For most of her life, quiet little Blue has been a kittypet with Twolegs to take care of her.
But one early winter day, everything changes. She's thrown out.
Faced with impossible odds, Blue must learn to survive, or else.
Nature's rules are harsh and unforgiving. She stands little chance...
Unless , through love & hope, she manages to make it.
It will be tough. It will be hard. It will take a true miracle.
Or true love.
I press my face against the windowpane, watching my breath stain the glass with warm vapor. Below me, the heating vent keeps me toasty and cozy, curled up on my windowsill rug. Outside, the wind is whipping deadened leaves across our lawn, making them rustle and scratch over the pavement till they disappear in the tangle of bushes framing the front yard.
Lisa, my human, still isn't home. I'm not sure why. Normally Lisa's never out for more then a couple of hours. She's elderly, and so she gets tired with long outings. The longest she's ever been away is when she goes to visit her grandkids, Laurie & Luke. And she wouldn't be going there; they came over just yesterday to see her.
Something isn't right here. I can't put my paw on it, but I can feel it in my gut.
Restlessly, I get to my paws and leap off the windowsill, making my way to the front foyer. I hope onto the front parlor window and peer out. Nothing. No sign of Lisa's battered old blue pickup, nor her snowy white curls blowing in the wind.
Giving a small whimper, I instantly feel ashamed of myself. Lisa wouldn't want me crying like a little kit.
No, I tell myself. She'd want me to wait like a good kitty, and be ready to curl around her and warm her feet when she did get home.
Probably she was just running late. I pad back to the living room and curl up on an armchair.
Everything would be just fine.
Outside, it's night. Pitch-black, with stars sprinkled across a crisp late autumn sky. It won't be long till the first snow.
Thinking about the first snow is obviously a distraction. I'm worried sick about Lisa. She shouldn't be gone this long. Over and over again, I rack my brains to remember why she'd left. She had been cooking, when she said she felt dizzy and had to sit down. Then she made a phone call, got a scared look on her face, and began to whisk about. She put out my food and changed my litter, all the while looking ill. Then she drove away.
Was Lisa sick? If so, where had she gone? Why would she leave the house when she wasn't feeling well?
That's when I hear the roar of a motor. At first, I'm ecstatic. Lisa's back!
But upon closer inspection, I know it can't be Lisa. Her old truck's hoarse roar is nothing like the sleek purring of the car now parked in our driveway. As I look out the window, a slim lady gets out of the new car, gives her blond coiffe a pat, and begins making her way up the drive.
Oh no. It's Shannon.
She can't get in, can she? She can't have the keys. Or did Lisa give her a pair? I can't remember; Shannon and Lisa are always fighting, then making up.
Shannon is Lisa's only daughter, and just about the only human I've met that I don't like. Her two kids, Laurie & Luke, are perfect angels, but their mother is... from the other side- at least that's what I've heard Lisa say when she and Shannon fight. I'm sure Shannon has some good in her, but from what I've seen, she's a conceited, self-absorbed person. And she doesn't like cats. She's divorced, which in human terms means she doesn't live with her mate anymore. I can't really blame the poor fellow.
Unfortunately, Shannon and Lisa apparently made up from their last fight, because I hear the lock twisting, and the door slides open. I hope down from my windowsill perch, hoping maybe Lisa's with Shannon. No such luck.
Today though, Shannon doesn't look as put together as normal. There are circles under her eyes, which are red. She carries a tissue in one hand and a suitcase in the other. As I watch silently from the corner, she begins hurrying around the house and throwing things into the bag. She talks to herself as she does it.
"They'll want her favorite lace cap... and her stockings too. Oh, and that silk flower Father bought for her on her wedding day. And her wedding ring! And all those pictures... Oh!" To my surprise, Shannon collapses on the ground, buries her face in her hands, and begins sobbing.
If it was any other human, I'd have rushed over immediately to comfort them. As it's Shannon, I approach more cautiously.
Before I can reach her, she stands up, wiping her tears away. "Mother wouldn't want you to cry, Shannon."
Now she's talking to herself? Something's definitely wrong here.
"I'll just finish up and get out of here." She throws a few more things into the bag, shoulders it, and begins walking towards the door.
Seeing that I'm about to be left behind, I act quickly. Maybe Shannon knows where Lisa is. Either way, I'm not letting her walk away with Lisa's possessions without a fight.
I spring into her path, mewing for all I'm worth.
At first, she doesn't notice me. Then her eyes travel downwards and she gives a snort of disgust. "Ugh. You. What are we going to do with you?"
Taken aback - as even her usual unfriendliness isn't this bad - I tilt my head to the side.
Shannon bites her lip, appearing to be lost in thought. Then she abruptly puts the bag down and smiles sweetly down at me. "Hey Blue! Who wants food? You hungry?"
I'm not really hungry, but my eyes follow her with interest as she rummages in the cupboards. She comes out with a bag of FishStix, my favorite type of treat. Lisa rarely gives them to me, since they're "not good for me". Hey, if Shannon wants to make peace, she's chosen the right way to do it.
Tentatively, I take a step towards her.
"Oh, but I can't feed you in here," she coos, sliding open the door. She places the treat outside. "You need to eat out here, so you don't make a mess."
Puzzled, I pause on the doorstep. Lisa never has me eat outside. What is Shannon thinking? And I won't make a mess. I always clean up after myself.
"Go on, Blue. It'll be fine, little kitty." Shannon nudges me out the door with her boot, then follows and shuts it behind us. As I'm eating, I hear her walk over to her care. Wait. She's getting in. The engine's starting. That's not right. Who will let me back into the house?
I race towards the car, but it's too late.
"See ya kitty!" she yells, and then she's gone.
Cold has frozen every one of my limbs by morning. I'm shaking as I struggle to a standing position. My fur is hard and spiked every which way, and I have to shake frost off my whiskers in order to get a clear reading of the air.
And there's another problem. It snowed during the night.
Shivering, I scratch feebly at the house door. Maybe Lisa came in during the night?
But I know that's not the case. There's no way Lisa would've entered the house without seeing me sprawled on the doorstep and letting me in. Even if she went in the back door, which is very unlikely, she would've noticed me missing and come to find me.
A ball of dread has formed in my stomach. What is going on here? Why did Shannon lock me out of my own house? Where has she gone? And where is Lisa?
Slowly, painfully, an hour passes. A numbness is beginning to settle into my bones. Instinctively, I realize I'm freezing to death.
The realization brings on a flurry of movement. I spring to my feet and walk a few steps, leaving a bare patch of concrete on the snow-covered doorstep. I pace back and forth across the little gravel path that runs to the driveway.
Somehow, I know Shannon won't be coming back. And Lisa won't be either. At least, not any time soon. And I can't stay here. If I ever want to see Lisa again, I've got to keep myself alive.
Finally, I force myself to head down the gravel drive. At the end of the driveway, I stop and turn, looking up at the quaint old house where I'd lived with Lisa since I was a kitten. My heart aches. Why did this have to happen? My one consolation is that, though I'm losing my home, I still have hope that I'll see Lisa again. Wherever she is, I'll find her.
Comforting myself with this thought, I turn my back on my home and walk away. Forever.
My plan would probably work better if I had an inkling of where I was going.
By late morning, I'm standing at a random crossroads in God-knows-where, staring aimlessly at the occasional car that zips past. My paws ache, my teeth chatter with cold, and my ears are pounding with a headache. All I want is my soft, fluffy blue catbed, and the feel of Lisa's wrinkled old hand on my head, petting me as I fall asleep. Instead, I'm stuck dodging slush that sprays up from under cars' tires, wondering if I can gather up the courage to cross the road.
Luckily, the traffic is sparse, and during a long lull I'm able to sprint across.
On the other side of the road, I find myself in a park. A park I've heard of actually. I'd never actually been to Liberty Park before, but I'd driven past it with Lisa many times. On the car rides, it looked like a nice place, full of people playing and laughing. Now, barren and desolate and covered with snow, it looks much more imposing.
Gulping, I take my first step onto the snow-crusted ground. Yikes. Much too cold.
The sidewalk is much nicer; most of its been shoveled, and all I have to deal with is the cold pavement beneath.
I pad along the sidewalk for a bit, not really knowing what I'm doing. I do know one thing: I'm hungry.
And that brings on a new concern. How am I going to feed myself? I know other cats hunt or find food themselves, but I have no idea how to do so. All my life, Lisa has cared for my needs. Now... I have no idea how to fend for myself out here. Could I actualy starve to death?
Suddenly, I hear a croaking sound. It sounds... awful, like something's dying. Of course, I wouldn't know how a dying creature would sound, but if I had to guess-
Ending my nonsense rambling, I hurry toward the place where I heard the sound. My eyes make out a large, furry shape huddled in the snow. It's a dog, a mutt by the looks of it.
I know most cats are afraid of dogs, but I never have been. Lisa's next door neighbors, the Smiths, have a huge Rottweiler named Stan, and we got along just fine. Dogs are just different animals; though they're bigger, most of them actually aren't that scary unless you go at them hissing and squalling like a maniac.
Anyway, even if I was scared of dogs, I wouldn't be scared of this one. It's sick. Really sick.
It's head is half buried in the snow, but it makes no move to get out. Runny discharge is smeared around its eyes and nose, and its breathing is shallow and rapid. "Are you okay?" I mew.
Though I know he doesn't exactly understand me, the dog's eyelids flutter open. It rolls over slightly, revealing a nasty-looking wound on its leg. The sight makes me sick. It's obviously infected, and even the crispness of the snow can't disguise the putrid scent it emanates. Pus mingles with the blood, looking excedingly painful. I don't know much about medicine and healing, but I'm guessing the wound is the reason for his apparent fever and other ailments.
"Hello?" I try again.
The dog opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He seems to have gotten even weaker, if that's possible.
Then, without warning, a violent convulsion wraps around the dog. His body thrashes wildly, scattering snow everywhere. I leap back out of range and watch till he's still again. This time, no breath stirs his flanks.
Warily, I touch him with one paw. I don't want to believe he's dead. Just imagining such a long, painful period of suffering that only ends in death... it makes me want to scream.
"Don't waste your time. He's dead."
It's a tom who's spoken. A gray tabby with a scar across one of his green eyes. His frame is lank and lean, the body of a stray or feral cat; someone who is used to living on the streets.
"I know he's dead. I just..." I trail off.
Cockily, he struts towards me. I can't help notice how soundlessly he moves. The snow doesn't even crunch under his paws. "Why do you care about a dog anyway?"
I bite my lip. "Why can't I? I suppose out here it's everyone for themselves, but that's not how I was raised. I think that if I see an injured creature, the least I can do is walk over and try to help, even if they're already dying. I guess I do things differently. I'm not from the streets." I shut my mouth, aware that I'm babbling.
"That last part is obvious." He jerks his head towards my baby-blue collar, a gift from Lisa on my birthday a few months back.
Blushing, I shrug. It was nothing to be ashamed of, was it? I was proud of my collar. Lisa had given it to me. So why did I feel suddenly self-conscious, as if perhaps parading around with it on my neck wasn't such a good idea after all?
The tom tilts his head to the side, studying me. "So what's a kittypet like you doing out here?"
He gives an exasperated sigh. "Where's your human?"
That's the last question I want to hear right now. I turn away so he can't see how those words impact me. "I... I don't know."
Only the sound of his paws hitting the sidewalk indicates he's moved. He's closer to me now. Part of the cockiness on his face has softened a bit. "Oh. That's rough." I nod, not replying. He shuffles his feet awkwardly. "I'm Rambo. What's your name?"
Feeling a slight return of my spirit, I raise my eyebrow. "You have a problem with it?"
Subtly, his green eyes whisk over me in a way that makes me even more self-conscious. "Nah. I like it. It suits you. Blue," he repeats, as if testing it out on his tongue.
Not sure how to return the partial compliment, I shrug. "So are you a stray?"
"I guess. I'm a loner, if that's what you mean. I answer to no one. Don't depend on anyone for my food, shelther, anything. I fend for myself."
There's something both lonely and prideful in his voice. I long to understand it, but I know I can't possibly, not with the sheltered life I've lived. Still... "You might be able to help me then. I have no idea how to survive on the streets, and I'm going to need to if I want to find my human again."
Rambo watches me carefully. "Your human? I hate to break it to you, but-"
Just then, we both turn at the screech of tires. A large green truck has parked itself behind us. I struggle to make out the words on the side. "Animal... Control?"
A man gets out of the truck and slams the door. He's holding a long pole with a loop on the end of it, and a net is thrown over his shoulder. For some reason, he strikes me as foreboding. "Rambo? Who is that?" I glance around me. "Rambo?"
I feel his breath hot on my neck, and the next thing I know I'm being shoved backwards. "Run!"
"What's going on?" I yelp, racing after Rambo.
Behind us, I hear the man shout something that sounds like, "Get back here, cats!"
Inclined more to follow Rambo's lead now and ask questions later, I don't look back as we speed across the field. I'm about to go leaping into the middle of the field when Rambo grabs me by the neck-scruff and hauls me back. "Are you nuts? That's thin ice!"
How am I supposed to know that?
"Thanks," I pant, not wanting to seem as ungrateful as I am.
Without replying, he changes course, heading out of Liberty Park and towards the street. I charge after him headlong, my legs throwing up snow in my wake. Not for the first time, I wish I wasn't so short and small. It takes me twice as much effort to plow through the snow as it does Rambo.
By the time I make it to the street, Rambo is already halfway down the sidewalk, heading for a dark, scary-looking alley. "Hurry!"
When I chance a glance over my shoulder, I see the man with the net charging towards me. I waste no time in getting out of there.
The alley is awful. As soon as I take my first step into it, my foot lands in a disgusting puddle of slush, and a rancid odor annhilates my nostrils. "Ugh," I snort, pressing closer to Rambo as we advance into the gloominess.
Detaching himself from me carefully, he turns to face me, scenting the air. "I think we're good," he reports. "The old codger lost us. Humans are so stupid."
"Lisa isn't," I say automatically.
For a second, he looks like he's going to reply. Then he shakes his head.
Not liking being treated like that, I frown and mew, "She isn't. She's kind. She took care of me my entire life, ever since she got me when I was a kit. I... I don't think I gave her enough back, after all she did. Taking care of me was no easy task, you know. I was the runt of my litter."
Again, his eyes flick over me in that peculiar way they tend to, almost like a reflex. "That's not hard to believe."
Obligingly, I consent a small smile. "Yeah."
Rambo stretches, his gray coat rippling over his leanly-muscled body. I politely avert my eyes, not feeling right to oggle him- which is, admittedly, what I was on the verge of doing. When I turn back to him, he's watching me with those green eyes - in the short time I've known him, I can't help noticing his eyes change color. When he saw the man with the net, the dogcather, I presume he's called, they turned a dark olive. Now they're clearer, more of a spring-green.
"Hey, you hungry?" Rambo asks.
"A little," I admit. "But... how are we supposed to hunt here?" I shudder to think of what kind of "prey" lurks in the muck of this alley.
Casually, he saunters up to a garbage barrel and reaches up as high as he can, which is quite high, as he's long-legged. "Don't need to. Watch and learn."
I watch, but the only thing I learn is that Rambo likes to tip over garbage cans.
Clang! The sound of the metal tub hitting the ground makes me jump. "Oops," Rambo says sheepishly. "It's usually quieter. Oh well. Hopefully there aren't any humans around."
"What do you mean?"
He's already rummaging through the garbage, so his voice comes back to me in strange sounding echos. "I don't think they'd like us going through here. Even though they don't even need this stuff. Why they feel the need to protect it I don't know. Selfish pigs."
I flinch at hearing him talk against humans like that, but put away my personal offense for Lisa. "Um... why are you going through it?"
"Ouch," Rambo mews, apparently having just banged his head on the garbage can. He emerges from within it, scraps of paper and rubbish still clinging to his pelt. "What do you mean 'why am I going through it'? How do you think we eat?"
My stomach twists. "You're not saying what I think you're saying?"
He grins rougishly. "Yep. Miss Priss will have to eat garbage."
"Don't call me that," I say hotly. Half-curious, half-repulsed, I inch over to him. "What is that?"
"They call it a hamburger. I call it delicious."
Hamburger... I mull over the word. "Lisa had those sometimes."
Around a big bite of meat, he mumbles, "That so?" Then, more shyly, "You want some."
Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I only hesitate briefly. "I- Sure. Thanks." He nudges over a small portion of the meat. I sniff it. It's stale and cold, but suddenly my belly rumbles, and I realize I'm ravenous. I swallow it in one gulp. It sticks a little going down, but I get it done. And it doesn't kill me, surprise surprise. Maybe I can handle street living after all... kind of.
Actually, I'm feeling really discouraged about this. I have no idea how long it'll take me to find Lisa again, and living like this is not exactly appealing.
Still, I owe it to Lisa to try.
"Thanks for your help, Rambo," I say, smiling at the gray tom. "It was really nice of you, and I appreciate it. I'd probably be captured by the dogcatcher if it wasn't for you. And then I wouldn't be able to find Lisa."
"No problem- Hey, where are you going?"
"To find Lisa, of course," I say slowly. Did I make this unclear?
Rambo bites his lip. "Listen, Blue... I don't know how to tell you this, but your human probably ditched you. Abandoned you. She's never coming back. She's left you alone, on purpose."
My jaw drops. The notion he's just presented is absolutely ridiculous. "What? Lisa would never do that!"
Regretfully, he shakes his head. "That's what they all think. That's what they all tell themselves. But it's not true."
Throwing back my head, I glare him down. "You don't know her, not like I do. She loves me, and I love her. If there was any way she could find me, she would've done it by now. Obviously, she can't, so I have to find her." I try to push past him.
Gently, he blocks me. "You're so small-minded, Blue. The world is a huge place. She could be anywhere. And you have to face the fact that... maybe she doesn't want you."
Now that hit a mark. I can feel my face crumple, and even Rambo seems to regret his words. "I'm sorry, Blue. It's just, I've seen it happen so many times, and I don't want you to hurt yourself for a human who's not worth it."
"I... appreciate it. It's nice that you care so much, but I have to do this. Weren't you listening? I love Lisa. You don't just give up on people you love."
A long-suffering sigh. "Look, I'm not a genius on love. And I don't know much about the bond between kittypets and their owners. But you've got to trust me on this. Stick with me, at least. There's no way you'll make it on your own on the streets."
Something protective in his tone makes me feel rebellious. I mean seriously, there's only so much coddling I can withstand. "I'm not your young charge!" I snap. "You don't have to take care of me, or act like I can't care for myself. How helpless do you think I am?"
Slightly taken aback, he mews, "Not helpless, just... I'd like to help you. You know, if that's okay with you."
A more tactful approach to me and my tantrums, I guess. I deflate, feeling like a real kit now. "Sorry. I'm just not having a good day."
"I can see that. It's fine."
His calm reply only makes me feel more atrocious. "Listen... I'll... how about I stay with you for now? It's just, I'm going to be looking for Lisa, and I don't want that to affect your life."
Rambo's eyes flutter shut, as if he's debating something. Then he reopens them. "I'll help you look."
"Really?" I ask, incredulous.
He nods, going back to rummaging in the garbage. "Got nothing better to do. You like chicken wings?"
"Won't know until I try." I pad over to him, letting my flank brush his.
It's going to be hard to find Lisa out here, in this crazily big world. But I think that in Rambo, I've found a true friend.
Chicken wings turn out to be delicious. After I polish off my sixth, I think I'm finally full. Rambo makes it to ten, emptying the entire basket we found. I eye him amusedly. "You sure can put it away."
He grins at me. "You can too, for your size. Though I don't know where it goes to. For a kittypet, you're skinny as a rail."
I shrug. "I guess I'm naturally small."
Getting up, he licks his short fur quickly. "Now that we're done eating, do you want to go sightseeing?"
"Sightseeing? I don't think there's anything interesting in the city. It all looks like buildings and dirt and alleys to me," I profess.
Tsking, he grins and breaks into a trot. "Oh, ye of little faith. Trust me. Rambo knows the city. And what you're about to see will take your breath away. At least... that's if you have any breath left after seeing my handsome face. It's known to stop hearts from beating."
Admittedly, I'm surprised at his forwardness, but I recover quickly. "Oh please." I headbutt him gently. "Lead the way."
"Oh, I always do."
In spite of myself, I'm grinning as we exit the alley. Rambo's a clown, but he's a happy, joyful cat to be around. He makes me feel good. Someday, I hope I'll be able to repay him for his kindness.
"Almost there," Rambo promises, after I ask a childish, "Are we there yet?" for the umpeenth time.
Ahead of us, a long wooden boardwalk stretches out, flanked on either side by miles of water. I gasp as we step out onto it, looking about myself in wide-eyed wonder. "What is this place?"
Rambo looks pleased with my reaction. "The pier. And that's the sea."
Overcast by a cottony gray winter sky, the sea looks wild and almost frightening, with a cold, sheer beauty that enthralls and captivates me. It also scares me a little, I have to admit. I huddle a little closer to Rambo as we near the edge of the dock.
"It's beautiful," I whisper. Turning to him, I beam. "Thank you so much for taking me here."
Similarly to a fish's, his mouth opens and closes, but no sound comes out. He turns so we're fully facing each other. "I... You're welcome. It was no big deal." Then, "You know... your eyes look exactly like the color of the sea from here. Which is weird, because I could've sworn they were more blue, but now they're like gray-blue. Stormy. Like winter. It's pretty."
