Sawdust, Secrets and Symmetry
I have no idea about the status of the CATS fandom so there's every chance this fic is going to be read only by me. But big shrug, I've developed an obsession that needs to burn itself to its natural conclusion. This is a sort of a prequel to a story that I may or may not write.
Enjoy, people who may or may not be me.
Caution: Some of the content of this fic is and will be graphic as regards injury and abuse. Proceed with care.
Cats, Jellicle or otherwise, are well-known for being inscrutable. It forms a baseline for their personality, from the furthest-wandering tom to the laziest fireside cat. A cat one had known for years and years could still pull some surprises, should they feel the need to shake things up a bit.
What was unusual about Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer was that 'inscrutable' didn't begin to cover it. They were the only cats, it seemed, for whom getting closer only raised more questions. On the surface they seemed like just a rather careless sticky-fingered set of layabouts, but it was clear after a time that this was a persona they cultivated with great care.
Rumpleteazer once let it slip that she and Jerrie had been circus performers at some point, when asked why she was casually swinging from an old water pipe upside-down by her toes. At the subsequent excited questioning from the kittens, she refused to go into details, just made a rude gesture and sauntered away.
Everyone knew they had once worked for Macavity, but why they left when they were so obviously dedicated to petty crime was also unexplained. Jerrie did say, once he had been pinned down for long enough to give a somewhat straight answer, that they got bored. Too much planning, not enough mayhem.
It was an obvious lie, but was likely all the Junkyard cats would get out of them.
Aloof was not a word that could be used when talking about them, but they did hold themselves very separately from the other cats. Their den was on the outskirts of the Junkyard, one of the few big enough to hold the sheer amount of things they pilfered. It became a running habit for a cat in need of a gift to give to another, or something fancy to adorn themselves with, to go to their den. Whichever cat was there would happily hand over pretty much anything stored in the den, for once it had been stolen they tired of it.
"Are you sure I can just...have this?" Alonzo once asked, turning over in his hands a ruby-studded bracelet large enough to be worn as a collar.
"It looks expensive..." Alonzo mumbled, admiring the rubies glinting in the moonlight.
"It is expensive," Jerrie laughed. "We set off every alarm in that place trying to get it out...and they had this bloody great dog, jaws like a crocodile! Nearly bit my blimmin' tail off, it did!"
"Right," Alonzo nodded. "And...you don't want to keep it?"
"Nah," Jerrie waved him off. "What would I do with it now?"
Rumpleteazer was happy enough to squeal along with the rest of the queens whenever Rum Tum Tugger flashed a smoldering gaze, but flirtatious toms who got close were more likely to feel her claws raked across his face than a returned embrace. Curiously, even Tugger himself wasn't immune to this, as he found out when he crept up behind her to sneak a cheeky paw around her waist. And as for Jerrie, he didn't seem to have any interest in queens at all, besides Teazer. Or toms for that matter.
Were they brother and sister, or close cousins? Were they a mated pair? They seemed too free and easy to be mates, but too intimate to be siblings. They clearly had a long shared history together, but the details of which were probably lost to time.
If by chance you managed to get close enough, you could observe how Mungojerrie's left hind paw was slightly crooked and flatter than the other, and how Rumpleteazer had small, almost imperceptible patches on her back where fur didn't grow. How almost every pot, pan and vase they'd stolen and stacked in their den was stuffed with food that they would never get around to eating. How they'd stolen a perfectly good and rather fancy cat bed from some upper-crust's house but still chose to sleep in a bundle of rags near the den's entrance, summer to winter.
No matter how cluttered their den got, there was always three distinct paths cut into the mess to allow either cat to make a quick escape if they needed to. Escape from exactly what, was another one of those mysteries.
"She won't tell me anything," Victoria whined to Jennyanydots during the time she had tried, earnestly, to make friends with the new queen. "I don't even know if she prefers mice or birds!"
"Leave it alone," Jenny sighed, smoothing down the kittens' fur. "Anything they want us to know, we'll know."
Originally, it was supposed to be two black kittens.
Black kittens were easier to mistake for each other, even if they weren't the same size, or so the circus magician would say. From the audience stands, simply putting the same coloured ribbon around the cat's neck would fool them into thinking the cat in the box had been teleported across the ring into the other box in the blink of an eye. They wouldn't be close enough to see the differences.
No black kittens could be found in the usual stray colonies, but one of the carnies managed to find a tom kitten hiding under the big tent carriage after its mother had been killed on a nearby road. He kept it around, mostly out of sentiment, but had planned to leave it behind when the circus pulled out of the town. It was too brightly coloured to be of any use, except maybe as part of the clown's troupe, but they had no need of a cat.
About two weeks after, another stray kitten was found skulking around the colonies. Remarkably, it had nearly the exact same markings and colour as the other stray, though it was smaller and female. They were perhaps a week apart in age, not enough to make a big difference. Matching collars and the illusion would work perfectly. As long as they could train the cats to perform.
