HoC Ep. 20: The Master of This House, Pt. 2

One Week Later…

Heather followed the doctor through the quiet hall of the clinic, closed to normal clients for the evening. The faintly antiseptic smell of the recently washed floors and tables mixed with the whiff of vitamin snacks hidden in the doctor’s pockets. He pushed open a swinging door and led Heather back into the rooms of work tables and caged animals.

He stopped in front of a bank of cages. “He was a better patient last time,” he said. “He didn’t complain so much.”

Heather knelt. In the dim recess of the cage, Rune blinked back at her and uncurled. She unsnapped the latch on the door and opened it. “Hey.”

“You here to spring me?” Rune asked and levered himself up onto two good legs, a bone-bruised shoulder, and a broken hind leg in a splint. “The food’s awful.”

Heather reached in and curled one arm under him and the other over. Rune offered no objection to being manhandled. “You bit the last person who offered you a treat.”

Rune growled low and squirmed around until he was comfortable in her arms. His one leg dangled awkwardly and the heavy splint banged her hip. “She called me ‘puddy-tat.’ I can’t be held responsible,” he said.

The doctor smiled blandly, only understanding Heather’s half of the conversation. “Now, you’ve got to take the splint off him before he changes,” he said. “Otherwise he could be injured as he outgrows it. Do you have something to use when he’s human?”

Heather nodded. “We’ve got it all prepared.”

“This isn’t ideal,” the doctor said, “but a hard cast is out of the question. Your peculiarities do pose something of a challenge.”

Heather shrugged and smiled apologetically. She couldn’t shake hands while holding Rune. “Thanks for your help.” She looked down at Rune. “You ready to get out of here?”

Rune chirped an affirmative that even the doctor understood and he led them back out of the clinic. Out in the parking lot, Dopple’s rented car idled in the shade of a huge oak tree. As they walked up, she got out to open the back door for them. Heather settled Rune on the blanket-covered seat and slid in after him.

Heather kept a steadying hand on Rune as they pulled out onto the road. The sedate ride home was a far cry from the panicked flight to the clinic immediately after the accident. There had been a long, horrible hour during which they had to wait for the cat’s bane to work out of Rune’s system before taking a taxi into town. The driver’s misgivings about having an injured cat loose in his taxi were overridden by Heather’s ferocious orders to waste no further time. His intimidation, in turn, was nothing compared to what Topaz must have done to scare off the driver who hit Rune.

Rune made an unhappy noise and Heather looked down to realize she had her fingers burrowed deeply into his thick fur, holding on to a hunk of skin over his shoulders. She loosened off her grip and smoothed the fur. They hadn’t let her stay with him while they took X-rays, since the clinic was still open at that hour and the doctor didn’t want to explain why Heather was an exception to the usual rules.

“Topaz gave me the blender,” she said abruptly, thinking of Topaz seated beside her in the exam room, battered bag clutched to his chest while they waited for news.

“It was okay?”

“Just the box was a little dented.”

Rune shook his head. “No, I mean. I didn’t know if you would want something different. Aren’t blenders the one thing you shouldn’t give a woman?”

Heather still didn’t like to think of where he had learned something like that, the abandoned life with a human wife frozen like a bug in amber since his return to the House. But she was glad he had disregarded the human rules. And she was even gladder Topaz had told her, in no uncertain terms, just what Rune had meant by it. “There’s a pot of cream of potato soup at home.”

She could hear Rune’s stomach rumble over that of the engine. “I’m dying for a good meal. I’m lucky the Leo moon’s now or that doctor would have kept me cooped up even longer.”

Heather grimaced. “Yeah, well, I would have preferred time for your leg to heal more.”

“You’re not happy I’m coming home early?” Rune asked but she could tell he was pulling her tail. She tugged one of his ears fondly and he subsided, obviously worn out, for the rest of the drive.

