Heather scrubbed her hands until they were stinging and hospital clean. She shook off the water and switched the light off in the attached bathroom with her elbow. “I never thought I would be playing nursemaid here,” she said quietly. On the bed, Rune slept on without noticing her. She unwrapped the gauze from his hands. The sterile pads against his fingers were discolored. She sniffed them and wrinkled her nose.
“Your dedication is commendable. You won’t catch me doing that for him,” Carlisle said, the smell of fresh coffee drifting from him.
Heather’s hands remained steady on Rune’s. “I didn’t hear you come in,” she said without looking up. “They’re definitely infected. He’s had a fever since yesterday.” She washed his fingers over a basin with a pale blue solution. “Can your vet contact get me any stronger antibiotics to go with the rest of these things?”
“I already asked him. He says not unless we bring Rune in so he can treat him directly.”
Heather smeared antibiotic cream on his cut and swollen fingers. “Which will be hard to explain to the rest of the clinic until his body decides to switch again. And that could be in an hour or in a week.”
Carlisle leaned his hip against the side of Rune’s sickbed. “I’m sorry. I seem to have called in all the favors I have with him. And I can’t afford to push my luck. The chances of finding another vet who can cope with what we are–”
“Slim and none. I know.” Heather folded a pad over Rune’s fingers then started tightly winding gauze to hold it in place. “I just don’t know what I should be doing. His toes are staying clean, but with his hands, half the time I come in, he’s clawed his way through them. I just can’t keep them together.”
“Perhaps an after-hours visit,” Carlisle said. “Even if he’s human, unconscious and uncooperative, he can check him out enough to determine a treatment.”
“Getting him out would be an interesting challenge.”
A gauze-wrapped vice closed on Heather’s wrist and the rest of the roll spilled to the floor. She looked down into Rune’s fever-bright eyes, suddenly open. “I can’t go out there. I won’t.”
“Rune, I’ve told you what trouble you’re in. And you were awake and coherent at least some of the time, so no claims of memory loss, please.”
“I don’t care. If I go out there, she’ll see me.”
Heather looked at Carlisle. This was new. In his semi-delirious states, Rune had talked about people he knew — Topaz chief among them after Heather told him what had happened — but the only “she” Heather could think of was Dopple. “Who will see you?” Heather asked.
“If I go out as a man, she’ll recognize me. She won’t have forgotten yet. It’ll be safe in a few years. Just a few more years and I can quit.”
Heather smoothed the sweaty hair from his face. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. You’re safe. Just relax. Do you want some water?”
Rune nodded and relaxed back into his pillows. Heather brought a mug with a straw close to his mouth. After a few gulps, he let the straw slip from his mouth and turned his face away from her. In a moment, he was asleep again.
Heather went back to work bandaging his hands. “What the hell was that about?”
“Not sure,” Carlisle said, but something in his expression made Heather think otherwise. “I’ll talk to the vet. Maybe we can work something out.”
Heather opened the door cautiously after making everyone clear out of the front room. She was not expecting guests. As soon as the door opened, the woman on the porch strode in, a small wheeled suitcase chasing her. Heather stared after her. Under the perfume the woman wore, Heather could smell cat, so she at least was not a human.
But what a human she made. For a woman her age, her figure was perfect, the sort they wrote songs about, baby tee and tight pants and high boots doing nothing to downplay her good looks. She looked around the room then glanced back at Heather over her shoulder. Her shoulder-length blonde hair swung in a perfect arc and either side of her face was framed by one bright orange and one black hank of hair. The orange one was slightly longer and hung over her eye a bit. In another era, she might have belonged in a smoky jazz club, singing to soldiers sixty years ago.
She smiled, painted lips quirking up at the corners. “Hi, sugar. Think you could put me up in a room?”
“Yeah, sure,” Heather said in a daze. “Who’re you?”
The woman tipped her luggage up, turned as smoothly as if she had been on a pedestal, and offered Heather her hand. Her grip, despite her fine-boned hands and the tinkle of two gold bangles, was strong and sure. “I’m Mysterium,” she said. “But call me Mysti. No one but judges ever called me Mysterium.”
