Illegally Born

Chapter 14: My Love

A rustling sound disturbed Mistoffeleesí sleep. Still more than half asleep, the black and white tom reached for his mate. Not finding her, he opened his eyes to see her standing by the bunk they shared.

She leaned down and brushed the soft fur on his cheek with her hand. Softly, she whispered, "Go back to sleep, Mistoffelees."

Gentle sounds of rhythmic breathing told him that everyone else still slept. "Where are you going?" he asked, taking her hand in his and keeping his voice as low as he could. He nuzzled her hand, enjoying the scent of her skin.

"Iíve got PT this morning. The lieutenant excused me until the Jellicles got used to the ship, which you are now. I canít miss again. Just go back to sleep." Jessel pulled her hand free of his, smiling slightly. "Iíll be back in time for breakfast."

"I go where you go," he replied, sitting up, not understanding any part of what she had just said other than she was leaving him behind to do something for her lieutenant.

She shook her head, the red waves of her loose hair hitting her face, "You donít want to go, trust me. Go back to sleep." She kissed his lips quickly, then pulled away from him with a last stroke of her hand over his ears. Mistoffelees watched her cross the room and take a costume from her locker before she disappeared into one of the personal cubes. He tossed aside the blankets and prepared himself for the day, moving as quickly and quietly as he could. He was waiting by the door to the corridor as Jessel emerged from the cubicle, wearing loose white pants and a white tunic belted at the waist with a dark blue tie.

"I go where you go," he repeated, stubbornly, as she approached him.

"You donít want to go," she told him again, stepping out into the corridor, pulling her hair up into a twist and securing it with a tie. He padded along behind her. Pressing the button to call the elevator, she tucked a few stray strands of red hair behind an ear and turned to the black and white tom. "You are going to make me late."

"No, Iím going with you," he replied, rubbing his face against her shoulder. Then he thought about the last time she had gotten standoffish with him. "Unless, that will get you in trouble again?" he asked, solicitously.

"I wonít get in trouble," she sighed. The elevator doors opened and Jessel stepped aboard, Mistoffelees following closely. The doors closed and the elevator began to move. "You are not going to like this," she warned him. Mistoffelees only wrapped his arms around her in answer, holding her lightly against his chest as he waited for the elevator to reach its destination. He watched the lighted indicator move from number to number, and suddenly realized he could read the numbers. He started to say something when the elevator stopped and the doors opened. Jessel stepped out of his arms and off the elevator; he hurried to catch up.

She led the way down another corridor into a large room. Mistoffelees wrinkled his nose, trying to identify the sour-salty musk scent in the air as he looked around the room. A long mirror completely covered one wall, its reflection making the room appear larger than it actually was. One whole wall at the end was covered with unusual devices and oddly shaped gloves and boots; he stared at them for a moment trying to fathom what sort of costume they might be used for.

The only pieces of furniture were a couple of benches opposite the mirror, next to the door, and a thin blue matting covered the floor. It reminded Mistoffelees of the room the Jellicles had stayed in at the theater and he had to take a deep breath to remind himself that this was not there. About twenty human men and women milled about; all were dressed in the same fashion as Jessel, only the colors of their belts varied; several reds, yellows, greens, and a few blues and browns provided the only color to the loose costumes. Many of the humans gave him odd looks without disturbing their conversations.

Jessel kicked off her shoes, setting them with a row of other shoes by the door, and bowed at the mat, then led him to one of the benches and gently pushed against his shoulders to make him sit down. "Just stay here," she said firmly, bringing her face close to his. "Donít move and donít say anything unless you are spoken to."

He nodded, so she would know that he understood to be silent, and settled himself comfortably on the bench to wait.

At that moment Lt. Sentry walked in. It took a moment for Mistoffelees to recognize her, because she wore the same white costume that everyone else did; he had never before seen her without her green uniform. "Letís get started," the lieutenant called sharply. As the rest of the people in the room formed into lines in front of the mirror, the lieutenantís eyes landed on the black and white tom seated at the back of the room. "Ensign Jessel," she snapped, her eyes darting around the room. The red-headed ensign hustled over to her superior.

Mistoffelees wondered if his presence was going to get his mate into trouble again, after all. He watched as Sentryís hand landed on Jesselís shoulder, forcing her to narrow the gap between them, and their faces turned away from him. "Are you sure thatís a good idea?" asked the blond lieutenant quietly, tipping her eyebrows at the bench. Mistoffelees wondered if she thought he couldnít hear her, then decided it didnít matter; humans didnít usually care if he could hear them anyway.

