I was listening to Underworld's "Cowgirl" when working on this.
"This is my machine, this is my beautiful dream, and I'm hurting no one."
When the cats returned from the park they were struck with the sensation that something, very much, was off. Possibly intuition, though more likely glaring facts as the Jellicles lingering around the Junkyard seemed to hang back.
“This doesn’t seem good,” Kamaria murmured, a bit cautious as she proceeded, slowing a half-step to let the brave Shemoh take the lead, in doing so taking in her friend’s appearance. The sealpoint’s face held concern, but definitely not cowardice.
Not too far of the group, the grey and white form of Roxanne stood next to Victoria and Plato, seeming to shrink back as they watched something out of sight.
“Hey,” Shemoh called, picking up the pace. “Roxanne, what’s happening?”
“Oh, thank God you’re here. Or well… maybe it’s not so good. It’s pretty bad. I’d go out there but…” Roxanne hesitated, something she could be prone to do. A loyal friend, probably more than some, but at times intimidated. When Kamaria looked to where Roxanne gestured, she could tell immediately why the queen was hesitant to interfere.
“I swear, two gray strays, they’re exactly the same,” Plato murmured, shaking his head. He referred to the spectacle, Rafaela and Kitrina facing off, bodies rigid as if they might strike. And, indeed, from a distance, once could mistake them for being related, Kitrina taller than her counterpart.
“What happened?” Kamaria inquired, but Plato shook his head and shrugged.
“Beats me. They’ve been like this for the past ten minutes.”
“Rafaela just came back, too. I only tried to introduce them,” Roxanne murmured apologetically, guilt touching her features. “I thought maybe they’d get along. … apparently they already knew each other, though.”
“Small world,” Shemoh offered, looked to the group, then sighed. “All right, all right, I’ll do it, fine.”
“Shemoh--” Kamaria began, but it’d fall on deaf ears as Shemoh strode directly to the pair and stood between them.
“All right. Who goes first, who goes second, and how soon can we shake paws, make up, and get dinner?” she asked simply.
Both queens snorted and glanced away, once again their positions nearly mirroring each other. Kitrina was taller but emaciated, dark stripes only emphasizing the lack of meat around her ribs and detracted from her beauty; Rafaela had the markings of a true beauty, somehow able to keep her creamy grey coat lustrous, but the visage was barely marred by crescent white scar over her left eye, the top peaking just below her headfur, the base almost to her whiskers. Another moon.
“All right, fine. Raf, what’s the deal?”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped at Shemoh, arms folding before her chest. “Just surprised at your screening process.”
Kitrina had a retort ready, Americanisms coming out full force, in particular her volume. “I have every right to be here, I got clearance from the big man, and it’s none of your business. I don’t need some kid telling me to get lost. Why don’t you go root in the garbage again? Maybe you can find a pet rock for company.”
“… that’s a bit uncalled for,” Shemoh tried.
“Coalie's uncalled for in general.”
“I swear I’m going to beat your face in.”
But Kitrina didn’t step forward, anger simmering beneath the surface. All meow, and no scratch.
Rafaela smirked. Even small victories added up.
From the sidelines, watching the scene gave Kamaria a headache. Then again, a lot of things about Kitrina gave her a headache. She showed up a few months ago, only days after Rafaela disappeared, undoubtedly on another adventure for exploration, or maybe to find some peace in solitude—it was hard to tell, but since Kamaria joined Rafaela maintained that trend. Unlike Rafaela, Kitrina seemed rooted to the spot, only on occasion walking to the border of Jellicle territory before she’d pace along it as if questioning leaving before going back.
It was impossible to deny that the two queens had their similarities, and maybe if it were a different time and place they'd be friends but their negative qualities repelled like the opposite ends of a magnet. Kamaria wasn’t sure what she thought of either queen.
When she met Rafaela, she’d been starving and was digging around for food. The younger queen surveyed her before offering to share some kibble she swiped from a canister. It was one of the only things Rafaela said, but Kamaria made up for it, nervously speaking in hopes of instigating conversation. At one point, Rafaela smiled, and said, “You talk too much.”
Encounters with Rafaela were always like that, and Kamaria eventually decided that she generally enjoyed the company if she felt introspective, or wanted to be near someone who’d listen without getting distracted the way Shemoh could at times. Some of the other queens and kittens were harder to approach, not that Rafaela was incredibly approachable, but it was enough. There were boundaries.
