SUICIDE BY STAR – The Assassin's Father

The growls that issued from his throat were callous, a haughty, yet wary, gleam in his single eye, but none of these attributes were more so evident than his weatherworn appearance. Wicked scars ran up his narrow chest, several crisscrossing in a gruesome pattern that announced, without a glimmer of doubt, that he had gone through nothing short of Hell to obtain them. His muzzle was flecked with scars, and his two pointed ears were frayed, both V-slit and missing chips of flesh. One was punctured, a tooth having pierced it during a fight that had occurred long enough ago that it was now fully healed. His shoulders were brawny, unnaturally so—they didn't fit his lean body shape; he looked as though he had put on quite a lot of weight in very little time. Fringing his scars was fox-red fur, a crinkled, striped tabby pattern interspersed regularly by the horrible amount of pearly white scars that stood out prominently against the surrounding fur. This tom, hideously scarred, was not a good looking one by any standard, although any on looker could guess that he had been handsome once, with his amber eye, sturdy shoulders, and flamboyant ginger fur.

But out of all of this, the sole, most defining characteristic was a scar curving up from the corner of his lip, which arched in a half-moon circle up his cheek, and then ended just beneath his milky, sightless eye, where the visible scar tissue had ebbed away.

He was a warrior not by breed, but by experience.

He rounded on the pretty tortoiseshell before him—it was a credible feat alone that she did not cower beneath the imposing opponent before her. Rather, she bared her teeth in a smirk, lashing her tail like an agitated snake. The tortoiseshell, too, was gloved with mismatching markings, although they were not as severe as the ginger tom's. Her ears were notched, and other scars speckled her muzzle, but other than that, she was very ravishing with her pretty coat and amber eyes, a roguish tribute to her feral cat kind. The only prominent scar on her was an alabaster-pale thin sliver, which had been incised from where her brow would be to beneath her eye. When she blinked, the small pockmark was shown to run across her eyelid, which had served her eye well and protected it from the brunt of the blow.

The tom, who was known by very few, was named Foxtrot, a suitable name fitted to him because of the distinctive, fox-red color of his coat. The tortoiseshell, Astral—well, there was no real significant meaning behind her name. She had been stolen from her mother, a born-and-raised Clan cat, on a star-lit night. Her kidnapper—none other than Foxtrot himself—had only given her naming a moment's thought, and looked to the sky to find his inspiration. The stars had greeted him, twinkling coldly down, as if they disapproved of his cunning yet terrible actions, and he had found it appropriate that he should name his captive, his daughter, after the very things that disagreed with him. It was pure mockery; those spirits who gazed down at him were fools—after all, how could they be powerful entities if they had no influence over the actions of cats such as him?

As the two faced each other, their lips drawn back, low growls pushing from their throats, with tails whipping to and fro at their heels, the cool moon wind rustled past, stirring up the leaves at their paws.

"Remember the foreplay, Astral," Foxtrot ordered her. "Our revenge must be sweet."

Astral's eyes were amber slits as she recited, "'You do not know me, Shackle, but I know you. You will recall, moons ago, when you channeled your Master's wrath through your claws to harm my innocent father? The attack was sudden, uncalled for, and cowardly. But perhaps you do not remember—I wouldn't expect a mindless creature as misguided as you to distinguish between wrong and right, memory and dream, as only the ability you possess is to act upon orders and slave away to your instincts, true qualities of a properly broken servant. But whether or not your memory serves you correctly is unimportant. I, nor my father, care for your questions and incompetency. We will have our vengeance, and your last meal will be the dirt at my paws, Shackle. Prepare yourself.'"

Foxtrot's eyes glinted with anticipation as she brought his words alive; he never allowed his daughter the pleasure of approval, and demanded this sort of flawlessness in everything she did. He hadn't detected the slightest display of hesitance, though. The words had been sharp, enunciated perfectly, and delivered with the impact he desired. No amount of nitpicking would uncover anything wrong with her performance, so he merely nodded, acknowledging her success. Astral's smirk broadened, but the ginger tom hardly paid it any mind.

For Foxtrot, those words carried the weight of the world, an enormous burden that he had once felt his own shoulders supported as he recovered. Raising even his head had been a chore, and he now intended to have Shackle and his Master undergo the same prolonged torment.