"He insisted on coming," replied Jessel with a shrug.

The lieutenant shook her head and gave Jessel a gentle push, back toward her place in the lines. Then she stepped up in front and began what looked to Mistoffelees like a dance class. The movements were different from what he was used to but the class followed a similar pattern; starting with slow movements designed to stretch muscles and continuing into a faster pace. He couldnít understand the harsh breathy sounds the dancers made, though. It wasnít singing, nor was it pleasant to listen to, but it was rhythmic. The pace increased again and the strange dance expanded in itís violent quality. Mistoffeleesí heart began to race as the sharp kicks and hand motions doubled in speed and the accompanying chorus hurt his sensitive ears. He sat very still on his bench and concentrated on his fire-haired mate.

Her rapid-fire movements flowed smoothly, her breath coming quickly but well-controlled. He did not understand why she refused to believe that she was a good dancer. He relaxed and began enjoying the strange performance. He would have to tell her how well she moved, when her practice session ended.

The dance slowed again and then ended. Lieutenant Sentry called the group to the middle of the floor, just as the dance instructor had done at the end of the Jelliclesí practice sessions. This group seated themselves in a perfect square around her though, which Mistoffelees thought was odd if she intended to talk to them. The lieutenant glanced at him momentarily, then called to her class, "Belja, Amiril."

Two of the students jumped up and stepped to the center of the square. Mistoffelees didnít recognize the tall dark-haired woman that he assumed was Amiril but he recognized Belja, a black-haired brown-skinned man, as one of the security guards who had come with Lt. Sentry the night Macavity had attacked. The two bowed to each other and Mistoffelees assumed that they were going to start some other kind of a dance. They dropped into what looked more like defensive positions.

Lt. Sentryís voice rang out with the command, "Fight!" Startled, Mistoffeleesí eyes grew big and his tail began to twitch as the two punched and kicked at each other. Remembering Jesselís order to stay quiet and not move, Mistoffelees grabbed his tail to keep it from twitching. He glanced at his mateís face where she sat across from him, critically watching the combatants. The combat ended when Beljaís foot landed in Amirilís stomach and Sentry called out "Point." The two retook their places in the square, breathing hard but otherwise appearing unhurt. The lieutenant called another pair to the center. Mistoffelees bit his lip as the second battle began, frightened by this strange ritual and uncertain what to make of it. He watched, horrified, as the two blocked and lunged. This battle ended when one of the combatants kicked the other in the head. The one whoíd been kicked shook his head as he retook his place in the square.

Mistoffelees swallowed and tried to force himself to relax. So far thereíd been no serious injuries and the group all seemed to know what they were there for. Humans had strange ways, that was all, but the pit of his stomach began to churn with the thought that these humans werenít performing, they were here to learn to fight, to hurt others. Lt. Sentry called out again, but this time there was only one name, "Jessel." Confused, Mistoffelees watched as his red-haired mate stepped to the middle of the square. She bowed to Lt. Sentry and they both dropped into defensive positions. Mistoffelees bit harder on his lip, realizing that the blond lieutenant was probably the best fighter in the room, since sheíd been leading the exercise. Mistoffelees knew, from watching Jessel defend herself against Macavity, that his mate was a good fighter but he was equally certain that she would loose this bout. The lieutenant had been annoyed that he had followed his mate to this practice. Was that why sheíd chosen to fight Jessel herself? His breathing quickened as the battle began.

Back and forth the two struck and blocked, the taller woman using her extra height to stay out of Jesselís range. Jessel employed the same tactics Mistoffelees had seen her use against Macavity, waiting for an opening and making herself the smallest target she could. His tail slipped out of his rapidly numbing hands as Jessel blocked an especially quick barrage of punches by her opponent. Sentry followed that up with a side kick that Jessel blocked easily, spinning into a kick of her own. Mistoffelees felt his toe-claws puncture the blue matting under his feet as Sentry caught his mateís foot, flipping the smaller woman to the floor and following with a sharp punch to Jesselís stomach. For a moment the only sounds in the room were of rapid breathing and Mistoffeleesí tail heavily hitting the wall and the bench. Then Sentry offered Jessel her hand, pulling her easily to her feet; but instead of releasing the smaller woman immediately she pulled her closer and said softly, "Get him out of here."