Freezing at the unexpected compliment, I laugh, trying to be casual. Inside though, my heart is racing. So I'm not the only one who's noticed the other's eyes.
"Thank you," I say. "Your eyes, um, change color too. It's cool." Inwardly, I slap myself. And kick myself. And beat myself up. Can I get any lamer?
Thankfully, Rambo sees how awkward this is and breaks our eye contact, laying down at the edge of the dock. I follow suit, even daring to dangle my paws off the edge. Below, the waves crash against the pier's posts like angry sharks, circling and waiting for one of us to fall in. I pull my paws back from the edge with a shudder.
Glancing over at me, Rambo asks, "You cold?"
I shake my head.
Sticking out my tongue, I shrug. "It's winter. I'll get over it."
He shuffles his paws, and for a second looks like he's about to offer something, then seems to think the better of it. I can't help feeling disappointed. And okay, maybe wondering. Would he have wrapped his tail around me? Would I have let him?
"Listen, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, and I know I'm being a pry, but what exactly is it that's so special about your Lisa?"
Startled by the question, I blink at him. "What do you mean?" Inside I think, Where do I start?
Embarrassed, he says, "Well, I've never really had a bond with a Twoleg- or anyone really. What makes it so special?"
My heart gives a little twinge. Hasn't he ever had someone he truly loves? Someone who'll stick by him no matter what, unless they're torn away? I can't even begin to imagine my life without Lisa. "It's so hard to explain... there's a thousand little things that add up, and inside, you just know." I place my small paw on my heart. "Right here. That's where you feel it."
"Right here," he echos. I nod, and delicately pick up one of his paws. It feels big and warm in mine. As he watches, his eyes never leaving my face, I place his paw on his heart. With my paw on top of his, I can feel his heartbeat, strong and steady. My eyelashes flutter up to his face, and suddenly I find my gaze locked with his. What's going on?
A rock lands between us. Sheesh. If fate didn't want us to be together, couldn't they have thrown a leaf or something?
We spring apart, and both our heads swivel at the same time to the thrower of the rock. A man is walking towards us, his face scrunched in anger. Instantly, I tense to run. My encounter with the dogcatcher has taught me that I can't trust all humans. No matter how much their blue eyes and white hair remind me of Lisa.
The man picks up another rock. "We'd better get going," Rambo says through clenched teeth. I nod, and we make a run for it. Skirting the man, who shakes his fist and yells, but doesn't throw another rock, we bolt across the street and into another alley.
"Great. An alley. Again."
Rambo's panting a little, his breath coming out as puffs of vapor. "Beats a rock in the head."
"You don't like dark places, do you?"
I shake my head. "They give me the creeps. You never know what's hiding out there, in the dark."
Thoughtfully, Rambo ponders this. "I think what's worse is something that comes to you in the light, but is hiding darkness inside. That's what I really can't stand."
He's got a point there, I have to admit. "Hypocrites suck."
Letting out a chuckle, Rambo grins at me. "That's one way to put it, I guess."
To change the subject, I stretch and say, "What do we do now chief?"
There's a twinkle in his eyes. "Whoever said that our sightseeing tour was over?"
"No one, but I assumed as much when someone tried to stone us."
"Silly, silly you. Nothing stops Rambo the Great. Nothing at all," he says dramatically, tossing his head in the air. Despite the cold, a warm feeling shoots through me, down to my toes. "Come on. It's time for you to see the wilder side of the city."
I open my mouth to tell him that that doesn't make sense, but he's already trotting away. "Wait up!" I splash through a puddle of melted snow and reach his side, each of his long strides taking two of mine. "What are you talking about? Where are we going?"
Reassuringly, he brushes his shoulder against mine. "We're going to The Pits."
Gulping, I say, "Is it as dangerous as it sounds?"
Self-confidently, he tilts his head to a jaunty angle and winks at me. "That depends what you call dangerous, little lady."
I bristle at the nickname, but let it slip this once. "Will we get killed?"
"Oh great. And me with my fur like this."
"Rambo, why are we in the alleyways again? The idea of a place called 'The Pits' in an alley does not appeal to me."
My companion pads on, oblivious to my terror. "Relax, Blue. I wouldn't take you anywhere where you'd really get hurt. The Pits can be rough, but it's the place where all the stray cats go. You'll make some friends there."
I perk up. "Do you think someone might know about Lisa?"
Nervously, he glances at the ground. "I hate to tell you, but I doubt we'll meet someone who can help us with that. Most of these cats do everything they can to stay away from humans."
Defeated, I slump my shoulders. Oh well. At least I'd get a glimpse of Rambo's world. Despite the fact that I'm still convinced Lisa and I will find each other, I can't help being curious about how these street cats lived. Now I have a chance to find out.
Still, as we grow closer, the sound of barbaric laughter and hollering makes my hackles rise. This doesn't sound like a place Lisa would ever take me. And yet Rambo seems perfectly confident, quickening his pace, with a little smile dancing on his lips. I decide I have no choice but to trust him on this. He hasn't steered me wrong before, and I have no better ideas.
Finally, we emerge into a sort of circular area, where four alleys intersect. Dirty snow is piled up along the walls, mixed with gravel and grit into a choppy gray combination. The center of The Pits is full of cats.
All of them have that street-life look that Rambo has. Thin, some of them with their ribs visible, but with a unique glint in their eyes. The qualities that can only be bred by independence and true survival. I feel distinctly out of place.
Then again, there are those who don't have the survival quality. I can see them at the far back reaches of the crowd, hollow-faced, with haunted, weary eyes. A chill runs through me as I realize I could've ended up like that, if Rambo hadn't taken me in.
One group of cats in particular catches my attention. They look just as thin as the others, but as I walk past them, I catch the smells of pine and fresh snow, a brief respite from the stench of garbage and gasoline that clings to the other strays. These cats also look more... together. None of them can be over a year old, but huddled next to each other, they have this unique team-like stance that intrigues me. "Hey, Rambo," I say, nudging my partner. "Who are they?"
"Oh them? They're from a Clan, DewClan I believe. They're apprentices. I don't think they're supposed to come here, but times are tough, and everyone's gotta survive."
Understanding only about one percent of that, I mew, "What's a Clan?"
"It's hard to explain. It's a group of cats, working together, that take care of each other. They have a whole system and code worked out. The nearest Clan, DewClan, lives in the forest. Usually, they despise us city-cats, and anything having to do with humans. But I guess starvation and hunger drove these guys here." He motions to a small white cat, with round green eyes. "That one's Snowpaw. The larger black one's name is Nightpaw, and the ginger is Flamepaw. They're nice enough. I get along with them fine. Some of the other cats don't though. They think Clan cats and city strays shouldn't mix."
All this is new to me. I never knew there were so many divisions, so many kinds of life in this world. It's an eye-opener, and one I guess I desperately needed.
Well, I might as well make the most of this experience. "Would you like to introduce me to some of your friends?"
Rambo's eyebrows go up. "What? Uh... I'm not really sure if that's the best idea. They're kinda rough-'n-tumble. Not exactly the type of cats you'd like."
Too late. "Rambo!" a loud voice booms, and a massive tom thunders towards us. He has beady, shifty little amber eyes that look out of place in his broad, square-shaped head, and instantly puts me on my guard. "Who's your little friend, eh?"
I draw myself to my full height. Forget meeting and making friends. I am not little. Okay... to rephrase, he can't call me little. Big oaf.
Looking extremely uncomfortable, Rambo says, "This is Blue. Blue, meet Sam, my idiot... acquaintance."
"Now, is that any way to introduce your old pal Sam?" bellows the tom. Up close, I can see the fleas crawling over him. It makes me want to vomit. "Listen, little Blue-gal, me 'n your pal Rambo are besties. We done raids together, and got into tons of mischief. Ain't nobody on them streets that can match up to Rambo & Sam's raiding parade."
While I struggle to make sense of his slang, Rambo wraps his tail around me lightly and starts to pull me away. "Well, it was nice seeing you, Sam, but-"
"Aw, now what's the hurry, old bud? You scared your fancy little girlfriend won't like the way you live?"
Going red, Rambo flattens his ears. "She's not my girlfriend, and-"
Sam rambles on, "Because that ain't no way to treat your girl. You should tell her. Tell her 'bout the time we upturned all the garbage cans in that one alley and then squalled all night till the dogcather came to get us. Go on, tell her."
With Rambo refusing to meet my gaze and Sam's gaze completely unnerving, I take things into my own paws. "Look, it was a pleasure to meet you, Sam, but we do have to get going." I give him my most polite smile.
"A pleasure to meet me? Hon, it ain't no pleasure to meet me. Trust me." Sam grins widely, revealing a row of yellowed, chipped teeth.
"You're right there," mutters Rambo.
Without warning, Sam suddenly goes off like a siren. "Well, what have we here? We done got us a kittypet! You didn't mention that, did ya, Rambo old boy? Lemme see that collar of yours, Blue." He reaches for my collar before I have a chance to move out of the way.
Rambo moves like a flash of lightning, pinning Sam's paw to the ground. Through clenched teeth, he growls, "She said we have to go, Sam."
Tension curls in the air, making my fur rise again. A few of the other cats have looked over, including the Clan apprentices. Smiles appear, and they whisper into each other's ears, sensing a fight. Repulsed at their lust for blood, I move to calm Rambo down, but he doesn't seem to hear me. His eyes are locked with Sam.
"You care to explain why you're cavortin' about with a kittypet?" Sam leers, his face twisted in a crazy mask of menace.
Equally menacing, Rambo snarls back, "I don't have to explain anything to you."
Appealing to the crowd of dirty strays, Sam flings his paws in the air. "Then perhaps you'd like to explain to this fine crowd. What were you thinking, bringing a well-groomed, high-faulting kittypet to The Pit? You trying to get a bunch of angry humans coming down on our heads, trying to find their precious kitty?"
Is that what he thinks would happen? Would Lisa really do that to get me? Ruin all these other cats' lives?
"He's just trying to get the crowd against us, Blue," Rambo whispers to me, seeming to read my mind. "He's a coward. Won't face me alone."
"You don't have to face him at all," I beg. "Let's just get out of here."
Unfortunately, there's no getting in the way of these two fighting.
"Got something against me coming here, Sam, say it to my face," Rambo growls.
His opponent gives him a sneer. "All I'm saying, Rambo, is that Blue's a really pretty, delicate cat. I'd hate for her to-"
Rambo's on him in a heartbeat, just a blur of gray in his attack. And the wreck is on.
Both of them are moving so fast, I can't tell what's happening. And I can barely hear over the crowd's deafening roar of, "Fight, fight, fight!" What is wrong with these cats? What's so entertaining about two of your friends tearing each other up? Well, Sam isn't my friend. But I'm sure he has some friends. How can they just stand by and...?
Enough is enough. I burst through the crowd and latch onto Rambo's fur, yanking him backwards. "What the heck?" he splutters, his words melding into a cough halfway through.
He looks awful, but a giant "Boo!" from the crowd redirects my attention.
Sizing them up, I yell, "Hey! What are you yelling at me for? You guys should be ashamed of yourselves, letting this get so far. A fight isn't entertainment, for crying out loud. Letting two cats tear each other apart isn't something you should be proud of. Violence is never the answer, no matter how bad things get. Okay?" I think I did a good job with that. My voice only cracked twice.
Silence for about three seconds. Then someone yells, "Nice collar!"
As the crowd erupts into jeers and catcalls, I turn to Rambo. He shakes his head helplessly. Sam rolls his eyes at me and mouths the word "Kittypet". By now I've figured out what that is, and according to the street cats, it isn't a compliment.
Tears sting the back of my eyes. I feel completely and utterly humiliated. Did I really think I could play the hero to these strays? I should've known they wouldn't have listened to me.
My one consolation is that I broke up Rambo and Sam's fight.
Remembering Rambo's wounds, I turn to him. "Let's get you out of here."
"Blue-" he begins.
The pity in his eyes is more then I can bear. I break our eye contact and start trotting out of the alley. "I said come on."
He sighs and whispers a few words after me, just an exhale of breath, but I hear them.
"I'm sorry Blue."
So am I.
By the time we're a safe distance from The Pits, I feel like a selfish hog for even beginning to feel sorry for myself.
Rambo's steadily getting worse. His limp has become more pronounced than ever, and I can see how much it costs him to take each step, though he doesn't complain even once. His cuts have stopped bleeding, but they haven't begun the clotting process yet, which worries me; according to all the times I've watched medical shows with Lisa, the wound will get infected unless it heals over quickly. And there's an ugly looking bruise forming just under his right ear.
Unable to bear the thought of him suffering in silence, I gently lick one of the nastier cuts he has. "You holding up okay?" I ask softly.
He gives a grim smile. "At least I don't have to beat myself up; Sam did it for me."
When I tilt my head to the side, confused, he explains, "For taking you to The Pits."
Vehemently, I shake my head. "It's not your fault, okay? All I'm concerned about is getting you to a vet."
Abruptly, he stops and whirls to me. "What?"
"A vet. You're really hurt, and those wounds will get infected without proper treatment. We can't have you sick, especially not in winter."
Instantly, I detect Rambo's Oh-great-I'll-have-to-explain-something-to-little-Blue look. Although, with him all banged up, I consent to listen. "It doesn't work that way out here, Blue. Us street strays don't go to vets. If we did, we'd just end up in cages, locked up somewhere. No, we have to take care of ourselves."
Doubtfully, I say, "But your wounds..."
"I'll be fine."
Unsatisfied with his short answer, I grumble, "Fine. But you don't know what's good for you." After a pause, I add, "We should probably find some shelter." The clouds overhead are gathering in masses of gray, and I don't like the ominous taste of fresh snow on the air.
Rambo takes a brief second to think, then begins to walk faster, evidently ignoring the pain. "I know a place. But we have to hurry."
Quickening my pace to match his, I alternate my worried glances between Rambo's wounds and the snow-filled clouds above. It'll be a race against time to get to shelter before the snowstorm hits.
Eventually, I notice that the tall city buildings are growing farther and farther apart, with more snow-covered grass between them. It's a more rural, neighborhood-type part of the city; sure enough, we soon come upon a grouping of houses. I'm sorely reminded of my old home, and can't help glancing about for any familiar markers of where I used to live. This is obviously another neighborhood though, and I soon give up.
"We're almost there," Rambo mews. His voice is stiff and full of barely-concealed pain. I imagine the cold has done nothing for his wounds, and neither has the walking around. A cut on his shoulder has started bleeding again, and refuses to stop, no matter how much I lick it. The gray fur around it is sodden with blood and appears to be permanently dyed red. All I'm hoping is that I'll be able to better care for him when we have a warm place to stay, which is a far-fetched hope at the best. I know next to nothing about healing. The most I can do is try to lick away the blood and keep it clean. There aren't even any leaves or pieces of scrap cloth I could use to bind him up.
What feels like a small eternity passes before Rambo jerks his nose forward. "That little shed," he mews. "It's sturdy enough to weather out the snow."
It certainly looks like it. It's a small wooden structure, sitting off in a secluded corner. Too far away to belong to a house, but close enough to the neighborhood that we don't have to worry about wild animals or anything. Also, I can't help feeling relieved at the prospect of being in a human-made structure once again. The alleys are not the place for me.
We reach the shed just in time. As I put my paw tentatively over the threshhold, the wind picks up, and the first flurries begin to drift down from the sky.
Both Rambo and I are too busy stamping our paws and trying to get warm to notice the others at first. When I do see two pairs of glowing eyes in the dimness, I freeze.
"Who's there?" I ask, moving closer to Rambo.
A tom steps out of the shadows, followed by a smaller she-cat. They look related, with the same light brown coats and olive-green eyes. The only difference is the way their expressions are constructed. The she-cat looks timid and sweet, while the tom has a colder look to his handsome features.
Taking no chances with Rambo injured, I peel my lips back slightly. The tom looks rather amused at this display, making me angrier. "Who are you?"
"I think we have the right to ask that question. We were here first," he says dryly. He has a rich, bass voice that carries around the little shed.
Realizing he's right, I let my defenses down. "I guess so," I admit. "But my friend is really hurt, and we need a place to stay."
"Of course you guys can stay here," the she-cat says, piping up for the first time. Like her brother, she has a pretty voice, only hers is high and lilting, more like a song then a deep rumble. "I'm Olivia, by the way. This is my brother Jackson."
Determined to keep ahold of my manners, though all I reallly want to do is shut them out and tend to Rambo, I reply, "Thanks. We'll just be over here."
Pointedly ignoring them, I march past and lead Rambo to a cozy pile of hay. "Lie down with your cut shoulder facing upwards," I instruct. Wearing an unholy grin, Rambo flops down into the makeshift bed, though I don't miss his grimace as his battered body hits the hay.
"Do your worst," he invites.
The small joke helps prevent me from having a nervous breakdown. Busily, I putter about, pretending to be absorbed in the task of clearing hay from all open wounds. In reality, I'm wondering what on earth I should do. What would the vet do? He'd bring out all his medicines and bandages and get right to work. But he was a human, with "training in animal science", as Lisa always told me when I fussed on my way to get shots. I was just an ignorant little housecat. I could very well kill Rambo with my inexperience and bumbling.
After I had picked every single piece of straw from the cuts, I began to lick the large gash on Rambo's shoulder. His eyes flutter shut, and his face relaxes slightly as I bend over him, working methodically, trying to be soothing.
"Excuse me?" a soft voice asks. It's Olivia, with a bashful expression on her face. "I'm sorry- but I think I can help you."
Relief floods through me, and I step back. "Do you know how to heal him?"
When she gives a nod, I let her take over. Rambo glares at me accusingly, as if I've just given him over to a complete stranger - which I kind of have - but I figure any cat could do better then the job I've been doing. Nearby, Jackson watches Olivia work. Upon catching my gaze, he flashes me a cute smile. "Don't worry about your friend. Olivia's the best at what she does. Hey, I didn't catch your name."
"I'm Blue," I say, relieved that he seems to be more friendly than the strays I met at The Pits. "And he's Rambo."
He nods, walking over to me so we're face-to-face. "What happened? Fight?"
"Yeah. But it wasn't his fault. He was just defending me."
Something odd flickers in his eyes, but it passes so quickly I'm sure I imagined it. He glances over at Olivia and Rambo. "Hey, sis, how much longer will it be?"
Without bothering to look up, she calls back, "It'll take a little bit. I want to stop any infection."
Jackson seems satisfied. He gets up and motions towards the door. "Blue and I'll go hunting in the meantime, okay?"
I balk. "In the snow?"
"Sure. Don't worry, it won't be that bad. We'll hurry it up. Plus, the storm's let up for a little bit. We might as well make the most of it. Soon it'll get so bad we won't even be able to leave."
My tail droops. "I can't hunt at all."
Almost imperceptibly, his eyes flicker to my collar. Danged thing. But he doesn't say anything, which I'm grateful for. "I'll teach you."
"While your out, toss in some snow!" yells Olivia. "It'll help wash out the wound."
"Will do," Jackson says, though there's an edge to his voice. Does he not want her to help Rambo? I shake off the ridiculous notion.
Reluctantly, I tag along as Jackson steps out of the shed. Since he seems to have forgotten Olivia's request, setting off immediately, I shovel up as much snow as I can and hurl it back into the shed. "That enough?"
Confident that I've left Rambo in good paws, I race to catch up with Jackson. He barely responds as I reach his side, too busy sniffing the air. I remain silent, aware that I'm watching a master at work, and not wanting to ruin his hunt. After a little bit, he flicks his tail. "This way. I smell mice."
"Mice? Out here?"
Irritated by my talking, he glares at me. I shut up quickly.
We creep towards a sheltered patch of ground at the base of a tree, bare of snow for now. Around us, white flakes fall like tiny fairies, clinging to our coats and whiskers. Jackson was right; it isn't too bad for now, but it does seem to be thickening and getting worse. We'll probably be glad we hunted now.
Oh, look at me, passing these judgements like a seasoned survivor. I've never tasted raw meat in my life. The closest I've come to it is the canned tuna Lisa let me lick off her fingers. The very thought of eating a mouse makes the bile rise in my throat, and all sorts of concerns about hygiene and disease come to mind. I don't have the constitution of these cats. What if I get sick?
Nevertheless, I follow faithfully as Jackson circles the tree trunk, trying to pinpoint the exact location of the mouse nest. "Do you smell that?" he whispers into my ears, his words so soft I have to strain my hearing just to be sure he actually spoke.
At first, I don't. But then I listen closer. And I smell them. Hear them too. The pulse of tiny hearts beneath the ground. The warm smell of living creatures. The scurry of little feet. I almost chicken out and turn around, not wanting to kill them. Yeah, I know. I'm a pathetic excuse for a cat.
Jackson obviously has no such qualms. His eyes are alive with the vigor of the hunt. "Watch and learn," he breathes. And then he pounces.
It's like watching artwork come to life. I was awestruck by Rambo's reflexes, but Jackson is every bit as swift and precise. His lean body forms a graceful arc in the air for a millisecond, and then he comes down hard, his head in the ground, a panicked squealing coming from inside the mouse burrow as he does his work.
"Wow," I say as he pulls back, a wriggling bundle in his mouth.
