"MISTOFFELEES, you're CHEATING!" cried Coricopat, throwing his hand down on the battered old box that served as a table.
"Cheat? At cards? Me? Never," A small, thin, sparkling black tomcat with a white face, chest, paws, and tail tip smiled innocently across the table at a black and white tabby. He was young...not much older than a kitten.
"Oh, fleas, Magician," spat a large black tom with a wild mane and leopard spots. "You cheat every time."
"Now, Tugger, where would you have gotten an idea like that?" laughed the cat called Mistoffelees, glancing sidelong at the larger tom.
"Misto, someday..." threatened Munkustrap, a well-muscled, lithe tabby tom with black, silver, and white markings. He smiled in amusement at the younger cat's antics.
"Boys, boys...we mustn't quarrel," giggled a flaming red queen. "Just be glad you aren't playing with Macavity."
"Who's worse, Bombalurina," asked a small white queen, younger than Mistoffelees. "Macavity...or the show-off over here?"
"What is this?" Misto said with a pout. "Gang-up-on-Mistoffelees night?"
"Of course, Sparklypants," said a kitten named Etcetera, with a giggle.
"That's Mr. Sparklypants to you," Mistoffelees said with a scowl. "See what you've started, Tugger?"
"Ah, it's all in fun..."
"That's only funny to you." Sparks danced between the black Jellicle's claws.
"Oh, Misto, relax. You're sparking all over the place. Give Tugger a break -- he can't help himself." Alonzo's black and white body appeared from behind a garbage can.
"I resent that," Tugger muttered, giving the black and white spotted tom a dirty look.
"You're far too uptight, Sparkles," laughed Pouncival, gazing at Mistoffelees' stormy expression.
"Don't CALL me that," Misto snapped, growing frustrated.
"Relax, Misto, relax..." The white queen, Victoria, stroked his headfur, running a paw down and around his neck and ears, playing with his tail. His eyes drifted closed, and he purred loudly in delight.
Tantomile, Coricopat's sister and his telepathic twin, grinned. "Misto!"
"Huh! What! I'm awake!" His eyes jerked open. There was a burst of laughter, and Mistoffelees blushed furiously.
"Show us a trick, please, Mr. Mistoffelees, sir," said a small kitten named Jemima.
He brightened. "Like this?" His coat began to twinkle, as though it was full of stars.
"Oooh," whispered the kittens in fascination.
"Show us big kitties a real trick, Misto," Demeter, a yellow tabby queen, challenged him with a smile.
"Watch this," he said with a mischievous grin. He leaned over and kissed Victoria playfully, blushed, and murmured, "Now you see him...now you...don't!" and disappeared in a flurry of sparkles.
"How does he do that?" Pouncival said in amusement.
"That's for me to know...and you to try and guess..." called an unseen voice. "Goodnight, all!"
There was laughter as Pouncival grew white as a sheet, the muttered angrily, "Magicians."
"So," said Rum Tum Tugger with a devilish grin, "What are we going to do to our favorite magician?"
"What do you mean?" asked Munkustrap, puzzled.
"He means," Bombalurina said, her eyes twinkling, "What trick should we play on Misto to get him back for cheating?"
"Spray 'is coat a diff'ernt color!" This, of course, from Mungojerrie, one of the two tiger-striped cats whose practical jokes made life...exciting... at the Junkyard.
"Nah, make 'im watch the kittens! For two 'ole days!" Rumpleteazer, Mungo's sister, and the other tiger, added with a smile.
"Snatch his precious old rags...you know, the ones he sleeps under? He'll freeze!" Coricopat said with a chuckle. "He's always cold."
"Cori, no. Nothing that will damage him...too badly, anyway," Munkustrap muttered. "He's cold 'cause he's a shorthair. You know that. And he's little, so his body heat doesn't keep him warm. You freeze him, and we'll have one sick Jellicle on our hands. And the last thing I need is a sick magician."
"I know," said Victoria shyly.
"Oh, Vicki, go on! You know 'im better'n most 'o us. What'll make 'im look really foolish?" Mungo's eyes glittered.
Victoria grinned broadly. "He never touches catnip. He's too dignified to get Nipped -- so he won't touch it, or anything with catnip in it. Fed him some awhile ago, just to see what'd happen...made him absolutely loopy! He acted so kittenish...it was so funny! And in broad Moonlight, with everyone watching?" She nearly fell over with laughter.
Tugger's face glowed. "Purr-fect! We'll get Jelly to make something...with a ton of catnip in it. He'll never know!"