Kitrina was harder to categorize.
“Okay, can we get something to eat now?” Shemoh asked, completely disregarding their tension.
“Forget it. I’m wasting my time,” Kitrina groused as she turned her back to the pair and stalked toward the tire pile, slowing her pace only when Munkustrap came into view. “Oh, Fearless Leader, you’ve done a remarkable job of teaching your recruits manners! Really, incredible. You should be proud of yourself.”
“Funny that our uncultured still have more class than your best,” Munkustrap replied with a smile, completely unfazed as he walked past her, Alonzo alongside him, stopping only when he was in the center of the impromptu assembly. “Okay, I need a headcount for whoever wants to eat tonight.”
“Count me out,” Kitrina snorted from the sidelines.
Munkustrap rolled his eyes. “You needn’t have worried, dear. I never would have counted you in the first place.”
“Like I’d want your crummy English food. I’d rather starve.”
“Clearly,” Munkustrap replied, giving her a one-over. “And we’d rather not waste it on unappreciative parties.”
The female snorted, though for a moment her arms crossed in front of her waist, almost protectively or self-consciously, before she continued on her path, climbing the tires before perching out of sight.
“Did I miss much besides the fireworks?” Munkustrap joked, scratching Shemoh behind the ear. Shemoh’s tail began to swish as she purred, and, for the first time involving her friend, Kamaria felt a pang of jealousy.
“That was pretty much that,” Kamaria interrupted, smile coming to her own face when Munkustrap looked at her, hand lowering from the affectionate touch as he smiled at her. That was the regality of a leader, of next in kin.
“When’d you get back?” Alonzo asked Rafaela, an eyebrow raising skeptically.
“None of your business,” she retorted, then strode away from the clustering assembly. But, before out of earshot, she added, “Count me in. I’m bloody starving.”
It was peculiar how cats had their own pride, unique pride to themselves. Pride really was a funny sort of thing. Kamaria prided in dreams, delighting in keeping those thoughts to herself. Her imagination was sacred, as was the analysis of the cats that surrounded her, and fantasies of the future, many of those involving Munkustrap or Odynn.
She sat by the base of the tires collected with some of the other younger cats in between Roxanne and Shemoh. A few tires above them lounged Rafaela who, save for throwing a few scraps into the shoebox they used to collect garbage, remained virtually undetected. But with the quantity of food, some brought in excess, the box was filling faster than usual.
“I’ll empty it,” Kamaria offered, rising to her feet as she padded to the box, grunting to pick it up. “Back soon,” she offered, barely ducking and avoiding a shrimp tail.
“HE DID IT!” Pouncival accused, pointing at Alonzo, who only gave a bored expression.
Shaking her head, Kamaria proceeded on her walk. She never minded the errand, and sometimes it was nice to get away from the commotion that always came with group suppers. They were enjoyable, and she tried never to miss one. It’d be almost sacrilege. Maybe not to that extent, but it was hard to find a time that wasn’t as sacred as the Jellicle Ball where the cats could get together, to feast, to sing, to dance. They’d done very little dancing before getting to the food this time, too little.
Kamaria had been surprised when she rose to dance and was beckoned by Alonzo to accompany him. He truly was a marvelous dancer, and she’d laughed a lot, especially as some of the other cats joined in dance. Odynn didn’t seem to be in the mood for it, strangely, Kamaria thought, though Shemoh was up there in a heartbeat, shy Tumblebrutus not having a chance to say yes or no before he was dragged forward, not that she was particularly interested in him, rather not at all. “That’s surprising,” Kamaria had said as she looked to the pair, but Alonzo merely shook his head.
“Not really. It’s a ploy to get Jemima to dance with him. He’s always too nervous to ask her.”
And, sure enough, as Jemima came out to turn on her own, Shemoh gave Tumblebrutus a thumbs’ up and shoved him toward her, laughing as she scooted away, grabbing Etcetera and Roxanne’s paws to pull them out as well. Maybe everyone would have danced longer if Munkustrap didn’t bring back fresh shrimp. Maybe it would have been long enough for Odynn to decide to dance.
Maybe if she hurried, she could try to instigate song again, and dance with either Munkustrap or Odynn, even if it required asking them herself. If it worked for Shemoh, couldn't it work for her?
