Illegally Born

Chapter 15: Preparations

The sound of the door to the cargo bay ‘shushing’ open woke Jessel from her sleep. Whoever it was had thoughtfully put out the light in the hall, but that also prevented the security officer from seeing who it was immediately. A uniformed silhouette approached her bunk as Jessel loosened herself from Mistoffelees’ grasp and raised herself up so she could see over the top of him. "Captain?" whispered Jessel, surprised.

The dark woman raised a finger to her lips as she knelt down by Jessel's bunk. She quirked a half frown at Mistoffelees' sleeping form before saying with a grin, "I just wanted to let you know that our orders have changed. We're to bring the Jellicles to Mars for a hearing on their legal status."

"That's wonderful!" breathed Jessel.

"You can let the Jellicles know as soon as they wake up in the morning."

The two officers started as Mistoffelees, his eyes still closed, said softly, "Munkustrap will want to know now."

Jessel pushed on his shoulder, "I thought you were asleep."

Mistoffelees opened his eyes to look at his mate, "The door opened; most of us are awake now."

"Then Munkustrap will want to know now," confirmed Jessel to her captain.

"I heard," came Munkustrap's voice from the foot of the bunk.

"How could you hear that from across the room?" asked Jessel, uncertain if she should be awed or just amazed.

"It is not so hard to hear," replied Munkustrap, somewhat annoyed. "This is what you wanted for us?" he asked the captain. "This 'hearing'?"

"Yes," replied the captain quietly. "Since you're up would you like to discuss it now or wait until morning?"

"Now, I think, please, Captain."

"What's a hearing?" queried Deuteronomy from the next bunk.

Captain Darren looked around to see quite a few cats' eyes shining in the dim light. Rising from her kneeling position, she stepped up to Munkustrap. "It seems there are a lot of people who would like answers, but I have to be on the bridge shortly." Turning to look down at Jessel, she continued, "Perhaps you could answer questions here, Ensign, while I speak to Munkustrap elsewhere."

"Yes, Captain," affirmed Jessel, knowing an order when she heard one.

Darren's brown eyes met Munkustrap's silver ones briefly before she headed for the door. She hadn't taken more than two steps before the tall tabby was striding beside her. Neither spoke until they had entered the Jellicles' mess hall next door.

"You did not want the others to hear our conversation?" accused Munkustrap, coming to a sudden stop just inside the door. He wisked his tail aside as the doors slid closed behind him.

Darren had continued into the room and now turned to face the perpetually hostile cat. "What the others hear or don't hear should be up to you, Munkustrap. Especially anything you might be concerned about. It isn't always best for followers to hear their leader's worries."

Munkustrap's tail twitched but he nodded. "I suppose you will want coffee?" he asked as he stepped past her to get some hot water for his own tea.

"No, thank you," she replied, taking a seat near him. "Looks like all you have down here is instant and I'm too used to the sludge they serve in the officer's mess."

The captain waited patiently while Munkustrap got his tea and sat down opposite her. "You need to make some decisions about how you're going to handle the hearing."

"I wasn't aware that I got to make any decisions at all," replied Munkustrap sharply, ears flattening slightly in annoyance or frustration -- she couldn’t tell.

"Yes, you do," said Darren, suddenly aware that she needed to both reassure and educate the Jellicle leader if he was going to win the battle ahead of him. "And the decisions you make could, quite literally, decide whether you live or die."

Munkustrap's attitude humbled perceptibly, "How do I change that?"

"When a matter goes to court, it goes before a judge, one person who makes the decision. There will also be a lawyer to argue each side of the question, in this case one will argue for recognizing you as people and the other will argue for killing you." The silver tabby growled softly but Darren gave him no chance to interrupt. "That's the way we decide arguments in this society, Munkustrap. It doesn't matter what the two lawyers themselves believe either; their job is to present the best possible case for the side that they represent. What you have to do is help your lawyer see your side of it so that she can do the best job she can for you. I've arranged for you to talk to her this afternoon."

"And then she will tell the judge and the judge will decide."

"That's right."

"Why won't the judge talk to me, instead?"

"That's one of the things that you have to work out with Ms. Baines this afternoon; whether it would be best for you to talk to the judge or leave all of the talking to her."

Munkustrap gave the captain a quizzical stare, "Do I have to do what she says?"

"She works for you, Munkustrap. You don’t have to do what she tells you, but her job is to know what will work and what won't work in a court of law. There are a lot of rules in a court room and you don't have time to learn them all. You can argue with her outside of the court room but you need to listen to what she says."