Just thinking of those two had his claws flexing across the moldy, leaf cluttered ground. He shed the second skin of artful words and refined language, slipping into a more primitive form, one that knew nothing more than instinct and the primal, ingrained will to survive. It was time to spar, to test her in every physical way under the sun. He knew he could slaughter Astral, the perfect specimen that could easily assassinate most cats, if it ensured his own survival, but he knew it would not come to that. He had established basic rules to their spars, and the most important one was to keep on your paws. Falling down meant losing, death, unless one could regain their footing faster than their opponent could strike.

Astral was nimble, light-framed, capable of darting in and out to wear out her opponents as well as slide out from under their lashing claws before they could get in any hits. Foxtrot had observed as she practiced her techniques and battle moves on other Griffin Hill inhabitants with careful scrutiny, picking out every individual flawflaw, each slip of the foot, all actions that could have ended in her death had her rival not been so slow, so dim, so… imperfect. She had never lost to any cat but him, but Foxtrot knew her style, and was thus evenly matched. After all, he had taught her everything she knew, molded her from no more than a pitiful crap of fur to the clever cat she was now.

They began to circle each other, ears pinned to their skulls so that the other would have a hard time latching to them. Both were pugnacious by nature, which made the beginnings of each battle difficult, with both adamant on making the first move. After their spars, they would often jeer at each other as the licked their wounds. Whoever had gotten the glory of scoring the first hit would have bragging rights until they were next beaten.

But this time, it was different. Foxtrot reined in his longing to strike, instead playing a more defensive role. Astral was unaccustomed to fighting him when he was not on the offensive, and he expected that this new 'terrain' would be tricky for her to get the hang of. If she was to be the perfect, infallible assassin, then he would not be able to hesitate when throwing something at her that would require more thought process before each deadly, precise strike.

Astral's prior swagger disappeared under a new mask of concentration when he didn't lunge forward first like he always did. He could practically see the gears churning in her mind as she attempted to work out what he was playing at; he found it laughable that he had stumped her so easily. As keen and intelligent as Astral was, when her expectations were not met, it caused her confusion.

You will have to work that out of her with a rigorous lesson on never underestimating or expecting anything of your opponents, no matter what prior knowledge you possess of their battle skill and style. Speaking of those, I'll have to try out more styles of fighting with her; have her practice on strangers more often to learn every way of fighting there is. Curing her of this is essential, or Shackle will overpower her easily.

Occasionally, Foxtrot wondered if he considered the hulking, dark gray tom's power to be greater than it really was. He had been attacked from behind when Shackle struck him down—if he had had time to prepare himself, would he not have been injured to grievously? But what ifs would do him no good, and even if that was the case, his own unpreparedness had nearly been the death of him. Foxtrot would make sure Astral did not fall down the same path, though not out of love, but of selfishness. If she died, it would take at least another year and a half for him to be at the point of training he was at now with Astral.

"Oh, my," he taunted her softly, his red tail rippling in an endless dance over the dusty ground behind him. "Has ickle Astral been befuddled?"

Her eyes narrowed with irritation, but she still made no move to attack him. Foxtrot was both pleased and displeased by this. It seemed that his lessons of not letting others' words fog her mind with anger, which led to clumsy movements and mistakes, had gotten through to her, but her inaction also meant she hadn't mapped out a formula to take him down.

Astral was quick-witted and usually skilled at taking the upper hand, even with new techniques they hadn't practiced, but this was taking her a dismayingly long time to figure out. He parted his jaws to snap at her, when she shot forward like a bullet from a gun without the slightest warning. He had no time to swerve out of the way as her claws sunk into the inside of his cheek, tearing at the tender flesh with a vengeance.

He tore backwards, too startled to think properly, and caught off guard. Blood flooded from the wound, seeping from his now closed jaws as though he were choking on his own blood. Astral took her time as she sprang forward and back from him, laughing proudly at her own prowess. Though rankling from being outwitted by his pupil, Foxtrot's expression remained prosaic, no longer displaying his thoughts or betraying where he intended to move as he whirled around to face her every time she sprang around, as flighty as a hare. He would not allow Astral to overpower or touch him again.

With that still in mind, he hastened forward, but she had anticipated his movements, and spun away again, her paws skimming across the ground. They stayed in place for less than a second before carrying her off and away with an infuriating speed. Back and forth they danced, narrowly missing each other each time they took the offense. Every time Foxtrot missed her by a hairbreadth, she deftly swept in, but he would withdraw with equal speed, and she, too, wouldn't make contact.

