Part of the In The Shadows series.
If you asked me what my role was in helping the Clans, I'd say none. It's safe to say I've made a mess of my life. They gave me a house and I chose alleys. They gave me a chance to stop Sol and I blew it. They gave me leadership and I... well, after reading this, you be the judge. I am Jingo. This is my story.
Wind blew around the brown tabby in gusts, but she barely felt it. She had heard it. He thought she hadn't, but she had. And she wasn't sure what to make of it. Eight little words, yet each like a small candle, bringing new hope to what she had chalked up as a failure of a life.
"I won't forget you," she whispered softly. "I wish I could come with you, but if not... you'll be in my heart. Know that, at least."
She blinked away the tears that clung to her lashes persistantly. Then, slowly, her head lifted, as did her tail. She was strong. For them. For Speckle, the kits, Hussar, Pod, Fritz, and... for Flower and Pepper too. She didn't believe in the Clan's StarClan, but she was sure her friends were somewhere out there, looking down on her, watching over her.
As she slipped through the hole and the Twoleg nest, her home, came into view, the familiar sights and sounds of her life came back to her. It wasn't the Twoleg nest she had dreamed about as a kit, but, she thought, as Hussar's face appeared and she heard him announcing her arrival to the others, it was good enough for her.
"Good bye Jingostar. May StarClan light your path."
"They say if you eat too much prey it comes out your nose," Hussar said lazily.
Speckle arched her brows while trying to detatch Frisk from her ear. "Really. Somehow I doubt- Ow! Frisk! Your claws are sharp."
"Sorry," the little tom-kit said, trying to wipe the grin off his face. His sister, Fern, batted him on the ear.
"Be nice!" she squeaked. He laughed and tackled her, and both kits went rolling across the floor before bumping into Jingo's paws.
She smiled down at them and set down the pair of sparrows and pigeon she had come in with. "Sorry kits. Did you have a good day? Behave? Do everything your mother said?"
"Oh please," said Hussar, but Fog, the tiniest of the four, cut him off with one glare from her icy blue eyes.
Seconds later, those same eyes had melted into pools of crystal clear water as she faced Jingo with the sweetest expression imaginable. "Hi Jingo. Do you want to play with us?"
"Run away. Run away!" warned Chirp. "They'll suck you in and then never let you go. It never ends."
Jingo smirked. "A big tom like you afraid of a few kits?"
"He's not that big," Hussar pointed out. He studied the gray tom skeptically. "Looks like more of a runt to me."
While the two of them tussled, Speckle selected a sparrow and gave Jingo a grateful smile. "Thanks for hunting for us."
"No problem. It's my job."
"That's one heck of a job, if you need to feed fat old Hussar," pointed out Chirp, getting his revenge. Hussar swatted him. Jingo smiled to herself. This was the other reason for devoting her life here. Her friends. She would do anything for them; they relied on her, though the toms would never admit it. She wasn't boasting. In fact, Jingo was sure leadership wasn't a good thing. It was just a fact of her life, and she would have to deal with it.
"Yeah, but I can cope," she yawned. "Wake me tomorrow at noon. I need to rest."
Shutting out whatever rude comments Hussar and Chirp had to make about that, she closed her eyes, letting the tension ease out of her shoulders, and drifted off to sleep.
"Jingo? You awake yet?"
The brown she-cat stretched and stood slowly, a rueful smile on her face. "I am now." Looking through the cracks in the window, she saw that it was still dark outside. She squinted at the black cat in front of her. "Jet? What's wrong?"
He moved into a shaft of moonlight, and she could see that his thick fur was dampened by sweat. His breathing was raspy and fast, and his voice dripping with fear. "I had those dreams again. I'm sorry." He turned away. "I didn't know who else to talk to, and the shadows... I couldn't stand being alone."
"It's okay," she said. "We've all had those dreams."
"Yeah, but you guys have gotten over it. I haven't." He stared at his paws.
Jingo got up, pushing away the vapors of sleep. "Let's take a walk outside," she suggested, as if calming a kit. "It'll help you think."
"I don't want to think," Jet said bitterly. "I just want to block it all out." But he followed her as they wove their way among their sleeping friends and exited the Twoleg den.
The midnight air was cool on Jingo's face as she breathed in the familiar scents of tar, dust, garbage, and, above it, the faint tinge of fresh grass from Twoleg lawns. The place she called home.
The two cats strolled side by side in silence, till finally Jet spoke. "I keep hearing his cry Jingo. Pepper's cry. Before they killed him." He shuddered and stopped, a single tear sliding down his cheek. His claws came out and retracted frantically. "And Sol just... He said it would work." There was a desperation to his voice now, as if she could stop it if only he convinced her.
With a heavy heart, she patted his flank. "I know," she said softly. "He had us all fooled."
A shriek cut through the night, making Jingo's blood run cold. Jet let out a cry and his knees buckled as he sank slowly to the floor. "There it is again. It's so real."
"That's because it is real. Some cat's in trouble. Come on!"
She tore out the little hole, and seconds later, Jet was by her side as they pounded down the alley. The shriek came again, this time closer and louder. Then a young cat appeared, her violet-blue eyes stretched wide with fear. Behind her, jaws snapping, saliva flying, came a small brown-and-white dog. It wouldn't be a match for a group of cats, but for just one small-
Enough speculating! Time for action, Jingo thought. "Come on!" she called to Jet, leaping onto the fence. "This worked once, it can work again," she muttered. "Run!" she yelled.
"Don't need to tell me twice!" The she-cat skidded past, and Jingo reached out with two paws and gave a trash can a hard shove. It teetered, but didn't fall. Jet leaped up beside her and helped. There was a loud clang that echoed around the alley as the silver barrel knocked over several more. Stinking crow-food spilled out, but the mission was accomplished. The dog let out a whimper, then turned, tucked its tail between its legs, and ran, as several trash cans barreled after it.
Panting, Jingo jumped off the fence and wiped her paws on the ground, making a face. "Yuck."
"Agreed," muttered Jet.
The young she-cat turned to face them. Her thick silver fur was soaked with sweat, and her sides were heaving as she fought to catch her breath. She smiled. "You just saved my life. Thank you so much."
"No problem," Jingo said. "I'm Jingo, and this is Jet."
"Iris," she said. "I'm not usually such a mess, but running for your life does this to you." She motioned to her messy pelt. Jingo laughed and turned to Jet.
"Shall we take her back to the others?"
Jet frowned. "Merry and Chirp won't be happy... they won't trust her. And we already helped those other cats but-" His gaze traveled to Iris once again, and it softened. "Okay. Might as well."
Jingo smiled. "Iris, how would you like to come with us?"
"Where have you two been? Who is she?" Fritz's eyes widened and his hair stood up as they entered. Jingo hastened to reassure him; she knew how he had reacted when the Clan cats had visited.
"This is Iris. She was being chased by a dog and we saved her. I offered-"
"Oh no," moaned Merry ungraciously. She slunk into a corner and watched, green eyes glowing in the shadows. Iris paled.