“Judges?” Heather echoed.
Mysti picked up her luggage and headed for the stairs. “Cat show judges. In my glory days, I competed. But you don’t want to hear about that ancient history. Now, about that room?”
Heather nodded and dashed up the stairs, feeling like an oaf around this poised beauty queen. She hoped they had a furnished room free; winter was fading in California and cats were starting to move out of the House. Heather nodded to Dorian as she passed him in the hall. She stuck her head into a room. Perfect. Nicely done up for human and cat alike.
“This one–” she started to say, then realized she was alone.
Down at the other end of the hall, Mysti had Dorian cornered and was obviously chatting him up. “Think you can get me caught up on what I’ve missed?” Mysti asked in a purr no human body should be able to make. If Dorian’s response to Topaz’s drunken come-on a few months ago had been any indication, Heather thought he did not swing that way. Even now, he smiled like he was indulging her.
“I’ll just take this into your room, shall I?” Heather asked and took the handle of the suitcase from Mysti’s lax hand.
Heather had not expected Mysti to pay any attention to her — Mysti was like Yvonne all over again — but Mysti turned a blinding smile on Heather and touched her hand as she drew away. “Thanks, sugar. If you have time, I’ll catch up with you later.” She slipped her arm around Dorian’s waist and Heather heard her speaking in a low, sultry whisper to him. Heather shook her head and pulled the suitcase into the room. The excitement never ended at the House of Cats, she thought.
Heather poured a good splash of milk into the bowl, the oats swirling across the top before settling. “You want a bowl too?”
Carlisle looked up from a stack of receipts. “Thank you. That will be lovely. Are you sure we can afford to rebuild the porch?”
Heather shook oats into another bowl while hers rotated in the humming microwave. “I asked Mother’s lawyer about it. When she wasn’t–” Heather stopped herself before she said anything more. She had not told anyone about George Ellison’s appearance at their meeting and his offer to buy the House.
“When she wasn’t what?” Carlisle asked. He groped blindly for the cup of tea by his hand, eyes fixed on a bill.
“Nothing. She just said that I can borrow against the value of some of the assets. They’ll keep earning money at the same rate and I just pay the trust back.”
“Hm. That’s good.”
“So, who do you think Rune was talking about yesterday?” Heather tried to make it sound casual, though her curiosity was driving her mad.
Carlisle looked up. “I told you I didn’t know.”
“I thought, since you’ve been here longer, maybe you knew about a girlfriend he used to have. Or a sister. Someone.”
Carlisle murmured nonsense in response and took a sip of tea. “I’ve never seen him with any one in particular. Except Dopple.”
“Do you think he was talking about her?”
“I very much doubt that.”
Heather groaned and flopped across the kitchen table. “I can tell you’re hiding something,” she whined. Behind her, the microwave dinged.
“Your breakfast is ready.”
“Hmph. Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll just pester everyone else in the house and get them all in an uproar and start crazy rumors about you. It should be fun,” she said.
Carlisle pushed his papers aside. “I’m not hiding anything. I really don’t know to whom he could be referring. But there has always been some speculation about his past, given his dislike for most queens. And his stubborn refusal to ever shift.”
“His past. Like, before he came to the house?” She set Carlisle’s bowl in front of him and perched on the edge of the table with her own in her lap.
“I remember when he first came here as a young tom. He was normal.” He took a bite of oatmeal, chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed. “A little rebellious. He decided to leave shortly after that. Rumor has it, he lived as a human.”
“Get out. Rune? Mister Rarr, Humans Bad? I don’t believe it.”
“I don’t know anything about it. Your mother was very close to him, though.”
“I sort of gathered that, since he’s told me several times what a disgrace to her I am. But he came back here at some point?”
“He came back, already addicted to catnip. Depressed, moody, occasionally violent. Your mother took him under her wing, more so than ever. And that truly is all I know about it.”
“Pity Mother isn’t here to tell me what she knew,” Heather said. But maybe… She wolfed down her oatmeal in a few bites, blowing steam from her mouth. “Gotta go. Work to do.”