Jessel nodded and stepped through the square. She placed both hands on Mistoffeleesí shoulders to get his attention. He blinked at her rapidly, his eyes wide and staring. She pulled on him to get him to his feet. Then she slipped an arm around him, pulling his arm across her shoulder, and snatching up her shoes in one hand as she led him into the corridor. She pushed him up against the wall to let him rest as the door closed behind them. "I told you, you didnít want to come," she said with a slight smile.

He nodded because it was the only way he could get his shivering body to respond.

"Hey, are you going to be ok?" she asked, concerned.

He swallowed, trying to get himself back under control, and nodded again.

"Hmmm, maybe I should explain what you just saw." She grimaced as she slipped her shoes back onto her feet, "I probably should have explained on the way down here. Most of the people in that class are security guards like me. There are always some people who feel that they have the right to hurt others. Itís our duty to keep that from happening, so we train to defend against them."

His mouth dry and his breath still coming faster than normal he responded, "You train to fight."

"Yes," she said gently, reaching up to stroke his face, "I do. Itís part of my job."

Closing his eyes, he ducked his head against her hand, accepting her soothing caress as he tried to coordinate this new information with the loving image of his mate. She had tried to explain to him that her job was to protect others, but even after the fight with Macavity he hadnít put together her ability to fight with the fact that she must have trained very hard to learn to do it. He felt foolish for his lack of understanding.

He opened his eyes and looked down at her. "Itís all right now," he said still trembling slightly.

"Are you sure?"

"Iím sure," he replied, folding his arms around her and pulling her close. There was so much to get used to about his beautiful, little mate. Her life was so different from anything heíd ever known. He leaned down and kissed her, thinking that even the way she liked to touch was different. "Iím so glad that Munkustrap said I should ask you."

"Ask me what?" she asked, pushing away from him with a quizzical expression.

He looked at her curiously, "To be my mate."

Shock and anger exploded across her face, turning her eyes to green fire. Her mouth opened and shut twice before she finally said, "Iíll kill him." She struggled out of the black and white tomís arms as terror lanced through him. "I can not believe this! How couldÖ Ohoh." She turned away and started toward the elevator.

Mistoffelees rushed to catch up with her and stepped into her path. "No!" he cried, effectively blocking her. "No, itís me you should be angry at, itís me you should kill."

"What?" she asked, shocked into a quieter reaction.

Wide-eyed and trembling again, Mistoffelees repeated, "Itís me you should kill".

She stared at him a moment, tears forming in her eyes. "You think Iíd do it, donít you? You think Iíd actually kill someone? Because I was angry? How could you do this? How could you pretend to love someone that youíre afraid of?"

Completely confused, Mistoffelees said, "I do love you. You said you would kill Munkustrap. Why would you say that if you didnít mean it? Why are you angry? I donít understand."

Dashing the back of her hand across her eyes, Jessel fought for control. "Sometimes humans exaggerate when they talk, especially when theyíre angry." She started to reach out a hand for him and then threw it down in frustration instead, as the tom instinctively flinched. "Iím not going to hurt Munkustrap. Iím not going to hurt you. You said Munkustrap told you to ask me to be your mate. Why did he tell you that?"

Mistoffeleesí panic began to subside as he realized that she really wouldnít hurt either himself or his leader, but his confusion remained. "Because I asked him if he thought I should."

"Then it wasnít his idea?"

Mistoffelees shook his head, "No."

She took a deep breath. "The way you said it made it sound like it was his idea -- thatís what made me angry."

"Why?"

"Because one person shouldnít put another into that kind of a position, thatís why."

"I donít understand."

Jessel looked down at her palms and then rubbed them on her white costume. "Never mind," she replied, dully, "Letís just get back." She stepped past him and called for the elevator.

Wanting to comfort both his mate and himself, Mistoffelees slipped his arm around her waist, but she shrugged him off.

"Donít," she said, "youíre only making it worse."

"Jessel -- Ari," he said, changing to the name that only her close friends could use, the name sheíd told him he could use. "You are my mate. Tell me what to do to make it better."

"Iím not and you canít," she replied dully, stepping into the elevator.

Mistoffelees felt a crushing weight in his chest. He tried stepping in front of her to get her to look at him, but she wouldnít, pressing past him into the elevator and waiting for him to follow. "We are mates, that doesnít just stop." Mistoffelees moved into the lift, holding out his hands.

