“You are certain of this, yes-no?”
Baloo traced a thumb across the calloused palm in his hold. “Ain’t been more certain of anythin’ in my life – save for takin’ in Little Britches of course.”
Merely mentioning his boy, let alone the thought of his reaction, made the bear hunch his shoulders.
Strong hands cup his face in a hold so gentle and for a kiss so sincere he can’t believe either belong to the red canine before him.
The smirk’s another story. “Do not get used to this, bear. I only show compassion when it is convenient.”
Despite himself, Baloo managed a chuckle as his broad hands clasped that beautiful slender waist. “Whatever ya say, hun.”
Amongst the rigid schedules and expectations high enough to break his neck from looking up, Baloo von Bruinwald never skipped a chance to sneak off for the nearest airshow, to watch planes leave behind their smoke like sterling brushstrokes.
But only after that brief sizzling encounter with the swaggering youth in blue and red and that kiss behind the hangar did the prospective pilot realize true thrill.
Let alone how much he yearned to be lost among the endless sky alongside the boy with dark passionate eyes.
Karnage held no illusions about ‘spiritual guidance’ or any other such mystical nonsense.
A pirate lives and dies by what exists and needs nothing more.
Besides, that’s how tons of swindlers make a living. Just ask his older sister.
Yet beneath those stars in the safety of his rival’s arms, Karnage comes to realize everything about his path in life with newfound clarity – why he and Baloo had come to this point.
If there were gods out there, he enjoyed their sense of irony.
When that familiar heavy bass sigh met his ears, the captain rolled his eyes.
“You are putting more thought into this than necessary.”
“Just takin’ it in one last time.”
The incredulity on the canine’s face deserved a spot in history. “It is a shirt riddled with stains of ketchup.”
“A lucky shirt riddled with stains of ketchup!”
The pirate could only shake his head as the bear held the affront to fashion to his chest longingly before tossing it into the bonfire before them.
“I am starting to see what your Boss Lady has to put up with,” the canine mumbled.
“I take it did not go well with her, yes no?”
No response. The pirate fixed the bear sitting beside him with a gaze trying to come off as demanding yet like every time with this oaf, he found himself unable to keep out this aggravating softness out of his eyes.
The canine had learned when to exercise patience.
At last, Baloo’s head rose, face solemn. “She…took it better than I thought. Disappointed fo’ sure but better.” His mate’s questioning frown caught his sight and he chuckled. “Me bein’ a man’s man anyway.”
“Your Boss Lady will get over it. She has a spot of softness for you.”
Baloo smiled as he wrapped an arm around his lover. “I know.
“Are we feeling much more of the calm now, cariño?”
Baloo rolled his shoulders, still glaring after an hour of pulverizing training dummies. “That depends. You feelin’ up for some wrestlin’, darlin’?”
A toothy smirk because how could Karnage resist? “That keen to have my body against yours?”
“Just wanted to make sure I got enough out to not hurt ya by accident.”
Karnage huffed. This oaf sure loved to pretend the red wolf was some willowy damsel. “My men took good care of the sex smugglers that dared hurt your boy. Why still so upset?”
Baloo found his smile again. “You make it sound like you weren’t scared of losing him, too.”
A blank staredown with Baloo – until Karnage stalked towards the supply closet.
Now he needed training dummies.
Sake and Karnage together: not the best combination.
Then again, so was coming to this meeting with the yakuza. At least Rebecca wasn’t around to tell Baloo she told him so.
Plus, hey dinner and a show – at least until his darlin’ slipped into his mother tongue.
“¿Perdón, my corazón, pero tenga yo un pedazo de eso culo delicioso?”
Okay, Baloo had a shaky fluency in Spanish, but he was pretty sure Karnage just called him tasty.
He could live with that.
Honestly, Kit would never understand how his Papa Bear could fall for someone like the captain.
How someone so gentle and caring could fall for someone so wild, dangerous, self-absorbed, unpredictable.
