we, Papa Bear?" he asked, his voice breaking a little.
Baloo looked over at Kit. "I dunno, Kiddo."
"I'm sorry, Baloo, I really am, more-"
"I know ya are, Britches." the pilot said quietly.
Kit stared, struggling for the words he wanted to say. "I - I didn't do it to hurt you, Baloo..."
Baloo shook his head. "But ya did though, Kit. I know ya wanted ta help, an' all, but ya knew what this would do ta me, and ya did it anyways. An' ya almost got killed. I just dunno, Kid."
"I'm sorry." Kit whispered.
Neither bear spoke or looked at each other, another long silence weighing heavily in the room. "Ya know Kid, the way I figger it, I'm either yer father or I'm not." the big grey bear finally said.
"What?" Kit whispered hoarsely.
"I dunno, Kid. You got yer ideas, an' you pretty much just go ahead and do what ya want to anyways, no matter what I say. Maybe we're just pilot an' navigator, when it's all-"
"No!" Kit shouted. "No! You're my father - don't say that! You'll always be my father..."
Baloo laughed ruefully. "Am I, Kid? You just do what ya wanna do anyways. I thought you'd changed, you were a different kid now than you was, when we first met. But yer just the same, aintcha? Ya haven't really changed."
"Do - do you really believe that?" Kit whispered, eyes glistening. Baloo said nothing, just stared straight ahead and took another sip of soda. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Baloo. But you're hurting me on purpose."
Baloo frowned, looked over briefly at the boy, then down at his feet, a little ashamed, but still sure he was onto something. "So - should I go, then?" Kit asked quietly.
"Should I leave, Baloo? Is that what you're saying?" Kit asked again, insistently.
Baloo scowled. "Kid, yer just bein' stupid now!"
"Well, I don't know!" he yelled, angrily banging his good hand on the table. "So - so you don't... love me anymore?" he whispered.
His words stabbed sharply at Baloo. "Kit, there's nuthin' you could do, ever, that would make me stop lovin' ya. Never. I went after ya, didn't I, the second I heard? That ain't what this is about."
"Well, what _is_ it about?" the cub sobbed. "What can I do, Baloo? I did what I did, and I'm sorry! I thought I was doin' the right thing-"
Baloo stood and walked over to Kit, bending over to stare directly into his eyes. "That's it Kid, dontcha see? Ya still _do_ think ya did the right thing, dontcha?"
"I don't know what I think..." Kit whispered, staring down at the table.
"I love ya, Kid. I just don't see hows I can ever trust ya, now." Baloo said softly.
Baloo sighed, and pulled the boy's head to his chest for a moment. "I dunno, Kid. I just dunno. I'm either yer father or I ain't." He squeezed the cub's shoulder softly and headed for the stairs. "I dunno what I'm thinkin', Kid. I slept an hour in two days. I'm gonna hit the straw, tomorrow's another day." He trudged up the stairs and disappeared into the bedroom. Kit watched him for a moment, and laid his head down on the table wearily.
Baloo sighed and looked down at the small figure sleeping before him silently. No matter how much he thought, considered - it was all still a mystery to him. He was such a different man now - so changed from the bear he'd been before Kit, before Higher for Hire, before all of it. He'd never remembered feeling confused, before - and now he felt that way all the time. He used to sleep like a baby, and now even as tired as he was, he'd slept fitfully. He sat and stared at the boy for a long time, as the sun slowly climbed above the horizon and the world outside their window grew brighter.
Kit stirred sleepily, rolled onto his back and stretched, eyes closed. He felt groggy, as he always did when he'd slept for a long time, but he knew it would pass in a moment. He opened his eyes and was momentarily startled to see Baloo, sitting on a chair next to his bed, staring down at him. He flashed back briefly to waking up at the hospital, after the surgery, the big bear gazing at him. He met the pilot's eyes for a moment. "What?" he whispered.
Baloo looked down at him. "It's worth it." he said simply, with a small smile.
Kit stared back at him for a moment, unsure what to think exactly, but sensing that a door had been opened. He sat up and reached out his arms, and the big bear hugged him silently. "I need you." the cub whispered in Baloo's ear.
"I know." the pilot chuckled, squeezing Kit so hard the cub's ribs hurt. "I need you too."
"I can't get through it without you." Kit sighed, admitting aloud what he'd known for a long time. "It's all too much, I can't go back-"
"I know, I know." Baloo said softly. "I understand."
Kit sat up in bed and wiped his eyes. "I know what I did was wrong, Baloo, I'm sorry-"
"Naw." Baloo interrupted, silencing the boy. "I thought about it a lot, Kit. I can't ask ya to change who ya are. That ain't fair. You did what ya did 'cause ya believed it. Yer always gonna wanna do everythin' ya can, 'cause that's who ya are, L'il Britches."