Mysti pounced on a patch of moving grass. Something squiggled under her paws. She lifted one then the other. The mouse disappeared down a gopher hole as soon as she did. She snorted and jumped to a nearby rock, avoiding the damp grass of the lawn. Even so, she methodically cleaned her paws, licking traces of dew and scraps of grass from the tips of her claws.
“I could do that for you,” a tom said. He jumped up on the rock with her, squeezing close though there was ample room for two cats on it. “If you’d like,” he added with a lick to her ear.
Mysti looked him over from ears to tail and he shivered under her cool gaze. He was a black and white, at least. That was a start. But he had too much white, giving him more of a cow coat than a tuxedo. “What’s your name, honey?”
“Altair,” he said. “And you’re Mysti. I’ve heard about you.”
“I hope I live up to expectations,” she said. The eyes were the right shade of green, at least.
“And then some,” he said, circling her. “What brings you to the House?”
Mysti considered what sort of lie would get her the farthest with him. “I’m looking for someone,” she said, deciding on a mysterious version of the truth. Maybe he was just an oddity, with his excess white markings and his close-set ears. He could come from better breeding.
“I don’t know his name,” she said. “But I’ll know him when I meet him.”
“What’s this mystery tom like?”
“He’s got a black and white coat,” she said and repeated her top to bottom gaze. The tom tripped over himself. Hooked, she thought.
“He’s young. And very handsome.”
“I think I might know someone like that,” the tom said and bit at the back of her neck.
Mysti shook him off on the pretense of doing a little grooming herself, nosing the fur at his neck. “And he comes from exceptional pedigree. What’s your pedigree like?”
This threw the tom for a loop. He tried to focus on the question even as Mysti teased him with flicks of her tail against his body. “Mom’s from the Langley clan. Dad is, uh, oh, he’s one of Yarrow’s kids.”
Mysti rolled her eyes behind his back. Nasty, common families. Nice enough people, she added guiltily, but just not her sort of cats. “I’m thinking of someone who goes a bit farther back than that,” she said and jumped down from the rock.
“Hey, wait up!” The tom chased after her. “Who cares who my folks are?”
Mysti sighed. The young ones were always the worst. They always thought they would be the exception to the rules. “I do, of course. I thought you said you had heard of me.”
“They say you’re the most beautiful cat on the continent,” he said. He sounded petulant instead of enticing.
“Go ask a gray-whisker about it then,” Mysti said and swung her tail in farewell. “You’re not what I’m looking for.”
With a growl, the tom tackled her and grabbed a fold of skin at the back of her neck between his teeth. Around his mouthful, he said, “Just give me a chance. I’m really good, I promise.”
Mysti threw herself sideways on the ground and rolled on the smaller tom, squashing him under her substantial weight. When she felt him let go, she sprang away, long fur bristling until she looked like a calico tumbleweed. “Never cross a queen,” she hissed. She clocked him across the left eye with one paw, claws exposed. “No means no. It also means drop dead.”
The tom slunk away, shaking his head every few steps and rubbing his undoubtedly smarting eye. Mysti shrugged. They always made it harder on themselves. She trotted into the house and turned her thoughts to dinner, yet another tom forgotten in an instant.
Mother’s papers had been a disaster when Heather arrived at the House, but she had sorted them out since then. At least, the important papers were sorted. Easily identifiable things — receipts, bills, bank accounts — had all been dealt with months ago. But the personal items, a morass of half-finished notes and private letters and datebooks, had been too much to deal with, especially when Heather had only known for a few weeks that her mother had been dead for years. So she put them all in a series of bins and tucked them away in a corner of her office and forgot about them.
Now Heather sat on the floor with the boxes around her and sifted through the parts of her mother’s life that had not revolved solely around being a figurehead for cats around the country. Feeling like a voyeur, Heather read greeting cards and journals and scraps of paper tucked into folders and books. They were not just from cats either. Poppy had regular correspondences with humans: some were for business, like the previous sympathetic veterinarian; some were personal, like the woman who talked about her coven and ended all her letters with “blessed be.”