Rune made the torturous journey from the solarium–he had to camp out downstairs until his leg improved enough to allow the navigation of stairs–to the front porch on a pair of truly ancient wooden crutches. The top braces were padded with rolled dish towels, sacrificed from Heather’s supply, and the hand grips were wrapped in gauze left over from bandaging his paws. He barely cleared the door when Heather closed it behind him. He pivoted slowly.

Heather held up a brush and a can of blue paint. “Right or left?”

“Right or left what?” Rune had come home to find the solarium finished. Heather had said Topaz and Rafflesia pitched in when he asked, even as Heather set him down on a sofa no longer covered in plastic in a room no longer reeking of paint fumes. “Are you sure you should be doing that? Can’t it hurt the kitten?” His voice stuttered over the word. They still had not spoken about their soon-to-be offspring. It had been enough that Heather stayed near him as much as possible, even sleeping in the recliner that night after she took off his splint before the change came. And she had lost most of that paranoid edge.

Heather rolled her eyes and brandished the paint can at him. “It’ll only take a minute. Now, which hand do you want to use?” He held up his right hand, helpless before her demands. “Okay, stand right here,” she said, tapping a spot inches from the closed front door.

Rune hobbled over and leaned his right crutch up against the wall. He held out his right hand. Heather dipped the brush, barely breaking the surface of the bright paint, and wiped most of it off on the lip of the can. Then she stroked it across his palm, cool and slick, comprehensively tinting his hand with ticklish swipes. She held his wrist and brought his hand to the white surface of the door. “Press.” After a moment, she let go and he pulled his hand away with a sticky sound of tacky paint. A perfect blue hand print remained on the door, his broad palm and short fingers crisscrossed by small white lines.

“Now me,” Heather said. She set down the one paint can and brush and picked up another, this one full of a rich cream. Rune had to set aside his other crutch and stand precariously balanced so he could hold the can while she painted her own right palm. When she pressed her hand in the same spot he had and pulled it away again, she left behind the print of her hand in the middle of his. Her hand was smaller, fitting entirely into his, but her long fingers reached almost to the tips of his.

He held on to the handle of the paint can for an extra moment when she took it from him so their hands touched. “It looks good.”

She smiled, bright and a little sharp, a little wary, and said, “It’s not finished.” She glanced quickly down at her belly. It was flat and would remain so, since her kitten would stay a kitten until he–she? Rune wondered–was about two years old. Only when Heather was a cat could you tell she was pregnant. “When this one comes along, we’ll add a paw print in the middle.” She looked up at him. “Okay?”

It was the closest she had come to asking him directly if he planned to be around then. And it was about more than her suspicion, well-founded, that he might skip out on another unexpected child. He had to make a decision: would he be a tom, a rover who might protect a queen with his kittens, but who made no promises to settle down? Or would he be a father, with all the human-style responsibilities that came with the title? How willing was he to accept Heather’s baffling attachment to life as a human, which their kitten would grow up with, even if Rune refused to be a part of it? Would he refuse?

“We should wait until the little one is old enough to remember doing it. I want us to remember.” The paint on his hand tied him to the House and to her, stark as a brand against his skin and the home they shared. The home they would continue to share. The home they would make together, all three of them.

The phrase in cat-speak Heather used to refer to Carlisle’s job roughly translated to “one who can remove the lids from trash cans without dumping them over,” which was a much-prized skill usually only seen in raccoons. In English, she called him her Minister of Finance. Which was why, when she sat grim-faced in Yvonne’s living room, she had him in tow.

When Yvonne settled into a chair opposite them, Heather cut off anything she might consider saying, even the niceties involved in having guests over to one’s house. “I am prepared to give your association a substantial cash gift, in exchange for being left alone for the remainder of, well, forever, basically.”

Next to her, Carlisle leaned forward, practically out of his seat. Folded in his hands, the leather cover of a new checkbook, on which he could sign now, creaked in protest. He had not liked the idea. As far as he was concerned, if Poppy could give the homeowners’ association the brush-off, her daughter could do the same. But Heather found the more control she took over the House, the more placidly he went along with her plans. And when she expressed her desire to cut ties with humans who had proved more trouble than they were worth, both Carlisle and Rune had been tripping over themselves to agree with her.