"Thanks," he meows flippantly. "There's two more, half-grown." With his paws, he drags out two other still bodies.
Looking down on them, I convince myself that they're prey. That's all there is to it. Prey to be eaten. But oh, how I wish I could've stuck to foraging for garbage in the alleys.
Apparently sensing my hesitation, Jackson says, "Don't worry. Once you taste them, you'll wonder how you've lived all this time on that rabbit-dung humans try to feed us.
"Lisa didn't feed me rabbit-dung," I say indignantly. "She fed me high-quality food. The vet said it was good for-"
"Yeah yeah, they've got a heap of excuses for stifling our natural diets," Jackson interrupts. "The real reason? They don't want 'disgusting' things like dead mice inside their houses. They'd rather have dry pellets that practically sap the life out of you. Trust me. I was raised with humans."
I blink at him. "Really? Why'd you leave?"
He rolls his eyes, bending down to pick up one of the mice. "I ran away. Idiots. They didn't know how to treat a cat, believe me."
Something about his tone warns me not to ask anymore questions. Instead, I pick up the other two mice. Their bodies are still warm in my mouth as we head back to the shed.
On getting back in, my attention immediately returns to Rambo. He's lying still in his nest. Olivia sits nearby, washing her paws daintily with her little pink tongue. Dropping the mice, I hurry over. "Will he be okay?"
Rambo opens his eyes and smiles up at me. "I think I'll live," he says, which is good to know.
More relieved than I can put into words, I beam at Olivia. "Thank you so much for everything."
"No problem," she says, getting up and padding over. We survey the catch of prey, and it strikes me that there are only three mice. And four cats.
Already having realized this problem, Jackson picks up one mouse, and nudges the other one over to Olivia. "And this one's for you, Blue. For being a great hunting protege. You have a lot of potential."
The compliment washes over my head in the wake of a greater wrong. "What about Rambo?"
Ice forms around Jackson's friendly expression instantaneously. What is it with him and Rambo? I can tell the feeling's mutual from the way my friend is glaring back at Jackson. "Olivia helped heal him. You helped me hunt. Those who work, eat."
No way am I going to let this fly. "He was sick."
But Jackson's every bit as stubborn as I am. "Then he can work and eat when he's better, okay Blue? Look, I'm sorry, but there really isn't enough to go around as it is. Two of these mice are just half-grown."
I note that he's taken the full-grown one, plump and fat at his paws. I'm about to suggest that Rambo and I split the biggest one, but then remember that Jackson was the one who caught all the prey anyway. I guess he has a point.
Still, I turn my back on him pointedly, and wait till he and Olivia have retreated to the other side of the shed before I join Rambo by his nest. The gray tom is seething. "Little weasel," he mutters, glaring daggers towards Jackson.
"Let it go," I say. "No harm, no foul."
Comically, he makes a face up at me. "I never got that saying."
Aware that he'll protest this, I nudge the mouse towards him. "Here you go."
"I am not eating that Blue."
Giving a long sigh, I say, "Why do you have to act like a kitten about this, Rambo? You need to eat to get better."
"Two reasons. One, I refuse to touch anything that Jackson the Weasel has touched. Two, he's right about one thing. You should eat. You helped."
"Please. All I did was observe. I did nothing at all to help him; he blew that out of proportion. Besides, you're the one who's sick. I need you to get better. What will I do without you?"
Rambo freezes. I blush, realizing that comment sounded a lot sappier then it needed to be.
Quietly, he mews, "You'll be fine without me. You're strong enough to make it on your own."
Now I'm growing impatient. "Will you just eat the darned mouse?"
Snapping out of his reverie, Rambo sighs. "No."
"Then we'll split it."
"Blue, that'll barely be a morsel each."
"Well, we've wasted enough time arguing, and we've gotten nowhere," I point out. Laying the tiny mouse in the middle, I hold my breath, still my queasy stomach, and take my first bite.
It's not great, but it's not bad. It has a more distinct flavor then the food I'm used to, and it doesn't taste like the hamburger or chicken that Rambo and I ate before either. I'm not quite sure if I like the change or not. But I'm hungry enough to finish my half of the mouse. Rambo eats much quicker then me, and by the time I'm done he's finished grooming himself, and is gazing at me with a content expression.
Feeling my face go warm under his watch, I mew, "What?"
He jerks a little bit, startled, like he hadn't even realized he was staring at me. "Sorry. So, uh... how was it? Your first taste of raw meat, I'm guessing?"
"Yeah. It was... okay, I guess," I respond.
For some reason, this answer seems to satisfy him. "I'll bet you're glad I taught you how to forage in the alleys. Better then Jackson's method, right?"
"Um, sure," I say, raising my eyebrows. "You really don't like him, do you?"
"Nope. He tried to starve me."
"You tried to starve yourself."
He catches my eyes and holds them fast. "For you."
Paralyzed, my throat goes dry. I want to say something, anything to break the moment, but on the other hand I don't want it to end. It's a strange feeling, one I've never experienced before. Before I can do anything stupid, Jackson gallops over.
Both me and Rambo reel backwards, annoyed, but I instantly forget that once I see the look of fear in Jackson's eyes. "Guys," he says. "I don't want to alarm you... but there are dogs heading this way."
Just as the words leave his mouth, we hear faraway barking- but it's getting closer.
"I think they're regulars at this neighborhood, and now that it's snowing, they're on the hunt," Jackson reports. Olivia is standing by the shed door, her face filled with terror.
Already, I've guessed that these dogs are nothing like Stan the Rottweiler, or the dying mutt I met at the park. They're dangerous. And headed our way.
Rambo struggles to his feet. "There's no way we can stay here."
Thankfully, Jackson doesn't let whatever silly, unnecessary rivalry there is between them get in the way of the group's safety. "We've got to make a run for it. I've seen these dogs before. They're starving. The dogcatchers chase them because they cause so much trouble, and all humans refuse to feed them because they're scary. They'll do anything for a meal. We're in danger guys."
That's enough for me. I bolt out the door. "What are we waiting for, then?"
Once we're out though, all of us skid to a stop. The dogs are out on the field, headed straight towards us. There's no way we can outrun them, and the inside of the shed holds no safety.
"Quick! To the roof!" Rambo yells, springing up onto the shed wall.
Realizing it's our only option, I follow suit. Though I'm no award-winning climber, the wood is soft and half-rotted from the damp snow, and I manage to scramble up fast enough so that the dog's don't bite off my tail. At the top, Rambo grabs me by my scruff and hauls me up to stand beside him. Olivia and Jackson are already there, panting.
Below, the dogs form a group around the shed, barking and braying. It takes them about five minutes to fall silent, but they don't show any inclination to leave. Instead, they settle down in the snow, eyes bright with malice, watching us like Jackson watched the mice this morning.
Running my eyes over them, I can see protruding ribs and drool hanging off long pink tongues. Jackson was right. They're starving. And with us the only prey in sight, the chances of them leaving any time soon are slim to none.
But none of us want to think of what we'll do then. None of us want to consider that possibility. So we shut it out. Olivia begins to groom her fur. Jackson sheathes and unsheathes his claws. Rambo does nothing, staring off into space. Wanting to be near him, as he's my rock in this situation, I inch over and lean my head against his shoulder.
Instantly, Jackson's head jerks up. He lets his gaze drift over to the dogs, but I know he was staring at me for that second.
Rambo's voice distracts me from my suspicions. "You're shaking."
"I'm scared," I whisper honestly.
He wraps his tail around me, which helps ease my shivering, both from his warmth and from the security his presence gives me. "I know. I am too."
"Do you think we'll get out of here alive?"
A pained look crosses his face. "Don't ask me questions I can't answer."
My jaw tightens. "Can't or won't?"
"Don't want to." He forces himself to meet my eyes. "I don't want to imagine that happening to you, Blue." My name is barely a breath at the end of his sentence. A fragile puff of air, like he's afraid speaking it too loudly will make it vanish forever.
I sigh and give my coat a quick shake, trying to stop the incessantly-falling snow from clumping around my fur. Jackson and Olivia meet our gazes. Jackson gives a quick shake of his head and lays his head on his paws.
Down beneath, the dogs wait. We do too.
"This is getting ridiculous," Jackson snaps, making us all jump.
"I agree." That, to my surprise, is Rambo. Though I guess he'd kind of have to be out of his mind not to. It's nightfall by now, and my legs have started to cramp up from the cold and from barely moving for hours. While the two toms huddle at the edge of the rooftop, glaring down at the dogs and plotting all kinds of crazy plans, I pad over to Olivia.
She looks up with a smile. I'm guessing that after traveling with her brother, she'd like some feminine company. I had a friend back at Lisa's named Pearl; Olivia reminds me of her. They both have that winsome, wide-eyed look that makes you want to protect them.
As I sit beside her, I glance up at the dark sky above, and my throat closes up. If I had thought, a few days ago, that I would soon be far from home & Lisa, stuck on top of a roof with a pack of hungry dogs down below...
Softly, Olivia mews, "Thinking of home?"
"Yeah," I admit. "I wish I could be there."
Touching her nose to my cheek, she murmurs, "We'll get out of here."
Surprised by the sweet gesture, I smile back at her. "Till then, at least Rambo and Jackson aren't ripping each other apart."
Her face darkens, and she looks at her paws. "Jackson... I just don't know about him sometimes, to be honest."
"Why? He seems like a really cool tom. A little bossy," I chuckle, "but nice."
"I guess," Olivia says, not meeting my gaze. Something worries me here. She's not talking about him in the affectionate, annoyed tone that most sisters take with their brothers- it's the way Laurie always talked about Luke. Instead, she sounds more like a mother talking about a prodigal son... or just a cat with a big secret to hide.
Since there's really nothing else to do, Olivia and I chat for a good hour or so. Aside from her odd sadness concerning her brother, she's a very unique, lovable cat. She talks about all kinds of things, but I can't help notice that she always skirts around her kithood. Finally, I bring it up forwardly, saying, "So Jackson says you guys lived with humans when you were little. How was that?"
Clouds draw a veil over her face, and she glances at her paws. "It was awful, to be honest. I'm sure your human was very nice, Blue, but ours wasn't. He was terrible to us. He beat Jackson and me all the time, but especially Jackson, because Jackson would always hiss at him and scratch him. I think it did something to Jackson, being treated that way as a kit." She stares at me intently, as if willing me to understand something that I can't quite grasp right now.
I open my mouth to reply and tell her how sorry I am, but Jackson and Rambo interrupt. Both their faces are solemn, dappled with shadow and moonlight. Both Olivia and I stand up, sensing something's about to happen.
"Okay, we've had enough of this, guys," Rambo announces.
With a frown, I shoot a glance at the ground. I can still see the dogs, some of them lying down, others sitting sentry. One of them meets my gaze and snarls at me before laying its head back on its paws. I almost feel sorry for them... they're just trying to get food. But on the other hand, I'd really rather not end up being that food, so...
Olivia stares at her brother, her brow creased. "What do you mean?"
"We're breaking out."
"So what's the plan?" I ask Rambo.
All four of us are perched at the edge of the rooftop. Luckily, Rambo and Jackson have been standing there for about an hour, so this doesn't put the dogs on alert. All they do is glance our way and then lay their heads back down. Still, that's little consolation. I know that in the time it takes one of us to scramble down the sides of the shed, they'll be on us, tearing us limb from limb.
Again, I repeat, "What's the plan?"
Rambo bites his lip, which puts me on guard instantly. "Listen, I know you won't exactly like this, but Jackson and I have agreed it's the only way this can work. I need you to trust me."
I shake my head impertinently. "Nice try Rambo. I'm not letting you get even more hurt."
To make things complicated, Jackson steps in. "Blue, we've discussed this. Trust me. It's the only way."
Glaring at both of them, I snap, "And what exactly is this way, hm? Because both of you seem in no hurry to actually divulge the details."
Their silence is response enough. I sigh exasperatedly. "Look, this is getting us nowhere. Can't we just come up with a plan where none of us get hurt?"
Exchanging a glance that doesn't reassure me at all, Rambo and Jackson give me a single nod. Jackson leads the way to the edge again. "Come on. We've wasted enough time. Let's do this."
I'm still doubtful, but Olivia gives her head a shake. "They won't listen. Trust me. Toms, once they get to this point, are impossible to reason with."
"You're right," I sigh, linking my tail with hers.
Hoping none of the others notice me, I glance up at the sky. Tears well in my eyes. I know I'm being incredibly weak, especially when the others are being so brave, but I can't help it. I could die today. Without seeing Lisa. Under my breath, I whisper, "Lisa, if I die today... I love you. And I'm sorry I didn't find you. I'm sorry."
Though I try my best to be quiet, Rambo glances over. The look in his eyes is both sad and determined. My heart clenches in fear, and a sudden feeling of foreboding washes over me. "Rambo, please tell me the plan. What are you-"
Too late. He streaks down the side of the shed and gives a loud caterwaul. The dogs spring to their feet. I barely see anything then, as red clouds my vision.
And that's when I understand. He's the bait.
"NO!" I scream.
"We have to go!" Jackson shoves me. My feet windmill through the air as I plummet off the shed roof and land awkwardly in the snow. Pain shoots up my leg, and I half-collapse. Then I feel a strong tug on my neck-scruff. Olivia. She yanks me to my feet and we break into a run.
I'm crying as I run, and my hurt leg keeps making me trip and stumble over hidden rocks and virtually nothing. Even as I'm escaping, I feel sick to my stomach. Why can't I make myself turn around? Why can't I play the hero I've seen in so many movies? What would it take for me to whirl and join Rambo, to help him? And why, just why, am I such a cowardly, useless cat?
When I do stop, it's not because of heroism. I literally fall flat on my face.
"Get up, Blue! The dogs are coming!" Olivia shrieks.
I moan. I can't do it. I just can't. I give up.
Behind me, I can hear barking. Jackson curses loudly and hauls me to my paws. "Get up!" he screams into my face. I can barely hear him. Rambo...
Olivia and Jackson are yelling at each other. I can't make out what they're saying. I want to stop them, becaues I don't want to see them bickering like this. But I don't have it in me. And then a pair of strong, dangerous jaws are around me, and the dog hurls me about five feet into the air.
Magically, I land on my feet, temporarily knocked out of my haze. I turn and fly like a streak over the ground. I can hear Olivia screaming. I don't want to think about it.
Survive this night, Blue. That's all you have to do...
It's dawn. I've spent the night hidden in a snowbank; after the dogs grew tired of looking for me, they left me to a fitful, nightmare-filled sleep. Now, finally, I step out and survey the scene.
The snow is red. There's no sign of her. Olivia's gone.
For a few seconds, I just stare. The next thing I know, I'm on my knees, sick to my stomach.
"It's just nature," a voice says quietly from behind me.
It's Jackson. His face is downcast, but he's not sobbing. Why isn't he crying? Why isn't the world over? Olivia, sweet, gentle Olivia, is dead.
"Eat or be eaten." Jackson lays a paw on my back. How can he say that about his own sister?
I flinch away from his touch. I don't want him. Not now, not here. I want Rambo. "Where is he? What happened to him?"
He frowns. "Who?"
"Rambo," I say the word as a hiccup/sob. "Where is he? Why did you let him be a distraction? How could you do that? I should've been the distraction."
Anger flashes across his face briefly, though he masks it effectively. "We did it to protect you, Blue. Trust me. There's no way he could've survived that. But... it's okay. He died for you. For all of us. And I tried my best to protect you too." He wraps his tail around me.
I'm cold. I'm heartbroken. I'm lonely.
I let him comfort me. I have no one else.
"Well, what's this. A cuddle party? I'm heartbroken to have not been invited."
My heart literally stops. I'm not even kidding. First, I blink rapidly to make sure I'm not hallucinating. Then I close my eyes to prevent a possible heart attack. Jackson stands up, eyebrows raised.
Instead of wasting them with gravity and stupid stuff like that, I just fly off the ground.
At least, that's what it feels like. All I know is that suddenly I'm wrapped up in Rambo, and nothing else exists in the world anymore. Tears pour down my cheeks, and I'm not sure what I'm crying for. I guess this is what people mean by "tears of joy", a phrase that never made sense to me before.
When we pull apart, the first coherent sentence I can form is, "Did I hurt you?"
His smile is like a sunrise in a neverending arctic night. "Nothing much. Hey, don't doubt my speed. Sure, there are the cuts that my old friend Sam, gave to me, but I'm fine. The dogs never caught me. I booked them an appointment with our old friend, the dogcatcher."
I grin back weakly. "I wondered why he was called that."
Rambo doesn't respond, just wraps his tail around me fiercely, like he's never letting me go. I don't want him to, anyway.
"Ah, Rambo. Welcome back."
Jackson. Normally I have nothing against him, but he's kinda intruding on the moment right now.
"Yeah." Rambo's eyes flicker around. "Where's Olivia?"
It takes a second for me to remember. Then I burst convulsively into sobs, burying my face deep into Rambo's fur. "They took her."
"No," he whispers. "Not her."
Helpless with grief, I nod. He groans. "It's my fault. If I'd been a better distraction-"
"-you'd be dead by now," I finish. He falls silent, gazing at me gently. Then he licks the top of my forehead, tenderly, like I were a little kit.
"I'm glad you're okay, Blue."
I rest my head against his shoulder, for once not minding his fatherly attitude. "I'm glad you're okay too."
Slowly, stiff-leggedly, Jackson approaches us. He gives us a forced-looking smile. "So happy Rambo's back, but we can't lose sight of what it's cost us. Olivia's gone."
You seemed perfectly fine with that a few minutes ago. Still, I bow my head. Olivia's memory shouldn't be tainted by her brother's erratic behavior.
However, Rambo seems to read a darker meaning in Jackson's words. In a voice filled with deadly calm, he asks, "Are you trying to say Olivia's death was my fault? Why couldn't you have saved her, huh? She's your sister. I was busy trying to lead the dogs away from all of you. You were right there, with Olivia. What's your excuse? Why didn't you try to help?"
His eyes like burning coals, Jackson takes a step forward, so he and Rambo are nose-to-nose. My stomach pitches uneasily. They aren't really going to fight, right? They wouldn't do that. Surely toms have more sense then that.
"I wanted to protect both of them. Blue and Olivia," Jackson snarls. "Are you saying you'd rather Blue were dead right now?"
Both Rambo and I flinch. "Of course not," Rambo snaps.
Jackson nods. "That's what I thought. So don't go trying to blame me. You're the one who started all this."
"Guys-" I say, but neither tom pays me any heed.
"I'm also the one who risked my life to save you guys. All I expected from you in return is that you'd put Olivia & Blue ahead of your own worthless hide, and make my effort worthwhile." His eyes narrow. "I'm sure you realized I wasn't willing to die for you."
That was uncalled for, wasn't it? I tug at his fur. "Rambo, look, if you guys can't get along, we'll just split up."
Their attention caught, both toms turn to me now. Jackson frowns. "Split up how? Me and you?"
"Um..." I meet Rambo's gaze pleadingly, but his face has hardens. He seems to think I actually want to be with Jackson, just because I appear to be considering it. Through my eyes, I try to communicate that I just need a way to refuse Jackson politely, but Rambo's obviously tuned me out, because he refuses to make eye contact. Helplessly, I stare at Jackson. "I'm not sure."
With a pitiful look, Jackson gazes at his paws. "I don't want to leave you... guys. Without Olivia, I don't know what I'm going to do."
I can feel my heart melting. "Look, Jackson-"
"No, Blue. I am not staying with him."
Rambo. Obviously not as moved as I am. "Why not?"
Obstinantly, he shakes his head. "I'm sick and tired of him. He's not right in the head."
Jackson's jaw drops, and I stare at Rambo in shock. "What on earth- That's no way to talk about him! What's gotten into you, Rambo?"
"I don't know. But I'm not going anywhere if this guy's tagging along. Come on Blue. Let's get out of here," he says, flashing me a confident smile.
When I remain silent, his smile wavers, then dies. "I see. Him over me."
Trying to reason with him, I plead, "It's not like that, okay? I was wrong. We shouldn't split up. We can make this work."
Anger erases all kindliness on Rambo's face. "Oh sure, now we shouldn't split up. Now that it might cost you Jackson. Whatever. I'm out of here."
Something stubborn and awful inside me rises up like a poisonous snake. I'm tired of this. And so I say nothing when he turns around and starts to walk away. After all, I'm pretty sure he'll be back. He'll go a few steps to scare me, and then come back. We'll work something out, and the three of us will move on. I'll find Lisa, and she'll adopt them- he's not coming back.
I lurch forward. "Rambo! Wait!"
But he's out of earshot, and nearly out of sight. I can't believe he really left. A numbness spreads through me.
"It's okay, Blue," Jackson soothes.
I don't believe him at all.
I guess Rambo never really cared about me at all. I was stupid to think that I was anything more than a silly kittypet to him.
"What do we do now?" I mew quietly. I haven't even cried. Olivia's death has sapped all the sorrow out of me. Now I just feel like a horrow shell. It's like the grief of Rambo's departure is shut out by a thin wall. I can feel it trying to get in, to invade my heart, but there's simply nothing left to grieve. It's all gone, blown away by the wind.
This is the most hopeless I've felt since Shannon threw me out.
And now, I'm beginning to think... that I'll never find Lisa after all.