Kamaria was so drawn in thought that she yelped when she heard the noise ahead of her at the garbage bin. Embarrassment flooded her features when she saw Kitrina scramble to stand up, having been curled over the top, rooting through the trash. When Kamaaria made eye contact with Kitrina, she was struck by the look on her face: shame. Shame at being caught in an act that could only be described by one word. This was desperation. This was what desperation looked like.
She wondered how long it’d been since the queen ate, and couldn’t remember seeing her eat in the presence of any Jellicle. Guiltily, Kamaria looked to the remainders of food shoved into the shoebox she held, scraps that’d be junked, scraps that end up being food for these cats. Kitrina watched it, nose and whiskers twitching in want, lips moving slightly as she gave a tiny lick. Kamaria wondered if the queen would start salivating from the thought.
“Do… you want this? There’s probably a good fillet of sole left, definitely some shrimp-” Kamaria tried, but Kitrina only shoved away from the garbage bin, the motion knocking it over as she ran into one of the alleys, shadow shrouding her into dark. Cats had a funny way of showing pride; Kamaria wasn’t sure whether Kirina ran from that pride or shame.
She moved to the garbage bin before looking at the shoebox and setting it next to it, trying to keep enough distance from the flies. It was unnerving, and even on the return to the group she kept looking over her shoulder.
“Is everything okay?” Roxanne asked gently, head turned as Kamaria sat next to her.
“Yeah. Yeah, just… thinking is all.”
“Get scared by a cockroach or something?” Pouncival teased, head snapping to the side as Odynn smacked him in the arm. “Hey! What was that for?!”
“Being a jerk.”
“When’d you get so boring?” Pouncival snorted, rolling his eyes as he rubbed the tender spot on his arm.
“It’s fine, really,” Kamaria cut in. “I just…” She stalled before glancing around. Coast seemed clear. “Kitrina was digging for scraps. I tried to offer her leftovers but she took off.”
“What’d you expect from Coalie? She's not a begger,” Rafaela snorted. “Anyone who runs with Fangor’s not a begger.”
Rafaela shifted her weight, thick tail curling around her. “Punk who does some work for Macavity.” At the mention of the name, the cats drew into silence, looks exchanged as if the name were a warning. “You run with him, you go by his rules. Fight or die trying. She'd probably be killed if she accepted hospitality.”
“She didn’t say anything about this when she came,” Roxanne murmured quietly. “You don’t think she’s a spy? She won’t leave territory.”
“Either she's doing a damn good job acting, or calling Sanctuary. I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Rafaela shifted onto her back then, giving a yawn, curling up as if she were going to sleep.
Like it were any other statement, like the unease that passed through the group was nonexistent. An unease that didn’t settle until it was even blacker out.
“I’m sleeping over with you guys tonight,” Tumblebrutus said hurriedly. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to visit.”
“You visit every day. Don’t be a scardy cat,” Pouncival snorted.
“I’m not being a scardy cat. I’m just staying, that’s all,” Tumblebrutus argued.
“Oh, COME ON! Any other day you’d say it’s fine!”
“Yeah, but it’d get crowded. Bigger crowd would be more obvious!”
“And no one would attack a bigger crowd! Come onnnnn, you can make room for me!”
“Dude, no. Where? There’s so little crash space as is. Like none.”
“I’ll sleep with you!” Tumblebrutus paused then began flushing as some of the other toms snickered and Pouncival looked rather perturbed. “NOT LIKE THAT! Jeez!!!”
“Probably it’s a good idea to get going,” Jemima murmured, weight shifting. “I mean before it’s too, too late. Shemoh, maybe we can go back together? We’re close enough.”
“Mmmhmm.” The seal point rose to her feet. “We’ll see you guys tomorrow. Stop bullying Brutus while you’re at it. Come on, Jemima.”
“Be careful. Please,” Roxanne murmured. Kamaria was about to offer her own form of encouragement when she caught a glimpse of Victoria, Mistoffelees, and Plato in the background.
“I’m perfectly capable of escorting her home,” Mistoffelees insisted, though Plato looked uncomfortable by the idea.
“He’s just a friend,” Victoria offered. "Nothing more. I promise."
“It’s not that. I just… don’t want you to get hurt,” Plato began.
