Thicker Than Water
"I do not think I can be the leader our people need," Lion-O repeated in almost a whisper.
Only with that entirely unexpected conclusion did both Panthro and Tygra allow their shock to show.
But before they could question or protest, Lion-O waved them silent with his hand, and explained further. "I jumped after Calica, injuring myself and, worse, leaving you all to fight off the Mutants and support the Maidens' reconstruction—It's clear my priorities have become confused."
He remembered, "And it's not just that one instance: From the moment she arrived, and despite all my other responsibilities, I think of little but her. Awake or dreaming, I am haunted by her eyes; and whatever else I should be doing, I find myself inventing reasons to be with her or see her. She could ask me for anything, and just to see her happy, I'd likely agree…"
"At first, it seemed harmless enough," his expression turned from bashful grin to pained grimace. "But then, when I saw her disappear over that platform in Monkian's grasp, I didn't think, I just jumped—no consideration for my safety, for what else was going on. My only thought was getting her back, a fear that she was lost to us, to me. It was a fear I've never felt, almost a—a jealousy. And even tonight, my first thought when I came to, was for her."
Lion-O swallowed and finalized his confession. "I must admit that am clearly too distracted to serve us well; and we are all at risk because of my susceptibility. Perhaps your caution about her has been too understated, Panthro. Whether she's a sorceress exerting this control over me, or something else entirely, I need you to be fully honest about your hesitations; and Tygra, I think perhaps it best you assume leadership until I can overcome this. Whatever the cause and cure, I am no longer fit to serve as Lord of the ThunderCats."
The young man before them had deflated as he spoke, disappointed in himself and even more so in letting them down. He looked up at his friends and mentors, hoping for the generosity and support he knew they could give in his time of need. He took a slight breath and braced himself upon seeing that their faces had changed from concerned to expressionless again.
Tygra smiled politely and made to speak, but Panthro pounded the table before he could, causing them all to jump slightly. "I knew she was going to trouble from the first time she laid claws on me; but I never thought it would be this bad."
The tiger looked at his colleague with more than a little surprise, adding to Lion-O's growing fear that he had in fact fallen short in his leadership, in being a ThunderCat.
But Panthro's growl quickly turned into a deep and genuine laugh, "So it's finally happened; our little Lion-O's fallen in love."
Tygra joined him in a broad smile, and turned back to their confused, red-haired and -faced leader.
Relieved by their light-hearted response, but still concerned by his own underlying confliction, Lion-O smiled uncomfortably and pushed them. "But I feel so… excited, and yet out-of-control at the same time. How can I lead us, if I can't maintain focus?"
Still chuckling, Panthro nodded to the calmer Tygra to share his assurances.
"Being in love is not a bad thing, Lion-O," the tiger shared warmly, knowing the youth needed more than non-judgment from his confidants. "It can be powerful and empowering. Your feelings for her are something you will need to be mindful of; and there are other considerations that you must also bear in mind, especially as our leader. But neither your title nor your duties mean you cannot enjoy the ups and downs of love." If anything, he thought to himself, this will help you grow as a leader; and we will need an heir as we rebuild our society.
"So, this is normal?" the infatuee still doubted.
"It's probably overdue," assured Panthro, thinking of how key such attraction would be for their culture's longevity, how absent it had been for them all since those final days on Thundera. He too qualified his approval, as Lion-O's featured brightened, "As with all feelings, it's how you act on them that matters."
"How should I act on the feeling?" He didn't need to admit that he'd never felt this before, that he had no experience and little role modeling on this novel and overwhelming circumstance.
Panthro pushed back from the table, exhaled emphatically and tossed that awkward ball again to Tygra.
"There's no formula, Lion-O…" he hedged, with a brief look of 'thanks' at his blue colleague. "But you could trying to talk with her about this; let her know how you feel."
"But what do I say?" their lovestruck schoolboy sighed, before a look of panic came over him. "What if she doesn't love me?"
"You'll have to be honest, without putting pressure on her. Beyond any attraction to you, she's going through a lot now—captivity, the battles, memory loss, learning our ways..."
"And," Panthro added gently, playing his requested role of caution, "As wonderful as your feelings are, there is the chance that she either doesn't share them, or isn't ready to admit or act on them."
Tygra shot him a look of concern; but Panthro shook his head back with the message, He needs to know; we need him not to be caught unprepared, not to be devastated. "If that's the case, it's not a judgment on you or your feelings; it's simply how things are for her. It can be disappointing—devastating even…" Panthro seemed to drift away as he spoke, clear he was speaking from more than hypothetical.
Tygra cleared his throat softly; and Panthro quietly resumed his advice dispensing as if there'd been no interruption. "But if you really do care, you'll respect her reaction whatever it is, however painful that might be for you." He looked down, and ceded the floor back to them.