No! If you hang onto one thing, hang onto the hope of finding Lisa. It'll make everything worth it, I tell myself. I have to keep trying. Lisa would do the same for me. I know it.
"We should get out of here," Jackson sighs.
Alarmed for some reason, I hesitate. "But... what if Rambo comes back? I- I may be crazy, but I really think that Rambo isn't the type of cat to abandon me- I mean us." As I say the words, I realize they're true. Rambo wouldn't do that, even if I meant nothing more than a friend to him. He wouldn't leave permanently over our fight. I was determined to give him more credit than that.
Jackson shakes his head. "Trust me. We have to get out of here." When I remain silent, he adds, "The dogs will be back. They have our scent, and cat-blood on their paws. They'll hunt us down."
I let my eyes flutter shut with exhaustion. "Okay. Let's go."
As we turn our back on the fields and head off - in the opposite direction that Rambo went in - I try to ignore the feeling in my stomach that tells me I'm making a terrible mistake. I try to ignore the image imprinted in my mind, the image of Rambo arriving at the field, looking around, and wondering why I left so suddenly. Why I didn't trust him to come back.
He shouldn't have left in the first place. It's not my fault, I tell myself.
"I'm sorry Rambo," I whisper softly. And then I trot faster, to catch up with Jackson.
I'm sure Rambo and I will never see each other again.
"Hey, Jackson? Where exactly are we going?"
Admittedly, I should've asked this question a while ago. We've been walking for almost an hour, and my paws are just about ready to fall off. After last night's events, I just want to curl up somewhere and die. And I'm only half-kidding.
Olivia's shrieks are still ringing in my ears, and I keep thinking over what Rambo said. Could Jackson have helped her? If he wasn't helping me? Had it been me or Olivia? I really hoped that wasn't the case... because that meant I had taken Olivia's life from her. Just snatched it away.
The thought makes me want to cry.
In answer to my question, Jackson swivels his head to give me an easy grin. "To a great place for food that I know about. I'm going to teach you about street-life, the real way, not the way that pansy Rambo does it." Seeing my baleful reaction to his last words, he adds, "Not that Rambo is bad, it's just..."
"Yeah," I say shortly. "So... are we looking for Lisa?" A blank stare. "My human..."
Jackson bites his lip and shrugs, then quickens his pace.
With a sigh, I follow him. I don't really have a choice. I don't stand a chance by myself.
Ordinarily, I would've persisted about finding Lisa. But by now, I'm so tired and beaten down that I can barely put one paw in front of another. I stumble along behind Jackson, not paying attention as we leave the fields where the dogs attacked us, and head back towards the more downtown area, full of roads and cars and noise.
"Can't we rest a bit?" I blurt without thinking. I don't want to go to this "great place for food". Food means nothing to me now. I just want to... oh, I don't know what I want. I want Lisa back, and my old life back, but I don't want this life to disappear...
Food would probably help clear my muddled mind, at least. I decide to go along with it.
Not that it matteres. Jackson ignores my request anyway, pausing to sniff the air before taking a right down a gloomy street. I might not have street-smarts or developed senses, but somehow I know this place isn't safe. Thin, mean-looking Twolegs peer out from grimy shop windows. The signs are faded and discolored, and dirty snow-slush runs into the roads. It's nothing like the neighborhood where Lisa and I lived.
"Jackson? I'm not so sure about this place." I'm starting to get a little annoyed by his constant ignoring of me. So I poke him in the shoulder. "Jackson?"
He brushes me off impatiently. "Can it Blue. I'm thinking here."
With a small sigh, I glance around. The store we're near has large, dirty windows through which I can see meat everywhere; ham legs, flanks of beef, even whole chickens. But I don't see how we're ever going to get inside. And I had already discovered that raw meat wasn't all it was cranked up to be. I would take Rambo's method of foraging any day.
Finally, Jackson gets to his paws abruptly. "Come on," he barks at me impatiently.
I have to scramble to catch up. "Jackson, where are was going?"
He gives me a devilish grin. "We're gonna plan a raid." Seeing my blank expresion, "You know, when you go in and just take what you want from Twolegs. While having a little bit of fun." He winks. "You grab the meat, while I scratch that fat old man."
Repulsed, I backpedaled. "What? Why?"
"To get food. And give him some exercise."
Weariness crashes down onto me, so hard that I want to just fold my legs and let it crush me. "I... no. This isn't what Lisa would want."
"And I suppose she'd want you to be a stray, hanging around with that raggamuffin piece of crow-food, Rambo?" His words are like a knife. They tear a wound in my heart before I know what's happening. My mouth moves like a dying fish's, but no sound comes out. Jackson's features are suddenly foreign and austere. I stumble away from him.
"No. I mean, Rambo is amazing. I'm going back to the field to see if he came back."
Jackson moves in front of me, blocking me. It dawns on me how small I am compared to him- to everyone, really. "And what if he never came back? Even if he did, he'll be gone by now."
I sigh helplessly. Real fear is creeping into my heart, cold and icy. "Then I'll track him down. Maybe he'll be at The Pits."
A short, cruel laugh. "The Pits? You're leaving me to hunt after some tom who spends his time in The Pits?" His eyes narrow. "I find that rather offensive." It could've been a joke, except for the tone in which he said it.
Taking a deep breath, I collect my wits. There was no real threat. Jackson was a little harsh, but he wasn't dangerous. "Jackson, I'm going."
Cautiously, I mew, "What do you mean?"
His face relaxes slightly, and he glances up at the sky. "Because it looks like it's about to snow really hard. Looks like a blizzard." He flicks his tail towards the darkening clouds overhead. "That's why I wanted to get something to eat first." Here he gives me an accusatory stare. So suddenly this is my fault? How does he manage to change personalities and turn the tables so fast?
Not used to dealing with such a smooth-talker, I sigh. "Okay, okay. If you really think the blizzard will be that bad, then we'd better go. Where are we going to stay?"
"Oh, a little place I know. It's pretty far though. We'll have to walk a lot."
Dubiously, I shot a glance upwards. "I don't know, Jackson. I really don't want to sound like I'm whining, but I'm really tired after last night. Don't you want to go somewhere near? We can just find-"
"No, the place I know is perfect," he interrupts. "Olivia and I used to go there all the time." If his ploy was to remind me of Olivia and make me feel guilty, it works. But I can't help wondering... there doesn't seem to be enough sorrow in his gaze when he mentions Olivia's name. She died last night, an awful death for any cat. I thought they were really close as siblings, yet here Jackson was, seeming perfectly fine. But thena gain, what did I know? Maybe he was just hiding his hurt, or trying to be strong in order to care for me. I shouldn't be the one judging when it could've been my fault Olivia died.
We start walking. Sure enough, the wind is getting stronger, and the temperature lower. Once again, I'm tempted to ask if we can just find a closer place to wait out the storm, but I bite my tongue. Surely Jackson knows more about survival than me.
Flurries began fluttering through the air. For the first few minutes, watching them dance and frolic prettily is entertaining. After that, it becomes torture.
My paws feel like they're encased in solid blocks of ice. Bloody smears begin mingling with my pawprints, from where my nails have torn at the roots. I don't think I've ever been more miserable. At least with Rambo, I had someone kind and caring - a friend - to talk to.
"Hey, Jackson? After the blizzard... do you think maybe we can go look for Lisa? I mean, once we get something to eat and stuff?"
No response for a bit. Then, just when I think he's going to ignore me again, he does something worse than that. "Blue, I hate to tell you this, I honestly do. But you have to accept it." He turns to me with burning coals for eyes. "Lisa is dead. She is gone. If she was really as kind as you said she was, she wouldn't have abandoned you unless she had to."
Uncomprehendingly, I stagger to a stop, staring at him, but not seeing him. "W-what?"
No. Not Lisa. That can't be true.
Abruptly, I turn around. "I have to go back. I have to go back to the house." I don't know why that seems like the perfect plan, but it seems the only rational thig to do. Somehow, my brain tells me that this will all be better once I'm back home, where Lisa belongs. It's an anchor. Something to cling to.
"Are you nuts?" Jackson. "There'll be no one to open the door for you- that is, unless some other Twolegs have already moved in. You have to get over it, Blue."
"Like you just got over Olivia dying?" I fling back at him.
Ordinarily, I'd feel awful after seeing the effects of that cruel insult. But it seems to just bounce off Jackson's impenetrable exterior. "We're going to get shelter from the blizzard, Blue," he says, practically dragging me along. "We'll talk about this later."
Eternity passes before Jackson says, "We're almost there." At this point, I'm beyond feeling the sting of cold. I just feel numb, but I know it's going to be all heck to defrost. Gritting my teeth, I stumble half-blindly after Jackson as he leads me towards a deep crevice in a brick wall. The snow is much more abundant now, and the curtain of white gets thicker every minute. By the time I finally stumble into the den, a white coat has frosted to my fur, obscurring its blue-gray color.
Jackson says something, but I don't hear him before exhaustion overwhelms me and I drift off into unconsciousness.
When I look around, I don't believe it. I'm back home. I can hear Lisa's footsteps, and smell her familiar, comforting scent all around me. I can hear her voice. "Blue? Time for dinner!"
I race into the kitchen, not for the food, despite the growling in my stomach, but to see her. To see her smiling face again.
It's not Lisa. She's nowhere in sight. Instead, Shannon stands there, holding a bag of FishStix. "Hey Blue! Who wants food? You hungry?"
I've heard this all before, and I know where this is going. No. I won't fall for it again.
But I do. I can't stop my dream-self as she steps forward. "Oh, but I can't feed you in here. You need to eat out here, so you don't take a mess." The door is thrown open.
Shaking my head, I try to stop myself from going, from leaving Lisa's house. But it's no use. The next thing I know, I'm outside. Alone. Again.
And that's when I know that Jackson's right. I'll never see Lisa again.
The dream shifts, pitching me into another emotional scene. The field where the dog pack attacked us.
It's empty now. But there's still blood strewn across the snow, making me realize I'm seeing it just after Jackson and I left. A forlorn, gray shape emerges on the horizon. "Blue? Jackson?"
Shocked, I suck in my breath. He came back for me... and I left him.
Slowly, he makes his way through the field, calling our names. "Where did you guys go?"
Finally, at the end, he sinks to the ground. The look on his face is a bullet that hits me in the heart and lodges itself there. "No..." he moans quietly. "She's gone off with that maniac.... what have I done?"
"I'm right here, Rambo," I whisper, unable to muster my voice. He doesn't - or more likely, can't - hear me. Helplessly, I watch as he gets up and slowly pads away. Head down, shoulders hunched against the wind. Completely and utterly defeated.
Just like me.
Blearily, I open my eyes and wait till Jackson comes into focus. "Yeah?" I mumble sleepily.
"You were talking in your sleep," he says. The look in his eyes makes me wonder what I said out loud. I know he and Rambo never got along...
Trying to appear casual, and not let on the depth of my dreams, I shrug. "I guess I do that sometimes."
As soon as he looks away, I let my body slump. Forget emotional pain, my physical pain is enough to occupy me. My head throbs, my throat feels like someone lit it on fire, my paws ache, and whenever I breathe, my lungs rattle in my ribcage. I think this is the sickest I've ever been; before, Lisa would always take me to the vet before it got too bad. But I remember what Rambo told me. No vets out here. And Jackson can't really do anything either- if he even notices my distress. I'm on my own.
"Blue? I thought we should have a talk."
I freeze, glancing at him. "Yeah? About what?"
He moves closer, his olive eyes murky and unreadable. They remind me of a deep, overgrown marsh that I'm trying desperately not to get stuck in. Yes, he is handsome. I'll admit that. Everything about his face, from the sharp cut of his jaw to the slope of his ears, is perfect. But it's a cold beauty, one without any warmth behind it. I'd take Rambo's scarred, familiar face anyday. "I know we've barely known each other-"
"Two days," I sigh.
Anger pulses briefly from him, but it's dismissed quickly, and smoothed over. "-but two days is enough for me to know all I need to know about you." He places his paw lightly on mine. I feel my body go rigid. "You're a beautiful, wonderful cat, Blue." Our gazes lock, and I feel like he's holding me in place, just with that paw on mine. Is this what it's supposed to feel like? My heart is thudding... but not in a good way. "I know you're a kittypet, and that my life may not be for you, but I promise to help you adjust. Blue, will you be my mate?"
Before I can even consider replying, my mind flings me back in time. To the pier. Sitting across from Rambo. Picking up his furry, warm paw and placing it on his heart, telling him that that's how you knew you loved someone. What he said about my eyes changing color- and the way his did the same when we were around each other. We hadn't known each other for that long, but it felt like I had lost a piece of me when he left us at the field. Now, looking at Jackson, I wonder if he can see Rambo's reflection in my eyes; that's how much I wish it was Rambo instead of Jackson, sitting beside me. I even almost wish... that it was Rambo asking me that question.
Sensing my hesitation, Jackson shifts his paw back and turns on the most charming look I've ever seen. I gulp, wondering how to phrase my answer.
"Jackson, I'm so, so honored that you'd ask me to be your mate," I begin, "but that's just not the way I see you. I see you as a loyal friend, and I am grateful for everything you did to help me. You and Olivia helped me and Rambo," his eyes darken at the tom's name, and I hasten to go on, "when we needed friends. So please don't think I don't care for you- I just don't think we should be mates."
I wait. For disappointment, acceptance, even anger. Any kind of reply. What I get is much worse. Silence. He doesn't even look at me.
Finally, I'm forced to give up. Touching my tail to his shoulder, I pull away and curl up against the wall of the den. My plan was to sleep, but I end up staring out the den, watching the seemingly neverending snow blanket the ground. Was I wrong to say no to Jackson? Try as I might, I can't convince myself that I was. Yes, he has been relatively kind to me. No matter how much he annoys me sometimes, not a lot of toms would take someone else under their wing after just losing their sister.
But thinking about him in that way, my mind just fails me. I can't see him truly being my one love, the cat I'd die for, the father of my kits- if I ever have any, which I don't know if I want to. And isn't that what love is? It wouldn't be fair to just say yes and not give him a true relationship.
Everything was so much easier when it was just Lisa and me.
"The snow's stopped." Jackson's voice jolts me out of a light doze I'd fallen into. Yawning, I stand and stretch, wincing as my muscles scream in protest.
Both of us step outside the den. About a good four or five inches have fallen, and there are deeper drifts lining the streets. Already, the occasional car drives past, grinding the soft white power to slush. I'm quiet for a bit, just taking in the winter wonderland we've stepped into.
"Come on then," Jackson says roughly. "We'd better get going."
Startled, I nod and move to follow him. He pauses and gives me a bitter look that halts me in my tracks. "Unless you're not quite done making friends here. Why don't you go and meet some more toms, lead them on, and then dump them?"
Where on earth did that random insult come from?
I grit my teeth and ignore him.
That's when I realize something. This is never going to work. Jackson didn't yell at me because I refused him, but there's a nest of bitterness in his heart that I aggravated. I hate to do this after Olivia's death, but... I have to leave him. I have to find Rambo again. It's the only way.
Just as I open my mouth to tell him that, I hear a high-pitched mewl. Both of us freeze. "Where did that come from?"
He jerks his head in reply, and we make our way over to a snowdrift piled against the wall of a building. I can make out two scraps of colored fur nestled in the white. With a gasp, I exclaim, "They're kittens!"
Gingerly, I lift the both of them out of the snowdrift and set them down. They couldn't have been there throughout the blizzard, or they'd be frozen solid. Instead, they must've been left there just recently. But where were their Twolegs, or parents?
One of them, a little brown tabby she-cat with big green eyes, toddles over to me. My heart melts as she opens her pink mouth in a wide yawn. "Hi," she squeaks.
Bending down, I smile at her. "Hello! I'm Blue. What's your name?"
"Sparrow. This is my sister, Robin." Robin is a little white she-kit with brown eyes.
After greeting them both, I turn to Jackson. "We can't leave them here." My plans of splitting up are temporarily put aside. There's no way I could take care of two kits by myself.
Doubtfully, he says, "Are they old enough to survive without milk?"
"Let's ask them. Hey guys, do you always have milk, or do you eat food too?"
Sparrow scrunches up her face. "We eat food sometimes. Our Twolegs give it to us, as long as it's soft. Why?"
So they have Twolegs... what kind of horrible people would leave two kittens outside during the winter? "How did you get here? Did your Twolegs bring you here?"
"Yeah," Robin chirped, speaking up. She seems to be much shyer than Sparrow, and she has the softest eyes I've ever seen. "They drove us up here in the car. It was our first ride in it." She beams, then deflates. "But then they left us out here, and we're not sure where they went."
Jackson and I exchange looks. A what-did-I-tell-you-about-humans look is written all over his face. I choose to let that issue slide.
"You guys can come with us, okay?" I say immediately. "We'll take care of you."
Both kits give me smiles like little suns. Is this what it feels like to be a mother? Forget what I said about not sure if I wanted kittens. I'd do anything for little angels like these.
I can't help but notice the look Jackson's giving me. I raise my eyebrows at him, and he shakes his head. With a shrug, I say, "Where are we off to now?" As an afterthought, "It can't be too far. I don't think they'll be able to walk that much."
"Well, I don't know any good hunting spots nearby," Jackson says exasperatedly.
"Then we can rummage."
He glares at me. "You mean dig through the trash. Like Rambo taught you."
I open my mouth, shut it, and march over to one of the garbage cans. After failing pathetically for five minutes - why am I so short? - I huff and turn to Jackson. "Can you give me a paw?" He doesn't budge. Muttering under my breath, I take a few steps back and slam into the garbage can. It falls to the ground heavily, but luckily the sound is muffled by the snow. The kits scamper forward interestedly.
While I root through the mess that spills out, I give the kittens a mini-tutorial. "Use your nose to find something that smells good, and check it out," I say. "Mostly meat; it has a rich smell that makes your mouth water. If you two find anything, tell me and I'll see if it's edible, okay?"
"Okay!" They begin to energetically dig.
Jackson has come up behind me. "They're a little young to be taught that, don't you think?"
I shrug. "Better now then later. I don't want them to be as clueless as me." I give him a humorous smile taht he doesn't return. "Look, Jackson-"
"Forget it," he cuts me off. "I don't want your pity or your apologies. Okay?"
Biting my lip, I say, "We can remain friends. Please? I don't want to lose your friendship."
His face twists into a sneer. "No, Blue. I don't want to be just friends. I can't accept just your 'friendship'." His eyes practically bear a hole into mine. "I won't rest till you say you'll be mine."
I can't ever say that, Jackson. Before I have a chance to say the words, Sparrow tugs at my paw. "Blue? Is this edible?" She and Robin are dragging along a box of chicken nuggets.
"Yeah! Good job!" As I begin dividing the food, I push Jackson's share towards him. He shoves it back and turns away from me.
Fine. If he wanted to act like a little kit, he could. I continue rummaging, and manage to find some more food, including a can of tuna and half a ham sandwich. My bruised paws are completely forgotten as I work. Sparrow and Robin are far too precious to invoke any selfish thought. Once they've eaten, I finish off the rest, then glance up. Jackson is waiting for us, a hard look on his face. "Come on."
"Okay, okay. Come on, girls." Once I have a kitten flanking me on either side, I move towards him. "Where are we going?" I ask a little bit later, once the kittens are busy chatting amiably with each other.
"Back to the city part of town. There's a little patch of grass that's amazing for hunting," Jackson says without glancing at me.
Sure enough, I can tell we're going deeper into town. The buildings are more closely-packed and run down, and the snow is replaced by muddy slush and tons more cars. With a jolt, I realize we're nearing The Pits. I have two reactions to that. One, fear, as I remember the types of cats that hung out there. And two, hope. Is it possible that Rambo could be there?
"Keep the kits to this side," Jackson whispers. He swivels his ears towards what appears to be a small wooden box.
I frown. "What is it?"
"Poison. Probably for pests, but it could kill an adult cat."
With a shudder, I sweep the kits away from the box with my tail. "You know, The Pits are around here. Maybe we could look and see if Rambo's there-"
A shrill scream cuts me off. "SNOWPAW!"
My head shoots up. I recognize that name. Snowpaw, Flamepaw, and Nightpaw. We saw them at The Pits. Rambo said they were from DewClan...
Across the street, I can see two of the apprentices. The toms, Flamepaw and Nightpaw. My gaze searches the street, looking for Snowpaw. That's when I glimpse her white pelt. Stained with blood. In the middle of the street.
She's been hit by a car.
I don't stop to think. Yelling, "Stay with the kits!" to Jackson, I dart into the road. The squeal of tires fills my ears, and the very floor shakes beneath me. I cringe away from cars, ducking between lanes till I reach Snowpaw's body. Thankfully, the traffic is comparitively slow thanks to the blizzard, so there's not a one hundred percent chance I'll get run over myself. It's just a very likely possibility.
Fitting her neck-scruff into my mouth, I try to drag her without hurting her, which is a very hard task. I wince as her head knocks against the curb when I bring her onto it. On the other side of the street, Jackson is helping the kittens across, Sparrow in his mouth with Robin toddling along behind them.
Nightpaw and Flamepaw dash forward, eyes bugging out of their heads. I step back helplessly as they crouch over their Clanmate. Jackson comes up beside me, and the kits hide behind us.
"Is she going to be okay?" I whisper softly.