"Yes, it does," she replied, determination overcoming the sob in her voice as the doors closed and the elevator began to move. "It does if I say it does. Sometimes these things just donít work out. I tried to explain that to you, too, but you just donít understand, and now I know why." She did look at him then, anger, frustration and sadness all mirrored in her emerald green eyes. "You canít love someone that youíre afraid of, Mistoffelees. We canít be mates, it isnít right. I wonít take advantage of you that way." The door slid open on the Jelliclesí quarters. "Go," she said, looking away from him again.

He stepped off the elevator, expecting her to follow, but no steps echoed his own. He turned back in time to see the doors close over her tear-stained face. His vision blurred as tears cascaded into his fur.

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

Mistoffelees sat on the floor of the cargo bay the Jellicles had taken over for their practice sessions, eyes closed and shoulders slumped in misery. He'd thought that practice would make him feel better, but he'd quickly realized that his dancing that morning was only the rote memories of past performances. His unusually lifeless performance had attracted attention, too. Both Munkustrap and Quaxo had looked in his reddened eyes and asked him what was wrong, and been solicitous when he claimed he only had a headache. They'd concentrated on other people's parts that morning and let him sit most of the session out.

Now, though, everyone else had left for lunch. Grizzabella had stopped to ask if he was coming, and he'd responded that he didn't feel much like eating. Which was true, what little he'd eaten of breakfast felt like it had formed a hard ball in his stomach. He'd didn't want any more questions right now, so he decided that the best thing to do was wait until everyone else had gone to the mess hall and then go curl up for his nap.

The small tom rose unsteadily to his feet, the headache he'd feigned earlier now a pulsing demon behind his eyes. The congenial sounds from the mess hall echoed around him without bringing any comfort as he passed through the corridor to the empty sleeping room. He stopped beside the bunk he'd shared with his mate just that morning and knew for a certainty that she wouldn't want him there, if she came back. Sighing, he replayed the events of that morning in his head for perhaps the fiftieth time, but rehearsing them made them no clearer. Slowly, he climbed up to the top bunk in that stack and turned his face to the wall, willing sleep to douse the whirling in his brain.

Her anger and her rejection of him made no sense that he could see. He did love Jessel, and he wanted her for his mate. She'd been so angry. Why would Munkustrap's approval make her angry? And then Mistoffelees had made it worse by offering to let her take her anger out on him. Why that made it worse he couldn't figure out, but it had. Her words came back to him, "You can't love someone you're afraid of." But he did love her, and why shouldn't he be afraid when she was angry enough to threaten to kill? He didn't doubt her ability to take a life, not after what he'd seen this morning. That thought frightened him again and he wrapped himself up in the memories of her gentleness and kindness to all of the Jellicles.

There'd been at least a dozen instances that would have called down punishment on the Jellicles in their old life that Jessel had handled with a smile and a light, reassuring touch. She'd gotten them everything they had asked for so far, even getting the dye removed from their fur. She'd soothed tempers that flared under the stress of not knowing whether they were to live or die, and helped calm the kittens when their inexperienced parents could not. Her patience and goodwill had seemed endless, until this morning. Somehow his words had held a meaning for her that he did not understand, and he feared that she might not even return to the Jellicles' quarters if he couldn't figure it out.

Mistoffelees felt someone land on the bunk by his feet. "Go away," he said miserably, turning towards his visitor. Recognizing the gray and black kitten who would have been Munkustrapís replacement, he hissed, spinning into a defensively crouched position with his feet underneath him, ready to face an attack or flee, claws partially extended.

The younger cat sat down and dangled his feet over the edge of the bunk.

"What do you want, Kitten?" snarled Mistoffelees, very much aware that the Ďkittení was actually taller and stronger than he was, and not that much younger.

"My name is Dare," replied the gray and black cat, meeting Mistoffeleesí eyes challengingly. "Munkustrap helped me pick it out."

The black and white tom growled low in his throat, eyes narrowing, and was surprised when the taller cat dropped his gaze away.

"Munkustrap says I should tell you Iím sorry for the way I treated you," Dare said, looking at the floor.

"You donít sound sorry," snapped Mistoffelees, wishing that the brat would go away and leave him in his misery instead of making false apologies. The pain behind his eyes throbbed.

The younger cat switched his gaze to the ceiling and puckered his mouth in an attempt to control what was going to come out of it next. "Iím a little sorry, I guess. Munkustrap says we can either try to make each otherís lives easier or we can make everyoneís lives harder, and I shouldnít have tried to make your life harder." He swung his gaze back to Mistoffelees. "We might have been friends, in the dance class, if I hadnít been such a jerk. I remember you tried."