"What am I making?" Jellylorum asked as she scampered up to the group.
"Catnip caviar," Tugger said. "For Misto."
"What?" Jelly looked confused.
"Why caviar?" asked Munkustrap.
"He loves it. He'll eat the whole thing," said Rum Tum.
"Why?!" Jelly cried.
The group explained their plan, and slowly Jelly broke into a huge smile. Everyone in the Junkyard, at one time or another, and been outwitted by the clever magician. It was about time someone made him look foolish.
"Ready?" whispered Tantomile. Jelly and Vicki nodded.
"He's coming," hissed Munkustrap. The whole tribe was hidden around the area. No one wanted to miss Misto looking silly.
"Jelly! Vicki! What's going on?" The black Jellicle appeared at the edge of the yard.
"Mistoffelees, come and try this!" Jelly beckoned him.
"What?" Misto looked suspicious.
"It's caviar, Stoff," Victoria said. "It's spiced. It's really good."
"STOFF?" said Tumblebrutus with a giggle. Pounce snorted. "Spiced caviar?"
"Shush," said Tugger, but he was grinning too.
The tux licked his pearly teeth and scurried forward. Vicki handed him the bowl. He set it down slowly, sitting daintily, and with perfect manners, licked his paws and gracefully licked the "catnip caviar" from the dish.
He glanced up almost halfway through. "Vicki," he said, almost drowsily, "What exactly is this?" She just smiled.
When he had almost finished, he looked up again. "Jelly...Vicki..." he giggled and rolled on his side. "There's...there's...catnip in this!"
"Yeah," Vicki said with a laugh. "Like it?"
"Oh, Vicki...not catnip, not now..." he blinked around drowsily. He scratched an ear and arched his back. "Catnip...oh...drat!" He shook his head playfully, standing up slowly.
Suddenly he laughed. "Oh, who cares?" he said with a smile. She pushed him, and he staggered back, tripping over his tail and falling heavily to the ground. Seeing the white tail tip, he spun around in a feeble attempt to catch it.
He rolled sideways, laughing. Right into Tugger's foot.
"Hi, Tug," said Misto, a slight slur to his velvety voice. "She put...catnip..." He giggled.
"Catnip...ugh..." He lay on his back, wriggling from side to side like he itched.
"Dance for us, Misto," said Coricopat with a snort.
"Me?" Misto looked up, then stood. "Why?"
"I wanna see it, too!" Tumblebrutus chimed in. Grinning from ear to ear, the small young tom bowed, then sprang like a jumping bean around from cat to cat, jumping and swinging. His agility, even when he was Nipped, earned awed glances from the surrounding tribe. Suddenly, he stopped dead, kissed Victoria, and collapsed in a heap at her feet.
"Oooohh," moaned Misto, rubbing a paw between his ears, trying to alleviate the awful headache. "Where am I? What happened?"
"Too much catnip," Munkustrap said, trying not to smile.
"Catnip? But I..."
"Don't eat catnip? 'ow 'bout...sp... spiced...c-c-caviar?" Mungojerrie said with a laugh. He was rewarded by a groan.
"Vicki, Jelly, ooh, no!" Misto buried his head in his paws. "Tell me I wasn't Nipped last night?" He looked to Munkustrap. Not able to contain himself longer, Munkustrap burst into laughter.
"Nipped? You were half-dead," Tugger cried.
"Tell me, Stoff, is Vicki nice to kiss?" That from Coricopat.
"Ooooooo.... I hate catnip..." Mistoffelees blushed.
"She's a nice dame, eh? And nice dancing," Pounce added.
"Oooohhh..." Misto's ears were bright pink. "Come ON! I was Nipped!"
"Mistoffelees -- Nipped! Something I thought I'd never see," Munkustrap added with a chuckle.
With a groan, Misto rolled over and fell back asleep. He knew he'd never hear the end of this.
Mistoffelees touched the silver wrapped box with a paw. "What is it?"
"A Christmas present," Demeter said with a small smile.
"For me? Who from?" Misto looked surprised that he'd received a gift. He'd never gotten one before... but he'd never been old enough to go to the Christmas party, either.
"You're not supposed to know. All you know is you got a gift from whomever drew your name. But you have...two...and we're not sure why." He tossed the magical tux another, plainer, box.
"Open the plainer one first," said Bombalurina with a smile.
"Hmm," the young tom purred with a grin, "wonder whom it could be from?"
Bombalurina laughed. "Not me."