It takes a while before Nightpaw looks up. The stricken look on his face makes me think that he was the one hit by a car. "We never should've come here," he says brokenly.
Seeing the look on his face, I realize, He loved her. I'm not sure how I know. But I'm certain of it. And there's something else nagging me too... it's almost like the look Rambo wore in my dream, alone in the field. Did that mean- Of course not. That was a dream. You dreamt it because you wanted to.
"I'm so sorry," I tell them. Flamepaw nods at me, wrapping his tail around Nightpaw.
"How are we going to tell the Clan?" he whispers.
Rather insensitively, Jackson asks, "Don't they know you traitors have been coming here?" I step on his paw hard. Can't he see now is not the time?
The way Nightpaw seems to collapse at his words breaks my heart. "I- no. We mostly did it for her, you know." He nods at Snowpaw's still white form. "She never got enough to eat in the Clan, and she's so small and frail." A lone tear slips down his cheek. "And I don't know... The Pits seemed like a community almost."
A part of me longs to ask about Rambo, but I know how unfeeling that would be. Instead, I touch my nose to each of their shoulders and watch as they pad off. They never thanked me for taking Snowpaw out of the road, but that's okay. And maybe I hadn't done them such a great favor after all.
Either way, I don't think they'll ever come back here again.
Quietly, I drag Snowpaw's body to the side, in a snowdrift. Her white coat blends in perfectly with the snow, but the scarlet patches stand out like sin. Gently, I close her unseeing blue eyes. "What are you doing?" Jackson asks. "When the snow melts she'll just be lying there- if the humans don't pick up her body first."
"I know. But for now this is perfect. There's no earth to bury her, so I'll use snow. For her name," I say softly.
Shrugging, he says, "How do you know them again?"
"I met them at The Pits. Or rather, saw them. I didn't really talk to them."
He lifts one eyebrow. "And you still risked your life to get a dead cat out of the road? Stupid."
My face feels hot, partly with indignation and partly with anger. "I thought... well, I couldn't just leave her lying there to get obliterated to nothingness. I guess I just acted out of instinct."
"Right. You're a kittypet though. Your instincts are dulled."
Tiredly, I close my eyes, shutting down the discussion. I don't feel like mulling over why I did what I did. I feel like mourning a beautiful young she-cat who shouldn't have died so young, and the broken-hearted tom she left behind. That's when I remember that I still have two comforting little darlings with me. Opening my eyes, I beckon Sparrow and Robin over. Sparrow races towards me and buries her face in my fur, whispering, "Why did the pretty cat have to die?" My heart twists at her innocent question. She shouldn't have to have seen this so young.
I'm trying to think about my reply when I freeze. "Robin? Robin, sweetie, are you okay?"
The little kitten staggers a few steps towards me. Her beautiful sky-blue eyes keep focusing and unfocusing, and she looks completely disorientated. She coughs painfully, and mingled foam and blood flies out of her mouth.
Terror envelopes me. "Robin!" I scream, rushing over to her.
"Blue," she rasps. "Help me..."
No matter how much I want to, I can't do anything but watch as she topples over, foam still trickling out of her mouth. A violent convulsion seizes her body, and then she's still.
I want to scream. No. Just no. This can't happen. This. Can't. Happen.
There's no way I can handle seeing another innocent cat die like this. For no reason, no cause...
As if Rambo is standing right beside me, his words in the alleyways ring in my ears. "I think what's worse is something that comes to you in the light, but is hiding darkness inside. That's what I really can't stand."
At first, it doesn't register. Then it hits me like a battering ram.
With a gasp, I sweep Sparrow towards me and stand in front of her, shaking with shock and certainty. I know I'm right. There's no denying it.
Jackson looks up at me. "What do you think killed Robin?"
"G-get away from me. Murderer."
Such an idiot. I was such an idiot. How could I have left Jackson alone with the kits? In "saving" Snowpaw when she was already dead, I had abandoned them with a killer. Surely it was only a matter of time before Sparrow succumbed to the poison too. The poision Jackson had pointed out earlier. Oh, I had been so blind, foolish, idiotic... and how many had died because of it?
"You could've saved her."
He stares at me, cautiously, not sure if if I can be convinced of his innocence - which I can't - or if he should just confess. "I beg your pardon?" he says eloquently.
Rage makes my voice shake. "Olivia. Your own sister. You could've saved her from the dogs. You had time to. It wouldn't have endangered you. Why would you- how could you let your sister die? And... how could you murder a kitten?"
In a voice as smooth as silk, he says, "I had to, Blue. I had to do it. Can't you see why?"
"You're absolutely insane." Somehow, the fact that he acknowledges it without guilt scares me even more. My knees are knocking together.
"It was for us. They threatened our relationship."
What relationship, you psychopath? Aloud, "How?" My voice cracks.
"You and Olivia couldn't have been allowed to bond so easily. If you were friends, I'd just be your friend's brother. Do you see what I'm saying?"
I can't believe it. "So you killed her?" Hysteria bubbles in my throat.
He shrugs. "She was always so pathetically weak and helpless. I don't know why I let her stick around me in the first place."
"She was your sister!" I shriek.
It's no use telling that to this maniac. I can tell that instantly. It has zero effect on him. Tears are welling at the corners of my eyes, but I push them away with more resolve and strength than I've ever had in my life. I won't give him the satisfaction of breaking me. "And Robin?"
"Kits? That I'm not the father of? You must be insane," he snorts. "You got off lucky on two counts. One, that the other idiot kitten wouldn't eat the poison, since she already made a pig of herself. Robin was much easier to fool; I convinced her that she would be hurting my feelings if she didn't eat it, and she just fell over to please me. Two, you're lucky that you and Rambo fought; I was planning to kill him too."
That's it. I can't even comprehend... he told Robin it would hurt his feelings if she didn't eat POISON? How could such a sick cat exist in the entire world?
With a wild, otherworldly yell, I fling myself at him. I have no idea what I plan to accomplish by that, but I do know one thing: I have never wanted to rip out a cat's throat like I do at that moment.
Dodging out of my way, Jackson catches me in the air and pins me down. The slam into the concrete sends a tsunami of pain through me, down to my teeth. "What are you doing, Blue?" he hisses, his breath hot and rancid on my face. It smells like raw meat and death. "We're supposed to be mates, remember?"
"I... will... NEVER... be... your... mate..." I gasp out, lungs crying for air.
"Let her go!" I hear Sparrow squeak.
No. No, no, no, oh please no.
Lifting his head, Jackson twists his mouth into a cruel smirk. The pressure on my battered chest eases as he takes a step toward the hapless kitten. I try to get up, but it's like someone just ran me over with a tank. By the time I manage to stand, Jackson is almost upon Sparrow.
Mustering every shred of energy in my body, I launch myself onto his back and dig in with all my claws. I have absolutely no fighting experience, but this is life or death, and I'm fighting for Sparrow. Blood flows out from underneath my scratches, something I'm totally not used to.
Well, there's no turning back now. Even though there's no way this can end well, I have to fight Jackson. For Sparrow. And to avenge Olivia and Robin. Then I'll worry about whether I'll actually live through this.
"You had your chance, Blue," Jackson hisses as he pummels me repeatedly with his paws. As my head jerks back and forth, my brain forms one coherent thought: So you killed all those cats "for our relationship", and now you're going to kill me yourself?
"I would rather die than be with you, Jackson, and I hope you know that," I spit.
His lips curve up. "Congratulations. You'll get your choice."
Faintly, I hear Sparrow screaming for help, but I know there's no way anyone will hear her. And even if a cat from The Pits comes out, I doubt they'll help me. All the strength is sapped from my body. My one remaining wish is that I don't die in vain. That by some miracle, Sparrow will be saved.
That's when Jackson stops shaking me, or punching me, or whatever the heck he's hurting me with- I can't even tell anymore. His muscles go rigid, and he lets me fall to the ground. "You."
"What. Did. You. Do. To. Her."
The voice sounds dangerous enough to commit murder. I don't know anyone else like that. Trying to place it, I come up blank, mostly because I'm struggling just to keep my vision from going black. The next thing I know, someone shoves me out of the way, towards Sparrow. The little kitten bursts into tears and nestles into my fur. I'm too weak to do anything but lick her on the forehead.
When the black spots clear from my vision, I can make out two cats fighting nearby. They're fighting to kill- only this time, they're more evenly matched then I was. They match each other blow for blow, darting in and slashing open a wound, then leaping back.
At that moment, Jackson's opponent turns and faces me. His eyes are darkened by anger, turning more olive then emerald. And blood mingles with his gray tabby fur, spiking it up and drying in odd places. But I'd know him anywhere.
"Rambo!" I leap to my feet- or at least, try to. The effect bowls me over again. The pain is so intense it makes me nauseous and dizzy. More slowly this time, I stand up, keeping Sparrow behind me.
Distracted for a second, Rambo doesn't see Jackson's paw coming at him. It hits him hard on the side of the face, and he staggers sideways. I would've been on the ground at the force of such a blow, and it's enough to disorientate the large tom. Jackson rushes in for the kill while he's weak.
Again, I act purely on whatever instinct I have. Lunging forward, I go for Jackson's throat.
Missing completely, I crash into his legs instead, and send the both of us rolling. Breath coming in gasps, I leap back from him. Rambo rushes past me and pins Jackson down, but I can hardly see what's going on. The black spots have returned, and worse then ever. I didn't even know it was possible to feel so much pain and sickness at one time.
Swaying lightly, I inwardly brace myself for the impact of my head on the concrete when I collapse.
It never happens. Soft fur presses against mine, and the hard muscle beneath supports me, holding me up. I breathe in Rambo's wonderful scent, letting it dull the roaring ache in my head.
"Is Jackson dead?" I murmur.
"No," he says grimly. "He ran away. But that doesn't matter, okay? You matter."
I cough hard; it feels like my body is trying to vomit out my lungs. Worry creases Rambo's face, and he gently lowers me down. I feel Sparrow curl up beside me, her little nose sniffling with pent-up tears. "It's going to be okay," I croak to her, but I probably scare her more then comfort her.
Emotion swirls in Rambo's gaze as he looks down at me. "What can I do to help?"
I don't know if you can. "I'm... so... cold." Chills rack my body, despite the feverish hot pain that gathers at my bruises and cuts.
Tenderly, Rambo curls his body around mine, his thick coat enveloping me. As I close my eyes, I remember when we were at the pier. How I'd mentioned I was cold, and he'd seemed about to wrap his tail around me, but hadn't. Now I knew what I'd missed.
Nothing could've comforted me like Sparrow and Rambo nestled by me, I know that for sure. Their breathing lulls me into a deep, enchanted sleep.
Eyes half-open once I've come out of my doze, I take in my surroundings. Sparrow is fast asleep at my belly, a tired expression on her little face. Rambo- well, Rambo is gazing at me. When he sees my eyes open, he blushes and looks away. "You're awake."
"Did you come back for me?" I ask, my voice slurred with sleep.
He blinks. "What?"
Forcing myself to sound awake, I clarify, "In the field. Did you come back for me after I left?"
His blush deepens. "Oh. Yeah. Of course I did. I was an idiot for leaving you in the first place, especially with that utter moron. I'll never forgive myself for that."
Without warning, a sob catches in my throat. "I'll never forgive myself for what I did. I followed Jackson out of the field like an idiot, when I should've waited for you. And I couldn't see how evil he was, because I'm a stupid, pampered kittypet. It's my fault Robin and Olivia are dead."
Now the tears come full-force. I bury my face in Rambo's fur and sob helplessly. Despite the fact that he probably doesn't know who Robin is, Rambo doesn't ask. He just wraps his tail around me tightly and licks me on the forehead. "Please don't beat yourself up over this, Blue."
"I'm not. It's the truth. Don't think I'm saying this because I'm some sort of selfless cat," I sniffle, trying not to get snot on his fur. "I'm saying it because it's true. You think I want to blame myself for the deaths of these cats? I don't. I really, really don't. But I can't tell myself otherwise, okay?"
"Even I didn't know Jackson was a killer, and I hated the guy from the moment we met," he says softly.
I sigh, leaning against him. "I guess living as a loner has made you a much better judge of character then I am."
Rambo looks away, a slightly flustered expression on his face. "I didn't hate him because I thought he was a jerk - at least, not at first. I hated him because... you didn't. You liked him."
Not understanding, I blink. "Right... as a friend."
He doesn't meet my gaze. "Yeah. I don't know what was wrong with me. Maybe some part of me saw what he was."
Abruptly changing the subject, I say, "Do you know who Robin was?"
A look of pain crosses his face. "Yeah. I was talking to Sparrow while you were asleep."
"Oh." Quietly, "What did she say?"
The expression he gives me tells me what he can't put into words. I understand. A little kit who'd just lost everything... it must've broken his heart. Rambo was tough on the outside, but then came his friendly, funny layer. And just beyond that, his tender, compassionate heart. I knew it must've killed him to speak to Sparrow and see what had happened to her. Because of me.
Reading my mind, he adds, "She told me how you protected her and saved her life."
I remain silent. I don't want to answer. It'll hurt too much.
"We can take care of her." Rambo captures my gaze in his eyes. They've lightened from their olive color, and they're shining like jewels. Briefly, I wonder if my eyes have changed color too. Because that would be nice. "Together."
Though I smile and nod at him, I feel like there's something behind what he's saying. Some hidden meaning I'm missing.
Something akin to disappointment flickers in his expression, and I feel a pang of confusion. What was he trying to tell me? Was I being as thick as a post by not getting it? Whatever it is, it's obviously meaningful. Maybe he'll say it outright later.
"Blue, I hate to remind you of this when you're so tired, but... we can't stay here for much longer. Jackson won't rest till he either has you as his mate, or we're both dead. So I have a plan." I wait, listening. "You go on with Sparrow, and I stay to hold him back. Then we meet up later."
Not knowing how else to get the point across to him, I burst out laughing- and I quickly stop, because it hurts my ribs. "No. Way."
"Think about it," he pleads. "At least for Sparrow. It's for her good."
Firmly, I shake my head. "We're all in this together. No splitting up."
Admiration mingles with expasperation in his tone. "Fine. Okay. Have it your way. So we all go on the run?"
Now it's my turn to try to be selfless. "You and Sparrow shouldn't have to. It's me Jackson is after."
"No. Way. You just said we can't split up."
There's no arguing with that. I sigh. "Okay, okay. So I guess we will have to go on the run."
I hope he can't see how much it hurts me to say that. The thought of standing up makes me want to cry, let alone actually traveling a distance.
Softness clouds in his eyes, and he rests his chin on top of my head lightly. "We'll stay here for tonight. So you can rest. But I'll have to go get us some food soon."
Like a little kit, I cling to him. "Don't go just yet."
He relents, relaxing against me. "I won't."
"Why did you come back for me?"
Propping himself up on one paw, he stares down at me. "What do you mean?"
"I mean..." How can I phrase my question without sounding rude? I was going to say that we had only known each other for a little bit, but that made it sound like our friendship wasn't blood-deep, which was the opposite of true. "Like, a lot of toms wouldn't have done that. And you seemed really mad- which you had a right to be. So why did you forgive me? I was an idiot."
Helplessly, he shakes his head. "Are we really turning this into a blame-fest? You're not an idiot, okay? And do you really think I meant it when I left you? Like I could stay away from you if I wanted to. I was silly to try. Believe me, I paid for it too. I have no words to describe what I felt when I found you and Jackson gone." He avoids my gaze once again. "I knew at that moment that I'd just made the biggest mistake of my life."
That confession lights a little warm spot in my heart, but I block it out, not wanting to consider what it means.
"How about this? No more blaming each other. Fair?"
"Sounds good to me."
More quietly, I say, "So is that the answer? Because you didn't want to leave me?"
He nods. "Because I couldn't leave you."
My cheeks flame. "How did you find me then?"
"Blue, I could hardly sleep once I'd lost you. I threw everything I had into trying to find you, so I could get a chance to tell you sorry. To tell you how wrong I was to leave you."
I can't believe what I'm hearing. "How could you be planning to search the whole city for me?"
His reply is so soft that I can barely hear it, and even then, I'm not sure I heard it right. But if I am right, then he's quoting something I told him a few days ago, when I was telling him how I needed to find Lisa. Now, knowing what I do about Lisa, it sends a bittersweet pang through my heart.
"You don't just give up on people you love."
And that's the thought that rocks me to sleep. Shutting out all the hurt and despair and death that's surrounded me. Rambo loves me...
Early morning, I wake up to a fistful of brown fur, and a pair of inquisitively shining green eyes. Best wake-up I could ever have imagined- aside from maybe having Lisa beside me.
"Good morning, Sparrow," I say softly, studying the little kit. How scarred is she by yesterday's events?
There's no way to judge by the kitten's fluffy face. "G'morning, Mommy. Uncle Rambo went out to get food for us. He said he'll be back in ten minutes."
Stunned, I stare at her. Did she just call me Mommy? Is that really what I am to her? Despite the fact that I'm probably the worst foster mother anyone could ever hope for, the title touches something deep within me. Looking at Sparrow, with her innocence and sweetness - and how she's been caught up in the evil that is our world - I know I'd die for her in a heartbeat. It doesn't matter that we're not blood-related. She is my daughter now, my little sister, my heart.
"Hey you two." We both look up to see Rambo standing there. With the rising winter sun behind him, framing his strong, muscular frame, he cuts a figure that takes my breath away.
Placing a mouthful of food on the ground, he motions at it. "Go ahead, eat. I already had my share."
I study him skeptically. "Did you take enough?"
"Yeah. Honestly, I took my fair share. No more, no less."
Satisfied with the answer, I nudge the choicest pieces of food towards Sparrow, and hungrily gobble the rest. Rambo watches guiltily. "I'm sorry, I should've gotten more, but there were slim pickings, and I didn't want to get in a fight over the best parts."
"Oh, it's fine. I wish I'd managed to wake up in time to help you," I sigh.
"You needed rest. We can go together next time," he promises.
Content, I get up and stretch gingerly, shaking out each of my paws to get the stiff ache out. Noticing Rambo watching me intently, I do my best to pretend like nothing hurts. A complete lie, but I don't want to hold him back. I've already put him in enough danger because of Jackson. I owe at least that to him.
Walking over to him, I put Sparrow between us and tell her to ask for a ride when she gets tired. Then I lean forward and whisper in Rambo's ear, "She called me Mommy this morning."
His eyes widen and he grins as I beam at him. "I can see that made you happy." Softer, "I'm glad. You'll make a great mother."
For some reason, the heat rises to my face. "Thanks. She calls you Uncle Rambo."
"I know," he says warmly. "You made the right decision by taking her along."
"Well, you'd have to be nuts to leave two little kits in a snowdrift alone," I point out. A pang strikes me as I think of Robin. I don't think I'll ever forget her panicked blue eyes, nor the stillness of her fluffy white body. Sparrow huddles against my leg, as if she knows I'm thinking about her sister. I touch my nose to her ears and whisper, "You okay?"
She whimpers, "Why did Robin have to go?"
Completely unprepared, I just stammer something incoherent.
Rambo comes to my rescue. "None of us wanted her to go, Sparrow. But you'll see her someday again, okay?"
Tears fill Sparrow's eyes. Both of us halt. You can't just keep walking when a little kitten is crying like that. "But why did she have to die?" Her lower lip quavers. "I want her back so much. I don't ever want anyone to leave. I want my humans. I want my home. I want Robin."
With each sentence, my heart splinters a little more. I glance helplessly at Rambo. He kneels beside Sparrow and puts his nose delicately against her cheek. "Listen. You're our little angel now. Understand? We'll do anything for you. The three of us can be a family, together, okay? Blue and I will do whatever we can to make you happy. To protect you from big evil Jackson. We love you."
Sniffling, Sparrow nods. I, for one, am incredibly touched. Rambo's big heart never fails to awe me. Already, after barely knowing this kitten, he can make her feel completely loved.
"Thank you... Daddy," Sparrow whispers, licking him on the cheek.
The expression on Rambo's face is priceless. I capture that moment in my mind forever, the battle-scarred, tough-looking tom, eyes bugging out as a little bundle of fluff purrs beside him affectionately. We are a family. I know that for sure.
Once the moment is over, I nod and we start walking again. "Do you know where we're going, Rambo?"
Still looking shaken up, Rambo frowns. "Not really... All I know is that we're heading to the other side of town, at least."
Glancing at Sparrow, toddling along on her short legs, I tilt my head to the side. "Is it far?"
Rambo's mouth forms a thin line. "Yeah. And there's a good chance Jackson will be traveling a lot faster..." Seeing my worried expression, he adds, "But there's two of us, and one of him."
I don't reply. I know better than to underestimate Jackson.
"Hey. We'll be fine." He uses his paw to turn my chin upwards.
I smile. "I know. I trust you."
After about an hour of walking, we pause for a rest. Even though Rambo's been carrying her, Sparrow is snuffling and coughing from the cold, and we can't just wear her down to nothing by forcing her to keep going. I press her against my side to keep her warm as we pad into an alleyway to get some more food.
Yes, we already ate, but it was a meager portion, and we need to keep our energy up. Besides, I want to make sure Rambo's getting enough to eat.