Yvonne uncrossed her hands from where they were primly folded in her lap. Once again, Heather was struck by how drastically the woman’s personality could change. Gone were both the casually demeaning socialite and the nervous and apologetic double agent. Now, she exuded a cool confidence bereft of personal sentiment. She picked up the folio waiting on the low table between their seats and opened it to a page marked with a yellow sticky note. She pulled out a single sheet of paper and slid it across the table to Heather.

She waited in silence while Heather read the paper–a brief and simply phrased contract–which had been signed and dated by a person whose name Heather did not recognize and Poppy Lee. Carlisle leaned against her shoulder to read it as well. “This says my mother made a contribution to the association in lieu of membership.”

Yvonne nodded. Heather could see where her red lipstick had bled, just a little, into the lines around her mouth and Heather wondered just how old the woman was. She had known Heather’s mother, at least. “You are a great deal like your mother, it seems,” she said as though she had read Heather’s mind. “So while I appreciate your offer, I’m afraid she beat you to the punch by rather a lot of years. This has been on the books since well before I became president.”

Heather was thrown off her rhythm, to say the least. She had explained away Yvonne’s last visit and her warnings about Ellison as being the product of a dubious sense of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But after being kidnapped, and most especially after Susanna Dahl’s cooperation with said kidnapping, Heather felt that anyone without a thirty year precedent of friendship with her needed to be purged from her life. “Why did you wait until now to tell me?” Heather asked. Carlisle pulled the paper out of her hand and studied it at a range of half an inch, as though literal closer inspection would reveal some unnoticed details.

Yvonne snapped one acrylic nail against the other, making a sharp popping noise. It had to be a nervous gesture, as the noise would have put anyone off the action had they not been distracted. “I drove up to your house the other day.” Heather had a split second of blind panic in which she wondered what Yvonne might have seen and why no one had told her about a strange car driving around. “You painted it,” Yvonne said. “You trusted me when I told you it was important.”

Heather rolled her shoulders in a shrug that tried to be relaxed, but mostly failed. “You didn’t have to say much to convince me Ellison would use any excuse to screw with me.” She took the paper from Carlisle and slid it back across the table.

“Well, it was only fair that I tell you about the agreement. As a show of good faith and proof that we have a dislike of Mr. Ellison in common.” Yvonne slipped the paper back into the folio and closed it. “I very much wanted any excuse to see your home.”

“The local haunted house,” Heather said, remembering their first conversation.

“I would have liked to have been friends. But I get the impression from you that my time spent dealing with the likes of Mr. Ellison has perhaps had a negative effect on my personality. So barring the possibility of friendship, I would like to help you make life difficult for him.”

Heather leaned back and considered the idea. “And if I’m not part of the association, he’ll hit a dead-end if he tries to pressure any of you. Saves all of us a lot of trouble.” Even if she was not sure which personality was the true face of Yvonne, Heather found she was rather grateful to finally have the woman on her side. For a lady who put on a good show of being as superficial as possible when surrounded by the other members of the association, she was ruthless. And when she had to go up against George Ellison, Heather had a lot of respect for any ruthlessness she could get.

George left work later than he would have liked. He had the impression that cats were primarily nocturnal and spent the afternoon sleeping. He wanted to be free in the afternoon. Instead, it was verging well into evening before he drove out of the office parking lot and stopped at the gas station. The late June sky was full of pink tinged light, the only hint that sunset approached. He filled the red plastic gas can with an obscenely expensive quantity of gas. Damn summer price hikes.

He wasted another hour by circling town a couple of times, burning off more overpriced gas in his car, but none of his nervous energy. He knew what he wanted to do. It had come to him like a revelation, bright and painful, while listening to Susanna’s voice message and watching the construction crew. It had, like all proper revelations, come from somewhere beyond what he just saw and heard. It was more than the sum of its parts.