"Is something wrong?"
"No," said Jingo, shooting the others a glare. "She means no harm guys. Seriously."
Speckle gathered her kits to her suspiciously. Pod shot her a look that clearly reminded them that Sol had appeared the same, and she returned it angrily. There was no need for them to flinch away from every newcomer. It didn't do any good, just drove them deeper into their paranoia. Sol was gone; they needed to break free of his grasp now, despite all that had happened. And it was her job to help them out of it, much as she didn't think she could.
"Iris, why don't you tell us a little about yourself," she suggested.
"Okay," the cat responded, a little nervously. Tucking her tail around herself, she began. "Well, I was born in a barn not far of here, out in the country though. I never knew my dad. When my brothers died, my mother brought me here, thinking it would be easier to feed us both and take care of me. It worked out well for a while, but one day, when I was a few moons old, a couple of rogues chased me away from where I stayed. I never saw my mother again." She paused, swallowing back tears apparently. Jingo's heart twisted in sympathy.
"Anyway, I staggered around like a blind kitten for a while. Then an elderly tom named Crag took me in. He taught me almost everything I know about surviving. One day, I woke up and he was cold and stiff." Her eyes glimmered with emotion. "I've been on my own ever since."
"Oh..." Speckle walked over and licked her gently. "You poor thing."
Jingo smiled softly. The touching moment was broken by a loud snore. Everyone jumped, and she turned and stared at the bulky sleeping form of Hussar. Walking over, she kicked him. Muttering something inchorent, he rolled over and went back to sleep.
She rolled her eyes. "Unbelievable."
When Jingo awoke in the morning, it was to the kit's excited cries as they ran from window to window along the sofas, meowing ecstatically.
Yawning, she stood and nodded towards a proud Speckle. "What's the occasion?"
"It's their first snow," the queen explained, eyes shining as she watched her litter's happiness. "I might take them outside to see for a few minutes, but I don't want them getting sick or anything. Frisk! Stop pushing Fennel out the window!" She hurried over to her kits, and Jingo watched her go with a smile. Inside though, she had different thoughts. Winter would only bring more hardships to their group, making it harder to find food, stay warm, stay healthy, and stay safe.
Chirp evidently was having similar thoughts. He shivered and shot glares at the pristinely white scene outside. "Dumb cold."
Pod winced and stretched creakily. "I'm not as young as I once was. Winter might do me in."
"Don't say that," Jingo insisted. "We'll make it through." She linked her tail with his. "Together, like we always have."
He grinned and nodded. "Well, when you put it like that, I can't hardly say no."
"No you can't," she assured him. Turning, she saw Jet talking to their newest guest. "Good morning Iris. How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine Jingo. Thanks for asking!" Iris smiled prettily, her eyes blue in the winter sunlight streaming into the den. Vaguely, Jingo wished she could be that gorgeous. How could a loner, growing up on the streets, still have such shiny silver fur and such a happy face? She gave her own brown tabby coat a self-concious lick, though she knew it wouldn't do much good. Iris was small and petite, the kind of she-cat toms adored because they knew they could protect her. As for herself, she had that hard look about her, independent and strong. Surely no tom wanted a piece of that. Not that I care.
"Who's that?" Hussar came up behind her, staring openly at Iris. She rolled her eyes.
"This is Iris. Jet and I saved her from a dog last night, and then we brought her here so she'd be safe. She told us her life story. All of it." She glared at him. "And you still didn't wake up."
"Oh." He shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a good sleeper. Nice meeting you."
"That," Jingo said, half-apolegetically, "is Hussar. You'll get used to his laziness. And disgustingness. And-"
"I can still hear you!"
Iris giggled and gave Fern, who was clinging to her leg, a lick. "I bet I will. Right now, I'm just happy to have finally found a home, and friends."
As she watched the kits play, Jingo experimented with cute, she-cat like smiles, staring at her reflection in a puddle of ice. Hm... That last one, the one where she tilted her head ever so slightly and- A shower of cold snow exploded over her face. "What in StarClan?"
"Sorry!" yelled an unrepentant-looking Frisk, scampering away. Speckle raced after him, yelling.
Jingo sighed and gave up. She just wasn't that kind of cat. But she could play with kits. "Hey guys!" she yelled. "Why don't we divide into teams and have a snowball fight? Fog and Fern against Fennel and Frisk." She glared at the oldest tom sternly. "And no cheating."
Speckle smiled at her gratefully. "Actually, you'd better watch out for Fog the most. She gets away with just about anything, that one."
Jingo glanced at the tiny gray kit, who was bulldozing a mountain of snow twice her size towards their fort. Her eyes widened. "Yes, I see what you mean."
"I just hope they don't get too cold," the queen said, wrapping her tail around her paws tightly. Her dusty golden eyes grew far away, and Jingo guessed a certain tortoishell-and-white tom with a narrow face and pale yellow eyes had entered her thoughts. She was tempted to curl her lip in disgust, but thought the better of it. Speckle wouldn't appreciate it, and it was hard enough for her to accept Sol's disappearance without rude comments about the tom from friends. Still, just the thought of the tom, and one of her own actually being able to love him, disgusted her. What could she possibly see in him? But then again, I could ask myself the same thing. We all fell for his tricks, but now we're wiser, warier. She looked towards where Chirp and Fritz regarded Iris as if she were an alien being. Perhaps a little too wary.
"They'll be fine," she offered. "Kits are stronger then they look." However, she knew that wasn't the real problem.
Speckle nodded, a tear that probably wasn't because of the cold glistening on her cheek. "Right. I'm just being a worried old mother hen."
"All mothers get like that," Jingo said, even though she didn't have any reason to know.
Her friend gave a rueful smile. "Yeah. But that-" She flicked her tail towards where Frisk was screaming at everyone to "do things right or not at all", "-is what makes it all worthwhile. Your family. And all of you are my family."
"Yeah," Jingo said. She twined her tail with Speckle's briefly, then called out to the kits, "Okay guys! Time for the actual snowball fight. Now for the rules-"
"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" Frisk charged forward like a little comet and cannoned into Fog and Fern's fort, collapsing it on top of himself.
"Ouch," commented Hussar, as a hysterical Speckle tried to find her kits among the wreckage. "Suicide mission."
"Very funny," Jingo snorted, helping brush clumps of snow off the kits. "Let's get you four inside, dearies." She picked up tiny Fog in her jaws. The silver kit was punching the air angrily and kicking her paws in all directions.
"If I ever get my paws on Frisk-" she squeaked.
When the two she-cats entered, Iris looked up, and her eyes widened. "What happened?"
"Snow." Speckle gritted her teeth and began licking Fennel. Without another word, Iris walked over and began to help. After she had gotten Fog to stop shivering, Jingo laid the kitten by her mother's belly and joined Hussar by the window.
"Lot of help you are," she commented, butting him on the shoulder. He grinned.