Training included being locked in the trick boxes for hours until they stopped making a fuss about it. It included being forcibly held down by the neck until they stopped trying to wiggle out of the magician's grasp. It included food deprivation, isolation, the occasional dunking in water and, one memorable evening, being dangled over the boa constrictor's tank by the scruff of the neck.
Eventually, the magician realized that his training techniques were less and less effective. Sometimes it seemed like the kittens were outright mocking him, deliberately messing up tricks they'd performed hundreds of times. By the time he got the idea to punish the other kitten for one kitten's misbehavior, the only thing that seemed to actually work, his act was dissolved and he was retired from the circus.
"Look at this!" Mungojerrie said, tossing the little glass bottle into their designated bundle of rags and enjoying the way Rumpleteazer's eyes lit up with fascination.
"It's lovely," she purred, tapping gently at it with her paw. "Where did you get it?"
"Ringmaster's tent," he said with a grin. "It's that smelly stuff his wife puts on her neck."
Teazer shrank back with disgust.
"He'll drop you in the snake tank for that," she muttered. "She loves that awful stuff."
"If he finds out. Which he won't."
Even before his mother died, Mungojerrie had been considered a nuisance, an underfoot distraction preventing his mother from mating again, a helpless open mouth tiptoeing around the feral clowder looking for scraps. In the two weeks before they found the other kitten, he was practically considered meat for the stew pot, saved only by the soft heart of the carnie that found him but rarely looked at him since.
But once they introduced the new kitten, suddenly he was someone to listen to. Only a week or so older, but the way she followed his lead he might as well have been the great Rumpus Cat himself. It made him feel important. She made him feel important.
When he first started pilfering, it was only things like old bits of rope or rusty screws, things to give her to sniff over on cold nights and guess where they had come from. But bits of rope and screws were in abundance, and the game wasn't fun enough, so he had to find new things. Unusual things. Things that would fire up that spark in her eyes that kept them both going on the worst nights.
Cautiously, Rumpleteazer licked the top of the bottle and immediately hissed and heaved. Mungojerrie gave himself a stomachache laughing.
Circuses all over the country were in decline, and it was becoming common for the remaining big tops to be made up of refugees from the circuses that closed down. A newly hired clown troupe found use for the kittens, their propensity to deliberately mess up sets played into their act nicely. For a while, things were good.
Jumping through hoops and climbing ropes was easy enough, but the clowns put work into getting the kittens to extend their skills. They performed a dual act with the trapeze artists that went down a storm with the audiences, tossing the kittens from a basket into the air to be deftly caught by one of the acrobats. After a time, they managed the trapeze without the aid of humans.
(Fortunate, as the trapeze artists had quit over their low pay and dangerous conditions, and replacing them with the kittens was cost-effective.)
Watching the kittens perform aerial stunts was difficult, with them being so small. The circus worked around this by having one kitten work the double trapeze while the other ran up and down a suspended rope, handing over an increasingly ridiculous number of objects (finishing, usually, with a candelabra full of lit candles.)
For a while, they were counted as some of the circus' most popular performers.
"It's easy! Watch!"
Rumpleteazer demonstrated just how 'easy' it was by jumping backwards on the rope, landing deftly on one foot.
"Easy," Mungojerrie scoffed, fussing with his whiskers nervously. "That's a solid forty-foot drop, you know that?"
"You'll land on your feet," she shrugged.
"Straight into the grave, yeah..." he muttered.
"You won't fall," she soothed. "Humans fall. You're miles better than any human."
He made a small hiss to himself and fussed with his whiskers some more. Much as she admired him, Rumpleteazer had quickly realized that Mungojerrie was full of brilliant and daring ideas but often backed away from them as soon as they were put into motion. All morning he'd been saying the tightrope would be the simplest thing in the world to master...
...and it was. For Rumpleteazer, anyway. She'd had a few stumbles but managed to hook her tail onto the rope to steady herself in the nick of time, and once she got past the first jittery feelings of plummeting to certain death she was tiptoeing back and forth like a bird on a telephone wire. Jerrie had yet to take a single step onto the rope.
"It's nearly food time," she grumbled. "Are you going to take all night?"
"I'll do it, all right?" he snapped back. "Just working up the nerve..."
"Don't bother, you'll make yourself more nervous," she cajoled. "Look, just hold my paw and come on. I won't let you fall."
He made a face, but he also stepped forward a little, which was a good sign.
"Promise?" he mumbled.
"Cross my heart, hope to die," she replied, holding up her paw to swear.
"Well, yeah, if we fall we will die," he groaned.
"We won't fall," she told him again, taking his outstretched paw and gently pulling him forward. "Trick is not to look down. Just look into my eyes."
The first few steps on the rope, she could read the terror in his face like a book. All the same, there was trust buried in that look. Afraid as he was, he did know she wouldn't let him fall. Step by step, the terror faded.
"We're halfway there," she told him.
"Blimey," he muttered. "Nothin' to it, is there?"