"Hush! Just listen, Kiddo. Kit, the world's - I just know a lotta bad things are gonna happen. It's a mess. An' we ain't gonna be able to ignore it, ta hide from it. Kid, when yer eighteen, if ya wanna leave, go off an' fight, do whatever, I - I won't try an' stop ya. It'll kill me, but I won't. You are who ya are, an' I can't change that." the pilot sighed. "But till then, I gotta be yer father, L'il Britches. I won't ignore what's goin' on, but my first job's gotta be you an' me, this family. I gotta know yer on board fer that, or else there's no point in me even tryin'. You understand me?"
Kit stared down at his feet. "I'm sorry, Papa Bear. I'm sorry I hurt you... I don't really understand... but I promise, I won't ever leave again, make a decision like that, unless we agree. I promise."
"Kid, I just dunno if-"
"Baloo, listen!" the boy said intently. "I've never broken a promise to you, never! And I never will. I won't ever do anything like that again, I swear. Please believe me!"
Baloo stared at the boy, eye-to-eye, for a long moment. "Yer somethin' else, ya know that?" he smiled. "OK. I trust ya, L'il Britches."
"Thanks." Kit whispered. "I meant it, ya know."
"Meant what, Kiddo?"
"You're the bravest man I know." he smiled. "Anybody that would put up with me has to be!"
Baloo tousled the boy's hair fondly. "Yer the best, L'il Britches. C'mon, get dressed and let's go have some breakfast."
Kit grabbed his arm intently. "Don't ever leave, OK? Please!"
Baloo smiled, remembering. He wondered if the boy did, too. He hugged the cub's face to his own. "Don't you worry, L'il Britches. Papa Bear's here fer the duration."
Kit was ravenous, his exhaustion gone, leaving the hunger unabated. He scarfed down two bowls of cereal as they sat, and then started in on the bag of donuts. "Easy, Kid!" Baloo chuckled. "Yer gonna wind up lookin' like me if yer not careful."
"Sorry Baloo." Kit mumbled around a crueller. "Just hungry, didn't get much to eat in Bohemia."
Baloo chuckled and poured them each a cup of coffee. "Yeah, yer gonna have to tell me all about that today, L'il Britches." He took a sip of his drink and grinned at the boy. "Kit - ya wanna tell me about you and Sasha?"
Kit looked up, surprised. "Tell you - what?"
"Kit, it's pretty obvious you and that girl got, y'know... _feelings_ fer each other. Am I right?" Baloo asked gently, finding it easier to talk about this than he had before.
Kit pondered just how much he wanted to say. "Baloo... I love her. She's incredible! I can't really explain it, but... I just... know - y'know?"
"She's pretty special." the big grey bear grinned, blushing only a little. "L'il Britches, are there some, y'know, questions, that you'd like to ask me? Stuff ya wanna talk about?"
Kit smiled bashfully and sipped his coffee. "Um... actually, yeah, sorta." he mumbled. He looked over at the big bear and was filled with gratitude. "I really do. Um... thanks."
The door opened, and Rebecca walked in, carrying a box of Christmas ornaments. She grinned when she saw Kit, setting down the box. "There's our little spy!" she laughed, but her eyes glistened as she did. He rose from the table and they hugged for a long time. "You're all right?" she whispered in his ear.
"I'm terrific." he smiled.
She released him and looked him over. "Goodness! You look like a hospital ad! What's all this?" she gasped.
He grinned sheepishly. "Just a sprained ankle, and a cut hand. Nothin' too serious."
She shook her head, a trifle angrily. "And me always the one who has to stay here and worry! To think, I could've had a nice quiet job with my father..." She grabbed the cub by the shoulders rather firmly. "Kit, listen to me - don't think that we don't suffer when you run off like that, because we do!"
"Becky-" Baloo interrupted.
"Hush, Baloo! Young man, I don't want you to think you can do things like this and it's OK - it's not! I know you want to help people, and do the right thing. But you have to think about the people close to you once in a while. What you did is just not acceptable! Do you understand me?"
"I know, Miz Cunningham." he said, looking down at his feet. "Baloo already told me all this."
"He did?" she said, surprised.
"Becky, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't mean to hurt Baloo. It just, I dunno, happened. But I already promised Baloo I'd never do anything like that on my own again, and I always keep my promises. Forgive me? Please?" he begged.
Rebecca was rather taken aback for a moment, but the cub's earnest vulnerability was far too much for her resolve. "Of course I forgive you..." she sighed. "You're sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine, just a little sore." he smiled.