"I have a way with the kids. They just love me. I can't explain it." Hussar winked. "And, you know, it works with the ladies too. Same charm. I can't help it."
"In your dreams," she snorted.
"No, in my dreams, I can fly."
Chirp came up behind them and grinned. "Well, that just gives a whole new meaning to the words, 'when pigs fly', doesn't it?"
While the two toms tussled, Jingo gave a contented sigh as she took in the cozy scene: Pod and Merry exchangings stories comfortably, Speckle with her kits, Iris and Jet talking intently, Hussar and Chirp wrestling with Fritz as referee. They were all happy and contented. She would do anything to keep it this way.
"Jingo? We've got trouble."
She looked up and her heart clenched at the fear etched on Fritz and Merry's face. She knew her friends were usually jumpy, but this was just pure terror. "What's wrong?"
Merry winced and sat down heavily. "I think I twisted my paw while running-"
"Running from what?" Jingo stood up now, fearing she already knew the answer.
"The dog pack is back," Fritz said miserably. "And better then ever. Looks like they aren't getting food wherever they went after the fight, and they've moved into our alleys. This is hopeless! We won't be able to hunt or find food without being ripped to pieces. They'll pick us off one by one, and the rest of us will starve." He paced back and forth frantically.
Jingo turned away. She needed time to think, to put her thoughts in order, and she couldn't do that with everyone else's fear crushing her down. "Give me a moment," she said, padding out of the den and towards the small room with the door. The room was deserted, and she sat down against a wall, closing her eyes and trying to block out all the endless noise of the city.
What should I do? Turning towards the window, she watched cars speed past outside their little home, a frown on her face. The truth was, she didn't see a way out of it either. What could they possibly do? And yet, she had to find some kind of solution. The others were relying on her, and besides, she couldn't stand the thought of them living in fear for the rest of winter till who knew when. The dogs would stay on for as long as they liked if they faced no opposition. Not that their small band could offer much "opposition" to a pack of fully-grown dogs. They would be ruined, just like last time. Cats would get hurt. Die.
"Jingo?" She turned to see Iris approaching her, her footfalls soft on the ground. "I think I know a way to save your family."
Eyes widening in hope, she smiled. "Our family. Let's hear it."
Flurries whirled around Jingo, carried by blasts of icy winds. Still the brown tabby didn't move. Instead, she stood motionless in the middle of the yard, lost in thought. What Iris suggested made sense in all logical and practical means. And yet she couldn't find it in her to accept it, couldn't quite wrap her head around the idea that this was the only way to survive.
"Jingo?" It was Hussar, the scar along his flank pink against his stark gray coat. "What are you doing out here?"
"Nothing," she muttered softly. "I'm just wrestling with a decision."
His eyes widened. "I could help you make it." He pressed his pelt against hers comfortingly. "What is it? You can trust me."
"I know..." She couldn't bring herself to meet his eyes. What would he think? "It involves the whole group. It's a possible solution for the dog problem." If he agrees, Iris came up with it. If he hates it, it was all mine. "She thinks," she took a deep breath. "That we should leave. Go somewhere else. Somewhere safe."
For a minute he said nothing, his eyes wide, as if waiting for her to laugh, take it back, or call it crazy. When she didn't, he stared at the ground, as if wondering how to put the stupidity of that idea into words. Jingo felt her heart sink, and opened her mouth to take it back when he said softly, "I hate to say it, but I think you're right."
"Iris suggested it," Jingo said. "I'd never be wise enough to see it. I just don't know. I mean, nothing bad has happened yet, but..."
Hussar read her thoughts. "We shouldn't wait till something does."
She nodded. "But how on earth will we convince the others? They'll never agree to it, especially if they hear it was Iris's idea. They still don't trust her."
"I have a feeling Jet does," Hussar put in helpfully. She shot him a glare.
"Irrelevant. What I'm saying is, we're doing this for their safety, so there's no point in it if they don't agree."
"Well," he said. "We haven't tried yet. Come on. I'll back you up, and I'm pretty sure Iris will too. Therefore, Jet will, and then maybe we can convince the others."
She sighed and looked down. "Come on," Hussar said again. "You just need to have a little confidence in yourself. I believe in you."
Jingo smiled. "Okay. Let's go."
"... And that's why we need to find a new home. Who's with me?"
Blank stares met her gaze, and Jingo was grateful for Iris and Hussar on either side of her, pelts brushing hers reassuringly. Then Jet cleared his throat and padded over, sitting down beside Iris. "Well, I think it's a great idea," he announced. Hussar gave Jingo a wink, which she returned.
But her heart sank as she looked towards the rest of her friends. Speckle's eyes were wide open, and she pulled her kits closer as if she thought they would be snatched from her. Chirp and Fritz exchanged doubtful glances, and Merry looked half hysterical at the mere thought.
Finally, Pod spoke up. "Now why on earth would we do that?"
She tried to conceal her exasperation. "I just explained that part. The dogs are crowding us out."
"But it's leaf-bare," protested Fritz. "We'll all starve or get sick anyway, and we won't have any shelter from the cold."
"Yeah, and what if the dogs follow us?" quavered Speckle. "Who'll protect my kits?"
Jingo blinked helplessly. To her relief, Iris spoke up. "We'll all help. Come on guys. It's not a journey to the end of the world. We're just trying to find a new home in the city, and you guys know most of it. We can stick together, and take turns keeping watch and hunting. Sure, it will be hard. But it's much better then our other option, if we stay here."
Chirp curled his lip. "How do we know you're not trying to trick us? We barely know you, and you're trying to boss us around. This is probably a trap."
Iris sucked in a breath, and Jet gave her a quick lick on the cheek, murmuring something in her ear. Jingo scowled blackly at Chirp. "How can you say that? She's trying to help us! And what she suggested makes a lot more sense then what we're doing right now, being sitting ducks in here till we starve or get eaten."
The pale gray tom said nothing, but continued glowering at Iris. Merry had an identical expression on her face.
Jingo sighed. Snapping at her friends would do nothing to convine them. Yet, they didn't have enough time to sort out every problem now. Turning to Hussar, she muttered, "This isn't going very well."
He sighed. "Let me try. Guys, you need to listen. I know this is hard for all of us, but sometimes we need to try new things for our own good."
"Forget it," snapped Fritz. "This is our home, and we'll defend it. We're not going, and that's final."
Why won't they listen? Gazing out at the drifting snowflakes, Jingo let out a heavy sigh that shuddered through her entire body. She was exhausted mentally, and physically. Hunting in the storm had provided protection from the dogs, but it also made it much harder to find any food. Now that it had cleared up a little, Fritz and Merry had gone out to see if they could find more food.
Turning away from the window, Jingo curled up into a corner of the sofa, drifting off into sweet dreams about her old life, lazing by the fireplace, or sitting in her housefolk's laps. A contented smile drifted across her face, and she-
"Jingo!" The reek of blood hit her nostrils before she even blinked her eyes open. Fritz stood in the entrance, his fur splattered with blood, eyes wide with fear. "It's Merry!" he gagged. "She needs help! Quick!"