Tearing open the paper, he extracted a small golden ball. He shook it. Something jingled inside. "Oooo. What's in there?"
Bomb shrugged. "A mystery for the mysterious Jellicle. You figure it out; you're the magician."
Misto held it in his teeth and shook his head. Cling, jingle, tinkle. He scratched his head in puzzlement.
"Open the other," Tugger said impatiently.
"You're in a hurry, Tugs," Mistoffelees mumbled around the ball in his jaws.
"His gift's next," Munkustrap explained.
"Ah," the tux replied, spitting out the ball. Carefully, he removed the silver paper...only to find a silver box inside.
"Wow... Someone likes you, Misto," Jelly said. "Look at that fancy thing."
He opened the box gently. When he peered inside, his eyes widened in astonishment and delight.
"What? What's in there?" asked Tantomile urgently.
Slowly, he drew out a collar, silver and studded with tiny amethysts that served as the centers of miniature engraved stars. Also engraved in the collar were swirls and, in fancy italic script, the word Mistoffelees.
"It's beautiful!" Rumpleteazer cried.
"Well, well." The Tugger looked astonished. "You've caught some queen's attention, Misto." The black tom blushed. "Maybe she saw you dancing for Vicki and Jelly," he added with a chuckle. Misto glowered at Tugger. The "caviar" joke was still going strong.
"Here, let me help you put that on," Demeter said. Reaching out, she took the collar and unclasped it. Very carefully, she re-clasped it around Misto's neck. It fit perfectly, and looked stunning.
"It's perfect." Misto announced. "How did you know?" He gazed around the room in bewilderment. No one replied. "Well, thank you, anyway," he murmured, smiling proudly.
"Eggnog, Stoff?" asked Mungojerrie, as Mistoffelees wandered over to lay next to the tiger-striped siblings, who were sprawled by the fire.
"Why not? Merry Christmas, Mungo, Rumple." He flopped down, albeit gracefully, near the pair.
They looked at each other and amazement. "Seriously, Misto? Catnip 'n all?" Rumpleteazer glanced at the magician curiously.
"Why not?" he repeated.
"If ya say so, Misto," Mungo said, puzzled. He didn't understand why the young tom would want anything resembling catnip after the...incident...a month ago. He shrugged and handed the tux a saucer of eggnog. Misto licked daintily, purring contentedly. The collar around his neck felt warm.
"Can ya show us a trick er two, Misto?" Rumple asked.
"What do you want to see?" Misto queried obligingly.
"Can ya do that li'l thingie with the lightnin'?"
"No problem. That's one of the easiest. I can only go between paws while I'm inside, though, OK?"
"That'd be fine."
Standing, the small Jellicle stretched and shook himself vigorously. Grinning, he brought his paws together. Slowly, his claws began to glow, then spark. Separating his paws, he shot a little bolt of lightning between them. It remained there, like a thread of electricity, and slowly began to morph, changing first its color, then its shape. Neither of the tigers nor Mistoffelees noticed the amethysts in his new collar begin to glow.
Misto suddenly felt exhausted. It was as though the power he was sending to the little energy bolt was tapping his magical reserves -- but that shouldn't be! He hadn't worked any serious magic for days, and he wasn't tired...so why would such a simple casting seem so difficult?
There were two ways Misto could work magic. The easiest was to tap his white, or silver, moonmagic, which was so abundant that at times it sparkled in his eyes and fur. But when that reservoir of power grew dry, or when he was tired, the Jellicle could call on the black of his coat to work magic. The color -- deep ebony -- was uncommon among Jellicles, and usually signified magical ability. In truth, the color itself was what was magical, not necessarily the cat himself -- it was different than the coal black of Bustopher Jones; this was a raven color, that shone in the moonlight. Its black magic could be tapped for use, but normally Mistoffelees kept it in reserve for two reasons. One, using the nightmagic of his coat usually bleached the fur to a silver or a white for several days afterward, which looked positively ridiculous; and two, those who used nightmagic on a regular basis usually either became feral, wild and evil, or died. It simply wasn't worth the risk.
But tonight, suddenly, there seemed to be no magic -- of either kind -- to tap. Mistoffelees swayed with exhaustion, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't end the spell, couldn‘t break away from the force that drew his power from his body like water from a well. Someone was using him. He felt it.
"Misto? What's wrong? Are ya tired? If ya don't feel well, ya shouldn't do magic..." Rumple's voice seemed far away. I can't...Misto mouthed. Black spots prickled at the edges of his vision, and he felt faint. He couldn't seem to get enough air to breathe. The black spots grew and smothered him, and then he felt nothing.