Mistoffelees let out a long breath, trying to concentrate on what Dare was saying instead of his own problems. Slowly, he sat down with his feet hanging over the edge of the bunk, mirroring the younger cat. "I never understood why you didnít like me."

Dare shrugged. "Everybody else liked you and no one liked me. Dancing came so easily to you and I had to work at it. I guess I just wanted what you had."

"If you had asked me I could have helped you with the dancing and making friends."

"Yeah," replied Dare, looking at the floor again. "Iíve been talking to Munkustrap and Deuteronomy a lot about it. It helps to have someone to talk to, who understands. Theyíre going to help me now." The gray and black cat looked up at Mistoffelees again, but this time his yellow-green eyes held a plea rather than a challenge. "Iím not saying that we can ever be friends but I donít want to fight anymore, ok?"

"Ok," Mistoffelees nodded, "no more fighting." But his heart wasnít in his words. All he really wanted at that moment was to curl up into a tiny ball and disappear.

Dare looked at him oddly for a moment and asked, "Why are you napping in this bunk?"

Mistoffelees growled at him, showing teeth.

"Right, not my business," responded Dare hopping down to the floor, but then he stopped and looked up at Mistoffelees again, tilting his head in careful consideration of his next words. "Like I said, it helps to have someone to talk to, who understands." Then he turned and disappeared into the corridor.

The black and white tom sat, staring after his former nemesis and considering his words. Understanding was the problem all right. Mistoffelees felt that if he could just understand what had happened that morning he could work it out with his mate. The problem was that he didn't have any idea of what had gone wrong. And who would understand his human mate?

His human mate, he thought again, groaning with the obvious answer. Another human could explain it to him, if they would. His mind quickly ran through the short list of humans he'd spoken to on the ship, dismissing the thought of asking most of them anything that personal. One name stayed in his mind, not because Mistoffelees trusted him, but because he knew Jessel did.

The tight ball in his stomach roiled as the black and white tom jumped down from the bunk, but the pain in his head cleared slightly now that he had decided on a course of action. His mate had shown him what all the buttons did on the door panels, though he'd never thought that he'd dare use the one he needed now. Depressing the appropriate button, he used the address she'd taught him, "Mistoffelees to Ensign Mickelvy."

The response, "Ensign Mickelvy, here," startled the nervous tom even though he knew it was the proper one.

"I --" he started and then stopped again, trying to find the right words. "I need someone to talk to. Could you come here?"

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

Mistoffelees sat curled up on the cushions of a large chair in the guest quarters where he and Jessel had spent their first night together. His eyes closed, he concentrated on slowing the wild beating of his heart. Ensign Mickelvy had agreed to meet him, though he hadn't revealed the reason he wanted to talk. Mistoffelees knew the sandy-haired security officer best of the crew members, through his association with Jessel, but he had never had a personal conversation with the man and this one was going to get very personal. The black and white tom's tail twitched with anxiety as he tried to tell himself that this was the best way to find out what had upset his mate without angering her further.

His eyes opened as he heard the door slide open, and he looked up to see Ensign Mickelvy stride into the room, a slight smile on his face as he flopped onto the couch.

"Thank you for meeting me," intoned Mistoffelees gravely, unsure of how to begin.

"That bad, huh?" questioned the human officer, his slight smile turning to a small grimace.

Mistoffelees' black tail twitched out of his control, coming down on the arm of the chair he occupied with an audible thump. He started to say something but his voice wouldn't obey him and he choked instead. Starting again, his words flowed out in a rush.

"Jessel is angry with me. I do not understand why. I was hopingÖ," his voice broke and trailed off for a moment before he could put his request into words, "I was hoping you could explain why. She did not."

Consternation colored the blond officer's face. "I'm surprised that you'd come to me with this," he choked out, rising from his seat. "There must be someone else who can help you. I mean, I'm flattered that you'd want to talk to me about it butÖI really don't think I should get in between you and Ari." As he spoke he stepped towards the door.

Mistoffelees whirled from his seat, blocking the tall security guard's path. For a moment, both stood perfectly still. Then the black and white tom looked up helplessly and said, in a quiet voice, "Please, help me." He watched indecision war across Mickelvy's face for a moment before continuing, "I don't want to lose my mate." He let all his anguish, heartbreak, and sheer confusion show in his eyes, hoping his mateís human friend could be persuaded.

"Wonderful," growled the human sarcastically, turning around and throwing his hands in the air; but he sat down again, this time on the arm of the couch. "All right, tell me what happened."