It was the right solution. He knew that. But it took almost three winding circuits through town before he could work up the nerve to pull over to the side of the road some way past the driveway and walk back to it. The gas can was very heavy.

He walked up the middle of the long driveway. If someone came from either the road or the house and saw him, he would not care. He was in a place beyond shame and beyond doubt. He crested the hill and walked right across the empty front lawn.

The house was very still and very quiet. He waited a long moment, standing at the corner where the front porch connected to the house, where no one would be able to see him unless they came outside. He heard sounds of movement somewhere on the second floor, so he knew someone was at home. That did not concern him.

He started there at the porch, which was all weather-worn wood, gone pale and dry with age. The gasoline made dark, stinking puddles but the wood quickly sucked them up. He doused the floor and the railing and the boards that blocked off the crawl space, just as far as he could reach without moving into view of the window. Then he poured a shaky line down the long side of the house where stonework met tufty grass.

He bent low to pass under windows along that wall. He felt a burst of déjà vu, remembering the last time he found himself inching along that wall, and an answering pang of regret that he had not managed to get a video of the still-unexplained transformation he had witnessed then. If he had, perhaps the situation would not have become irretrievably screwed up. Then George might have avoided the uncomfortable territory of physical intimidation, rather than his preferred world of psychological pressure.

He backpedaled from the word intimidation as he shook out the last of the gas over the wooden frame of a window. He needed to remind himself that this was not just the next step in persuading Lee to sell to him. He had made a decision: Lee was never going to willingly let go of the house and it was pointless to keep dicking around as though she was just like any other stubborn owner. No, George had realized an endgame was the only logical action for him to take.

He took the box of matches out of his coat pocket. He was not a smoker and so did not own a lighter. Instead, he had moved the matches he kept over the fireplace to the glove box of his car. That had been the moment when he knew he truly intended to go through with the plan. At that point, he had started considering days and times and had known there was no turning back.

He struck the match, holding it away from the possibility of fumes from the soaked wood. It flared to life, strangely dim in the daylight. It looked innocent. It was such a small thing, simple too, and it hardly seemed like he was doing anything wrong. He stepped up to the window, no longer concerned with hiding. He reached out.

Dopple stretched on her back with her son, who was still just being called The Creature, wriggling across her belly. His strategy lately had been to use his stomach as an extra appendage and forcefully squirm, legs and tail flailing, in the general direction he wanted to go. So far, he headed in the opposite direction about half the time, but his record was improving.

On the floor next to them, Mysti read an honest to god book of baby names. They had taken over one of the least used rooms on the north-facing side of the house. It was unfurnished, but it let them get away from the crowds during the Leo moon. Mysti was, in fact, working through her second book of names. “Matthew? Nigel? Othello?”

Dopple scooped The Creature up and touched noses with him. “No, really, now that Rune is back, we’re asking him for suggestions. You are banned from picking names.”

Undeterred, Mysti turned the page and said, “Presley?”

Dopple lurched up. “Banned, I say.” Something flickered in the corner of her eye.

Yellow. A stranger’s red-flushed face underlined by flames. A sky gone orange.

Dopple rolled to her side and shoved The Creature into Mysti’s hands. The book dropped to the floor. “Go! Take him to the woods and hide,” she ordered while hauling Mysti to her feet by one elbow.

She pulled Mysti into the hall and down it. At the stairs, she twisted her head to one side and shouted, “Heather! Human, fire,” and kept going.

Her shouts got everyone’s attention so that people tried to stop and question her. She shouldered past them until she had Mysti out the back door. With a last look at her son in her lover’s arms, she turned left and raced in the other direction.

In the pocket of her jeans, her hand closed around a hard cylinder. She pulled it out and curled her thumb over the top. How many runs had she been on since Heather gave it to her? Not once had she needed to use it, so that it became a familiar touchstone instead of a weapon. Now, as she rounded the corner of the house, she held it out at arm’s length like a gun.