Munkustrap snorted, "One more person to tell me what to do."

"Is that what's bothering you?" asked Darren.

The silver tabby stared at her with cold eyes, "You say you want to make us free, but everywhere there are more people to tell us what to do."

"Everyone answers to someone else in this society. I have to answer to the admirals, they have to answer to the senators and the president, and they have to answer to the people of the world. Everyone answers to someone else in one way or another, that's how we run our society so that no one person can run roughshod over others. It doesn't always work, but for the most part it's a pretty good system." She leaned close to him and put a slender, brown hand over his strong, silver-furred one. "You will always have someone you have to answer to, Munkustrap, but the first person you have to answer to is yourself."

Munkustrap lowered his eyes to his cup and she tilted her head so she could see them. "If it helps any, I think you're doing a pretty good job with the troupe. Almost everyone is behaving well and no one seems to be panicked."

Munkustrap’s ears suddenly pinned themselves to his head and she heard his tail start to thump against the chairs behind and beside him as he snarled, "We are used to behaving and what's to panic over? We all knew that we could be killed any time the humans got tired of us." He kept his head down, glaring at his tea, as if it were the cause of all his frustrations.

"But there wasn't an order for your deaths hanging over you," said Darren, gently.

Munkustrap did look up at that and fear showed in his eyes.

"That's the hardest time to be a leader, when those you are responsible for are in danger. I've accepted the responsibility to make life and death decisions for my crew but I've never had to remotely deal with the kind of situation you're facing now." She paused and shook her head, "I hope I never have to, the decisions I have had to make have been hard enough."

The fear gradually faded from Munkustrap's eyes as he watched the captain's sympathetic expression. "Thank you, Captain," he said finally, "I think you must be a very good leader; you always seem to say just the right thing."

The captain laughed. "That is called diplomacy. And you're learning. I have to be on the bridge shortly. Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?"

Munkustrap thought about that for a moment before replying, "We would like to put on one more performance for the crew. I think the best time would be just before we get where we are going."

"Keeps your people out of trouble and gives mine something to look forward to. Yes, I think that's an excellent idea." The captain smiled at him as she rose from her chair. "I'll have Jessel bring you up to my office when it's time for you to talk to Ms. Baines."

Munkustrap watched her go and then got up to return to the Jellicles, hoping there wouldn't be too many questions that he couldn't answer.

******************

Quaxo rummaged through the boxes in the backstage area of the makeshift theater. Not that there were that many, but he wasn't used to having to find things for himself, either. The rest of the troupe was having a break from the morning's unusual practice. Trying to work out alternate steps for the kittens wasn't at all like working with the adults of the troupe. Kittens just did not concentrate the way adults did and Quaxo was still getting to know each of the kittens' abilities. Trying to work them into the show had proved more of a challenge than the mostly black cat had anticipated and he'd finally called a mid-morning break so that he could get away from the kittens for a few minutes. Not that he didn't have a reason to be backstage, he just didn't have to do this right now.

"What are you looking for?" asked Mistoffelees, coming up behind him.

Quaxo grinned at his friend. "My shoes. I'll need them if we're going to alter that scene."

Mistoffelees shook his head, "I don't see why. Your feet are black so the costume would look right without them. I never understood why I had to wear shoes for that part anyway. No one else wears them."

"I never understood it either, but you'll be wearing shoes, then, so I think I should too."

Mistoffelees grinned, "Ok, that makes sense. My lighted costume wouldn't look right with my white feet sticking out, anyway. I'll help you look."

"Nah, I'll find them. You go back to whatever you were doing," Quaxo said carelessly, over his shoulder. But he looked up again when he realized that Mistoffelees wasn't moving away and the look on his young friend's face told him that something was wrong. "Hey, is there something you want to talk about?" he asked, putting a hand on Mistoffelees' shoulder.

Mistoffelees' eyes gave the impression of looking up at Quaxo, despite the fact that the two toms were almost identical in height. "Yeah, maybe."

"Something wrong with you and Jessel?" Quaxo guessed.

Mistoffelees rolled his eyes, "No, that was yesterday."

"That would explain why you were too sick to dance. You got it worked out?"

Mistoffelees sighed, "For now."

Quaxo nodded, sitting down on one of the boxes and drawing Mistoffelees down beside him. Pairings weren't always easy and there were bound to be some rough times for Mistoffelees, considering his choice of mate. "If that was yesterday, what's today?"