Putting Sparrow down by the wall, where she could huddle up for warmth till we came back, I join Rambo, and we tip over two trash cans together. The garbage that spews out over the ground fails to disgust me anymore. If this is what it takes to survive, who am I to turn up my nose? I should be grateful that we even have this option, instead of having to eat raw meat- which, call me crazy, but I had never really thought it "sated my wild appetite" or whatever. It just tasted undercooked and stringy.
Now, I paw away boxing and wrappers, sniffing in order to pick up any smell of meat. Rambo pulls out a paper plate covered with sticky maple syrup. Three slices of bacon have somehow managed to escape unscathed. We place them aside and keep going, till our little food-pile is sizeable enough for a decent meal- at least, what qualifies as one on the streets.
"Sparrow!" I call to the little kit, who runs over to join us. Quickly, I select the best morsels for her, chewing up anything she might not be able to chew well. Rambo and I split the rest of the food, gulping down the half-frozen, stale meat without complaint. Though I guess he must be used to it; he hadn't been pampered, like I'd been all my life.
Since we're resting now, I figure it's as good a time as any to tell Rambo what Jackson said. "Hey," I say quietly, padding over to him with Sparrow trailing behind me. "I... need your help in getting over something."
Kindness shows in his expression. I know he'll be able to comfort me, if anyone can. Taking a deep breath, I blurt it out. "Jackson told me that Lisa's dead."
Despite the fact that I know in my heart it's true, saying it out loud makes me feel like I just ran a knife into my own soul. It finalizes it. Shows that I believe it. That there is absolutely no hope. The one reason that kept me going through this ordeal is gone.
"Do you believe him?" Rambo asks softly. I nod, sinking to the ground beside him. "Why?"
"I'm not even sure. I just... somehow I knew he was right. I've been decieving myself all this time."
He exhales, long and heavy. I know he's buying time so he can think of something to say. I wish I could just explain to him that he doesn't need to say anything, being there is enough, but I'm too busy concentrating on not crying. There will be time to mourn later. Right now, he and Sparrow need me to keep a level-head. No matter how emotional I tend to get, I can't have a breakdown.
"It's okay. We don't have time for that right now." I stand up and help him to his paws- more because I need to be close to him than because he needs any help. "We'd better get a move on."
Rambo opens his mouth, sees the expression on my face, and nods. "Come on, Sparrow. Back on the road."
Nightfall steals quietly in on us, bringing with it even colder temperatures and a harsh, biting wind. Rambo leads us into a sheltered alley, the best place we can find to camp out, and we curl up against each other, using our bodies for warmth. Sparrow huddles in the middle of our cocoon, but I can still feel her tiny body shivering against me. There's no time nor energy to get food, and it's too cold to do so anyway. I bet all we'd find would be blocks of ice.
Wrapping my tail around my nose, I close my eyes tightly, wishing that morning would come already.
"Blue. Blue, wake up."
Rambo's urgent hiss jolts me from the warmth of dreamland and throws me back into the cold claws of the winter night outside. "What is it?" I whisper, climbing to my paws. Beside me, Sparrow moans and rolls over on the hard concrete, latching onto my paw in an adorable fashion.
But I can't spend time gushing about how cute she is. The look on Rambo's face, which is partly eclipsed by shadow, scares me.
Is it Jackson? Has he caught up to us already?
"It's the dog pack. They're back."
I'm not sure if that's better or worse. Fear curdles in my blood. Yes, I should be doing something. Picking up Sparrow and taking her to safety. Trying to figure out where the pack is. But all I can think of is how they killed Olivia - how they ate her - and how the same thing could happen to all of us.
Luckily, Rambo has more presence of mind than I do. He scoops Sparrow up in his jaws and shoves me hard. "Go."
For a second I freeze, completely unsure of where to go. In the background, I can hear the faraway barking of the pack, and it's steadily growing closer. Should we go up again? But where? There's no way we can climb the walls of the building, especially not with Sparrow in tow.
Meeting Rambo's glowing green eyes in the dark, I can see he's thinking the same thing. There's only one other option.
At first, sheer panic takes over, and I shoot ahead of Rambo, paws skidding on the ice-slicked ground. However, I soon force myself to remember he's carrying Sparrow too, and slow my pace to match his. Besides, we can't go too fast and lose all our stamina.
"No way can we outrun them," I pant. "We'll have to find somewhere to hide as soon as possible."
Breathless, Rambo only nods in response. Out of the alleyway, without the building walls to protect us, the baying of the dog pack echoes everywhere, frighteningly loud. Where is the dogcatcher when we actually need him?
Rambo leads the way down the deserted streets and I follow, slipping and sliding, claws fighting for a grip on the sheen of ice that covers the ground. I've already made up my mind on one thing: if it comes down to it, I'll turn around and give myself up to the dogs. I don't want to think about what that means. I don't want to think about what they'll do to me, because honestly, I'm no true hero. Thinking about that would scare me out of my wits. But if I just act without thinking, as seems to be my way, I'll save Rambo and Sparrow. And surely that's worth anything? That's what I tell myself, anyway.
For now though, we still have a fighting chance. Not of outrunning the dogs, but of hiding and not being found. We have to find somewhere, and quick.
After what seems like forever, with my aching lungs ready to burst, I hear Rambo yell, "I see a place we can hide!"
Hope rising within me, I charge after him with renewed vigor. The dogs haven't popped into sight yet, but they're growing ever closer, eating up the ground with alarming speed.
Ahead of me, Rambo ducks into a large sewer pipe that opens out at the edge of the road. I skid to a stop, staring into the gloominess doubtfully. There could be insects. Lizards. Vermin. Rats.
That's when the first dog bursts into sight, a crazed look in his eye. He'll spot me any second. I dive into the pipe.
There's nothing to guide me but the sound of Rambo's heavy breathing. My paws squelch in I-don't-want-to-know-what. The stink makes me dizzy. Gunk lines the walls of the pipe, brushing against my fur.
"Are you okay?" Rambo whispers softly, as soon as the pipe opens enough so we can face each other.
My back has naturally arched, utterly repulsed by my surroundings. I feel like gagging. Instead, I nod numbly.
Outside, the howling intensifies till it seems to fill our pipe, revertebrating around the metal tunnel. I tremble and press against Rambo, not caring what kind of slime is stuck to his fur. He's gently placed Sparrow on his back, so she doesn't have to slosh around in the muck on the floor.
Please, please, please don't let them find us. I would do anything if I thought it would save our lives. Even roll around in the sewer water to disguise my scent. Absolutely anything.
The sound of sniffing comes faintly from inside. Then the thud of receding pawsteps. And finally, ear-shattering silence.
"Are they gone?"
Shaking his head at me, Rambo crouches down and stares intently out the pipe. "I think we should stay here for a few more minutes, just to make sure."
It's during the silence of our waiting that I hear it. A light clicking noise, like sharp toenails against the metal piping. Slowly, I turn around. The hair on my neck bristles, as if it knows what I'm facing before I do. Rambo turns with me, and Sparrow gives a soft whimper.
Glowing brightly in the darkness, in various shades of reddish-amber, are several pairs of eyes.
You know, that was a really unfair twist that fate threw us. Hadn't we been through enough already? I mean, seriousy. Everything that could go wrong, was going even worse then imaginable.
Claustrophobia and pure terror begin to take their effect on me. The walls of the pipe seem to be closing in, and the sickly sweet smell of rot and decay that the rats have is strangling me. "Do we back out?" I whisper to Rambo.
"Yes. Let's take our chances with the dogs."
Apparently the rats are more or equally dangerous to the dog pack. So not good.
The knowledge that if I freeze, Rambo and Sparrow will be trapped too, spurs me into action. I begin quickly but quietly backing out the pipe, keeping my eyes locked on Rambo's. I'm sure that if our gaze breaks, he and Sparrow will disappear, or be dragged away by the masses of rats stalking us. So I keep my eyes on his face, not daring to say anything lest the rats attack us.
Just when we're a couple of feet from the exit of the pipe, I hear a shrill squeak from the rats, and the terrifying echo of it, like a battlecry. Dozens of claws clang against the metal as the vermin hurl themselves at us.
A scream catches in my throat, and I shove Rambo past me. "Run! Get Sparrow out of here!"
I don't get to see if he follows my orders before the first rat leaps, straight onto my face. Screaming and gagging on its stinky, wiry fur, I throw it to the floor and begin shredding at it. But that's just one down, and there are a lot more, all almost as big as me.
Inexperienced fighter that I am, I realize I need to retreat as soon as I can. Thanks to the narrow space of the tunnel, only a few can come at me at a time, but the ones that do are strong. Sinew and muscle crunches beneath my jaws as I bite into one, but I feel evil claws graze my unprotected flank. That's it. There's no way I can stand my ground.
Upon turning to flee, I feel scaly paws wrap around my back leg. A shrill, unearthy scream erupts from my mouth. No. No. They can't drag me into the pipe, into the hoard. I'll be eaten alive.
Kicking does no good, nor does struggling. There are simply to many. With my three good legs, I frantically claw at the awfully smooth metal piping, trying to get a hold.
A pair of strong - yet gentle - jaws close around my neck-scruff. "Rambo," I choke out. "They've got my leg. Stop pulling me. It'll rip me leg out."
He lets go instanty, eyes frantic. "What do I do then, Blue?"
Nothing. What can you do? I give one last hard kick with my free back leg, feeling a rat's bones crunch with the impact. Just a little reminder that I'll go down fighting.
"Rambo. What are you doing?"
"Move over," he says, shoving me to the side.
Behind me, I hear squeals of pain from the rats, and the pain in my leg lessens. With a surge of energy, I race forward and yank it free, not stopping to assess the damage done. Rambo pulls out of the tunnel behind me, scoops up Sparrow, and shoves me forward.
There's no sign of the dog pack on the street; thank heaven for small mercies. We make it to a shady alleyway and collapse on the ground. That's when I fnally turn and see what the rats did to my leg.
What I see makes me sick.
Most of the skin on the lower portion of my leg has been scraped away in ragged shreds. The result is a bloody mess, but not incredibly deep. Only at the base of my foot, where my paw is, does the wound cut into my flesh; it looks like a rat really bit down hard there. Not used to the sight of so much blood - especially on my own body - I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
"Oh... no." Rambo bends over me, his breath warm on my skin; it helps fight off the sting the cold air has on the wound. Sparrow buries her face in Rambo's fur.
"Why is Blue hurt?" she mewls quietly.
I muster up a smile - which I'm sure ends up looking like a scary grimace instead - and say, "The rats got me, Sparrow. But I'll be fine. Don't worry about it."
Once the little kitten has curled up beside me and fallen asleep - something I wish I could do so easily - Rambo gives a long sigh. Worry has knit his brows together in a frown, and it makes me feel unsure about my promise to Sparrow. "Rat bites are tricky," he sighs. "They can get all sorts of infections; then that leads to fevers, and..." He trails off; I probably have a horrified look on my face. "But don't worry about that for now. We'll get you all fixed up, okay?"
"It doesn't hurt," I protest hopefully.
That doesn't seem to cheer him up at all. "You're in shock, so your body blocks the pain. It'll hurt soon. But I'll try to stop any infection and stuff. You'll be okay."
Although all my hope just vanished like vapor in the wind, I nod. "I trust you," I say again. With a tired sigh, I lean my head against him and drift off to sleep.
When I wake up, I don't open my eyes right away. Instead, I try to get a bearing on the various pains and chills racing through my body. Despite the flaming heat that's engulfed my leg, shivers rack up and down my spine. Once I do open my eyes, a cold, wet mass blocks my vision; I realize it's a mound of snow. Probably for a fever, if I'm correct.
"Rambo?" I croak, and wince. I sound like I just ate a rusted pipe.
There's no reply. Pushing snow back from my eyes, I peer blearily at my surroundings. The sight that I see touches me.
We're not in the same alleyway. This one is more sheltered and cleaner; deeper into the maze, and further from the streets. Safer, I realize. Rambo must've brought me here, a task that couldn't have been easy at all. I may be small, but I'm no light burden for a cat who's just participated in a battle with rats.
At my paws is a small pile of food: a sausage patty, some chicken, and other tidbits of meat. It looks like he harvested every scrap he could find for me. Just a few feet away, Rambo himself is sprawled out, Sparrow lying on his back. Even in sleep, I can see the weariness and concern written on his familiar, weather-beaten face. His handsome features look troubled, as if he's wrapped in nightmares. My heart aches. He's been caring for me so well, and it's certainly taken it's toll on him. I feel like dirt.
Upon trying to stand, however, I fail miserably. The dull heat that pulsed in my back leg erupts into a fiery furnace, eliciting a small cry of pain. I sink back into my resting place, biting my lip so hard that I can taste blood on my tongue. I know there's no way I can wake Rambo or Sparrow up, so I study the food instead. Part of me wants to save it for Rambo, knowing he deserves it, and that he's probably taken barely anything for himself. Another part of me doesn't want it anyway. Maybe it's the fever, but the thought of eating makes me want to vomit. I just want to sleep for a couple more years.
So I decide to rest some more, while I wait for Rambo to wake up.
I don't know how much time passes while I sleep, but it's obviously more than I intended, because the sun is starting to sink when I next open my eyes, meaning I've been asleep for almost a day. Rambo is awake now, sitting with his back to me. I take a moment to just watch him, his lean silhouette casting long shadows on the alley paving. My eyes trace every facet of his outline, from the prick of his large ears to the natural regalness in the tilt of his head. So familiar to me now, but that doesn't mean he's lost any of his original handsome charm that I was first presented with when I met him. I just know him a lot better for who he is on the inside now.
At that moment, he turns around, meeting my gaze. The relief that shows on his face is like the sun coming up in an arctic winter. He races over to me, and, without saying anything, nuzzles me on the neck. "Sparrow!" he calls gently. "Blue's awake."
"Mommy!" Sparrow's fuzzy head pokes out from a snowdrift where she'd been playing, and she races over excitedly, tail in the air. I smile tiredly up into her little face.
"Sparrow," I say softly, licking her on the cheek. Then I turn back to Rambo. His eyes are a gorgeous gray-green that almost looks yellowish in the evening light. I have no words to express my infinite gratitude, so I hope he can see at least a portion of it on my face. "Thank you," I whisper.
Shrugging, he sits down. "Anyone would've done it."
"No, anyone would not have done it. But you did. Because you're Rambo." I smile. "And you're the most special cat in the world."
His eyes widen slightly. "You know I'd do anything for you."
I can feel my heart swelling. "You're the best friend ever."
Something passes through his eyes. "Actually, Blue, that's what I... um, wanted to talk to you about. You see- Blue? Are you okay?" A note of fear slips into his voice.
"I- yeah... why... spinning..."
The last thing I get a glimpse of is Rambo and Sparrow's faces, staring down at me, before blackness overtakes my vision.
After I wake up for the third time, I resolve that this'll be the last time I dramatically faint. How stupid and weak can I get? Hasn't Rambo done enough for me? He doesn't need to worry about me anymore. I've caused enough trouble, and I'm done with it. We need to get as far away from Jackson as possible, and I'm slowing everyone down...
All the thoughts swirling around in my head make my temples throb. Slowly, I get to my paws and look around. That's when I notice an unusual stiffness in my back leg, and look down to find it wrapped neatly in cloth. A bit of blood stains the edges, but it looks amazingy clean for something done hastily in an alleyway.
"Blue!" Sparrow races over to me. Rambo emerges from behind a trash can nearby, a small grouping of pork ribs in his mouth.
"You feeling better?" he says warmly, handing me the food.
Insisting we all split it, I lay down between them. "I'm feeling a lot better. So much so that I've decided I'm ready to travel."
Instantly, I feel Rambo's energy turn negative. "Nuh-uh, Blue. No. You're not strong enough yet."
"Don't tell me if I'm strong enough," I snap. "I've slowed you down enough, Rambo. Don't you get it? I can't just lie here and make you care for me. It isn't right." Attempting to corral my temper - which isn't directed at him at all, but myself - I say in a softer tone, "We have to move on. For all our sakes'. Even if Jackson isn't coming after us, we need to get as far away from him as possible."
Seeing he's still not convinced, I nudge him. "You're awesome, Rambo, but you're not the boss of me."
Reluctantly, a smile slides across his face. "Fine, fine. And for the record, just because you won this battle doesn't mean anything. I am so the boss of you."
I bop him on the nose with my paw. "Riiight. That's what you think," I snicker in a conspiratorial tone. He gives me a mock-suspicious look, scrunching up his nose and crossing his eyes. Both Sparrow and I burst out laughing. For the first time since we met Jackson and Olivia, I can feel us sinking back into our good-natured, friendly rhythm. Banter, jokes, and of course, the knowledge that we always have each other's bcks. Only with an added bonus; a furry little bundle of fun and love named Sparrow.
Maybe things weren't exactly the same as before. But... maybe that was also just how life went. Yes, I was still waiting till we were out of danger to truly mourn Lisa. Yet I was beginning to realize that I had found a real treasure in Rambo and Sparrow. Somehow, Rambo the tough loner, Blue the weakling kittypet, and Sparrow the abandoned kitten, have become a true family. I'm really blessed to have met them; otherwise, I'm pretty sure I would be dead by now.
Around that moment, a pawful of snow explodes all over my face.
Sentimentality forgotten, I spring to my paws, ignoring the little needles of pain in my back leg. "Rambo!" I bellow. "You are so going to get it!"
A kit-like twinkle in his eyes, he dances back merrily. "Like clumsy ol' Blue could hit a target. I bet you couldn't even hit a building."
"Get him!" yells Sparrow, my faithful little friend.
"I couldn't agree more." I hobble over to a snowdrift and scoop up a clump of frozen snow in my mouth. Swinging my head back, I hurl it at him. He scrambles out of the way, but it hits him on the back leg. "Score!"
Sparrow has a much more direct way of doing things; she rushes forward and latches onto Rambo's leg, clambering up onto his back and cramming snow into his ears. His sides shake with laughter as he collapses on the ground, tossing his head to get the snow out. Sparrow crawls off of him with a giant grin on her face. "I got him."
"You certainly did," I purr, whiskers twitching. While I praise her, I'm partially distracted by Rambo. Lying on the floor, with a crooked grin on his face, he truly does look adorable. Particles of snow have caught in his fluffy gray fur, speckling his whiskers. Some would say he looks ridiculous, despite his handsome face, but I like him better for it. There's no evidence of the coldness that Jackson's good looks covered. Only warmth and kindness.
Without pausing to think about what I'm doing, I lean forward impulsively, never breaking eye contact. Just as our noses are about to touch, so close I can feel the brush of his whiskers, a voice cuts in.
Automatically, my mind tells me it's Jackson, even though the voice is feminine, and Jackson would be too busy trying to kill us to waste time greeting us.
Of course, it isn't Jackson. It's another cat, a gorgeous she-cat with a soft, well-groomed cream coat and long-lashed hazel eyes. She's the kind of cat I've always wished I could look like; tall and slender, but with thick, fluffy fur. Her pointed face accentuates her almond-shaped eyes perfectly, and a small, pink nose tops it off. If anyone was looking for a cat model, I guarantee she'd be the first pick.
One thing though. She doesn't look anything like a street-cat.
"Hi," I greet her, before realizing I'm still face-to-face with Rambo - he hasn't even glanced at the she-cat, still intent on me. Blushing deeply, I pull back and turn to face her. "Who are you?"
Okay, not very eloquent or polite, but what else was I supposed to say?
"My name is Queenie," she says, twitching her ears. "What's your name?"
Beside me, Rambo scrambles to his paws. "I'm Blue, and this is Rambo."
"I'm Sparrow!" Sparrow squeaks importanty. "Sparrow's here!"
I laugh. "Yes, she's Sparrow."
Queenie smiles down at Sparrow. "What a beautiful kit." Her eyes travel back up to us meaningfully, an unspoken question in her eyes.
Figuring out what she means before I do, Rambo quickly puts a few pawsteps between us. "She's... we found her," he explains. "Her humans abandoned her, so we decided to take care of her."
As it dawns on me that Queenie thought we were the parents, I feel the need to become a flustered, stuttering idiot. "I- yeah. Not our kit- well, I mean, she is, because we love her like our own. I mean, each of our own. Like, two separate individuals loving a kit. Because..."
Both Rambo and Queenie are staring at me. Even Sparrow seems puzzled. I shut my mouth with a snap.
"I... see," Queenie finally says, giving me a polite look that tells me she's scared of me. "So you two are... friends?"
"Yeah," Rambo says. I keep silent, not wanting to further embarrass myself. "Best friends."
Fate gives me something else to focus on besides my own stupidity, thankfully. As I study Queenie, a glint of pink catches my eye. A delicate, sparkly band running around her neck, with a little gold tag dangling in front. A collar. Instinctively, my paw goes up to touch my own. It's faded and frayed now, something I didn't even notice. The remnants of my kittypet life, being torn away. Hers isn't tattered, of course. It's neat and pretty. So what is she doing out here in the alleys?
"Where are your humans?" I ask, gesturing to her collar. I try not to be rude about it, remembering how I hated it when people stared at my collar. Wow, look at me, acting like that was ages ago when it was really only a matter of days. But those days had held a lot of events that had changed me. I certainly wasn't the little kittypet Lisa had known and loved. And I didn't even know if that was good or bad.