Never mind the dangers that same man put everyone through, before and after this strange journey life had set him down.
The cub understood this though: he wanted Baloo to be happy and, as strange and crazy as it seemed, Karnage made his father beam like the sun.
That said, he still had the baseball bat ready just in case.
Baloo was no stranger to keeping others safe.
After all, a heart as big as his could never run out of room for folks seeking shelter.
That’s part of the reason so many of his old friendships have lasted so long.
Perhaps it’s also why it was so simple for him to cradle the bandaged lupine in his arms, even as the heavens around them tore themselves asunder.
A growl echoed beneath the cacophony dominating the dense rainforest.
“Tu oso estupido, no one gave you permission to die,” Karnage sniped under his breath.
The bear whose bulk he supported grunted against his shoulder. “And since when do you give a damn?”
Karnage managed a smirk even as he struggled to carry them both through the thick mud. “Since our rivalry started, of course.”
“I learned from the best.”
Karnage blinked out of his stupor and tossed a suspicious glare at the boy sitting across from him. “Are you doing the sarcasm right now because it is very hard to tell.”
Even after years of living with the bear cub, seeing that smirk never stopped feeling akin to a reflection. “Like I said, I learned from the best.”
The captain shot a cross stare beside him at the larger bear, who held his hands up, not sorry at all.
“I didn’t teach him that.”
When a familiar black boot kicked the kitchen door open, Baloo flinched but resisted the urge to show his glare. His ‘captor’ didn’t deserve the satisfaction.
Too bad the canine could not care less about personal boundaries, draping his arm around the larger mammal’s shoulders. “So how is our favorite prisoner doing?”
“Depends, Karnie,” Baloo drawled back. “Is your favorite prisoner gonna feed the whole dang airship? Cuz I’m pretty sure I’ll need at least two more pots for all those mouths.”
Rough hands caressing his grand stomach freeze the pilot’s thoughts in place while causing other parts of himself to heat up. The velvety coo in his ear does not help.
“Now who said you are to be feeding those idiots?”
For all his positivity and carefreeness, Baloo had to contend with a great deal of fears.
Never getting his plane back.
Giving up his cavalier lifestyle only to wind up miserable.
Failing and losing everyone he’s become attached to.
Yet he only needed one touch from his Fire Wolf and the presence of Lil’ Britches in his arms to set his mind at ease.
The door opened, letting the hallway light form a path to the bed.
Baloo approached and sat down next to the prone, blanket-coated lump, a cup of hot chocolate in each hand.
“Hey, hun,” the bear murmured in a soothing tone, “I figured this might cheer ya up.”
One corner of the blanket flipped up so a reddish-brown furred hand could accept the offered drink.
“Your dumb dopey face is enough,” murmured the congested and muffled occupant, “but this will do I suppose.”
For all he’d weathered, for all that stood in his way, Captain Karnage still stood strong, blade and grin both sharp and ready.
Right from birth, trial after trial threw him around, testing his mettle as a pirate, as a man, as a person in general.
Whether in failure or success, all those struggles merely served to refine him into a force to reckon.
Of course, it never hurts to have concrete proof of how far you have come.
That’s why all he needed to look to his side every night at the snoring lumbering giant to feel as though he’d claimed the greatest treasure.
Baloo honestly could not tell who glowed more in the fire of the burning pirate ship they’d escaped.
Kit who threw his hands up with a hearty whoop.
Don who threw his head back with a triumphant smile that spoke more ‘happy to be alive’ than any sort of pride.
Hell, why not both?
In any case, the bear wanted to know if he could see that smile on the latter a little more often.
The truth was clear to him now. It was clear and Karnage felt like a fool for not seeing it before.
He loved Baloo. He loved this oafish, smarmy, handsome, kind, softhearted man and did not regret that.
“No soy nada sin tu, mi oso de sol,” the canine purred with a lovestruck grin into the bear’s chest.