Mistoffelees didnít hide his relief as he retook his place and recited the argument from that morning. Used to rote memorization, he was able to give a very accurate rendering. Mickelvy's face showed all the signs of attention and Mistoffelees began to hope that this man, who called his mate by her private name, would really be able to explain the problem.

As the tom finished, Mickelvy asked, "So what do you want from me?"

"Tell me what I did wrong," begged Mistoffelees, ears flattened miserably against his head.

Mickelvy sighed, "I don't think you did anything wrong, Mistoffelees. I think you just have two very different points of view." Mistoffelees sat up straighter, listening; this is what he'd been waiting to hear. "You're used to following orders. She wants to make you as free as possible to make your own choices. When you said that Munkustrap told you to ask her to be your mate, it sounded to her like he didn't give you any choice in the matter; you just had to do it. That's something she would fight against."

"But that's not what happened," protested Mistoffelees.

"But that's what it sounded like. Just like when she said that she was going to kill him and you took her at her word. Now, I'm not surprised that you did," said Mickelvy as Mistoffelees drew another breath to protest. "I've seen Ari at her worst, and that can be pretty scary. But you need to watch what you say as much as she needs to be careful about what she says."

Mistoffelees nodded, "But that still doesn't explain why she doesnít want to be my mate anymore."

"I think it does," replied Mickelvy, seriously. "I've seen you get in the way to take the blow for someone else. It's a very generous thing to do. In this case, though, you treated your mate like one of your captors. So, because she cares about you, she set you free."

Mistoffelees thought about that for a moment, before replying in a small voice, "But I don't want to be free of her. I love her. I would do anything to show her that."

Mickelvy studied the furry white face. "Yes, I think you would, and that's part of the problem. Is that really what it means to you, to be mates? To do anything your mate wants?"

Mistoffelees pictured Munkustrap and Demeter in his mind, then Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, and Quaxo and Jemima. "No," he said slowly. "It means taking care of each other, protecting each other, being someone to lean on when your mate is troubled."

Mickelvy nodded, "That's a good start. But it's only good if it makes the two of you stronger, not if it means you constantly sacrifice yourself for her. Being mates is give and take. You have to be able to do both. Ari is a very strong person -- she has a lot to give -- but that also means that she'll make all the decisions for both of you, if you aren't strong enough to stand up to her and let her know what you want. Now, " he shook his head, "I know that's not the kind of relationship she wants, but she does have a tendency to get her way. You have to be prepared to push back a little, just to show her that you're still choosing to be with her."

"So, what should I do?"

"My only advice is: If you want her to be your mate, treat her like your mate. If she likes it, then she will be again. If she still says 'no' then you'll have to accept it." Mistoffelees looked despondent and Mickelvy stood up to put his hand on the depressed cat's shoulder. "Personally, I hope she takes you back. I think you make a good couple. But, please, don't tell her I said so."

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

Ensign Jessel stepped into the corridor of the Jellicles' quarters, every bit as nervous as the first time she had danced for them. She had spent as much time away as she could justify -- even to the point of requisitioning a new uniform from ship's stores and having it altered. She wore it now; feeling the need of the authority it represented to shore up her own determination. She'd briefly considered asking Lt. Sentry to assign a new liaison officer to the Jellicles, but couldn't even suggest such a heartbreaking proposal when she had spoken to her senior about her problem.

Jessel hadn't intended to talk to Sentry that day at all, but her senior officer had caught her eating lunch in the officer's mess and questioned her presence there. Jessel hadn't gone into details, she'd merely told her lieutenant that she was having a difficult time with one of the Jellicles and thought it best to stay out of their way for a few hours. Lt. Sentry's total advice had been, "If you have a personal problem, Ensign, solve it. I expect you back to your assigned duties today." Truthfully, Jessel had to admit that with the Jellicles was exactly where she wanted to be.

Somehow she'd fallen in love with this whole group of people, and now there was nothing she wanted more than to stay with them and help them through the ordeals they faced ahead. But she wasn't quite sure how they felt about her or how they were going to take her break up with Mistoffelees. They could very easily take it as a rejection of their group as a whole; a reaction she wasnít prepared to face, as alone as she felt.

She shook the feeling off, only now realizing how much strength she'd been drawing from her relationship with Mistoffelees in the last few days. Nothing had seemed to faze her as long as she knew she had his love. And yetÖ And yet she wondered now if he'd ever truly loved her, or ever could. That increased the pain she felt by a factor of guilt: guilt that she'd been using him without even realizing it, that she'd loved him selfishly instead of generously as he deserved, as he had loved her, or seemed to. She reached up and touched her rank pips, thinking, as she did so, that accomplishment was a cold comfort compared to Mistoffelees' warm touch.