"Let's go guys!" yelled Jingo. "Speckle, watch the kits and get a place ready for us to put Merry down on."
The speckled brown she-cat nodded quickly and started clumping bedding together. Jingo and the others dashed after Fritz. They didn't need to ask what it was; they could smell it on his fur under the fear-scent, and hear the outraged barking. Forcing her legs to go faster, she reached the alley side by side with Fritz, and froze with horror.
Merry was perched on a trash can, which was teetering dangerously. Two dogs, one small black one, and a larger brown one, were taking turns shoving it or nipping at her legs. Already she was bleeding from several ragged bites, and Jingo could tell she was weakening fast.
"Get them!" she screeched. Instantly the alley was flooded with cats. Fritz and Pod launched themselves onto the smaller dog and sent him rolling, then started hammering him with their claws. However, Jingo knew the bigger one would be much trickier.
Hussar leaped onto the brown dog's back and dug in with his claws. She darted underfoot and lashed out at its stomach. "Take that you big brute!"
"Pod!" yelled Hussar, clinging onto the dog as it bucked and snarled. "Get Merry!"
The older tom nodded and began scaling the fence, edging towards the trash can. Horrified, Jingo saw the smaller black dog take a flying leap, jaws parted and aiming for Pod.
"No!" She jumped straight towards it, slamming it out of midair. They hit the ground hard, a writhing mass of fur and claws.
"Jingo!" Hussar pulled her to her paws, hammered the dog across the face, and half-dragged her away. "We can't defeat them. Come on, before they realize what's going on."
Blood running from their scratches, the cats fled in the opposite direction of their home.
"I think it's time to go back," Pod said, licking a gash on his shoulder. Jingo nodded, not because she wanted to, but because they couldn't possibly leave Speckle and the kits, and Merry was too weak to travel.
Hussar and Fritz supported the she-cat as they made their way back. As they approached the old Twoleg den though, Jingo realized something was terribly wrong. Fresh blood tainted the air, and shrieks came from inside. Without thinking, she raced forward, fearing the worst. "Speckle!"
"Jingo!" Behind her, she heard Hussar racing to catch up, calling her name, but she didn't stop.
Bursting inside, she was met with the foul reek of dog, along with blood. "Fern! Frisk! Fog! Fennel!"
"Over here!" Whirling towards the sound, she saw a sight that chilled her blood. Speckle was backed into a corner, her kits tucked behind her. The large brown dog was crouched in front of her, growling low in its throat. There was no sign of the other black dog, but she looked around just to be sure. Thankfully, the blood seemed to be coming only from the wounds the dog had gotten from them... for now. Saliva dripped off its jaws onto the terrified queen's fur as she snarled defiantly. Jingo knew Speckle would die to defend her kids, but she was determined that she wouldn't have to.
"Leave her alone!" Giving a flying leap, Jingo landed on the dog's shoulders and sunk her claws in deep. Then she bit down as hard as her jaws would go into its sinewy neck. The next thing she knew, she was being tossed and turned high into the air as the dog bucked and somersaulted, crushing her against the floor. Just when she thought she couldn't hold on any longer, her friends were around her. Fritz stood in front of Merry as she escaped with the kits, and Iris clung to the side of the dog's face, her pointed teeth tearing at its ear.
"It's not going to give up!" Hussar called. "Let's just get out of here!"
"You're right," she spluttered, choking on the stinking fur. Jumping off, she called, "Retreat!"
They stood in one of the most hidden, dirtiest alleys dejectedly, cold snowflakes landing like puffs of cotton in their fur before melting away. Iris was crouched over Merry, licking a gaping wound on the she-cat's neck constantly. The kits whimpered and pummeled Speckle's belly for milk the hungry queen couldn't provide.
A loud clang echoed through the alley. Hussar and Pod rummaged through the garbage bin they had knocked over, coming out with little to show for it, save dirty, stinking pelts.
"Here." Pod dropped a small, greasy piece of chicken in front of Speckle. "And this." He handed her a metal can with the top ripped off, half full of smelly fish. Speckle wrinkled her nose. "You have to eat for your kits," he reminded her gently, and she began to nibble the food.
Hussar sat down beside Jingo. "I found something for you too."
She blinked at him gratefully. "You didn't need to do that."
"Of course I did. You're our leader; you need to keep up your strength." He gave her a thick crust of bread, topped with stale ham.
"Share?" she offered. He shook his head.
Feeling guilty, she took a tiny bite. However, her hunger overtook her, and she had soon finished the entire thing. "Thank you. I needed that." She leaned against his shoulder.
"No problem," he murmured into her fur.
Just then, Speckle and Fritz looked up. Speckle's eyebrows flew up when she saw the two of them pressed against each other. At first, Jingo blinked back at her confusedly, then she suddenly felt her pelt turn to flames, and she pulled away hastily. Secretly though, she wondered what the big deal was. They were just friends. Friends could sit by each other without everyone making faces. Couldn't they?
Groaning, Jingo leaned against a wall and began licking her cuts. Aloud she said, "Well, where do we go now?" She had to nearly bit her tongue off to prevent herself from saying, See? I told you so. We should have left when we could, before this happened.
"I don't know," whimpered Speckle. "But I need my kits to be safe."
"We can't stay here," Iris said between licks. "Merry will get an infection in such filth."
"But how can she travel anyway?" asked Chirp mournfully.
They all looked to Jingo, eyes expectant and filled with hope. She felt like she was being crushed with responsibility. I can't handle this. Not me. I'm not smart enough, nor brave enough, nor- but I have to. Right now, there's no one else.
She took a deep breath. "We'll stay here tonight. Those who aren't wounded, try to find food before resting, but stay close by. Hopefully, we'll regain some of our strength this way. Then, tomorrow, we can figure out where to go."
Hussar padded up to her. "That's a great plan."
She gazed out at her friends, already hurrying to do her bidding. Why did they have to trust her, of all cats? And why couldn't they trust her before, when she'd told them they needed to leave? But that was just one of the factors of her destiny, one she had learned to accept. Turning to Hussar, she mewed softly, "I hope so."
"So. Anyone have any idea where to go?"
Jingo sat facing Jet and Iris. The others were all asleep, slumped against each other for warmth. Jet yawned sleepily; it was barely dawn, and despite their best efforts, no one but Merry and Speckle had been fully fed yesterday, and with Speckle nursing and Merry hurt, it still wasn't enough. They were all tired, but some cat needed to have a plan ready for the rest of them.
"I don't know," Iris said miserably, and Jet laid his tail across her back. "This is all my fault. It was my idea. I should know, but- I'm sorry Jingo."
"Nonsense," the brown tabby snapped. "If it weren't for you, we wouldn't even have considered it, and we'd be in a panic right now."