Queenie's shoulders slump. "I don't know. We were going on a car ride, see. And Milo - that's the other cat I live with - kept saying we were going to the vet, and that he was going to do awful things to us. Stick needles in us or something like that. I kept telling him that was ridiculous, because I got my shots when I was a kitten, and the vet said it was to prevent sickness. But he went on and on about how this vet was different, and soon I was really scared."
I chance a quick glance at Rambo, who looks equally puzzled as me- and infinitely bored. Neither of us can see where this story is going, and I can tell Queenie's one of those cats who rambles on a lot.
"So we stopped at a gas station while the humans filled up," she continues, clueless to our thoughts. "And he said that I shoud get out and head home before it was too late. But I didn't, because I didn't know the way home... so he pushed me out."
Oddly, I feel a desire to laugh at the ending to her tale of woe. Of course, I'm quickly disgusted with myself for that, but... it's just so unexpected. And she says it with such a tragic expression on her face.
Always more kind-hearted, Rambo says, "That's awful. And so you don't know how to get home?"
Miserably, Queenie shakes her head. "No. All I know is that my house is by Liberty Park, but I have no idea where I am right now."
"Liberty Park? I know where that is," I blurt out.
"You do?" Rambo and Queenie say at the same time.
Nodding, I turn to Rambo. "You know where it is too; you probably just don't know what it's called. It's the park where we met. You know. By the dying dog?" I can tell Queenie is dying to ask about that last sentence, but she just purses her lips and gives me a half-expectant, half-hopeful look. Forcing down the part of me that's screaming "No, we can't help you! We have problems of our own, including a maniacal killer!" I give her a smile so fake I'm surprised she doesn't cover her eyes. "I coud take you there, if you'd like."
With a shrill shriek, she cries, "Really!? That would be so fabulous! Oh, how darling of you!"
Briefly wondering if my ears are bleeding from that onslaught, I glance at Rambo. He looks hesitant, but sighs and nods. I'm not even sure if I'm happy he agreed to take on Queenie.
Don't get me wrong. I know it sounds really mean, but with Jackson probaby seeking to kill us, and Sparrow to protect, helping a stray kittypet just didn't seem-
It hits me in the gut, the realization of what I just thought. Helping a stray kittypet. Where would I be if Rambo hadn't helped me? At that moment, I feel like the crummiest cat on the planet. Forget everything. Queenie needed help, and we'd give it to her. Besides, Liberty Park was a fair distance away. There was no way Jackson woud expect us to go there, if he even knew what it was- it was on the more populated, human part of town. He'd probably stay away from there, right?
Either way, I had to help Queenie. "Yeah, we'd love to have you. It's just... well, we'll have to be careful."
Next to me, Rambo tenses, and I pause to consider what to tell her. No way can I give her the whole story without frightening her into hysterics. "We have- an enemy. A dangerous one. We don't know where he is, but he might be following us. If something happens... Rambo and I will take care of it. Just promise me one thing. You'll take Sparrow and run when we tell you to. If we tell you to," I correct myself, not wanting to make disaster seem imminent.
No longer looking half as pleased, Queenie stammers, "I- I guess... okay. Sure. Hi cutiepie," she greets Sparrow. The kitten lifts a paw, but doesn't say anything. Nervously, the cream she-cat adds, "How likely is it that we'll have to... run for our lives?"
"You'll be safe. We won't put you in danger," Rambo promises.
With that steady look on his face, and the calmness in his green eyes, no one would doubt him. Queenie relaxes and nods, already comfortable again. My guess is that she's just like I was, never having to have worried before. Never realizing how great danger could get out in the real world.
Oh well. I had been there once, and only recently had I matured past that stage- not that I was very mature by any standard. In fact-
"Oh my goodness! What happened to your leg!?"
Caught off guard, I can only stare at her. "Wha'?"
She looks like she's about to throw up, which is not a look I like getting directed at me. "It's all disgusting and bloody!"
"Rats." Ordinarily I would've explained, but Queenie grates on my nerves for some reason. Yes, I know I should be understanding. She's not used to things like this. But after being attacked by Jackson, chased by a dog pack, nearly eaten alive by rats in a sewer pipe, and hanging on to life by a thread for the past few days, I'm not in an understanding mood.
Twisting her face into a grimace, Queenie says, "That's awful. Is it infected?"
"Not anymore, thanks to Rambo." I smile at my friend. Queenie is obviously not impressed by my makeshift, blood-caked bandages, but she doesn't say anymore, obviously too polite for that.
Well. This'll be fun.
I give her a bright smile. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go."
The only word I can think of to describe listening to Queenie prattle on and on and on. Even I hadn't crammed every detail of my life down everyone's throat like this. I wasn't sure why this kittypet managed to annoy me so much so easily. Maybe it was just the fact that I was finally beginning to take a loner's view on things. On how pampered the life of a kittypet was.
But I didn't want that to happen, at least, not completely. I didn't want to forget how Lisa had cared for me, how much I loved her.
"... and then she bought me another collar. It's this cute pink one I'm wearing right now, see?" Queenie goes on. Then she gasps. "Maybe that's why Milo pushed me out of the car! He was totally jealous of me, because he didn't get a collar!"
Hating to break up her earth-shattering revelation, I say, "Rambo, when should we stop for the night? Sunset, or nightfall?"
"A little past sunset," he answers thoughtfully. "I want to get as far as we can today. If we travel quickly, we might make it to Liberty Park tomorrow. After Queenie gets home, we'll decide what to do."
With a short nod, I instinctively quicken my pace.
"Evening?" Queenie says, surprise evident in her tone. "Surely we can't walk for that long. I'm already tired, and it's chilly."
Rambo shrugs, sympathetic but firm. "It won't be that bad. Besides, it's not that cold- not for winter, anyway. At least the sun's out."
Unconvinced, Queenie shrugs. "If you say so."
Silence falls on our little band. Rambo and I don't feel like having our usual conversation with Queenie around- not that he seems to have any problem with her, but more because our friendship isn't for all the world to participate in (does that make sense?). Even Sparrow is quiet for once, trotting along beside me with her green eyes fixated on the clouds. I wonder if she's thinking about Robin again. Every time I think of the little kit, my heart twinges painfully. I know it must be worse for Sparrow herself, being old enough to understand it, but young enough to not understand why it had to happen. I myself didn't understand why it had to be Robin.
And now Jackson is on our trail. I don't know how I can be sure, but I am. There's absolutely no way he was going to let this go. With nothing to hamper him, I have no idea why he hasn't caught up to us by now.
Unless... My mind swirls with possibilities. Was he planning something? Gathering friends to help him attack us, even? There was no end to the limitless ways he could get back at us.
We couldn't live like that, always fearing Jackson. No way. We'd drive ourselves insane.
So what could we do?
"We can stop now," Rambo announces, arching his back in a luxurious stretch.
"Thank goodness!" Queenie exclaims, glancing around. We're in a grassy area a few tails from the street. Snow is strewn on the ground here and there, but for the most part it's melted away. Rambo leads the way to a large oak tree that offers a bit of shelter from the wind.
Overhead, darkness has fallen early, like it always does in the winter. A few purplish hues are all that's left of the sun; the rest of the sky is eclipsed in a dark slumber. Even the stars are hiding, covered by ominous clouds. Looks like the ground won't stay bare for long; snow is on its way.
Since we're too far from the alleyways to forage, we decide to go to bed on empty stomachs. Queenie sighs at that, but doesn't complain. Maybe she's not as bad as I judged her.
Guilt at all my mean thoughts towards her forces me to be friendly. "So, what did you think of your first day out on the road?" I ask. Nearby, Rambo looks up like he might join in the conversation, then seems to think the better of it, and curls up to go to sleep. Within minutes, he's snoring like a truck.
"It was... interesting." Queenie rolls her eyes around. "A big change."
"I felt the same way originally," I admit.
Her eyes flick over my collar. "Why didn't you go back home? What are you still doing out here?"
My shoulders slump, and I mew softly, "My human, Lisa, died. I have nowhere else to go; this is my life now, I guess." Saying it aloud makes me realize it for the first time.
"Oh." She seems surprised. "I'm so sorry. So, it's not because you... fell in love?"
Blinking, I glance over at her. "What? With who?"
She angles her ears towards Rambo. Praying with all my heart that he's fully asleep and didn't hear any of that, I force a light-hearted little laugh. "Oh, no. Rambo and I are just friends. I never would've survived out here without him. He taught me a lot of what I need to know."
Queenie raises her eyebrows. "But you don't think of him in that way at all?"
Rather then truy consider her question, I choose to play it innocent. "Why would I?"
With a giggle, she mews, "Well, his looks would be enough, wouldn't they? I mean, he's awfully handsome. Very rugged-looking."
For some reason, that rubs me the wrong way, even though I already pretended I don't care about Rambo in a romantic way. With a shrug, I say, "Yeah, I'm not denying that he's cute or anything, but... we don't think of each other as more then friends." Is that a lie? What do I think of Rambo?
"Ah," she says, winking at me. "Then you don't mind if I... flirt with him or something?"
Trapped in the ditch I dug for myself, I stammer, "W-well, I mean, you could if you want to. I don't know if he's looking for a mate or anything, but-"
"Oh, don't be silly!" she chirps. "I'll be with my humans in a little bit, so it's not like we'd become mates. But he's cute, you know? And a little flirting never hurt a tom's ego."
Less than pleased, I give her a stiff nod. "I guess not."
After all, I had no right to mind her flirting. She was right; she'd be back home soon. Nothing would come of it if she tried to be a little extra-nice to Rambo. No way would he fall for that. Right?
Changing the subject, she says, "So what's this about a possible killer following you? Was that just a joke?"
Almost - but not quite - relieved to be talking about that instead of Rambo's love life, I shake my head. "No, it wasn't. Listen, I'm sorry, but I can't give you the full details. Just trust me and Rambo when we say we won't let him hurt you."
Something changes in Queenie's expression. "Not to be rude, but why? You barely know me. And you're the ones doing me the favor in the first place."
"And we can't let you die because of it," I point out.
"Oh- wow." Her reaction is more dramatic then I expected, but then again, everything about her is dramatic, with her svelte looks and soulful gaze. Her lashes flutter over her hazel eyes, and she gazes at me with admiration that I'm sure I don't deserve. "That's so kind of you two. You're real heroes."
Uncomfortably, I shift my paws. "Not really."
"Well, most of the cats I've met only care about themselves," she insists. "You guys are different."
I shrug. "It's not me. It's Rambo. I'm really nothing special."
Abruptly, Queenie stands up. "Can we go for a walk, Blue?"
Staring up at her, I blink. "A walk? Now? Why?"
Blushing, she lowers her eyes demurely. "I have trouble sleeping. I get nightmares sometimes. Kit-like, I know. But I can't help it."
Sympathy stirs in my heart as I realize that life must've been pretty loney for Queenie. Despite her pampering, she had no true friends. Her humans worked most of the day, and all they could do was bring her nice things. And Milo, the cat who had shoved her out of the car, was obviously no true friend.
"Sure, I'll come. But only for a little bit, because of my leg."
"Oh right," she mews. "I'm sorry about what I said. I didn't mean it in that way, and I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"You didn't," I lie, getting to my paws.
Side-by-side, we begin walking around the perimeter of the grassy patch we camped out in. For a while, we keep quiet. Then, without warning, Queenie halts in front of a puddle. As she stares into it, at first I think she's just admiring her pretty reflection. But then she sighs softly. "Look at me. I look so well-fed and prissy, even after a day in the outside world."
I halt beside her, joining her in gazing at our reflections. "There's nothing wrong with that."
"Yes there is. There's nothing behind what people see- at least, not that anyone knows of," Queenie says, sitting down. "At least you know who you are, Blue."
No, I really don't.
In the puddle, I finally get a good look at myself for the first time in a while. Compared to Queenie, I look small and drab. My blue-gray fur is ruffled in places, and the white sock on my front paw is splashed with mud- not to mention the frayed bandage on my back leg. But there's something changed about my face. The soft features - everyone always told me I had a kit-like face - are still there, only with a more determined set to them. I see a quality I don't recognize in my eyes - which, in the glow of the moon, are a soft blue with navy flecks scattered in them. Maybe I have grown a little bit. This experience has changed me, for better or for worse.
Trying to think of how to comfort Queenie, I say, "I don't really know who I am either, Queenie. But I can't spend my whole life wondering who I am, because then that'll be who I am. I'll never become anything that way. Do you see?"
"Things are easier for you though," she mews. I widen my eyes, waiting for an explanation. Flushing, she adds, "I mean, not for surviving or anything. Obviously it's way easier to be a house-cat in that aspect. But I mean, you have the world at your paws. You aren't confined to a single house and backyard. What can I do there? I can't be a hero, like you and Rambo are. I can't even help other cats. All I do is accept nice presents," here she shoots a loathing glance at her collar, "and lie around."
"Then... do you even want to go back? I mean, you could stay with Rambo and I." If you don't mind facing a murderer and whatever evil scheme he's dreamed up.
Queenie shakes her head. "Oh great, I probaby seem really ungrateful now, but the street-life still isn't for me. I just wish I could make my house life better."
Contemplating this, I dip my white-socked paw in the puddle, watching as the mud dissolves away, and the familiar snowy fur emerges. "It's not really a method as much of a choice," I say, having no clue what I'm talking about. "If you make the decision to live your life a certain way, nothing can stop you." I give her a wan smile. "Not even a fat tom pushing you out of a car."
Returning the smile, Queenie mews, "I think I get what you mean, Blue. It's more me then my surroundings. Honestly, I've been kinda blaming it on my spoiled life. 'Someday I'll change' is what I already told myself. I guess today's that day."
"There's no time like the now. And I'm sure when you get back home, you'll be the kindest cat around. After you kill Milo," I add.
Both of us laugh, and I can feel any trace of resentment towards Queenie fading away. It's good to have a female friend to talk to again - it dulls the pain of Olivia's loss, even though it can't make it disappear. Of course, I'll only be able to talk to Queenie till tomorrow, but...
"You ready to head back to the oak?" I ask.
"Just a second." Queenie slams her dainty paw down on the puddle, shattering her reflection. She smiles. "For the new me."
Together, we head back to the oak, curl up, and fall asleep.
Morning comes upon us with a chilly awakening. Being the first to wake - for once, Rambo is still asleep - I take a moment to just glance around and absorb my surroundings. Even though we're in a town, with roads and cars fencing in our little plot of grass, the harsh lines of the landscape have a sheer sort of beauty. Now that I have the muted silence to let me think, I can see the natural art in how the stark contrast the faded brown buildings have against the sharp purple-gray sky. It's not ugly, nor mistmatched. Somehow, like everything else in this wacky world, it fits.
And that's not all. Just like we'd predicted, it snowed during the night. A pure white blanket underlaying the dark shadows of the waking city. A chill runs through me for some reason; I feel so small suddenly.
Then there's a soft touch at my shoulder, and I instinctively lean my head against Rambo's shoulder, no longer feeling insignificant. Maybe still small, but not powerless. Not entirely useless. Sparrow toddles over and wraps a small paw around mine, saying nothing, only staring out at the skyline with me. I'm surprised she's awake this early, but then again, I suppose I shouldn't be. She always senses when Rambo and I leave, and wakes up to see where we went. Queenie's still sleeping, but that's okay. I don't want anything to interrupt this moment.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Rambo murmurs, his breath warm against my cold cheeks.
Rumbling a purr, I lift my head off his shoulder and nod. "You know, I imagine that out in the wild - maybe like in DewClan - they think they have the prettiest mornings, but... there's something special about our dawns."
"We're the prettiest," Sparrow agrees aimably.
Both Rambo and I smile.
From behind us, we hear Queenie waking up, and turn around. Even with her fur slightly rumpled with sleep and her eyes bleary, she's still gorgeous. The early morning sunlight almost gives her coat a lavender hue, and sparkles in the facets of her hazel eyes. Her smile is blinding.
Still, I remind myself of how real she can be. I think it's perfectly to say we're friends now. No resentment whatsoever.
At least, not until Rambo walks over to her and starts talking.
"Good morning," he greets her.
"Hey," she says, flashing that pretty smile. Suddenly, I wish she could've seen us a few minutes ago. Just so I could show her... well... I didn't know what, exactly. "Sorry I woke up late."
He shrugs. "No problem. We were just watching the sunrise."
That's right. Together. But he doesn't add that part, of course.
Queenie turns toward the horizon and smiles. "That is beautiful. I've never watched the sunrise, you know- at least, not that I can remember. My humans alway keep the curtains closed in the morning so they can watch television."
I widen my eyes. "Lisa - my human - always used to watch the sunrise. She'd put me in her lap, and sit in her rocking chair, and we'd-" My throat closes off, and I choke on my words. The bitter taste of sorrow fills my mouth like sour copper. Sympathy shows in both Rambo and Queenie's gazes.
Turning away so they can't see the tears gathering in my eyes, I tell myself to get a grip. What happened to mourning after all the danger(mainly Jackson) was over?
When I've collected myself, I turn back to the others. "Are we ready to go?"
With a nod, Rambo walks over and touches his nose to my cheek, whispering in my ear, "It'll be okay. I know you miss her, but you have us now." Then, louder, he says, "We can set off now. Hopefully we'll get Queenie home today."
I smile at the she-cat, and she returns it, but with a shadow of doubt on her face. "I'm going to miss you guys," she sighs, touching her nose to Sparrow's ear.
"We'll miss you too," I say, knowing it's true despite all my misgivings about her and Rambo.
"I think you're the best and only true friends I've ever had," Queenie says thoughtfully. Not with self-pity, just like she's stating a fact.
Brushing my fur against hers, I mew, "Well, that's an honor."
She smiles. "Not going to disagree."
Clearing his throat with a soft ahem, Rambo gives us both a gentle look. "We can try to keep in touch. That is, if Blue and I stay around here- we might be forced to run."
"Oh... I know." Queenie stops temporarily, her eyes widening. "You have a murderer coming after you, and here I am, worrying about myself."
"We'll be fine," I assure her. "First we'll get you home."
A sort of comfortable silence has fallen on our group by late afternoon. On the one hand, it's nice, but on the other hand, it gives me too much time to think on things I'd rather not.
Everything that's happened to me since I left Lisa's home comes pouring in through the sluice gates of my mind now. The dying dog in the park. Rambo fighting Sam in The Pits. Olivia's death. The dog pack. Snowpaw's death. Robin's poisoning. The battle with Jackson that still wasn't over. And last but certainly not least... Lisa being gone forever.
How could things change so much, so fast?
"Hey. I recognize this place," Queenie says. "From the car ride. Are we getting close?"
Raising my head, I catch a glimpse of green-and-white fields up in front of us, just across the road. "Yeah! That's Liberty Park."
Relief shows on Queenie's face. "Oh, finally. So all we have to do is cross this road, and then search for my house. I'll recognize it when I see it."
"Okay," I nod at her. The four of us huddle at the edge of the sidewalk, waiting for a lull in traffic before sprinting across. Rambo and I keep Sparrow between us, hurrying her along.
I have to say, it feels kind of good to be back where it all started. Where I met Rambo, where, according to me, this whole adventure started.
"Huh?" I blink, jolted from my daydreams.
Queenie flicks her tail, pointing. "That's the house. The one with the weathervane on top."
Following her gaze, I take a step forward. "Well, what are we waiting for?"
Together, we pad across the field, which is covered by a thin layer of freshly-fallen snow. The closer we get, the more our pawsteps drag. Especially Queenie's. By the time we're standing on the driveway of her house, she looks like someone tied a boulder to her hindlegs.
"Well," I say with a deep breath. "I guess this is good bye."
"I wish there was something I could do to repay all your kindness," Queenie says, shuffling her paws. "My options are pretty limited, but I did think of one thing that might take a load off your chests. I know you have your paws full with that lunatic or whoever he is on your tails."
"We'll manage," Rambo assures her, touching my paw lightly with his.
She hesitates. "I know, I just... I want to do something for you." Kneeling down, she gazes at Sparrow. "I thought maybe I could take Sparrow with me, to live with my humans. She'd be completely safe. You wouldn't have to worry about her."
For a second, I can't speak. "You- You want to take her away?"
Closing her eyes, Queenie whispers, "I hate to tell you this, Blue, but... it's probably better for her. She'll be safe with me."
The worst part? I know she's right.
Clearing his throat gruffly, Rambo turns to Sparrow. "What do you think, Sparrow? Would you mind going to live with Queenie and her Twolegs, in her nest? They'd keep you safe, and that big bad cat who killed your sister can't find you there. How about it, huh?"
Whatever I'm expecting Sparrow to do, I do not expect her to be so enthusiastic about it. I'm really hurt, actually, though I try to hide it as she bounes around, exclaiming, "Yippee! That sounds like fun!"
Clearly sensing my feelings, Queenie opens her mouth to apologize, but I shake my head, turning away. My eyes are already misting over. Drawing this out will only make it more painful.
Hesitantly, Queenie wraps her tail around Sparrow. "Come on, sweetie. Let's go."
Every pawstep I hear, walking away from me, is like a blow to my heart. I can't even say good bye to either of them, because I know I'd break down and not be able to carry through with this decision.
"We're doing the right thing," Rambo says quietly.
"Why does the right thing have to be so hard?" I murmur, leaning my head on his shoulder exhaustedly.