Her eyes flicked from the red gas can on the ground to the line of fire spreading from the window and down the length of the house and finally to the man. She did not have to recognize his face to know him.

The man looked at her without expression. She wondered if it was possible to go into shock even if you were not the victim. She tightened her hand and a hard stream of liquid shot out from the can of pepper spray.

Now the man reacted, hands flying to his face where they clawed and scrubbed. A box of matches fell close enough to the fire to catch, going up in a series of flashes, as though each match burned in orderly succession.

“Son of a dog, bastard,” Dopple bellowed and followed his movements with the spray, splashing his hands, his hair, his shirt collar.

When clawing his own eyes out did not help, he turned blindly in the direction of the spray and lunged. He snarled and cried, frantic like it was his house on fire. That was when Dopple ran, spay clutched in her hand, bravery failing her at last.

Topaz grabbed Heather as she careened down the stairs and twirled her away from the front door. “The porch is on fire, I already checked,” he said and they both turned toward the back door.

“What the hell happened?” Heather asked as she tossed a fire extinguisher to him from under the kitchen sink.

“Dopple said human,” Topaz answered on his way out the door. He didn’t know, but he wondered if that meant who he thought it meant. He knew Heather would guess the same thing.

Rounding the front of the house was like walking into a war film on mute. The far side of the porch was just covered in flames, which were inching and more than inching their way across it. Whatever noise the burning wood generated, Topaz did not hear it. All he perceived was that his home was on fire and, at the moment, he alone stood between it and just burning up entirely.

He pulled the pin on the extinguisher and shot a stream of white foam at the advance guard of the fire. And wow, that stream of foam was small and helpless compared to an angry, billowing fire. How had he ever told himself that setting fire to the catnip was a good plan? How had he believed that being made in large part of stone meant the House was impervious to fire? He didn’t think a house made out of concrete or mud or gravity-defying water would be safe against the maw of flame that seemed ready to engulf the whole porch.

He vowed to empty the lighter fluid out of Oden’s cigarette lighter, assuming it and the house still stood by the end of this.

Rafflesia jumped over the moving hose that wrapped around the side of the house. Good, that meant someone was helping Topaz out front. Smoke was thick in the air but the south side of the house remained comfortingly fire-free. She waved her hand toward her. From the house came a gush of people, forced into something like a line by the size of the doorway and the size of Rafflesia’s commands.

“Come on, this way,” she said, continuing to wave people across the garden. “Keep going, all the way through to the graveyard,” she ordered in a loud voice. Around her, panicked voices murmured and sobbed and shouted, but they all kept moving. Queens carried their unchanged kittens in their arms. Older parents and young adults helped the elderly. “Stay down there until I tell you it’s safe. Stay together and you’ll be fine.”

Rafflesia’s mother broke free of the stream of people to get to her daughter’s side. “You need to get clear of the house,” Valoria said.

Rafflesia shook her head and kept waving people on, keeping up a steady monologue of calm instructions. “I can’t,” she said between breaths. “Someone’s got to make sure everyone is out. The other adults who don’t have someone to protect are all putting the fire out.”

“You’re not going back in there alone,” Valoria insisted and tried to pull Rafflesia along into the woods.

She shook free and grabbed her mother’s shoulders. “You need to go with them and make sure everyone is accounted for. If someone is missing, I need you to tell me. Please, Mom, there isn’t time to argue. Get everyone down there.”

Valoria made a stricken noise in the back of her throat. “What are you going to do?”

“Check all the rooms. Help anyone I find. Now go. Go!”

She slipped in behind the last few people headed out the door and began clearing rooms and halls one by one.

Rune hobbled down the hall, letting out a stream of curses to himself and making his leg hurt like a son of a bitch by putting too much weight on it because crutches were just too slow. When he saw Rafflesia charging down the hall, throwing open doors as she went, he called out, “What the hell is going on?” Which yes, obviously from the smoke and panic in the air, fire was what was going on.