"Our current state isn't much better," Iris muttered.
"That's not your fault," Jingo insisted. "Now, we're not holding a pity party here. We're going to brainstorm ideas. Let's see..." She closed her eyes, recalling all the places she had ever known, as a kittypet too. Suddenly, her eyes flew open. "I know where we can go!"
Chirp arched one eyebrow doubtfully. "Are you serious? Are you sure the Twolegs won't come back? Are you-"
"Yes," Jingo said, a touch of irritation creeping into her voice. "As sure as we can be of anything in this world."
The pale gray tabby said no more, but his eyes shifted nervously from side to side. She knew it would take more then common sense to convince him.
"I still don't get it," spoke up Fritz, flicking his torn ear. "You say this isn't exactly a Twoleg den, but it was built by Twolegs?"
She nodded. "It was at the back of their territory. I believe they called it a 'shed'. It was abandoned and far away from the other Twolegs. Also, it's surrounded by grass and woods. We can hunt, as well as come to the alleys for food. And there probably won't be as many dogs around there. I stayed in there one night; it's warm and sheltered enough, and it kept out the rain. It's also big enough for all of us." Seeing the uncertainty on their faces, she pleaded, "Please guys? I don't know where else to go."
"It sounds good to me," Hussar said. "But what about Merry?"
"And my kits," added Speckle, licking Fog on the head. "They can't possibly make that journey."
Jingo met her eyes, willing her friend to listen, and understand. "Like I told you before, they're stronger then they look. And so are you."
She sniffed, but fell silent. "Is everyone okay with this?"
A few half-hearted, "There's nothing better"s greeted her attempt at cheering them up. Stifling another gusty sigh, she pasted a bright smile on her face. "Okay. Fritz and I will look for food. The rest of you, help make sure the kits are warm and rest, or take care of Merry." She motioned to the black-and-white tom, who followed her down the alley.
Mud puddles, surrounded by sludge and dirty snow, splashed underfoot, splattering their legs with dirty, foul-smelling goo. Wrinkling her nose, Jingo pressed her paws against the nearest trash can and shoved with all her might. Fritz did the same, ramming it with his shoulder.
"Ow!" he exclaimed. Jingo shoved him out of the way as it toppled and fell, strewing garbage all around them. With a sigh, she began picking through it, recoiling many times in disgust when her paw fell upon something particularly revolting.
Finally, her nose picked up a more enticing odor amoung the rubbish. Sticking her head as far as she dared into the can, she hurridely yanked out a package, wrapped in crinkly white paper. She smiled as a few tears with her claws revealed several cooked ribs, not too fresh, but not spoiled either.
After Fritz had rounded up a hamburger patty and caught a small mouse near the gutter, they headed back down the alley to their friends. Jingo picked up two of the ribs and padded over to Merry.
The ginger-and-white she-cat looked terrible. Her wound looked clean enough, thanks to Iris's constant licking, but it was raw and open. Jingo knew that in the Clans, herbs were used to cure ailments, but she had no knowledge of plants, and even if she did, where would they find any? Merry let out a faint groan at the smell of meat, and she shoved the ribs closer.
"Go on Merry. Eat," she urged desperately. As the sick cat began to chew slowly, Jingo detected a little energy flowing back into her. "Do you think you can travel today?"
Wincing, she nodded. "Yeah. I'll just need a little... support."
"Don't worry about it. We'll take it slow," promised Fritz.
"Right then," Jingo said. Fritz had finished distributing the scraps, and everyone was looking a little readier for the trip. "What are we waiting for? I'll be glad to get out of this disgusting place. Let's go." Flicking her tail, Jingo led the cats out, towards their new life. And she forced herself to not look back.
Clumps of dirty grayish, grit-covered snow lined the abandoned alley they walked down. It was cleaner then the one they had camped in, but also too close to Twolegs and a large Thunderpath for Jingo's comfort. The rough, icy rock cut into her pads, and the fur around her toes were stained red where her nails had torn and scraped the floor. Still, she steeled herself and pressed on, knowing it was even harder for her friends, who were taking their turns carrying the kits and helping Merry.
"I think it's my turn to take her," she offered, scooping Fennel from Fritz's jaws. The black-and-white tom was about to protest, then sighed, worked his jaws, and gave her a grateful smile.
From overhead, snowmelt dripped down onto their pelts, running off the slanted roofs of ranshackle Twoleg dens in thin rivers. Speckle shivered and tucked Fog in towards her neck, as if she could protect the tiny kit that way. Hussar, who was the biggest of them all, carried Frisk, but Jingo could see even the large broad-shouldered tom was tired.
Pausing to set Fennel down so she could talk, she spoke up. "Maybe we should take a rest."
"Good idea," Pod said immediately. Chirp nodded, wrapping his tail around Merry.
"We'll get us something to eat," Jet said, as he and Iris trotted off. Hussar turned to Jingo and blinked.
"Since when were they 'we'?" he asked, bemusement plain on his face. Jingo laughed and nudged him on the shoulder, rolling her eyes.
"Don't tell me you haven't noticed," she asserted. "They've been spending so much time together, and..." She noticed the others staring at the two of them. Mistaking the expression on their faces, she chirped, "We'd better get over there and help out, instead of standing here gossiping."
Hussar suddenly looked embarrased, though she wasn't sure if it was for the same reason. "Right," he said hastily, padding away from her.
Shrugging, she joined the rest of the group. "Holding up Merry?"
The she-cat gave a weak, pained smile. "Yeah, I'll survive."
Chirp sighed, giving her a lick on the cheek. "With me around, you will. Look, there's Iris and Jet with some food. That'll bring your spirits up."
"It will for all of us," agreed Speckle, who was nursing her kittens.
The two approaching cats held a motley of food in their jaws, from a scrawny(but edible) gray squirrel to a few greasy pieces of breaded fish. "Here," Iris said, nudging the squirrel towards Speckle and a thrush towards Merry. "There's enough for everyone."
"Nice job," Jingo praised, selecting a pigeon. "Share, anyone?"
Iris and Jet had already headed off, Chirp and Merry were devouring the thrush, and Pod and Fritz were chatting merrily over the fish. Hussar nudged her. "Let's go over there."
"'Kay," she said casually, leading the way over. "But don't hog all the food," she added, laying it between them.
He widened his eyes in mock hurt. "Do I ever?" Laughing, the two of them bent their heads and began to eat. As soon as the first warm morsels of meat reached her mouth, Jingo began to feel better. Her body relaxed a little, and she felt less stressed. That was when she heard it. Barking. The sound that haunted her dreams, that she had thought they'd escaped from. And it was close. Really close.
Next to her, Hussar's head shot up, and he tensed. Merry whimpered and staggered to her feet before falling against Chirp. Jingo leaped to her paws, screaming, "Let's go! Forget the food, if we're lucky, it'll distract them."