"There are lots of ways this could go, Lion-O," summarized Tygra, picking at and pulling together the threads of insight scattered on the Council table. "But, even in these personal affairs, the Code of Thundera is a good, strong guide: Truth, Justice, Honor, Loyalty. Offer her that, and expect the same in return, whatever that means for your affections."
Lion-O smiled at the connection of those core values, even to this new situation; still worried at what Calica's reaction could be, the constancy of the Code was comforting.
"And if it helps," Tygra offered a last, encouraging nugget, "There has been a little talk, by some among us, about signs of an apparent mutual interest…"
"Really?" Lion-O lit up, standing excitedly as a grin spread across his face—doubts evaporating.
"Perhaps," emphasized Tygra, as their Lord rocked on his booted feet, before dashing for the door. "Lion-O!" he called after him.
The young 'Cat paused in the doorway and turned back. "Realistically optimistic, my friends," he nodded his thanks. "But still optimistic!" And was gone.
Panthro again chuckled, and shook his head—unable not to be moved by the infectious infatuation.
"Is this really wise?" Tygra worried aloud to his friend, taking up the cautionary role. "We still know so little about her; and she doesn't remember anything before arriving here—she might already have someone, in the past or out there now. Or worse yet, she won't love him back, and we'll have a heartbroken teenaged Lord of the ThunderCats on our paws."
"That there may be unpleasant consequences for his affection, doesn't change that he feels it," reminded Panthro, standing and gathering the last of the dishes from around the table. "However risky or inconvenient, this is another important lesson in life, if not leadership, that Lion-O needs to begin."
"Critical thinking we can teach him. Skills to defend himself and others, we can practice with him. But how do we help him with 'love'?"
"We remind him to be honest and patient, and give him the space to find himself in this new realm of maturity and relationships. Just like we each had to, back on Thundera."
"I guess you're right," Tygra sighed with a mix of resignation and nostalgia. "And just because none of us has a special someone here…"
"Chin up, old friend," laughed Panthro. "Calica is another reminder that there may be many of our people 'out there' to find; and Lion-O's crush, that there's hope for Thunderian love yet!"
Feeling the need to be at his bruised best, Lion-O first went back to his room and cleaned himself up as best he could with visible scratches all over and bandages around his aching ribs. Remembering scenes from old holo-movies back on Thundera, he grabbed the fresh flowers that Snarf had brought with his snack, and made his way to the guest room that was now hers. With a final run of fingers through his hair, he knocked on her door, called her name hoarsely, then more confidently, "Calica?," and swallowed nervously.
When there was no answer, he repeated the sequence.
Not getting any response, and hearing nothing at all from inside, he knocked and tried the door, which opened immediately. The room was dark, except a dim lamp beside the disheveled bed and an untouched tray of fruit and bread. The mirror was covered by a ripped length of fabric. One window stood open.
He called out her name again, and activated the overhead lights; but even a well-lit search provided no evidence of the room's expected occupant.
The meal tray indicated she'd been present not too long ago, else Snarf would have sounded an alarm before the rest of the ThunderCats had gathered for their dinner. And with everyone back at the Lair for the evening, he knew the extension bridge had been retracted before they ate. So, her possible time and distance away from the room were limited.
Flowers still in hand, Lion-O headed to the areas she knew best: the kitchen and laundry rooms in the lower levels. Not finding her there, he gradually wound his way up through the Lair, in hopes of finding her moving or at work between spaces. With a few areas still off-limits to her, he followed the corridors with doors that she could access, checking these rooms as he moved along. Beginning to worry when could not find her anywhere, he thought back to the state of her room—dark, window open—and remembered her comment the first time he caught her in his room, when she admitted to feeling trapped, to dreaming out the open window, to wondering about the view from- She shouldn't be able to get there, but…
In little time, he arrived at the archway onto the Cat's Mouth, the observation terrace from which he also liked to take in the views of the world he now called home and had sworn to protect. Stepping into the open-air and moonlit space, he saw her slumped against one of the large fang railings, as a slight evening breeze whistled woefully through the courtyard below.
"Calica?" he called, in both relief and concern.
"Lion-O, you're well!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet, but catching herself before leaping closer to him to confirm he was actually standing before her.
"I'm fine, and will be better soon," he assured, hoping the shirt covered his bandages and the shadows, his many bruises.
They stood silently facing one another for a moment.
She clutched her hands nervously, again embarrassed at and guilty for having caused him trouble and injury. She noticed the plants he was carrying, and sought the comfort of a chore. "Did you need me to do something with those?"
"No," he seemed confused, before brightening. "Actually, they're a gift, for you." He held them out; and hesitantly she stepped forward to accept them, still not sure what the intention was. "I came to see you; but you weren't in your room…" Realizing he still couldn't explain her journey, he asked as she inspected the bouquet, "How did you get up here? There are several restricted areas between here and the public corridors…"
"I climbed," she shared nonchalantly, as if she'd described his own casual traverse of the ramps and stairs to the same height.