Her mother’s address books spanned decades, with a new book replacing the old one every few years. Everything was meticulously organized and alphabetized. There were entries for every cat Heather remembered meeting in her life and scores of ones she had never heard of. Her mother kept track of cats who lived in the House full-time, those who came and went seasonally, and those who were only distant contacts.
Curious, she flipped to the section where her own family name was listed. Heather’s father had never been part of the family. He was just someone her mother chose to breed with once. But under Lee, there was an entry for Heather and three blank lines. So her mother had never known where she was. Heather had suspected the lack of contact through the years was because her mother did not want to speak to her or was punishing her for running away. Heather had never really believed that she had gotten away with it. She supposed there was an entry for her in each book.
But if she wanted to find out where Rune had been, she needed to go back five or ten years, to the late 90s. That book was only slightly worn at the edges and had a cracked spine. A rubber band kept loose pages contained. At least it was not yellow with age. She opened it gingerly. If Rune had a family name he used, Heather did not know it. She just looked for Rune. There was nothing. She sighed. It had been a long-shot anyway. She leafed backwards and forwards a few pages to be sure.
Then she saw it. Ron Rutherford. Parentheses, Rune. So he really had lived as a human. Then came the crazy part, the stomach-turning part, the part that made Heather want to put the book back and never look at it again.
Next to his name, it said: married, 1999, Caroline Summers.
Mysti did not move when she heard someone breathing outside the house. She was alone in the front room and human again so she could comfortably read her book. The person breathing kept trying to hold their breath to be quiet then letting it out in gusts noisier than normal breathing.
She uncurled from the couch slowly and set her book on the end table. She stretched her arms over her head then, still under the pretense of working the knots out of her back, twisted at the waist and looked over her shoulder. She saw of flash of amber eyes reflecting green in the darkness. Well. At least it was a cat.
She faced backwards on the couch and pushed the window open a crack. “It certainly is warm in here,” she said loudly.
After a moment, the amber eyes appeared again, this time looking up at her from right below the window. “Is Rune okay? Do you know?”
“And who are you, baby, that you want to know?”
“I’m his brother, Topaz.”
“Ah, I heard about you. They’re keeping him on the other side, ground floor. Come on around there and I’ll let you in for visiting hours.”
Topaz nodded immediately and dashed off. Mysti shut the window, picked up her book, and strolled casually down the length of the house to the room she had seen Heather in and out of all day, every day.
Inside, she shut and locked the door before opening the window. On the bed, Rune woke and rolled weakly towards her. “Who?” His voice was scratchy.
“Friends,” Mysti said. “Here, your water,” she said and brought the mug of water on the table within reach of his dry lips.
Topaz jumped through the window to land on the bed beside Rune’s head. He jarred him enough that water splashed across his jaw and neck. “Sorry, bro,” Topaz said. Mysti imagined he was apologizing for a good deal more than some spilled water.
Rune tipped his head up. “Hey. They let you back in?”
“Naw, man, I snuck back. Like a sneaky thing.”
“Good job,” Rune said with a weak laugh.
“You look like hell, buddy,” Topaz said and touched a paw to the cuts on Rune’s face and the dark circles under his eyes. “What’s Heather been feeding you? Knuckle sandwiches?”
“Did it to myself. Makes me look rugged.”
“Sure, sure. Very urban punching bag. I hear that’s in for spring.”
“You’re looking pretty thin,” Rune said and ran his bandaged hand along Topaz’s side where his ribs showed through his thick coat.
“I’m sorry,” Topaz blurted out. “I messed up bad. I just wanted–”
Rune’s attempted shove barely moved Topaz. “I’ve got it together for now, so I’m gonna say, we’re okay. You did right by me. Just, if I freak out about it later, don’t blame me. Heather says I’m pretty crazy still.”
“She taking good care of you?”
“Real good. I think. I’m not awake that much,” he said, eyes glazing as he spoke.
“I hear someone,” Mysti said. “Topaz, you’d better go before you get caught.”
“Thanks for letting me in. Hang in there, bro.”
“Will do,” Rune mouthed, but no sound came out.