Jessel palmed open the door to the Jellicles' sleeping room and was startled out of her reverie by the blast of Mungojerrie's voice, "You don't even spend any time with us anymore! You want to spend all your time with that... that human!"

"Fallon is teaching me all about all the things I've always wondered about. Haven't you ever wondered about anything?" screeched Rumpelteazer.

The two were arguing just inside the door and Jessel let her eyes sweep the room to determine the situation. Most of the Jellicles appeared to be present and listening but no one attempted to interrupt the furious couple.

Mungojerrie puffed up with anger, eyes narrow and tail slicing the air violently. "My whole world is right here! Right here! With the people I love. The humans don't have anything more I need."

"Well I want more!" screamed Rumpelteazer, pinning her ears back. "I want to know what makes the ship go and the doors open and the music play. I've always wanted to learn and now I have a chance and you are not going to stop me!" She whirled and brushed past Jessel without acknowledging the human officer.

Mungojerrie stood staring after his mate for a long moment, giving Rumpelteazer time to disappear into the elevator. When he finally stepped forward to follow her, Jessel stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "She's gone," she told the furious striped cat. Something crumpled behind his golden eyes and she wrapped her arms around him to comfort him. He stiffened at her well-meant squeeze and she released him, leaving one hand on his arm. "She'll be back when she calms down."

"I don't want her to go. I want her to stay here with me," he said dejectedly.

Jessel felt like a hypocrite giving advice on love when her own love life lay in shambles but she had to say something. "Part of loving someone is leaving them free to make their own choices. If you hold her too tight you'll only force her to fight you for her freedom."

Mungojerrie pulled away from her then and headed back to his empty bunk, shoulders sagging and tail drooping.

Light footsteps drew Jessel's attention and she hurriedly spun away as she recognized Mistoffelees coming towards her. She knew he'd follow but at least stepping back into the corridor would make their inevitable confrontation less public than Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer's had just been.

"I liked what you said to Mungojerrie," he murmured softly, attempting to wrap his arms around her waist.

"Good. Then you understand why we can't be mates anymore," she responded, spinning out of his arms before he could take a good hold on her. She forced her expression to harden, all the while wishing that he had gotten a hold of her, that he could stand up for his own interests and that she didn't have to protect him from her own desires.

"No, I don't," he replied, confusion evident in his eyes. "You said loving someone means leaving them free to make their own choices. My choice is to stay with you. You said you wouldn't take advantage of me. I think that means you still love me and you're afraid of hurting me if we stay together. It should be my choice to take that risk."

"No!" she shouted, cutting him off. Her mouth was dry and her vision blurring; she couldn't take this conversation any more. She'd made a decision. Best to stand by it, not let her emotions control her thoughts. She took a deep breath and in a low voice intoned, "No, it's better this way. I don't want to talk about it. Just leave me alone, Mistoffelees. Just leave me alone." Then she turned on her heel and strode into the mess hall. Anywhere would have done as well, as long as he didn't follow her, didn't press her to stay in a relationship she dearly wanted.

If she had looked back at that moment she might have seen the determination on his face and wondered if perhaps he could take care of his own heart. But she couldn't look at him now, afraid of how much she had hurt him. So she only walked away, aching with both his pain and hers.

 

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

 

Jessel exited from the privy into the darkness of the Jellicles' sleeping room. She'd deliberately stalled going to bed until after lights out to try to avoid a confrontation with Mistoffelees. She ached all over with the pain of ending the relationship but the kindest thing she could do for him was break it off cleanly, now. She approached her bunk cautiously, half expecting him to be in it, but it was empty. She slipped between the cool sheets, grateful that her former mate had found himself somewhere else to sleep, and she wouldn't have to deal with his breaking heart as well as her own.

A dark shadow dropped from one of the bunks above her, landing with a barely audible thump. Before she could move, hands landed on either side of her body pinning her beneath the blankets, and Mistoffeleesí ghostly white face looked down at her, a faintly amused smile on his lips. He seated himself on the edge of the bunk, watching for her reaction. Jessel realized that while he'd managed to pin her body her hands remained free, which meant he couldn't hold her long unless she allowed it. "Get off or I'll push you off," she growled at him in voice she hoped wouldn't be heard by too many of the other Jellicles.