“Heather and Topaz are out front putting out the porch. I’m checking for anyone left behind. My mother is with the others down at the graveyard.” She darted from one side of the hall to the other. “I heard it was a human.”

Rune cursed again. “Where is Dorian?” Rafflesia shook her head. “I need him to stop the human from leaving.”

Rafflesia stopped in front of him, thrumming with energy just waiting to be unleashed again. “You need to get out of the house. I want everyone out. What if it burns down?” He could see on her face the moment when the adrenaline and the focus dropped away and she realized that was the reason she was running through the house looking for people. Heather and Topaz and whoever else was around might fail to put out the flames. Their home might be lost. Her face crumpled painfully, everything pinching around her huge eyes.

“Hey, stick with me here. You’re doing a great job,” he said. “We’re going to beat this. I’ll keep looking through the ground floors. I need you to go find Dorian and tell him to stop the human. Okay? Can you do that?”

Rafflesia nodded. She ran away down the hall, seemed to not even touch the ground. Rune had to drag himself, but he finished checking the hall. Grinding his teeth against the sharp pain in his splint-supported leg and the bruised feeling of deep muscles in his arms and side where the crutches bit in, he headed back out toward the unchecked parts of the house. He held the image of Heather dousing flames with a hose in his mind, because he could not help thinking of her, but all the other images his mind wanted to supply tried to freeze him with terror.

Carlisle was dragging his fifth stack of boxed papers out to the backyard, where several other cats were transporting them to a safe distance. He trusted Heather (in this moment he was even prepared to trust Topaz, if it just meant someone fixed this), but he was not going to leave several generations’ worth of paperwork and record keeping unattended in a burning house. Then he heard the commotion and, since he had overridden his common sense by returning to said burning house, he disregarded it again to follow the sound.

He came around the front of the house to see that more cats had joined the effort to put out the flames, going so far as to smother fires with towels and blankets where possible. But Heather had disappeared from the group and putting out the fire had been her steadfast position as soon as it started. Someone was up on the roof, obscured by smoke and heat haze, raining water down on everything and everyone with the garden hose, pulled taut against the edge of the roof.

He still had to go beyond the house and look down the hill to see what had people shouting. Or rather, it seemed to have one person shouting. Out of the oak trees to the side of the road down the hill, Ellison burst with his arms flailing as though he was beset by invisible attackers. Then the visible attackers came into view: Dorian and two other veteran hunters chased him with grim determination. They must have only just found him, as any one of them should have been able to outrun him. Then, in the middle of the road, Carlisle saw Heather.

With the setting sun on her left, half her body was thrown into deep shadow, which seemed to pool at her feet and stream away into the creeping twilight. The light made her pale hair glow like flame. She was monolithic. She was running.

Carlisle chased the whole staggered field of them down the hill. Ellison ran like a man possessed, mad and terrified. Dorian and the others ran like a pride, fanning out around Ellison and pacing themselves, prepared to run him down rather than go to the trouble of a burst of speed and a tackle. But Heather outstripped them all, as though everyone’s life depended on her getting to the bottom of the hill first.

Ellison would not have stopped when he reached the road, either planning to run to wherever his car waited or perhaps just running blind and straight on, except Heather screamed, a panicked noise that only faintly resembled the word “stop.” She actually grabbed him before he could step into the road and manhandled him around to face her. Carlisle could only imagine, after what happened to Rune, what she saw when someone ran into the street without looking. Perhaps she did not even mean to stop him personally, but reacted on instinct.

“You stupid child,” she said fiercely. Carlisle skidded to a stop behind her. Even though he was out of breath, he found himself almost holding it just to remain as quiet as possible. The deep, wild parts of his mind told him that one did not attract the attention of any queen when she was that angry. Even Dorian, whose laid back personality belied a relentless hunter, kept his distance.