“Are you okay?” Mysti asked. But Rune’s eyes were no longer focused on her and his breathing had gotten shallow. “So much for that,” she said. “You’ve got a long ways to go, young man.”
Heather wrapped her bathrobe tighter to ward off the chilly night air as she walked downstairs for her midnight check on Rune. Someone came out of his room. Mysti, the strange new cat whom everyone else seemed to know like a much-talked about celebrity. What was she doing with Rune? Heather blushed. Everyone did say that Mysti was always on the lookout for a quality tom.
Mysti winked at Heather as they passed each other. “I’m told my bedside manner is superb,” she said.
Inside, Rune was barely awake and shifting uncomfortably under his blankets. Heather put a hand to his forehead. “Your fever is back up.”
As she turned to get a washcloth from the bathroom, Rune grabbed her wrist in a weak hand. “Don’t leave me,” he said.
Heather squeezed his hand and removed it from her wrist. “I’ll be right back. I’m just going into the bathroom. I won’t even be out of sight.” She watched him as she wetted the cloth and rung it out. There was shed fur on his pillow and his bandages were rumpled, though not removed, so she knew he had gone through another partial change since her last check-up.
She folded the damp cloth and laid it across his forehead. “You need to drink some water. You’re going to get dehydrated.” She helped him hold his head up to drink.
He sunk back into the pillows, but he looked a bit better. “Stay with me,” he said. “Talk to me.”
Heather pulled the chair over and sat so that she could lean her left arm on the bed. “You had a guest,” Heather said, unable to resist bringing it up.
“Topaz should never have been sent away,” he said in a voice she could barely hear.
Heather sat up and leaned close to him. “Topaz was here?”
“I wish you could have met him. I wanted so badly to have a family to introduce you to.”
Heather patted his hand. “Rune, I do know Topaz. We’re friends.”
But Rune was not listening. He spoke with the single-minded determination of someone with a speech to get off his chest. “I wanted to tell you, ever since I met you, about what I was. But I never had the courage. I thought, as long as I managed to hide it from you, it was better to let you think we had a normal life.”
Oh, god, Heather thought, his wife. He thinks I’m his wife. The realization made her want to jerk her hand away from his and run from the room. It was not even compassion that kept her at his side. It was morbid curiosity. What had happened between them that brought him back to the House a broken man?
“I hated keeping it from you. I imagined, so many times, what you would say if I told you. I pretended you would come back here, that you would be willing to live as a cat. Sometimes, I even imagined you were really a changing-cat and I didn’t know it.”
“You wanted to stay with me,” Heather said because she could not bear to let him make a confession like that and offer nothing in return. “You wanted to make it work.”
“But when she was born, I panicked. There was no pretending she was anything but a human.”
Heather felt bile rise in her throat. They had a child? Was that even possible? She could think of nothing to say, no sweet line to feed him. He had a child out there somewhere. A human child.
“I asked Poppy if there was a chance, any chance that she could be a changing-cat. But that was after I had left you. I’m so sorry.” He pulled Heather closer. She could have resisted, his grip was so weak. But she let him pull her out of her chair until she was leaning over him.
He brought a hand up to cup her face. She felt cold and sick and horribly complicit in what he was telling her. “Please forgive me,” he said. “I was a coward and I never loved you as much as I imagined I did. But I did not want you hurt. Please. Forgive me, some day.”
Heather did not know and could never explain why she did what she did next. She did not imagine herself to be an unusually compassionate person. And she found Rune’s story horrifying. She wondered if she would not have done what he did as well, if it had been her strange, changeling child.
But she knew what it felt like to be beyond the possibility of redemption. Poppy Lee was gone and with her any chance for Heather to be forgiven for twenty-five years on the run. That, more than anything, made Heather bring her face close to his ear and whisper, “I forgive you. Can you forgive yourself yet?” And she turned to press the slightest of kisses to the corner of his mouth.
Rune sighed and let his hand drop from her face. Heather stayed close, feeling the waves of heat coming from his body, until she was sure he had fallen back to sleep.