"Mistoffelees!" Mungojerrie cried, springing up to catch the black magician as he swooned and crumpled to the floor. Munkustrap leapt to his feet at Mungo's cry, scurrying over to the fireside, where Mungo was easing the unconscious Misto back into a huge (human) armchair.
"What in the name of the Heaviside happened?" Munkustrap asked, looking uneasy. Jellylorum handed Rumple a wet cloth and the young queen lifted Misto's head into her lap and gently pressed the cool fabric to his brow, stroking his headfur.
“‘E was showin’ me that li’l lightnin’ trick, when ’e just...started to kinda sway a li’l, and then ‘e collapsed.” Rumple's eyes were fearful. "Will 'e be okay?"
Misto groaned. "I'm fine!" he snapped, opening his eyes. "What happened? Where am I? Rumple, what are you doing?" He gazed up at her, then glanced around at the cats clustered around the chair. He made no move to get up, and closed his eyes suddenly in exhaustion.
"I'm sorry I snapped..." he mumbled. "What's gotten into me?"
"You collapsed." Munkustrap said. "Any idea why?"
Misto's eyes opened again. "Ooh, my head is throbbing. Why? I was doing that trick for Rumple...and... then it felt like...like I had no magic left. I couldn't break the spell, though, and I couldn't breathe...and I don't remember anything after that."
“‘E did ’ave a few licks ‘o eggnog, but not enough ta do nothin’,” muttered Mungo.
"Eggnog? What was I doing with eggnog?" Misto whispered. His throat felt parched. "I don't like eggnog."
Munkustrap's brow wrinkled. "Are you all right? You sound strange."
"My throat..." rasped Misto. "What was I doing with eggnog?" He shook his head in puzzlement. Then he blinked drowsily, yawning widely.
"Maybe you ought to stay here for the night," Bombalurina offered. "Skimble's staying too, because it's his night off."
"Maybe..." he yawned again. "I'm so tired..."
"You can sleep on the couch."
"No big deal. My humans are gone for a few more days, anyway."
"I..." Misto crept up onto the couch. He never finished his sentence, because his eyes closed even before his head touched the cushion.
The cats looked at him in concern, and Munkustrap murmured to Bomb, "Keep a very close eye on him. This is unusual behavior, even for him...make sure he's okay."
"No prob, Munk. I'll watch him."
"Thanks. If anything funny happens, I'll be over at Demeter's. Only because it's snowing," he added when Bomb gave him a funny look. At that, she relaxed. Munkustrap wasn't a house cat; in fact, he didn't even have any humans. Which was all right -- until winter came. Or it rained...
The house was dark and quiet. Bombalurina savored the silky blackness. Despite her...rather extravagant display of...feline femininity...and her loud, outgoing personality, she loved the peaceful stillness of the early morning. After all, even Jellicles had to sleep.
"Skimble?" she whispered as she passed the couch where Mistoffelees and Skimbleshanks were sleeping. She knew the Railroad Cat would be awake; he rarely slept in the early morning, usually taking short catnaps frequently and whenever he could during the day.
"Yes?" A pair of emerald eyes gleamed down at her from the arm of the sofa.
"How's Misto? Any changes?"
"No. He seems fine. He's dreaming, talking in his sleep, but other than that, normal." Bomb saw the gleam of ivory incisors when Skimble smiled. "I'll be up all night, so I'll let you know if anything changes."
"Thanks. G'night, Skimble."
"G'night, Misto," she whispered softly. No reply.
"It's over...there, by that...come on, Pounce, by the...get it...hurry, Pounce, it hurts..." Mistoffelees murmured in his sleep, laying on his back, and sunken deeply into the soft velvet cushions of an old sofa.
"There...it's...Ah!" He sprung up out of his dream with a yowl, his fur standing on end. Skimbleshanks was lying on the arm of the couch, gazing down at the young tom.
"Skimble! What's going on?" Misto shook his head.
"Absolutely nothing. What on earth were you dreaming about?"
"Is that really relevant?" The amethysts on his collar flared, but Skimble didn't notice.
"No, but I was curious. Over there, Pounce...it's...and then you spring up like something bit you!" Skimble said. Is that relevant? What had made the young Jellicle so sour all of a sudden?
"Funny. I don't even remember..." He looked disconcerted.
"I always remember my dreams. Why can't I remember? It's important!" The black Jellicle looked distraught.
"Why is it so important?" Skimble asked.