"Where?" cried Speckle, scooping Fennel into her mouth. Jingo grabbed Fern by the scruff and motioned with her tail for them to follow her. Hoping she was making the right decision, she began scrambling up the fence. Her claws kept slipping, dragged down by the additional weight of the kit. Chirp helped Merry up, but the tom's eyes held a silent apology; she knew he couldn't help her and support the ginger-and-white she-cat at the same time. Just when she was about to give up, she felt a nudge from behind, and looked down to see Hussar bracing his shoulders against her.
"Hurry," he said through gritted teeth.
Nodding in gratitude and relief, she pulled herself up, then began leading them along the fence, leaning against the wall and looking back every few seconds to make sure they were all there. The barking was coming ever closer; the dogs were almost in the alley now. The thud of heavy pawsteps came bearing down on the cats as they raced along the fence-line after Jingo trustingly. The weight of her position was not lost on her. If she made one bad choice, it could cost her her own life. Or worse, one of her friend's.
Finally, the fence's end appeared before her, and after it, a busy Thunderpath. Heart pounding in her chest, Jingo searched her surroundings desperately. There was only one way to go. Up.
"Are you crazy?" squalled Speckle from behind her, her voice muffled by panic and kit-scruff.
Gritting her teeth, Jingo ignored her; she would need all her breath and strength for this. Bracing her hind legs against the dirty brick wall, she leaped upward. Her front paws fought for clawholds against the rough surface, and her muscles screamed in protest as Fern bumped against her chest, but she pushed onward, clinging to the near-vertical slope for dear life. Slowly, painstakingly, with each step sending fiery arrows of pain through the length of her body, she made her way up the wall.
Finally, her claws connected with the metal top of the roof, and with one last burst of energy, she pulled her body up and collapsed. Jingo knew she couldn't rest for long though; the others would need help. Putting a shaking Fern down, far from the edge, she peered over the side to see Speckle struggling to climb up, Fennel in her jaws. Behind them, the dogs had exploded into the alley; there were three of them, all small, but with foam and drool flying from their mouth, and crazed expressions in their eyes. Jingo's first fear was that they were mad, but they didn't reek of disease, so she decided they were just really, really angry. Either way, they were all in grave danger.
"There's no time for us all to get up there!" Hussar yelled, as Chirp shoved helplessly at the weakened Merry. "I'll distract them!"
"I will too!" Jet yelled. The two toms didn't wait for a response before throwing themselves off the fence and into the pack of frenzied beasts.
Fear for them wrenched through Jingo's heart, but she knew she had to keep a steady head. Leaning down as far as she could go, she hooked her jaws around Merry's scruff. Throwing al her weight back, she managed to drag the limp she-cat up, with Chirp pushing on the other end. "You guys come up first!" she called. "Then have Iris hand up the kits."
Doubt shadowed Speckle's eyes, but she dropped Fennel gently and tried again. This time, she managed to haul herself up onto the roof. As Merry and Speckle helped the others, Jingo was unable to tear her gaze away from the fight. Every few seconds, one of the dogs would leap for the fence, only to be tackled by a tom. Still, Hussar and Jet were outnumbered and outpowered by the dogs, and it was only a matter of time before one of them was fatally injured. She couldn't just stand there and watch!
"Excuse me," she said, making sure Fern was safe with her mother and siblings before pushing past. "I have something I need to do."
Iris, who had just made it up, Frisk in her jaws, looked up, panting. Her violet-blue eyes were shadowed with exhaustion, which was replaced by disbelief. "No! Jingo, wait-"
But it was too late. Without hesitation, the brown tabby she-cat launched herself into the fray. She wasn't sure how she planned to have them win this fight, only that she couldn't leave her friends to face this alone. That just wasn't how it worked.
"Jingo! What are you doing here?" Hussar yelled, swiping a strong blow across a dog's face.
"Helping," she retorted through clenched teeth. "You two can't do this on your own!"
"Why do you think we are?" he snapped back, rolling out of the way as Jet sent the smallest dog flying. "So you guys could get out safely. It doesn't work if you come barreling into the battle."
Jingo fought her way to his side and hammered one of the dogs, who was rearing up to strike from behind, over the head. "Too bad," she hissed into his face. "Now fight!"
"Get out of there!" Iris's shriek was tinged with panic meant for all of them, though her eyes were glued to Jet's black pelt as he wove in and out of the battle.
She's right, Jingo admitted to herself. We can't hold them off forever, and everyone else is already safe. "On the count of three, give each dog a blow on the face or eyes and run for the fence," she yelled. "One, two... three!"
With a squall, she arched her back and raked her claws powerfully across a black-and-white dog's eyes and down his cheek. As blood blinded his vision, she turned and sprang for the fence, sheer desperation propelling her through the air. The fence swayed as Jet landed, and Hussar's enormous weight shot past and slammed into the wall. If the situation hadn't been so dire, Jingo might have laughed. Instead, she helped him to balance on the fence, then gazed up hopelessly at the sheer climb as the two toms battered away the dogs' snapping jaws.
"We have to try," Hussar panted beside her. "Together. Ready? Go!"
Though she would never have dreamed she'd have the strength to make it a second time, adrenaline coupled with her friend's reassuring pelts against hers helped Jingo scramble up a few feet. Still, she felt like her legs were jelly, and just when she was sure she was going to plummet to her death, Iris's teeth locked into her neck-scruff, and she was dragged onto the roof, metal scraping her belly. We made it, she thought exhaustedly.
"Get back from the edge Jingo," Fritz said worriedly.
With a groan, she obeyed. Her pelt was on fire from a thousand scratches, and a wound on her neck felt like someone had poured acid down her throat. Lying down again, she glanced about. How could she have thought this was safe? They were on a roof, for crying out loud. Could they even get down again?
Speckle glanced at her, as if reading her thoughts. "Don't worry about what happens next for now," she said comfortingly. "You did a good job, and some quick thinking, getting us up here."
"And then you almost got yourself killed," Hussar said, glaring at her hostiley. "What were you thinking?"
"You needed help," Jingo said, too weary to fight. The anger in the tom's gaze melted away, and he sat beside her, licking her neck-wound tenderly. She winced, then relaxed into his soothing touch.
"Stupid furball," he murmured for her ears only. "How do you think I would feel if I lost you?"
Feeling the tips of her ears go hot, she leaned her head against his bloodied shoulder. "Are you okay? Is Jet okay?"
Looking over at where Jet and Iris were curled up beside each other, Hussar nodded. "Yeah, I think it's safe to say so."
"Well," she said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "We're stuck up here for now. Let's just make the most of it. Everyone get some rest; we'll decide what to do in the morning."
"Sounds good to me," Pod muttered with a tired sigh. His age and frailty was painfully obvious to Jingo as he dozed off, deep breaths rattling his skinny frame.
All around them, flurries began to fall. Jingo curled tighter into Hussar's thick fur, trying to block out the world and escape into sleep.