Heather sulked in the stairwell by the front room, where it was dark and no one else wanted to be. She leaned her head against the cool wall and closed her eyes. She heard voices in another room. And footsteps outside. Everything hurt her ears and made her brain ache. There was some commotion outside. She was not going to see what it was. They were on their own. The door opened and she involuntarily opened her eyes to look.
“A little help here?” Dopple said breathlessly from the door.
Heather groaned and stumbled over to the door and the first of three cages Dopple had deposited on the porch. She knelt and fumbled the door open. A cat slunk out, skinny and scared, then bolted for the nearest piece of furniture it could hide under. “Bad case?” Heather asked.
Heather pulled the cage out of the way then took another from where it hung by a strap on Dopple’s shoulder. Dopple winced and tottered into the house with the last cage. Four more cats came from those, their condition no better than the first. “I’ll go get Carlisle,” Heather said. “He’ll get them set up.”
In the kitchen, Carlisle and Mysti chatted with half a dozen other cats. Mysti was the only one human at the moment. Heather touched Carlisle’s head. “Dopple is home with some traumatized cats.”
Heather had a second to notice that Carlisle looked to Mysti, rather than saying anything to her, before Mysti disappeared from the room with more speed than should have been possible in heels that high. Curious, Heather followed after her. She could hear Carlisle behind her as well.
They made it back to the front room in time to see Dopple just as she looked up from unlacing her boots, struggling with her fingers. Heather could see the slow slide of her eyes up Mysti’s body to her face. Heather half expected some kind of blow-up, given the strong personalities of both cats.
Instead, Heather heard a short, high squeal from Dopple as she flung herself into Mysti’s arms. The kiss that followed smoldered with so much suppressed passion that Heather found herself averting her eyes in embarrassment. She glanced at Carlisle, who exhibited no surprise at all. This was normal?
“When did you get here?” Dopple asked. She could not seem to stop touching Mysti, cautious brushes of her fingers like she expected Mysti to melt into nothing at any moment.
“A few days. You took longer than I thought you would.” Mysti had an arm around Dopple’s waist and the other hand on her neck under the fringe of her black hair.
“Are you going to stay? Please stay.” Her eyes, normally slit in annoyance, were wide and hungry.
“For a while,” Mysti said. She did not seem to want to talk about it.
“How much is a while?” Dopple asked persistently. “A long while?”
Mysti pressed a kiss to Dopple’s temple, even as she said, “I need to keep looking. I haven’t found the perfect one yet.”
Dopple’s hands turned to fists and she pushed away from Mysti with her forearms against Mysti like bars. Mysti did not let go. “You’ll never find the perfect tom,” Dopple said. “You’ll never be satisfied and then you’ll be dead before we had any time together.”
“We have time together,” Mysti said soothingly.
“A weekend every few months isn’t enough!”
“Let’s not fight about this now,” Mysti said, trying with her not insubstantial charms to steer their reunion back towards romance.
She really was the same Dopple Heather knew. With a gorgeous queen fawning over her, Dopple was still furious and spoiling for a fight. “Why? So you can run off in a day or two before we talk about it at all? No! You were gone for six months this time.”
“I wrote,” Mysti said. She shrugged helplessly.
“It’s not the same. I want you here. With me. All the time. For keeps.”
“I won’t be around forever.”
“A kitten won’t be a replacement for you. I don’t want some consolation prize when you’re dead.”
So that was why Mysti was the legendary breaker of hearts. She wanted to raise a kitten with her lover — whom Heather could see, as they stood face to face, was quite a bit younger than she — so Dopple would not be left alone after Mysti died.
“And you’re not staying in a room by yourself while you’re here, either,” Dopple said, getting into the swing of her argument. She pulled Mysti by the hand towards the stairs. When she saw Heather and Carlisle watching, horrified spectators, she hissed. “What are you looking at?” Heather and Carlisle jumped out of her way and she stomped upstairs like a petulant teenager, Mysti hurrying after her.
“Are they always–” Heather said.
“Always,” Carlisle agreed. “The course of true love, Heather. That’s what we all have to look forward to, if we’re that lucky.”