His smile disappeared to be replaced by a reluctantly sorrowful expression. His fingers moved restlessly on either side of her body, his claws extending and retracting and his ears flipped first forward and then back, finally settling flattened out halfway in between. "I know you can," he replied just as softly, but with tenderness in his voice, "but I think you would rather listen to me than hurt me."

"This isn't the time or the place for a private conversation," she hissed.

He nodded, brightening a little. "Perfect time, perfect place, no one will listen."

His words startled her, even as she realized that in a world where you are always with a large group of people, some rules have to evolve to provide even a false privacy. Suspicious of such rules, she looked down the row of bunks, trying to see if anyone was listening to them. Needing more than her eyes to make such a determination in the darkness, she concentrated on the sounds around them as well. It only took her a few seconds to realize that some of the sounds coming from the bunks around them were none of her business and she quickly pulled her senses back to her own bunk, making it a private world in her mind.

Looking back at Mistoffeleesí face, she roughly pushed aside the thought of how beautiful he was to her and growled, "That doesn't mean I want to talk about it."

"I do," said Mistoffelees, firmly, his ears rising back up to their tallest. "I still want us to be mates. You say you want me to be free to make my own decisions. Start by letting me make this one."

She shook her head, desperately holding on to her own determination even as she watched him gain his confidence, "It isn't right for me to stay with you if you're afraid of me. How would I ever know if you were with me because you wanted to be, or because you thought it was what I expected?"

He leaned very close to look into her eyes. "If you are mad enough to threaten to kill, how am I to know if you are mad enough to do it? Why shouldn't I be afraid of you then?"

She flushed guiltily, remembering that at least one of the Jellicles had been murdered in front of the others for reasons that they didn't fully understand. She had been careless to make such a threat. What other choice did he have but to take her seriously? The memory of terrified blue eyes hurt her heart. "It's more than that," she choked. "You were afraid of me the other night, too." He looked confused and she clarified, "When you woke up from that nightmare, it wasn't just the dream that scared you; you looked at me and you were afraid."

"I didn't recognize you at first. All I saw was a human face. Humans --" he stopped a moment and looked away, then looked back at her again, "Humans have always been in charge of my life, and usually they've been ready to punish me the moment I did something they didn't like, even if I didn't understand what that something was."

"And you're just waiting for me to do the same thing," she whispered, the sharp edge of accusation cutting against both of them.

He dropped his eyes. "I know you could." Then he looked up again, his gaze steady and determined, "If you wanted to. But you don't want to. That's why I love you."

She sighed and closed her eyes, turning her face away as if to hide from him. "You can't love someone you're afraid of."

"Yes," he said, brushing his cheek lovingly against hers, "I can" She opened her eyes and looked at him, shaking her head in denial, but he didn't give her any chance to interrupt now. "I've lived with fear all my life; it isn't anything new to me. And I'm not all that much afraid of you or I couldn't risk your anger this way now. Don't you understand?" he asked, the faint twist of a smile returning to his lips. "I've always had to face my fears; there's never been any place to hide from them. I don't want to hide from this one now. I want us to be together." She started to protest again and he stopped her with one finger pressed against her lips. "The one freedom that I've always expected to have is the freedom to choose my mate. Don't take that away from me because you want to protect me."

Debate ragged through her mind as the separate bits of her psyche squared off, screaming that it wasn't right to deny him the right to chose, or to risk taking advantage of his fears; both sides equally loud. When logic told her that every answer was wrong, Jessel had always relied on her instincts to get her through, and she did that now, shutting the voices in her mind away where they couldn't be heard above a whisper. Every muscle tense with guilt, she opened her mouth and let her instincts roll off her tongue. "All right, you can stay. We'll take it one day at a time. No promises." She turned to face the wall, body stiff with relief and remorse as she struggled with her choice.

"No promises," he repeated, slipping under the covers beside her. He lay his arm around her waist and his chest up against her back. "Ari," he whispered. He wasn't trying to get her attention now, she realized; he was only reaffirming that he still had a right to use that name. Then he began, softly, to purr.

Accustomed as she had become to the sounds that the Jellicles made, she recognized the tone of his purrs as the Jellicle equivalent of a lullaby. She allowed the gentle vibrations to soothe her for a while, before turning back to him and laying her arm over his ribs. Nuzzling her face into the soft fur of his neck ,she whispered, "I love you," before falling fast asleep.

Chapter 15: Preparations

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