The Twoleg murmured soothing words as he stroked Jingo's fur, which was no longer matted and dirty; it shone in the light of the fire, and was smooth and glossy over her well-fed flanks. A purr rose deep in her throat, making her body vibrate as she sunk deeper into the soft substance on the ground. The clink of food in her bowl roused her, and she got to her paws and padded over. The brown pellets looked tasteless, but a faint aroma of something akin to fish tantalized her nostrils, and she scooped some up, feeling the crunch in her mouth.
Vaguely, Jingo realized this was wrong. Her stomach growled even as the dream-her ate, and she was aware that she would much rather tear into a juicy piece of fresh-kill then Twoleg pellets. And she knew that her housefolk shouldn't be petting her; instead she should feel the pelts of her feline friends beside her. But just for now, she didn't care. This was good. Life was good here.
I wonder, Jingo thought drowsily, recieving a scratch behind the ears, why I ever left.
With a yawn, Jingo stretched, and nearly screeched in pain. Waves of heat radiated through her, making her head pound. Her wounds burned, and the rest of her ached; she felt like every part of her had been ripped to shreds, then been slapped rudely back together.
Looking around, she saw that feeling mirrored on everyone else's faces. Merry whimpered, shivering in the cold. Chirp struggled to get to her side; the snow-covered metal rooftop was slippery and hard to hold onto. Jingo gulped as she thought of one of her friends slipping and sliding off to their deaths.
"We need food," Hussar said. Ordinarily Jingo would have responded with a sarcastic tone, but she was too tired to argue. She nodded meekly, then padded over to the edge, her legs braced so as not to fall. Once again she asked the same question of herself: How can we ever get down?
"We'll have to find a place to jump off," she decided. "Somewhere where something else, like a dumpster or the like, juts up to cushion our fall."
Speckle shuddered from where she was nursing her kits. "That sounds awful."
"We can't stay here forever," Jet pointed out gently. "The kits need food too."
"Okay," Jingo said. "Hussar, Iris, Jet and I will scout each side of the building. Be careful, and don't lean too far over the edge, okay?"
"Got it," Iris mewed. "Let's go."
"The rest of you, help watch the kits." Jingo noted the weariness on Speckle's face sympathetically.
The cats nodded and headed off in different directions. Jingo took the right side, padding along the edge, while keeping a good foot between herself and thin air. At first she saw nothing, just cracked, dirty alleyway. Finally, she spotted the perfect place. A metal ladder jutted out the side of the outer wall, with four rungs that stopped abruptly. About a tail-length below that were several dumpsters, and on top of one was a covering of soft-looking colored pelts. "Guys!" she called. "Over here!"
Jet padded over, his eyes brightening. Iris didn't look so hopeful. "How can we use that?"
"We climb down those ladder rungs," Jingo explained, flicking her tail towards them. "And then drop onto those pink and blue pelts below, on the dumpster. Then, not only can we get food, we can leap to the ground easily."
"What about the kits?" Speckle fretted, and Jingo sighed.
"Looks like we'll have to make do. One of us will go down to the dumpster and stand up on our hindpaws, while another clings to the ladder and passes the kits down. I'll cling to the ladder," she offered. "Your kits will be safe. Do you trust me?"
"Okay," the queen relented. "I guess there's no other way." Thanks a lot, Jingo thought dryly, but said nothing.
"I'll go first, since I'm tallest," Hussar said. "I'll be able to reach up the highest to catch the kits."
Jingo nodded, her heart too far up in her throat with worry for her to speak. She watched silently as he lowered himself onto the first rung, then the second. Upon reaching the last one, he let go and landed gracefully on the soft-pelts below. "I'm fine!" he called. "Who's next?"
"I'll go," Merry said. "I want to get out of the way."
Worry clouded Chirp's eyes. "Are you sure you can handle it?"
"I'll be fine," she snapped, a little roughly. "All of you got hurt just as much as me." They all knew that wasn't true, but no one dared say that to the fiery ginger she-cat, especially as she stepped out precariously onto the ladder.
Despite her faith in her friend, Jingo breathed a sigh of relief when Merry reached the bottom. She stumbled onto the dumpster, but seemed unhurt. "Now the kits," she told Hussar, who nodded and got into position.
Taking a deep breath, Jingo said, "Hand me Fog when I ask for her." Knowing this was one of the most dangerous things she'd ever done, and that was saying a lot, Jingo stepped out onto the ladder, wincing as the icy metal dug into her pads. She went down two steps, then nodded. Iris handed her Fog; Jingo took the kit in her mouth and craned her neck around, cringing as pain nearly paralyzed her. She could feel her neck-wound start to rip open again, and blood dampened her fur. Luckily though, it was on the side facing away from Hussar and the others, so no one called her on it, and she wasn't about to complain.
After handing Fog down, she did the same with Fennel, then Fern. Finally, Frisk, the largest of the kits, was in her jaws. She fought dizziness from the agony as she practically dropped the kit onto Hussar's head. Trying to find the strength to lower herself to the dumpster, Jingo felt her legs give out, and let out a frightened shriek as she tumbled through the air, landing with a soft oof onto the soft, if slightly smelly, cloth below.
"Are you okay?" Hussar said, his eyes wide. Jingo raised her head feebly, wondering what all the fear was about. Then she saw; the tear on her throat had ripped itself open, raw and angry. Scarlet blood pumped out of it like a fountain. She stared speechlessly at it for a second, then her eyes rolled back in her head, every trace of sensibleness and level-headedness deserting her as she fainted dead away.
"Guys." Jingo lashed her tail impatiently. "I mean it. I'm fine. We have to go. The weather's getting worse, the dogs are getting more desperate, and we're running out of time."
"Jingo, we just don't want you to get hurt," Irisheart mewed sympathetically.
Feeling a rush of mingled gratitude and irritation, Jingo sighed and shook her head. "I'm supposed to protect you guys, remember?"
"It works both ways," Jet said steadily.
"Fine," she said. "We'll get something to eat, and then head out. Good enough?"
"Okay. Fritz, Hussar and I," Chirp said. The three toms had vanished before she could protest; with a sigh, she slumped down against the alley wall, knowing it was no use.
"We should be getting there soon," Jingo reported, trying to buck up her friend's spirits to no avail. Their faces remained exhausted and bleak, as if they were only still trudging along because of some automative force. She felt a pang of fear. Was this really worth leaving their old home? Was the shed even still there?
Glancing about, she looked for a familiar landmark. I think I remember that old blue Twoleg den, she thought with a rush of relief, gazing at the faded house, paint peeling. They were on the right track.
Just then, Chirp raised his head. All the cats froze as the door of a Twoleg den banged open, and a Twoleg walked off. "Hide!" Jingo hissed desperately. She shoved Speckle behind a tree, and the others ran for cover together. Seeing no other way out of the situation, Jingo clawed her way up the tree and stood perched in the fork of two branches, hoping her brown pelt camoflouged her well. The Twoleg climbed into a red monster parked outside, and seconds later, it roared to life. She flinched as it backed out, set its large paws on the Thunderpath, and raced away in a cloud of acrid smoke.