He glanced down at the sweeping curves, slick surfaces and long distance to where her bedroom window still sat open.
His disbelief must have been apparent, as she assured him casually, "The winds were a little tricky, but it just took a little determination. Did you want me to cook or re-plant the flowers?"
He smiled, amused anew at her wonder at only the little things. "Do with them? No; they're just meant to be something lovely to look at."
"A gift?" she smiled, pleased, before turning concerned and holding them back out to him. "But I don't deserve a gift, not after all the harm that's followed my arrival."
Lion-O took a step closer, guiding the bouquet back toward her. "The Mutants and Mumm-ra were causing problems long before you joined us. Actually," he blushed a little, "I was looking for you, so I could talk to you about a good that you've brought to us…"
"But I feel that I should apologize," she insisted. "Just look at the injuries you've suffered on my account," she nodded toward his not-entirely-hidden new fashion accessories.
"Calica, I told you…"
"Well if not apologize, then at least I should be the one giving gifts, saying thank you for everything you've all done for me, for all you've risked and sacrificed." She turned back to the railing, growing somber as she seemed to remember her growing debt to her new friends, and her discomfort with the turned-around token of their appreciation to her.
While he'd considered that she might be a little down after recent events, Lion-O had not expected this degree of sadness. Confused, concerned, and perhaps hoping all the more to share and hear some good news, he joined her at the metal overlook. "Cali, I have something I need to talk with you about, something I hope will help you feel better. I have something to confess…"
She smiled politely to him, somehow even more embarrassed at and uncomfortable with his persistent positivity.
"Alright. But, before you say more, I also need to confess something to you."
He tried to interrupt, to reassure her in some way; but she set down the blossoms and took his hands in hers. "Please?"
Though part of him wanted to shout out the affections he'd come to share, he found himself again unable to deny her a request. The touch of her hands was electric; the urgency in her eyes was paralyzing. Taking some satisfaction from their privacy, contact and intensity, he ran his thumbs gently across her thin fingers and nodded her to continue.
Squeezing his hands back, she took a breath and shared that, "For the past week, I've been troubled, and you all have been politely silent, about the fact that I can remember nothing of my life before waking on that ship. All the absence, and now the attacks, only add to the others' suspicions of me—I can do nothing right, nothing to put them at ease. Or myself."
"That's not true, Cali," he consoled. "We all have lots of questions to answer; but none of us thinks badly of you." Exactly the opposite, actually!
"And yet those questions keep me from fitting in here; and my not remembering keeps my past from me as well. I look out at the stars from which you say we came, and at this planet we now inhabit, and I see nothing familiar, nothing of myself in any of them. I don't belong anywhere." Tears welled in her eyes, as she named her solitary situation.
Lion-O started to head off a tear's trek down her cheek, to share his own heartfelt connection in order to disprove her loneliness; but she cut him off quickly.
"I thought that was bad enough, but since the attack on the Warrior Maidens' village, I've come to understand that it's what I do know about myself that frightens me most…"
Her confession halted his interjection instantly.
She continued, "I didn't see the pattern until I had the past two days to think; but we can't deny it's there, even if no one will speak of it: The Kittens have told me how that monster, Mumm-Ra, cannot stand the sight of his own evilness. My first night here, I was so alarmed by my reflection that I've covered my mirror and been afraid to see myself since."
Lion-O again moved to object, but she cut him off. "Even Cheetara saw something about me that first night, something so terrible no one will tell me… Panthro has been suspicious of me since then as well, even before the Mutants clearly came for me at the party. Nayda blames me for the attack and the destruction at the village; and you were hurt trying to save me. I am the cause of so much sadness."
She grew more visibly agitated as she catalogued concerns, heading off his attempt to dismiss or explain away the awkward if anecdotal evidence. "There's more, Lion-O; things I haven't told any of you yet…"
He felt her shiver, as she relived and recounted new revelations. "When the ape Mutant grabbed me from the tree platform, as we dove on his flying machine, he told me that it was 'time to come home,' as if I somehow belonged with him and his kind. And then, when I bit him—just instinctively—he began shouting about how he couldn't move his arm. I escaped because he couldn't hold me any longer, not because I got away…"
At these new pieces of information about her effect and escape, Lion-O's concern for her began to shift to concern about her.
But she had one more secret to share, as her tearing eyes both invited and unsettled him. "Worst of all—even though I'm sleeping better—my nightmares have continued, so much so that I can remember them now." Her expression turned from sorrow to fear, before the latter overtook her. "No, I shouldn't say it-"
"Calica, it's alright; you can tell me," he reminded without moving any closer, not entirely sure he wanted to hear what else she had to say.
She smiled briefly at his shared confidence, before the fear returned. "The dreams terrify me so… Because in the visions when I close my eyes, I am not watching, or suffering the destruction- I am causing it…"