"Grizzabella."

"Grizzabella?"

"She keeps staring at me," the younger tom said, with a bewildered look in his eyes. "She barely speaks to me but she watches me all the time."

"Have you tried talking to her?"

Mistoffelees shook his head, "Not about that. I have been trying to spend some time with her and Gus but she doesn't talk to me then either. I can talk to Gus without any problems, but the whole time Grizzabella just stares at me. She looks like she does up on stage. Despairing, I think is the word. I don't understand why she looks at me like that."

Quaxo thought that over for a moment. "Well, you are her kitten."

Mistoffelees snorted, "Yeah, I figure it's got to have something to do with that."

"Don't get mad at me. I'm just trying to talk it out."

"I'm sorry. I'm not mad. Just -- what else?"

"Ok, well -- I've been watching Jemima with our kitten --" Quaxo stopped and laughed, "That still sounds funny, to say 'our kitten'. I always thought it was just her kitten." He grinned at Mistoffelees, who smiled back.

"That is kind of funny, toms having kittens," snickered Mistoffelees.

Quaxo nodded and continued, "Anyway, I've been watching Jemima with Dart. She doesn't want to let him out of her sight for a moment more than she has too. And the other mothers all seem to be acting the same way. It must be hard for Grizzabella that you're all grown up. I've seen the way she looks at you. I don't think she is looking at you. I think she's looking at what she lost. She finally got her kitten back and you aren't a kitten any more."

"One of her kittens."

"Huh?"

"Grizzabella got one of her kittens back, me. She had two girl kittens, too."

"That's even more to lose. You do care about her, don't you?"

"Of course, I do. I care about every member of this troupe, and all the kittens too. I even kind of like the thought that I have a mother."

"Good. All of the moms seem to want to know that their kittens love them. Jemima is always asking Dart for hugs. Maybe if you find a way to show Grizzabella that you care about her, then she'll stop looking at what she lost and realize that you're really here and she can talk to you."

Before Mistoffelees could reply, Mungojerrie's voice boomed out from the other side of the divider, "You missed practice this morning. How can you say you still care about us when you don't even dance with us anymore?"

The two black and white toms ran out onto the stage to see what was going on, though they already knew. Mistoffelees stopped on the stage to watch but Quaxo jumped down and hurried over to where Mungojerrie was once again squaring off against his mate. Munkustrap stood off to one side of the pair and Jessel stood an almost identical distance to the other side. Most of the Jellicles were sprawled about the floor where the audience would sit, recovering from the morning practice, and all of those were now staring at the furious duo.

Rumpelteazer was so angry she was having trouble finding her voice. "Care… about… you???? You don't care about me!!! If you did, you would understand!" Tears in her green eyes, the brightly marked queen whirled and hurried out the door. Mungojerrie moved to follow her but Munkustrap stepped into his path. The silver tabby's eyes swept the room quickly, settling for an instant on Pearl, who was already headed for the door. She nodded once at her leader to let him know she would follow Rumpelteazer and then his attention turned fully to the angry tom in front of him.

"Get out of my way, Munkustrap, this isn't your business!"

"It is if your fighting upsets the whole troupe."

Quaxo slowed his pace as he stepped up behind Mungojerrie. "I say who has to be at practice, Mungojerrie. Rumpelteazer talked to me about skipping practice this morning and I said it was all right."

Mungojerrie whirled to face the smaller tom, golden eyes blazing. "Who made you Teacher?" he demanded angrily, a fierce arrogance in his tone.

"I did," replied Munkustrap, "and it's worked out so far."

Mungojerrie whirled back to face the silver tabby and then stepped to the side so that he could face both Munkustrap and Quaxo. "You've been encouraging her," he growled balling his fists.

Munkustrap kept his voice steady. "The more we know, the better off we are. If Rumpelteazer can learn what the humans know, it helps us all."

Startled gasps sounded around the room as the brown and white stripped tom raised his fists.

"You don't want to do that in front of me, Mungojerrie," said Jessel, authoritatively, taking a step forward. "You throw a punch and I'll have to take you down to the brig to cool off."

Shock registered on the faces of most of the Jellicles. Munkustrap fought to keep a steady gaze on Mungojerrie, hoping it would be enough to deter him from starting a fight. Mungojerrie's mouth dropped open in astonishment for a few seconds, then he began to yell, "Maybe you should just do that then! Nobody needs ME around here!" He brushed past Munkustrap to stare down at the diminutive security officer. "Even my mate doesn't want me! You might as well put me in a cage."