His love returned the look in full. “I’m more an Indian sloth bear, but I can appreciate the compliment.” Cue a flick to the ear. “OW!”
And yes, Karnage also loved a smartass, another fact he would never change. “Gorgeous simpleton.”
Kit had seen many crazy sights in his life.
Seeing his Papa Bear and former Captain pour their souls into a simple papier mache project together went straight to the top.
OK, maybe near the top – nothing could ever outmatch that body switch debacle.
The pleased smiles they threw to each all the while came much closer, though.
Assuming said smiles didn’t get outshone by their reactions to the bear cub’s photographic evidence of this moment.
For all his bravado and hair-trigger temper, Captain Karnage knew the importance of keeping a clear head.
He just ignored it half the time cuz where’s the fun in that?
Then, like the genius he is, he fell in love with his archnemesis.
As the pilot lies in his arms, breathing ragged and bandages on his chest stained red, Karnage knows he can’t afford to lose his cool.
After all, Kit would never forgive him for letting the man he considers a father die.
“I can’t believe your own crew just exiled you.”
“You and me both, boy,” Karnage growled as he kicked away an offensive pebble. “Oh, when I get my hands on that twirling, dittying snake of a nephew...”
A thick, grey-furred arm coats his shoulders, hushing his tirade.
“Look at it this way, hun: you’ve got a whole world to explore by yourself now. Who knows, maybe you’ll find an even better crew!”
Karnage smirked knowingly (and a tad affectionately). This bear didn’t know the lateness of his own words, did he?
In truth, exile by his nephew and crew might have been the most liberating mishap to befall Karnage.
After all, no crew had ever left him feeling more fulfilled than these two bears (and sometimes the Boss Lady and her child as well).
Nor had any crew before made him feel so cared for.
He could probably do without the badly made breakfast in bed, though.
Even if the badly spelled ‘world’s okayest dunkle’ atop the burnt pancakes was kinda endearing.
All the colors, all the lights and cheers.
Even the dark glares from certain family members could not eclipse the brilliance.
Karnage never realized how much he’d missed celebrations like this.
None could compare to the beautiful giant at the center of it all, though.
Just as none could compare to the euphoria of that same giant asking him to join in.
“Why are you so keen on keeping me safe?”
Karnage has half a mind to brush the question off. Instead, he answers in a tone only halfway dismissive. “Because I do not wish to make that fool sad.”
Kit, taken back by this response, looks away for a moment to the surrounding desert, mulling. “That makes two of us. I’m still not sorry for leaving you guys.”
The cub, once he meets eyes with the captain once again, receives a sight he’d long forgotten: Karnage giving him a genuine smile.
“Truthfully, Kit. After everything I have been through, I have started to see where you were coming from.”
Weird. Usually, Karnage’s hand on his back would have spooked him.
Now, the feel of that same rough hand quelled the panic once threatening to seize the cub’s throat.
“Calm yourself, boy. We will survive this.”
Kit narrowed his eyes, skeptical. “What makes you so sure?”
The lupine smirked. “Because…your Boss Lady is trampling anyone who’d dare otherwise.”
“I can’t believe you talked me into this.”
Karnage rewarded Baloo with an oddly knowing smile as they did behind a line of large crates. “You subjected me to being a goody-goody on occasion; this is only fair.”
Baloo let out a resigned sigh before pulling back the slingshot and letting the water balloon smack the unfortunate pilot in the back of the head.
Then said pilot pivoted on his heel to reveal himself as Ace London.
Suddenly the bear didn’t feel so bad anymore.
“You would truly entrust your best pilot to his sworn enemy?”
Rebecca raised her eyes from the latest bill to regard the bandaged lupine lying prone on her couch.
Despite his stare being trained on the ceiling, she could discern his focus on her.
The business owner primly straightened her papers. “I trust my best pilot to know what’s he doing when it comes to looking after the people he cares about.”