It took several seconds before the tension eased out of her shoulders. "Guys?" she croaked, her throat still stinging from the fumes.
"I thought you said there weren't any Twolegs around here," Fritz said accusingly, crawling out from behind a hedge of bushes. Merry followed, looking cautious, but not speaking up in Jingo's defense. No one did, as they slowly gathered around her. Helplessly, she scanned their hard faces.
"Guys, I didn't know," she said meekly. "I'm sorry. They weren't here before... Nothing happened."
Speckle moaned and sank to the ground, covering her kits with her body. "We never should have left our old home. We'll all be killed here."
"What would you rather Jingo have done?" Hussar said harshly. "She saved our lives."
At this, the others felt silence, a heavy blanket of quiet that dropped down onto all of them. Fritz shuffled his paws and finally said, "Sorry Jingo. I just... needed someone to blame. It shouldn't have been you."
She dipped her head. "I take full responsibility for this."
"No, we all do," Iris said softly. Jet licked her on the cheek, and she gave a faint smile.
"So... What do we do now?" Pod asked. Jingo glanced about, then flicked her tail.
Slosh. Snow squelched under Jingo's paws as she led her friends on a careful route around any nearby Twoleg dens, her eyes intently looking out for any sign of activity apart from themselves. She couldn't let her guard down now, not when they were so close. It's all riding on me now. All on me.
Reaching the open snow-coveed grass at the back of te lline of Twoleg dens, Jingo's head shot up, her eyes fixing on a small, faded structure. "The shed! There it is! We're almost there!"
The effect was immediate. Heads lifted, weary pawsteps quickened, and sparkle returned to the cats' eyes as they followed her gaze to the shed.
"Well, it's definitely got Twoleg written all over it, but it looks quiet enough now, and cozy too," Pod said.
"I agree," Speckle said. She rested her tail on Jingo's shoulder. "Well done my friend."
Feeling a purr rising in her throat, Jingo smiled back at her, her worries slowly melting away. There was hunting in these fields, and a chance to make a good home. They would survive, and thrive.
"Come on," she said, excitement rising inside of her. She broke into a steady job, hearing the squish of the others' pawsteps behind her.
When she was about halfway there, Hussar froze, blocking her with his tail. "Stop. Something's not right."
Frowning, she sniffed the air, and immediately saw what he was talking about. A strange scent reached her nostrils, causing her hackles to raise. Jet came up beside them and flicked his tail towards the shed. "Looks like we've got company."
As he finished speaking, the door of the shed was nosed open. Jingo's heart sank when she saw what it was. Oh no. Haven't we faced enough of those?
It was a dog.
For a long moment, both sides stared at each other. The dog's lips peeled back in a snarl. Iris let out a whimper, and Jet laid his tail comfortingly on her back. The despair that flickered in Speckle's eyes momentarily was quickly replaced with fury as she moved in front of her kits. Fritz unsheathed his claws and snarled, arching his back into the shape of a rainbow. Shock flooded through Jingo's body as she realized that her friends were preparing to fight. They weren't questioning why they were being made do this.
Tears pricked her eyes at their loyalty, but there was no time for emotions right now. She had a job to do.
Like a well-oiled machine, the cats went to work doing what they did best: dealing with dogs.
Hussar launched himself at the dog's throat and clung there, avoiding its snapping jaws. Speckle hid her kits behind a large snowdrift and started swiping at the canine's eyes. Jingo dived in, taking a hold of the creature's front leg and shaking it violently.
Though they were weakened and exhausted from their journey, the group put up a good fight, and the dog was outnumbered. Letting out a bay of pain, it tore away from them and raced away.
"Take that, you fox-hearted dog!" Pod hollered after it. The old tom's face was split by a smile a mile long. Everyone else looked equally as happy.
The shed had value now, Jingo realized, because they had fought for it. They had earned it.
"Come on guys," she said. "Let's go home."
"Dusty," Jingo observed. She couldn't stop the smile blooming on her face; she had to try hard just to stop herself from bouncing up and down in excitement. Hussar brushed his flank against hers.
"It'll do though. Good job, Jingo. I'm proud of you."
A blush crept onto her cheeks without warning, though she didn't know why. Surely a compliment from her friend was no big deal?
Shrugging it off, she beamed back at him. "It was thanks to us all. We all helped."
Already the kits were running about, exploring their new home. They were weak, but determined, exactly like their mother. Jingo was sure they'd survive.
"Look!" Jet said. He was standing by long wooden shelves that lined the walls. "These would be perfect to make nests on!"
Iris joined him, eyes alight with curiosity. Meanwhile, Chirp helped Merry to a patch of dead grass in the corner of the shed, where the she-cat sank down, looking exhausted but content. Pod arched his back and rubbed against the sides of the walls, erasing all remaining dog-scent and replacing it with his own comforting smell. Already the shed was beginning to feel like home.
With a content sigh, Jingo leaned back against the shed wall. I did it. We did it.
Just then, a pelt brushed hers, a reassuring scent flooding over her nostrils. She blinked warmly up at Hussar. He was gazing back at her with warmth in ihs amber eyes. "Jingo? Can I talk to you outside?"
Her eyebrows going up in surprise, Jingo got up, trying to figure out why her heart was thumping so fast in her chest. It was just Hussar, one of her most loyal friends. What was the big deal? "Sure," she mewed casually, padding after him.
Outside, the fresh air greeted her, ruffling her fur and soothing the bumps, bruises, and cuts she'd acquired during their journey. The two cats faced each other awkardly. Jingo shifted from paw to paw, not sure why she was so uncomfortable all of a sudden. Despite the chilly wind around her, her pelt felt strangely warm, and she couldn't meet Hussar's eyes. "So... Why did you bring me out here?"
He didn't need to reply. As their gazes locked, Jingo felt the world sway out of focus. All she could see was Hussar, his muscular gray frame, fur blowing back, an intensity on his face that belayed all his normal mild-mannered personality. Without thinking, she pitched forward, stumbling a little, and collapsed against him. He went rigid, then wrapped his tail around her, his breath warm against her ears, the only thing warm and living she could sense now. "You did a great job, Jingo," he whispered.
"I couldn't have done it without you," she said, knowing it was completely true.
"You could've done it. You could do anything." A smile traced Hussar's lips. "But I'm glad I could share it with you."
The next words they said in unison, as if by some unseen force of fate. Jingo felt a thrill go through her as Hussar touched his nose to hers, his lips forming the same words as hers did.
"I love you."
Once again, he wrapped his tail around her, drawing her into a close embrace. She laid her head against his shoulder and let all the tension and stress ebb out of her.
This was it. She was home. Her old life may be gone - first as a kittypet, and then their old home. But this was her new life. She was going to be a great leader. She was going to make this work. It was all she could ever do. And she'd have Hussar at her side.
I'll make this work. I'll push forward and...
never look back.