"I don't want to take you to the brig, Mungojerrie," replied Jessel keeping her voice low and steady. "I'm only telling you what will happen if you don't settle down."

"Well, I'm not going to settle down!" yelled the angry tom. "So just put me in a cage!"

"You haven't given me a reason, yet," said Jessel shaking her head. "Just don't hurt anyone and there won't be a reason for me to take you there."

Munkustrap put a hand on Mungojerrie's shoulder trying to calm him, but the enraged tom just shrugged him off.

Mungojerrie put both hands on Jessel's shoulders and shoved her, hard. The red-haired security guard stumbled backward several paces but managed to keep her feet under her. "Is that enough reason, human?" snarled Mungojerrie, his tail snapping back and forth behind him.

Mistoffelees joined the group surrounding Mungojerrie, grim determination on his face. Quaxo stepped in closer to his successor, afraid that the younger cat would attack Mungojerrie to protect his mate. But Mistoffelees only stood, tensely watching the exchange.

"That's enough," said Jessel, snatching something from her boot.

"Good, then you can just --" Mungojerrie broke off with a yelp as something slipped around his wrist and Jessel yanked his arm behind his back. Involuntarily, he cringed, expecting a shock from the collar he no longer wore.

"You asked for this," said the small security officer in an authoritative tone. "Don't give me any trouble now."

Mungojerrie fought down panic as she secured his other wrist behind his back.

"This isn't necessary," shouted Munkustrap, grabbing Jessel by the arm.

"That's up to Mungojerrie, Munkustrap. I'll let him out of the cuffs if he wants to settle down and apologize. Otherwise, he's going to the brig."

Jessel held Mungojerrie by the arm now, and he looked from her to Munkustrap and back again. Then he looked at the floor and shook his head.

"Come on now," said Jessel gently, looking up into his eyes, "just talk to me. Tell me that you're ready to settle down and I'll let you loose."

Mungojerrie just shook his head miserably.

"Let him loose," ordered Munkustrap.

"I can't," responded Jessel, "not if he won't talk to me."

Munkustrap put a hand on Mungojerrie's shoulder but the unhappy tom shrugged off the sympathetic touch. Dodger strode up and tried to offer sympathy the same way but Mungojerrie shied away from his predecessor, stepping sideways into Jessel.

"You aren't leaving me any choice," Jessel said quietly to her prisoner, but no response came. "All right, if that's the way you want it." The small security officer began leading her charge towards the door.

"Don't do this," said Munkustrap, his eyes wide with anxiety as he stepped into her path. The rest of the room had gone eerily quiet.

"Everything will be fine, Munkustrap," replied Jessel. "Either you or Deuteronomy has been to see Macavity everyday since he's been in the brig. You know nothing will happen to Mungojerrie." Then she lead the brown and white striped tom past the silver tabby and out the door, relieved, at least, that he wasn't resisting.

The elevator responded almost at once when she called for it and the pair stepped aboard. Jessel wanted very much to comfort the obviously distraught cat but decided that if he wouldn't accept sympathy from his closest friends, anything she could say would only make the situation worse.

The small security officer pressed her palm flat against the glass plate above the elevator's controls for clearance to a restricted area. A ping told her that her identity had been confirmed and she pressed the button for the detention level. As the doors opened, she pushed the big cat ahead of her and into an office to the right.

The officer on duty rose from behind the desk as they came in. He raised a mud-brown eyebrow at Jessel and asked, "What have you got here, Ensign?"

"Disturbing the peace," she snapped, annoyed to have to deal with Shelby, who always acted like her superior even though they held the same rank.

"Disturbing the peace?" he repeated in disbelief.

"That's what I said," she snapped, bending to sign the prisoner log.

"You done a weapons search yet?"

"No." Privately, Jessel didn't think that was necessary since the only thing Mungojerrie was wearing were a pair of spandex shorts, but Shelby was the officious type and rules were rules. The striped cat growled low in his throat as Shelby came around the desk towards him. Jessel snapped her head up, stopping Shelby with the sharpness of her tone. "I'll do it."

Shelby put his hands on his hips. "You are obviously biased."

"Fine you do it," she growled, and then added, in a gentler voice, to Mungojerrie, "Just stay still a moment, he's not going to hurt you."