"We got walking down," she said. "Now we have to jump."
"No human is going to pay full price to see us just strolling across the rope. Once you've jumped it, you can do anything. Ready?"
"No, not ready! Stop...!"
"On the count of three..."
"Teazer, I mean it, I'm not doing it..."
"If you jump, I swear..."
"...I'll toss you in the snake tank myself..."
She jumped a good half-foot into the air, and he followed despite his protests. When they landed, the rope swung from side to side and Mungojerrie howled and hissed but kept his footing. After a moment, she got the rope back under control.
"You're a little sod, you know that?" Jerrie hissed at her.
The circus had been struggling for a long time, most of its professional performers having retired or quit due to the shoddy equipment they had to work with. The clown troupe that worked with the kittens left for another circus in France but left Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer behind. They hadn't exactly been close, certainly not enough to be considered owners, but it still stung to be so readily abandoned.
To make up for the loss of performers, the manager and ringmaster tried coming up with new ways to drag in an audience. They resorted to shock rather than awe; a halfpenny freakshow, along with some hastily doctored stuffed animals they could claim were mythical beasts. Along the way, they made unscrupulous contacts. One of these gave the ringmaster the idea to use a trick that had thus far only been seen in the Far East, in opium dens and gambling houses.
It was dubbed the 'Kitten Dumpling' act.
The idea was that the kitten would be wrapped in a flour-salt-water dough, airtight and thick, and then dunked into an enormous pot of boiling water. They would be taken out when the dough was cooked, but the kitten would burst out, alive and unharmed, to rapturous applause.
Timing was everything. They could only dunk the dough for forty-five seconds. One second longer and the kitten inside would be cooked. Too early and the dough would be too soggy to break through and the kitten might suffocate. If the dough had any holes, even minuscule, the hot water would seep through and boil the kitten. The ringmaster was not particularly sentimental about either kitten, but revealing a dead kitten to an audience was a good way to get a show shut down. They were determined to get it right.
During the test runs, they found that the two-inch difference between the kittens made the tom unsuitable for the trick, he tended to stretch the dough too thin. It fit around the queen perfectly.
"Exactly what do you think you're doing?"
Mungojerrie jumped. Spinning around, and knocking over a large amount of glass bottles in the process, he found himself being stared down by a large and elegant tom. He hissed and squared up for a fight.
"Don't panic," the tom said smoothly, with a hint of irritation. "You're obviously looking for something. You might as well tell me what it is."
"I...I dunno..." Mungojerrie stammered.
Initially, his plan had been to grab whatever looked the most like medicine, but he had severely underestimated just how much medicine the pharmacy held.
"What are the symptoms?"
The tom sighed.
"Whoever you're getting this for, what's wrong with them?"
"Oh," Jerrie mumbled, thinking hard. "Well, she's really hot, like burning hot. She's shaking a lot, and she got sick everywhere...she's breathing funny and she can't walk..."
"Has she been in contact with extreme heat?" the tom asked, already rooting through some bottles.
"Yeah," Jerrie admitted.
"Sounds like heat stroke then," the tom informed. "Not much to be done, but I'll give you some cooling wraps and fluids. Hopefully it'll wear off without doing much damage."
He even put the bottle and the bandages in a little basket for Jerrie to bring back. He nearly cried with relief.
The worst part about watching the trick being done was the seconds that inched towards the forty-five mark, wondering if this was the day they'd mess it up. The dough was a little too thin, and although Rumpleteazer had burst out of it as usual and taken her applause, afterwards watching her stumble out of the tent and collapse was a nightmare.
He went to help her, but could barely touch her because her fur felt like it was burning. A set of blisters were already forming on her back, where the dough had been at its thinnest. He left her under a cold wet towel while he went to raid the nearest pharmacy.
We need to get out of here he thought to himself the whole way back, repeated over and over like a prayer.
She was still lying where he'd left her, in the empty stock carriage they made their den in. She'd been sick again; quickly he moved the soiled rags out of the carriage and opened the bandages he'd been given. He pulled the cork out of the bottle and tried to turn her over.
"I got some stuff," he whispered to her. "Supposed to make you feel better."
She mumbled something quietly, it sounded like gibberish.
"I need you to sit up and drink it," he said, trying to get under her to prop her up. "Okay? Just one sip, if you can keep it down..."
She mumbled nonsense again, and from what he could see in the dark she was staring at nothing.
"All right then," he sighed, laying her back down.
He took as big a gulp of the medicine as he could manage, resisted the urge to gag, and carefully placed his mouth over hers. Mother cats sometimes had to do this to small and weak kittens, he recalled, and though Teazer would probably balk at the notion of being called small or weak, at that moment she was both.
She swallowed, coughed a little and almost seemed a little better already.
"Did I ever tell you that story about the Rumpus Cat? That barney he had with a whole mess of dogs in some park somewhere?"
She didn't give any sign she was listening, but he had a feeling she was.
"Right, so there was this dog, one of them with the squashy faces..." he began.