Just then, we hear a shriek, and the pitter patter of little paws. "Wait, Queenie! We forgot to bring Rambo and Blue Come on, guys! We're going to live with Queenie!" Sparrow's smile is heartbreakingly huge, her eyes alight with youthful hope. She tugs at my paw hurriedly. Behind her, Queenie is staring at us with tears shimmering in her eyes. I know what she's thinking. Kits, with their wide-eyed innocence, make everything so hard.
Rambo ducks his head. "Sparrow, here's the thing. Blue and I, we can't come with you. We have to go defeat Jackson."
At first there's no visible reaction. Then, slowly, it sinks in. The brightness leaves Sparrow's face. "You're... you're leaving me?" she squeaks, letting go of my paw as if it's made of fire.
My chest feels infinitely heavy. "We'll come back for you, once Jackson is gone," I promise.
"But Blue," she says, almost whining. "You can't do that."
Tears are threatening to overwhelm me, and I step back, gently shoving her towards Rambo.
"No!" she screeches, stomping a paw. "You can't leave me here!"
Inside the house, I hear a human's voice yelling something in response to Sparrow's racket. Queenie looks startled, and signals to us that we don't have much time. Rambo and I exchange glances. He gives me a gentle nod. I shake my head no. We can't do this to her. But we have no choice.
So, for Sparrow's own good, the two of us turn tail and run.
And we don't look back.
Nightmares. They just won't go away. Even though we haven't seen Jackson since the escape, his face haunts my dreams.
"Blue. You can't escape, Blue. I have taken everything from you. Surrender now." His olive eyes are like poisonous clouds, threatening to suck me in. Suddenly I can hear Olivia's final screams, see Robin writhing on the ground. And then it's like I'm detached from my body, and I see Jackson going to kill another cat. The cat throws her paws up, screaming and shouting, but he overpowers her.
Blood speckles the ground, along with tufts of fur. Jackson lets out a coarse, grating laugh and pads away.
"My work is done."
It's like my spirit is floating in the air- I have no material body, but I can move and see things. Slowly, I lower myself, and turn the cat over with a paw.
Her face is so bloodied that I can barely make it out. But when I do, I feel a scream building in my throat.
"Blue! Blue wake up!"
Cold air rushes into my throat, making me cough and chilling the sweat-soaked fur plastered to my flanks. Rambo is shaking me, his eyes wide with concern. My brain feels dizzy, like someone has just slammed my head against a concrete wall, and I'm gasping for air.
When I can speak, I choke out, "Nightmares."
Grim-faced, he lets me snuggle against his strong, secure form. I feel like a little kit, but I can't help it.
So that's why I'm completely shocked when he says, "Me too."
Pulling back a little, I study him skeptically. "You have them too? No kidding?" He nods, giving me a gentle smile and licking down a tuft of fur sticking up on my forehead. "You're not just saying this to make me feel better?" He shakes his head. "And they're about Jackson, right? Not about, uh, cans of tuna that want to eat you?" I fake a cough. "Not that I've ever had a dream like that."
Rambo purrs a laugh. "No, no cat-eating cans of tuna. All Jackson. That slimy weasel."
A shiver runs down my spine. "Rambo, I don't know why, but I feel like he's close. Like he's almost found us."
The gray tom nods. "I do too. Which is why I knew we had to leave Sparrow there."
Even if we survive Rambo and we're able to come back for her, I wonder if she'll even want to come with us. After we abandoned her like that, I wouldn't blame her if she never spoke to us again. Besides, she'd have a good home with Queenie. Maybe she would just be happy there. Without us.
At any rate, she's safe now. That's all I need to know, I tell myself. Whatever sacrifice I made by giving her up was worth it for her life.
Now we just need to be prepared to face Jackson.
Because he's coming for us.
I can feel it.
When the sun rises, Rambo and I are already up. Neither of us says anything as we trot along in the chilly dawn. I have no idea where we're going, so I just let Rambo take the lead. Maybe he can find some place safe to hide out? Inside though, I know that that's not happening. Sooner or later, we will have to engage in a final confrontation with that psychopath Jackson.
And I honestly have no idea who will win.
One cat. He's just one cat, Blue.' 'One cat who- I cut my thoughts off before they can delve into the morbid.
"So how do you think he's planned our death?" Rambo asks casually.
I shiver and glare at him. "Please don't say that."
"Sorry," he mumbles. "Just trying to make conversation. I don't want this to be like we're going to a funeral or something. That won't get us anywhere."
Though I know I'm being grumpy, I shake my head. "Still. I don't want to... I just..." Helplessly, I close my eyes and try to sort out my thoughts. That's kind of hard, because all that comes to my mind is a picture of Jackson's face leering out at me from swirling blackness. And red on the edges. Red in his eyes. Red on his claws. Red on my fallen body...
Way to not think about it.
"What do you think Sparrow's doing right now?" Every topic available for conversation is painful, but at least with this one I know that there's a happy ending for someone I love.
"Probably bombarding Queenie with questions," he smirks.
Nudging him gently, I say, "We did do the right thing, right?"
He licks me on the cheek. "Sometimes we can't ever know for sure. But I do believe so."
Something makes me realize we're standing much closer together than we were before, and that his green eyes are focused on mine. I don't know what to do. I feel like hiding or running away, but at the same time I don't ever want to move.
Then I hear the barking.
My first thought is, Not again. We've dealt with dogs far too much in the past few days.
My second thought is, Jackson.
His scent drifts towards me, from the same direction as the dogs' scent. Why? Is he being attacked by them? Such a thing seems too much to hope for, but- I glance at Rambo, hoping to confirm that Jackson is currently being eaten alive by canines. Instead, my heart stops at the look on his face. The color has leeched out from under his fur, and he looks more terrified than I've ever seen him.
Seconds later, I figure out why.
Jackson trots towards us, his muscular shape outlined by the morning light. He looks like something from the innermost circle of hell, risen with the dawn.
And in his mouth, he holds a giant, bloody slab of raw meat.
"Blue. Rambo." He manages to say our names around the food in his mouth with surprising eloquence.
I'm going to be sick. I really am.
There's no time for that, though. The dogs are already much, much closer, baited on by the smell of the meat in Jackson's jaws. So this is it. He's going to risk his own life to kill us. That's how much he hates us.
Paralyzed, I stare at the tom. That's when Rambo shoves me, with one word of wisdom to save my life.
The sound of our rapid, panicked breaths are nearly drowned out by the baying of the dog pack behind us. My heart slams painfully in my chest, and my bloodied paws catch on ice and stray rock. Twice I nearly fall, and twice Rambo pulls me back up, teeth hooking in my neck-scruff.
"Thanks," I pant, but he's hardly listening.
"Blue," he says, and I take note of the fact that I'm slowing him down. He's taking one stride for my every two, and he's still pulling ahead.
I'm the only thing holding him back. If he leaves me behind, he can easily outrun the dogs.
"Blue, I'm going back."
"What?" I screech. I hardly have enough breath to talk, but somehow I manage.
"I'm going to distract them-"
"No, Rambo. No you're not. I won't let you risk yourself for me again."
His frantic green eyes find mine, and he slows his pace. Behind us, Jackson's wild, insane hoots fill the air. I shudder.
Rambo's shaking his head. "You don't understand, Blue. You don't understand."
"Yes I do."
"No you don't."
"What don't I understand?" I challenge. We're running out of time. The dogs are getting closer; the smells of blood and meat are luring them on.
Rambo's eyes shut, his whiskers trembling with supressed emotion. He leans forward and touches his nose to mine. And suddenly he's talking, and it's like he can't stop; the force of his words is too powerful and relentless and pent-up, so all I can do is listen.
"What you don't understand is that I love you. No, don't say anything, just listen. I need you to listen." He paces back and forth in front of me, seeming to forget that we're in imminent peril. "I'm a mouse-brain, such a mouse-brain. I fell in love with you, from the moment I first met a certain blue-eyed kittypet wandering around the park with a lost expression. I know I don't deserve you, I know you're too sweet and innocent for me." Here he lets out a harshly bitter laugh. "My life is crude and my past is tough, and you're nothing but kindness to my broken sarcasm."
"Please, Blue. If we die today, I need you to know all of this. I need to tell you. I've been a fool for keeping it in so long."
I swallow and nod, paws shaking.
"When I first met you, I thought you were ridiculous. You cared so much about Lisa, and you were so determined to never give up on her. I thought you were insane for that. How could anyone love another being so much? I'd never known anything like that. And then, before I knew it, I felt the same way about you. Like every day didn't matter unless you were next to me, like--oh, someone help me, I'm not explaining this right."
"You're explaining it fine, Rambo." I'm surprised to hear myself speak around the lump in my throat. "I love you. I love you too."
"No you don't."
There's so much more I want to tell him. But I know if I stay and listen to him any longer, if I let this go any further, I won't be able to do what needs doing.
So I ignore the pleading of my breaking heart. I stare at him one last time, memorizing every feature of his face, the grizzled and scarred face I've come to hold so dear.
Then I shove him into a nearby gutter and slam his head against the rock, effectively dazing him. "Stay in here," I hiss. "Don't move."
His eyes are crossed from the impact of his head wound. "Blue. Blue what are you doing? Blue!"
His screams fade behind me, or maybe I just drown them out. Taking a deep breath, I turn around and race back the way we came.
It's time for me to make a sacrifice. The dogs are waiting, and so is Jackson. He lets out a hiss of surprise as I come shooting around the corner. "Blue?" The meat falls from his jaws.
Then the dogs are upon us. I see Jackson get swept up into the jaws of a scruffy mutt, hear his caterwauls of pain.
A dog grabs me and shakes me. I barely have time to remember why I'm doing this: I need to make something of my kittypet life. For once, I need to give something up.
If that something is my life, then so be it. I'm doing this for Rambo, and for Lisa too, in a way. Her little blue-eyed kitten has come so far.
Come so far, and now hit the end of the road.
Rambo's face flashes in front of my eyes one last time. Then the dog bites down, and everything goes red--and then black.
When I awake, there's something vaguely familiar about my surroundings. Without opening my eyes, I breathe in the strong scents in the air; they're bitter and unnatural, stinging the delicate lining of my nostrils. Hunting and taking care of myself has made my sense of smell even more acute, and the abrasive scents are giving me a headache.
It takes me about five minutes to figure it out. I'm at The Cutter's office.
Impossible. What am I doing here?
Slowly, I push myself into my paws. Steel bars surround me, and I realize I'm in a cage. A small whimper escapes my mouth as pain glazes my body a hot-red blur.
I might be still alive--unexpectedly--but as I bite back a chilling scream of agony, I wonder how long that'll last.
Surely death is better than feeling like your insides are slowly disengaging.
In the cage next to mine, an elderly white cat regards me with something akin to pity. "You okay, young 'un?"
Do I look okay? "Where am I? Who brought me here?" I whisper.
"That's the strange part," she says. "According to what I saw, lookin' out the window, you were dragged here by another cat. Not a Twoleg. Where's your Twoleg?"
My ears struggle to make sense of her heavily-accented brogue; she's definitely not a kittypet, as she sounds like she stepped straight out of The Pits. Not to mention, there's that rough-and-tumble look about her: one of her ears is chewed to a stump, and a crisscross of red scratches mar her pale pelt. "I don't have a human... anymore. That cat that brought me here, where is he?"
"He left. Looked really torn-up about it, but he left. Said some crow-food sappy stuff about how he just wanted you to be okay, and if that meant leaving you behind, then so be it. What a pile of-"
"He left me?" I echo her in a whisper.
No. No way. I can't let this happen. I almost died for him, and now we're, once again, being separated.
I have to find my way back to him.
But the simple act of pawing at the cage lock sends me into spasms. I can't breathe. My head pounds, and my bitten body writhes in rebellion.
"I wouldn't try anything, hon," the white she-cat tells me. "You can hardly stand."
Eyes wide and fraught with pain, I dig my claws into the lining of the cage, fighting for breath. "As soon as I can get out of here... I'm leaving this place..." I gasp out.
She gives me a cold smile. "That's what they all say. You know what the truth is? You have about three days to make a full recovery. Then, they'll stop wasting their time on your treatment. They put you to Sleep."
Chills race through me. I'd been to the Cutter enough times with Lisa, back when I was a pet, to know what putting a cat to Sleep meant. And I knew the white cat was right, too. There was no human to pay off my "bill".
Looking down at my body, the white bandages already soaking with red, I realize there's no way I'm recovering in three days. The Cutter is going to put me to Sleep.
Rambo brought me here, and left me here, even though it cost him so much... for nothing. Now I'm going to die anyway.
I grit my teeth and wish desperately for strength.
All that comes is another wave of pain, and I feel myself washing out into an inky ocean of unconsciousness, the bray of dogs and shrieks of pain lancing across my dreamscape.
Three days passes with stunning speed when you're drifting in and out of consciousness, barely awaking to force down a bowl of tasteless pebbles before surrendering to slumber once again.
Three days is enough to ease some of the pain, but not to heal.
And that's why, on the third night, The Cutter comes.
As The Cutter opens the door to my cage, she whispers soothing words. "Come 'ere, lil' kitty," she coos. "I won't hurt ya."
There is danger behind the softness of her voice; it's nothing like the caring Lisa once spoke to me with. I shrink back against the cage wall, but it's no use. The Cutter's arms dive for me, and she clutches me tightly to her chest, increasing the pain in my ribs.
"I'm sorry, kitten," the white she-cat whispers as she watches me go.
I'm sorry too.
"It's time to end your pain," The Cutter says into my ear, walking towards a room in the corner of the office.
At that moment, a strange thing happens. In my mind's eye, I see Snowpaw and Robin and Olivia, all the cats I've watched be ruthlessly cut down by the harshness of the "real world".
And something breaks inside me. I can't do this. I can't be another casualty in the books of whatever cruel force controlled death. I want to succeed where others didn't, and I do not want to be that kittypet who was abandoned one winter and died a forgettable fate on the streets. I want to live for Rambo and the love that we share, and I want to live to see the beauty that spring will bring, and I want to live for the sake of living and all its triumphs and downfalls. I want to know that all this fighting has not been in vain; I want to make sure of it.
With that thought in mind, I bite down on The Cutter's sleeve. Hard.
She lets out a scream and drops me. The force of falling knocks my breath from me, but I ignore the pain and break into a run. Behind me, I can hear the white she-cat egging me on. "You can do it, Blue! Get out of here! Run and never come back!"
Just for an instant, I turn to face her, even as my paws carry me towards the door. "What about you?" I screech. If they were going to put me to Sleep, surely they will give her the same treatment. And, I realize, I never even got to know her name.
"I'll be fine. You're young. I'm not. Now GET OUT OF HERE!" she commands.
There's no time to save her even if I wanted to. I make a final desperate dash for the doors of the clinic. Just as The Cutter's hand closes around my tail, I dart through and out into the open air. Letting out a scream, the woman trips on her own feet and falls face-first in the snow.
Not pausing to celebrate--or laugh--I continue running.
To say I'm in pain would be an understatement so pathetic it's laughable. It literally feels like something is clawing at my stomach. Those dogs really did some damage to my body, and even after three days and countless bandages, it will take a lot longer to heal.
I doubt I'm helping the cause by full-out sprinting down the street, but whatever. I'm lucky just to have survived.
Once I've run a good distance, I stop--and let myself collapse in a literal heap.
Fire is burning through my body so that I can hardly tell one limb from another; it's all a jumbled mess of white-hot agony that refuses to stop burning through me. My breath comes in ragged gasps, every expulsion of oxygen like a bullet ripping through my sore throat. The snow pressed to my pelt offers some scant relief, but its effects pale in the enormity of my suffering.
As my head starts to clear, I realize two things.
One, I've escaped. Not only have I survived a dog attack, I've evaded the clutches of death in the form of a Twoleg's hands, too. And I did it by myself.
Two, I have no idea what to do now. Rambo left me with no intention of coming back; it's clear he thought that I would be taken care of fully and then adopted out to a new home; he couldn't have known that they would put me to Sleep. This time, he was the one with too much faith in humans.
But if Rambo left me... he could be miles away by now. My breath catches in despair as I realize that I'm all alone.
Alone and wounded, in an unforgiving city. Who knows if the dog pack are still here? I'm easy prey, in the state I'm in. I feel like screaming out my rage; no matter how hard I try, I can't win. It's like I'm predestined to lose. Maybe I should've just given up and died-
Utter shock registers in the voice that's just spoken. I look up and find myself skimming a gray tabby coat, tracing the contours of a jagged scar, and finally meeting with a pair of exhausted olive-green eyes that are now stretched wide with hope.
Rambo steps closer, and I struggle to my paws. "Is it really you?" he breathes, like he's afraid I'll vanish.
"It is. It's really me." I give him a tentative smile, and the next thing I know, I'm on my back, staring up at him; he's bowled me over in his joy. "Ow," I manage to grunt.
"Sorry, sorry," he says rushedly, seeming beside himself with emotions. He swallows and shuts his eyes. "You're not going to disappear, are you?"
I cover his paw with mine, loving the brush of his whiskers on my forehead. "No, I'm really here. For good."
I explain everything, and his face collapses in regret. "I'm so sorry, Blue. I really thought... You have no idea how much it hurt to leave you in that clinic, but I did it because I thought it was best for you." He chokes. "If you died because of me-"
"But I didn't. I escaped," I remind him. Then, wincing apologetically, I ask, "How's your head?"
"Oh. From when you slammed it into a wall?"
"I had to distract you," I mutter. "I knew you wouldn't let me go for the dogs by myself."
"For good reason. Blue, why are you so ridiculously selfless?"
"M'not. But you've given up so much for me. I just wanted to make something of myself besides a nuisance."
He shudders. "Don't. Stop. I was so wrong about you. I'm sorry if I ever acted like you were any less because you were a kitypet. I'll never forgive myself. I- The truth is, you're amazing, and any cat would be lucky to come close to deserving you, because you're strong in ways that-"
"Rambo," I interrupt. "I love you."
He stares at me, suddenly flustered. "I didn't think you meant that when you said it."
Tenderly, I touch my nose to his. "Of course I did," I tell him gently.
Taking a deep breath, he buries his face in my neck. "I never thought I'd love anything or anyone as much as I love you, Blue."
We sit there together for a long moment, and I can feel the pain of my wounds pale away in the face of Rambo's warmth and comfort.
"It'll be spring soon," he murmurs.
"Yeah." I smile. "Once I'm healed, we can go visit Queenie and Sparrow."
"D'you think she'll remember us?"
"Of course she will," I say confidently. "We- we can't take her from Queenie, though. Let her be raised as a kittypet; she'll have a good, safe life there. I kind of wanted to be her foster parents and raise her... but..."
"We can have our own kits." Rambo turns red, like he hadn't meant to say it aloud. "I mean-if you want to. Later. Some day."
"Some day," I promise, and laugh at his sheepishness. I smile as my mind fills with visions of miniature Blues and Rambos frolicking at our feet, with blue-gray fur and olive eyes, or tabby stripes and sky-colored gazes. The thought elicits a warm sort of maternal feeling in my heart, and I feel my face flush. Then I freeze. "What about the dog pack? We can't stay in town-"
Rambo smirks. "They had a run-in with our good friend, the dog-catcher."
I stare at him in disbelief. And then I toss my head back and giggle like an idiot. "Serves them right! Ha!" I crow triumphantly.
"Blue." Rambo regards me with curious amusement, cleary wondering if I've lost my mind. "Are you okay?"
"Better than okay," I say, eyes sparkling. "Spring is coming."
As if angry with my words, the skies choose that moment to send snowflakes sailing down. Rambo groans. "Not more snow."
But it's not even that cold, and the scene is actually really pretty. Laughing some more, I snuggle closer to Rambo, careful not to bruise my torn-up sides. "I don't mind, somehow. Winter is our season; it's the season I lost Lisa, and then healed myself. Winter is the season where we met, and walked down by the pier..."
"The season where we met the Clan cats, got into a fight at The Pits," he continues, gaze clouding with memories.
I chime in again. "Met Olivia and Jackson, got chased by dogs-"
"Got into a fight, realized that Jackson was a murderer-"
"-ran away together, met Queenie-"
"-left Sparrow and Queenie behind-"
"-got chased by the dogs and Jackson-"
"-you tried to sacrifice yourself-"
"-I escaped The Cutter-"
Black is falling like the kiss of night on the horizon, snowflakes and stars painting white flecks across the dark. It's strangely suiting; how my adventure began with a morning walk, and now the day is drawing to a close. I know our story isn't over, but there's something symbolic, as if the dawn of an era--an era of innocence and helpless struggling and countless defeats and pain--is drawing to a close. The night has never looked more beauiful.
Our faces are inches apart. Rambo's eyes crinkle as he looks down at me, like I'm the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.
"Winter," he breathes, "is the season I fell irrevocably in love with you."
"And I wouldn't change anything."
Author's Note: Well. The story's finally over. That took a while, but honestly? I'm really really happy with the way it turned out. I hope you enjoyed; I know this story had its tears and sadness, but I hope you also caught the themes of hope and strength I embodied in Blue and Rambo.
No, not going to reveal what happened to Queenie and Sparrow. :) They're happy with their Twolegs, and I'm sure Blue and Rambo will be visiting them--perhaps with their own kits, too.
I'm not going to write an epilogue, because I don't think this story needs one.
I really hope you caught the symbolism between the title being "Morning Blue" and the story ending at night.
Thank you for reading. Love you. <3