The big cat tensed and his tail twitched as the security officer patted him down. Jessel swallowed a laugh as Mungojerrie's heavy tail caught Shelby in the mouth, knocking him slightly off balance. The security officer finished and backed up, trying to look dignified as he wiped fur out of his mouth. "Any problem with putting him in with the other cat?"

"Jellicle," Jessel corrected. "And no, I don't think that will be a problem."

"Good, it's a little crowded back there," growled Shelby, grabbing a key from the desk and leading the way out the door. Shelby opened the gate across the corridor, and closed it behind Jessel and Mungojerrie, waiting outside for Jessel to return. Another green-uniformed guard opened the cell block door and shut that behind them, leaving them inside a long room with five barred alcoves down each side. One of the two guards inside fell into step with Jessel as she guided Mungojerrie to the back of the room, acknowledging her with her title and a nod, "Ensign."

Jessel sent up a silent prayer that Macavity wasn't going to be a problem when they put Mungojerrie in the cell. She hadn't seen him since the night of the attack and now, as the only officer inside the cell block, it fell to her to deal with him. The red-gold cat stood at the cell door watching their approach. Jessel met the tom’s angry stare with cool authority. "Go sit on your hands at the end of the bunk, Macavity."

"Why?" he asked, coldly.

"So that I can put Mungojerrie in with you," replied Jessel, knowing that she was breaking convention by answering, but hoping he'd respond better for the acknowledgement. "Now, do as I say."

Macavity narrowed his golden eyes at her momentarily and then flipped around to sit on the far end of the lower bunk that extended from the side of the long narrow cell, as she'd directed. The guard opened the cell door as Jessel slipped the cuffs from Mungojerrie's wrists and pushed him inside. As soon as the door clanged shut, Jessel left and the guard returned to his station by the door.

The two toms stared at each other for a long moment, old friends suddenly made strangers by the awkwardness of the situation. "So what did you do?" asked Macavity, standing up and shaking out his hands.

"Got in a fight with Rumpelteazer," responded the other tom, looking chagrinned.

Macavity cocked his head, eyes widening in disbelief, "She put you in here for that?"

"Ah, well, no."

"Look, we both know why I'm here. Why did Jessel bring you here?"

Mungojerrie's tail began to twitch uncontrollably, and his ears flattened miserably against his head, "Um, I told her to bring me here and then I pushed her so she would."

Macavity stared at him for a long moment. "Ace," he said, using the name Mungojerrie had used as a kitten, "you, are an idiot."

"Yeah," replied the stripped cat, flopping miserably into the bottom bunk. "I know. I just got so mad, and I made Rumpelteazer cry, and I yelled at Quaxo and Munkustrap. I deserve to be here. If we were back in the practice room, I'd probably be dead now, acting like that."

Macavity sat down beside his friend, and rested a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Nah, they'd have just shocked you good. I'd be dead."

"Yeah, you would," snorted Mungojerrie. "Why'd you go after Jessel like that anyway?"

Macavity shrugged and lowered his eyes. "Thought I was doing the right thing. Thought fighting our way free would be easy with the collars off." He sighed. "Guess not, huh? Is everyone really mad at me for it?"

"Mistoffelees is pretty mad about it."

"I figured that," said Macavity, rolling his eyes.

"Hey, you asked." Mungojerrie rolled over onto his back and hooked his fingers behind his head as he looked at the bottom of the bunk above him. "I think everyone else is upset with you because he's upset, although some of them actually like Jessel. I don't know, I've been too busy worrying about Rumpelteazer."

Macavity looked back at him then. "So why are you fighting with her?"

Mungojerrie groaned, and covered his face in misery, "I'm going to lose her. I’m going to LOSE her; either we're all going to get killed or she's going to figure out how stupid I really am and not want anything more to do with me. I love her so much but she's learning things I know I'll never understand. She tried to explain ohms and volts to me yesterday. I still have no idea what she said."

"I don't know what an ohm or a volt is, but if Victoria tried to explain it to me I know I'd sit and listen to her beautiful voice for as long as it took for her to get it through my thick skull." Macavity’s voice was soft with longing, and Mungojerrie looked up to see his friend staring sadly off into space.

"You miss her a lot?"

Macavity looked at him. "What do you think?"

"I know she's asked to visit you. Munkustrap says you don't want her to come down here."