Ellison tried to fight her, but he had to stop any movement halfway through to scrub at his face, which was red and blotchy and streaked with dirty tears. His breath came in ragged gasps, sucked through a tiny straw over great distance. Heather put a hand around the back of his neck and shook him like she was snapping the neck on a caught mouse. “You can’t have it, so no one can? Grow up,” she ordered and now her voice was getting quiet. The hair on the back of Carlisle’s neck and arms stood on end.

Carlisle saw Dorian make an aborted motion to help her, to take control of Ellison for her. But Heather’s voice did not belong to someone who needed help controlling the likes of Ellison. “Sometimes, we can’t have what we want. But you thought you were special, you thought you were clever and could take what you wanted.”

She maneuvered them, fingers still digging into his thick neck, until he was looking up at the sliver of roof visible from where they stood. “But you failed. You blew it.” She shook him again. “Do you get that? You could not drive me from my home. That will always be my House,” she said and Carlisle thought even Ellison could hear the capital letter on House.

She leaned close to his ear. “I have bigger things to worry about than your greed and your plotting and your sneaking around. I am bigger than you, you petty thief.” She turned them around the face the road again. Ellison had gone along with all of this, hands knuckling his eyes like a distraught child. “I’m never going to see you again. I’m not even going to hear about you from my friends, who are not going to have to put up with your nonsense any more than I am. Do you understand?”

She must have squeezed her hand, because Ellison finally barked out a wheezing “yes.” Heather did not shove him away. She just let him go. Then she stood there, implacable and unafraid. “Go away now.” And Ellison went, running and tripping down the road and out of sight.

Carlisle watched Heather as she stood for a long moment. No one moved; they would wait until their Queen showed them what she wanted them to do. Carlisle looked at Heather and he saw the House of Cats, more than just a building on a hill, but made of flesh and blood and fur. Living and immortal at once, Queen and House were connected. Carlisle held that image in his mind, keeping the memory of the day when his childhood friend and his home and his Queen became all one figure.

Two Months Later…

Heather slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. Oh, yeah, her kitten could feel free to be born any time now. Across from her, Dopple hunched over their new laptop computer and peered furiously at the screen. On the floor by her feet, a wireless router blinked and, from Dopple’s frustrated grumble, failed to respond in the appropriate way. Heather reached her hands up to Rune. “Okay, I’ll take him now,” she said.

With endearing reluctance, Rune handed over Dopple’s son, with whom Rune had formed some sort of unbreakable bond after giving him the name Adam. “He’s in a climbing mood this morning,” he said.

The kitten sneezed then gave them all a startled glance. “Sometimes, I wish they changed from the start,” Heather said. “At this age, human babies are not so much with the mobility.” It said a lot about how far Rune had come that the comment elicited no more than a pained grin that had more to do with the kitten on hand. “Are you sure you don’t want me to talk to the builders when they get here?”

“I’ll be fine,” Rune assured her.

“You have the check for them?”

Rune touched the back pocket of his jeans. “Stop worrying. It’s bad for the kitten.”

Heather snorted. By now, the phrase “it’s bad for the kitten” had been applied to the following: worrying; painting; tap water; overly hot baths; tomatoes; loud music; and microwave ovens. Heather was beginning to regret encouraging Rune to be a part of their kitten’s life, as actively forbidding him seemed to be the only way to get his own worrying down to manageable levels. “So, Dopple,” she said, deliberately forgetting about Rune so he would get on with his own day. “Do we have internet yet?”

The inarticulate growl that followed prompted Carlisle to look up from where he leaned against the kitchen counter, reading the instructional brochure on accessing their account online from their stock management company. “Maybe you should wait until Mysti gets back from the airport.” This suggestion did not go over well.

Out by the front door, Heather heard the clatter and thump of a suitcase bumping down the stairs. A moment later, Topaz came in and did a quick twirl. “How do I look?”

Heather looked over the shirt, complete with actual collar, and the pants, entirely free of frayed hems or torn knees. “I for one would be completely willing to let you into my home if you showed up on my doorstep after one phone call and a letter.”