"Poor kid." she sighed. "Been through a lot, haven't you? Well, how about we forget about all that and decorate the place today? How's that sound?" she smiled, picking up the box of ornaments.
"Great!" Kit grinned.
"Sounds terrific, Beckers." Baloo said, rising from the table. "But put a hold on that decoratin' fer a little bit, OK?"
"Why, Baloo?" she asked the pilot, puzzled.
He winked at her and walked over to Kit, draping an arm over his shoulder. "L'il Britches an' I gotta talk about a few things, way overdue. Somethin' I shoulda done a long time ago, Becky. Thanks."
"For what?" she grinned, getting the picture immediately.
"Fer kickin' me in the butt when I needed it." he chuckled. "Howzabout we take a ride in the Blue Eagle, Kid, and we can talk about what's on yer mind, OK?"
"Thanks Papa Bear." the cub smiled sheepishly, as they hobbled to the door. "See ya in a while, Miz Cunningham. Thanks!"
"See you in a little while." she laughed, watching them go, arm in arm. She marveled at how fast people changed, kids grew up. But not just kids.
She thought for just a moment about what Kit had gone through in Bohemia, why he'd been there. What sort of world forced a thirteen year-old to have to face moral decisions like that, decisions that he couldn't possibly understand. And to face the consequences. It hardly seemed fair, but then life rarely was. They were lucky, all of them, with each other to look after, and food on their tables and warm beds. Not everyone was, and that wasn't fair either, especially this time of year. You just had to be grateful for what you had.
Outside, engines sputtered and rose in pitch, and the blue and gold seaplane backed away from the dock, taxied into open water and soared into the morning sky as she watched from the window. The world could be a dark, cold place, but their little corner of it seemed bright and warm that morning. Whistling, Rebecca poured herself a cup of coffee and prepared to face the day.
Jacob Malek sighed as he stared out into the street in the advancing dusk. There seemed to be fewer and fewer people out there every day. Fewer soldiers, too. There were rumors, soldiers gathering ghetto residents together and herding them off, onto railroad cars, for some unknown destination. He'd even heard that some ghetto residents had weapons hidden, planning an uprising. Who knew what was true?
He walked over to the kitchen, where Anna was finishing her dinner, accompanied by a glass of powdered milk. Thank God for small blessings - at least there had been some food on the table, and enough in the larder for a while. He still had no idea who had dropped the precious supplies, but it didn't really matter. The ghetto residents had managed to secure most of it in their homes, and a network had already been secretly set up to make sure those who remained got their share. It would not last forever, but any night with food in his daughter's belly was a good night. "It's good?" he asked with a smile.
"It's good." she answered. The girl finished her milk and stared at him for a moment, silently.
"What is it, Anna?" he asked her. "What is wrong?"
She looked down at the table. "Mama - Mama isn't going to come home, is she?"
Jacob sighed, and hugged his daughter close. He'd known that question was going to come, sooner or later. "I don't think so, Dumpling. I don't think so. But I will never give up hope. It is always possible."
Anna looked as though she would cry, but held the tears back. Jacob suspected that she'd already cried, expecting his answer. "What do you think will happen, Papa? Will the Alemanians leave?"
Jacob forced a smile and stood. "Come, come." he motioned to her, walking into the small alcove in the back of the little house. "Do you remember what today is?"
"The first night of Hanukkah! Today we light the Menorah, Papa, right?"
"That's right Anna." he smiled, opening a cabinet and grabbing two candles. He placed one in the Menorah.
"Papa, aren't we supposed to put it in the window?" she asked, puzzled, as he set the symbol on top of a box in the small room.
"Very good, you are right." he nodded. "But we... we cannot, this year Dumpling. We are not allowed -we cannot display he Menorah where it can be seen, do you understand?"
"I understand." she nodded solemnly.
"Do you remember, what I told you? About the oil, and the lamp, and what the Menorah means?"
"Tell me again." she smiled.
"All right." he answered, wrapping an arm around her. "Remember, there was only enough oil to light the lamp for one day, Anna. But the lamp kept going, and it stayed burning for eight days. And no one could explain it." He lit a candle and handed it to her. "Light the first candle, Dumpling."
She somberly lit the first candle and smiled. "A candle for each day, right Papa?"
"That's right, Anna." he smiled, embracing her and placing the lighting candle atop the Menorah. "The world must have looked very dark, and terrible, with only enough oil for one day, yes? No one could know that the lamp would stay lit for eight days, but it did. That's why, no matter how dark and terrible things look, we must never give up hope. As long as we are alive, and we have each other, we have hope, my Darling. Do you understand?"
"I understand, Papa." she smiled. They sat and stared at the candle flickering before them in silence, the streets of Brague quiet and cold outside their window.