"At least he managed to get that right. Do you think I want her around them?" demanded Macavity, indicating the cells around them with a vicious slash of his hand. "Would you want Rumpelteazer down here?"

Mungojerrie cringed, "No. I hope Munkustrap doesn't let her come here. Not that she'll want to the way we've been fighting lately. How long do you think they'll keep me here?"

A female voice startled them both. "As long as I say."

"Lieutenant," said Macavity, rising and acknowledging the security chief the same way he'd heard the guards address her. Macavity had already had a couple of talks with Lieutenant Sentry, enough to know that he wasn't getting out of her brig anytime soon. Mungojerrie followed his example and got to his feet, but didn't dare say anything to the human who would decide how long he stayed in this cage.

The blond Lieutenant frowned at them both through the bars of the cell. addressing Mungojerrie. "Ensign Jessel put down your offence as ‘disturbing the peace’, which means you stay here overnight. Then you and I will have a talk in the morning and if you're ready to work things out calmly, you can go back to the other Jellicles then. I suggest you use this time to think your actions through and come up with a way to solve your problems without picking fights."

The stripped tom swallowed hard. "Yes, I'll do that. Thank you…Lieutenant."

Sentry looked as though she didn't quite believe Mungojerrie's sincerity. "You do that," she said dryly, then turned on her heel and left as silently as she had arrived.

Mungojerrie turned back to Macavity, "So what do we do now?"

"Nothing." Macavity turned and settled himself against the bunk, a despondent look on his face. "That's what you do in this place, nothing; I never thought I could miss a good hard practice session so much."

****************************

For the first time since she had danced for them, Jessel felt self-conscious in the Jellicles' presence. Not one of the Jellicles had spoken to her since she had come back from taking Mungojerrie to the brig. By the time she had gotten back to the theater, Quaxo had had everyone hard at work and those who weren't on the stage kept their distance from her. They would make eye contact, but then they would move away. Only Mistoffelees stayed close and even he didn't seem to have anything to say to her. As soon as Quaxo had called the break for lunch, Mistoffelees had taken his mate by the arm and led her away. They'd stayed a little ahead of the rest of the Jellicles and Mistoffelees had picked the table in the farthest corner of the mess hall for them to eat at.

Side by side, they ate in silence until Jessel decided she needed some reaction from her love. Eyes focused on her plate, she said, softly, "I was only doing my duty." She glanced at the tom next to her. "Are you angry with me?"

"No." He turned to her with a sadness in his eyes. "But I think everyone was pretty shocked to see you take Mungojerrie away with his hands tied."

"Well, that's procedure," she replied, suddenly feeling as if she were hiding behind the rulebook. "I put the cuffs on him to keep him from hurting anyone."

"I don't think he was trying to hurt you."

"No," she agreed, sighing, "I think he was trying to hurt himself."

Mistoffelees stared at her, startled. Then he broke into a grin and rubbed his face against her shoulder. "You do understand. I was afraid that you wouldn't."

"I'm trying," she replied, smiling at his sudden display of affection.

Suddenly Rumpelteazer burst into the room, followed closely by Deuteronomy and Pearl. It took her only a second to locate the red-headed security officer at the back of the mess hall and she crossed the room in a ground-eating stride. "Why?" she demanded, coming to a halt in front of Jessel. "Why did you put my Mungojerrie in a cage?"

"To stop him from getting into more trouble than he could handle," Jessel replied evenly.

"Nobody would have hurt him and he wouldn’t have hurt anybody else either!" Rumpelteazer yelled as Deuteronomy and Pearl ranged themselves on either side of her, glancing at each other uncertainly.

Jessel shook her head. "Not intentionally, I'm sure, but accidents happen when tempers run that hot."

"Let him out!" The striped queen’s ears flattened and her tail cut the air in rapid strokes.

"I can't. Once someone's in the brig only the Captain, Commander Loncosky, or Lt. Sentry can let them out." Jessel switched to a soothing tone, "He'll be fine, Rumpelteazer. Lt. Sentry will probably let him out in the morning."

Rumpelteazer's voice broke up as tears welled up in her eyes, "He… shouldn't… have to… stay… in a… cage."

Pearl pulled the distraught queen's head down on her shoulder. Almost every Jellicle in the room rose from their seats and formed a consoling circle around Rumpelteazer. Many reached out a comforting hand to stroke her back or shoulder and several sent accusing glances in Jessel's direction. Munkustrap came to stand by Deuteronomy and the two leaders exchanged helpless expressions as whispers and mutterings murmured around them.