Heather watched Carlisle looking at Topaz without raising his head again. After a moment and with a quirk of his mouth that Topaz would be smart enough to not comment on, Carlisle said, “Marginally less disreputable than usual. The cats at the New York House probably won’t count the silverware after you leave. Probably.”

Topaz pouted, which Heather found cute on her maudlin days and enraging on her testy days and which she chose to ignore all the rest of the time. “You will have the internet working by the time I get there, right? Because this will be a lot less impressive if I can’t connect them with the Queen here.”

Dopple looked up from the computer. “Kid, you’ve never been to New York. I promise, even if it took me the next month to get this working, you would find a way to keep yourself amused. Now please be quiet so I can work.”

From the solarium, Rafflesia called back, “Oh, yes, did I possibly ask for the same thing five minutes ago? Oh, that’s right, I did.”

“No sass,” Heather called back, “or I won’t quiz you tonight for your history test.” Rafflesia had taken to studying for her GED so well that Heather sometimes found herself wondering why she had not seen Rafflesia for several days. Shortly after which, Rafflesia would emerge from her room and announce that she was hungry and long division would be the death of her. Mostly, it was going about as well as any teenager-in-high-school experience went, from what Heather could gather.

Mysti came into the kitchen and immediately came over to Adam and began smoothing the fur on his chest. “Sit up straight, pudding, or you’ll have bad posture later.” She kissed the top of his head. “Well, what’s the hold up? Airport traffic is hell and LAX waits for no cat.”

“Okay, okay,” Topaz said. “Ambassador Topaz is off on his first diplomatic mission.”

Heather smiled up at him. “Good luck,” she said. He looked like a little kid playing dress-up to her, but she thought he would probably look pretty impressive when he showed up at the House of Cats in New York, bearing a letter from Heather and instructions on setting up their first point of contact in the transcontinental network Heather had envisioned.

Well, they had all envisioned it. Heather had wanted to bring more technology to the House. Carlisle wanted a more reliable way of sharing news. Mysti had contacts with just about every group of cats, from full-scale House down to extended family cluster, anywhere in North America. With Carlisle occupied with managing the House’s finances, it had been Topaz who took the role of diplomat. Even Carlisle admitted that Topaz had shown promise in Carlisle’s usual work, way back in that first winter together when Topaz did half the interviews with returning cats.

And while the network, a dream of real-time connections between cats across the country, was just getting off the ground, Rafflesia had already proposed a traveling school, where she could teach cats at Houses all over the country, who could then teach their own kittens, about human life and how to go to school or get a job. Rune had dredged up some of Poppy’s long-disused contacts to get human papers for Topaz and Rafflesia.

So now Heather was maybe a week away from seeing her House become the starting point of something big and amazing. She was also, from what Valoria told her, maybe a month away from having her kitten, which blew ideas about diplomatic relations between Houses clean out of the water in terms of big and amazing. She had a house that had not burned to the ground and, in fact, looked a lot less like a heap of rubble than when she had first returned. She had a construction company building a new porch to replace the one that, between termites and fire and way too many years, definitely needed to be retired.

Heather braced Adam on her chest, where he purred and kneaded her shirt with sharp little claws in a way that made Heather’s hormone-addled brain turn to happy mush. Mostly, she had a family who stood by her through all those changes, big and amazing and scary. Even when she ran, her family followed after her. She delegated a lot of her running, these days.

Dopple suddenly threw her arms up over her head. “Take that, computer.” From the solarium, Rafflesia yelped, “Quiet!” Dopple said, “We have internet, your majesty.”

“So, we need to make an email address, right? Where are Mysti’s instructions?” Heather asked. As Dopple turned the screen to Heather and scooted her chair around so they could both use the computer, Heather wondered what she had gotten herself into. But she didn’t worry too much; in the past year, she had developed a damn good track record for this sort of thing.

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