Karnage huffed with less bite than intended. “It is one of the few things he consistently does well.”
Rebecca couldn’t help but snort. For once, she and Karnage saw eye to eye on something. “It is.”
Kit looked across the campfire to the red wolf polishing his sword. “Why save me?”
Karnage paused the hand holding the cleaning cloth, brow furrowed as if the boy asked the stupidest question on record. “Because I hate seeing potential wasted.”
Once upon a time, Kit would have accepted that answer. As everything stood now, the cub shrugged with a smirk. “Or maybe you’re just getting soft.”
The canine’s eyes lock onto him, affronted and sharp. “Keep it up and you will see how ‘soft’ I am.”
Kit didn’t comment on the lack of threat in those words (or the massive pilot’s jacket straddling the man’s sinewy shoulders).
The canine’s breath came ragged as crimson dripped off his blade, glinting in the pale candlelight.
Fending off these mad cultists would be so much easier without having to drag his injured lover at the same time.
Karnage snarled at the shadows to scare off any fool in hiding (and perhaps hide his concern).
He risks looking away for one moment to assess the other man. How the bear can manage a smile after all this, he’ll never know.
“You are still breathing, yes Baloo?”
“Still kickin’, Donnie.”
Of all Baloo’s companions to be stuck with today, it had to be the littlest one.
Oh, and currently hiding from the mafia. That sort of sucked too.
“And what makes you think I will not simply leave you to your fate?”
“Cuz Mommy, Baloo, and Kit would all kill you if you did.”
Damn and in a casual tone too. She really was the Boss Lady’s daughter.
“Then unless you prefer us both dead, little one, I recommend the cooperation.”
“…Okay, Captain Meanie.”
Temper: a cornerstone of Karnage’s infamy.
Even as ex-captain, his sharp tongue and even sharper bite inspired caution. He still had his pride after all.
Imagine his shock and eventual begrudging respect when he found people who could match him there.
His wonder at the one man who never failed to counter that boiling blood and passion.
All Baloo had to do was touch his wolf’s hand and Karnage melted every time.
Baloo ran a hand down his bulging belly.
Once upon a time, he would have looked at it with a blush and grimace.
Now, especially after recent events, he couldn’t stop smiling at his reflection.
After all, if a murderous air pirate and fussy business lady could love the shape of his flesh, what excuse did he have not to follow suit?
He only wished they’d stop putting the desserts out of his reach.
The two men, covered in head to toe in batter, looked on in disbelief at the ruined kitchen before them.
“Remind me again, cariño. What were you hoping to be your accomplishment exactly?”
Baloo merely shrugged, a boyish grin in place. “Just wanted ta treat the gang to some pizza!”
“Pizza twenty feet in diameter, you mean.”
“What? We got a bunch of hungry fellas! Big appetites call for big meals!”
A resigned sigh meets that assertion. Karnage wishes for once he could spend a day in this bear’s world.
“Lupe...I don’t know what the hell life’s gonna through at us, but I ain’t leavin’ ya. That ain’t changing.”
Karnage sighed as the bear cradled him close, not having the will to write off his mate’s concern.
That assassin had gotten a shot in, but nothing lethal thankfully. This time at least.
The thought of a next time pushed the canine to return the embrace, relieved but sullen.
“That is making the two of us, my Baloo.”
Karnage never thought he could feel more alive than he ever did as captain.
Oh, how Baloo continued to prove him wrong.
“C’mon, darlin’, I know you can do better than that! Show these chumps who’s the boss!”
The canine formed a grin that could send the Devil running. “With pleasure, mi cariño!”
Those fools never saw the triple axel corkscrew coming.
No star could outshine the gorgeous mountain of a man cradling him.
No victory could match the thrill of knowing and loving someone like Baloo.
No treasure could outweigh the value this man and the others meant to the former captain.
And no moment could surpass the first time that ring slipped onto his finger.