"I'm magical. My dreams are sometimes...oracular. I remember all of them because some are so important...but I can't remember...." Misto looked around, panicked.
"Don't worry. You'll give yourself an ulcer. You're probably just upset about last night and it put you off balance a bit."
"Yeah...I'm just off because...what happened last night scared me. That's it." But Misto still looked shaken.
"Maybe you should go see Munkustrap."
"What's he going to say? He doesn't know anything about prophecy or magic."
"Just tell him. He should know."
"You think?" Skimble nodded. "Okay. Well, could you tell Bomb thanks, for letting me stay?"
"Sure, Misto." When he turned around, the magical cat was gone.
"Munkustrap?" A harsh whisper from above jerked Munku from a sound sleep. Startled, he sat up too quickly, earning a bang on the head from the underside of the stove, where he was curled to stay out of the wind. Demeter's humans had come home early, and he had been forced to flee.
Rubbing his ears tenderly, he slunk out from under the stove. "Who is it?"
"Me," came a familiar voice. Looking up, Munku spotted to source of the voice -- Mistoffelees, sitting in the snow, his face paler than usual, if that was possible when you had a white face to begin with, shivering and looking downright miserable.
"What in the world are you doing out here in the cold?" Munku demanded, angry that the young tom wasn't laying down. He looked about ready to fall over.
"Looking for you." Misto croaked. The sore throat had only worsened as the day had progressed. "Can we talk?"
"It doesn't seem to me that you can talk at all," Munku said grimly. "But if we must, let's at least get out of this blasted cold."
"We can go...to my pipe..." Misto got out around a cough that racked his slim body.
"All right. Let's hurry. You shouldn't be out in this weather in your condition, anyway." The two toms picked their way through the deep drifts of snow across the yard to Misto's pipe. It was blocked by snow, save for a hole about a foot wide.
"Come on," Misto said, when Munku hesitated. The little cat slid through into the pipe that lay at the end of the tunnel.
"Will I fit?" Munku asked incredulously.
"It's bigger than it looks," Misto got out, looking pained at the effort necessary to speak. Munkustrap drew a breath, then quickly slipped through the tunnel and into the pipe. He got through with no problem. The pipe, surprisingly, was warm.
"How do you keep it so warm in here?" he purred inquisitively.
"Insulation," whispered Misto, with a smile. He sank down on a pile of blankets. "Please, sit down," he said, gesturing to a cushion near the other side of the pipe. "The snow keeps it warm, believe it or not," he continued.
"Snow?" Munku raised an eyebrow.
Misto nodded as he rose to grab a blanket, which he wrapped around his lean, dancer's body in an attempt to quell the shivering. "It's cold, but it stops the wind."
"Clever," the tabby muttered to himself.
"Well, I am supposed to be quick, you know," Misto mumbled, coughing.
"Will you be all right? Do you need anything?" Munku asked in concern.
"No," Misto replied hoarsely. "It's just a bit of a cold. Don't worry. At least...not about that..."
"Is there something I should worry about?" Munku questioned the black Jellicle.
"Well, I suppose...I mean...well, in a way, maybe...I...yes."
"It's just...last night I had eggnog. I hate eggnog. Why would I do something so ridiculous? And then I couldn't cast that simple trick...to the point where I passed out! From that simple little thing! And then...I always remember my dreams, Munku."
"Dreams? What about them? Is something wrong?"
"Well, my dreams are...oracular, in a way. Premonitions. I've always been able to remember every dream I've ever had. Until last night."
"You can't remember the dream from last night? Are you sure you had one?"
"Yes! That's what makes me so uneasy. Skimble asked me what I was dreaming about. I remember I didn't want to tell him, and I asked him why he cared. When he asked me again, I was about to tell him, but...there was nothing!"
"Are you sure?"
"Positive! I knew what the dream had been about -- it was like my mind went totally blank! I can't remember any of it!" Misto was trembling.
"Calm down, calm down." Munkustrap grasped one of the magician's trembling paws firmly.
"Don't worry so much about it. Get some sleep. I don't want to see your face until tomorrow, understand? If it happens again, come to me right away."
Mistoffelees nodded tremulously.
"And Mistoffelees?" The tom looked up.
"I was serious about you getting some rest. No performing tricks for kittens, no little visits to Victoria's, nothing. Got it?" Munkustrap grinned.
"Got it, sir!" Misto replied with a sharp salute and a smirk. He wasn't going anywhere; Munku didn't need to worry. As soon as the Jellicle "leader" took his leave, Misto buried himself in his blankets and slept.
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