“… I do magic. You honestly think that I’d get her hurt?” Mistoffelees asked, dubiously.
“I could walk back with you two,” Plato offered then. “Just… just incase.”
“But then you’ll be alone,” Victoria protested.
“I’ll be all right.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Well, you could… no. Forget it.”
Plato sighed. “Do you want to go back to your home tonight or, I mean, if you want… you could stay here. With me.”
“SEE?!” Tumblebrutus protested loudly. “See?! HE’S making room for Victoria! If there’s room for her, there’s room for me.”
"Brutus, SHUT UP!"
"There's totally no excuse for not letting me stay!"
“Yeah, but she’s like his girlfriend,” Pouncival argued.
“So pretend I’m your girlfriend or something. I'm NOT going back there alone.”
“Ugh, would Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum PLEASE shut up,” Alonzo groaned, rising to his feet. “I’m going to the crates, and I’m going to sleep, and I don’t want to hear you idiots arguing all night.”
"Hey Alonzo?" Tumblebrutus called.
"What?" he replied crossly.
"Can I sleep with you?"
Plato turned his head to watch the others before sighing and looking back to Victoria. “I’ll walk you both home.”
Victoria stalled before nodding her head. “I want to stay with you.”
“Vicky?! You don’t want to do that, do you?” Mistoffelees asked, bewildered.
“He’s a gentleman.”
“No, he’s not. Gentlemen are cultured and know how to spell.”
“I trust him,” Victoria interjected strongly. “I’m staying with him. If you want to go back tonight, I suggest you find someone else to escort you.”
“I don’t need an escort,” Mistoffelees snorted, seemingly insulted by the thought before snapping fingers. There was a small explosion, Pouncival jumping in Tumblebrutus’s arms with a squeal, Roxanne dove to the ground between Etcetera and Electra, and Kamaria hid behind Odynn. When the smoke cleared, Mistoffelees was gone.
“… I’ll escort you home,” Odynn offered calmly, though he held his posture higher as he looked behind his shoulder at Kamaria. Then, with a sigh, added, “Brutus, you too.” Tumblebrutus paused from where he was ready to start pestering Admetus.
“Really? Thanks, Odynn. You rock.”
“It’s fine. You can stay,” Pouncival grumbled.
“No, Odynn said he’d take me back because he's cool like that,” Tumblebrutus argued, dumping the other to the ground.
“Yeah, well, I changed my mind.”
“Yeah, but you smell.”
“I do not smell!”
“Yeah, you do! And you’re fat!”
“I AM NOT FAT! I’M BIG BONED! And you’re staying!”
“But I wanna go home!”
“Well, too bad!” And Pouncival looped his arm around Tumblebrutus’s neck, dragging his friend in a headlock. Odynn only had one thing to offer: a deep sigh.
“Are you sure you’d want to walk me if everyone else is staying here? I could stay just as easily,” Kamaria offered.
“It’s up to you. I don’t think there’s really much of a difference from one day to the next,” Odynn replied, giving a shrug. “I could share sleeping space with Alonzo.”
Well… that wasn’t quite what Kamaria had in mind, especially not as she watched Victoria and Plato walk together to the pipe and crawl inside, him shifting to lie beside her, arms encircling Victoria close. Still, the offer seemed more appealing, another way to be close. “Thanks,” she murmured.
A little past midnight, Rafaela couldn’t sleep. It was mildly agitating how Coalie’s reappearance could put even her at unease, or maybe the thought that there could be spy work, and she paced, long, low strides taken to cross the perimeter.
“No, no, nononoonononono!”
A noise in the distance.
Immediately, Rafaela picked up her pace into a run, tail erect, fur fluffed, though soon she settled by the garbage bins where Kitrina was charging at crows, trying to get them to leave the shoebox they’d brought with food before. She'd make a few strides in before one of the birds would charge her, the brash queen seemingly petrified by the fowl. Rafaela watched as Kitrina mewled pathetically; she'd heard sounds like that from the street before. Hunger.
Rafaela growled, coming to aide the queen, her charge more effective or maybe it was the hard swipe she gave one of the crows. The birds took to the sky, caw-ing their distaste, but when Rafaela looked for the other queen, she was gone.
She offered a headshake before looking to the shoe box Kitrina had been so desperately trying to get to, the smell of food overwhelming, but that sense was sadistic.
It was empty.