They carried on for several minutes until their flanks heaved with exertion, a time during a brawl when more wounds are dealt due to quivering, weedy lunges and lessening precipitancy. If Astral had been sparring any average tom she'd stumbled upon at Griffin Hill, the fight would have been finished almost as quickly as it had started with her enemy dispatched, lifeless and bloodied on the floor below, but Foxtrot was a worthy opponent, rivaling her in speed, strength, and stamina.

Finally, Astral cut in too shortly just after her father had pulled back, and he rushed forward, sinking his teeth into her outstretched forepaw. The yowl that escaped her jaws was piercing with such close proximity to his ears, but it did not hinder Foxtrot as he thrust backwards, his needle-sharp teeth puncturing her soft paw pad, tearing at the tender flesh. One of two paws swung around, clubbing her in the head as the claws embedded into her cheek.

Astral was slammed into the ground, grunting in pain, the dusty, dry soil dulling her tortoiseshell coat. Foxtrot flipped her onto her belly, the most vulnerable position imaginable, his mouth parting from its grip on her paw as he moved in for the kill. His teeth clamped around her throat; he could feel her pulse wildly thrumming just beneath the layers of skin and soft, creamy fluff, and giddiness filled him. He would kill her, and she would lay slain, her blood intermingling with the earth as it trickled from her wounds.

She would be his most marvelous trophy yet, and—

He was not given the chance to finish his fantasies. Foolishly, he had sunk his teeth into her throat just so that his own throat was exposed above her fangs. She had lunged and grabbed him with her snare-like grip without hesitancy. Together, they thrashed beautifully, arcing paws over tails across the ground. They kicked up a whirl of leaves and debris, their paws scoring shallow wounds down their partner's flanks and shoulders.

Even though they spat with a fury that seemed to emanate from their pockmarked pelts, warning the other to relinquish their hold, neither released their grip, and so they tussled ever ferociously. Their heartbeats were magnified by the closeness of each other, kin pressed to kin, teeth meeting throat. It seemed the bloody lock would never end with a victor, when finally, mercifully they rolled over a tree root, and Foxtrot's claws caught against the uneven grooves in the bark.

He was yanked backwards, torn from Astral's iron-willed clutches, clawing clumps of fur from her side as he went. She let out a yowl of surprise, stumbling backwards, but due to her shortness of breath, didn't lunge forward again. The fox-red tom untangled himself from the roots as blood streamed down his labored flanks. A nasty scratch on his shoulder welled with blood, but it was nothing compared to Astral's paw, which bled freely. She gingerly pressed it to the ground as Foxtrot watched, and winced in pain as he caught his breath. Ruthless exhaustion quivered his muscles, and for a moment, his vision blurred as he righted himself, spitting out a mouthful of blood.

"You bastard," Astral snarled, her steely amber eyes darting to glare at him maliciously as she slugged the blood-washed ground with her injured paw, and flinched as she did so. Pressing her chin to the torn skin-flap of her throat, she pitched forward, closing the distance between the two of them with locomotive speed.

Foxtrot grinned widely, doing the same as her, growing to enjoy this battle of clashing wills. Not only did he relish the blood he drew from his enemies', but also the thrill of adrenaline as it pulsed in his veins, the heat of battle that cleared his mind, not clouded it. He could truly be himself when he dominated others, and causing others pain was his pleasure.

An innate monster through and through he was, and a monster he had awakened in Astral.

The two of them collided, ducking and twirling with renewed vigor, although their incessant panting did not lessen the slightest. Blood slicked their sides as more and more wounds were added to the count. An outsider looking in would have been stunned speechless at their ferocity and competitiveness, but it was the norm, traits of theirs that always came out to play as father and daughter took off each other's skins.

Dusk fell, bathing their arena in an evening blue as the moon woke, and still they fought. The clearing under their paws was mottled with their blood, a brand of paint spattered across a blank canvas. It was as beautiful as it was wretched. The entire world seemed to be holding its breath as their brawl reached its climax. Not a sole whisper of wind rattled the beanpole skinny trees.

Their last few moves were nearly silent, save for a few spare grunts. They waited for the other to grow too tired to go on, but the wait stretched on until neither were capable of continuing. They collapsed in sync, gasping for breath like suffocating minnows, and Foxtrot retched, expelling the contents of his last meal to pool at his paws. Father and daughter's eyes were locked as they gazed into each other's eyes, their hearts thrumming as rapidly as a hummingbird's wings.

The two lay like overworked dogs, ready to spring back to their paws when the other made the first move. They were both too exhausted to make the first move, however, so the stillness stretched on.

Together as one, they waited for the blow that would not come.