Mistoffelees' ears rotated and twitched as he sorted out the grumbles. Jessel patted her mate's arm, knowing he could hear more of what was said than she could, hoping to soothe him. Suddenly coming to his feet, the black and white tom fixed Bombalurina with a piercing glare and shouted, "It wasn't Jessel's fault! And anyone who saw what happened knows that!"

Tugger slipped his arm around Bombalurina, in a manner that made Jessel think that he was trying to soothe her as much for everyone else's sake as for his mate's. Jessel wanted to let it go, but couldn't. She needed some way to break the gathering tension.

"If you have something to say to me, Bombalurina, say it so that I can hear you," said Jessel levelly.

"You want us to believe that you're on our side, but now there are TWO Jellicles in the brig because of you," snarled the tall queen.

Mistoffelees' tail swished violently behind him, but it was Munkustrap who answered first. "Now that's unfair; Macavity attacked Jessel. Even he accepts some blame for his punishment."

"And Mungojerrie practically begged to be taken away," added Quaxo. "He rampaged until she had to do something, and we all heard her tell him that if he promised to stop, she’d let him go. He wouldn’t."

"But why can't he come out now?" sobbed the distraught Rumpelteazer.

Jessel sighed and made her answer very gently, "The idea behind confining him in the brig for a night is to convince him he doesn't want to earn a longer stay. Hopefully, when he gets out he'll put a little more thought into his actions.

Munkustrap pulled the striped queen away from her predecessor and into the crook of his arm. He gently tipped her chin up so that he could look into her tear-blurred eyes. "They really won't hurt him, Rumpelteazer. Macavity's been in the brig for days and they haven't hurt him at all. And he did something much worse than Mungojerrie did."

Rumpelteazer nodded and sniffed up the last of her sobs. Then Pearl pulled her close again and led her away as the crowd of Jellicles drifted back to their respective meals. But when Bombalurina tried to turn and go, she found herself held tightly by her mate's arm. He dragged her to where Jessel was sitting and hissed in her ear, "Apologize!"

The tall queen stared at her mate in fury, but his grip tightened around her waist. "I mean it!" he growled and the hard look that came into his eyes was one that his mate hadn't seen directed at her in a very long time.

Bombalurina pursed her lips and looked down her nose at the small security officer. "I'm sorry," she said with no remorse at all.

Tugger gave his mate a small shake and Mistoffelees growled low in his throat.

"That isn't necessary, Bombalurina," said Jessel quickly. "You're entitled to your opinion."

"Apparently, I'm not," replied the tall queen coolly.

"Yes, you are," Jessel said firmly, shifting her gaze to meet Tugger's hazel green eyes. "And I don't accept forced apologies."

Tugger just snorted and led his mate away. Jessel sighed, certain that the two would be fighting later and trying to think of an excuse to be absent when it happened.

Mistoffelees knelt down and wrapped his arms around his mate's waist, nuzzling his cheek against hers. Surprised, Jessel glanced around to see what kind of reactions they were getting. Fortunately, no one seemed to be noticing. Jessel slipped her mouth up near her mate's ear and whispered, "I don't think this is the time or..."

But Mistoffelees stopped her protest with a long kiss. His purrs, which usually soothed her so softly, sounded loud in her ears. She wrapped her arms around him, surrendering to his wishes, but privately making a mental note to talk to him later about such public displays of affection. When he finally released her and she was able to look around again, it seemed that every Jellicle in the room stared at them. At a complete loss for what to do she looked to her mate. The black and white tom looked inordinately pleased with himself and was meeting Jellicle stares with a defiant smirk. His purrs resonated loudly around the room, and Jessel realized he wanted the others to notice.

A long pause seemed to grip the room. Finally, Quaxo rose from his chair and approached the couple.

"Umm, what was that?" he asked hesitantly.

"A kiss," replied Mistoffelees, still holding his mate. "It's for mates."

"I can see that," replied Quaxo. Turning back towards his place he shrugged at the other Jellicles, who promptly returned their attention to their meals.

Whispering to her mate once again, Jessel scolded, "You shouldn't have done that. Do you want everyone upset with me?"

He pushed his face against hers and whispered back, fiercely, "I want them all to know that you are my mate and I love you. They are just going to have to get used to you because you are going to be with us for a long, long time."

Jessel wasn't about to point out the various future scenarios that could make that impossible.

Chapter 16: The Firestorm 

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